Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. And joining me is a guy who was working for a company whose product and business I admire and had a side thing going. He said the same thing you and I have been saying for a while, which is, “These freaking phone calls are frustrating. The ones that call us up with nothing but spam, they have got to be stopped.”
And so he entered a competition that the government put on. He did well in it. He created this product. And then he did something that’s mind-boggling to me. And frankly, the people at Mixergy team we were text-messaging each other about this last night. He rolled it back in to the business he was working for, to the company where he had his job. Why would he do that? Why would he do that instead of running with this idea, especially considering how successful it is?
All right. His name is Ethan Garr. He is the founder of RoboKiller. RoboKiller is something that most people don’t even understand they could do for their phone. You add it on almost like a plug . . . I’m an iPhone guy. You could add it as like a plugin to the phone app on your iPhone. I can’t imagine that Apple even allowed this, but it does allow it. Most people don’t know it exists, and you’ve got to check it out. It’s called RoboKiller.
I invited him here to figure out where this idea came from, what happened when he failed with the Kickstarter campaign, how he grew it, why he brought it back to the company that he works for. This whole interview is sponsored by two phenomenal companies. The first will host your website right, it’s called HostGator, and the second will help you hire incredible developers, it’s called Toptal.
Ethan, good to have you here.
Ethan: Hey, thanks for having me. It’s really a privilege.
Andrew: Ethan, do you get permission to talk about how much revenue you guys make?
Ethan: I can’t, unfortunately.
Andrew: I have the number here. Is it because you guys, the main business was acquired? Is that why we can’t talk about it?
Ethan: Yeah. As part of the acquisition, we didn’t discuss any term, so I can’t discuss any terms as well.
Andrew: Oh, I should have done this interview three weeks ago. So the number is solid. It’s definitely well within what we look for with a guest here on Mixergy. What is all these beeps, by the way? I can’t understand when people have . . . You hear these beeps on your system? Do you have like alerts going off on your desk?
Ethan: I don’t think I do.
Andrew: Okay. It sounds like maybe you’re running like Outlook or something. Do you do that? Do you have like alerts whenever new email comes in or text messages?
Ethan: I do, but I actually tried to purposely turn them off. I’ll turn off a few other things here just to make sure . . .
Andrew: How do you work like that? Not to put you down I’m just fascinated. I have to have total silence except for rock music, and I think most people don’t know.
Ethan: I have a lot going on, so I need some of those alerts.
Andrew: Can we say over 1 million or under 1 million? Can we say that?
Ethan: I really can’t tell you.
Andrew: You can’t say even that anymore. All right. I will say this to the audience. I looked at the numbers, the numbers are really solid. Here’s what I don’t understand. Why roll it back up into the company that you were working for? Let’s start with that big question.
Ethan: So, when I started the TelTech a little more than four years ago, it started with a very, very transparent and honest conversation with the two co-founders, Meir Cohen and Eli Finkelman. And at that moment, I realized after having kind of a rough run the previous eight years in a business I wish I hadn’t been at, that there’s something special about this place, about openness and honesty and transparency. So, when we did this, it was always done collaboratively. It was always open and honest. And when we first started this, the RoboKiller project, which was an entry into this contest into the FTC’s Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back competition, we knew that at the time technology hadn’t quite caught up with sort of where the world was. We knew that we could use audio fingerprinting to discern between a human and a robot and . . .
Andrew: Oh, I’m going to get into the technology in a little bit. But you’re saying to me, the reason that you brought it in is you were really open with them. You said, “Look, I’m entrepreneurial.” They said, “Great. We know you’re going to have great ideas outside of the office, but we still want you to know that your great ideas is why we’re hiring you. Go on and explore the world, but if it fits within our model, you’ve got to be fair and bring it in.” That’s the conversation.
Ethan: Absolutely. But it wasn’t like you have to be fair and bring it in. It was never like we wouldn’t bring it in. It was like if there’s an opportunity here, let’s do this together because that’s what we’re all about, we’re a team.
Andrew: But you started it as a two-man operation apart from work, little side project, right? And then eventually brought it back.
Ethan: Yeah, but with another engineer who used to work here.
Andrew: Okay. Hey, I’m looking at your timeline on LinkedIn. You were at Traffic Marketplace. This was like an internet version 1.0 company that was killer. Here’s what I remember about them. I’m dying to find out from you what you remember. I remember they saw that dot-bomb, the bomb happened that all these companies had tons of inventory. From what I remember they went in and they paid cash up front to buy the inventory on the cheap. They gave money to desperate people and then they went and they ran all these direct marketing campaigns to it and made a bunch of money.
Ethan: Yeah. They were doing pop-under ads. Yeah, this is, I think, around the year 2000. And I had been part of Uproar.com. And then we had the dot-com burst and I got rehired by Flipside, which was what Uproar had become. And then they got acquired by the Vivendi Universal, and if I remember correctly the Vivendi Universal also owned Traffic Marketplace and we were sharing an office. And there came a point where they had exactly what you’re describing is this marketplace for pop-under ads using this excess inventory. And they said, “We’d like to do a self-service version of this. We’d like to have an underlying . . . a simple product where smaller companies could publish their own inventory on a self-service basis.”
They didn’t have anybody to run that project, and they sort of pushed me from across the hall and said, “Hey, could you do this?” And it really was a unique opportunity for me because it was an opportunity to really feel entrepreneurial, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. My family is somewhat entrepreneurial. I had a . . . It’s what I wanted to do. And the opportunity to launch that product really felt like running my own show because I had to learn all the bits and pieces of it and really pick it up quickly. So it was an interesting company. It was in a very interesting time. The dot-com bubble, the burst, there’s ton of consolidations, people were out of jobs. It was not the easiest time, but it was an exciting thing and I learned a lot and I also had the opportunity to work with engineers very closely really for the first time in my career and . . .
Andrew: How did it go, taking this . . . So pop-unders were these pop-ups that would launch but would be in the background, so the website that launched them wouldn’t even have to let their viewers know that they were disturbing them with a pop-up, it would just show up when the users closed out their browser, then there would be an ad and go, “All right, let’s go see what this advertiser is saying,” and it was incredibly effective. So the way that I thought they launched it was by buying up a bunch of inventory, then creating these pop-ups and promoting it on there. And then they were acquired, I thought. And you’re saying you created a marketplace for them.
Ethan: That sounds correct. I created sort of a secondary marketplace for smaller advertisers who couldn’t really afford to work with them on large scale.
Andrew: Okay. So how did it go to do that?
Ethan: Meaning, how . . .
Andrew: To create the self-serve. Did it work for them?
Ethan: It did work. It never became a substantial, substantial part of the business, but it became a . . . It was a reasonable contributor to the business. Again, this is a long time ago. Now, my recollection is that by the time I left the company, it was representing about 10% to 15% of the annual revenue.
Andrew: Wow. That’s impressive for the smaller advertisers. I think the big challenge was the pop-unders and pop-ups, in general, were starting to get killed by browsers, right?
Ethan: Yeah. That started to become really the big headwind to that business. And then I left not because of that, and we’re still we’re chugging along well when I left, but I left because I had my first real entrepreneurial . . . I don’t know a better way to describe it other than to say brain fart.
Andrew: What was it? What was that idea?
Ethan: I started a Do it Yourself Public Woodshop in New Jersey.
Andrew: So, if someone would be able to come in and you’d give them wood and give them the equipment and they could start making stuff.
Ethan: Yeah. I was living in an apartment with my wife at the time and had this piece of wood and didn’t have a coffee table and I was like, “Yeah, I wish I had a place to make a coffee table out of this,” and I looked at it and I said, “I have a great idea.” And a quarter of a million dollars later of my own and other people’s money and a lot of hard knocks and a lot of help from my brother who is my partner in it, I learned a lot of really valuable lessons about . . .
Andrew: Like what? Why didn’t that work?
Ethan: It was funny. I looked . . . When I started the business, there was nothing really like it out there, and so I didn’t have a lot of good things to compare it to. I went out there and I said, “Let me try to look at the market and the world and think about what’s out there.” I looked at how the Home Depot and Lowes were, the Do It Yourself networks on television. I got the sense, this false sense that people really wanted to do this kind of work at home, like they wanted to have a place to be able to do these kind of creative things.
