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 I’m not going to pretend that I’m impartial in this interview. I really love today’s guest. I’ve known him for a long time because he’s a part of the Mixergy community. I remember when he was thinking through the idea for today’s startup. And I remember that like it’s not an MVP, it’s like a fully working version that was built in the most like Zapier-like way. We’ll talk about that.
If you’re at all thinking about creating a software company and you say, “I don’t think I should code yet. I don’t know how to code. Should I? How much time should I invest?” wait until you hear how simply and effectively he built this thing. It wasn’t like a simple thing that had no substance. It was built on a bunch of software connections. I love it. I love how much he’s grown his company up. And I just like him as a person. I got to know him here when we flew him out to San Francisco and the two of us spent the day in Napa just talking through stuff.
All right. I talked a lot about him, but I haven’t yet introduced who he is. He’s a bootstrapper, his name is Ovi Negrean. Did I pronounce it right?
Ovi: Yeah, that’s good.
Andrew: No. How do you say it?
Ovi: Ovi Negrean.
Andrew: Ovi Negrean. He is the founder of a company called SocialBee. You can find him at socialbee.io. Here’s what my team wrote down for it. It says, “It offers social media management tools, training and . . . social media management tools and training. Here’s what it does. First of all, it puts some of your social media posts on like autopilot, just have it be automated. If I say that, you start to think of other competing software and you think, “Oh, maybe this is the same.” I could tell you how it’s a shade different, how it’s a little bit different there, but you’re not going to pay attention.
So instead, I’ll say, once it posts those messages out, it then helps you get people to start following you based on the posts that you put out. And then once they follow you, it automatically sends these like customized messages to them that don’t look like they’re the same because they’re not the same as what everyone else gets. And as a result of sending these customized messages to them, you can often bring them back to your website and get them to subscribe to your list and/or I should say, even buy. And so that little bit of automation is what many companies use, but don’t want to talk about the fact that they’re using them.
And I’ve watched SocialBee grow and I’m looking forward to finding out the details behind the scenes of how he did it. If you’re at all a bootstrapper or a hustler or somebody who wants to build a company while you’re working somewhere else, this is the interview for you. And the companies that are making this interview possible are the website that will host . . . Excuse me. The company that will host your website right, it’s called HostGator. And a company that will do your email marketing really well and so much more than email marketing. It’s called ActiveCampaign. Ovi, good to have you here.
Ovi: Good to be here.
Andrew: You’re a longtime Mixergy listener, so you know I’m going to ask you, where’s your revenue? How much? How are we doing with this business?
Ovi: Yeah. So I’m definitely a longtime Mixergy listener, so I’m really happy to be here. We are not disclosing the full revenue at this moment, but I can say that we’re at six figures now and we’re looking forward to hit that seven figures thresh mark.
Andrew: So you’re saying over 100,000 is all you’re going to say, but you’re not going to give me any more.
Ovi: At this moment, yes.
Andrew: Okay, good. I told you before the interview started, I’m not going to push you to give me more details. The company is doing well. How many people on the team?
Ovi: We’ve grown quite a lot. Now we’re 22 people.
Andrew: How do you get 22 people on the team when you’re still at a place where you’re getting closer and closer to the million dollar mark, but not there yet? Seventeen is a lot.
Ovi: Yeah. So actually, 17 was I think the last time when we talked, since then we grow to 22.
Andrew: Right, right.
Ovi: And we do have . . . We are not profitable so we are investing a bit more than what we’re making. But we also managed to find a good talent at a good price. And yeah, we managed to do it . . .
Andrew: Because you’re not getting them here in the U.S.
Andrew: You were born in Romania. Does that connection give you any access to more talent at a lower price than we do in the U.S.?
Ovi: Yes. So I’m originally from Romania. Currently, I’m in Germany, but the company is also back in Romania, so indeed, the prices there are definitely better than the ones in the Valley and we can find really good talent at a good price. So it’s one of the reasons why we can afford to offer all of these tools and services as well and to hire 22 people and counting.
Andrew: Hey, you know what? I invested in a company called Manychat for chatbot marketing. And the founder is from Russia. And he’s got a team of people in Russia that when he was just getting started and he couldn’t raise much money, he was going really far with a little bit of money that he got because he had access to them because he could speak their language. I even see him now on Facebook, in Russian, talking about how his business is going and I bet and every once in a while, I’d say actually maybe multiple times a month saying, “And I’m hiring, by the way.” So I get how that kind of connection is like a super power. You’ve kind of been in an entrepreneurship for a while, though. Tell me about that first product that you created, that CRM. Who was it for and how did it do?
Ovi: Well, that was in my early university years. And it was a CRM for dental practices. It was for the Romanian market, and I think I might have been a bit too early with that one. Dentists were not really willing to pay for it. I mean, some of them were but not enough to turn into a big business. But it was a definitely a very good entrepreneurship part and a learning curve for me as well.
Andrew: What happened to it?
Ovi: It just ended drifting off. I used the learning basically to turn that then into a good job where basically I could learn on other people’s dime some more, and then I went into corporate for a while, but then entrepreneurship pulled me back in.
Andrew: What did you learn by working at a big company?
Ovi: Well, quite a lot. You learn how to work in teams, you learn how to think also about budgets, how to manage people, you learn how to interact with customers, you learn how to set goals, how to even set up structures and so on. So I definitely recommend especially to somebody who’s starting out to first go into a company where they can learn and then maybe go into entrepreneurship a bit later on but with more knowledge. But don’t wait too long because otherwise, you might feel that very comfy position and then you might say, “Okay. I’m going to wait a bit more and then . . . ”
Andrew: What’s the one thing . . . Yeah, it is kind of . . . It can be anyway a trap. What’s the one thing that was so good that was hard for you to give up?
