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.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed this . . . Is Joel a developer, Alex?
Alex: His background is in development, yeah.
Andrew: He was, right. The thing that intrigued me about him is, this guy Joel Hooks created a site called Egghead which offered developer video training. And he did it really well and I got to . . . Let me see. I’m looking at my own website, $250,000 a month in revenue, which is substantial. And I think one of the things that he told me during the interview was that he learned how to do it by joining this program, joining this course. And the course is now called Stacking the Bricks. And I’ve heard several developers take that program, take that approach to heart and actually build businesses.
And these are developers, people who are kind of like very analytical and not willing to fall for some BS thing that somebody does online with a lot of creativity and some kind of launch formula, but just want something that works. And they’re substantive people and they’ve got substantive businesses.
And one of the people who was listening to that live interview that I did with Joel, was Alex Hillman, and he said, “Hey, I’m the co-owner of this thing,” or co-something of this thing and I thought, “Oh, you’re not, this woman Amy Hoy create it. What kind of hanger on are you?” And he was a good guy. So I took him seriously. And it turns out that he is the kind of secret not-so secret co-owner of the business. Amy Hoy is someone who’s such a loudmouth. I know that she might be, and she’s probably going to be insulted by everything I say. I stopped following her on Twitter because I feel like she was, that little thing from her is too harsh for me.
I remember being at a conference, the first time that I met her. This guy gets on stage and he says, “This is what a lot of startups need to do for their business.” She goes, “Real businesses need this too.” He goes, “What?” “Not everyone needs to be a startup who buys into the BS of raising money.” I’m sure I’m misremembering parts of that, but she . . .
Alex: She doesn’t sound like it.
Andrew: Right. So I could see why Alex wouldn’t get much attention when he’s partnered with Amy, and Amy also is a very substantive person. I feel a little scared of her, but I always appreciate that what she’s doing actually works because I’ve talked to the people who she’s worked with.
And Alex Hillman, apparently is her co-founder in the business. And he is running Stacking the Bricks. They help people make the shift from service businesses into products that they can sell over and over. So Joel was a developer. He was selling his time for money and now he’s got this product.
All right, we’re going to find out how they’re doing and how they built up this business. And if you’re trying to teach anything, I think there’s a lot for you to learn from this.
We could do this all thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first will help you hire your own developer who’s trading time for money. It’s called Toptal. And the second will help you get your website hosted right. It’s called HostGator. But I’ll talk about those later.
Alex, let’s get into the interview.
Alex: Let’s do it. I’m excited to be here, Andrew.
Andrew: What’s your revenue?
Alex: So we’re on track to do $750,000 this year.
Andrew: Okay. And profit? Well, you know what? On track is a little bit hard to predict. What did you do last year?
Alex: So we did . . . I can give you . . . pull up the exact number, give me one second.
Andrew: What are you using to edit your books? Are you going into QuickBooks?
Alex: I’m actually pulling up a spreadsheet. I keep track of this somewhere else.
Andrew: You do it in the spreadsheet?
Alex: I know, I’m super old school like that.
Andrew: While you’re doing that I’ll say, one of things I’m dying for is somebody to create like up to the minute income statements. I don’t know if I’m missing something by asking for that, maybe there’s something better than that but I just want to see up to the minute thing.
Alex: So we did $480,000 and change last year in 20 . . .
Andrew: And how much of that do you get to keep? Do you personally get to keep . . . ? I’m guessing, $125,000.
Alex: So me and Amy split is 40%, 60%, and the vast majority of that is profit. This is a very, very high margin business.
Andrew: You guys don’t do a lot of ads.
Alex: We don’t. Actually, we are experimenting with ads for the very first time as of today.
Andrew: Really? It’s all content marketing for you guys.
Alex: Zero on advertising. It’s been 100% content marketing up to this point in systems. And yeah, I mean, we’ve got not even $1,000 a month in software that we spend.
Andrew: Does it bother you that Amy is getting all the attention?
Alex: It doesn’t bother me. In fact, my other business, so I started and I’m a co-founder of a co-working space as well. And in that business I’m very much the front person of an effectively silent partner, and that as well. So it’s actually, in a lot of ways, kind of nice to have a business where I don’t have to be on or the face. But there are some interesting and sometimes confusing experiences for some of our students and our customers, where they’ll write in, you know, all of our e-mails go out with Amy’s name on it. So when they reply, and it’s not Amy, they’re like, “Wait a second. Who’s Alex?” Kind of like the reaction you had. “Who’s this Alex guy?”
Alex: It’s coming from a legit source, but you know, they’re not sure, am I the support guy? And it’s not really until they get into one of our programs where they see me in lessons, where they see me in an actual exercise and things like that they realize, “Oh, I’m actually a part of this.”
Andrew: The other thing that you own is Indy Hall. This is a co-working space in Philly, right?
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: I’ve been wondering can co-working spaces still compete in a world where WeWork sucking all the oxygen?
Alex: Oh yeah, absolutely. If anything, we’ve grown better and faster since WeWork came on the market. They’re spending all the money on advertising to educate the market that co-working is even an option . . .
Andrew: But, all these other option . . . I almost want to do an interview with you just on that because I’m fascinated by co-working spaces. But then if someone’s thinking of co-working, they just think, “Let’s just go to WeWork,” right?
Alex: Until the experience kind of sucks. And then they’re like, “Well, wait, I wonder if there’s other options out there.”
Andrew: That’s it. They say, “I like this whole co-work . . . ” So you get refugees from WeWork?
Alex: Yeah. I would say WeWork is probably like our third or fourth source of new membership these days.
Andrew: What’s number one?
Alex: We also have the advantage of knowing what we focus on. We kind of know who we are and what we’re about. We know who our membership is and we don’t really go after, we don’t directly go after the same membership. We don’t do teams. We don’t do companies. We really focus on the individual, the freelancer, who I think tends to feel kind of lost in the mix, in a giant 40,000 to a 150,000 square foot WeWork.
Andrew: Look at this, yeah, the highest price option you have is $300 a month.
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: Meanwhile, I am in a Regus, I think I’m now up to $1,700 a month but I get four walls and a lot of space and all that. Yeah. I see, so, basically you’re offering desk space, right?
Alex: Actually, that’s not true. The other thing, it’s not obvious from our website, is that 70% of our members almost never use a desk. It’s more like a club with a clubhouse, kind of model. So you have an online community. The reason people join Indy Hall is because they want to be around other people, not because they need a desk to work out. The desk is sort of an added benefit in a lot of cases. In some cases, it’s a gateway drug but people are coming to a place like Indy Hall really because they’ve gone out on their own, they’re doing their own thing or increasingly they’re remote for the first time sometimes, or remote for the second time when they learned some lessons the first time and they’re like, “Being by myself is not good.”
Andrew: You’re not selling space, you’re selling online community essentially?
Alex: And in-person community, events, gathering, really you come in, because you can get a desk anywhere, you have a desk view of a dining room table in your house you could work at. What’s the difference between that and any other desk you can work at?
Andrew: So that if somebody is paying but they’re not getting the desk, what are they getting? They’re getting access to the events?
Alex: Well, I’d say they’re getting access to each other. Think about all the reasons you join any other sort of profession.
Andrew: But where do they get access to each other? In a Slack group?