I found out the hard way that people really liked to watch other people do this stuff. People would come in, they would flock in. I mean, we must have given 1,000 tours of the place and people really love the concept, but it was really hard to get them to convert to a membership. And we were charging very little for memberships as our goal was to ramp up. But I think people had a lot of things weighing them down on their time, and it was like, “Well, this seems like a big time commitment and I just don’t know if I’m ready to do that.” So we grew. It just didn’t grow fast enough for the people who are investing with me to feel like it was going to be a relevant business. But like I said, you learn a lot when something fails like that.
Andrew: What’s the big takeaway for you from that?
Ethan: The biggest takeaway I learned, I think, was that I should have applied some of the things that were happening online to offline.
Andrew: Oh, yeah.
Ethan: If I had done more to give away more for free. As much . . . You spend all this money to get open and you feel like you have to start bringing the money in quickly. But I think if I had given people free memberships at the beginning, I could have built more of a groundswell. I think there were lots of mistakes. I mean, I probably put it in the wrong place. Maybe in New York City would have done a lot better than a suburb of New Jersey. There’s a lot of things I learned along the way, but I do think testing more of like a freemium concept back then would have been interesting.
Andrew: I also wonder if you needed to build your whole thing. Speaking of taking online lessons to the offline world, could you have partnered with someone who had the space, had the infrastructure and just created a membership for them? Right?
Ethan: Yeah. It’s funny because I sort of learned the idea of minimum viable product after that, and I wish I learned a little earlier. But yeah, they’re probably things I could have done to scale it down. I mean, we rented 6,000 square feet. We did a full-build out. We did all these things to launch this company and have people walk in and feel like it was there and it existed and . . . It looked beautifully at all this equipment in front of you. It looked like the part, but I probably could have experimented and learned a lot more without having done all that.
Andrew: All right. Let’s continue. Then you decide . . . What was it about the FTC contest that drew you to them, the one that eventually led to RoboKiller, the software you made?
Ethan: So I’d been at TelTech for a little while, and we were really working around lots of areas of telecommunications. One of our services, TrapCall, actually allows you to unmask block calls and it uses a function called Conditional Call Forwarding which we now use on RoboKiller to allow you to do that. So, basically, if you get a block call, it comes in, you decline it, that sends it to us, we do our magic, we send it back to you but this time shows you who’s calling behind that number.
I learned about all these different technologies, and we collectively have learned about all these different technologies. And while we were sort of skirting around the issues of robocalls and telemarketing calls, we hadn’t really dove into that yet, so we saw the need, but we also . . . my partner in this at the time he saw how audio fingerprinting could be used to solve this problem and he evangelized it and he got so excited about it. I was like, “Wow. That sounds great. If we can really make that work, that’s amazing.” And he was really good at this stuff. So, I believed in him and we believed in the concept and we believed that this was the solution that answered the question that the FTC was trying to [inaudible 00:13:07]
Andrew: Can you explain audio fingerprinting?
Ethan: Sure. You’ve used maybe Shazam, you’ve held up your phone and said, “What song is playing?”
Ethan: That’s audio fingerprinting. So, essentially, what happens is you’re turning audio into data, and then you’re looking for changes in audio patterns that are in two separate files, essentially. So you have a database of all this data, which is now just turned into bits, so it’s not very heavy and it’s an enormous amount of data. Instead of having it listen to a whole song or lots of different things, you just have to look at a very short bit of changes in audio to see if they coincide with each other.
Andrew: And so what you’re going to do is, if someone called me, have that call automatically go to your software. Your software would then match it against calls from other people . . . So, you’d pick it up, right? You’d say, “Hi, who’s this?”
Ethan: Well, no. We would answer the call, but at the time we would just play fake ringing to the caller. So the call experience was not different at all.
Andrew: Ah. So they would just hear a fake ringing, meanwhile you are picking up on background noise that was on the call.
Ethan: Right, because the robocall didn’t know that it was a human or a telemarketer, so . . .
Andrew: Comparing it to see, “Are we getting the same thing lots and lots of times from lots and lots of people? And then if you weren’t, then you’d forward it to me because you’d know it was real.” Right? That was the idea.
Ethan: Yeah. But with audio fingerprinting, we didn’t even have to compare that file necessarily to other files. We do do it now in some of our processes, but at the time we looked at a bunch of different patterns that we could say have to be a recording of a human being as opposed to a human being. Recording of a human being, like, if you’re going to make a robocall, like you have to say certain things in a certain pattern, like, you can’t take a one-minute break because the person is going to hang up. So there were things that we can learn just from the different patterns to know just from the audio itself while we were building a database to compare against that this was a robocall or a human.
Andrew: But if it was just ringing, why would this robocall that was calling to spam me say anything? Wouldn’t it just be sitting there waiting to hit play on whatever recording it had?
Ethan: Essentially the robocall at the time was listening just for the answer tone. So there’s a tone . . . When your phone answers a call, the system essentially knows that there’s been an answer. So fake ringing is the same as me saying, “Hello, hello.”
Andrew: Okay. Wait. But no, the robocall is not saying anything, is it?
Ethan: The robocall starts when the other person answers.
Andrew: Oh, got it. Got it. So, because the fake ringing comes on, it’s actually telling the robot there’s a person who picked up and the robot starts to hit play on whatever recording it is, but a human being would hear ringing and say, “I’m going to wait for a human being to come on the call,” and so you get to analyze it. Got it. This was your idea. This is what you took to the FTC.
Ethan: Yeah, this was our idea. I mean, I don’t want to take all the . . . There were my partner in this and other people were contributing, so it was really a team effort.
Andrew: And then, how did the contest go for you?
Ethan: We won. There’s was a $25,000 prize and it was very cool. We went to . . . the finals were at DEF CON in Las Vegas. So that was just an interesting experience of being surrounded by hackers and being . . . really just a quick funny story. When you go to DEF CON, everybody’s trying to steal your passwords. Some of my partners [inaudible 00:16:35] me. We need an iPad to do a demo here, but he said, “Give me your iPad, but I’m going to wipe it clean.” And he wiped it absolutely clean, and he turned off location services and on the way to the event he left it in a cab, and because he had turned off location services, there was absolutely no way to find it ever again.
Andrew: Because that’s a hacker’s conference and they are all about trying to hack you. And I hear people just can’t bring their phones in, turn the whole thing off.
Ethan: While we were. there someone was projecting people’s passwords on a wall.
Andrew: Ah. Ah. That’s so scary.
Ethan: Yeah, it was insane, but it was interesting and fun experience. And yeah, and we won and I thought it was really inventive that the FTC had done this. I thought it was interesting way for them to look at this problem. They’re saying, “Hey, legislation enforcement isn’t going to solve this problem alone. Let’s get smart technology people involved in the process of helping us to solve it.”
Andrew: And all they wanted from you was to know that this was possible, or were they looking for proof of concept? Were they looking for a version of this that worked?
Ethan: There were a couple pieces to it. They wanted you to fill a honeypot, meaning, they wanted you to come up with a way to get these calls to come to you. We found some unique ways to do that, and you’d buy dead phone numbers and you can get people to call those numbers. But they wanted you to then showcase the technology in action.
They weren’t necessarily looking for a commercially viable product, but we did. We actually did deploy the original version as a mobile app, but it was a clunky version of it because, at the time, you had to forward all of your calls [inaudilbe 00:18:15] that changes the whole call experience because I can’t call you back with a regular call if you’re forwarding all your calls to me. It’ll just go in an endless circle.
So we had to call you back as a Voice over IP call. And it just wasn’t the sort of the rest of the world hadn’t caught up to that yet. Fast forward a couple years, and . . . I don’t want to get ahead of you. But what happened was, it was a couple years later when we sort of re-launched the RoboKiller idea, that was really after Apple had created some technologies, one, an SDK called CallKit that allowed you to find a block list on the phone and then we could use some of these technologies in that . . .
Andrew: I feel like that’s not even enough. That’s definitely not enough. The . . .
Ethan: It’s a beginning.
Andrew: What was the problem with Voice over IP? People use it all the time. I get phone calls on Skype. I get phone calls on lots of different apps on my phone.
