Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com. It is of course home of the ambitious upstart.
You’ve heard me say that my goal here for these interviews is for you to listen to the interviews, to learn from them, use what you learn to build a successful company and then hopefully you will come back here and do an interview with me about how you did it. That’s what we’ve got here today.
More specifically, we’ve got with us Ryan O’Donnell. He’s a guy who says that he and his cofounder are two techie dads who prefer to spend a coffee break in the middle of the day with their kids than with coworkers. They want to build the kind of company that they enjoy working in and that supports their lives. The company that they built is called SellHack.
I don’t think I’m going to do it justice here with the description, but I’m going to read it and we’ll bring it to life in the interview. It’s a browser extension that helps people find leads, build targeted prospect lists and verify email addresses so that they spend less time on data entry and more time talking to customers and closing deals. We’re going to talk about how exactly that works and what makes it special within the interview.
And this interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first is going to host your website right. It’s called HostGator. The second is Leadpages, but they’re actually putting on a conference that I agreed to speak in. It’s called Converted. And I’ll tell you more about why if you care about getting leads and converting those leads into customers, you should come and see me in person at Converted 2016.
I’ll tell you more about both those later. First, I’ve got to meet Ryan. Hey, Ryan.
Ryan: Hey, Andrew. What’s up? I’m glad to be here.
Andrew: I’m going to ask you–I’m glad to have you here–I’m going to ask you the question that I have the hardest time asking but I think it’s important to start off with. It’s about your ear. I’m like so awkward asking about it that I’m actually smiling in an awkward way here, but it’s–can you tell me about your–is it your left ear?
Ryan: Yeah. I’ll make the transition really easy. I’ll soften this by saying after the intro, if you were ever a coworker of mine, you cannot take offense to it. I’ve had some great folks that I’ve worked with and traveled the world with and that but having a family now, I definitely appreciate the opportunity to work from home for a bit and do that. But yeah, certainly that’s a great intro.
Yeah. The ear–I guess two months after starting SellHack, I went to the doctor to take care of something that had just been bothering me and I thought would go away and this and that and the next thing I knew, he drops the hammer that, “Hey, you’ve got cancer.” And it’s like, “Oh my god. I’ve got a one-year old at home.” My wife was like six months pregnant at the time and I’ve got this business that’s two months old. It’s just absolutely crazy.
So yeah, that’s what happened. So long story short, been battling with cancer for the last couple years. It was in my ear. It went into my bone. It was in glands. I think I’ve had probably six surgeries since in the last two years. They took my ear off. They built a beautiful prosthetic ear.
Andrew: They took your ear off.
Andrew: Thinking that once they took the ear off they’d get the cancer and you’d be done.
Andrew: I’m looking at you. It doesn’t look like you’re missing an ear.
Ryan: I carefully maneuver around it in conversations.
Andrew: But you’ve got a prosthetic on there. And then once they removed it, it wasn’t gone. It spread and so right now–this is a very serious thing–you still are dealing with this while you’re building up your company.
Ryan: I start–I know this is evergreen content and that people listen to it–but yeah, I actually start radiation therapy–it’s not over. I’m not out of the woods. I see the light, the good light, not the light up above. I see the light out there. But I’ve got like six weeks of radiation coming up. It’s the challenge that was put down in front of me, right?
Andrew: You told me there was one time that you rushed back to do a demo.
Ryan: Hundreds of times, tens of times from the Cleveland Clinic.
Andrew: Then you got there and you were a little bit late.
Ryan: Out of breath, texting at the stop light, call running over five minutes. If any of our clients are listening to us and you’ve gotten something like that from me, chances are yes, it was coming back and forth from a doctor’s appointment.
Andrew: We were talking about this before the interview started. The reason I wanted to emphasize that in the interview is that we can’t tell, as you said to me before the interview started, why someone’s late. There’s a sense that you may not care about them. They might feel that. It’s not that at all. You were actually rushing from the doctor’s to see them because you care about them. You care about this business and all they see is that you’re a few minutes late and it’s very easy to take that as a complete opposite experience than the one they’re actually experiencing.
Ryan: Right. The perspective that I gathered from it, which I was a violator of it in the past, I would get easily frustrated, someone’s late. Why is this line so long? Why is this person driving so slow? Why are they driving so–you get caught up in all the stuff that you can’t control, that you shouldn’t even care about, quite frankly. But it affects you.
I think the patience and the perspective in particular that I’ve learned from, you don’t know what someone’s going through. They might be rushing to the hospital because their wife is having a baby or someone is sick. That qualification and the patience that’s helped me to learn, the perspective is great. I was definitely on the other side of the coin, more anxious and more aggressive in that, but certainly I can at least take that away from it.
Andrew: Meanwhile, that company was a couple of months old when you found the news, when you got the news. Sell hack is growing very fast. What are your revenues now?
Ryan: We’re a private company in a competitive space. I’ll tell you a couple of things about a business. So, we’re over 1,000 customers, over 1,000 paying customers, over 1,000 total users. There are five of us working on this. We’re a profitable business, haven’t taken any outside capital, bootstrapped and grown organically, just kicking ass and absolutely loving what we’re doing.
I think I was talking–I mentored a couple of different accelerators, some local ones around here. I get the chance to talk to less experience entrepreneurs often. I think one of the things I tell them early on is the difference between being productive and busy, a full calendar, having coffee meetings with people doesn’t necessarily mean that things are going the right way.
Getting to the point of actually personally figuring out what your thesis is, like where you want to focus. I know that like marketing and sales automation is what I love. I was in ad tech before, liked that, but I think for folks who are listening to this, if you’re in a job or frustrated or trying to find something to keep you going, ask yourself, “Am I in the space that I want to be in? Am I in the space that I can flourish in? What is my thesis?
Andrew: I want to know how you got to that and–
Ryan: Blind luck.
Andrew: Let’s tell the story and see it unfold. But you’ve told me the numbers before the interview. You told it to me in private and as I’ve said to other guests in the past, you can tell me in private and I’m not going to reveal the numbers, I just want to know do we have someone here who’s ready to be on Mixergy and you clearly are.