Alex: So we’ve got Slack, we have an email discussion list, and again, having a physical place to come into, even if you’re not working at a desk, just to know that there is a . . . Think about it almost like a country club or you join the chamber of commerce, all of these examples of professional communities have existed throughout history. There just wasn’t one that kind of spoke to our generation.
Andrew: So they come in if they want to, maybe as little as one day a month, they could come in and get desk space, but the rest of the time they still are involved in the whole online community and the in-person events, that kind of thing.
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: If they want to come in and sit on a day that they didn’t pay for, they pay a day fee. Is that what it is?
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: Interesting. I’m kind of fascinated by that because I like the idea of . . . I’m fascinated by real estate with a brand, you know.
Andrew: All right. Let’s get into you and Stacking the Bricks. You started out as an entrepreneur, it feels like from the beginning. You told our producer that you found rocks in front of your dad’s office. You remember what you did with those?
Alex: I sold them to his patients.
Andrew: You did?
Alex: I did. That’s true.
Andrew: What kind of patients did he had?
Alex: My dad was a chiropractor. And he had a home office that he had opened a couple of days a week. Sort of like off times and things like that. And yeah, we had like a hedgerow and I’d go and I’d pull rocks out of that and stack them up on top of this, like barrel box thing that was next to the door. And I would tell people that if they needed a door stopper, I had one for them.
Andrew: And they would buy it.
Alex: They would buy it.
Andrew: Wow. And you felt no guilt, no nothing? You felt excitement about it?
Alex: I did. I mean, I’m sure some of them may have been buying rocks out of some sort of charm or guilt or somewhere in between from this seven or eight-year-old selling rocks. But the reality is I also went to like . . . And my mom was really into crafting. I remember going to craft shows and seeing people with literally painted rocks, and they were selling them as door stoppers. So like, I didn’t think I was taking advantage of anybody. I had a rock, it could hold the door open, you have a door that needs holding open. This is an exchange of goods for money.
Andrew: You know, I miss the simplicity of entrepreneurship at that stage. Like just finding an idea and selling it, and not having to have it hit a certain number of dollars before it makes sense, you know. Just the beauty of, “Here’s my idea. I’m going to go and sell it, and every dollar’s meaningful.”
How did you feel . . . Actually, before you and Amy had Stacking the Bricks, Amy was doing something online. What was she doing?
Alex: So Amy has been also selling things online for a very long time. We’ve talked about on our own podcast, as a kid, she figured out things like, you know, selling photography equipment on eBay or she was doing like Ikea lamp arbitrage selling Ikea lamps at a markup on eBay . . .
Andrew: Because you couldn’t just buy Ikea lamps delivery at the time, right?
Alex: And a lot of people didn’t have an Ikea near them. And I think one of the things that Amy figured out early on is like things like the photo and the description really matter, you just like put the name on it and the people that are searching for it are going to find it, but you want to sort of entice them with what it is and why they’re going to love it. So she’s done things like that from a very young age.
But the online business that she had been doing, her and her husband had a software consultancy, their background’s in design and development like myself. And when we got together, they had just started their products business software as a service called Freckle, a time tracking platform.
Andrew: Before they had Freckle, where they or was she teaching?
Alex: She was blogging. I don’t know if she’d say she was teaching, although one of the examples that we use often is part of how Amy came to any version of internet fame or notoriety, was in the Rails community. She was actually a designer who was learning Rails so that she could build stuff. And there was concepts in Rails like active record and how you interact with the database and things like that the way they were being presented didn’t make sense to her. And so she kind of learned on her own, and she’s like, “Oh, wait, maybe there’s other people who didn’t make sense to, I’ll explain it the way it made sense to me.” And she started doing cheat sheets. And it was the cheat sheets that spread like wildfire in the early nascent Rails community . . .
Andrew: What’s an example of a cheat sheet?
Alex: What an example of a cheat sheet?
Andrew: Yeah, that she was offering that went viral.
Alex: So the one that I . . . We actually, get emails about to this day. Like over a decade later, is about active record and like database joins and how to read information and write information to and from a database, which is obviously critical when you’re building an app. But again, documentation just wasn’t what it is today back then. A lot of people that were creating it, developers, assumed that everybody understood these kind of complex concept.
Andrew: And her money came from where?
Alex: So at that point she was working as a consultant. She was being hired, time for money herself.
Andrew: Oh, really. Okay.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andrew: By the way, I’m going through all your stuff, whenever people mention something I go and try to check it out. And as I go to the websites, especially on Stacking the Bricks, I see Amy’s name all over, like Copyright 2010 to 2019, Amy Hoy. If you own the business, why is the copyright in her name?
Alex: So that’s a good question. The business . . .
Andrew: The company at the very bottom, Slash7 LLC. That’s her company, isn’t it?
Alex: Yes, it is. And we started this business as sort of a side project between our businesses. And if I’m being totally honest, at some point in the next year or two, we’re going to have to spin it off to its own business. We’re basically running . . .
Andrew: So it’s her business and, in theory, you guys both own it. You really get money out of the business. But she has to do the taxes on the business . . .
Alex: Architecturally, it’s set up as a profit share. That’s right. But for this . . . So she’s got . . .
Andrew: But it’s not even on your in LinkedIn profile. Your LinkedIn profile, I think maybe one of the reasons why Andrea, my assistant, wasn’t able to find your LinkedIn profile was that . . .
Alex: Because it wasn’t even on it. Yeah, that’s funny I didn’t even . . .
Andrew: It’s not even on there.
Andrew: Interesting. But you swear you own it.
Alex: I swear, verifiable.
Andrew: All right. You feel like you’re going to get screwed here, because like something is going to happen and she’s going to say, “No, you don’t own this businesses. My name is all over it. We’re just . . . ”
Alex: So, from a legal standpoint Amy definitely owns the business. I’d say one of the core themes of our relationship, I’d say to this day has been trust, and I think a really important note of that is like Amy and I were friends before we started working together. So there’s a lot of trust.
Andrew: How did you become friends?
Alex: We actually we met in line for Starbucks in the Austin Convention Center at South by Southwest. And I had been out and about talking to people, I had blown out my voice and I was waiting in line for tea. And standing with her, and Tom Conrad the former CTO of Pandora, just talking about the Internet of 2007. And as we walked away from that conversation, we just swapped information and stayed in touch. We got, I think, similar sort of world views as internet creators. We both had consulting businesses at the time and we liked making things and putting them on the internet. And we just became and stayed friends.
Andrew: One of the things that she did was she had this online conference. It looks like from your conversation with our producer, you said it was a three hour conference call. She charged $100 for it. She was teaching people how to launch software as a service. She and her husband had done it. Right?
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: Okay. And then I remember talking to her at the time. I loved her ideas, but I also saw that unlike me, I get juice from being around people all the time, give me more conversations with a limit at the end of the day. I love it. I don’t feel like she gets that kind of juice. I don’t think she wants to be travelling as much as I, for example, am traveling. And I know she’s had some issues that have kept her from doing it. It seems like she was looking for someone else to partner up with who could do more of the work. So it’s not all on her shoulders, right?
Alex: Well, I mean, so she had a business partner in her husband as well. So the two of them haven’t have grown that’s all for business, Freckle, to be its own standalone successful business. They have a very small team that runs that as well and a couple of other products they’ve spun up since.
