Three messages before we get started.
If you’re a tech entrepreneur, don’t you have unique legal needs that the average lawyer can’t help you with? That’s why you need Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law. If you’ve read his articles on Venture Beat you know that he can help you with issues like raising money or issuing stock options or even deciding whether to form a corporation. Scott Edward Walker is the entrepreneur’s lawyer. See him at WalkerCorporateLaw.com.
Do you remember when I interviewed Sarah Sutton-Fell about how thousands of people pay for her job site? Look at the biggest point that she made. She said that she has a phone number on every page of her site because, and here’s a stat, 95% of the people who call end up buying. Most people though don’t call her but seeing a real number increases their confidence in her and they buy. So try this. Go to Grasshopper.com and get a phone number that will make your company sound professional. Add it to your site and see what happens. Grasshopper.com.
Remember Patrick Buckley who I interviewed? He came up with an idea for an iPad case. He built a store to sell it and in a few months he generated about a million dollars in sales. The platform he used is Shopify. If you have an idea to sell anything, set up your store on Shopify.com because Shopify stores are designed to increase sales plus Shopify makes it easy to set up a beautiful store and manage it. Shopify.com.
Here’s your program.
Andrew: Hey everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Of course, what that means is that I’m aiming at an audience of entrepreneurs who just love business so much that they want to listen to other entrepreneurs talk about it. They want to absorb as many ideas from them as possible, that they do all that in their free time when they’re riding their bikes or running or walking the dog, and they do it on the job in the background while they’re working, while they’re building their empires. That’s what Mixergy is about.
You know I always like to focus my interviews on a single topic. So the big question, the single topic, for this interview is how does a Harry Potter fan build a network of websites that get over 140 million page views per month and how does he do it profitably? Emerson Spartz is the founder of Spartz Media, a network of websites making it easy to create and share content so others can learn, laugh, and feel inspired. The network started when he launched MuggleNet, a Harry Potter fan site, when he was just 12 years old. Welcome, Emerson.
Emerson: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: So profitable – how much revenue are you guys doing? I know you’re not going to tell me your profits, but what can you tell me about your revenues?
Emerson: It’s seven figures and we’re growing.
Andrew: Seven figures, over a million dollars, privately you told me what the number is. Can you say any more than a million? Can you give people more detail than that?
Emerson: I can’t unfortunately.
Andrew: But you are doing well? Profitable, right?
Andrew: 140 million page views – how many unique people are giving you that many page views?
Emerson: Nine million.
Andrew: Nine million unique people coming every month to the websites?
Emerson: Yes. Nine million to the websites and then an additional six million on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Andrew: So I want to know a little bit more about the product and then I want to find out how you got to this and along the way I want to learn as much as possible for my audience. I’m clicking around my browser right here to find one of your sites. One of your sites is called OMGFacts, right?
Andrew: Like Oh My God Facts. Here’s one of the facts from the website: It used to be commonplace for people to wear pubic wigs. There’s a name for a wig that you put on your pubic region. It’s called a merkin. It’s unusual now but this practice…etc. and it just goes on. Kind of funny, kind of interesting, and there’s just a bunch of these facts. Is this a typical website?
Emerson: Yes, I’d say it is.
Andrew: Okay. Now that I said it out loud, I realize I might not have picked the best representative of your site as the intro.
Emerson: We have lots of pube facts on our websites.
Andrew: Is that right?
Emerson: No. But I do remember that fact doing especially well. I think that fact actually was a top tweet on Twitter when we tweeted it.
Andrew: I can imagine. What I realize is that I pulled it out because it was kind of funny and it showed…I don’t know what exactly it showed but it was kind of funny so I pulled it out. What I realize is by giving that as the example in the intro, I’m almost blowing it out of proportion and making it sound like everything is that kind of content. Why don’t you give the audience a clearer idea of what your content is? What else do you have beyond this fact site?
Emerson: Our largest site, after OMG Facts, which is doing about 2.5 million unique hits a month, we have a funny iPhone autocorrect site, we have a website called Gives Me Hope, where people share short, uplifting stories, it’s like the opposite of F My Life, basically, if you know that site. A network of sites like that. Our audience is 13 to 15, mostly female. We have the second largest secret site online, where people submit their secret, and it can be very therapeutic and it’s one big support group, really. We launch a new site every month and what our objective is, essentially, is that we believe that most people are not reaching their potential.
Everybody is passionate about something. Most of the tools that were available to content creators for the past 50 years have only recently, the cost have come down and they’re widely available enough for everyone to be able to jump the gap from being passive consumers of content to active creators of content. We build the tools that make it easy for people to create, share and consume.
Andrew: OK. So the idea is you see a fun fact, you come to the site and you submit your fun fact or read someone else’s secret. It’s interesting, it gives you an insight into their world and maybe you learn something about yourself and your secret feelings, and then you submit your own secret so others can read yours. And that way you get a little bit of crowd sourcing but it’s also curated, right? How do you curate?
Emerson: That’s part of why we have been able to grow as fast as we have. We were at 5 million monthly page views two years ago, we were at 40 million a year ago and now we’re at 140 million. I would say the primary reason for that is the adjustments we’ve made to our abilities to curate and aggregate the best, the absolute best content being produced by our communities. Any given day we might have 5 to 7,000 pieces of content being created by our communities each day. And the process we use to curate that, which involves voting, but separating the best content from the rest is the difference maker.
Andrew: So imagine a person in my audience and they must be thinking, ‘Hey, you know what, if you have this kind of fun stuff, it must be easy to get traffic, right?’ People are going to tweet around the commonplace, the pubic wigs trivia question. And if your audience builds your content for you, then your expenses are really small and you get to keep more of your revenues. And a lot of this stuff feels like it’s a copy of another secret site or Hamburger Network or whatever, and they’re thinking this is really easy. And then of them will go out and actually try to do this. They’ll put up a quick website using WordPress, they’ll encourage others to submit their own whatevers and they’ll try to duplicate it and it won’t work out.
What I want to learn from you in this interview is why it won’t work out. What’s the missing piece that people who are on the outside and watching this and saying, ‘That’s easy,’ what’s the piece that they’re not catching? And I want to learn that as I hear your story so I can see how you’ve built this up.
So let’s go back in time to 1999. That’s when you launched MuggleNet, right?
Andrew: OK. What was the original idea for MuggleNet?
Emerson: I started home schooling that year. I was 12 years old and I suddenly found myself with more free time than I knew what to do with. I found a free webpage maker and had a lot of fun playing with the colors and adding widgets. I just read the Harry Potter books and I was completely obsessed. But more than anything, I just wanted to create a website for fun. And then the more time I sunk into it, the more I realized the limitations of the other Harry Potter sites. I decided that I wanted to make the biggest and best Harry Potter site online. I didn’t start off like that and if you can see the original versions of the site, which I’m glad you can’t, let’s just say there was much learning to be done.
The original idea was that I wanted to make it a one stop shop. Everything that you could possibly do that has to do with Harry Potter, you could do it on this website. Harry Potter sites back then were very primitive and very unsophisticated, mostly done by kids my age in their free times before their parents sent them to bed.
There were three things in particular I did that helped propel MuggleNet to its position as the number 1 Harry Potter site. The first thing I did was I realized I needed to get people to come to my site. This seems very primitive, but this wasn’t actually as common practice back then as it is now, but I went and I emailed literally thousands of other Harry Potter website owners and ask them to do link trades. So people started coming to the website, and I noticed that there were some people who were active contributors. And so I started recruiting them to come help me out with things that I wasn’t as skilled at, like programming, writing, graphic design, etc.