Ovi: It’s said that monthly salary is one of the things that keep a lot of people behind. I think that was definitely a part which I consider a lot when giving up, but it’s mostly about the security and the whole structure which comes with a larger company.
Andrew: I know what you mean. I remember when I finally as . . . in my first company, finally gave myself a salary, a consistent salary, not just whenever we have profit and I need a little bit of money, I’ll take it, but a consistent salary. It just made every other decisions so much more reasonable. Like, “Do I go out for dinner or do I get this salad? Well, here’s a percentage of my take-home pay that that eats.” And that little bit of clarity goes a long way. I get that. All right. And so when you and I met you were running a product called Nugget. What was Nugget?
Ovi: Yeah. So Nugget was an app which brought quotes from business and personal development books. And that came about because of my love for reading business books and because I was doing a lot of highlighting on my Kindle, but then never had the time to go back and read those highlights. And together with some colleagues from my previous company, actually, we said that, “Okay. We should give it a try and create that mobile app.”
And a funny story, actually, that product also started as an MVP where the MVP was just a SlideShare presentation with those initial quotes on them and an opt-in place for people to write an email address to download the more such quotes. And then we said that if we will see . . . I don’t know how many people that will actually access it, then we will turn it into an app, which we did, and then we turned that into an app and we started working on that fulltime eventually.
Andrew: Yeah. The idea was, you know what, people don’t want to read whole books or they’re not sure if they should read a specific book. But even giving like a summary of a book might be too much engagement when you’re not sure you’re into it. If the book could be summed up in simple quotes, each one representing a bigger concept, someone could digest it, maybe get enough out of it to move on or to decide to buy the book. I get that. And I actually still have the app, but I guess the backend doesn’t work, right? Like, if I . . .
Andrew: It is. But if I click it, it doesn’t bring it up. And they were really good quotes and I could understand the concepts based on that. You had some time to think about why this business didn’t work out. And I’ve got some notes here on your analysis. Can you talk about that? I think there’s a lot to be gotten from it. Why didn’t it work out?
Ovi: I think it all boils down to the fact that it was a vitamin and not a painkiller. And even from when we started, we knew that in order to make that work, we’d have to get to a big amount of people using it because the plan was to make money out of affiliates, maybe also create a premium subscription, but then again, it wasn’t enough content for people to be willing to pay for it. It was just by size, like an entrée. And people started using it but they sometimes forgot about it, and then it just drifted off on the screen of a mobile phone. And I think apps in general have this problem. It’s really hard to get people to install them, but then funny part is that even to, once it’s installed, it’s hard to get people to open them up for the first time, and then the second is even more hard and so on. So it was basically a vitamin, not the painkiller. That’s why I think we stopped working on it eventually.
Andrew: I do find that there’s another . . . I forget the name of the company that I interviewed whose founder does summaries via app. And for some reason, he’s doing well. Is it also that he was charging and get . . . What do you think is the difference?
Ovi: Yeah. So I think you’re talking about Blinklist.
Andrew: Yeah. I see him all the time. I hear him all the time in the podcast that I listened to. Yeah, there he is. I found the company, Sebastian Klein.
Ovi: Exactly. So Blinklist is actually also a customer of SocialBee. So they’re using our tool as well and we actually like them. I think what they did well is that they went a bit further. It wasn’t just like small bite-sized. It was a bit more in-depth content, things that take 15 minutes to read, so you get a clear understanding of what that book is about. And they also were properly funded and then they could go and really push the app forward. But I think the size was the right size for them. It wasn’t too big, too small. They also have audio summaries, so it helped them out.
Andrew: Oh, I didn’t realize they raised $9 million. I don’t think when I talked to him back in his Mixergy interview he was at that point. And I see that . . . You know what? So my friend Shane Mac was really proud that he has a Blinklist subscription. And I asked him to pull it up and show me how he used it. And I think for him the big thing is he sees that other people are getting smarter by referring to books. He knows that he should be reading books but he’s running this company and it’s just sucking up every minute of his time. And so for him, he’s thinking, “This is a way for me to get past the pain of not knowing why these books are so important, not knowing . . . Like, not knowing the concepts that people are talking about and not looking like a fool.” And so he signs up, he listens to it, he reads it.
Got it. All right. So that’s the big pain and maybe the quotes weren’t solving that pain. They were just a nice way of understanding the book. All right. Is it helpful, by the way, to look back and just reflect on it or is it too painful and just like, “Damn it, Andrew. Why are you sucking in something from a painful memory of mine?”
Ovi: No, it’s not because actually without starting to work on Nugget we would have not got to SocialBee. We pivoted from Nugget to SocialBee because we were using these techniques and tools basically to help grow Nugget. In the end of the day Nugget was not a viable business but we did manage to get people to download it and to use it and some of that was done through content, through social media, through posting, through engaging with the audience where basically we were using all sorts of tools which were standalone, didn’t actually talk between themselves when they should have, maybe some were a bit outdated. And slowly, we started to build our own internal tool kit to replace those tools to make them work better.
Andrew: You’re saying social media was effective for you, but you were using all these collection of tools that weren’t really doing what you needed.
Ovi: Exactly. So we had to use multiple tools. It was also expensive because of using multiple tools, they didn’t do things exactly as we wanted, but then basically that’s how we got to start SocialBee.
Andrew: What were you doing that worked for your business but just used too many tools and the tools weren’t working well enough? Give me an example of something that got you an actual user.
Ovi: Yeah. So what we are doing at Nugget is that besides these quotes, we were actually creating some summaries of the books. And because of that, we had a lot of evergreen content, so content which is relevant today it will be a few months or even years from now. And then we had to share that content across social media, which we did, and especially Twitter was very helpful for us in the beginning. And besides sharing that content, we then also started following people that were relevant on social media.
So for example, if we just created a book summary of James Altucher book, then we started following his followers. And when they checked out our profile, they saw that maybe we just tweeted a quote from one of his books, maybe summary as well, and then they followed us back. And then we also built some internal tools to automatically mentioned them once they did follow us back so we can then turn those just social media followers into users of the app.