But I also told you before you don’t have to say it when I ask you within the interview and man, I’ve got to tell you, Ryan, so many people who I’ve said that to, “You don’t have to tell me,” will get in the interview and then boom, they tell me anyway. That’s why I ask. Most people in the audience don’t realize it’s not like I’m asking and suddenly I’m–it’s not planned. It just happens in the conversation, almost everyone just feels really good about it afterwards, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking the question. I’m not looking to piss people off here. I’m looking to actually learn how a company gets built.
Before we get into where this idea came from, I’m really fascinated by cold calling and sales that happen just with nothing but a telephone and you started off your career doing that. You graduated from college and then soon after, I think the day after, what did you do?
Ryan: Yeah. So, the night of graduation, I went out, had a late lunch with the family and then we packed up the U-Haul, my current wife and I, then we moved to New York the next morning. Cleveland’s economy–I went to school near here, this was back in 2003, there wasn’t much of an economy to speak of. New York was a promise land. She found a job at a fashion company and I figured I could find one too.
So, we drove out there and then I was hopping on Craigslist at that point. You’re in New York and you’re young and you’re like, “I have no perspective here.” It was like finance, fashion or advertising were my three things. Finance, my first call back was at a small brokerage firm and I was a cold caller. I would bloody my fingers making 500 calls a day.
Andrew: Literally 500 calls a day?
Ryan: That was the goal, try for 500.
Andrew: How many would you actually get in?
Ryan: You’d get into the 400s, sometimes you’d get into the 500s, no automation.
Andrew: How do you keep track of it?
Ryan: Index cards, 5×7 index cards.
Andrew: They hand you–just like in “Glengarry Glen Ross?”
Ryan: You build them. I was building prospect lists on the weekend. Little did I know that I would be automating that with that technology in the future. Hindsight would have been great. But yeah, you would come in on the weekend. I’m talking about $800 every two weeks, grossing $800 every two weeks. I think you were netting $623 in New York every two weeks just grinding, like going to the dollar store for lunch.
Andrew: That sucks in New York. To not have money in New York when you’re in finance is really painful. If you’re in the arts and you’re willing to live in Alphabet City or someplace that’s kind of new and eventually will be something, it’s fine. But when you’re in finance and you see people who are so rich all around you, it’s very painful.
Ryan: Finance coming from the Ivy’s is different than finance coming from a public school in the Midwest.
Andrew: Right. It’s definitely not–being a stockbroker in New York is not as glamorous as it seems from the outside. But wait, when you’re building a prospect list so that you can make 500 calls a day ideally, that means you have to have 2,500 names and numbers on index cards. Are you sitting and writing down index cards to that degree?
Ryan: Writing them down.
Andrew: We’re not talking about the 70s. We’re talking about the 2000s, right?
Ryan: I saved my notebooks. I could send you my notebooks.
Andrew: I’d love a photo of the notebooks.
Ryan: They’re fantastic.
Andrew: I don’t know. Maybe we shouldn’t show phone–actually, I don’t care.
Ryan: Scribbled notes from Barron’s. We’d have to read Barron’s and Wall Street Journal and all that.
Andrew: How do you find 100 people from Barron’s? There may be 100 names in all of Barron’s newspaper.
Ryan: You’re hitting the same Fortune 500, right?
Andrew: So, if you found the name of someone in Barron’s, you’d write the name down. The fact that he’s in Barron’s means he’s got some money. So, you’d write his name down, write his company name down. How did you find back then his phone number?
Ryan: You’d call the switchboard and you’d get really good at dialing around the switchboard. You knew the prime times to call are between 7:00 and 8:30 before his or her assistant arrives and then after 5:00 at night so you’re going after your top prospects early and late and then in the middle it’s–
Andrew: This is hellacious. Okay.
Ryan: It’s crazy.
Andrew: And then if you get them on the phone and you pitch them, what happens? Do you eventually pass it to someone else or do you have to close the deal?
Ryan: Yeah. At the beginning, we’d pass them to someone else. It’s like, “Andrew, Ryan O’Donnell from XCapital.com. How are you?” They’d be like, “Who?” You’d be like, “Great, glad I have you on the phone. I want to introduce myself…” We do this and that. “Why don’t I send you out some information. Let me make sure I have the right address for you.” All close, just close, close, close. It’s like objection, close, objection, close.
Andrew: And your goal is to send them information?
Ryan: Yeah. The goal is to have them give you information. The goal is to have a complete stranger give you information over the phone.
Andrew: And if they do that, how does that lead to them becoming a client?
Ryan: The same way you got me to tell you our revenues and customer account and end user volume. You make them feel comfortable. You assert yourself. You’re talking to folks who are probably very educated, but very successful. You’re 23 and your voice still hasn’t matured yet. You try to convince them that you can do this. You give them a couple stocks to watch. You tell them you’re going to call them back when these things pop and then you watch them and you pop and they say, “Look, let’s do this.”
Andrew: I see. So, this isn’t like the “Wolf of Wall Street” penny stocks where you’re trying to close them on the sale. You’re trying to get them comfortable.
Ryan: Not penny stocks, but I think a lot of the–yeah, you’re trying to get them comfortable, but at the same time, very “Wolf of Wall Street” like in terms of–let me qualify the statement–not penny stocks, but the level of diligence that goes into vetting something that you’re trying to sell is–we were opening accounts on selling banks, the safest investment. Who would have guessed in 2008 that we would have seen that crisis?
Andrew: I want to know one thing you learned from sales, from having made all those calls so that we don’t have to make all those calls to get the benefit. Let me share one that I–actually you have one. I saw your eyes light up. What is it?
Ryan: I learned how to just grind, just grind. I learned that I hated a grind that wasn’t stimulating or led to–didn’t utilize all the skill set. Analogous to playing golf–I love golf. I’m a huge golfer. If you ever come to Cleveland and you’re listening, look me up, I would love to play nine holes.
Andrew: Anyone who’s listening is invited to go play golf with you.
Ryan: Yes. I hate playing courses where it’s like driver, pitching wedge, putter. I like to use all the tools. I like to use all my clubs in different ways. I think this type of job for me was–at least I did not stick around long enough to use all of my tools. My tools, I didn’t even know what I had. So, it was time to explore. I spent a year doing that. I was like look, I found a job with a startup in marketing and kind of went from there, but I knew finance wasn’t for me right out the gates.