I don’t know that, and I can’t speak for Amy on this one, I don’t think she was necessarily looking for somebody to like shoulder the burden. I think to your point though about where she gets her juice, I think something that Amy and a lot of our students have in common is that, you know, like some version of introversion, right? So a lot of folks get stuck when they’re starting a business or they’re building something, they want to get out there, even networking. Everything is kind of stacked in the favor of an extrovert. “I can get out there, I can talk to people. I can network all day long. I can hustle, hustle, hustle.” On top of that, yeah, you mentioned he has some health issues that, at the time weren’t as big of a piece of the equation but have definitely compounded that factor over the time. Every minute that she spends, she has to be really smart and intentional about how she spends her energy.
I’d say I am more on the extrovert side of things that I get my energy from conversations from connecting with people. But where we kind of bonded was sort of twofold, one is that we had started our businesses through first using whatever assets we had or building the most important thing in our mind, which is some connection to an audience that we can actually serve. So I didn’t start Indy Hall by signing a lease, I started Indy Hall by building a community. It took over a year to do that before we even started looking for spaces.
And Amy’s software business was not, “Let me come up with an idea then figure out who it’s for,” it’s, “Oh, I have a small software consultancy. Time tracking is a pain in the ass. I know a bunch of other people that are doing that. That problem exists. Maybe we can figure out, get a closer look at why people struggle with the time trackers they already have and make something better.”
So that sort of systematic look at who’s there, who are we already connected to and what problems do they have, I think is a key worldview that we’ve shared from the start.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s one of the things that makes me just love your program and respect it so much. It’s an understanding of who do we know and what’s their problem, right? And then, let’s start addressing the problem.
So the two of you got together in Vienna. Why?
And during one of those visits, we started having conversations about why all of our friends were hopping from startup job to startup job to corporate job to startup job miserable . . .
Alex: Well, they were miserable. You know, they were looking for something. I think, everyone’s looking for a little bit different, I think a common theme among our friends was some element of control. You know, you’d come in with promise of creativity and opportunity but then the startups got to grow or the corporations got to keep doing whatever the corporation is doing, and somebody else gets to decide what of your work matters. When you’re a creator and someone has the ability to take that away from you, it’s really aggravating and sometimes disheartening and sometimes it’s downright depressing.
So we saw lots of friends hopping, hopping, hopping and then occasionally we’d hear somebody say, “You know, I’m going out to the Bay Area and I’m going to raise some money and I’m going to start a startup of my own.” And Amy and I would look at each other and be like, “Well, now you’ve got two problems. Do you actually want to create a rocket ship of a company? Do you want to have 20, 50, 100 or more employees? Do you want to end up getting bought out and then just work like ending up in the exact same situation you’re trying to escape right now?” Like, why are people not considering all of the options between these three sort of cornerstones of startup job, corporate job and going out raising venture capital? And it was sort of in the space between those that we realized, “We’re seeing something that other people aren’t, maybe we should talk about that.”
Andrew: And so that is the core idea for this business. Recognizing that there’s a problem, developers specifically, is who you guys were going after, who were moving from job to job not finding any fulfillment, constantly moving around. The only alternative that they saw was starting their own company with a lot of venture funding, which was not a solution to the problem that they were going for. And you said, “There’s another way, a third path which is bootstrapped company that actually serves people’s problems. And you can grow in a way that you’re proud of.” And that’s what you were going to help them do. You launched this course, which we’re going to talk about in a moment. It was actually live for a long time and it didn’t work. We’re going to talk about why it didn’t work and what you figured out that made it work.
But first, I’ll tell you everyone about my first sponsor. It’s a company called HostGator. For anyone who likes Alex, likes whatever your idea . . . Let me say, for anyone who likes Alex. And who likes the ideas that you’re hearing here, which is a start up by building an audience, by writing and bringing people together towards your world view, and then creating a product. You want a good platform to host to your content. And I highly recommend, not my sponsor, which is HostGator, but WordPress. WordPress makes it so simple to host. It’s now running about a third of internet sites, right, Alex? It’s huge.
Alex: That’s what I hear. It’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest.
Andrew: Super simple, just works and you can host it on HostGator inexpensively and keep growing, and frankly, if you don’t like HostGator, you could just move it. Pick up your content and go somewhere else. But I have found that HostGator is just done a phenomenal job. What I did instead of moving was just grow with HostGator. The more traffic I got on my site, the more . . . This is for Bot Academy, I got excited about chatbots. I said, “Let’s go to HostGator, we’ll get a site.” We went with the cheapest plan. I think one of the cheapest plans. And then as we were hit with traffic I said, “Maybe we’ve outgrown HostGator.” And I called them up and they said, “No, we’ve got all these other plans. We just don’t feature them because most people don’t grow as much as you have.” I’ll go, “Well, can you move me to?” And they gave me a great deal on a plan that can handle an immense amounts of traffic, which is what we get.
So if you’re out there and you want to start content or any other site, bring it over to hostgator.com/mixergy, if you throw that /mixergy at the end, you’ll get the best price they have available and you’ll be helping . . . Frankly, you’ll be helping me by showing them that my ads work, hostgator.com/mixergy.
The first version of the course, Alex, was what?
Alex: So the first version was what you were actually mentioning earlier, which was, it wasn’t a course at all. We had that group of friends that were maybe interested in starting a SaaS company of their own. At this point, 37signals was kind of the pinnacle of internet business for a lot of folks in our audience, people who had bootstrapped this wildly successful SaaS and then, you know, another friend of Amy Hoy, had started Freckle and Freckle wasn’t quite big enough to fully replace their high value consulting, but they’d done really well out of the gate. And people started asking questions. So Amy said, “I’m going to do a conference call where we’re going to basically work through an outline of what we did, what I learned, what I’d do differently, and it’s going to be three hours. And it’s $100.” And I think she had nine people sign up for that and go through, listen to what she had learned, what she had done.
And at the end say, you know, she’s asking, “What did you learn? What were your takeaways?” And they’re like, “This was some of the most impactful lessons that I’ve been able to get real lessons about why would somebody that doesn’t have outside funding, somebody who’s not super internet famous, somebody who like it has some assets in it, but it’s actually leveraging them, like we want more. How do how do we get more of this?”
And it was around there that she came to me and said, “Maybe we should think about turning this into some kind of program or course. Do you want to work on this with me?”
Andrew: In the early days, one of the things you did was write out on . . . Post-it Notes was it?
Alex: Yeah. It was list an old school Trello board, basically on the dining room wall, with Post-it Notes, absolutely.
Andrew: Of, what? What were you trying to record?
Alex: So we were trying to collect and organize and synthesize what are all of the roadblocks, either imagined or real, that people run into from, “I have a job that I think I want to leave,” to launch day. And it was a mix of like what are the things they think they need, what are the things that they actually need, what are the roadblocks they run into, what are the mental hang-ups they run into, what are the mistakes they make. It was just sort of this big collection of problems, mistakes and challenges. And then we started kind of rearranging it into clusters of things that were related and realized, “It’s not a perfect linear path,” and I think teaching a perfect linear path, anyone who says, “You know, just follow these three simple steps to start a business,” you should be very, very skeptical of.
We don’t teach three simple steps to start a business, but we teach fundamentals that in a lot of ways, everything we teach today close to a decade later, maps back to those core problems, things like, “Well, no one knows who I am,” or, “I don’t know what I should make,” or, even within that, “I don’t know what I should make,” goes in two different directions. It’s, “I don’t have any ideas,” to, “I have lots of ideas, I have no idea what people would buy.” And a bunch of different variations in between.
