How simplicity helped Joel Holland grow Video Blocks to $20,000,000+

Here is an entrepreneur who started shooting video and realizing that he was at a disadvantage…

The reason that a lot of video we watch online and on television so interesting is that they have all these different shots. They don’t just start off with a scene. They start off with this aerial shot of Manhattan and then after they’ve shown you the building, they take you into the scene and the conversation starts. Those little things add huge impact. But man, they also add a lot of cost. So today’s guest said, “There’s got to be a better way.” And he built a better way.

Joel Holland, the founder you’re about to meet, created a site called VideoBlocks. It’s a subscription-based provider of stock video and audio. He then expanded it by adding GraphicStock and AudioBlocks which offer graphic and audio.

The company has just grown and grown and grown. I can’t believe how big it’s gotten and we’re going to talk about he did it.

Joel Holland

Joel Holland

Video Blocks

Joel Holland is the founder of VideoBlocks, a subscription-based provider of stock video and audio.

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com. It is, of course, the site where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses and home of the ambitious upstart.

I was pausing there for a second because, Joel, I was thinking do I even still like home of the ambitious upstart or am I just repeating that because I’ve been repeating that for years and I should be questioning everything. That’s what that pause was. What do you think of that, “home of the ambitious upstart?”

Joel: Well, I like it because it says exactly what you’re doing. We were kind of chatting offline. I like simplicity. I like it when things say what they are. It seems like you’re the home of the ambitious upstart.

Andrew: That is what we are. And what we have here is an entrepreneur who started shooting video and realizing that he was at a disadvantage, that the guys … I didn’t notice this. The reason that a lot of video that we watch online is so interesting and obviously on television so interesting is that they have all these different shots. They don’t just start off with a scene. They start off with this aerial shot of Manhattan and then after they’ve shown you the building, they take you into the scene and the conversation starts. Those little things add huge impact. But man, they also add a lot of cost. So, he said, “There’s got to be a better way.” And he built a better way.

And the first thing that Joel Holland, the founder you’re about to meet, did is he created a site called VideoBlocks. It was a subscription-based and still is provider of stock video and audio. He then expanded it, keeping the names really simple. VideoBlocks also added GraphicStock and AudioBlocks, which as the names imply, add graphic and audio. And the company has just grown and grown and grown. I can’t believe how big it’s gotten and we’re really proud about how we’re going to get to talk about how he–Joel, I should talk to you in the first person–how you did it.

My two sponsors for this interview are going to be basically supporting us in doing this are the company that’s going to help anyone hire incredible developers or designers. It’s called Toptal. And the second is a company that will host your website right. It’s called HostGator. I’ll tell you more about them later. First, Joel, I’ve got to welcome you. Good to be here. Good to have you here.

Joel: Thank you, Andrew. I appreciate you having me. It’s an honor and I’m excited to talk ambitious startups.

Andrew: I actually questioned you before we started because I said, “Didn’t you start this business right in school?” and you said, “Yeah…” And then I said, “What’s this thing that like nine years, ten years before you started you were CMO of something, of Kidz Online. What’s the deal there?” What did you say?

Joel: Yeah. So, when I was in high school, my freshman year I got involved with a nonprofit organization called Kidz Online that was sponsored back in the day by Nortel Networks. Our whole goal was to teach inner city kids technology skills using video interviews. So, this was way before the day of online video, but I thought that was a really interesting way to help kids learn and also get to learn a new technology.

So I worked with Kidz Online for a number of years, become their Chief Marketing Officer. I’ll admit, it sounds like a really great title, but we were a small nonprofit. We had a lot of fun, but that was kind of how I got into the video world.

Andrew: And you were a kid in school at the time. You were, what, in high school?

Joel: I was in high school. So, I was a freshman/sophomore and probably my junior year after much hard work I made it to CMO.