Andrew: So, it was the grind. I want to emphasize that because I think that many people are afraid to grind or they delude themselves. They will make ten–actually, not even ten. They’ll make five emails, send five emails out. They won’t get a response and then they’ll give up and they’ll look to see if they can hire someone new to make those phone calls for them or they’ll think nobody loves them. Nobody wants to buy from them, but they’ve only sent out five. You’re sending out hundreds, hundreds. There’s just no excuse for not being willing when you’re starting to grind it out and send out those emails, especially since emails are so much easier than phone calls, right?
Andrew: That goes for everything, for people who are trying to sell, for people trying to get interviews, like me. Frankly, in the beginning, I used to send out so many emails asking people and so many not rejections–rejections would have been okay–just ignoring. You don’t even know, “Did it go through or not? Do they even care?”
But going back to the Wall Street thing, here’s what I learned. I actually was a Wall Street researcher for a headhunter. The thing that I learned was to not call people Mr. or Ms. and then their last name, that that was, I thought, a sign of respect, but it really just says, “I don’t belong here.”
Andrew: If you’re a friend, you talk to the person using their name. If I kept calling you Mr. O’Donnell on this call, you’d just feel like we’re not connected at all. It feels a little too formal. All right. So, you decided you were going to come up with a company that would solve problems like that that other people have, right?
Ryan: It was. Just a quick backstory that led up to it–a string of good moves and that led me to a very fortunate call from a recruiter to join a company called Right Media back in 2007, just rocket ship. I think Yahoo bought it a year or so later.
Andrew: You said Yahoo bought it, yeah.
Ryan: Yahoo bought it a couple years later. Luckily, a good choice to join a team that was just growing and had a chance–I was 28 years old flying the world.
Andrew: Why did you–actually our connection is getting a little bit bad. Let me hang up and call you back and then we’ll find out why you got to travel so much.
Ryan: Got it.
Andrew: Be right back. Why did you get to travel so much?
Ryan: So, we started on a team international. It was all US-based and we built a team for international. So, it was open market. It was if you’re located outside of the US, Right Media, we were an ad exchange and Yahoo bought us to be their ad exchange for remnant inventory and just spun up new offices all over the world and new clients.
Andrew: I see. So, you got to travel to see all the different offices. So, then take me to how the idea for SellHack came about.
Ryan: Yeah. So, I left Yahoo in 2010 and moved back to–I left in 2010. This was like frothy time in the startup space. Companies were starting and getting $500k like nothing and getting bought by Facebook for $1 million, just quick flips, quick hits and it was like my bet was, “Look, I can go start something and take the risk and I’m going to be ton myself that I can make $1 million inside of five years,” which was my track for it. Had I stayed at a job, I would have made that just staying at a job. I said I could make this quicker.
So, I built this app and went to an accelerator and pivoted it a couple of times and then my kid was born and we moved back to Cleveland, my first son, Jack, who’s my best startup I’ve ever had. We moved back to Cleveland and raised a little bit more money here and it just wasn’t going anywhere.
So, long story short, one of our advisors had deep domain expertise, had a belief for the business that we just had run out of gas on. So, I resigned formally from the startup and handed the reins over to her. SellHack began. It was like, “Okay, we’re going to stop working on this and start on something else.”
Andrew: None of the investors, none of the money, brand new. One of the problems that you had–the company was called Sociagram–one of the problems that you had there was you wanted to find someone at LinkedIn, couldn’t get a hold of them because you couldn’t find their email address, so you said, “I think this could be a business. I think I could solve this problem for other people like me.” Am I right?
Ryan: Right. So, Sociagram initially was a business that you could send someone a gift and record a video that would be delivered to them whenever a package arrived. It wasn’t taking off. So, we looked back at some of the challenges for that because we were trying to sell it to retailers and to license the tech into them. We spent so much time or I spent so much time in business development going to a site like LinkedIn, finding the director of ecommerce, trying to guess their contact information and just had the spreadsheet that I would work from.
When we stopped working in that company, the first thing I said to my partner and cofounder was, “Look, can we automate this? Can you build me a plugin? I’m not the developer. Can you build me something that can do these three things and just automate it?” Two weeks later, he’s like, “Install this.” And then I shared it with some friends and we had to put it in the Chrome store in order to share it because it was a Chrome plugin. Next thing we knew, a couple of random people found it and started using it.
Andrew: Let’s take a pause. I want to know how that first plugin worked, what it did, how it worked. But let me actually pause for a second and talk about my sponsor. My sponsor is Leadpages. Do you know Leadpages?
Ryan: I know Leadpages. And Leadpages is a great site to use to send traffic when you’re sending cold emails out, get them to a custom landing page.
Andrew: Yeah. And their whole obsession is with conversions. You should have a page from Leadpages that works so well that as soon as someone comes on, they put their email address. They want to get as close to 100% of the people who hit that page to give their email address as possible. They’re just freaking obsessed with that. So, they said, “You know what? What if we organize a conference for a lot of people who are obsessed with this kind of thing, with increasing leads, with getting those leads to convert into customers and getting those customers to actually be customers for life? That’s the obsession.
So, they said, “We’re going to put this on.” They put it on last year. They invited me to speak. I gave my usual, “Sorry, I don’t go anywhere to speak,” response. Then I kind of regretted not going there because I heard the buzz from people who had been there. They told me that they got to meet other entrepreneurs, other business people whose obsession was also with closing sales, with getting leads, with creating pages that do it all very fast, creating pages that get people to give their email addresses, that get people to buy. I said, “I really missed out on it.”
I regretted not doing it, then this year, they just emailed me and they said, “Andrew, what is it going to take to get you to come out and be at this conference?” I said, “Actually nothing, I want to come.” So, I’m going to go to the conference. Since I’m going to go there, they asked me to speak and said “Why don’t we buy ads on Mixergy to get other people from the Mixergy audience to come hear Andrew speak?”
So, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m going to this conference because I want to spend 48 hours with people who are obsessed with increasing conversions, obsessed with creating these landing pages that really work. If you’re out there and you’re trying to do the same thing, come, meet me and let’s meet all these other people who are going to be at the conference both attending and on stage.