Ethan: The world is changing. I mean, I think there are opportunities for that. But at the time, a lot of things were clunky about it. First of all, just keeping a call connected was not as seamless a few years ago. It’s gotten much better going from Wi-Fi to your call network. So there were challenges there. Things like . . . things that we get used to, like call waiting, become problematic if you’re using this system. So there are a lot of things that we would have had to overcome to make that really work at the time.
And these new technologies have enabled us to really put not just audio fingerprinting but machine learning, the power of our users providing feedback all to work for us, and then we built these on top of it. And what really I think has helped RoboKiller grow into what it is, is we built these things called Answer Bots and this is a process . . . because we’re answering the calls we block, we actually can answer the calls and have our own robots talk back to the scammers and waste their time.
Andrew: Basically, your app says, “And we will jerk your spammers around for a while using software.”
Ethan: Yeah. And you can make your own, you can record your own on the app. Yeah.
Andrew: Look at the smile on his face, guys, as he talks about this. All right. Let me take a moment and talk about my first sponsor then we’ll get back into the story. You won the $25,000. Let’s find out what you did next and then how you figured out the first version was not the right one.
My first sponsor is a company called HostGator. There’s a friend of mine, Syed Balkhi. He runs a site called WPBeginner. He started it as a kid. Basically, you can see him. He looks like a nerdy little kid when he started the site, but what he knew was he knew WordPress and so he started writing this blog about WordPress, doing these how-to guides and it became this phenomenal success. He then moved up to doing affiliate partnerships to generate revenue. He’s got a really big business coming all from WPBeginner. He started creating software, Ethan, like OptinMonster. He now most recently started investing in WordPress companies.
Anyway, the guy is doing super-well. His whole business is built on this WPBeginner, and when it comes to hosting websites, he has to figure out, “Who do I go with? My whole business, a multimillion-dollar business is run on WordPress. Where do I go?” He went to HostGator because HostGator is hosting done right and it’s frankly inexpensive and this dude is super cheap. I’ve told people this story, Ethan, lots of times. I went out to lunch with him, we’re talking about the big building that he bought that has a bank on the bottom and now has office space at the top. And as he’s talking about it, there’s a freaking penny on the floor. The guy stops the conversation, he picks up the penny, holds it up to show me like a trophy, and then puts it in his pocket. He doesn’t let go. He put it on the table and haha, laugh it off. It goes in his pocket.
Anyway, so he’s super cheap and it pays off and the reason that he goes with HostGator is they’re inexpensive and they just work. If you want to go with the company that he uses and so many other people do, don’t just go to HostGator, go to hostgator.com/mixergy. When you go there, you’re going to find an even bigger discount than other people get . . . Syed would love this. The deepest discount as far as we know that’s available on the internet for HostGator.
You’ll be tagged as a Mixergy person which means that if you ever have any issues, let me know. I always stand behind my sponsors and we will go to bat for you if you ever have any issue or you have any questions or problems. And frankly, you’re going to be able to forget about it. You’ll do that move and then you’ll forget about it until you’re ready to grow your business. Then you can call them up and just keep upgrading and upgrading.
Hostgator.com/mixergy. They’ve been around since . . . Oh, no. Syed has been with them since 2007. Look at this guy. Look at this guy. They’ve been around since before that. All right. I’m proud that they’re a sponsor.
Ethan, I always say to my audience, “Tell me . . . ” This is like something you dig. “Tell me if there’s a problem so that I can go to bat for you.” Here’s why. I want to know about every single problem people have with my sponsors. That’s the only way I get good feedback. I know you guys are obsessed with that too. What do you use to get feedback? What are some of the clever things you do?
Ethan: So that’s a great question, because probably the thing that was super valuable for me when I started at TelTech was that our entire customer support team is here right in our office, and I think we’re 12 or 14 people on that team. Listening to customers have issues in real time was a great way to really learn the pain points of our products and really to understand where their needs were and how to address them. We figured out just from that different ways to address the most common problems coming in. And so I think listening to customers that way, it was super helpful and . . .
Andrew: Like what? What’s an issue that you’ve seen from customer service?
Ethan: Well, because TrapCall and RoboKiller used the service called Conditional Call Forwarding, which is available through your carrier, there definitely are a lot of details that can be problematic. One is we have to figure out a way to make sure that you can still get your voicemail if you’re forwarding your unanswered calls to us. So voicemail problems are a constant issue of things that we want to make sure that we’re covering.
When we learned, for example, that Sprint customers were having a specific issue, it led us to go . . . I actually went to a conference . . . I paid to speak at a conference, at Sprint’s headquarters, with the sole purpose of going there and finding someone to talk to, the right person to talk to you to help solve this problem. And it worked.
But it’s because of that process of listening to customers in that way that you do that. So, even today, we have 60 plus people working for TelTech now. And one of the key things that I do and most all of us do is we still are on different parts of the business that get emails. So, if we see customer support issues that come through emails, we’ll see those every day and we’ll be able to look at them and say, “Hey, is this something we can learn from? Is this something we can change?”
Andrew: I think TelTech is such a fascinating company. I’m hoping you’ll hook me up with an interview with the founders. One of the things that I love about you guys is you’ve got this app that for people who hate voicemail, it will just cause the phone to keep fake ringing, fake ringing, fake ringing so people don’t even bother leaving voicemails.
Ethan: That’s a great example. Customers used to tell tech support, “Hey, I know you guys are trying to get my voicemail to go to my regular voicemail, but can you just turn off my voicemail?” And we kept hearing that, “Can you just turn off my voicemail? Could you turn off my voicemail?” And one of our product guys partnered with an engineer and on a weekend they did it basically just for the fun of it. So, yeah, no more voicemail is still out there and your voicemails forever.
Andrew: I love when I switch to a new carrier and my voicemail is not set up and people get that message that says, “Voicemail not set up,” yet I feel like, “Oh, this is so good.”
Ethan: And how long can I make that work?
Andrew: I know. How long can I keep it going? And I don’t know for some reason there’s always something that forced me to turn it back on. Maybe it’s like a doctor’s appointment and what happens if the kid’s school calls up and so I have to turn that freaking thing back on. I hate it though. All right. You created that first version of the product. You got $25,000. At that point, did you start to bring it in-house?
Ethan: When we brought it back . . . we brought it in-house but it became . . . Like I said, we didn’t feel at the time that it was commercially viable, but it did spark a lot of the . . . it reinvigorated us as a company that’s based on innovation. I mean, we’re a culture of innovation here. That’s what we do. Coming up with new unique ideas, apps and services that help people with their privacy and security. That’s what we’re all about and what we want to do. So, it really got us thinking, “What will be next?”
I mean, TrapCall was doing great, TapeACall doing great. At the time we had a product called SpoofCard. All these products were growing, and my job was to make sure that the pedal down was on these products all the time and our portfolio was growing. But we also knew that while we could innovate within those that there was more we could do.
We built an app from there as a company called WhoApp, which was short lived. It was an app that was designed to tell you who was calling to show you sort of like enhanced caller ID and to really like give you better control of your phone. That’s what we are always striving to do, is to give you better control of your phone.
There used to be a time when the phone rang and people were excited about it. It was, “Who’s calling me?” I think most people now if the phone rings, they dread it, and if they don’t recognize the number, they dread it even more. We wanted to help people with that problem. The app didn’t take off the way we had hoped. It had some problems. Then we started to see some of the changes in technologies whether through Apple and through some stuff we were learning just with carriers. We started to see the opportunity to re-engage on the spam call problem.
Andrew: So you’re saying you start to get diverted to other products that you have like TapeACall, by the way, is a great product. It’s a simple app, you install it on your phone and you could start recording calls, which for some things, it’s really important. When my wife was doing a therapy call and she said, “The therapist lets me record it, but how do I record it on an iPhone?” I said, “Go get this app, and boom you’ve got the whole thing recorded.” Actually, I don’t even know if it was therapy, but it was something like that. I don’t want to get her misquoted. But then you did a Kickstarter campaign, right? What happened with this Kickstarter campaign?