Andrew: And is that where you did an interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Joel: That’s exactly right. So I’d been working with this organization and I said, “Hey, I think one of the things that kids are missing is good career advice.” We never hear where to go to college, what internships to do and what to do after school. You kind of just go into college and they say you’ll figure it out. So I wanted to know what it was like to be a businessman, to be a politician, to be any number of careers. I didn’t want to read it from a textbook. I wanted to hear it from the mouths of those who were top of the field.

Andrew: Why? When you’re in school, why not just go to the career counselor or whoever it is that you have, the school has those people.

Joel: They do. No, you’re right. It’s so funny you say that, Andrew. My first move was to go to the career department and I said, “Hey, I’m a sophomore. Next year I start thinking about college. I’m stressed out because I don’t know if I want to go into business or if I want to go into journalism. What can you tell me about these career paths?”

The problem was the information I was given was just this textbook stuff that I couldn’t connect with. I think that that was problematic because young people like to aspire to do great things. So, for me, I’m like, “What’s more aspirational than listening to a top journalist talk about being a journalist. I sat down like, “It would be cool if I could talk to Steve Forbes about business writing or John Scott about being an on air personality or J.D. Roth, the guy that created some of these amazing TV shows.
I was a very naïve kid and I said, “Well, why don’t I just see if I can get a budget to go interview these people and get their advice? So I didn’t really overthink it. I went to Kidz Online and said, “Hey, would you mind paying to have a camera crew? We’ll go interview incredible people.” They said, “This sounds nuts. You don’t know any of these people. You have no connections to them.” But I was scrappy. So that was one of the first interviews we lined up was actually with Steve Forbes and a couple of years later we’ve done 150 interviews with incredible people like Arnold Schwarzenegger, which you mentioned earlier.

Andrew: Which is incredible to get someone that top, that high up. He’s not just an incredible entrepreneur, but he also had a life in politics. He also is someone who’s a celebrity and it’s really hard to get celebrities to do anything because so many people are getting their attention. Then you shot the video. And I heard you weren’t extremely excited about it.

Joel: Exactly right. So I worked months and months of emails, phone calls begging and pleading to get Arnold to agree to be on camera. We finally fly out to Los Angeles, sit down with a crew, do this interview. It was a great interview. To your point–body building champion, celebrity, actor, he was about to become the governor, any of these things independently are very difficult and he had done them all coming from Austria with not a penny in his pocket. So I had this great interview where he gave inspiring, aspirational advice for the young listeners.

But as I was sitting there editing this footage together, I looked at it and said, “Man, this is boring to watch.” The advice is really good. The narrative is great. But it’s a two-camera shoot, nobody needs to see me. They don’t just want to see Arnold talking either. This is like Charlie Rose for kids, total disconnect.

So I started looking at Discovery Channel and trying to figure out how do they take these relatively mundane topics, educational topics and make them interesting. What I realized was–and this was crazy–but I started counting the seconds between shot changes on a Discovery show. On average, every two to three seconds, a shot changes when you’re watching a TV show. That’s crazy.

So here I had these minute-long segments where it’s just one camera and one guy and I realized this needs to be fast-paced. I need to be cutting in things like the Hollywood sign when Arnold is talking about Hollywood, cutting in that Walk of Fame. We need to have helicopter shots, we need to have music to make it more interesting. The problem was as a nonprofit, I had no budget to go get this stuff.

So, all the exciting interstitials and B-roll and all the effects was out of my price range. I priced it out. It turned out you could pay tens of thousands of dollars to big companies to get this stuff for you. We were a nonprofit with no budget. What I realized or at least I thought was going to happen was that more and more video producers were going to start coming out of the woodwork. Internet was getting faster, cameras were getting cheaper and video is a great communication method.

So I figured hey, there needs to be a company that makes all these beauty shots affordable to the everyman, not just the big budget production companies.

Andrew: And that was going to be your business?

Joel: That was it. Look, I’m a simple person. I didn’t overthink it. I probably should have. But luckily I was so stupid and naïve that I just thought hey–it’s like teachers tell you in high school if you have a question, chances are there are other kids in the classroom with the same question. I’ve applied that same mentality to business. If I have a problem or a need, in this case I needed stock video, I assumed there were other people who needed it as well.