We’re talking about people like Pat Flynn. We’re talking about people like Steve Kamb from Nerd Fitness. We’re talking about Clay Collins, the founder of Leadpages, Ryan Deiss from Digital Marketer–all those people will be there. I want us to connect in person, me and you, the person who’s listening and also you and other people form Mixergy and also other people who are going to be at the conference.
I’m really excited to be there. I hope you can come meet me there. Here’s the URL that will give you a big discount to make it easier to come. Go to Leadpages.net/Mixergy, Leadpages.net/Mixergy. When you sign up, email me so I can give you my phone number so we can text when you arrive and we can meet in person. There it is, Leadpages.net/Mixergy. Let’s meet at the conference, Converted 2016.
Cool, Ryan. I’m excited. I hired somebody to help design the slides for me for the presentation. I’ve been going over the material for it. I’m really psyched for it.
Ryan: Killer. That was smooth, man. I’m excited.
Andrew: Yes. I don’t know that you’re going to be able to make it. You have to stay close to your doctors.
Andrew: Not to be a downer. So, the idea was people install the plugin and then if they go to LinkedIn, they could hit your plugin and see the email address of the person they’re looking at? Is that it at its simplest form?
Ryan: You could go to any site. It’s just a Chrome plugin. So, wherever you are on the web–you could be on the leadership team page at any site, our plugin, we need a name and a company and then we’ll return an email address. That’s the promise.
Andrew: That’s the promise. And then where did you go to get that data?
Ryan: Right. So, this was part of the product development. I said, “Look…” My partner, Marco, he’s like, “I can build this.” I said, “I know you can. I know you can build this. Let me tell you what I need. Here are the things that I’m doing.” And I would take him through the whole process, like the manual process I would go through. I’d go here and check. I would do this. I would come up with the different variations of the email and then try to test them.
So, the first version, it does not look–it more or less looks the same as what our entry level kind of free version looks like today. Btu we do like the five things that anyone would do to try to guess an email address and verify it and then we just started building on top of that through other partnerships and relationships and just got really smart–
Andrew: You’re saying their first version would do nothing but say take Andrew@Mixergy– if you see that it’s Andrew and the company is Mixergy, you would just say Andrew@Mixergy or AndrewWarner@Mixergy or Andrew.Warner@Mixergy or AWarner, all those variations?
Andrew: So, it could generate those. And then how would you test those?
Ryan: It would generate it and then it would test them.
Ryan: Well, so we have 12 different methods that we use to validate an email address right now. We’re not scraping anything from anyone’s page. There’s no data being extracted. Our emails are all verified outside of whatever page that you’re on. We use signals like a name and a company, for example. There are other factors that go into it, but yeah, it’s as simple as you create a list of permutations of the email and then you test them.
Andrew: How did you test them in the beginning?
Ryan: So, one way to test them is if I were to send you an email, our email is–SellHack’s email is hosted by Google Apps. I don’t know what Mixergy’s is hosted by, potentially Google Apps as well.
Andrew: Google Apps.
Ryan: Okay. So, when I send you an email, Google Apps, Ryan@SellHack.com, that’s my email if you’re listening, feel free to reach out–contacts Andrew@Mixergy and says, “Hey, Ryan has an email to send to Andrew@Mixergy.com. Does Andrew@Mixergy exist? And then Google responds and says, “Yes, this exists,” or no, it does not exist.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: That’s one kind of brute force way to test it. You can go and search for Ryan@SellHack.com on Google, for example, and see if my email address pops up there.
Andrew: That’s something you did in the beginning.
Ryan: Right. That’s how we did it.
Andrew: Now that you’re more sophisticated, you said you’re partnering up with other places. What’s a place that you’re partnering up with?
Ryan: Respectfully decline to comment on that.
Ryan: Yeah. We’re in a competitive space. Some of these relationships and methods that we’ve devised to do this, we’ll take what would take an average person 2 to 5 minutes to do and we’ll do that job in 2 to 5 seconds.
Ryan: And that’s what people pay us for. They are able to–like you said at the beginning, they get more productive and more efficient with their time. They spend less time on these manual, brain dead tasks of guessing–no one is hired to guess email addresses all day, but it’s a fact. If you’re in sales and want to generate revenue, it’s what you have to do keep your pipeline full. We automate that part so you can spend more time actually working on deals and less time on that data entry.
Andrew: I feel like a lot of people sign up to LinkedIn Pro. We have one of those accounts. They do it mostly just to be able to message people.
Andrew: But messaging through LinkedIn is not nearly as effective. It’s just emailing the person directly.
Ryan: I don’t believe it’s as effective as a standalone. However, I believe that that using LinkedIn messaging and using Twitter and calling them up, like all of these different ways–and every company has got a different mix and a different flavor, but to your point earlier on the grind, way too many people give up too early, right?
Ryan: So, historically it was all about a numbers game, like I need 10,000 people because what I’m going to do is I’m going to try to contact them once and then feel embarrassed when they don’t respond to me. I don’t want to face the rejection of them telling me no, so I need as many as I can.
Now it’s about how do I find the most targeted people I can and then how do I send them the most relevant messages possible or create the most relevant lead page that I can so when I drive this segment of my prospects to this page or to this sign up form that they’re going to be hit with very, very relevant content, right?
So, it’s a much more targeted approach than historically–like my stock broker days of just calling all the rich executives in the Fortune 500 like everyone else would do.
Andrew: You might have noticed me actually unplug and plug and plug in my mic. I just realized that when we lost our connection in the middle of the interview I didn’t plug my mic back in.
Ryan: Got it.
Andrew: So, I hope I sound much better now.
Ryan: You’re on point now. I thought you had something fancy back in the office.
Andrew: The thing about the Macs that really frustrates me is they don’t recognize my external mics after reboots. Same thing for you?
Andrew: So, I have to unplug and re-plug in.
Ryan: Yeah. There’s an idea for someone out there. Some sort of notification when it does not recognize your mic but you have one plugged in. Who wouldn’t pay $1 for that?
Andrew: I would pay $100 for that.