Problems talking about, you know, people really struggle to describe what their thing is, and I think that’s a human thing. I think developers have it bad, but I think we are all really bad at describing the thing that we’re trying to communicate. And that sort of real world Trello board of sorts became the initial itinerary for a program where each week we were going to basically turn that problem into a lesson and a challenge, and you’ll learn how to do a thing and you try it and you go do it.
Andrew: This was called, “The Year of Hustle”?
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: One of things that I admired about the way it was presented was, it was just like on a like a blog post. It didn’t feel like a long form sales letter. It just felt like a simple blog post with an offer to buy. You know what I mean? And that almost . . .
Alex: Almost all of our products start out that way.
Andrew: Why did you laugh when I said that? What was I touching on that I didn’t even realize?
Alex: I think a lot of people really over engineer what they need. You know, people talk about landing pages and sales pages and marketing pages and all these things, and the reality is that they don’t think about what’s on it. And what’s on it and who you wrote it for is the only thing that matters. You know, I mean, even more recent, a case study on that, I launched like a retreat for fellow co-working operators back in the fall. I didn’t even have a website. I did a Google doc. Like it was as rough as possible, and I think there is an element, and I guess this depends on the audience that you’re trying to communicate with, but I think being honest about the fact that like, this is new, we’re trying something, this is not polishing up something to be bigger or fancier or presenting something other than quite literally what it is, has always kind of been our own approach.
We don’t know, again, when you’ve got limited . . . We were both running this as effectively a side business, a side project business initially, and frankly to this day, and Amy has these health issues, we have to be really strategic about what we’re spending time on and the polish can come later, so.
Andrew: I actually felt that maybe it was your way of saying, “Screw you to the whole marketing world,” and maybe I’m read too much into it, but it felt like a more authentic way of presenting it. And it almost embarrassed all the other people who had copyrighted landing pages that were professionally done. Just felt more like, “We’re too smart for that. We’re going to create this . . . ”
Alex: I’ll be honest with you, I think it’s more that we just don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what other people do. Unless those people are our customers, I don’t care what they think and do. And that’s, I mean . . .
Andrew: But you are not even been looking around for new ideas? So the only the only marketing thing that I see, marketing software that I see on your site is Brennan Dunn’s tool, RightMessage.
Alex: Yeah, yeah.
Andrew: There’s nothing else that you guys use. So maybe it’s just that you don’t like marketing.
Alex: No, I think marketing is awesome. And marketing tools and systems is really where I’ve spent a lot of my time in the last couple of years. But they’re the cherry on top. They’re not the whole cake. And people aren’t buying for the marketing tool, they’re buying for . . .
Andrew: So what is the cake? What is the part that matters more?
Alex: I think that’s a great question. I think the cake is having somebody find you and have you be able to describe who they are and what their problem is, as well or better than they can.
Andrew: How could you do that?
Alex: So the key to everything that we’ve done has been immersing ourselves in whoever it is that we’re trying to create this thing for. And maybe, honestly, we’ve not tried, I think it sounds to people like, “Well, what audiences kind of go after?” Right? So, it’s brainstorm a bunch of things, “I want to create things for real estate agents,” or, “I want to create things for Airbnb hosts,” or whatever it is.
And we’re like, “Well, who are the people that we ought to know? What are the audiences and the communities that were already a part of? And, how do we take the time to sort of get to know who they are?” And so . . .
Andrew: How do you do that? You don’t do discovery calls. What you do then?
Alex: We don’t do discovery calls. So the first version of what we talked, it was something called Sales Safari, it really boiled down to go to the forums where you and your coworkers and your peers hang out and read them. And what we didn’t realize . . . It was read them and take notes. And people said, “Okay, that makes sense.”
And then people would come back and we’d say, “Where are your notes?” And they said, “Well, I didn’t really take any.” We’d say, “Well, what did you see?” And they’re like, “I didn’t really see anything.” I’d said, “Well, what did you read?” They’d say, “Well, I was reading the discussion,” I’d say, “What were your takeaways?” And they said, “People were just talking.” And I was like, “Okay. We say the instruction is to read and take notes. We need to be a little more specific about this, clearly.”
So the next version after that was, “Well, what specific things can you be reading for?” And really boiling down how people express problems, how people express pain. And I think really the heart of it is, if you start looking at every single conversation on the internet, from the perspective of why is this conversation happening in the first place? Why did somebody go on the internet and ask a question? Why did they ask a room full of strangers and put themselves on the line to potentially look like an idiot or a newbie? Why did they go online to a room full of strangers and asked for help? That’s a really strong indicator, we think, of a problem.
And when you start looking for patterns in the things that people bring up on their own, and you start extracting those patterns and you extract a language [inaudible 00:31:40], that can start to inform, “Well, I’m not going to say it the way I think about it, I’m going to say it the way that they think about it.” The things that you’re talking about, they land on the page and the things we hear all the time are basically like, “Did you read my mind?” And I’m like, “Not your mind specifically, but people just like you. Yeah, I read their mind because they said it out loud on the internet.”
Andrew: And so you gave them a list of questions as they were reading to go and try to answer, pull out examples of how people were expressing problems, right?
Alex: So we weren’t really giving people questions because, again, when you use questions like interview questions, you’re expecting that the answer people are going to give is honest and complete, not that they’re trying to lie or anything like that, but sometimes they don’t know why the problem is a problem.
So it’s more about looking for when your audience is asking questions, looking for when they’re complaining, looking for when they’re talking about things that they love and the things that they hate, when they’re talking about and recommending the tools that they use. And using all of those as, again, an individual conversation is a data point where you’re looking for as collections of data points of, “Oh, this comes up as a pattern.” And everyone in that audience seems to ignore it because they’re like, “Oh, noob, you should know that by now.”
And to us obvious, but to many other people unobvious opportunities. If people are complaining about a problem or talking about a problem or a challenge or asking questions about something they don’t understand over and over, and the answers they’re getting are insufficient, then there’s an opportunity to be the one who provides a more sufficient, more compassionate, more understanding and complete answer.
And that’s really at the heart of everything. I remember the example I was giving with Amy in her cheat sheet. She wasn’t doing a cheat sheet to create an audience, she was doing a cheat sheet because no one else could teach her to understand the concept the way she needed to understand it, and she got lucky in that case that there were other people with the same problem. And then she’s like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to wait for me to have a problem to take the time to go understand other people’s problems. They’re there, shouting them into the internet. Let me go capture those and figure out what I can make for them.”
Andrew: Now I’m doing it as you’re saying that. I went to producthunt.com/ask, where people who are interested in products can ask questions like, “How do I upload panoramas into Instagram?” And what you’re saying is, you want me to be aware of the questions people ask and look for ones that don’t have many answers, am I right?
Alex: So that’s one angle.
Andrew: What’s another one?
Alex: Not having many answer isn’t necessarily a prerequisite either. Looking forward the way other people answer them. Do other people answer them as completely as you think you could? Or could you, you know, a lot of times, and this is especially true in technical audiences, people give a short answer because they think that the value is getting right to the point. They don’t actually take the time to explain. They don’t take the time to teach.
Andrew: Okay, so if I see something that people have answered quickly and just kind of moved on from, but they didn’t explain, what am I then doing with that?
Alex: So in the case of, you know, content marketing or that’s, you know, creating written material, audio or video material or if you’re a software developer, you can create things other than content. You can create a plugin, you could create a template, a kit. Like the format doesn’t really matter. The question is, what could you create using the skills you already have to help make that problem go away? And then offer that to the people who are showing up over and over and over saying, “This is a problem. This is a problem.”