So without really realizing what I was doing, I was kind of implementing basic management practice with the website, and that again other websites weren’t doing that. So we were a larger force to be reckoned with than we would have if I was doing it myself. I’m blanking on the third thing.
Andrew: That’s all right; you gave me a lot here that I want to dig into.
Emerson: Oh, the third thing was that because the Harry Potter websites were so primitive, I would go and look at other more established fan communities and what they were doing, assuming that they’d been in the game longer and they were more sophisticated, so they must know more than I do about how to run a good website. So I would look and say, hey, they’ve got all these great ideas. I think the Harry Potter community would like these kinds of contests and activities, and things like adding a poll to a website.
It seems ridiculously obvious now, but back then it was actually a novel concept. So I noticed the Lord of the Rings site had a poll, and I thought what a great idea. And so I added it to MuggleNet, and MuggleNet became known as the most innovative Harry Potter site. And the source of a lot of these ideas was looking at other industries, if you will, and observing how they were running their businesses.
Andrew: All right. That first website, what platform was it on?
Emerson: Like GeoCities or Tripod, any of those websites.
Andrew: Yeah. And we’re talking about one of those freebie websites.
Andrew: With other people’s ads on them.
Andrew: OK. All right. And then when you were link trading, by that point did you have your own website or were you still link trading on Homestead?
Emerson: I was link trading on Homestead for a while, and then as I started recruiting more and more people to help me, eventually we moved off it and onto our own server, and we grew.
Andrew: And where were the links going? I understand if you get a thousand links pointing to you, it’s terrific, but where are you going to put all those links and still keep your site interesting?
Emerson: We had a page that just said “links”, and all it was, was links to other Harry Potter sites.
Andrew: That was it, they linked to you?
Emerson: That was it, yes.
Andrew: Probably from their homepage, because they don’t care and they’re not . . .
Emerson: No, it’s common practice to have link pages. The difference between MuggleNet and the other sites was that we had lots of links.
Andrew: I see.
Emerson: We didn’t have 20 or 30 links, we had hundreds of links.
Andrew: Hundreds of links, and you were doing this how? Just manually typing in e-mails or copying and pasting (inaudible).
Emerson: I just visited thousands of Harry Potter sites, and I looked for the webmaster’s e-mail address, and then I e-mailed them and say, hey, we should do a link trade.
Andrew: I see. And then you said that you got active contributors. Contributors for what kind of content? What were they doing?
Emerson: Some of them were contributing to theories about what was going to happen in future Harry Potter books. Some of them were contributing graphics that they had made, fan art, fan stories, writing their own Harry Potter stories. Some of them volunteered to help with programming, etc.
Andrew: And so were these blog posts that they were writing when they were theorizing on what would happen next with Harry Potter?
Emerson: The word “blog” wasn’t even really popular back then. Eventually we had a blog feed, but in the beginning it was just [a] static. Just imagine a starry sky background and the ugliest graphics you’ve ever seen and a bunch of widgets on it, that was the website. It had the ’90s written all over it.
Andrew: I see. But what they were writing wasn’t exactly a blog post, because the software wasn’t that sophisticated, but it was a blog post in substance.
Emerson: But it served the same function as a blog post, yes.
Andrew: I see. And what were they getting in exchange for submitting that?
Emerson: They were getting the ability to have their voice heard to, at the time it was hundreds of thousands of Harry Potter fans. Now that’s something that MuggleNet provided me the opportunity to learn how to manage large teams of people. Now MuggleNet at its peak was getting 9 million uniques a month, and Harry Potter fans, as anyone who’s ever known one, are very passionate. And getting a job at MuggleNet was so coveted, at its peak we had 120 volunteers and six paid staff, so I had to manage this team at a very young age, and so it made me grow up really quickly.
And in the beginning I didn’t want to tell anybody my age, because I thought that they wouldn’t want to work for this little kid, but I was able to learn how to at least manage volunteers. It’s really tough to keep volunteers motivated. That’s one thing I learned. So I had to do all sorts of things, like showing people, hey, this is how many people are visiting MuggleNet each day, and I’d put up pictures of football stadiums full of people and other things like that to keep them engaged and real. It’s easy (inaudible) up into a black hole of the Internet.
Andrew: That’s a great idea, to show them a football stadium full of people, and saying the equivalent of this is coming to your website and looking at your article. What else?
Emerson: So I went out of my way to try to add as many metrics as possible to help quantify their impact. So adding hit counters back when they weren’t as common and making them more prominent. Adding a counter that shows how many people are online at any given point. We still have that on our websites. It’s not that cool to do anymore, but I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t be more common than it is. There’s something so anti-social about the internet, still to this day, and going to a website and seeing, “Oh, there’s 355 people that are looking at the same page as me,” it kind of adds that warm buzz of being in a crowded cafe and knowing there’s other people doing this too and you’re not alone. I added as many of those types of things as possible to make the site as interactive as possible. A lot of this is really common practice now, but at the time it wasn’t. The internet felt like you were looking at a flier, for the most part.
[??] message boards, adding polls, adding chat rooms, just things like that, as much as that as possible. Making it as social as possible as early as possible.
Andrew: What about the idea that anyone of these guys who’s contributing to your website could see how much traffic you’re getting and start to feel like either, “Hey, I really am sending a lot of traffic to Emerson here. I’m the guy responsible, he needs to start paying me or. Or the opposite side, which is, ‘I see how much traffic Emerson’s getting in the aggregate, I could probably do the same thing.”
Emerson: Yeah, the people didn’t really think like that. People weren’t really tracking, people didn’t track how many clicks you were sending them, how many clicks you were sending back. Again, common practice now, not back then. The technology wasn’t very sophisticated back then. This was way before Google Analytics. You could, in a roundabout way, figure out, but for the most part it was just, ‘Oh, throw stuff up and hope for the best.’
Andrew: You told me a little bit about how you keep them motivated. Tell me how you kept them organized. When you’ve got so many submissions, so many different ideas, so many people to interact with, it can get tough. What do you do? What did you do back then?
Emerson: Trial and error. I wouldn’t even say I did a good job; I just did a better job than our competitors. But when I look back at it, I shudder at how inefficient the systems that we built were. We had regular staff meetings every week or every two weeks.
Andrew: With all the volunteers?
Emerson: No, with the senior staff. And then the senior staff was responsible for managing their own communities. So MuggleNet wasn’t one community, it had a bunch of sub-communities. So we had MuggleNet Fan-Fiction, which is its own website just for fans to write their own Harry Potter stories. That had its own staff. MuggleNet Interactive, it’s a Harry Potter RPG, they have their own staff. Still, both of these are still running to this day. MuggleNet Forums, they have their own staff, etc.
Andrew: Staff that volunteers.
Emerson: So the heads from each of these departments, if you will, were the ones I was trying to keep motivated, knowing that there’d be a trickle down effect through their motivation and their focus.
Andrew: So then how do they keep their volunteers inspired, motivated and organized?
Emerson: Utilizing a lot of the same practices that we were using at the top layer of the website.
Andrew: So they would have regular meetings with all their volunteers?
Emerson: Yes. They’d have their own private forums where’d they discuss issues. They’d have primitive bug tracking software and other project management collaboration tools.
Andrew: The first version of the site was built by Homestead, built by you on Homestead.
Andrew: Take me to the next version, the next level of sophistication. What was it built on?
Emerson: Well, we bounced from Homestead to GeoCities, and then we were on some free web host called F2S.com. That was when we first actually coded a site in HTML. That was when I realized I needed to learn HTML and the website looked terrible and it was just altogether an awful website. And then from there we just kept bouncing from one web host to the next or we kept getting kicked off and they’d want us to pay them more money. I was vehemently opposed to putting up advertising on the website because I just wanted to make the best Harry Potter site in the world. I didn’t want to make money at the time, that wasn’t my motivation at all.