Andrew: But didn’t stock video exist at the time?

Joel: Not really. So this was back before Getty was offering it, back before Shutterstock even existed, back before anyone other than a company called CNN Image Source, at least that was the one that I found and priced it out. CNN had an archive. But this was before digital distribution. This was before DVDs, really.

Andrew: But this was 2008 and this didn’t even exist, you’re saying?

Joel: Well, actually, by 2008 it did. But when I actually started, our original company was called Footage Firm and it was in 2003. What I did–well, actually probably even earlier. I guess 2001 was the first year that I put FootageFirm.com online and started selling footage. That was halfway through high school. At the end of high school, my senior year I deferred from college for a year. That was 2003 to 2004. That’s when I went out on the road with a camera bag and actually shot footage myself.

Andrew: Because you couldn’t buy it from someone else. You couldn’t find anyone else to do this. You decided you were going to travel and shoot video.

Joel: That’s it.

Andrew: You had enough money to do that kind of travel at that age?

Joel: Fortunately. I had fortunately been saving a lot of money since I was about 12 years old. When I was 12, the greatest thing in the world happened to me–the internet.

Andrew: I would even go before 12 to the time when you first heard the word entrepreneur. You’ve got to tell that story first.

Joel: That’s true. So, I guess I was like 10. My family, my mom was a contractor, a developer and she was building houses on this little resort in Virginia and had a golf course. So I found that golfers were really good at hitting balls into the woods and losing them and they’d have to pay a fortune to go buy new balls.

So I would go and collect these golf balls, put them in a little cart, called it Joel’s Golf Balls, super original, and put it on the ninth tee. So, they’d come off the ninth tee, instead of having to go to the pro shop, they’d buy the golf balls from me for $2 only slightly used one time, sometimes actually selling them their own balls back.

So one day I was standing in the woods by the tenth tee box listening to a couple people tee off. One guy said, “Hey, did you see that Joel’s Golf Balls thing.” He said, “That kid’s quite an entrepreneur.” I had no idea what it meant, but I was immediately offended because to me the word entrepreneur sounded a lot like manure. I thought he was calling me some sort of offensive slang term.

So I went home all upset and told my dad, “This mean guy called me an entrepreneur, the gall.” My dad say, “That’s actually a very good term. It’s a French term, I think. It means you’re ambitious and trying to change the world in some way. So after that I loved the term.

Andrew: And then you kept going and you were starting to say what happened at 12 after that, your follow up business.

Joel: Yeah. So, 10 to 12 I was making $20 a day selling golf balls. I took that money, bought a computer. I remember this in 1997, the day I turned that computer onto the internet was wild because all of a sudden I could communicate with people all over the world, mainly the United States, but all over the world, with complete anonymity. So, nobody knew was a 12-year old. What I realized was I could start selling anymore. I didn’t have to just sell golf balls locally.

At first I was looking at selling golf balls online. Then I realized I don’t have to just sell golf balls. I got on eBay and started selling everything that wasn’t tied down. It was unbelievable. People bought everything.

Andrew: You mean your parents’ stuff out of their house?

Joel: Exactly.

Andrew: What’s one thing you sold of your mother’s that would have bothered her?

Joel: Well, we had all these Disney movies, all these VHS tapes that we never watched. They sat in a cabinet. But they were old things like the mermaid VHS, so I sold them all. She was only slightly annoyed. I think mainly she wanted her cut and I was trying to hide the profits. But she got her cut and then it was all fine. But that opened my eyes to being able to sell online. By 12 or 13, I was a power seller on eBay making like $12,000 to $20,000 a year. So, that was, for a kid, a ton of money.

Andrew: Did you bank this stuff? Did you bank the money?

Joel: Absolutely. I banked all of it. I had nothing to … what do kids spend money on? I lived in my parents’ house. I had a bicycle already. I didn’t have any big transportation cost. High school and middle school are free, so that was great. By the time I started Footage Firm, I had a pretty fat bank account.

Andrew: How big?