Andrew: Do I need to have multiple people ask that? So for example, if I see this one question here it’s, “What’s the best Android launcher for tablets?” I understand it, somebody who has a tablet, that’s not an iOS or an iPod device. They want a launcher that looks right. If it’s just being asked once and that’s it, is that worth me paying attention to?
Alex: It could be. I wouldn’t invest a ton of time into it. I think repeat questions are where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck. Do find [inaudible 00:35:44] people the people ask the same question.
The other thing, and it’s interesting that you went to Product Hunt, although it’s a site that’s familiar to a lot of folks that are listening to your show, one of the other components that we haven’t really talked about is who you focus on and that is more of a professional audience. Whether those are businesses or people who work in some sort of professional capacity. So people who are talking about their work problems, the work tools that they use, the skills that they need or they use. And that includes, not just the technology, but also things like management and communication and personal professional growth and things like that. So, the who you choose to research does really matter.
And one of the things that we did early on in the course is we said, “Pick whoever you want and then go do this research on them.” Then we realize that people would pick audiences who tended to be hobbyists or consumers and just people and places that the questions they were asking were scattered, vague, all over the place. There’s no real clear value that they can provide, versus deploying this process to a professional audience. If you can save somebody an hour or hell, you can save somebody 20 minutes, and that 20 minutes is billable, that created a whole lot of value for that person. If you can do that repeatedly and scaleably, you may have the beginning of a business.
Andrew: In the beginning, your process was content writing, get people on your list, more content and then offer the course that you created twice a year, right?
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: And was there beyond the checklist any other type of content that worked especially well?
Alex: So blog posts were really at the heart of it. And a lot of what we were doing then, and I actually I’d say, Amy was very much the face of the business then, it was a lot of talking about what she was doing in her business. So it was, “Here’s what we’ve done in Freckle. Here are examples of how we solve a particular problem,” or, “Here are real numbers.” Again, we’re talking about an audience of people who hadn’t really ever done the math on how they would replace a salary with product sales.
The product name, the course name, actually, the business name, Stacking the Bricks, it’s sort of a platform, but the course is actually called 30×500, which is a masterclass in what not to name your product. But that equation came from those conversations with those peers where we said, “You’re trying to replace $180,000 a year Bay Area salary,” because that was a meaningful Bay Area salary 10 years ago. And you know, “How many sales do you need in order to replace that?” And people looked at us like we had 10 heads.
We said, “Well, if you’re selling a product,” let’s say you’re selling the SaaS you want to create, let’s say your entry level plan is $30 a month, you realize that you only need 500 customers paying you $30 a month to hit that on an $180,000 a year gross to be fair. But for the sake of demonstrating the numbers, just sharing that math, was kind of showing people that they had a blind spot that they hadn’t even really taken the big goal and broken it down into the smaller component parts to realize, “Oh, wow, 500 people on the entire internet. Maybe I can do this.” And then be willing to pursue the path.
Andrew: You told our producer, “Truthfully, the first versions of this twice a year course didn’t really work because people weren’t implementing.”
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: I like that you guys care about that. That you didn’t say, “It didn’t work because we weren’t closing enough sales, it was that they weren’t implementing.” How did you know that they . . . ?
You know what? Before we get into how did you knew that they weren’t implementing, and then why you think they weren’t implementing, I’ll do a quick plug for my second sponsor is a . . . Do you know Toptal?
Alex: I do.
Andrew: You do? What do you know about Toptal? How do you know them?
Alex: So I mean, well, my co-working space is through, you know, there’s lots of mostly freelancers, so they’re not always hiring other folks. I’ve got lots of friends that run co-working spaces and lots of friends that are running bigger teams and things like that, and Toptal has come up a bunch of times as a go-to spot for finding really great freelancers.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s what it’s all about, finding developers, anywhere in the world who are the best of the best. We’re not talking about the cheap developers, we’re talking about Google level, Facebook level . . . These days maybe not Facebook. I feel like people are leaving Facebook so fast. Apple level developers. Who just happened to work in places that aren’t here in San Francisco, Bay Area.
If you’re out there and you’re looking to hire somebody. One of the best uses of it is, if you’ve got a new project, your team can’t handle it, you just want to bring somebody on who’s done it before to get you started. These are the guys to go for. Go to toptal.com/mixergy, you’ll get 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period. That’s Top as in top of your head, Tal as in talent. T-O-P-T-A-L.com/mixergy. And of course. Mixergy is M-I-X-E-R-G-Y.
By the way, Alex, I always thought that it would be interesting if somebody created a single place to go and find all the . . . Like if all of the co-working spaces united somehow. Like I really love that when I was going through Australia with my kids, if the local hotel couldn’t take my stuff or if I couldn’t find high speed internet in whatever Airbnb I had, there was always the option that I can go into a Regus, put my stuff there and go to meetings or go into a Regus, upload what I need at high-speed internet and then continue. And because I’m a member Regus over here, I could get Regus anywhere.
When I suggested that, I saw you smile, like some kind of united thing.
Andrew: What do you think of that?
Alex: So I think there’s a lot of interest in it. Since the early days of co-working, been a . . . We’ll call it an informal agreement of the co-working visa. So if you’re a member of any participating space in the co-working visa program, you get up to three free days at any other participating space. And there are spaces all over the world. The database for that became kind of scattered and chaotic because it was really . . .
Andrew: It’s like wiki, nobody uses wikis anymore.
Alex: It was being run on a wiki. Nowadays it’s run on coworking.org/visa, so it’s an actual database.
Andrew: Oh, on a page now?
Alex: They’re sort of rebuilding all of that. They built a thing in that actually keeps track of . . . It’s got like a dead man’s switch in it [inaudible 00:42:10], if you don’t verify that you’re still participating every [year 00:42:13], it’ll lose you from the database.
Andrew: I still feel like this is not getting enough love, because I can’t do a search that says, “I’m in,” like I’m going to go to Singapore in a few days.
Andrew: I’d love to be able to just punch in Singapore and see what comes up.
Alex: Yeah, it’s very much a work in progress. They really just started revamping this earlier in the day or earlier in the year, I should say. You know, the interesting thing about co-working in 2019 and sort of back to your earlier comparison between how do we compete in a world of WeWork, if you think of the word co-working like the word restaurant, it more describes like a really wide band of an of an ecosystem than a specific kind of business. And so, to join all the co-working spaces together with any sort of uniformity is really an interesting challenge because even within any given city, I think the majority of the best co-working spaces are independent and unique in their own way. And so, the trick is, which one’s going to fit your vibe, Andrew?
Alex: Once you’re in your Regus, you kind of know what you’re going to get, whereas you come to Indy Hall, you’d have to figure out, like what’s the Indy Hall like space in another city. I try and my team tries if we have relationships with spaces in other cities or we can usually do a quick bit of research to say, “Here are the places that I think are worth checking out. We’ll send people along.” But it is a deceptively difficult challenge to really have that kind of network that’s established in the way that you’re looking for.
Andrew: I also thought it would be a real estate play, like you would be a landlord and renting space out. But you said that you have a lease. I don’t mean to get it up right here.
Alex: That’s right. Yeah.
Andrew: How are you buying and lease and renting it out?