And then when I got my first bill for $200 for hosting because the traffic had increased so much, I quickly changed my tune about advertising. I put up ads, I think it was a single ad, actually, a single 468×60 banner ad, and made $5,000 or $6,000 in the first month. That was pretty exciting at the age that I was at.
Andrew: $5,000 or $6,000 and how old were you?
Emerson: Maybe 14 or 15.
Andrew: OK. What did you do with the money?
Emerson: I don’t remember.
Andrew: OK. And the ad, I’m assuming you got it from an ad network?
Andrew: Which one?
Andrew: Fast Click. And so I think Fast Click, at the time, was paying per click, right?
Emerson: It was CPM back then.
Andrew: CPM. So you got paid every time you showed that ad?
Emerson: It might have been per click and they were showing me EPCM and I didn’t know the difference, that’s probable.
Andrew: I see. So now you got a real business. You went from having something that was hosted on one of the free cheapo services like GeoCities to then hosting on your own site with your own revenue, with your expenses, you’ve got a real business. What’s the next thing you do with the business? What’s the next level of sophistication for the business?
Emerson: There was a series of milestones that we hit. BBC ranked us as the number one Harry Potter website. That’s when my parents first woke up and said, wow, he’s actually not just playing around online. This is something that’s more significant than that. My parents were always the kind of parents who encouraged me to do whatever it is that I was passionate about, so they didn’t mind me spending 8 to 10 hours a day working on this website as a homeschooler, and I’m eternally grateful to them for that. I got hit by the lucky stick, and I’m so grateful for the lessons that they taught me.
Andrew: And you were still homeschooled while you were building this business?
Andrew: What’s that like to just constantly be around your mother, your father? I’m trying to imagine it, and in my head it’s I want to be done with my parents at some point during the day, but you don’t even have that.
Emerson: It’s because my parents were that awesome. My mom worked all day. My dad was home during the day, but I was self-taught. So they basically left me alone to do what it was that I was interested in doing.
Andrew: They just gave you a book and said, “Go learn math?”
Emerson: Yeah, I knew I had to get a diploma by the time I was going to go to college, so I basically got most of my books sent to me at the very end of what would have been my high school career. I just read the textbooks that I needed to, I took the tests, and I spent very little time actually learning regular school materials, but I spent a lot of time reading books that I was interested in. So I read thousands of non-fiction books about whatever [issues] tickled my curiosity.
Andrew: You know, I keep looking at Hacker News and seeing a lot of uploads for articles on how to keep yourself motivated, how to keep yourself from wasting time, and how to keep yourself from getting distracted. And here you were with the perfect opportunity to lose motivation, to be distracted, to just get carried away with TV or junk that’s just going to be a waste. How did you keep yourself focused?
Emerson: I think I was bred for success. I can’t describe it any other way, but my parents were the kind of parents who would have me listening to Tony Robbins CDs as they drive me around town to various sporting events and things like that. So I was brainwashed at a very young age with all the right positive psychology embedded in my DNA. So I never had trouble keeping myself motivated. I’m always improving and tweaking my environment to make it easier for me to stay motivated, but I had awesome parents and an awesome environment.
Andrew: What’s one of the self-help tips that worked for you? Which one of the things that you used and you still remember to this day, and you say, boy, that really helped me get here?
Emerson: The most important thing is definitely when I was in school, I embarked on this journey to learn everything that I could about the world before I started my next company, because I was itching to drop out and start another company when I went to Notre Dame. So I set a goal of reading one non-fiction book every single day until graduation of whatever interested me: business, politics, psychology, economics, technology, science. And so I read thousands of books.
My goal was to learn vicariously through people’s experiences as much as possible, something I’m sure I don’t need to explain the virtues of to you. And it was also the reason why I’ve been an avid Mixergy listener for the same reasons. But anyway, the most important thing that I learned, before I started on this quest, I’d realized I needed to study psychology first, so I could learn as much as possible about learning and memory to get the most out of all the information that I consume later. And you will forget 90% of what you learn if you don’t review that material on an average interval of one day later, one week later, one month later, and then every six months.
So now to this day I read two or three books a week, and I have a system where I’m constantly reviewing previous things that I read on a schedule. So I read a book and then the next day I’ll review that book, and then I’ll review it a week later, a month later, and then every six months. And so I’m able to retain a significantly larger percentage of the information that I’m consuming so that I can use it in business and other life situations.
Andrew: That’s a great idea. Even though I have a lot of paper books behind me, I don’t read them so much. What I read now are books on my Kindle, and when you’re done reading a book on your Kindle, everything that you highlight ends up on, I think, Kindle.Amazon.com. So you can see all the notes that you took. You can see all the sections that you thought were important to remember. And you’re saying go back the next day and reread those notes, and then back (inaudible).
Emerson: Yes, notes. Yes. That’s the key. If anything you don’t underline or you don’t save and review later, you will forget, and you will extract so little useful information from that experience. It doesn’t take long. Just review the key concepts. That’s it. That’s the most important thing.
Andrew: And you’re saying the same thing maybe even for Mixergy viewers and readers. If you’re reading the transcript, underline it somehow. If you’re listening to the interview, find a way to write down some notes, and then review it the next day and so on.
Emerson: Absolutely. That’s the single most important thing, if I can convey, about learning and making sure you’re getting the most out of these Mixergy interviews, make sure you take notes and review those notes regularly.
Andrew: All right. So you’ve got a more sophisticated website, a real business. You were starting to tell me where you were taking the business next and then I interrupted you, because I wanted to understand your psychology. What’s the next thing for your business?
Emerson: So there was a series of milestones. We published a book that was a runaway bestseller. We rode the wave at the perfect time. This was six months before the final Harry Potter book came out. We published a book of theories about what was going to happen in the seventh book, and the timing was perfect, and we sold 350,000 copies. We went on a book tour in 35 cities in the U.S. and Canada over a summer, so that was the best summer of my entire life. I learned so much, and I had a great time.
Andrew: You reached number two on the New York Times Children’s Bestseller list, you spent six months on that list. That’s huge.
Andrew: And you’re saying you had the best time. What kind of things did you do?
Emerson: We basically lived like rock stars for a summer. There’s no other way to put it. Our publishers paid for everything. We went city to city. We had good sized crowds at each city we went to for this and a variety of other reasons, because J. K. Rowling and a lot of the Harry Potter actors didn’t really emerge until later, and they were only in England, and J. K. Rowling almost never does interviews.
So because of that, I became kind of like a leader or figurehead of the Harry Potter community, if you will, and because of the media attention that I received and the fact that I wasn’t afraid to inject my opinions into MuggleNet often, and I was very sarcastic, the website had a personality. I also got an opportunity to interview J. K. Rowling in the Spring of 2006, which, along with friend Melissa, we were supposed to represent the entire Harry Potter fandom.
That was a pretty awesome pedestal to be put on, and a lot of pressure, too. But as a result of these things, I got a lot of attention. I received a lot of media attention for this, as well, and the net result was that we had good sized crowds, and it was a lot of fun.
Andrew: And when you say “we,” who’s the other person who you traveled with?
Emerson: We picked up various people throughout the tour, but that particular tour was myself and Ben Schoen. He’s a very close friend of mine we’ve known for a very long time. He was the MuggleNet senior staffer and one of the co-authors of the book. So we had the number one podcast in the world for a while, MuggleCast, and it had a big listener base. And so they would show up in good numbers to come hear the live events and so on. So the events we did had thousands of people.
Andrew: Did the title include the word “MuggleNet.com” in it?