Joel: I think I had saved up $40,000 or $50,000.

Andrew: Wow.

Joel: Yeah. So, it was real money. The other beautiful thing was the cost of starting this technology company even back then was cheap, but it was a video camera for $2,000, a tripod for like $300, a backpack for $150 and then plane tickets. Plane tickets, this was that year in 2003 where for whatever reason, they were cheap. So, you could fly to Los Angeles for $99.

Andrew: Probably because you’re coming in so soon after 2001, oh wait, this is … Yeah, after 9/11.

Joel: Yeah, exactly right. After 9/11, people stopped flying, it got cheap. So, I was able to shoot all over the country in that year off. I ended up hitting about 33 cities and I would shoot footage, go home to the hotel at night, edit, put it on eBay, sell it and it was cool.

One of the other stories I like to tell because it’s true and it was pretty funny, I would actually bankroll each trip with sales from the previous trip. That was my whole goal. I want to make this trip cash–I never wanted to go into the red. Like today, businesses run into the red and that can be all well and good. I didn’t understand that as a kid.

Andrew: But even though you had tens of thousands of dollars in the bank, you said you’re not going to dig into that nest egg.

Joel: Correct. In my mind, it was like that money has already been achieved. Now you put it away. Every dollar that goes out in the future has to come back with more than $1. That was just the way my mind worked.

Andrew: That makes sense. Okay.

Joel: With transportation for that year, I would only go to the next city when I had enough money from selling to get there. Surprisingly, it worked really well about 32 times, but one of those times, I was caught. I didn’t have the money to get out. It was a beautiful place. It was Aspen, Colorado.

What happened was a snowstorm came in, messed up my plans to fly out and I was stuck there for another three days, but I didn’t have the funds to stay in a hotel for three days, so I ended up staying in this really fleabag hostel. It was full of construction workers. I was in a bunk room of like 30 people and they would come home every night piss drunk from the bars.

And here I am like not even 18 years old probably. I’m scared. They’re snoring. It was intense, but the thing is learned from this year off, I really learned the art of direct response selling. When I would sell, when I’d go shoot a city I’d immediately start email marketing to my existing customers. I knew that there was some price point or some verbiage or some call to action that could make them buy and I had to find it to get the dollars to get forward.

Andrew: Do you remember any of your language that was especially effective or any of your approach that was especially effective?

Joel: I do. Here’s what I’ve found. When it comes to pricing–none of this is that huge of a breakthrough, but surprisingly, I don’t think a lot of people follow it. There’s an optimal price on a curve. There’s a price that’s too high, so you get a bunch of money but you only get a few sales. There are prices too low, where you can get tons of interest but you’re losing money. There’s a perfect price where you’re getting just the right amount of interest and you’re maximizing profitability.

I was amazed to find that price is a lot lower than most people think. With footage as an example, at the time, it was tens of thousands of dollars to buy footage from CNN Image Source. It would be probably a couple thousand dollars to do it yourself, to go fly and shoot. I think by the end of my year off, there was another company called Artbeats who was selling footage for like $500 or $600 for a reel.

So you usually use those comps and price it a little bit lower. What I learned is if I went way lower–I was going down to like under $100 for a whole collection of a city like Seattle, then the buyer’s mentality shifted from, “Do I really need this?” So, if it’s $400, it’s a good price, but I’m only going to buy it if I actually need it for this project. Now if I say it’s $100 but it’s a limited-time offer, I’m only doing this for this week, then they go, “Maybe I should just buy it because it’s unbelievably cheaper than the competitor and I’ll put it on the shelf because one day I might need it.”

Andrew: Yeah.

Joel: So what I stumbled upon was the idea of a flash sale. This was years and years before Groupon and these others, but flash sales worked really well for me. There’s a lot of marketing that shows that people need constraints and when you give people a timeline, “This offer only lasts x-amount of time,” it’s a great way to stimulate sales.

Andrew: Do you guys still do that now?

Joel: We do.

Andrew: You do? Where do you do that?