Alex: Well, so for me, the real estate is like is a hammer. It’s the least interesting part of the entire thing that we do here. It’s a means to an end. We went through a relocation about three years ago that was driven by a landlord that got greedy. And in that process we looked at buying as a subsequent option. And we, quite literally, the best option that we had before the option we ended up in was a hybrid joint venture with a real estate partner who would help us develop the space and then we’d buy them out over a five year period. There was some really exciting and interesting components to that as well in terms of being able to get members involved, almost a co-op ownership of the physical building. But quite frankly, we ran out of time.
So we’re going to lease, which for me is peace of mind and lets me focus on the thing that I actually care about, which is our people and how they connect with each other. And having a landlord that takes care of all of the physical things that I don’t have to think about, my team doesn’t have to think about, means we can focus on the problem that we set out to solve, which is independent people feeling disconnected and lonely from each other. Real estate is just a distraction from that for us.
Andrew: But isn’t that a long-term asset that you get to keep building up? None of the co-working spaces seem to own their own space. Regus doesn’t it. WeWork doesn’t.
Alex: It’s rare, and part of this is like it’s such a new industry, that a lot of places and people just don’t have the resources to buy property that they’re not sure people actually want. I think a lot of people make classic business mistakes in co-working except it’s very expensive to buy and fit out a building and then find out that the thing you created, nobody wants.
So I think if people deployed the 30×500 approach to co-working, they might, and frankly, we would have been in a better position earlier to buy the next time we move. And frankly, I’m glad that I don’t have to anytime soon. The next time we move, if we move, we’ll be into something that we own. I don’t regret not buying, mostly because, I mean, yes, there is the asset component, but I didn’t get in it to create that particular value. It’s just it’s not my vibe. It’s not my interest.
Andrew: Isn’t that a long term . . . ? All right. I’m going to do like a whole thing just on co-working space.
Alex: It’s okay, it’s okay.
Andrew: If there’s somebody out there who wants to do an interview with me on their co-work . . . You know what it would be interesting to do it with, Alex Dantas, that freaking guy knows everyone. Every time I have a question online, it seems like somebody says, “Alex would know. He runs a co-working space in Oakland.”
Alex: I don’t know him. I have to reach out.
Andrew: I want to go out. I’m going to go over . . . You might be the only person who doesn’t. I’m going to go over to his place and just record an interview in person with someone.
Andrew: Let’s come back to this. Why do you think that people weren’t implementing?
Alex: So I think there’s two parts to it. One is, we were asking people to let go of a lot of habits and a lot of expectations around business building early on. And to do that, a lot of our early lessons were more hypothetical, honestly. They were more brain lessons than work lessons, if that makes sense. They were more, “Here’s a way to think,” than, “Here’s a way to do.”
In our first versions of our course, the balance we got out of whack. They were great. People loved the lessons, the feedback we got was amazing. If we were selling this on, you know, reviews and testimonials alone, we would have been saying, “This is a hit,” except, what we really care about is, “Are people taking these lessons to heart and creating the thing that they showed up to create?” And they weren’t. And so we realized that the mindset was an important part of it but not knowing what to do next was the thing, really, that was missing.
And having concrete examples of what to do and how to put all the pieces together, was really at the heart of what was missing. We went through a couple of different versions of the course, and actually, Amy came back from Webstock as a developer design conference and in New Zealand, and she had taken a course a workshop with Kathy Sierra about learning design. And we’re big fans of Kathy and her most recent book “Badass” is like at the top of the list of recommendations.
Because all of her stuff kind of comes back to the same thing, which is getting in the shoes of the learner and thinking about the learner’s experience of being bad at something that is very new to them, and how unlikely they are to continue doing something that they’re bad at. And the sort of feedback loop of tiny wins that needed to be designed. And the experience of how those tiny wins fit together to get somebody, to quite literally, trust themselves to continue working, was the thing that was missing.
So she came back from the Webstock workshop saying, “We need to redesign the course. I think I know what’s missing. We need to focus more on the exercises like we already agreed, but this pacing problem of how do you get somebody who’s bad . . . ” And here’s where I think this is especially unique to a designer developer audience, and not just a designer developer audience, but most of our folks are like pretty top of their game, in terms of things professionally, like they’re really good at what they do. And they’ve been good at what they do for a really long time. And now they’re coming to our course to learn a totally new way of thinking about business, and marketing and product development. And for the first time in a long time, maybe in their entire career, they’re bad at something.
Alex: And we were really bad at embracing that. And you know, watching people who are very talented freak out because they’re bad at something, should have been an early sign, not that they’re weak or not prepared for business, but that it is . . . There’s a lot that we internalize that, “If I’m not instantly good at something, I’m bad at it, and if I’m bad at it, I must be bad. Something’s wrong with me.”
And so we needed to adjust the curriculum and adjust the way taught to be more practice oriented and to be designed to get somebody able to actually try it and see, “Oh, I’m not great at it, but I’m a little bit better than I thought I’d be. And I bet if I did it again, I get a little bit better yet and continue that cycle until, hey, I’m actually pretty darn good at this.” And apply that to all of the core components of what we were teaching.
Andrew: So less of a focus on ideas . . . Here’s what my producer said, “You stopped emphasizing the conceptual ideas behind the course and you focused more on exercises.”
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: Do you have an example of an exercise that represents a concept better or teaches it better than teaching the concept itself?
Alex: Absolutely. I mean, a great example I was just talking about a little bit before where we were teaching these, you know, go-read forums and pull out the answers, and even the live example that we had is like, you can interpret that a million different ways. So what we ended up doing was, first recording, we picked some sample threads and discussions. We’d actually record Amy or myself doing that process and sort of narrating how we did it. So it was more like a . . .
Andrew: You mean like a screen cast?
Andrew: “Here’s me, picking at a forum, going through the forum response. Now, look this guy just kind of chatting, I don’t care about that. I don’t care about that. But I do care about this. I’m writing it into a Google doc.” That’s what you do.
Alex: And why and sort of all the little nuance, and it was short. That was the other thing, all of the demos and exercises were quick. You don’t want to get lost in them.
Andrew: How short?
Alex: So 10 minutes.
Andrew: Ten minutes or less, okay. And then you have them do the work. How would you make sure . . ? You told our producer, “We made them do the work.”
Alex: That’s right. That was the other thing. The previous version of the course was dripped out content and there was nobody watching you do it, whether you did or not, just had the report back, if you wanted feedback.
So we took the course from a twice a year or almost like a semester long model, shrunk it down to this two-day boot camp where it was really just the essentials that you needed to get started. Not all of the things that we thought you might need to know ever. And together as a course or as a class, as a cohort of about 30 in a chat room, we’d all watch that demo video together. And then everybody would have a time box of 10, 15 minutes of your own, and now everyone is going and doing that same exercise that Amy just did or I just did on their own, they’re taking the notes. And they come back.
And then at the end of their time box period of doing the practice, you know, “How did you feel about that? Was it easier than you expected it was going to be? Or harder than you expected it was going to be?” Then we would have two volunteers share their work in front of the entire class. And we would critique them, and we’d give them constructive feedback and say, “Here’s what you hit.” Actually not only that, we’d show them our example. So they did the second source on their own. And then we showed them the teacher versions, they could compare and contrast their own beginner version with the teacher thing, “What do you think you missed? What do you think you right? What do you think you could do better next time?”
Andrew: So it was all at a specific time, and one of the challenges with teaching something online at a specific time is a lot of people can make it at that time.