Andrew: That’s clever. And do you remember one of the tools that you were using, or do you want to mention them because you’re about to say that they weren’t good enough?
Ovi: Yeah, sure. I’m okay with mentioning them. So on the content posting side, we were using MeetEdgar, which is basically one of the tools that people compare us to when it comes to the content posting side because of the category-based posting system and because of the evergreen posting system. But we found that . . . First of all, it was also a bit expensive for a startup or for somebody who’s just starting out, but then it also looked and felt a bit outdated.
And then for the growing part, we were also using Crowdfire which they recently shut down those features. For the engage part, we didn’t actually find something that worked as we wanted to, so we had to build that on our own. And then also for the finding and generation of the content, we didn’t find something that really worthwhile, so we had to build some things for ourselves as well.
Andrew: Okay. And then it was working for you and you said, “Hey, you know what? Maybe this is the thing that we offer as a service.” Am I right? Or is this a software? Which one was it?
Ovi: Exactly. So first, we went into this by thinking that we will build the software. We were not thinking of services are young because that’s the mirage, that’s the thing that we keep hearing the businesses in software and not in services. And I tend to disagree to some extent to that with that. But because of different circumstances, we also had to add a service component on top of our software. So that’s how we got to having also these concierge services that we’re offering.
Andrew: Yeah. The concierge is a big one. I’m seeing that a few companies are using concierge as a way of getting people in the door as getting them the results that they’re looking for. And frankly, for many people, it’s just, “I want the result. I don’t want to even figure out your software.” I saw as you started at it. But the first thing that you did was you created software that wasn’t customized at all. It was you using. I think it was Google Spreadsheets and Zapier and a couple of forums or something, that type of thing. Right?
Ovi: Exactly. So the first part, when we first started out, it was built on Google Spreadsheets with very complex formulas. That’s where the content was stored. We could already in those spreadsheets say to which category each post belongs to, how often you want to share from each category, and so on. And then actually, when we first started out, the post themselves were going to Buffer who is basically to some extent another competitor of ours, but also a partner of ours to some other extent. So we really piggybacked on a lot of things.
Andrew: You know what? I want to get into the details of it. I was going to ask for more detail. What I’m curious about is, what was the result that somebody would get from this? And then behind the scenes, walk me through this like domino effect of this thing would happen to trigger this thing on this other software which will trigger that. Like, walk me through that behind the scenes of how it work?
All right. First, I’m going to talk about a sponsor called ActiveCampaign. If you’re looking to do email marketing right, one of the things that I like about ActiveCampaign is you could set up different triggers based on what people do. So if they click a link on your site over and over that represents a certain type of person, tag them.
For example, the example that I gave way too often is, since I’m a runner I know that runners who do long distance and sprinters are completely different runners. If you have a business that sells products, clothes, or shoes to the same people, they don’t want to buy the same exact thing and they definitely don’t want to consider themselves the same. For example, both wear running shorts that are way too short. I know I show way too much of my thigh when I go running. But as a long distance runner I like to have a couple of pockets in my pants so that I could put in my phone for long distance security, so I could put in those little gels, so that I could eat something or food, so I could eat something along the way. Right?
So if I’m on someone’s website who’s selling running clothes and I keep clicking on the clothes for long distance runners, they should be tagging me. And then the email should not say, “Hey, here’s lightweight material that doesn’t even have any pockets because even pockets weigh you down.” They should be email marketing towards my long distance running in passion that says, “Andrew, we’ve got pants that will carry more of your stuff. Andrew, we’ve got shoes with better souls that will allow you to keep your body safe as you do long 10, 20-mile, 30-mile runs.” That’s the kind of thing that’s important.
In the past, what you would do is when someone would sign up, you’d have a dropdown menu that would say, “Tell me you’re a long-distance runner or not.” And you know what? People don’t want to fill out those forms. And frankly, when someone is just into running they’re not sure yet, “Which one am I?” And sometimes we think we’re one but we’re really the other, like, maybe what we think we are as a long distance runner, but what we really keep clicking on is the shorter runs and how to get more out of a one-mile run.
So what you, if you were using ActiveCampaign and have that business would do is, you just would tag people based on what pages they’re looking. And if you see that they keep clicking on the long-distance runs, just add them to that list. If you see they’re clicking on the short-distance run, add them to that list. This is way too much running of that stuff. I think I’m losing people.
So here’s what I’m going to say. Tag people based on what they’re doing on your site, not just based on what they’re telling you. If you want that to be super easy, all you have to do is go to activecampaign.com/mixergy. When you do, number one, they’re going to let you try their software for free. Number two, if after you try and you say, “Hey, you know what? This Andrew guy is not full of it,” your second month is going to be for free. Number three, concierge service is really big. They do two free one-on-one sessions where they will walk you through how to use their software to get the results that you’re looking for. Like having a coach should be costing you a lot of money, but in reality they’re paying and making sure that you get the results that you need from the software. And then finally, if you’re with some other software and you’re not happy, they will migrate you for free. Activecampaign.com/mixergy.
I got a cold. I hope it’s not like sounding awful in mic. Activecampaign.com/mixergy. I show up even if I have colds. That’s the thing about being an entrepreneur. You can’t just take time off.
Ovi: Yeah. It’s not an easy life, but it’s the one that we choose and it’s also quite rewarding.
Andrew: Yeah. And you know what, though, I don’t think I’d want to take time off. If I did something I cared about, for having a cold I don’t want to take time off. Now, if my kid is sick and is at home, I want to be able to take time off and let the world just work it out and God knows I was lately been able to do that, lately, meaning like the last four or five years since I had my kid.
Okay. Are you in a place where you could do that? Like, if you decided, “I need to take a week off because of some issue. Family member needs me,” can you do that? Are you finally at a place where you can do that with your business?