Joel: So, we do a sale for every holiday you can imagine. Memorial Day just passed by. We had a special discount, a heavy discount on annual plans for VideoBlocks. But honestly what we’ve learned is–and this all depends on your product, so you can’t blanket this with everything–if you’re a luxury goods maker, you probably don’t want to do sales all the time and cheapen your brand. But for us, we’re just trying to give the best deal to customers and we’re not trying to be a luxury brand. We provide a fairly commoditized product.

Andrew: Yeah. So, by the way, I’m on your pricing page for VideoBlocks. Monthly is $79. Yearly is $149. Who is going to do the monthly when the yearly is $149? What a difference.

Joel: And the answer is hopefully no one. Surprisingly a number of people do still do it because they’re just looking for one or two months of access for a project. So, we have these project by project users who do that. That, though, is a marketing tactic called price anchoring. The science behind price anchoring is pretty awesome.

I should bucket all this by saying we test everything on VideoBlocks. If you open our pricing page on three different computers, three different browsers, you’ll probably see nine different pages.

Andrew: You test everything? So, it’s not just the pricing page and the offer page, it’s everything?

Joel: The homepage, color schemes, buttons, calls to action, button size. Some people see free trial push, some people see annual plan push. Everything is tested. We actually built out our own … we eventually got to the point where we run so many tests we built our own testing engine, but we used Optimizely for the longest time and it’s awesome. It’s affordable.

Andrew: It’s simple, easy to use. Let me do a quick commercial break and then I’ll come back and talk about–I want to understand how you figured out what video to shoot. What was going to sell? I would go to New York. I don’t know what to shoot for people. But I imagine you had a system for figuring out what to shoot.

My message is about–my ad, actually, let’s be open–is about this company. Look, they actually just sent me a check. These guys actually send checks. I wonder if they use–this is from HostGator, my sponsor. Anyone can see my address right there on the check. This looks like the old QuickBooks checks that I used to have. Does this look familiar to you through the window?

Joel: It does look good.

Andrew: Right.

Joel: I kind of miss the days of getting physical checks. It was a nice tangible feeling.

Andrew: I imagine in the old eBay days you were getting a lot of checks, like physical checks and you’d have to put them in the system. Did you hire your mom to put the checks in the system for you?

Joel: No, actually, what I did do that drove here nuts, I had thousands of check come in over the years. I stapled each letter to a wall. That then quickly became every wall on the entire ceiling of my room. So, there were at least 1,000 or so checks that had blanketed every single inch of the room.

Andrew: I would be so proud if my kid did that. That reminds me–my kid brother and I had this business where he was making software and I was writing the ads and selling it and at the time, just like you it was check days. We couldn’t get a merchant account because we were just a couple of kids. We were living out of my parents’ house. It was just like a $10 software, $20 to start plus $5 shipping and handling and then we’d keep lowering the prices until the software was done.

But we would get so many freaking checks that I actually would train my mom on how to get the back of the checks signed because at some level, you can’t do that. You can’t sign enough of them. It would be a stack like two inches thick a day, three inches thick of checks for $10, $20.

She knew how to put it into the printer and have the printer on the back of it basically sign the company name and put the account number and then she would go into the bank and deposit it. And then she would also–this was the days of discs. So, she would have to print the labels on the discs and put them on and ship the discs out–those are such good days.

Joel: I was going to say I’m getting nostalgic thinking about it.

Andrew: Yeah. There’s something about the simplicity of those early sales. I remember once I was doing millions of dollars of sales at my previous company and I was just kind of fed up. I was up at the Ziff Davis office of the guy who I think bought Ziff Davis at the time with my friend who introduced me to him and the three of us were running these multi-million dollar companies and he said, “I miss the days of running a candy store.” I said, “You started out running a candy store?”

He goes, “No, the days when building a business was like owning a candy store, where you knew exactly what you were selling, it was all you controlling it, where you saw every dollar come in because it’s small enough that you can keep track of it and where every change can have easy impact that’s visible and tangible and all three of us were sitting back in our chairs going, “Yeah…” There’s something about that, those periods, the simplicity of it.