Ryan: I know.
Andrew: Just an alert. Just send me some message. So then you created the plugin. You gave it to your friends, you said.
Andrew: You decided you wanted to charge.
Ryan: No. Not yet.
Andrew: You didn’t?
Ryan: Not yet.
Andrew: You said you charged within 14 days.
Ryan: We did. Day one–okay, so chain of events goes yeah, we gave it to some friends. We put it in the Chrome store because that’s how we had to distribute it to them. Next thing we knew, random people were finding it because they were searching for it. We had no idea that we were going to actually turn this into a business. It was just like, “Build something for me because I need it to figure out what we’re going to do next and let’s have that as our plan.”
So, someone found it. They posted it to Product Hunt way back. I know Hoover has been on before. But we were trending on Product Hunt back in 2014, April, 2014, really early for them. There was a blogger on there. I don’t know if she was the greatest or the worst thing that’s happened to us yet. I think it’s the former. I think it was a benefit.
But she did a blog post. I think it was titled like, “Sneaky Tool Helps You Find Email Addresses on LinkedIn,” and then called LinkedIn for a comment and then LinkedIn replied to that and said, “We’re sending them a cease and desist.” They did. So, we got that on day one of like having this thing in the world.
Andrew: Why did it focus on LinkedIn? I guess you did. Your homepage at the time had a LinkedIn page with the CEO of LinkedIn on it, I think.
Andrew: You were showing this could unlock all the email addresses on LinkedIn. That’s why LinkedIn was so connected and they were so pissed.
Ryan: I get it. Yeah.
Andrew: I remember when it was on Product Hunt. Product Hunt was so in love with this tool. Then apart form Product Hunt in private conversations, people would tell me, “There’s this tool that can actually get email addresses” and they would tell me all about how it worked, largely because I’m in the business of finding people via email. I thought what you were doing was actually hacking into LinkedIn somehow and getting it.
Ryan: Yeah. A great choice of a name too, hindsight.
Andrew: Right, SellHack is a challenge.
Ryan: But you don’t forget it. It works. But yeah, fish where the fish are. I don’t go out and fish in my backyard, right? So, it was positioned around LinkedIn. That’s where people were–
Andrew: That’s where people were prospecting largely and you could show them how it worked.
Andrew: And then LinkedIn sent you a cease and desist. Did you cease and desist because you got the letter?
Ryan: We did. I don’t know what details I could go into. I love LinkedIn. I think it’s awesome. I use it every day. All of our clients do. We got compliant with them. I guess we didn’t know whether or not we were doing anything wrong, but we learned what we needed to do and we made that change.
We took LinkedIn out of our logo and verbiage on the site and screenshots in that and the next thing that happened is we woke up the next day and we had 10,000 signups. We literally had 10,000 signups. It was just this like nervous energy of like, “Oh my god, this place is burning down both positively and negatively.”
But we got correct. We got our game straight with LinkedIn, who we’re not affiliated with LinkedIn. I have to say that. The race was on to get a complaint version of what we had live and we said, “Look, we’ve got 10,000 people here. We don’t have the infrastructure to support them. So, let’s make it so that–we created a waiting list and if you wanted early access to it, you had to pay. You had to get a monthly subscription. That’s how we decided to start to charge.
Andrew: That’s when you decided to start to charge.
Ryan: So, we started looking at who else was doing something like this or what are people paying for it and how long does it take to do it manually and did a punch of calculations and basically we landed on the same pricing that we have today, more or less.
Andrew: Which was?
Ryan: $9 a month for 50 emails, $99 for 500 or $29 for 150, $99 for 500, $249 for 1,500 emails per month. People just came in and started doing it. Then we were two people then. We’re five people now. We built our business on the back of using technology to automate our growth. So, we used a site like Intercom–Intercom was like the first place we went because just setting up your drips. You have someone sign up.
So, I’m going to step back. Huge golfer. I went to the US Open last weekend. The architect of Oakmont designed the course around–so, he built the course and then anytime someone would come in from playing it and did well, he would go follow them the next time they played. He would constantly make–he would put sand traps where they would miss.
Ryan: So, we built this thing. Everyone listens to feedback, but being diligent on how you listen to it and then interpret it and then actually act on it, we would listen to all the praises and complaints that people would have with it. That’s what led our product development.
Andrew: Give me an example. You know I love specifics.
Ryan: Someone would come in and say, “I just went to a conference. I have a list of conference attendees without contact information. The conference was going to charge me $10,000 for it, but for sponsoring the booth I go the 2,000 attendees, their names and companies. Can you guys get emails?” We said, “All right. We have to create a way to ingest a file and then try to find the email addresses form a file as opposed to on the front end someone inputting it.” So, we built that. To date, that’s been a huge driver of revenue for us.
Andrew: I see. What’s another one?
Ryan: We would have another one is using Intercom, we would look at–so, the first email that you found, the same message is in place. After you find your first email, you’ll get an automated email from us that says if someone found you, the email would say, “Find more prospects from Mixergy.” They open it because they just found a prospect from Mixergy and then that’s how we’re able to take them through the onboarding process. We introduce them to new things.
Andrew: So, if they found me at Mixergy, you want to encourage them to use the software again. So, you say, “Do you want to find more people at Mixergy?” That you’ve found brings them back into the software.
Ryan: Brings them back in.
Andrew: As opposed to just saying, “You’ve found one person. Do you want to find other people?” which is just too open-ended.
Andrew: I see that. How many developers do you have?
Ryan: Two right now.
Andrew: Two developers?
Ryan: And a designer and then two sales.
Andrew: And your cofounder, what’s their specialty?
Ryan: Full stack dev.
Andrew: Got it. I see. How’d you partner up with your cofounder?
Ryan: Randomly. Our wives were friends from college. We were whiskey buddies at weddings. Have a cocktail, “What do you do?” “Internet stuff.”
Ryan: I went and saw his first child when I was in town one day and needed a developer to build that first thing we were working on. Long story short, that’s how we found him. We have that great personal bond that like nothing could happen between us because our wives are in the middle of it.
Ryan: The friendship and the respect back and forth just grows. We see each other grow and just get excited at each other’s skill sets getting razor sharp.