Ovi: Yes, I can. And we are really big on processes here. So we have a lot of processes and procedures for almost anything at this moment. And even though we started off by me doing one-on-one calls with people who wanted to have demos, and that was the only way for people to get started with social media in the early days. Since then we moved to also the software just being available for free trial, but also my colleagues are now taking care of those one-on-one demos. So I’m quite happy that we have a good team there and I could at this point, just take off and I can do that but it’s something that I could not do for surely the first year even more than that.
Andrew: I got to remember to come back and ask you about those demos. I’ve never seen software that cost so little because you really are, I think, cheaper than many of the companies you talked about. I’ve never seen software that cost so little, highlight the fact that you should book a demo instead of even trial or buy. It’s like a big yellow button that says “Book a demo,” that my eye always goes to. Yellow, of course, because SocialBee is a bee and bee’s favorite color is yellow or at least that’s the color of the bee. So I get that. I get why you’re using it.
Let’s talk about that first version. If I came in when you launch, when was it? 2016? What would I get? And then let’s talk behind the scenes how you guys without code were able to produce it. What would I get first?
Ovi: So basically, you would get already posting on your social profiles, but posting evergreen content, so you would be able to post more often, the same content but more often without any extra effort. And actually, behind the scenes what happened there is that we ask you to fill a small intake form and then we had some Google Sheets where we have basically two sheets, one, which was the customer facing one where they could . . . Once we set up some predefined categories and some almost schedules in those sheets, the customers could just go in and create posts in the Google Sheets about the things that they wanted to share.
Andrew: Wait. So the first thing is, it’s just publishing on Twitter automatically, and then if I were a customer on day one or soon after day one, you would present me with a spreadsheet and say, “Andrew, just fill in the spreadsheet. We’ll take care of it.” I see a smile of pride. And then . . . Okay. That’s what I would have. And then in the spreadsheet was there a column for when it would go out?
Ovi: No, because when you are thinking about the category based posting system, you don’t actually care that much about the exact post at the exact time.
Ovi: But what would happen actually, is that you would have . . . Because as I said first we were integrating with Buffer, so basically you would have in Buffer set up the times when you wanted to post and then in that spreadsheet you just say the orders in which the categories should be used. So for example, you first want to post from the promotional category, then one from your blog post, then another one from your blog posts because you have maybe a lot of blog posts, and the curated content and so on.
Andrew: So users would put a list of their tweets and then category. That’s it. Two columns in a spreadsheet, that’s how they would communicate with your software.
Andrew: Okay. And then behind the scenes, how would you make that post at the right time?
Ovi: And then behind the scenes, we would have another spreadsheet that contains a lot of formulas that imported the content from the first spreadsheet, and it knew to always calculate which should be the next post. And actually, in the first days, that wasn’t even fully automated in the sense that if they had to be 10 posts going out per day, I had to go each day in and pull down 10 more rows. So 10 more rows are being populated with those formulas, and then each time when a new row was created, in Zapier we had an integration where we pulled that information and then we send it to the Buffer queue. And then whenever the next postings time was setting Buffer it would go out on Twitter but not only Twitter, it worked for all the major platforms from the beginning.
Andrew: Because Zapier, most of our listeners know. Zapier takes content from one software and makes another piece of software do something with it. And so what you would do is you connected Google Spreadsheets and Zapier to Buffer and then you would connect the two and have whatever is in the spreadsheet go out on Buffer.
Andrew: But how would you maintain the number of accounts? Did you create a different Zapier account for each client?
Ovi: No. So the clients didn’t have to know about the Zapier. That was on our side. They just need to know about their own Google Spreadsheets. And then basically, in the beginning, we had the Google Drive folder for each customer with a Zapier link to it and with a spreadsheet [inaudible 00:25:59]
Andrew: They would use give you access to their Twitter account and then . . . but you would then make a different connection in Zapier to each customer’s Twitter account.
Ovi: That’s correct.
Andrew: Okay. You know what? Now that I see it, that’s not that hard to do. That’s a spreadsheet, and then you go to Zapier and you say, “At this time grab this thing and post it to there.” And if you’re connecting it to Buffer . . . Got it. Got it. All right. And so maybe they wouldn’t even give you access to their Twitter account, they’d give you access to Buffer. Is that right? Or they would?
Ovi: That’s correct, yeah. It would be enough for them to give us access to Buffer. And the magic was also in those formulas because of the category-based posting system, we created some basically Excel formulas to calculate which category should be going next, and then which posts from each category should be going next. And in their spreadsheets, they had a sheet for each category. So yeah. I mean, it’s something that worked, but something that was definitely not scalable, so that’s why we started to build more and more of our own software which slowly replaced all of these hacks together parts.
Andrew: How’d you get the first users when it was still at that hack-together stage?
Ovi: So, actually, the first user—he’s still with us—Zachary came because we cannot . . . We had a good launch on Product Hunt and I wrote like a very extensive guide about it on Foundr magazine. And then I mentioned there that if people want to chat about it, they can just hook me up. And we had the call and while talking, I was telling him about this other thing that we were building on the side and how we were using social media to grow our social presence, and then he said, “Okay. I want to use this,” because he was using Buffer but he was also spending a lot of time to do all of those things to schedule the content and so on. And then we also have these concierge services from early on where we actually also were helping him find curated content and helping him grow an audience specific [inaudible 00:27:58] at that time.
Andrew: I do see that you did well on Product Hunt. You got 887 upvotes. Is that right? But this is . . .
Andrew: This is for Nugget 3.0, though.
Ovi: Yeah. It was, I think probably already . . . So we sold Nugget at one point, but you can also find the initial Nugget. And we did well in . . . We were in top five on that day. And then it was something that we planned properly, so I created a lot of documentation about how we did that. And still I think one of the most read guides on launching on Product Hunt today.