Joel: Yes. It’s true. And it is like the pros and cons of a business that grow–one, of course you want your business to grow. That’s the whole point. If it’s growing, that means you’re delighting customers and you’re helping both your bank account and helping the world. So it’s good. But it also means you get farther and farther away from what you originally started doing, which was having your hands in everything.

Andrew: Right. And the creativity of a small business, which kind of brings me back to this HostGator ad. I think there’s a business in going to eBay right now–I’ve heard other people say this, so it’s not like I’m inventing something new–going to eBay right now and realizing that most people aren’t buying on eBay anymore.

They’re buying on Amazon more than eBay, buying stuff like Onitsuka Tiger sneakers off of eBay where there are tons of them and selling them on Amazon where I can’t buy enough of these because they only have limited collection on there, just buy them, put them on the place where everyone already has Amazon Prime, where everyone’s already got their credit cards, where they’re used to buying. I think that little bit of arbitrage could be a business. You do that, do you need a website? I think you don’t have to, but if you have a website, it adds a little bit of credibility.

When someone sees it, they’re not buying it from Amazon, but they want to get to know who’s selling this like one of a kind Onitsuka thing where the tongue of the sneaker bends forward, which is what I bought. They’re going to want to go check out the website to see if this is a legitimate person. Frankly, the simplicity of just putting up a website with WordPress, it’s easy, anyone can do it, adds so much more credibility that it deserves.

That really, that simplicity of starting that little candy store of a business is the kind of thing that then gets you in that entrepreneur mentality. It makes you think in a more sharp way, that even if you’re already a business owner with a big company, to get down to that level is a fun, creative process, the way that somebody who might have a big farm or agribusiness might want to just go home and plant a couple of plants in the back yard and really garden the way that the people in the UK love to garden and just get your fingers dirty. That’s what we’re talking about here.

So, if you have an idea like that or want to steal my idea, go to it and HostGator will make it easy for you. It seems like you’ve got something like that, Joel. If you could start a candy store-type business right now, what would it be?

Joel: Man, that’s a great question. In fact, it’s a question I’ve started, for years I’ve tried not to think about because it’s easy, I think, as an entrepreneur to get distracted. So I’ve tried to keep my mind on the business. But I’ve started thinking about this more. I don’t have a perfect answer for you right now, but I just miss finding an item that you know people need and selling it to them at a fair price, where you just get to watch the dollar signs hit, but you know that people are happy.

That’s really cool. I think that’s where today we’ll do $26 million this year, but I don’t see any checks. It’s all hitting immersion accounts and I’m not very much involved with the actual selling process and I think that’s the part of the candy store that I miss is getting to see, like take a product, sell it and see someone take it.

Andrew: I’ve got this entrepreneur in my audience, a guy name Rui, who I’ve gotten to meet a little bit because he travels a lot. I said, “What are you up to recently?” He said, “Look.” He showed me this leather case for his iPhone that he bought from someone in China. My guess is he probably went to Alibaba.

He got this leather case. He creates these simple landing pages for them and then he buys some cheapo ads on Facebook that sends traffic to these leather cases and he’s making bank. I don’t remember the numbers, but it’s startling, from freaking leather cases that everybody’s seen.

Anyway, if you have an idea out there and you want to start your website, go to HostGator.com/Mixergy. When you do that, I’ll be honest with you, when you attach a /Mixergy, HostGator knows that when they send me these checks, that it’s actually worthwhile. So I get something for it. But you get something for it too, two things, actually.

First of all, they’re going to give you a big discount for signing up and their prices are already dramatically low because frankly I think they’ve cornered the market on these hosting companies. It’s not just HostGator. I think HostGator bought or has been acquired by a company that owns lots of different hosting companies. So, they can afford to give you a lot rate, but also, they’re going to give you even lower if you go to HostGator.com/Mixergy.