Andrew: So, the original customers came to you because people discovered you in the Chrome store. Then it was from Product Hunt. Then after that it was that article that was written about you. Then you actually had enough customers to turn this thing into a business.
You used Intercom, a software that you loved so much and you were in with me before the interview started to see if you can actually express your love for them even though they’re not a sponsor. I said yeah, absolutely. I know people who use Intercom absolutely love it. They’re good for things like marketing automation, which is what you described earlier.
They’re also good for just interacting with your customers. If I’m on your site and you want to chat with me, you can tell that I’m on your site and you can actually send me a message in real time. Cool software. I’ve interviewed the founder and I think the only problem they have is that it’s hard to express how amazing it is without actually showing it to somebody.
So then you now have this group of customers that you’re taking care of. How did you find the next batch of customers?
Ryan: So, we would look at–we built an internal tool that would basically loop through our current customer set and those who subscribe. What’s interesting is that a lot of folks would sign up with their Gmail or Yahoo because they’re a little bit nervous about like, “All right, this sneaky tool,” which is how it was originally branded, but it solved a problem that people had.
Andrew: I see. So, they’re thinking, “Hey, maybe you’re going to use their email address and give it to someone else, so they’re going to give you a disposable or less strong email address.”
Ryan: Right. So then we went in and started–we built some internal tools to basically deduce if AndrewLikesToTalkInAMicrophone@Gmail.com is actually you, I can find out that’s you. So, I know that the email address you signed up with, even though it wasn’t Andrew@Mixergy, for example, I know that it’s you. We built this thing. It’s automated and it would send us daily reports.
So, we’d be able to go through–and we focused on people who were paying us because if you’re signed up and you have a free account, like that’s awesome. We love having you. But I need to focus my limited time on people who are similar to people who pay, right? So, I would look at profiles of folks and I’d find what’s their job title, where do they work? What’s the company size? What’s the industry? Then I would use our own tech to go out and find more people like them.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: So, the email to them is we work with companies like X, Y and Z who you know about to do this or that and it resonated.
Andrew: Dude, Ryan, you’d do this all manually, send individual emails to people like that?
Ryan: Well, yeah. We started building technology to help to automate.
Andrew: But at first it was, “Hey, if Andrew is a podcaster who does interviews who’s using our tool and he’s a customer of ours, then let’s see if we can find other interviewing podcasters,” and then Ryan would personally email them, find the list and then email them?
Ryan: Yeah. I would build a list using our tech and then personally email them.
Andrew: Personally email them. Then you had to create an automated tool that would figure out what industry your customers are in, who else is in the same industry and then automatically email them.
Ryan: We would figure out what are the characteristics–out of the first hundred paying customers. Let’s just use round numbers. I would say there were probably 50 unique segments. Two people from each segment, roughly. So, we would have a CEO, internet industry, company size 1 to 10, located in San Francisco or in the US for example, but if I go and run that search on a site liked LinkedIn, there are 8,000 people that come back in that search. So, I can at least make the assumption that if this guy or gal is paying us money for what we’re doing, then other people like them probably have the same problem.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: So make those inferences and then you make your bets and then you start to build your list from that and then start to reach out.
Andrew: And it’s your software that’s doing all this.
Ryan: It’s still our internal software that does this research report. But once we figured out what the characteristics were, then you would go and search on a site to get the 8,000 results and then you would use SellHack to find their contact info and then start sending your emails.
Andrew: Okay. Let me do a second sponsor and that is for a company called HostGator. My bet is that you actually have heard of HostGator. They’ve been around for so long. But my audience loves it when I ask my guest if they had nothing but a HostGator account and had to start a business from scratch, what would it be? Is there something? If you had nothing but a hosting account so you could host a website, host a web business…
Ryan: Yeah. Actually, I have a side business and project.
Andrew: What is it?
Ryan: I’m on the hustle, man. I’m always moving. So, I do drone videos of golf courses.
Ryan: I earn free golf. I love to golf. I don’t like to spend money on golf. So, I earn free golf by doing drone videos of golf courses.
Andrew: And that’s your business.
Ryan: Straight up–it was a side project that I started two years ago when we weren’t sure about the success of SellHack.
Andrew: Is there money in that?
Ryan: DroneBirdie.com is my site, built on WordPress. It’s slapped together. I don’t use HostGator necessarily, but yes, I put it up in a day.
Andrew: But there’s no money in that, is there?
Ryan: There’s no money, but there’s–I don’t make money off of it, but I earn free golf.
Andrew: That’s such a great idea. There’s someone who I work with at Mixergy who wanted to get a drone. So he contacted this hotel that he was going to go stay in and he said, “I can shoot aerial photography of your hotel if you pay this much money,” and the money was actually the price of a drone. So that’s how he got a drone. I think that there are a lot of businesses right now that could use aerial footage, really well shot stuff that would pay for it.
What a great idea for a business–just get a freaking drone, get a website up and call it like DroneVideo.com and start calling up hotels and maybe at first it’s just, “I’ll shoot an aerial video of your hotel complete with the beach right outside. You can post it on your site or you can put it on social media. All you have you do is just fly me in and I’ll record it for you guys.”
Ryan: Right. “I’m bringing the family there in three weeks, whatever you think is fair…”
Andrew: And then start charging and then start hiring people to go out to hotels to shoot video of them or maybe you do this for other businesses. Maybe it’s for… I was just at–there’s some water park here near San Francisco. Imagine doing it for water parks. Imagine doing it for all the Six Flags. Boom. What a great idea. Easy to do. Easy to put together. I love that idea.
So, if you’re listening to me and you want to use that idea, feel free to take it, anything except for golf courses. All you have to do is go to HostGator, sign up and they’re actually going to give you a huge, huge discount on their already low hosting package. I’m looking at their website right now. Here’s the special URL, HostGator.com/Mixergy.
They’re going to have hosting packages starting as low as $4.87. The idea we came up with could easily be hosted on WordPress and HostGator will give you one-click install for WordPress. But if you want any other platform, you can install it on HostGator too.