Ethan: So we actually did the Kickstarter campaign when we launched . . . right after the FTC competition. We launched it . . . Actually, I think the moment we won the FTC competition was when we launched the Kickstarter.
Andrew: Yeah, I see the first sentence was, “We just won $25,000 Grand Prize in the FTC’s Robocall: Humanity Strikes Back competition. We’re asking for your help to raise an additional $75,000.” To raise that money for what? What’s the purpose?
Ethan: At the time it was to see if we can sort of further explore how to make the original version of RoboKiller into a more of a commercially viable product. But I will tell you this. The Kickstarter it was never super important to us that it funded. It would have been nice if it had, but there were two reasons why I think it was really important for us. One is it got us a group of early adopters, people who are excited about what we do and what we’re trying to accomplish who we could talk to, who we could learn from and we could ask questions.
Andrew: Because even if you fail and the contest didn’t get funding, it was unsuccessful, you’d still get the contact information of the people who wanted this.
Ethan: Correct. And learned from people what their pain points were, why this was important to them.
Andrew: What did you do with them? These 496 people backed you. You guys were looking for $75,000, you raised somewhere around 25,000. What did you do with the 496 people who wanted to back this and were giving their money back?
Ethan: We continued to communicate with them. Even to this day, when we did this originally, it was only available on iPhone. The original app was only available on iPhone. And many of those people who funded it said, “I can’t wait for you to do this on Android.” We launched our Android app . . . RoboKiller in its current version it’s a very successful version which we’re very proud of. It’s approximately a year and a half old. Our Android app is probably, I would say, probably seven months old or something in that range.
As soon as that became fully functional and we had a product to deliver, we went right back to that Kickstarter list and said, “Hey, we’ve got great news for you. We have an Android list.” And even a few years later, three-plus years after, the response was amazing. People right away from that said, “I’m so excited. I’ve been waiting for this.” But even if we didn’t have anything specific to offer, I tried to email that list probably at least three times a year just to say, “Hey, this is what we’re doing. This is what TelTech does. This is what we’re thinking about for the future.” Just to stay in contact.
Andrew: You know what? I was going to just dismiss that list as just a small email list, but it’s not that, because there are faster, better ways to get 500 people on an email list. But these people were willing to put up money and they still wanted that product, and that makes them a really desirable group of people to reach and talk to you.
Ethan: Yeah. It was . . . I think what we learned when it didn’t fund was, it was disappointment, and that’s a good sign, right? Sean Ellis, who I told you is my mentor, he always talks about the importance of finding product market fit and that he would ask this question that was so important, which is, “If this product went away tomorrow, would you be very disappointed, somewhat disappointed, not disappointed at all?”
And he always used to say, 40% of the people say that they’d be very disappointed, you have product-market fit. These are the kinds of people who tell you if you have product-market fit. These are the kinds of people who would tell you, “This matters to me. I’m engaged in this. And either you’re doing the job that I want you to do or you’re not doing the job.” And I think that’s really important to a business. I think it’s really important to growth. I think if you’re a founder of you’re trying to start something, really asking yourself that question, “Am I giving people something I must-have experience?” It’s something you need to be asking yourself all the time.
Andrew: Speaking of Sean Ellis, you told our producer you used some of his ideas to start building a database. What did you use to build a database based on what you learned from him? How did you get users based on what you learned from him?
Ethan: I’m trying to think specific . . .
Andrew: I guess what you’re saying is, look, just to remind you, it was the initial users was mainly about getting feedback. In the beginning, you actually had to go and buy data to learn what types of calls to block and you also have to go and scrape data. You would go to these online sites where people are complaining about robocalls and you were scraping what? What were you doing there?
Ethan: We were just trying to scrape information about what calls they were complaining about. At the very beginning when you have zero calls coming in, we have learned . . . we learned a tremendous amount from user feedback. But when I say “user feedback,” it’s not users necessarily actively saying, “Hey, you didn’t block this call. You didn’t block this call.” Sometimes it’s their actions. They’d whitelist the number or blacklist the number.
If they’re whitelisting a number, that’s telling . . . We see multiple users whitelisting that same number. That could be people living in some town saying, “Wait a second. That’s my local CVS pharmacy or my kid’s school and I want to make sure that RoboKiller never blocks that number.” So, we’re learning from that data.
So I think what I was probably alluded to, I’m not sure if I’m conflating two things, but what I learned most from Sean is that you have to be relentless and looking for different ways and different opportunities to learn from your customers and learn from different available things. When you don’t have a lot of information out there to work with, you have to find a way to do it. And if it means a Kickstarter campaign like this, if it means picking up the phone and actually asking people questions, you have to be unabashedly unafraid to go and do that all the time.
Andrew: How often do you do that now talk to customers?
Ethan: Not enough.
Andrew: And when you do it, what’s your approach to doing it?
Ethan: It depends on the specific situation. I read a book called “Customers Included.” I’m sorry, I can’t remember who wrote it. But . . .
Andrew: I’ll find it.
Ethan: What I really liked about it is it talked about talking to customers, like, basically taking your service, your app, putting in front of a customer and just watching them interact with it, not really giving them a lot of guidance, not asking them a ton of questions, but really watching them to learn what their feedback, because I mean, there’s a lot of services that allow me to do this. And we do use some of those.
But one of the things that I’ve literally done is I’ve taken iPhones or Android phones with our apps and I’ve gone to friends, I’ve gone into Starbucks, I’ve handed the phone to somebody and said, “Hey, imagine you’re getting blocked calls from somebody. Show me how you would solve that problem.” And I watched them google it. They find TrapCall, and that’s great. I’m so excited they found TrapCall. And then I found out at the time, this was a couple of years ago, they were using . . . they found TrapCall, they clicked the link, they found us through an affiliate. That was okay. They clicked on the link and they got to our mobile website and it was basically unusable. They couldn’t sign up and I was like, “Oh, my God.”
Ethan: I forget what it was, but our mobile version of our website at the time, this is just a few years ago. This is before it became a responsive . . . before we built a responsive website. It just had some technical problems where it was just very hard and unintuitive to use the site itself. And we saw by watching, I think it was a friend of mine in that situation, where she was using the app and she’s not super-savvy, computer savvy or tech-savvy, but she’s a human being and she could very well have this problem in her life of getting blocked calls and going to look to solve it. And this is the way she would have found it. I mean, as a real-world example the way she would have found it, she would have encountered this problem and never solved it. And she said, “I would have just given up.”
When I started at TelTech and they asked me to do a project to see if I was a good fit, I ran into some problems and I went to customer support because I really wanted the job. But not everyone’s going to do that, and you have to really think about those things. So I think getting out there in the wild is really important. You asked, how often I do it. The answer truthfully is not enough. I try to really encourage my team to do it, but it’s easy when you’re busy that . . . It’s a very slow and time-consuming thing to do, but it is super valuable and I think everybody should get out there and do it.
Andrew: The book “Customers Included” is by Mark Hurst. He is a guy known for creating what he used to call Listening Labs. I don’t know if he still does. And what he would do is he would do exactly what you’re talking about, bring people in to use software and have them talk through all the thoughts that go through their head just so they could listen and see what are people thinking, what are they doing and learn from them.
I really love his methodology. I interviewed him years ago because he and I met at one of his beach parties, and I’m a little disappointed that the interview was about how to clear your inbox because he was passionate about bit literacy at the time. I should have just talked to him about Listening Labs. It was just such an important thing.
Ethan: Yeah. The book was really helpful for me and we got out there and start doing and instantly started to see the value. But it reminds me one of my favorite books I read years ago is Guy Kawasaki’s “Rules for Revolutionaries.” He has this story he tells where the Sony Walkman had come out and they were doing a focus group and they had yellow and black Sony Walkmans and they said to everybody in the room, “Which of these would you prefer?” Everybody in the room said they wanted the yellow Walkman and that was the one they liked.
At the end of the focus group, the guy said, “Hey, as a gift for joining us and helping us out today in this focus group, we’re going to give you a Sony Walkman around the table. Just pick one.” And they didn’t do this intentionally, but they just had them all out there and every single person who had said they wanted the yellow one took a black one. That’s why it’s so important to watch customers do these things and not just look at . . . And that’s why for us building a really great data team is super important and it was a real challenge for us. We built it from scratch and we still we’re trying to expand it now.