Andrew: Okay. You know what? Actually, there are different products called Nugget. Your product got 675 posts. What got me confused was, I saw many of the same people who commented on the other one commented on yours. I see it here. I see that you guys did well. Okay. Well, look at this. Even Ryan Holiday jumped into the conversation, the author, and he said, “Whoa, I’m in here too, apparently.” Cool. I like that. That’s one of the nice things about doing stuff that is connected to people who have big audiences that they care about what you’re doing and then their followers care and you got some of that positivity coming for you. All right. So that got your first customer. What happened beyond that? In the early stage, how did you get the next batch of customers?
Ovi: It was also a lot of eating our own dog food. So basically, following people on Twitter. Once they followed those back, we automatically send that engage message where it was usually like a conversation starter or sending them to a guide because I wrote the guide about growing an audience on Twitter which is still doing well for us. And then the whole flow in the early days was, getting people on our website to book a call with me because it wasn’t with us. Back then it was just me who I was taking the calls. And then on the call, I was presenting them, and that’s one of the way that we got customers.
Some other ways were a bit of content marketing, but we also got some referrals once people started using us. And actually in the first days, we also used a lot of cold email outreach specifically towards people who just launched on Product Hunt because it was a community I knew and I could help, but also people on BetaList. So I was trying to hook them up with talking about startups and giving them general advice about their own startups. And then everybody needs social media as well. And we did manage to find a way to grow an audience and to get relevant visitors . . .
Andrew: Wait. You would actively find somebody who just launched on Product Hunt or BetaList? I feel like we forget about BetaList and BetaList is an awesome site for new products. You would reach out to people on both those sites say, “You just launched. You might need some help with social media. Can I talk you through this? I’ve been on Product Hunt too. Here’s what helped us.” That’s the type of thing you’d do?
Ovi: Exactly. That’s exactly . . .
Andrew: One-on-one sales calls with each one of them?
Ovi: That’s how you have to start I think. And those one-on-one calls were really help for us as well in the early days because you get to really understand the pain points, what’s needed, the language even. And then to be honest at that point, nobody would have bought our software just by putting it on the web page because the whole onboarding process was not even clunky but it was missing. So we did need to do the onboarding ourselves in the early days. But especially on Product Hunt and BetaList, those people are usually early adopters, so a lot of them did start using us both [the pull 00:31:33] but also especially in the early days of the services as well.
Andrew: No. You didn’t get frustrated just talking to people over and over and think, “All right, I’m done with this already.” You did?
Ovi: No, I’ve never . . . I don’t think I will ever get tired of talking to other entrepreneurs because, yeah, the SocialBee part was one of it, but it was general entrepreneurship discussions. But yeah, eventually in order for us to be able to scale I did pass that on to some of my colleagues who are doing those one-on-one calls. But it was definitely a good learning experience for us early on.
Andrew: What did you learn? Do you remember?
Ovi: Yeah. So basically, we saw what was important for the startups because we were targeting the startups. We saw when I was presenting the app, when it didn’t make sense, what should we change, what word should we change because sometimes it wasn’t about changing the functionality, but just about changing how we present something. Yeah. And I think it was also about the content that we later on needed to create for them, but also it was an early indicator of what other services we need to create. Even though initially I didn’t want to have more services, but then, later on, we decided that actually, we should double down on services as well.
Andrew: You mean . . . I’m looking at the first version of the site. Twitter’s all over this thing. But you’re saying, as you talk to people you discovered, “You know what? They keep bringing up Facebook, they keep bringing in LinkedIn. Fine. We have to accept that this is a demand. Let’s do it.”
Ovi: Yeah. That’s definitely one of those. And actually the whole . . . We do have some . . . We still have a few functionalities which are Twitter only, but we didn’t work on any Twitter-only functionality for maybe almost two years now. Everything that we do is centered around the content part to be easier for people to find and to share content in a proper way and to save them a lot of time. So it works for all of the major platforms.
Andrew: Okay. And then let’s talk about the next development. How did you take it beyond the Zapier, Buffer, Google Spreadsheet integration as software? How did you do that?
Ovi: Yeah. Well, that’s basically the work of my co-founder and CTO of Lead who himself but also some other colleagues that we worked on the development side. We started to pull all of those things which were working already from day one, but were very clunky and were in this hybrid Zapier sheets model and we started to slowly build them into SocialBee one by one. Because initially, for example, also when people wanted to connect on RSS feed, we hooked that up in Zapier and then send it to the spreadsheet, then we still kept that in Zapier but that sent it to SocialBee directly.
Now everything is in SocialBee and now we also have a Zapier app ourselves, so we’re in some way gone full circle. But yeah, we just needed to go through those functionalities one by one. But the nice part because we started in Zapier and in Google Sheets, we already knew that what we are building is needed and it’s not something that we’ll build and nobody will use because it was already used, we just made it easier and more integrated.
Andrew: And what happened with Vlad? Is he the one who had that injury?
Ovi: Yeah. So actually, this is how we initially got to the concierge part because Vlad started to work on the app before, like, early on. And then he went into something that should have been our routine surgery but it went a bit south, sideways and basically, he couldn’t walk. He had to learn to walk again.
Ovi: And that was really hard. And he managed to do that and helping build SocialBee. And it took him quite some time, over a year to do. Now he’s walking properly again. But because we already had these small things in place which he built, and because I knew that I could add on top the services part, we could already start to service the customers. And it was a blessing in disguise because initially, we were thinking to just offer just the software at that low price, but then with the concierge services we were able to charge higher prices, and then that helped us on the bootstrapping part.
Andrew: You’re saying that because he couldn’t keep coding more features, you had to find a way to make it work for your customers, and so you said, “All right. I’ll manually do it. We’ll call it concierge.” Because he couldn’t build more features you said, “All right. We’ll manually add more these features and then we’ll figure it out later.” That’s the reason why you got into concierge?