They’ll give you all the tools you need from the templates you can get–frankly, they say they’re going to give you 4,500 website templates, but frankly you can get a good template anywhere online or you can pay a couple of bucks to–what’s the name of that company? ThemeForest–and get a nice theme from them.
But HostGator is going to give you good tech support, good hosting, lots of unmetered disk space, unmetered bandwidth. Really, sign up for them and if you’re not happy within 45 days, you’ll get your money back. Go to HostGator.com/Mixergy.
So, Ryan, now you’ve got this business. You’re doing a lot of it yourself. You have no outside money though. Has that been an issue?
Ryan: Yes and no. Our last business–I’ve raised money before. I don’t know who enjoys it other than–I think the only folks who enjoy raising money don’t have a business to fall back on. So, they plow their energy and attention into making these beautiful decks. We raised money because that’s what we thought we should have done when we first started the company.
I think the whole completely new lens with SellHack in that was we don’t want to raise money unless we know exactly where we’re going to plow it into and where we’re going to invest it, right? So, rather than having this idea of I’m going to build a company and then raise some money and then figure it out.
We wanted to build a company, get to revenues and get profitable and only raise money to invest in places that we’re going to have a return on investment, right? Two years into it, you first start out and it’s like we’d gone two years basically making nothing, especially as the founder of the last company, if someone needed to get paid, I’m the one who’s not getting paid. I got paid less often than anyone else. That’s my role.
But once we started to make some money, it was like okay, like squirrels before the winter comes, paying off some credit cards, building up that emergency fund. Then more money came in, a lot more money. It got really good and it was like okay, now we need–I’ve been sitting in the same ratty chair for two years. I need a good chair. I need a monitor. We’d started taking care of ourselves and our families and I didn’t want to have to sit in a meeting where I had to ask someone permission to write myself a bigger check next month. I just didn’t want to do it. That control, where we were was important to us to have that control.
We didn’t have the strategic vision for the company that helped us become a strategic vision for a company that helped us to understand, hey, we need to hire two more developers, three more sales people, one operations, two account managers, which we firmly believe that that investment in your million dollars that you’re going to invest in this business is going to generate this multiple on returns.
Andrew: I see. And unless you know exactly where the money is going and how you’re going to make it back, you just aren’t ready to spend that money.
Ryan: I wasn’t comfortable telling–it’s not telling the story. You tell a story when you fundraise. I wasn’t comfortable spending the time on that plan and the experiments that we had done had not yielded sound enough results to make us confident in that plan.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: So, we just chose to not fundraise and not raise money.
Andrew: And this is completely different form your previous company, where you didn’t know what it was going to be. You said before you had to pivot several times with that company and you still felt comfortable raising money. I think what I’m sensing is you didn’t enjoy that life where it’s someone else’s money, you have to be accountable to someone else, you prefer to make money, have a profitable business and just run it logically.
Ryan: Yes. One qualification on that statement–the worst part about having someone else’s money is the personal obligation that you feel to them.
Ryan: It’s not just like, “Hey, you wrote a check and it didn’t work. Sorry. I felt sick.
Andrew: You did?
Ryan: Yeah. Someone wrote a $50,000 check. But it was like a person took $50,000 of their money–granted, they wouldn’t do it if they weren’t–
Andrew: Didn’t have it.
Ryan: If they didn’t have it or didn’t understand the risk, but at the same time, like I don’t want to be the dog in your portfolio.
Ryan: I want to be the star. I feel sick that $50,000 of your money–it’s not from an institution or a fund. These are people.
Andrew: What about this–you also had advice. You had someone who could help you exit the company when it was time to exit. Here you don’t have that kind of support. There’s no one that has except for your cofounder and your wives, there’s no one who has a vested interest in your success in the same way. There’s no one who can come up with an idea to help rescue you if you needed them, right?
Ryan: You’re saying that’s a problem for us?
Andrew: Yeah. Do you ever miss that? Do you ever feel like you’re out there alone now?
Ryan: Yes, but the freedom that comes with that–autonomy has been something that I’ve always thrived on. I think some folks work better in groups and some folks work better by themselves. I don’t know which one I prefer yet. But the autonomy is–the autonomy helps to drive to keep the focus. I don’t think everyone can work from home.
But I think the biggest motivation for me other than the responsibility I feel to our customers and to my partner who have vested interest, financial interest in the business, it’s I go downstairs at–I’m going to go downstairs as soon as we hang up here and I’m going to hug my kids if they’re awake and I’m going to sit with them and maybe read a book and talk to them. Being able to do that is just–it’s so special. So, if I make the decision to go and raise money to do that well, if someone were to invest in our business, like that changes.
Andrew: It does change it. I see.
Ryan: I’m going to get an office and we’ll be hiring people. I’ll do that. I haven’t been ready for the in the last two years. With all the health things and that and it puts it into perspective.
Andrew: Let me ask you about the health things. For a lot of people, if they have something on their mind outside of work, it’s very hard for them to concentrate on work. I feel like you’ve had this for pretty much the life of the company and you’ve been able to focus on the company. What can you teach us? What have you done that we can use when we have a much smaller issue?
Ryan: Right. For me it was one of the only things that kept my mind off of that.
Andrew: I see. Because you had SellHack, you could focus on business and not think about what if and what if and what if.
Andrew: I see.
Ryan: And then it got scary to a point. My last surgery was a couple months ago. I remember the first night I woke up. Everywhere I went was with my computer. I asked the nurse, “Can you bring my computer in?” It was like 2:00 in the morning, IVs everywhere. I need my computer. I’ve had hundreds of emails.
No one knew, but these were people who were investing in us to assist with their business and yeah, that got me back to–I asked the doctor, “What’s the soonest anyone’s ever left the hospital after this last surgery?” He’s like, “Most people it’s a couple weeks.” He’s like, “The soonest we’ve seen is three days.” I said, “I’m going to be out of here in three days.” I have things to get back to. Getting back to that routine again was like–you don’t focus on the bad things happening. You focus on getting stuff done.
Andrew: I feel like it’s also because the business SellHack took off. If it was struggling the way that Sociagram was, that you might actually not want to go back to work, that it’s another headache, right?
Andrew: I know that when things flow for me, I’m much more excited to go in and look at them and much more curious about how I can grow. I get it. Speaking of growth. I’m looking at SimilarWeb. That’s one of my favorite tools as anyone who’s listened will tell you.