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: Was that an issue for you?
Alex: It was, I mean, we had folks that were willing to stay up in the middle of the night, you know, from Japan or the Philippines to participate, which was always amazing but also like kind of heartbreaking. I was like, “There should be a better way to do this.”
Andrew: Yeah. Yeah, I know, I was just in Australia and I feel like that would be a big issue for me, waking up in the middle of the night. I just wanted to wake up one time at 6:00 a.m. to get a time-lapse of the sun coming up. And I set an alarm and I just said, “No, I’m going to go back sleep,” and I said, “No, come on, you’re not going to go back to sleep.” And I got myself up and I did it. And, even that was painful. We’re just talking about like 6:00 a.m.
Alex: Time zones are super difficult.
Andrew: It’s really difficult.
Alex: And it was like a six-hour, it was a full day, it was a six-hour day of training. So, intense.
Andrew: In some ways, that’s actually better. If I’m going to commit, then I might as well get six hours instead of a one-hour session. All right. That’s how you did it. Let’s talk a little bit about Amy’s health issues, because that’s what kept you guys from being able to continue like this and being able to write. What can you talk about with that? I feel like you guys have both been open about it.
Alex: Yeah, well, so I’d say there’s her health issues and also the fact that we were doing this, as I mentioned a couple times, on the side. So we have other commitments beside this. Doing a live course and potentially getting pulled into a client project or a deadline or something like that, is something that actually happened to me before we shifted into that boot camp version. We had sold, you know, it was like 150 some odd seats to the semester long course. We had done a whole revamp on the course. And a few weeks in, I was like totally drowning in a client projects. Amy was frankly pissed at me. And she’s like, “What’s going on over there?” And I had to be honest, I was like, “I’m overcommitted. I screwed up. I feel terrible about it. And I mean that in the most honest way possible. I want to make it right.”
So you know, that over committing to that point I was like, “If it makes sense, I’ll give my portion of the money back from this last version of the course.”
Andrew: And did you?
Alex: I did. I absolutely did. In the interest of, you know, in my mind it’s, I value the friendship more than the money, but also, I value the potential to ever work together again. You know, if and when I dig myself out of the problem, I created for myself, which I was fairly confident that I would. So, yeah. I mean, I think that that experience early on sort of established what me and Amy’s professional relationship was going to be like, which is like, stuff’s going to pull us away from this business, this business isn’t going to be the number one priority for either of us until we together decide that it is. So we need to be able to be honest with one another when things aren’t going the way we want them to or when one or the other is not holding up their end of the bargain.
Andrew: Do you use client work?
Alex: I haven’t done client work. I’ll do a little bit of one-on-one coaching here and there, but I definitely haven’t done designer or dev work in very long time.
Andrew: Why do you think you haven’t started a software company?
Alex: I mean, a big part of it is I never got good enough at writing software. I was better as part of a software team. When I started Indy Hall, there was a point where I was working more on business process and community building and community management and leadership, and I was spending more time on that. There was more interest in that and less in the development, and I had to make a decision. It’s unlikely that I’m going to be able to invest in both and continue getting good at both. So I have to pick one. And I picked the community and leadership side of things. But I’ve always had the background in technology and programming, so I’ve always also worked with technology people, that part never went away.
Andrew: So that version of the course worked. And then at some point you guys said, “You know, we can’t keep doing this live. Not only can our people not keep having to show up in the middle of the night, but we can’t show up.” What did you do to convert from live to recorded?
Alex: Yeah. So that was where Amy’s health issues really did start playing into this in a much bigger way. For her to be able to sit and teach, even though we had the lessons pre-recorded, six hours of using your brain straight and coaching people would be like physically damaging to her. And we had to come up with an alternative. And we started getting to the point where those boot camp courses were kind of the same-script different actors every time. It was fairly predictable, we knew there’s going to be people who get it, who put in the lessons, they try, it works, there’s the people who struggle and freak out because they’re not instantly good at it, and all of those things in between.
And we realized, “Maybe there’s a way for us to start moving towards this being a self-guided course.” So we actually went through all of the material, all the chat transcripts. We were running that boot camp five times a year at that point. So we had about three years, about 15 sessions worth of chat transcripts. We had a research assistant to go through all of them, pull out the pain points, “Where do people consistently freak out? Okay. We need to be able to anticipate that and have a lesson or a set of lessons or whatever it is to address that before we get there.”
And we stopped selling the boot camp course and we basically took the entire year of 2015 off to build, rebuild the entire course from scratch based on everything we learned on the sort of three or four versions prior to that with the goal of making it so that, you know, if at any given point in time, we were either selling the course or teaching the course and never really catching a breath or having opportunities to create things that are new or support successful students for that matter.
So we wanted to get to the point where we could sell the course, but then the people could take the course on their own schedule. We wouldn’t have to commit, you know, 12 or 18 hours to fulfill on that, or more in some cases, because we also had an extended exercise program that was guided and things like that.
Andrew: And the first version didn’t work.
Alex: The first which didn’t work. The boot camp version worked extremely well. But required our hands on with both the sales marketing and teaching. And then we were like, “Well, what if what we had to do is sell it? Now we know the program works. Now people are actually putting the lessons into practice. I think we can turn this into a standalone course.” And that was what we spent all of 2015 doing.
Andrew: But did the first version of the standalone coursework work?
Alex: Yeah, it worked very well, very, very well.
Andrew: What software did you use to host it?
Alex: So we put the courses itself on Teachable. They were pretty newish at the time. But like everything else, you know, we really never put a lot of energy and emphasis into what platforms we’re using, and sort of like, “What’s the quickest thing off the shelf to help us get this thing going?” We were putting all the energy into lesson design, lesson recording. Amy was recording stuff. I was editing, I was doing designing . . .
Andrew: You know why you guys do a lot of work on or feels like it? Is design, your design is beautiful in everything. Even Stacking the Bricks, when I scroll, don’t the bricks from the logo fall down?
Alex: That’s a little bit of Flash from Amy’s husband, Thomas.
Andrew: Is that . . . ? That’s not actual Flash, right? Yeah, it’s a little bit of design. But everything else is just, it’s beautiful, it’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s got a clear design style. Is that her husband? Is that Thomas?
Alex: It’s a combination of Amy and Thomas. Yeah.
Andrew: Okay. All right. And so you had this course, it was finally now launched. I’m wondering where you get customers. Is it all content? I’m looking at SimilarWeb and it looks like where you’re getting customers is things like Indie Hackers, where your blog posts get turned into posts on Indie Hackers and that’s how you get customers. It feels like that’s very much of . . .
Alex: Yes, so we have a fair bit of natural SEO, a lot of direct linking and stuff comes to our content archive, people . . . What we saw, once we finally, again, all the things we didn’t do, we didn’t really ever pay attention to analytics. So, we start looking like, “Okay, people are coming in, they’re bingeing a bunch of stuff and then they sign up for our newsletter, and the newsletter is really the one and only place that we ever sell 30×500 itself.”
Andrew: Wait, are you . . . The email newsletter, is the only place where you sell it?
Alex: That’s correct.
Andrew: Why is that . . . ? I keep forgetting it, what is it? 30×500?
Alex: 30×500, that’s right.
Andrew: Why is it called that?
Alex: The math equation. $30 a month, 500 customers, if it’s recurring revenue is $180,000 a year.