Ovi: Exactly, that’s it.
Andrew: Wow. And so what would you do in the concierge version?
Ovi: So, in the concierge, basically, we helped with adding the existing content to these spreadsheets. We also helped in finding curated content because most companies also need like third-party curated content to share besides their own. And then on the Twitter growth side, basically, we were using also our competitor’s but then to follow relevant people on Twitter, and then once they followed back it was our hacked-together tool that engaged with them automatically, but there was the manual component there as well and we could charge for that as well.
Andrew: So when somebody paid and said, “Look, I want to be able to engage. When someone follows me, you need to automatically send them a message.” You guys were doing that, manually following the people to get their attention, then when they followed back, you use someone else’s product to automatically send them a message.
Ovi: Exactly. So every day I was spending a few hours per day just like manually following people on Twitter by using even competitors’ products. And yeah, it’s what we had to do in the early days.
Andrew: And what do you charge for concierge service for that kind of work to be done manually?
Ovi: So the Twitter growth back then and also now it’s still $49 per month, the same for the content curation part it’s $49 per month. And also when we started with the concierge services, it wasn’t . . . it always was something that even if it’s done manually, we had to have a clear path to scaling that. And I knew that for example, with the content curation, we can easily train people to find that relevant content and later on we can build automation on top of that. And I still I’m of the opinion that a sideboard model works best where you have the tools, but you can also have people managing part of the whole workflow. And, for example, for Twitter, we had to do it manually because Twitter does not allow any automation for that part. So there wasn’t any workaround for that. And we knew that especially for that type of job we can find easily people who were able to do it.
Andrew: Wow. You know what? Let me take a moment . . . I’m saying wow because I feel like this is a process and an approach that people could steal. I’ll talk about my second sponsor and then we’ll go back into your story. Second sponsor is a company called the HostGator.
And I can imagine people doing this for other businesses, finding something that they like to create software to do and then manually doing it and then eventually automating only this stuff that makes sense and maybe a lot of it never gets automated. It just becomes some people who are doing it inexpensively and just making it work. I’m trying to think of like, “What’s a service that somebody would do for that and do on a cheap?” All that’s coming to mind is like quick website creation. Anyone who needs a website, we’ll create a website for you. You do it manually and then you eventually just automate the things that matter.
What else is there that would work like that? I’m coming up with jack right now. Oh, I know what. Sending out email can be a pain. People don’t want to deal with email software. They just want to fill out a simple form and just be done. Imagine if you say to someone, “Look, all you have to do is, we’ll set up your lead gen and then anytime somebody subscribes we’ll make sure to manage the whole thing. All you have to do is just email us and we’ll email it to your subscriber base. That’s it.” That would be great. “Or send us a Google Doc and we’ll send it to your list.” Frankly, that’s what I do right now. I’ve got a team of people who just send it out. I just sit in Google Doc, I write the email, and then I don’t want to deal with anything else. Oh, that’s a good service.
All right. For anything that you want, to start off as a service and then eventually bring into software, frankly, for any of your ideas, go to hostgator.com/mixergy. The beauty of doing that is you’ll have an account, give you unlimited domains if you get that middle option on that site, which is super inexpensive, and you’ll get started with whatever idea you have. I urge you to publish, just publish anything and then feel comfortable deleting it.
I think there we’re too scared of what happens if it doesn’t work out. At war, we vilified, embarrassed a lot of people whose businesses don’t work out and as a result we’re all afraid to say, “This didn’t work out. I tried it for a month.” Totally fine. Try it, if it doesn’t work out, kill it in a month. In fact, if you do that, I don’t think you’ll even have to pay anything.
Let me go, hostgator.com/mixergy. And if we take a look, I bet that the money back guarantee will be enough. Where is that? 45-day money back guarantee. Try your stupid idea, feel free to make it stupid, and then if it sucks, get rid of it, try another one, and try them over and over for 45 days. You got unlimited domains if you buy that what they call “The Baby Plan” and it starts at $3.98 because they give us the lowest price that they have available online. Hostgator.com/mixergy.
Okay. You were doing all these things yourself. Talk to me about how you hired people. How did you get those people whose work you needed?
Ovi: Yeah. So initially it was just Vlad, my co-founder and myself. And he was doing the coding, I was looking for customers but also doing these concierge services manually. And then actually, it was also my fiancée who helped me with that with the manual services. And at one point, we actually hired. The first employee was Andrea, Vlad’s now wife. And that’s how we started. The second was a friend of ours as well. So initially, we piggybacked on friends and family to get this started.
Andrew: And then do you have any like . . . Well, what do you use to manage your processes? I know that you are not looking for them to figure out who to follow, you’re not looking for them to know what to do. You want to give them a clear process. What software do you use to manage that?
Ovi: So we are actually using a software which is called Stiki. It’s a Wiki. And we just have all of our processes documented in there. I like that a bit more than just having it in a Google Docs because the Google Docs are also too easy to edit, and you want the process to be properly set up and then to edit it from time to time for sure but when it makes sense, and to structure it nicely to have a good flow. So we have processes about everything and anything about [onboarding 00:42:38] . . .
Andrew: What’s the . . . The problem by the way of me searching for Stiki, Wiki is I end up with just some random Wikis. Or some random article on Wikipedia.
Andrew: Stiki.io? S-T . . . Wait.
Andrew: . . . ki.io. The thing that . . . I’ve been moving away from using Google Docs or Wikis or anything like that because I find that people never go back to the documentation versus a checklist. If they have to start off with a checklist, then it’s easier for them to remember and then it’s just like a click, click, click, click, click. Have you found that people are willing to go back into the documentation?