Andrew: It did. That’s what I thought. I’ve got “MuggleNet.com’s What Will Happen in Harry Potter 7: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Falls in Love, and How the Series Finally Ends.” That’s a clever idea, that first of all that you’d put your name in the title. Was that a challenge? That’s clever, because every time people are picking up the book or seeing it in the store or talking about it, your website gets mentioned with the dot.com reminding people to go check it out. Where did that idea come from, and what was the challenge behind it?
Emerson: It was a really obvious idea. We had a huge fan base for the website, and we knew that they were going to buy the book, and it’s much more likely they’re going to buy the book if they have the brand that they already know and love. MuggleNet’s community is so passionate. It’s not people who bounce on Google and leave a day later. It’s the same people coming every single day because they’re impassioned about Harry Potter.
And that’s the reason why we never had any trouble attracting large numbers of volunteers to contribute to the website. The website’s huge. It has literally thousands of pages on it. And we put up a job ad on the site for an unpaid position, and we had 400 applicants within an hour. So there was so much passion there, and it really helped shaped many of my theories and opinions about how to best harness the creative energy of millions of people and channel that into productive products and services for society.
Andrew: What kind of theories?
Emerson: It’s not a coincidence that the business we’re in now, all of our content is crowd sourced. I mentioned earlier, we believe that everybody’s passionate about something, whether it’s bird watching, it’s Harry Potter, it’s American Idol, whatever it is. And sometimes all you have to do is make it really, really, really easy for them to contribute, and they will. But a lot of times what we found, and I’ll probably get into this more later, is that when we say make it easy, we mean make it really, really, really easy.
Andrew: Give me an example.
Emerson: OK. So we have Six Billion Secrets, it’s the second largest secret site online. The largest secret site is PostSecret. It’s been around for a long time, and everybody knows it. Now PostSecret has the same basic idea, but a totally different execution. On PostSecret you have to mail in a postcard with your secret on it. That’s a pretty big barrier for a lot of people who want to contribute to this project. Also, it’s an art project, because you have to be artsy. It has to be a good secret, but it has to be artsy. Also, the guy who runs the site, Frank Warren, chooses his favorites. We found, systematically, that when you have one person choosing, if you use crowd voting, 30 percent of the time they will choose what the crowd would eventually choose to be the best story submitted, the best secret submitted.
We did two things. The basic calculus that we did before launching that site was saying if you make people send in a postcard, that is going to exclude 90 percent of possible contributors, because they are not going to want to go through the trouble of doing that. You will exclude another 90 percent by making so you have to be artsy. You would have to have an artistic flair to want to make this postcard and send it in. That excludes another 90 percent of contributors. Together, 90 percent and 90 percent, means that you are taking only a very small percentage of possible contributors’ contributions. We said, why don’t we apply a model to this? Anybody can submit a secret, you just type it in, hit a button, and it gets submitted.
The third thing was that, because Frank Warren is choosing the secrets himself, he is going to leave most of the best secrets sitting in a pile in his house. He’s not curating that very [??]. Better curation, making it easier to submit. We receive, on that site, 2000 secrets every single day. When we post 24 secrets a day, we are posting the best one percent of everything that we receive. The quality of the one percent that we actually post, and as a result, the [??] of those secrets tends to be significantly higher. Exponentially higher, in fact.
Andrew: Sixbillionsecrets.com. You recreated the idea of a postcard, except the user doesn’t have to create the postcard. You take the text, and you put it on what looks like a postcard or an interesting display, so it’s not black text on a white background.
Andrew: It looks great. Why don’t you show the tweet counts on all of your posts?
Emerson: That was a calculated move. Tweet counts are very low. Our users are really active on Facebook. The social proof, seeing zero tweets, we actually found to be a depressant on the amount of people willing to tweet it. When we took the tweet count off, we found that more people were willing to tweet it, because they didn’t know how many other people were sharing it. Obviously, the best case scenario is Facebook “likes”, where we get hundreds of “likes” per post. That actually has a positive increase in the number of people “liking” the content. [??] It’s better not to show it at all.
Andrew: You have a Google Plus button that shows the latest post only has four “pluses,” the one before that has zero…
Emerson: We’re still testing that. Jerry’s [??] on that one.
Andrew: You’re growing this out, you’re now living like a rock star, and you have a bestselling book. What’s next for the business?
Emerson: Those were some of the highlights. We got to attend all of the red carpet premieres, interview all of the stars, and attend the sets of the movies, representing the fandom and doing reports. There were all sorts of cool perks about being the biggest Harry Potter website. Working closely with Warner Brothers, they would give us lots of exclusives, and traffic continued to grow. The pinnacle was Summer 2007, when we were on that book tour, and the tour culminated with a crowd of 10,000 people who showed up on the night of the final Harry Potter book release to hear us give a talk in Oak Park, Illinois. That was outrageous.
Andrew: You launched the site in 1999. This success didn’t happen overnight. I don’t want to give people the impression that you launched the site, you got a bunch of links, and “boom,” you’re a bestselling author. We’re looking at, if my researcher is right, eight years from the time you launched to the time you become this big celebrity in this space, to the time the book makes you into this huge celebrity. True?
Emerson: It was way before the book, actually. The book was more of the culmination of the Harry Potter chapter of my life, if you will. We still own MuggleNet, and I’m still involved at the executive level, but I delegated the day-to-day operations to some very talented workers years ago.
Emerson: The status and growth of the website was fairly steady and continuous over a period of years. It definitely started out, actually, it didn’t start out slow because I did the wing trading thing which got people coming to the website and got us to a critical mass of contributors where I could actually start assembling a team.
Andrew: How do you get the business to run? And we’ve got to move on to the other websites in a moment here to figure out how the rest of the network developed? How do you get the website working so well that you can hand the keys of it, essentially to other people and trust that it will continue to grow without you?
Emerson: So, we had an eye for talents. We would regularly put up job openings and look for people there, but most of the people who ascended to the level of MuggleNet senior staff, I know it sounds ridiculous, ascended to the level of MuggleNet senior staff. These positions were coveted. I dropped a few numbers earlier to show you how many people applied, people who have good paying jobs, who are just passionate about Harry Potter and wanted to contribute, MIT students, people who have options.
We would look for people who were really passionate contributors to the website already, people who were just emailing us every day with news tips or with contributions or with analysis or whatever it was. Then, we’d scoop those people up and say, “You should work for us.” And then, those people when they were given more responsibility, they would ask for more and they’d continue to show their colors and continue to increase their responsibility.
Andrew: Well, you still don’t you need to give them structure because if you take really smart, creative people and say, “Here, this is the user name and password to our website. I trust you. I want more of your brilliance.” They’re going to end up taking each of them the business in a whole other direction. One of them is going to say, we absolutely need a blog, and another person is going to say, we need to have a live chat, and another person is doing something else. They’ll all be working in this confused mess. How do you keep them organized?
Emerson: I would hark back to what I mentioned earlier about having regular staff meetings where we get all the ideas out there, we prioritize all basic project management techniques although, again, I didn’t realize it at the time, but in hindsight that’s what I was doing. In hindsight I completely sucked at it. I had no idea what I was doing, and I made so many mistakes and things took years longer than they should have if I was going over it and doing it all again, but that’s learning for you.
Andrew: Give me one of those mistakes? You told me in the conversation we had before the interview that one of the things you were eager to share with the audience is mistakes and let the audience learn from your mistakes so they don’t have to repeat them. What’s one of the early mistakes that you made?
Emerson: Not having controls in place. By that, we had somebody who basically, who I let in, I trusted, I gave him all the passwords, all the keys to the kingdom, if you will, and his intentions were good, but we had this disagreement and he basically locked me out of the website. We kind of reached a stalemate where I controlled the domain but he controlled the website. And so, the website was down for three weeks. Fortunately, for me the rest of the staff hated him as well.