Andrew: Okay, that makes sense. All right. I’m looking into putting one more thing in. Do you guys do any SEO? I’m putting Stacking the Bricks into Ahrefs, a former sponsor of mine.
Alex: I mentioned like we’re just starting to play with ads and SEO and things like that. We get a decent amount of, frankly, I think we get a fairly small amount of traffic, but the traffic that we get and the type of content that we create seems to be very high and tends to be very high converting. It’s also the kind of content that we teach our students to create, and that it is directly oriented around specific problems that people in our audience have.
So it’s not just like random essays of whatever we’re thinking about, it’s . . .
Andrew: Do you have an example of one of the articles that you’ve written that’s like that?
Alex: I do. One of the really common one that I reference a lot, if you go to stackingthebricks.com/cant-find-audience, it’s hyphenated.
Andrew: Cant-find-audience. So you saw that your people have this problem and you wrote this article.
Alex: That’s right.
Andrew: “How to find your audience’s online watering holes,” and there’s only two ways to make a successful product. One, make a bunch of things and see what sticks, or two, offer an eager customer something they already need, want and are willing to buy.
By the way, even the way that you guys have the numbers there, it looks like a brick, it’s not laid evenly perfect. It just has this . . .
Alex: But we only had this really nice design, we only implemented this like maybe a year and a half ago. We had a pretty janky WordPress blog for seven and a half years.
Andrew: Was this on Unicorn Free or where was . . . ?
Alex: It’s Unicorn Free, yeah.
Andrew: Why do you change your name from Unicorn Free?
Alex: It required even more explanation than 30×500.
Alex: Amy named it that before unicorns became associated with million dollar startups, it was more like a comparison between unicorns and narwhals, and it was really obscure by the idea that we’re building real shit here.
Andrew: Yeah. Not this unicorn fake thing. All right. I think I’ve got a good understanding of the business. Anything I’m leaving out?
Alex: So folks, I think one of things that’s interesting, and part of the reason I had originally reached out to you is, so this is a little bit of the history of how we got to where we are. But, with Amy not being able to work as much recently as she’s been sick, and to your point about marketing tools, the beginning of last year, 2018, we were set up to do our first January launch of 30×500 and Amy came to me and she’s like, “I feel terrible. I’m really sick. I can’t do this.” And I was like, “Well, what if I found a way to do this without you. How could I use everything that we’ve built up until this point?” The reality is, every time we launched the course, it was all bespoke new, new content, new framing, new articles, new essays, and the vast majority of it Amy was writing. I was working more on behind the scenes editing and exercises and implementation on the course and things like that.
So we had a bunch of successful launches in the past. I thought to myself, “What if rather than Amy needing to write an entirely new bespoke one, I’ll go back through our past launches?” And what I ended up doing was creating sort of . . . I’m thinking about, it’s almost like a mixtape or like a greatest hits album of articles and essays that were part of our launch in the past that the people really liked, that people responded well to. And so I built that January launch that way. And by the end of that launch, we had blown through our best sales record ever since we had rebuilt the course in 2015.
And I realized, for a long time I think the role that I played was, you know, as an educational collaborator, but I definitely played more of a supporting role in the business. Sometimes as an editor, sometimes as doing a lesson or exercise design. And I realized that the same way that a musician works with a producer that helps the producer’s work have the biggest impact possible and to sound the way they want it to sound, I was able to play a similar role in going through and reorganizing and updating and editing a lot of things that were written just in time, things that were written around a specific event or a specific experience and going back and saying, “Well, how can I make sure this article isn’t tied to a specific month,” or, “Isn’t tied to a specific season,” or, “The core lesson in here is actually buried under seven paragraphs of whatever Amy was ranting about that day.” And edit that down into stuff so that even when Amy is not publishing something new, even when I’m not publishing something new, we can keep the newsletter going, we can keep our launches going. And after the first success that we did in January, I said, “Well, I’m going to try and do that again.” And I hit the numbers again.
And so in 2018, I mentioned at the top of the interview, we did $480,000ish grand. That was like a 40% increase over the previous year without creating anything new. And really just looking back at what was some of the best stuff that we shipped once, but then sat on the shelf for months or years.
And so we started getting strategic about that and we’re on track. This year we’ve already grown 40% over what we did in the first five months of last year. So, I’m pretty excited about where things are going there. But realizing that we did everything for like nine years just in time, constantly revising, constantly creating new, but then creating something and never really reusing it, except for the core course itself, and taking that sort of producer approach for the last 18 months has been some of the best and the least stressful growth of our business, and it’s freed up time to focus on the students who are already in the course, the students that have launched their businesses, grown their businesses more.
For the first time we have energy to like actually track customer and student success stories and working with folks like a Case Study Buddy to collect case studies. Like all these things that never really had the time to do as we were doing it just in time through systems, finally systematized what we were already doing.
Andrew: And as I understand it, there was even a period where Amy wasn’t doing much and she got less money from the business because of it. Is that inappropriate for me to bring up?
Alex: What’s that?
Andrew: Is that inappropriate for me to bring up?
Alex: No, not all. So there was a situation where . . . There was actually, a second time that I had some life stuff going on. I had to pull back from the business and we had adjusted my share from 40% down to 30% for the year of 2017. And then 2018, I was able to put in more, Amy was able to put in a whole lot less and we were able to readjust my percentage back up as well.
Really, again, just being able to come to one another and say like, “Let’s have an honest conversation about where the business is today and what’s changed.”
Andrew: And I’m looking forward to seeing Amy’s feedback on this, on Twitter. I hope she said something very insulting or else I’ll be pretty disappointed. I like how sharp she is and how biting her content is. It’s one of things that I’ve always appreciated about her. And I’m glad that I got to know you, Alex. Thank you so much for being here. For anyone wants to go check out the website, it’s stackingthebricks.com.
And I want to thank the two sponsors who made this interview happen. The first will host your website right. It’s called HostGator. Check them out at hostgator.com/mixergy. And the second is Toptal. For hiring a developer, go to toptal.com/mixergy.
And finally, I don’t think I say this enough. We’ve been freaking killing it with Mixergy Premium. Where we bring on entrepreneurs to come and teach what they do best. One of my favorites is Dan Gorgone, our producer said, “You know? There is this course, the founder of DuckDuckGo. He did this course with you, Andrew, a long time ago when you were producing it yourself.” I said, “Yeah, it was great. The content was amazing. He’s . . . ” Yeah, because DuckDuckGo is now built into Safari browser, into Chrome browser. He was the founder, was one of the first people recognized that Google is not giving people the privacy that they need and so he created an alternative. It’s actually doing really well.
Alex: The Philly based startup too.
Andrew: Philly based startup, yeah, the guy who was starting from home. And the course about how to get traction was really good. So Dan said, “I’m going to go back and I’ll just redo the whole thing. I’ll just redo it. And, Andrew, if you can introduce me to Gabriel, the founder of DuckDuckGo, I’ll talk to him and get more content from him so that we can do it better.” And so he did. And now it’s up, I’m actually going to create a URL for it right now, it’s going to be up on mixergy.com/duck. If you want to get traction, do it by learning from the guy who’s gotten killer traction. Meaning, yeah, people actually use this product and grow and grow and grow. It’s going to be on mixergy.com/duck. It’s part of Mixergy Premium where you get real entrepreneurs who are doing impressive stuff to teach you how to build your business. So mixergy.com/duck, if you want to check that out.
Alex, thanks for being here. Everyone, thank you. Bye.