One thing I learned very early was that data is really about art and science and the best data analysts are the ones who can communicate with you as a non-data analysts. What the data means in a way where it becomes a conversation, and that’s the kind of thing where you have to look at these things from multiple facets. You have to talk to people, you have to look at data, you have to think about your own insights, you have to look at your own experience. You have to put this all together and mash that up and come up with the right answers.
Andrew: You know what? Let me take a moment to talk about my second sponsor, it’s a company called Toptal. You’ve been just talking about data analysts and how important they are in your business. I imagine that when someone listens to that, they think, “Well, we actually don’t have that capability. At some point, maybe we’d want to have it.” Or sometimes we talk about machine learning and people in my audience might be thinking, “You know what? I’d actually like to have that capability. We don’t have it, but at some point in the future, we will.”
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All right, Ethan. So you can . . . You know what? I’m a little bit intrigued by this Kickstarter idea. I like that you made something good out of a failed Kickstarter, but I wonder if the mistake you made was you asked for $75,000. Why not go for $20,000 and then allow people to exceed that goal fast? Did you ask for too much?
Ethan: I guess by definition, we asked for too much since we didn’t get it.
Andrew: Some of it. I think as I look at software online and as I looked at a lot of Kickstarter is the thing I’ve learned is that you should ask for less to let people see that you’re exceeding your goal and create momentum and look like a success as fast as possible.
Ethan: Yeah. I’m trying to remember to back then, like, our thinking behind that. We definitely debated back and forth how much we should ask for. I think we were looking at it from the perspective of . . . We really hit the ground running with the $25,000 prize. And if this had that sort of next level momentum, like, doing it until . . . We didn’t want it to feel like a small thing. We wanted to feel like the big thing that we were trying to accomplish.
I don’t know that that’s great thinking, but again, we . . . Look, a lot of people start Kickstarter campaigns because they’re looking at it and saying, “This is how . . . ” It’s either make or break for them. This wasn’t make or break for us. We had day jobs, ones we were very excited about. I had things to do here to work to grow a company. At the time, our product marketing team I think it was just me and one other person and now we’re 23 or 24 people and we really . . . There was a lot of investment into the [inaudible 00:42:37]
Andrew: Twenty-three to 24 people working just on this one app?
Ethan: No. Across our portfolio.
Andrew: Got it.
Ethan: On our marketing team, we have product managers, we have our data team, we have our marketing team, we have our design team, and, if I’m not saying it again, our data team. So, they are all fit within our product marketing organization.
Ethan: And they support all of our products.
Andrew: I read about this Kickstarter on Consumer Reports. I feel like you guys are really good at getting a lot of attention. This whole FTC prize got you a bunch of attention from everything from like I think USA Today, Ars Technica and so on. But even beyond that, weren’t you on Fox, covered by Fox News or something, covered by a bunch of different press?
Andrew: How? How did you do that? What’s your secret?
Ethan: NBC Nightly News was just two weeks ago. We’ve been on Fox Business News. We’ve been on Fox News. We’ve been on ABC World News. And absolutely, it’s been a key part of RoboKiller’s growth. And it’s intentional. I mean, we . . . So, just to give you a little bit of background, my first real job out of college was working for a PR firm. This is a long time ago and it was a very different world. But I’ve always believed that the media is an important tool and they can help you grow.
And we also were a few years behind the eight ball. I mean, the FTC . . . We were the second FTC competition. There was another FTC competition a couple of years before us. There were other players in this game already before we got into it and they got a lot of press. This is a very newsworthy problem, right? Everybody is getting robocalls, they’re getting worse. People want to solve this problem. They’re annoying and harassing on one level, they’re also dangerous on another level. And people have lost their entire savings, their identities because of this.
I heard the ABC World News story, they talked about a woman who committed suicide because she lost everything based on one of these scams. I mean, this is a real problem in this world. It’s a good story for the media, but you have to get yourself out there. So, when we started I looked at it and I said, “Which reporters cover this kind of story? Who benefits from this? What consumer are they trying to talk to? And how do they reach them?” So, we definitely identified an audience of reporters who we thought would be interested in consumer advocates.
Andrew: Did you do that? Were you a part of that?
Ethan: Yeah, absolutely.
Andrew: So you were sitting down and you’re saying, “Who’s doing consumer advocacy at the media outlets that we care about? Who’s the guy at Fox? Who’s the guy at USA Today? Who’s the guy at NBC?” And I say “guy”, but it’s often also women. And so you picked the people that you care about. What was the next step after you did that?
Ethan: You go and pitch them. And we hired some different resources. I tried a couple of different PR firms and people I knew to help us with that. That was never super effective. But we’ve gotten to do it sort of . . . We’ve worked with some companies that have been able to help us on the pitching side. But you also, if you try to call ABC World News on your first day, you’re probably barking up the wrong tree. You got to start small and really pound pavement. And local [inaudible 00:46:05] easier. They’re hungrier for news, they’re looking for local news, the tailored news specific to their needs. If you say, “Hey, the robocall problem in Omaha is this,” the Omaha reporters are going to be interested in speaking to you. So, you have to really get out there and do some homework. And it’s a very . . .
Andrew: And they’re doing the homework. They’re the ones . . . You’ve got somebody out there who says, “Who’s the local reporter at . . . ” Let me see. You guys were covered by Channel 13, WHAM. I don’t even know where in the world that is, but you guys were covered by them. Is it you saying . . . Is it someone on your team saying, “We need to find their reporter and then figure . . . and then start at instant.”
Ethan: It started that way.
Andrew: It’s someone who does that, and then you guys, I guess, put him into some kind of email system where you send out a mail or what was the process once you get the person’s contact info?
Ethan: It was one-to-one. It was a human contacting a human via email or . . .
Andrew: There it is. It’s Jane Flash. It would be you contacting Jane Flash via email?
Ethan: That’s right. She actually emailed me this morning and said, “Hey, the story that you talked about . . . the story you discussed with me last month, it actually came out today.” That’s right. That’s . . .
Andrew: That was it. It was you. Someone gives you . . . Someone says, “Jane is a woman who’s going to cover this stuff.” You then have an email thing that you send out and then Jane hopefully responds back to you and you go back and forth, or do you have someone else helping?
Ethan: Yeah. I mean, I do have . . . I’ve worked out with some companies [inaudible 00:47:27] who is coming JustReachOut that we’ve worked with. That helps us do some of the pitching that . . . some of the leg work. But as we’ve gotten more . . . as we’ve grow our footprint and become more popular and build that brand and people have started to come to us as experts. And that was the goal, was always to keep talking to the press, keep talking to the press, put ourselves in a position when someone wanted to talk about the robocall problem, they find us, they come to us. But we still do it. I mean, we still actively go out there and we definitely . . . There’s no outlet too small to talk to, right?
Andrew: I’m starting to get too deep in the weeds on this, but you get the list. I know JustReachOut. It’s by Dmitry Dragilev. They’re going to be a new sponsor. It’s justreachout.io. But he’s giving you a process. What’s the process? Once you find these people, what’s the first email you send to them and how do you stay in touch so that when they’re ready to write about you, you are there?
Ethan: We worked with them to create a standard pitch that’s sort of a starting pitching and then his team will go out and they’ll go talk to the reporters with this pitch. It’s pretty similar, like, once if they get a bite, then it usually comes right to us and then we make an introduction to us and start talking to them directly and I pick up the phone and set up interviews and . . . Like I said, it’s a manual process to do it, but it’s an important one.
And what happens is if you build up a groundswell and you talk to these local outlets, and then larger outlets start to pick it up. Their part . . . If you talk to the ABC affiliate somewhere, it’s possible that the larger national ABC is going to see that story if it’s a good one and they’ll pick it up. But it’s a lot of . . . it is a very manual process. I don’t think . . . I mean, JustReachOut does do some automated things. We don’t take advantage of those so much as we do working with them on a more one-to-one basis. And in my experience, that’s where you have successes and you have to really be committed to it. It’s not an easy process, but it can be rewarding.