We couldn’t figure out how to get the site back, and we researched the guy fully, and we found he was actually a pedophile. We had to effectively use that information to get the site back, and it worked but it was terrifying knowing that this could be it. After all the work that I’d put in, after everything that I’d done, because we didn’t have any system in place for any backups, any redundancies that it could all be taken away by a particularly bad partner.
Andrew: Wow. What else? Give me another one of those kinds of mistakes.
Emerson: That’s the only particularly good one that comes to mind right now, but I’ll touch on it more as I go.
Andrew: OK. What’s the next website after MuggleNet?
Emerson: There is a big gap. While I handed off the day-to-day operations of MuggleNet while I went to school; I went to Notre Dame and I didn’t want to be doing it day-to-day while I was in school. Then, I told you I was itching to drop out and start another one, but with that independent study course that I suggested myself to, I was able to keep my mind occupied while I waited for graduation where I was going to plan to start another one.
The next website gives me hope, and this was my fianc?© at the time, she’s now my wife. She actually created her own popular website, and she was 12 years old, also. It was one of the top cute websites online, and it’s now part of the Spartz Network. It’s called dailycute.net. She didn’t even tell me about this. We had been dating for eight months, and when I found out, of course, I thought it was just about the coolest thing I’d ever heard.
After graduation, it was the worst time to graduate. Nobody was getting jobs. I didn’t need a job because MuggleNet was still generating revenue, and I was looking for the next idea. I had a lot of ideas, but I was more trying to choose which one I wanted to pursue. She was hell bent on the idea of making another FML type website because FML was such a good way to carry content.
Andrew: FML is F my life. It’s where people just write these short snippets and say why their life stinks, right? Say I couldn’t get a seat on the bus today, F my life.
Emerson: (inaudible) stories, things that happen to them basically, but they tend to be cynical but funny. So FML had taken the country by storm, especially college students, and it was doing very well. But it was clearly a good model that hadn’t been applied to really much of anything else yet, so we started looking at different verticals that we could target with a similar curation system.
And we realized that if FML was so successful, there must be plenty of people who like to celebrate and appreciate good things happening to people. Gives Me Hope is like “Chicken Soup for the Soul”, but for the Twitter generation, so the same type of stories but one paragraph long. We didn’t think the market was going to be as big as the market for people in the market for funny and cynical stories, but we thought there would be a market there, and there was.
And Gives Me Hope is about a quarter of the size of FML, pulling in at its peak about 2 million uniques a month. So Gives Me Hope did very well. We pushed it hard from MuggleNet, and there was a variety of other criteria that we used in choosing this, but we promoted it heavily from MuggleNet, so we were able to get a critical mass of people visiting the website and contributing stories. Then we did a massive push to get on the front page of Digg, and we had enough weight to throw around where we were able to land it on the front page.
Then most importantly, and this is where I really felt like (inaudible) was validated, I thought that the Digg community was going to hate it. And this was back when Digg’s traffic was way higher than it is now. I thought the Digg community was not going to like this site, but I still wanted the traffic of hitting the front page, because I thought Digg is more cynical, atheist, liberal. It’s not like happy, fuzzy, warm. It’s just a little different. I love Digg, but that’s the community.
Once it hit the front page of Digg, it got so many uploads that it became the number one story over a 24-hour period, and that was when I knew that we were really onto something here. So the launch was incredibly successful. We would never have been able to do this without already having BubbleNet’s traffic to use to promote Gives Me Hope, because getting that critical mass of people contributing stories is critical. So Gives Me Hope did very well, and we spent the next eight months or so tweaking and refining and learning, and we realized that FML actually had a really, really crude and inefficient way of curating their content, and there was so many better ways that we could do it, but that was the basic idea.
Andrew: How did you get traffic from MuggleNet to Gives Me Hope?
Emerson: We threw up links and said, hey, check out the site. It wasn’t rocket science.
Andrew: Was it just links?
Emerson: I made a number of news posts and added some permanent links, put up some sample stories on the website, and things like that.
Andrew: And what was the reaction to the audience of one website?
Emerson: It was actually positive. I’m a pathological optimist. I think that should shine through. I had been part of this community for so long, and I’d already taken liberties at adding my own personality to the website. It wasn’t like this was some corporate beast, and I was some nobody who was using it. I added my opinions and all kinds of things where people might not have asked for it, because I wanted to add more color to the site. So people were supportive and understanding, and it worked out well.
Andrew: OK. What else did you do beyond linking from one website to the other to get traffic to the early site? Did that, did Digg?
Emerson: That was the main thing, just using BubbleNet. I called in every card I had to get people to upvote on Digg, so that we could hit the front page and study the algorithm as much as possible to know how not to trigger their flags that try to prevent doing (inaudible). And I would say actually that was the thing I was concerned about the most. I knew we could get tons of upvotes, but I didn’t know if we could do it without triggering Digg’s algorithm having us thrown out for gaming the system, which is exactly what we did.
I don’t have any proof of this, but we were looking, we were studying, and we didn’t think we were going to hit the front page, because the window had passed where we should’ve hit the front page. Even though we had that many upvotes, we had way more upvotes than anything else. We thought we must’ve failed, because the algorithm picked it up and was going to throw it out. And then after the window where it theoretically should’ve been possible to put it up, we made the front page, and it really should not have been possible, and we couldn’t figure out why.
And then we got a story submitted by someone claiming to be Kevin Rose, saying that I saw this website, I can’t remember what it said exactly, but it said this website gave me hope, so I made it hit the front page of Digg. And maybe it wasn’t Kevin Rose, maybe it was, but I think it probably was Kevin Rose in hindsight. Seeing it in the upvoting and thinking this is cool, I really want to help give some love to the site and then he manually overwrote it maybe, I don’t know.
Andrew: Did you do anything to get people to come back after they signed up? Did you collect email addresses, did you find a way to make it sticky by having them follow you on Digg or follow you on Twitter. Did you do anything to bring them back?
Emerson: At the basic level, we had Facebook, we had Facebook account and things like that. I would say back then we were terrible at retention, so we retained a good number of people from Digg. When I say good I mean very, very low, but better than where we were at before, but that was enough. With a user-generated content site like this, if the viral coefficient of the idea is high enough, it’s going to pop if you can get to critical mass. [inaudible]
Andrew: Sorry. I’ll explain what happened to the audio, but it blanked out there for a second. You said critical mass was important and getting to critical mass was what?
Emerson: Using [??] to propel us onto the front page of Digg got us to a critical mass of people contributing stories. There’s a chicken egg problem with user generated content. Why is anybody going to go to a website with user generated content if there’s no content [inaudible], no good content there. How do you get that content unless you already have a community? So we knew when we launched the site it’s going to fail quickly or it’s going to succeed. So we need to do everything we can to get people visiting the site in large numbers to help kick-start that whole process. So we got thousands of stories submitted on the first day which helped give us a big pile of great content to use to publish on the website, and then people kept coming back because the quality of the content was very high.
Andrew: So the reason that our connection went down for a moment is I’m on 6 Billion Secrets and what I saw was this big input box. And I’ve got a friend who says if he sees a soccer ball anywhere, he has to go kick it . You can’t just let a soccer ball sit, you have to go kick. For me, I think input fields are like that. If I see an input field and I have my mouse in my hand, I just have to click on it. And as soon as I click on it, the whole thing opened up and now I see where I would type in my secret, must be at least 50 characters but no more than 350 characters. I get to pick my background, I see. So earlier I thought you guys were automatically picking backgrounds for people, no, they get to pick whatever background they want. It will automatically come up on the screen and then they give their name, city, etc.