As I see here, it looks like you’re getting a lot of traffic from Yesware. I know Yesware because some people in my audience use it because when they send me email, I click a link and I can tell that Yesware is keeping track of the fact that I just clicked it. I’m wondering why are you getting so much traffic form Yesware. What’s your connection to them?
Ryan: They have–they did a blog post on best ways to build prospect lists and find emails. For SEO purposes, they have authority. When folks are searching for this, that’s one of the top things that pop up and then we get referred from them.
Andrew: I see. So, it’s just that they did a blog post.
Andrew: I’ve seen a couple of other blog posts written about you. Do you guys do anything to get those posts written about you?
Ryan: A lot of these folks work with us, have worked with us, use our technology.
Andrew: I see. So, Business Insider, they’ve used you guys and that’s why they’ve written about you?
Ryan: I don’t know when they last wrote about us. Some of the stuff comes in we get researched, we come up when a journalist is researching for a story.
Andrew: But it’s not you actively looking for stories. That’s not part of your day.
Ryan: No. I do not make time for that.
Ryan: So, we got connected through a referral.
Andrew: John Corcoran. Good friend of mine.
Ryan: Good man. You do good thing and you do right by people and they’re like, “Hey, you should…” That’s been solid for us.
Andrew: It looks like you guys also do some SEO and you also do some paid search, right?
Ryan: A bit, yeah, here and there.
Andrew: I looked to see what social traffic you’re getting. It looks like you’re doing something with LinkedIn. What are you doing with LinkedIn that’s sending you so much traffic? Are you doing anything?
Ryan: No, not in particular.
Andrew: Are you guying ads on LinkedIn?
Ryan: We have in the past.
Ryan: A lot of it is people talk about us a lot there. It comes up and we get mentioned in groups. Group traffic has been solid. So, we do get a lot of referrals coming from there.
Andrew: I see. But at this point, you’re not buying ads from them. That’s not working for you?
Ryan: Not at the moment. No. The whole paid game, you really need to be on point when you’re doing that because you can lose a lot of money really quickly. So, one of the benefits of raising money and having someone focus on that. But it’s like investing in the market if you’re not buying for the long-term and you’re trying to get in on an earnings move and you don’t follow it or you don’t have triggers setup that are going to sell, a stop loss, it can get out of control. That’s what I felt about some paid ads.
So, we’ve just been more pragmatic in terms of how we do it. A lot of retargeting. So, rather than just blanket, “Here’s SellHack, do this or that,” we’ll do really targeted ads to folks based on what they did or who they are or similarities to other profiles of our paying customers.
Andrew: Makes sense. All right. The website is, of course, SellHack. As soon as you go there, you’re probably going to want to go directly into the Chrome store to get your plugin. I’ve got the plugin here on my computer. Can you hear me okay?
Ryan: Loud and clear.
Andrew: Good. I thought maybe we lost the connection again. It looks like your workaround for LinkedIn as far as I can tell is that you don’t show the data on the LinkedIn profile. You show I within the plugins button, right?
Ryan: Correct. We don’t scrape it.
Andrew: You’re not scraping data from their site.
Ryan: The emails are not coming from behind a logged in view or someone’s contact.
Andrew: Which frankly I think is BS. I think there’s nothing wrong with you scraping the data on someone’s computer. If I’m on the LinkedIn page, your plugin should just grab the name of the person who I’m looking at. There’s nothing wrong with that. LinkedIn is just using their muscle to scare you are from it. There’s nothing wrong with you just saying, “I’m going to grab the data and put it in. As it works right now, the user has to copy the person’s name and put it into the plugin, right?”
Ryan: Right. But the user copying, like highlighting and copying, you could infer that they’re doing the same thing, right?
Andrew: What do you mean?
Ryan: If I go to your LinkedIn profile and highlight your name, if I paste that into an Excel document, did I just scrape that data from LinkedIn?
Andrew: Right. So, the user is scraping the data as opposed to the plugin.
Ryan: Right. I can go and type your name into a Google search and your LinkedIn profile is going to pop up in there. The data that we use is in the public domain. We had our run in with them in the past. We got compliant.
Andrew: You got compliant, but frankly from what I see, they just bullied you because they’re bigger because they knew they could scare you away because you don’t have the money to deal with their lawyers because you could just find a workaround. I think that the old way, where I’m just on a LinkedIn profile and the email address shows up when I want it to just was totally fine. They just want to use their muscle. That’s my opinion.
Ryan: Appreciate the vote of confidence.
Andrew: So now what users have to do is go to the LinkedIn page, copy the name of the person, copy the name of the business into your plugin and then hit run search and it will find their email address. LinkedIn won temporarily.
Ryan: I would say for folks who are listening, if anything about what I said here today and part of this discussion resonated from personal health, the family startup, whatever, feel free to reach out, drop me a note to Ryan@SellHack. I’m happy to try to find some time to chat. If you’re interested and think this could work for your business, drop a note to Ryan@SellHack, we’ll get something setup.
Andrew: I appreciate you feeling comfortable talking about not just your business here–and I know you’re at a stage where you don’t want to share too much and I appreciate you letting me push you a little bit to be open, but also about your cancer. You’ve never talked about that publicly, right?
Andrew: Well, thanks for coming on here and doing it. Feel free to scrape my site if you want. I don’t think you’re going to be able to get anything that people wouldn’t be able to get with a simple copy and paste.
Anyone who wants to check out my two sponsors for today–I would love it you not only checked out the Converted conference, but also came and saw me in person. I think I’m going to give a good presentation and I also think that meeting in person is going to be really cool, really helpful for both of us. So, here’s the URL that’s going to give you a big discount. Go to Leadpage.net/Mixergy. You’ll get to see this conference and hopefully buy a ticket.
Second, my sponsor is HostGator. You know that we just gave you a great idea for what to start, but frankly, if you already have a business and you hate your hosting company, you should switch to HostGator. Here’s a great link for a discount. It’s HostGator.com/Mixergy.
Thank you all for listening. Ryan, thanks for being here.
Ryan: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks, everyone.