Andrew: So one of the problems with doing this robocall stuff is that people are just constantly changing phone numbers that every one of these phone numbers now starts with 310 for me because that’s my area code. They then continue with 463, that’s the next three numbers. And then it looks like it’s a local call. But the truth is for me if I see anything from 310, I’m not answering. I haven’t lived there in years. But it’s still annoying and confusing and there’s no software that can block it.
Ethan: Ours can.
Ethan: So we block . . . What you’re describing specifically it’s called “Neighbor spoofing,” and what we do is we block numbers that look local to you using this process that . . .
Andrew: So every number that starts with 310-463, you will block off.
Ethan: Not without thinking about it. In other words, our system is smart and it’s using all of these different processes, machine learning, audio fingerprinting and user feedback to decide which calls are legitimate and which are not. So what we don’t want to do is block your child . . . If you have a kid whose school calls with a robocall like mine does, then we want to make sure that that call always gets through. If your local pharmacy calls with a robocall to tell you your prescription is ready, we want that to come through. That’s why this is a complicated problem. I mean, we will look at robocalls as wanted versus unwanted. Forget legal versus illegal, right?
Ethan: That’s a . . . When you get a robocall, if it’s legal or not, you don’t care. If it’s a political call, there’s a chance that it’s a legal political robocall. I have not met too many people who are like, “Oh, that’s great. Yeah, I’m getting a call from this politician.” We don’t look at it that way. We just say “Wanted versus unwanted.” And what we’re trying to do is use this algorithm and use all these tools together to best assess what is a wanted versus an unwanted call and to do that in a way that’s meaningful for our consumers.
It’s a constant challenge and neighbor spoofing offers unique challenges because, like you said, they look local but are changing all the time. But with RoboKiller, we will block those. And again, we’re able to use audio fingerprinting in that process to actually forget about the phone number at that point, but just listen to the audio. Is it a robocall or is it a human? Let the human through, block the robocall.
So it’s a real problem. And to some degree, it’s a cat and mouse game, and we always have to be ahead of the spammers and we have to look for the things they’re doing differently tomorrow and start thinking about those today. And we’re pretty good at it. We block more than 90% of those calls from ringing through. Our false positives and false negative rate is like less than 1.5%. RoboKiller is going to solve this problem for you. I mean, it will make a huge difference. And better than that, it lets you get revenge. It puts our answer bots . . .
Andrew: Yeah, talk about that. That’s something that I saw in the article that I mentioned a moment ago that she was excited to talk about the revenge including, I think, like a Russian voice that can come on and confuse people. How do you do that? What’s going on with your app?
Ethan: So we’ve recorded hundreds of answer bots that you can choose from. These are robots and they’re smart. They know how to press 1 to talk to the human and to talk to the human. So a robot talking to a robot doesn’t help anybody, but if we can get our robots talking to the humans behind these telemarketing calls, which is a smaller group and the 5 billion calls that are being placed every month, we can waste their time and we can help put them out of business, right? Time is money and if we can waste their time, we can start solving this problem.
Andrew: So if a robot calls me, you will do what to get a human being on the phone to waste their time?
Ethan: So once you set up with RoboKiller, if you get a robocall right now, your phone will ring. You’ll just get a notification from us that says, “Hey, we’ve blocked the call.” What’s happening is we’re using this technology so that call automatically gets forward to us, so you never got the phone call, it blocks, it gets blocked, it forwards to our service. Now our answer bots go to work. They start talking back to the scammers. You can even create your own . . . This is fun. You can create your own customized bots. We have some that are professionally made. We have a Trump and Hillary impersonator. So those are fun. Those start talking to the robots, but what happens is when they answer, they start pressing . . . Using some of these different technologies like audio fingerprinting, we recognize what robocall is playing and we say, “Oh, we have to press 1 at this point.”
Andrew: Got it.
Ethan: If you press 1, that gets the human on the phone and now they’re talking to this Trump impersonator who’s saying, “I’m the most important person in the world.” That call can go on for as long as they want to talk. And we’ve had them go on for over an hour, many times over an hour, which is wonderful. And then that conversation gets recorded, it lands in what we call your Spam Box which is on the app, you can go listen to it. And what’s nice about that is, if you are worried about a false positive or false negative, because that call is recorded, you have it there and you can always go and listen to it and you’d say, “Oh, they got it wrong,” and you press the allow button which will whitelist it forever. We try to make it so that it doesn’t happen so often, but we want to make sure, again, that the user has control over their phone. That’s what we’re trying to do is give you back your phone, let you have . . .
Andrew: You guys have RoboRadio where somebody can go and listen into some of these calls.
Andrew: All right. I feel like this is a nice success story. One of the things that I’ve taken away from this is that because you guys started it as like a duo, I think that helped you with your publicity, it helped people care about your product more as opposed to, “This is another product by a big company.” And I feel like the thing that you did that helped you and the business was going out on your own but also then bring it back in where you’ve got all the resources.
Ethan: Yeah. Look, this was obviously a unique situation where we had tremendous support from our founders, and I’d be happy to introduce you because . . .
Andrew: Yes, do it.
Ethan: They’re great guys. But we had tremendous support right from the beginning. We had a plan. And I agree, I think we had to go out there and it was us versus the world and that was a great story to tell. Yeah, certainly, we told the story. Like when we went to the press and told that story, we had this . . . It wasn’t like we did this while we were getting paychecks for our day jobs, which is great, like, not everyone has that experience. But the experience of building something from scratch is there’s always commonalities between that, and I think for whether you’re finding your own business and whether it’s do-it-yourself public woodshop, a tech business, whatever it is. There are commonalities.
There are similar struggles and when you tell that story and you tell it in a way that resonates with people, it certainly, it helps you grow and it helps people get behind you. I mean, the woodshop may not have worked, but the people who helped me through that, the first guy who walked through the door who said, “Man, this is a great idea. What can I do to help?” Like, that was an amazing experience for me. It made me . . . it was the thing I needed to keeping moving forward when the times got difficult.
And I think that was a part of this experience too. It wasn’t . . . Yes, we won the competition. Yes, a year and a half later we were able to start this or whatever it was, a couple years later we were able to build this into what it is become today. It has been tremendously successful. We have 100,000 4.6 star reviews now in the App Store. We’re super proud of those things. We built a team around that, around that success and we continue to grow it, but it was all . . . I think you have to be intentional with this stuff, you have to think through what’s the plan. Yes, we’ve had success with the press. It’s not by accident. We work at it.
Andrew: But is it press that gets you the most? Because from what I was trying . . . when I was trying to figure out where you get traffic, it seems like press is number one for you guys. The App Store, you guys don’t buy as many ads as your competitors. Am I right? Like, if I even type in RoboKiller, it’s your competitors that keep coming up.
Ethan: We’re pretty aggressive with paid search, so . . .
Andrew: Within the App Store.
Ethan: Within the App Store and through other channels. We advertise on Facebook and [inaudible 00:58:00]
Ethan: Our marketing team is super aggressive on the paid marketing side and I think it’s an important piece of it. I think these things all tie together. The press is super important but if you’re counting on a national news hit every month, you’re going to be in a world of hurt. Yeah. That doesn’t . . . When we had the ABC World News had hit which we had tremendous growth on that, probably 15, 20% growth right off of the bat. It was earlier on in our growth cycle. It was fantastic. But the chances of you getting on ABC World News again ever is pretty slim. We’ll try and I love to do it. But that’s not how it works.
Press is something that is . . . I mean, we do have a sort of a nice consistency with media, like, there’s rarely a day out there now where we don’t get a little bit of covered somewhere through this effort, but that’s not all . . . A lot of that is local stuff and that’s great, but the national stuff is the icing on the cake and when it happens it’s fantastic, but it’s probably not a way . . . Like, that shouldn’t be your strategy, it should be your hope. It’s like virality, right? Everybody wants their thing to go viral, but if your growth plan is dependent on it becoming a YouTube sensation, like, not . . . very few things actually do that, right? So you have to have a strategy that’s based on . . .
Andrew: Here’s what I’ve seen for you guys when I was looking to say, “How are these guys even growing?” because apps in the App Store are kind of a pain to grow because, again, I do a search for you and tons of competitors come up. There’s a whole Apple story on all these different pieces of software that will block robocalls. So, I was wondering what you guys did. Press, I feel like is huge. Is it number one or number two behind paid ads?