Do you collect their email address or do anything to stay in touch with them afterward?
Emerson: No, not there. We do a bad job of collecting email addresses because our audience doesn’t use email really. We’ve tried in the past and we’ve just been so disappointed because of how many people were actually willing to give us their email, compared to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where we have 6 million followers. We’re gaining about 10,000 new followers a day because that’s what our audience does. They hang out on Facebook, especially Facebook. They use Facebook a lot, and YouTube.
Andrew: I know with an email address, if you’ve got that and you email someone, you’re going to get what, 10, 30 percent open rate minimum. You’re going to get a 5 percent click-through rate minimum and you know what to expect. What can you expect when you get somebody to become a fan of yours on Facebook? What kind of responses can you get?
Emerson: That number varies wildly over the years and that’s something we’ve conducted, I would say, a substantial amount of research on, is how to optimize that relationship. I’d say one of the major contributors to the growth that we’ve experienced over the past two years has been our research [inaudible]. And what I mean by that, is that we’ve conducted a number of experiments about how to increase the average viral coefficient, each piece of content being produced on our website. Some of these changes have had a significant impact on the eventual virility of the website as a whole. We have a number of algorithms we use to estimate the virility of each piece of content before it’s published on the website.
Some of the things we did that made a big difference early on was that, two years ago, we didn’t really have a company at the time, it was just me and Gabby, we figured out how to get Facebook pages to go viral. I mean crazy viral. We developed an algorithm for doing it consistently. So we would create pages that had names like, “Stop lying, that wasn’t your last piece of gum.” Or, “I will walk slightly out of my way to step on an extra crunchy looking leaf.” Pages like that. We figured out how to get them to go viral. We’d launch a new page and we could tell within literally 20 seconds if it was going to go viral or not. And then we would get millions of fans to these pages and once we had wall access, we would put up OMG facts on the wall and we’d put up Gives Me Help stories, and then we would say, ‘Hey, check out Gives Me Help for more.’
The only people who like these pages are 16 year-olds and 17 year-olds, that was our audience already. We’d have a million people of fans of the page and then we’d basically have a marketing channel that provided us hundreds of thousands of dollars, or potentially even millions of dollars of free marketing. So that’s something that really helped kick start the growth of these websites as well and using their marketing channel, we were able to conduct so many experiments testing out how certain words performed, where to put the link, what kind of link to use. We tweaked and we tested so many different variables and now we’re doing that on a much bigger scale. We have a data and research department that’s doing what I consider to be the most exciting that we’re doing and that’s helping to push — What we’re learning about virality is something that I could… can and probably will go on for a very long time about. Stop me. [laughter]
Andrew: No, keep going, I want to learn more! When you say, by the way, so you had all these different fan groups basically for: “I will go out of my way to step on an extra crunchy leaf.” You put a fan page up for that. People would go and click the “Like” button on that and, as you said, that means it gives you access to their wall. Next time they log into Facebook, when they see…
Emerson: Their news feed.
Andrew: Their news feed.
Emerson: Right. We would never post on their wall. We don’t have access to ever do that anyway.
Andrew: To their news feed. And so, you then post into their news feed and when you’re experimenting with links and language, it’s in those links that end up on their news feed, right?
Andrew: OK. And how do you measure all that? There’s no software that will allow you to measure it, is there?
Emerson: Not very well [laughter].
Andrew: So what do you do? What did you do back then?
Emerson: We would measure click-throughs. We would measure the number of new fans over x period of time. We would measure how cross-posting on different pages would have an impact. There are a lot of sub-tests within that test that I can mention. We used every variable that was available to us at the time. We also had — all this fun only lasted for a few months, because Facebook changed their algorithm.
Basically they — and we found some loopholes and we were able to keep doing this longer than we probably should have — but Facebook, when they first released Pages, this wasn’t what they intended with ages, although this was how people were using them. They wanted pages to be used for real organizations. So we actually turned out biggest pages into real organizations and that bought us more time.
So we would create like a website for a page that had a couple of million fans and then eventually Facebook got wise to that too and they raised their standards for what a real organization had to be. But we also had, we figured out how to do the same thing on Twitter as well. We took the same lessons in virality. We applied it to Twitter. We actually had… we created an account that quickly got to… we were able to keep a topic, we created a trending topic for the account, and we kept it trending for over a week straight. And it was the number one trending topic for a few days in that period because the virality in what we were doing was so hot. So we did it on Twitter, we did it on Facebook, again the same lessons and we also did it on a website we created.
We created a website where we, again applying the same lessons we used, we allowed people — this seems really, really simple and it is really, really simple — but we created a website where people could create any message they want and like it immediately. And so, once we hit critical mass on that website which we promoted from other sites, we had people coming, they’d create a message, a lot of it would be inside jokes which their friends would then like. But we would have enough people creating these messages that some of them would go hugely viral and they would get hundreds of thousands or millions of other people to like it too. And then so it’s popping up in millions of people’s feeds as John Doe just liked some clever thing on our website.
And so, we got three and a half million uniques in about a month and a half on that website and it was so exciting. It was so exciting. And we used them, we crossed them over to other sites, all these people coming into this new site, checking out our other sites and — but that was a very exciting period. We learned a lot.
Andrew: What happened to that site?
Emerson: Facebook changed the algorithm again…
Andrew: I see.
Emerson: Again, they wanted people to use likes for official brands and organizations and this was not what they intended, so they changed it.
Andrew: So, who’s coming up with all these ideas? Is this what you do all day?
Emerson: At the time, this was me. We didn’t have much of a team back then. This was a long time ago.
Andrew: And today, who’s coming up with these ideas and managing them?
Emerson: We’re 24 employees now, so everybody’s coming up with ideas. That’s part of the culture here, is that innovation is so central to what we’re doing. We’re in such a fast moving, fast growing industry, that it’s not one person’s job or even one team’s job. It’s everybody’s job to be keeping an eye out for trends and opportunities and raising those ideas as they come up.
Andrew: I want to continue with a narrative but how about giving us one other viral tactic. What else has worked for you, or what do you see that the average person doesn’t see but would benefit their business?
Emerson: So the big broad viral recommendation is to keep it brief. That’s something that’s becoming increasingly, commonly understood and accepted that the shorter you keep something, there’s such a strong correlation between brevity and virality. One, there’s so many little things that have the potential to increase the virality of a piece of content, like we find that on, Gives Me Help, for example, that adding line breaks, and even though the story’s already short, it’s already only 300 character long, but even just adding, you know, breaking the story into separate chunks, it actually made it so more people were willing to consume the stories and thus, the virality was higher.
Putting the first sentence in bold so their eye gets caught and they start reading the sentence of the story and then their trapped, they’ve already the first sentence, now they’re definitely going to finish it. I would say short sentence. Try to turn every comma into a period. I stole this idea from Seth Godin. Try to turn every comma into a period because short sentences are easy to read. All these things add up. They definitely make a difference in how…they add up.
Andrew: I’m looking at sixbillionsecrets. I’ve got a feeling that people in the audience are going to be going back to your websites and now seeing in them in a whole new way. Because I see the same web site I saw maybe an hour ago, before you and I even talked, and I’m seeing it completely differently now. “sixbillionsecrets.com’, first sentence, always bold, every sentence is on it’s own line, it’s its own paragraph.
Andrew: If they don’t do that, do you automatically do it for them?
Emerson: We do it for them automatically, yeah. We automate everything, so that’s part of the reason why we’ve been able to grow as fast as we have in such a small team. And when I say small team, we have 24 people now, which is really exciting for me. There’s all kinds of stuff that I don’t have to do now which other people like to do, which is, I mean, as a startup founder is, I think, the most exciting thing about scaling, but we were at two full-time employees two years ago, and we were at five a year ago, and now we’re up to 24. So throughout most of this, the growth of this, we only had a couple of people. We didn’t even have a full-time developer until a year ago, so we had to just think really creatively about how we use our time and we, oh there was a point that I was…
Andrew: You automate everything.