Ovi: Well, for us, it’s actually a mix of both because we use the Wikis a lot as a training part. So the training will be done in there but then each part of the processes will also be summarized in the checklist at the end. And then we are actually also using, for a lot of the things which makes sense, we are heavy users of Trello where we create cards for all of the specific tests that we need to do for each concierge customers and those will have checks in them. And then again, we use Zapier to generate them, so it’s a whole factory almost in the background. But definitely, having good documentation which is easy to track has helped us a lot.
Andrew: And then for chat, what do you guys use? Slack?
Ovi: Yeah. We’re using Slack a lot as well.
Andrew: Everyone uses Slack. I don’t understand how you keep a company focused with chat coming in all the time. I’m down on chat so much.
Ovi: We had to rethink our use of Slack as we grew. Initially, everybody was in all the channels, notifications were set to the . . . I know . . . We got a lot of notifications. But now we’re really starting to create channels as needed to set up the notifications properly. So we are actually using Slack in a more conscious way lately, but it’s still a tool that we use a lot especially because I’m also not in the same office with a team even though almost everybody else is in the same office. It’s funny when you go in the office and you see a lot of people but sometimes it’s quiet, but people are laughing from time to time because they’re all on Slack.
Andrew: Yeah. I totally bought into Jason Fried’s blog post about keeping it quiet at work where he said, “Look, you’ve got all these different messages coming in, all these different apps, and it’s just a distraction.” And so we did switch to Basecamp and I like that it de-emphasizes chat and it prioritizes tasks, and you can kind of post messages within the task and get people’s attention. And if you absolutely need it, you can ping somebody and it’s there.
But I will often start my pings with, “Sorry to interrupt your day, but here’s what I was thinking.” Or if I need a quick task made and I hate creating tasks using forms, I do sometimes will then ping someone and say, “Hey, can you take care of this?” and then I apologize because I shouldn’t be doing that. I should just create the task.
One thing that I would love out of all these different software is just a one-line task creation, like, at whoever it is, do this by this day, and that’s it, and then have it go to the right place. And I know I could do it via Zap and I think that there are tools in Slack that do it, but they’re just too complicated. I just want one form, just one line. Am I too distracted by this stuff?
Ovi: I also like to geek out about tools and processes. And I really like to always keep improving our processes because as you also mentioned, our services are quite inexpensive, so in order to be able to do that we have to make sure that we do them very efficiently. And that goes back to the training part but also to the processes part.
Andrew: You guys do charge way too little. And then you went on AppSumo and I remember you and I were chatting via some text messaging app and you were excited that you were hitting your targets with that, that you were selling a lot. How did the AppSumo deal do for you sales wise and then backend after you got those customers? How did they do? Let’s start with sales.
Ovi: Yes. Initially, we did an AppSumo deal where we put . . . we were offering 5,000 codes for sale. We wanted to cap for that because we didn’t want to basically flood our service as well with more people. And we sold out relatively quickly. So from that point of view, it was really good, but it was also a very intensive I think full month because we took two weeks before to really prepare it properly and then it was about two weeks of the campaign itself. But for us, it was something that was really good because it also put us a bit more on the map. It got us, also to be honest, a nice cash influx that helped us grow even faster. And thanks to our concierge services we were also able to switch those lifetime customers to a monthly subscription for the concierge perfectly.
Andrew: So what you were doing is, and I see a lot of people do this on AppSumo, offer a lifetime of their software for super low price and then you end up with people who are using your software, using your customer service, feeling entitled because they pay, and frankly, they are entitled because they pay. But man, that sense of entitlement can sometimes be high when the price is low. You get them in, but because you also have concierge service, you are converting some of them into paid monthly customers. And if I understand you right, the way you were able to do that is because you spent time beforehand writing out the content that would be dripped out to your customers to encourage them to try out the concierge, etc. Am I right?
Ovi: To some extent. So what we did beforehand, first of all, is that we made sure . . . So we really studied a lot other people in our space who did AppSumo deals. I went through all of those comments on multiple product pages to see what they liked, what they didn’t like, to see exactly what the community is looking for. So because of that, we also made a good offer which was very well received by the community.
And then because we knew that a lot of people will be asking us, “Okay. But how does SocialBee compared to this other tool that was on AppSumo?” we created a Google Doc for each of them explaining the differences and where we shine and then maybe also where the other tool is a bit better. We had a lot of FAQs that we prepared. And then also what we did . . . And it wasn’t something that I would recommend from an efficiency point of view, but it helped us a lot, is that we offered the possibility for people to upgrade to an even better plan, still lifetime but a better plan within SocialBee at, again, a very low rate, but then for that to happen they had to write to us for us to make some changes in their account so they can buy that upgrade.
And what that did is, first of all, it put a lot of effort on our support team which was everybody, it was all hands-on deck on that period. But because we resolved all of those queries in a nice way, we also asked people at the end that if they are happy, they should give us five taco as it is on AppSumo review and the comment. So we got over 100 5-star tacos on AppSumo. I think to the day we still are the most tacoed product on there.
Andrew: And so wait. So it was, they get that account and then they have to ask you to get a free upgrade to the next level and in order to get that upgrade they need to comment and review.
Ovi: It wasn’t free. It wasn’t free. So it was a paid upgrade but it was still within the lifetime deal. So it was definitely a very good deal.
Andrew: Got it.
Ovi: But then they had to email us for us to enable that option in their account.
Andrew: And the reason that they needed to do that is because?
Ovi: Because our backend wasn’t ready to automate this.
Andrew: Okay. It wasn’t like some kind of clever marketing thing. And then . . . That’s cool to see. And then tell me about the payment processor issue that you had because of that.
Ovi: Yeah. So because of all of these one-time payments which happened and Braintree which was our payment processor at the time noticed a big influx of . . .
Andrew: What did you use?
Andrew: Braintree. Oh, really. Okay.