Ethan: It’s probably a roughly even split. I mean, we’ve been really bolstering on the paid side so I’m not sure where it’s at.
Andrew: Okay. It’s like you’ve got the Verge, huge hit for you guys, right? Huffington Post. I saw KTLA. All the tech guys will talk about you, guys. Lifehacker and so on. So that is a big one. I was looking at where else you guys are doing it. I didn’t see much about your paid ads, but I saw that you’re really good at SEO so you get a lot of organic traffic because of your blog which is really well designed. I don’t know who your designers are but you guys do a good job there. And it’s all these different like, I don’t want to say scare posts, but it’s like danger. “Someone is accessing your Facebook accounts. Here’s how to figure out who.” “Someone has access to your address book. Here’s how to protect yourself.” And by the way, you should also know that these spam calls that you hate can be stopped. That’s the approach.
Ethan: We have a great content marketing manager. We hire . . . Our director of marketing identified . . . At first, she was doing everything. We had one marketing person and she realized, “Hey, we can grow with paid, we can growth with content and grow with social.” And we made the investment. We scaled up in those departments.
We do have great design. We just hired another designer. We keep . . . I think, and I mentioned how important data has been to our growth, one thing I’ve learned is that you really have to . . . when you identify the needs, you have to invest in them, you have to double down and you have to really . . . It’s all about finding the right people. I have a great team. It’s great I had the opportunity to speak about this here and it sounds like I’m the hero and I appreciate that, but I’m nothing without the great people that made this happen here. And we all feel that way.
I mean, one thing about TelTech is we’re a family. I mean, we really truly believe that. When I came in here, the culture blew me away to a degree. And I knew it. You know you have a great culture because the moment I walked into this office, I couldn’t believe. I could feel it. I just could feel the energy. The first thing I said to Meir and Eli when I met them was, “This is unbelievable what you’ve done here. I’m so excited just to be here.”
Andrew: But don’t you at any point as an entrepreneur think, “Oh, man. I could have done this on my own. I could have raised a little bit of money, gotten a lot of . . . This could have been me.” Now everyone is saying that RoboKiller . . . I saw the TechCrunch articles as we were talking, that RoboKiller was bought out. It’s your thing. You could have . . .
Ethan: No. It’s not . . . I mean . . .
Andrew: You don’t feel that at all.
Ethan: Not at all. RoboKiller in its current incarnation is definitely an our thing. Yes, the very early genesis of it, yeah, you said the name and stuff of that was from the FTC thing and certainly it got us in the fight and I was . . . I take pride in being the champion of saying, “Hey, I think this is a way for . . . ” But I always looked at it as a way to grow what we did here. I was never . . . Yes, I’m an entrepreneur at heart but you got to look at what being an entrepreneur at heart means to you, right? I mean, I’m like everybody else, I have a family to support. Yes, making a good living is something that we all aspire to.
But I realized after . . . I told you my previous role, I spent eight years in a position I shouldn’t have been in working in a culture that was toxic for me. And when I finally found this and got out of that slump, I realized just how important and what’s really important to me and I’ll tell you what was really important to me. When I was working like that and I was not in a good environment, I would come home and I have my young daughter and I tried to be a good dad but when you’re miserable at work and you come home, yeah, certainly was I put on a happy face but it wasn’t authentic because I wasn’t showing her I was achieving something.
Being at TelTech has given me the opportunity to achieve something and if you’re not achieving something in this world, for me at least, I don’t think you’re going to be happy. I need that. Like, that’s what I crave. More than anything, I want to feel like what I do mean something and it matters to people. And I think when I ask questions when I’m interviewing people to hire them, that’s what I’m trying to find is, “What’s important to you here? What do you want out of this? Is this going to be a job or is this going to be your passion?” For me, this is what I’m passionate about. Do you want to sit here . . . And it’s 2:15 . . . I’m not even sure where you guys are. It’s 2:15 now. If you wanted to sit here and talk until 10:00 p.m., I can sit here and talk to you until 10:00 p.m. because I’m excited about what I do every day.
Andrew: Again, and I could also see how at a party when you’re talking about what you do, people would be excited about, first of all, being able to block spam calls, and second, get revenge on those callers.
Ethan: Yeah. Showing them the calls on your phone is wonderful. Like, I’m constantly like, “You got to hear this.” I think people love that.
Andrew: All right. The website for anyone who wants to check it out is RoboKiller or just go to the App Store and use it. You guys are all on like an annual payment or monthly payment plan, but there’s like a week that people can try for free, right?
Ethan: Yeah. Seven-day free trial. It’s available in the Google Play Store and Apple App Store, and then it’s a monthly or a yearly fee.
Andrew: Cool. All right. And I want to thank the sponsors who made this interview happen. The first will host your website right. It’s called HostGator. Check them out at hostgator.com/mixergy. And the second is Toptal. Check them out at toptal.com/mixergy and I’m grateful to them for sponsoring and to you guys for listening.
By the way, if you have one of those smart speakers at home, and I do I want, I want to put one in the bathroom, but I feel a little weird about it. So I don’t know that I need to be surrounded by audio that much. But wherever you are, I know that most people are going to be listening to music. I know if you’re listening to me, you’re probably more into listening to talk. Just shout at it and say whatever the keyword is, I won’t say it out loud because I don’t want to trigger it for you, and then say “Play Mixergy podcast.” And let me know if it’s working for you and how it’s working for you, guys. I love listening to podcasts around the house. I think you will too. And even in the bathroom. Do you have one of those in the bathroom yet, Ethan?
Ethan: I do not.
Andrew: I have an extra Echo. I think I should just plug it in and just be surrounded by audio everywhere. All right. Cool. Thank you guys. Go listen. Bye, everyone.
All right. I’m going to send this over to the editor. I thought that was great. How do you feel?
Ethan: I loved it. I really I love the way you challenged . . . Yes. And like you said, it’s not about trying to like trip, trip, trip you up, but I just . . . Look, I do a gazillion interviews for RoboKiller and 99.9% of them are the same thing, saying the same thing. I know how to stay on message, but what’s nice is to be in a conversation like this where it is, like, “Tell me more. Teach me something.” And so I hope I was a good guest for you.
Andrew: You were. Thanks. It was good to meet you. And I’m going to follow up with you . . . I don’t think I could do right . . . Maybe right now. And ask you for an intro to whichever founder you think would be a good fit.
Ethan: Yeah. Absolutely.
Andrew: All right.
Ethan: And Meir Cohen is probably . . . I’ll talk to them. You would never want to . . . Meir and Eli, like, Meir is our CEO and Eli is our CTO, but they are co-founders and like, you’ll never find a better partnership between two co-founders . . . Like, I don’t know if you’d ever want to do it, but like they may be up for that too.
Andrew: I would. I find that when people do it together, they talk over each other and they’re not as comfortable so they don’t come across as well. So, usually, the CEO is the guy who can talk about the marketing and the product decision in a way that speaks to the audience will probably be a good fit. But whoever you think is a good fit.
Ethan: He’s got such a great story too, both of them, but I mean . . .
Andrew: Why? What makes it so good?
Ethan: So he was a locksmith and he . . . Yeah, he . . . From my understanding of it, he was locksmith and he had customers who wouldn’t call him back because they owed him money.
Ethan: They wouldn’t pick up the phone because they owed him money, so he would have to like go to the neighbor’s house to call them to get them to pick up the phone because caller ID. So he was like, “I wonder if you can change your caller ID.” And he was always a phone freak, he just loved messing around, so he called the smartest guy he knew, Eli, and said, “Hey, Eli, do you think we could change my caller ID like on the fly?” And Eli said, “What? I think we can figure that out.”
And they just started messing around and they built this . . . like bootstrapped a profitable company and kind of from the beginning. And then everything was just like iteration of that like, “Oh. What can we do from there? We can build . . . We can help people with this block call phone harassment problem. We can help people record calls on iPhone.” And it’s always ways around working around the phone network and how the phone system already works to find solutions and help customers so. But yeah, I’ll be happy to set that up for you.