Emerson: Yes. So we had to, we had to figure out how to do this, how do you have, how do you maintain six websites with five people? Well, you have to figure out how to automate it. We are zealots about automating every single thing that humans could do, that theoretically a script could do, too. That’s the reason why each site that we have now takes only a few minutes a day to maintain, because we’ve able to effectively utilize the creative energy of our community to do most of the curation, the creation, the filtration, et cetera.
Andrew: How do you automate things like putting line breaks after every sentence, when you don’t have a full-time developer? Back then, how would you have done it?
Emerson: We used a lot of outsourcing websites, like scriptlance, elance, freelance, things like that.
Andrew: You just go on there and you say, I need an input box, I need to do this, can you give it to me?
Andrew: And that’s it?
Andrew: Wow, all right. You know I wanted to go through the full story and find out how you put together the other sites, but maybe what you can do instead, since we don’t have that much time, is help us understand how you think about coming up with new websites. I can see how you’ve automated and systemized the whole process of creating your content, what about the process of creating new websites like dailyborrow, dailycute.net, meanstash, ragestash, how do you come up with these ideas?
Emerson: I’d say the single biggest myth that people have when they look at our company and what we do is that, what you touched on earlier when we first started talking, it looks like we just throw up random websites, and we are lucky. We are lucky, but not with the websites that we have chosen to launch. We used a lot of data. This isn’t, and this is the reason why, there are a number of other networks that are similar to us, most of which have not been able to achieve the same degree of success that we’ve had, because they don’t have the same systematic way of evaluating the potential, the probability of success for a new website. So they’ll throw up 20 websites and they’ll have, maybe, one that does kind of good, but it’s definitely not a very targeted endeavor. So what criteria do we use? That’s part of our secret sauce.
Andrew: What’s the process? Okay.
Emerson: So we have 14 websites, we launched 15. One of them was a complete failure and we learned our lesson from that. Don’t stray too far from the car. We strayed too far from our core. Our success rate is obviously very high. To dive into the specifics of how we choose websites could be giving away more than I feel comfortable with. But I can say more generally that we look at what’s working elsewhere. In the same way that MuggleNet was known as the most innovative Harry Potter website because I would look at what the best ideas from other industries were and take them to the Harry Potter industry, if you will.
Well, we do the same thing now. We look at what’s working in other industries and we say, how could this apply to our industry? What data do we have to validate our assumptions? At what confidence interval can we say that because A=B that B will equal C. That’s the general process we use. We run every site through a list of criteria. The content on a broad scale has to be easy to create, has to be widely available, it to be enough to [??], etcetera.
Andrew: All right. At the beginning of this interview I said why won’t someone who watches your growth or watches [??] growth with a related network, or just gets inspired, why can’t they do this? You’ve told me a little bit about why they can’t. First of all, they’re not thinking small enough with their content, they’re not studying the virality as much as you do. They don’t obsess on new ideas like how do we get people to like a fake organization on crushing leaves? What else though? In fact, does all of this only work because you had MuggleNet in the early days?
Emerson: Yes. Because of what I learned writing MuggleNet.
Andrew: What about though the traffic, if you didn’t have the traffic from MuggleNet, like the person who is listening to us doesn’t, would you have been able to build this whole business?
Emerson: I would have. But it would have taken a lot longer. Because I would have had to do a whole lot more grinding. Because getting that critical mass of people on gives me hope, it was key, it was incredibly important.
Andrew: What kind of grinding to you have to do? I imagine a lot of people that are listening to us are grinding right now. What kind of grinding would you do?
Emerson: The same grinding that I did early on in MuggleNet where I emailed thousands of people and said hey, you should link to me and I’ll link to you. That kind of thing. So commenting on every blog that you’ve ever been to and all the standard ways of getting people to come check out your project.
Andrew: Got you. That stuff feels like a grind. We as entrepreneurs have this big vision of where we belong in life, which is what got us started in business in the first place. We feel like that’s beneath us. We feel like if we’re doing that then we’re making a mistake. We feel like is we’re sending out a thousand emails to people, then maybe it’s too much work, Kevin Rose [SP] would never do that. Why should I bother?
Emerson: Right. I would say that, for further reading, if there was one book I would recommend that helps synthesize as much of what I learned over the years running MuggleNet, I would say Eric Ries’ book, “The Lean Startup” is the book I would recommend head and shoulders above the rest.
Emerson: It just does the best job of summarizing the most important information that you need to be able to do a startup without having the right mentors, right advisers. Obviously, you can learn all this the hard way, like I did, over ten years, which is what I regret because I did learn this stuff the hard way. I shouldn’t have taken me as long it did to get MuggleNet to the level that it eventually got to. But that’s because I didn’t have things like Mixergy. Or maybe I did but I wasn’t smart enough to seek them out yet. But I would say you can condense a whole lot of mistakes into a very short period of time if you read books like the Lean Startup and you actually implement the best practices from those types of advisers.
Andrew: How to you listen to Mixergy? It feels like you’ve got a different way of learning from most people. Do you just listen to it in the background while you’re doing other things? Or do you have another way to listen to it? How do you absorb these interviews?
Emerson: I used to listen it Mixergy in the car. Gabby [SP] and I would listen to it together, driving around, not very productive time otherwise. Then I switched, now I only read transcripts. The main reason for that is I read really, really fast. I can get through an entire Mixergy interview in about ten minutes, 15 minutes as opposed to an hour of listening.
Andrew: Are you just reading the transcript [??]…
Emerson: …I copy and paste every single thing that I want to review later into a separate document, it’s kind of like me dump list for every good idea that I don’t want to forget.
Andrew: I see. Are you reading it on the website? Is the way that I’m presenting it easy for you to get through?
Emerson: Yes it is. Also because you ask such good questions, I can only read the questions that I think are going to elicit the most valuable information. When I say I read in ten minutes, I mean I skip maybe a third of the questions because I’m not as interested in that information.
Andrew: What are useful questions for you?
Emerson: Usually background for me is not as interesting as the specific tactics that people use to get where they are. I spent enough time reading success stories to understand the general…I feel my level of knowledge there is at a point where I don’t need to spend more time reading background of people. But the tactics they’re using, I pick up all kinds of good ideas, especially from when you do relevant interviews with people that are in similar industries. I see, ‘Oh, why didn’t I think to do that’? It’s easier to take that knowledge and apply it in a more direct, tangible way that adds to the bottom line of the company.
Andrew: One of the people who I interviewed is Ben Ha, of the Cheeseburger Network. Very similar industry. He’s getting a ton of attention, and you, to my knowledge, aren’t getting even a fraction of attention in the business world. Why? Why is he getting more attention than you?
Emerson: I’m not as excited about getting attention for doing this. I just like figuring out how to do what we’re doing and do it better. Me getting attention doesn’t really….now that we’re hiring, anybody in Chicago who is smart and needs a job, come talk to us because we’re hiring like crazy right now. I’d say the basic reason is that we haven’t tried to get attention. We’re just quietly doing our own thing behind the scenes. Refining, perfecting, improving. We’re growing like gangbusters, and the business we’re in, we don’t really need a lot of attention to be successful in it.
Andrew: What’s he missing from his business? What do you see him do and go, “That just doesn’t work”, or “He’s not getting this one part?”
Emerson: There are a lot of things. I’m sure that a lot these things that I can mention are things that they know are problems. They only have so many resources like we do. We have tons of things that are wrong with our sites, too. There are tons of little things that our research has shown to be either ineffective, or less effective than better…..I don’t even know how I would single out one particular thing.