Ovi: Yeah. And they emailed us and said, “What’s up with all of these new payments?” because obviously, there was a spike. And then I said, “Look, we’re in the middle of a campaign. Please don’t shutdown our merchant account,” because I knew from other Mixergy interviews this happens more often than people think. And they said, “Sure, no problem. We’ll sort it out at the end.” But then when they found out that those payments were for lifetime offers even though those lifetime offers had a 60-day money back guarantee, so it wasn’t like people could do . . . ask for a refund for forever, they said, “Look. We either freeze all of those payments or we drop you . . . ” or Braintree basically drops us as customers. So then we had to find a new provider which you don’t want to do in a rush.
Andrew: So you kept the payments that you got, but you had to go find a different provider.
Ovi: That’s exactly it.
Andrew: Where did you go to?
Ovi: We went to FastSpring.
Andrew: FastSpring, right. And then with FastSpring you don’t get to hold on to the credit card numbers, right? They process, they hold on to the numbers. Got it.
Ovi: Exactly. I mean, it’s an advantage because we don’t have to deal with all of those one-off invoices and so on. They do that on their side. We don’t have to deal with VAT and so on. But it also comes with other disadvantages.
Andrew: Yeah. The big disadvantage is you don’t hold on to the credit card, so it’s harder to do one-click upsell, right?
Ovi: Oh, no. We do have those. We do have those. I mean, we don’t have the cards themselves, but we can ask FastSpring to do that on our behalf. So there’s not a problem. I think it’s just we have other issues with them.
Andrew: Okay. Yeah. FastSpring was one of the early interviewees here on Mixergy. And they’ve been talking about having them back on. I just haven’t found the right angle for it. All right. If you’re not profitable, how are you living? Where’s the money coming from?
Ovi: So we choose to not be profitable. We choose to hire more people so we can create more content to build the software faster, to have more people on the concierge side so we can service our concierge customers because recently, we also introduced a new service which is the social media specialist, and that’s basically like an agency would do, they would create social media posts for you. So for that, we need even more people and better-trained people. But thanks to the AppSumo campaign and also thanks to a small investment that we got early on, we are able to spend more than what we make. And we are also taking some salaries, the co-founders. They’re definitely not as big as they should have been or could be, but that’s okay. We are committed to growing SocialBee at this month.
Andrew: I can see that. All right. All right. For anyone who wants to go check out your software, I’m going to urge them to not just check out your website, but then either book a . . . And frankly, I feel for most people, you don’t really need to book the actual demo. It’s cool that you can. If you go to socialbee.io, yes, you could book that demo. But if you look at the top, you’re going to see a recorded webinar right at the top of that page and you can just go and zip through it on your own time and see how this works.
I think it’s very easy to say, “Isn’t it like this software? Isn’t it like that software?” until you actually see it and then you go, “Wait a minute. Can you get away with that?” And then you realize, “All right. Now I see what it’s about.” All right. So if you’re out there and you want to go check out SocialBee, check them out at socialbee.io.
I’m also going to suggest that Ovi is super approachable, so I don’t know that we should give out your email address here, but I’m going to suggest that anyone who wants to get ahold of you can find you and they should and if for no other reason to just say hi on Twitter, via email, Facebook Messenger or whatever. I’m excited to see how far you’ve grown the business.
Ovi: Yeah, thank you. And I’m actually going to say . . . I’m going to tell the Mixergy crowd to not go to socialbee.io because we are on Mixergy here, so they should definitely go to socialbee.io/mixergy.
Andrew: That’s [not there 00:55:26]. I didn’t know you were going to do this. Okay.
Ovi: As a long-time Mixergy fan and listener, we have a special offer for the Mixergy crowd.
Andrew: Hey, there is our photo from that day. Oh, that’s so cool. Yeah, I love that place. That is one of my favorite places to go work. I was so bummed when there was a fire there and a lot of the places in Napa were gone. That place is just absolutely gorgeous. Anytime somebody comes here if I really like spending the day with them because you’re really committed, I like going there which means that only four people have gone there with me and I’m so excited that you’re one of them. That’s a . . . I love that spot. That brings back such memories. I can’t wait for the weather to get just a little bit better to go back. All right. Yeah, that’s available at socialbee.io/mixergy. And then what’s the offer here?
Ovi: So we are actually offering major discount on the tool itself. So it’s 30% which we don’t have for anywhere else. And besides that we will also offer to anybody who is becoming a customer one month of our social media specialist concierge service. And again, this is something that we definitely don’t do on other places because I think the beauty of SocialBee is not just as you said, like, “It does this thing as this tool. And that thing is that tool.” But it’s this combination of the tools and the teams, so the services part, because, indeed, some people just want the end result, they don’t have the time, they don’t have the knowledge maybe to create those posts, to grow an audience and so on.
And with the services which is actually an ever-growing suite of services, we are offering people the possibility to create content for their social profiles but also blog post content at this point to grow an audience on LinkedIn, on Instagram, and so on. So the concierge services is just . . . The number of the concierge services is just growing and it’s becoming more intense in what we can do. And I think this is the combination of the tool and on the services is what makes us really, really special.
Andrew: If I knew you were doing it, I would have said, “Don’t do it. You shouldn’t. Your price is already too low.” I would have said, “Maybe offer a service, maybe something for like maybe a setup.” All right. But it’s on there. You already talked about it. Anyone who wants it go get that. I think the price is already too low, but the service is good. Check them out. And the software is good. Check them out at socialbee.io, input/output it means that he’s a total geek and he’s expecting geeks to sign up for this. Socialbee.io/mixergy. I get no percentage of that. I just think that he’s good and a good guy and great software.
And I want to thank my two sponsors who made this interview happen. The first is ActiveCampaign. Check them out at activecampaign.com/mixergy. The second is hosting, hostgator.com/mixergy. And I’m grateful to them for sponsoring and Ovi for you for being on and for being part of the Mixergy community for so long. Thank you.
Ovi: Thank you too. This was really great.
Andrew: Right on. Thanks. Bye.