Andrew: I just wrote the email. Can I include what you just said here in the interview too as like a preview of the interview to come?
Ethan: Of course, yeah.
Andrew: All right. Awesome. Thanks a lot. I’ll look for my email and I’m looking forward to having them on.
Ethan: Cool. And I just wanted to say like through this whole . . . your staff was so wonderful to work with.
Ethan: So I just wanted to say thank you to them and, yeah. It’s just been an awesome . . .
Andrew: You know what? I’m glad you said that because we do ask a lot of our guests like we want the audio quality to be good, so we ask you for a quiet place, we want you to do an extra hour, not only you spending an hour with me out of your day and you’re busy, but we want an extra hour with a producer and all those things, and so I’m glad that you don’t feel put upon for that. It feels like it’s adding to the conversation.
Ethan: No. My only regret I wish I had recorded that conversation only because, not that I have anything to hide, but like, you asked me something and I actually don’t remember the details of that conversation . . .
Andrew: I prefer that.
Andrew: Yeah. So we do have a recording of it and I’ve got it in front of me and I know that at times that it’s going to be a little weird when I’m teeing up a thing that you’ve talked about, but you may not remember, but I prefer it to be natural like that instead of the opposite which is, people we used to go through the list of questions that we ask them and try to figure out how to squeeze in what they said to Ari into this or squeeze in what they meant to tell Ben . . . It’s Brian, excuse me. It doesn’t make sense. I want them to just feel natural and I think that’s okay. And actually, if you wanted to go and get the notes that Ari created, we delete it intentionally so that people don’t get in their heads about it the way that you feel.
Ethan: No. I mean, it’s cool. I’ve listened to a lot of your interviews and I guess it’s natural like they do come across as very natural because you don’t edit, you don’t sugarcoat, like . . . And I think it’s good. I mean, a while ago I stopped worrying about like, “Am I stuttering? Am I . . . ” I just try to, like, tell the story, tell it as articulately as possible, but you asked a lot of really good questions. And I like the fact how organic it is. So, it’s just . . .
Andrew: The one regret that I had was I didn’t contact your competitor until earlier today, so I managed to track his phone number down. Someone who is our listener. I won’t say who it is because I tried to keep this stuff private. I had all these extra questions to get from him, and the one mistake that I made was I didn’t contact him before, but we’re going to start to implement a process to learn from other people, not necessarily competitors, but people who may be invested and so on. I want to make this the best possible interview we can do and that means getting more little insights that I could never get anywhere else.
Ethan: That was my question for [inaudible 01:11:06]. Again, I really do feel privileged to have, like . . . It really . . . When you guys reached out to us, a guy who he’s been here since the beginning and he works on my team, he’s one of our product managers, he said . . . he’s like, “Guys, you don’t know how big this is. This is awesome.” And it was just today, this morning. He was like, “Hey, whatever happened with Mixergy?” I was like, “It’s funny you asked. It’s happening today.” I’m like, “I’m getting ready and I’m getting pumped up for it.” But like I said, it really is . . . I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to do it and . . . But I guess my question for you is like, at this point, like, what can I do to help you? I think you’re helping . . . I think you asked me, “What success is for me on this? I’d like to know how I can help you on.
Andrew: If you could help get the word out about this interview. I don’t think we do enough. I spent so much time obsessing about research. Could I contact one more person? What I don’t do enough of is, once it’s done, letting people know that it’s out there. And if you could help by tweeting it out, by letting people know, that would be a big help. Or just saying, “Hey, Andrew, here’s the thing that you’ve missed because you don’t care about this promotion enough,” that would be helpful too.
Ethan: Awesome. I just have one curiosity question.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. Good. I’m going to keep publishing this, so whatever . . . Unless you want me to hit stop, I’ll keep going with it.
Ethan: No. No. Just a curiosity question. I was wondering where you guys are located because you said you’re not in 310.
Andrew: San Francisco.
Ethan: San Francisco. Okay, cool.
Andrew: Yeah. You know what? I had this awful experience. I had a New York number that I had for years, then I went backpacking through Europe and I said, “Screw the world. I’m just going to go and disappear.” While I was gone, my phone number was just taken away from me, my New York number, and I happen to come back to LA and that’s where I got my new number and from now on I’m going to be associated with LA, even when I give my phone number to the local burrito place they still associate it with LA. I’m right here. If you’re ever in town right in the heart of San Francisco, a couple blocks from the Ferry Building.
Ethan: Awesome. I know the first six digits of your phone numbers, so I just have to call you 9,999 times to figure out your . . .
Andrew: Oh. You know what? I won’t say this now because we’re recording. It’s so easy to get somebody on the phone. It’s so easy to get their numbers. Yeah. Yeah, there’s so many cool ways, especially today because of what Apple’s enabling. Anyway, I won’t go into it. If you want, I’ll happily tell you, but I do that for research all the time. And it’s not so much to get detail about the person who I’m interviewing but to discourage people who are bad guests. There are so many people who are fakers and that is a real problem for me. But if I can like call a friend of yours or someone to confirm that what you’re telling me is true, that helps, and the only way I could do that is if I can get that friend’s phone number on the fly.
Ethan: Yeah. Like I said, I mean, I couldn’t stress this enough, like, that conversation about . . . I told you that when I joined TelTech, that first conversation I had with Meir and Eli was so transparent. I didn’t . . . I was trying to help them . . . They had put out an ad and they were looking to hire a growth hacker and I thought I can help them because I knew what Sean had created and said, “Maybe I can help you.” I wanted to get out of what I was doing. So I sent them an email saying, “I heard you were looking for a growth hacker. Can I come buy you lunch?” I came in actually, seeing if I can help them recruit because . . . And Eli’s first question to me was, “So you are a growth hacker?” And he said it with a smile and I said, “Yes, but I’m not the one you’re looking for.”
Andrew: Wait. Why would you even say you are a growth hacker? Weren’t you a comptroller at like a radio station or something that your brother was working in or something?
Ethan: No. It was a jewelry distribution company, but it has a name that sounds like [inaudible 01:14:36]
Andrew: Oh, okay. All right.
Ethan: Quasi-family business. And it’s not the right thing for me. And you get stuck in things and I got stuck. But I answered that question completely, truthfully. I said, “I read the description of what you’re looking for and I’m not that guy.” Like, that person has coding skills that I don’t have and a lot of technical skills that I don’t have.” But I said, “But I do understand what . . . No one exactly knows what a growth hacker is, but I have an understanding of what you are looking for.”
But I think because I said that and I didn’t . . . I mean, look, I was trying to do this to get in front of companies and TelTech happened to be the first one that just . . . It was like one of these magical conversations where 20 minutes later it was like, “Oh, what will it take for you to come work with us?” and not like, I’m not a big believer in like, voodoo and whatever, but it just seemed like that magic moment where everything just sort of came together in the right way.
But in that conversation, I realized that that was a very honest answer and they were talking to me in such an honest and open way and I was like, “This is not an organization built on CYA. It’s not about covering your ass. It’s about being helpful to people and being open with people. The thing I teach my team all the time like, I said, “Look, if you make a mistake, the best thing you can do here, stand on the table and say, “I made a mistake. I screwed up,” because we’re a portfolio company. If you don’t share your mistakes, no one else is going to learn from them.”
Let’s celebrate the mistakes. The penalty for making the mistake at TelTech is you get to make another one the next day. Yeah, there’s always frustration around things, but there’s no . . . That’s why I was saying, like, we’re really like a family. Maybe we’re not like a family in that like we don’t berate people for their mistakes. But the culture is so important to us, that culture of innovation. It’s a lot . . . It allows us to really . . . I mean, running all these products with 60 . . . It’s 60 people now. We were 40 something a year ago, if that. Doing that with a smaller staff, you have to be able to rely on each other and trust each other and know that people are going to support you if you screw up and help you get through that and learn from it.
Andrew: Do you have shares in the business?
Ethan: I can’t really talk about any of that.
Andrew: You can’t talk about that? All right. Can I keep all this that we just said in the interview?
Andrew: All right. We’ll publish it. I’ll say goodbye to you and I’ll say goodbye to everyone who’s listening. Thanks, everyone. We’ll keep it in.