Andrew: I thought maybe there was something that you were looking at and saying, “That guy’s just not getting Facebook properly”, or something else. I guess I’m….
Emerson: I don’t understand why they don’t have mobile sites.
Andrew: You mean, why don’t their sites work well on mobile?
Emerson: Yeah, that seems like a really obvious thing to have in the year 2011. That’s one of the things I don’t understand, why they don’t have mobile sites.
Andrew: That’s what I was looking for. But if I go to sixbillionsecrets.com on my iPhone, I’m going to get a different experience than if I see it on the web.
Andrew: More streamlined.
Emerson: More streamlined.
Andrew: I got a feeling that a lot of business people are going to be checking out your website. I do feel like we’re not studying the right companies. We spend endless time looking at Twitter, and dissecting why Twitter worked, and not enough time looking at the other sites who are too busy to get on our radar. Who are just coming up with clever solutions to problems we didn’t even know existed. Let me read a quick e-mail here from Dylan Jones. I like to give out the names of the people who give me testimonials for Mixergy Premium, so that the audience knows these are really people. Dylan Jones of DataQualityPro.com sent me this e-mail. He said:
“Hey Andrew, just signed up for your courses. Man, I wish I had done that at the start. Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.”
I got his permission to e-mail this. If he’s going to call himself dumb, I want to make sure I get his permission. He says:
“I’ve just downloaded the course on customer acquisition blueprint, and it’s given me so much focus. I’m going to start getting data on how we apply this, and we’ll share those results with you along the way.”
I love, by the way, when people don’t just use what we’ve taught in the courses, but send me secret information saying, ‘Andrew, here’s what we’ve done, here are the numbers that show that this stuff works’.
He also got the course on LinkedIn by Lewis Hows [??], he says ‘It’s a killer too. I thought I knew everything about LinkedIn’, there’s just so much that he didn’t know, he’s realizing. Then he caught a mistake, we fixed that. He finishes:
“Up at 6 AM applying your courses. Totally amped. Rock on, Andrew.”
Well, thank you, Dylan. That’s the whole idea behind these courses. If you take these courses, you’re going to get organization in your business and you’re going to get actionable tactics that you can use and get results from quickly. It’s not unusual for someone to take a course, and then within a few hours e-mail me and say, ‘Here’s the result, Andrew’. I didn’t do a good enough job promoting that customer acquisition blueprint by Juan Martetegui. It’s given me a lot of focus here on Mixergy, too. I hope if you’re a member, you go and take that session.
If you’re not, go to mixergy.com/premium and become a premium member. Join us. You can see, I’m giving you real names of real people who are getting real results from these courses. I know the person who’s listening to us right now is wondering whether it work or not. It will work for you like it worked for them, or I will personally give you your money back.
How did I do with that? I am trying to get a little more organized with my promotion, but I’m not sure yet if I’ve nailed it.
Emerson: You do a much better job of it than other comparison….not that people do exactly what you do, but I would say in general you do a good job of making a compelling value prop. [??] I think using real people and really specific examples is the absolute best way to do it. We found that the most effective way to cross-promote content across our network is having putting the actual content on our sites. So if you go on any one of our websites, you’ll notice that the third post is always going to be a piece of content from another site on the network. That’s the single best way to draw people in. Make them laugh at it and they’ll want more.
Andrew: I’d love to just get more and more tactics from you, but I want to finish this up with a great final question that will elicit the perfect tactic from you. But I don’t even know how to phrase that question. Is there one big tactic that you can leave us with? One that if you were in the audience you would go, Andrew nailed it for me, he made the whole thing worthwhile?
Emerson: I don’t know what the best question would be. But the last piece of advice I would give would be test everything. Test every one of your assumptions. AB test everything and then AB test it again, and the AB test 35 more combinations of things. Don’t just AB test if you have a website. AB test if you have a coffee shop. The power of getting feedback from external stakeholders is invaluable. We would never have achieved a fraction of the success that we’ve had now if we hadn’t conducted thousands of tests. You will not believe how wrong you are and until you ask the right question and you run the right test. They can be really simple tests.
Most of the testing that we’ve done, we just send out a tweet. Hey guys, which one of these two YouTube, which one of these two video titles would make you more likely to click? We just do a quick AB test on that. Sure enough, the difference between getting one title A versus title B can be the difference between 100,000 video views. So test, test, test, test again, keep testing, test some more, and then test again.
Andrew: Do you test in you real life too? I think I’ve told people in the audience that Andrew Warner is not my real name. I tested it. I was doing all these phone calls in college. I tested a bunch of names, the name Andrew worked, the name Warner worked. Do you test anything in real life?
Emerson: Oh absolutely. Take my reading routine as an example. I think it shows the kind of type A personality that I have. I’m always trying to integrate things that I’ve learned from my independent study, if you will. I’m always testing different ways of practicing mental [??]. So I’ll give you an example. Say I read a book on negotiation. There’s lots of great advice, there’s great stories from expert negotiators, etcetera.
What I’ll do is I’ll run through a variety of scenarios in my head where I think of actual negotiations that I was in and how I might be able to apply these lessons in those scenarios. I’ll test different combinations of how the questions are asked. It can elicit totally examples. There are a thousand different things you can test within that idea. I’m always testing different ways of making sure that I’m applying the knowledge that I’m learning. That’s the most important part.
People will read a book and then they’ll never review it. Reviewing is the first thing you have to do. The second thing you have to do is you have to practice using it. The only way you’re going to do that is if you have a system for making yourself apply it. Mental rehearsal is the best way to do that. Because you’re not going to able to call up someone on the phone and say hey, I need to practice negotiating on you.
But mental rehearsal, one of the most important finding from the brain research that’s been occurring over the past ten years is that mental rehearsal is just as effective as actual rehearsal. They found that people practicing playing the piano or practicing shooting free throws with the people who, in the control group you do nothing, the people practicing by actually shooting free throws, or people who are rehearsing in their head practicing shooting free throws they had the same increase in their ability to make free throws in the group that was doing it in their head and the group that was doing it actually in person.
If you really think about that in your life, what you can achieve without having to actually go out there and physically get that experience in the real world- obviously you want real world experience too- there has to be a combination. But the implications of that are huge.
Andrew: I could spend hours just talking to you. I love ideas like this. I love the way in which your mind works, or the organized way in which your mind works. I hope that you’ll come back here and do another interview. Can I get you on the record right here on camera saying you’ll do it again?
Emerson: I’ll do it again.
Andrew: How can people connect with you if they want to say thank you? I always urge the audience to connect with my guests and say at least thank you.
Emerson: I’m a pretty easy guy to get a hold of. my email is email@example.com. Especially with a group like this I would love to hear from you. I would especially love to hear from you if you know any good people in Chicago, or willing to move to Chicago. Our sites are all PHP, but we’re looking just any smart people and we have a thousand dollar referral bonus, so I would love to hear from you if you know any smart people that we should hire.
Really if you listen to Emerson for a full hour you know that there’s a lot more in there for you to learn from. I remember that Napoleon Hill said that he directed his son to go get a job that paid a little bit less, but was run by a person that he admired, that would be his mentor. Because learning on the job is way more valuable than just collecting a paycheck on the job.
Anyone who has listened to you for an hour knows that there’s a whole lot more to learn and that a great way to learn it is to actually be on the inside to get those answers that I even can’t get and am not entitled to as an interviewer. Where can they go find out about jobs?
Andrew: S-P-A-R-T-Z-M-E-D-I-A.com for the transcribers. Thanks for doing the interview.
Emerson: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you all for watching.