The other thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to have me as the referral and nobody wants to piss me off because I’ve got a big mouth and I’ve got nothing to lose. If you ever have a problem and you were referred by me, all you have to do is email me, Andrew@Mixergy-I shouldn’t keep saying this, but I will fight for you.

There’s one person who emailed me over last weekend who said, “Andrew, I have this problem with one of your guests.” I emailed the guest right away with this guy cc’d and I sent this–I’ve got to find that email. I sent this really casual email saying, “Hey, I heard that one of my people signed up for your program and became a customer of yours. How’s it going with them?”

That was enough of a nudge to say, “Don’t you screw around with my people.” Go screw around somewhere else, but if you screw around with me, there’s nothing to lose. It’s not like I’m surviving because of them. So all I have is to protect my people.

All right. Go check out HostGator.com/Mixergy. Frankly, if you don’t even like HostGator, you can cancel at any time. But if you don’t like them, go do this on someone else’s platform. I think you should be building something on the side. If you don’t like your hosting company, you can also switch over to HostGator. All right. I’ve added way too much to that ad, but I’m grateful to them for sponsoring.

How did you know what to shoot video of, what would sell?

Joel: So, at first I’ll admit it was kind of a guessing game.

Andrew: Sorry. I’ve got to interrupt for one second because it’s important. Anyone who wants to get a sense of your personality and who you are, while I was talking should go and watch the video of you watching me as I was talking. You are so connected with the entrepreneurship like spirit, that as I’m talking about creating a site, you’re getting fired up. It’s like there’s something that I’m tapping in you with that story, with those examples. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like at your heart you are this kind of an entrepreneur, am I right?

Joel: You are right. Honestly, you’ve got to be on that nostalgia train and now all I can think about is finding an item, setting up a website, driving traffic.

Andrew: Right. I can see that in you.

Joel: And selling it. It’s a beautiful thing.

Andrew: Yeah. And you were at that simple level, like ultra-simple when you were shooting video and selling it. How did you know what would sell?

Joel: At first it was an educated guess around what would I need as an editor. What would I need? I thought, “Well, it’s probably the big cities.” If you’re going to need something, what I originally needed was Los Angeles for the Arnold interview. So I did a search for what are the largest US cities? And on that year off, I tried to hit them all. So it was Boston, Chicago, New York, LA, Seattle, Las Vegas, yadda, yadda, yadda.

So at first I’m like let me get a baseline of the big cities because I know they’ll always have good demand. Then let me start looking at search data to see what customers are searching for to help drive future decisions.

Look, I’ll be honest, when I got started I was really scrappy and I think it’s okay to be really scrappy as an entrepreneur. When I was selling on eBay, what I would do is list multiple cities at the same time. I listed footage for cities I didn’t have yet, I hadn’t shot.

When one sold enough that I could buy a plane ticket to that city and shoot it, I would then contact the buyers on the other options, say … actually I contact everybody and just say, “Don’t be mad, but you were part of a survey of sorts where I was trying to figure out–I was selling a product I didn’t have, so here’s your refund and I’m going to shoot this now and I’m going to give it to you for free.”

That was kind of how I figured out what cities to shoot first. It was whatever sold best, I would then refund those people, go shoot it, give it to them and that gave me an indication of future demand would look like.

Andrew: There was no Dropbox at the time, so you couldn’t easily email them a link to this video footage. What did you do?

Joel: No. This was before–you also got me on the nostalgia train talking about discs because when I was first on eBay, I was selling literally floppy discs of screensavers.

Andrew: Wow.

Joel: In the footage world, at first it was all tape. So, it was actually selling on tape stock. I had all these tape decks that would transfer to MiniDV and Beta SP and then I would ship these tapes all over the place. It wasn’t until I went to college that DVDs and data DVDs started taking off. Again, the internet wasn’t fast enough at the time to be able to download hundreds of megs or gigs of data.

So, I switched over to actually shipping data DVDs of footage. Among my other claims to fame, I’m proud of this, over the course of college to a year out, I sold and distributed over one million DVDs of stock footage. So, somewhere in this world, there are one million data DVDs of video content–maybe a bunch of them are in landfills–but I know they’re somewhere.

Andrew: Anyone who’s got that out there who’s listening has got to take a photo of themselves with it and email it to Joel or to me. I’ve got to see that.

Joel: Yeah. And when you were talking about your mom or you putting the labels on the discs, that was how it started–popping labels on, shipping them out. Once things got big enough, I got like a robot that would actually print and move, print and move. In college, friends always laughed about my dorm because there always these big stack robots that were burning discs and you would always hear it in the room. The college, man, I must have hit their energy bill hard. But they never complained, which was good.

Andrew: Did you get to date in college? Did all of this success lead to any swagger with women?

Joel: No. I was a dork. I’m still a dork. I bet you today if I was in college or if you were in college as an entrepreneur, entrepreneurship is sexy and trendy right now. But I was in school from 2004 to 2008 and entrepreneurship wasn’t a sexy thing at that time. This was still a timeframe when investment banking was hot. So, everybody who was going to good schools and getting great grades, they wanted to go be bankers on Wall Street. The kid who was trying to sell stuff out of his dorm room was like a weirdo.

Andrew: Yeah.

Joel: So, no. I went to an entrepreneurship school. So I went to Babson College. So I was not alone in my efforts. Everyone was an entrepreneur. So there was nothing special about me. I was just hustling to make a dollar. But I was able to pay for school. I was able to pay for college by selling footage. So, that was cool.

Andrew: Babson is here in San Francisco?

Joel: So they have a campus there, but the main campus is in Boston.

Andrew: Okay.

Joel: So it’s in Wellesley, Massachusetts right beside or really close to the Wellesley all-girls school.

Andrew: That’s what I thought. I guess I didn’t realize that they did have a place here in San Francisco until this class decided to come here. They brought a class here for scotch night with the teacher.

Joel: Really? That’s awesome.

Andrew: The students were not allowed to drink and then the teacher actually basically left and then at that point we could drink and talk. They had these little businesses like you’re talking about right now. Some of them were not going anywhere, but I started to keep in touch with them and they ended up doing pretty well because those guys are hustlers and not afraid to go on some message board somewhere and say, “I’ve got these parkas. Do you want to come buy them?”

Joel: Exactly.

Andrew: Love that kind of energy.

Joel: Got to have the hustle.

Andrew: You then went back and you lived with your mom.

Joel: Yeah. So, boy, I’ve really driven my mom nuts over the years. I went to Babson. I did well in school. I don’t know how, but I managed to get good grades while running the business and I was studying finance. If you were smart and you could do well, that was the route. So I studied finance, economics, statistics summer analyst program at an investment bank in Boston, actually got a job offer from that bank and there was this weird storm of things happening in 2008 where the economy fell apart. You remember this, right? 2007, you had the mortgage crisis, 2008, the bottom fell out.

Somehow, my offer to work at this bank was not taken back. This was a lucrative offer. So I was guaranteed to make six figures, probably like $120,000 right out of college. This was at a time when most of my friends couldn’t get jobs because the economy was in the tank and if they had gotten them, they were getting pulled back or Bear Sterns was falling apart, Lehman Brothers was falling apart.

So here I had this offer. I didn’t really want to go into banking. My heart was in starting and running this business. I had this decision to make of do I take the guaranteed check, do something I don’t really love or do I try to make this footage business this fledgling thing into an actual business.

Andrew: It wasn’t enough of a business at the time?

Joel: It was not bad. I think by the end of college, I got the business to $100,000 in revenue a year.

Andrew: I see, versus making $100,000 guaranteed from an investment bank. I see the difference there.

Joel: Exactly. And the unknown was what’s the next step. Have I tapped out and competitors were starting to launch. So a couple of competitors were coming in. It was still just me. I didn’t know–I think for young entrepreneurs, we often face an uncertainty with ourselves, like lack of confidence. So, the biggest fear factor for me was what if I’ve gotten lucky to this point and I turn down this check, I move into my parents’ basement and try to run this business and it doesn’t work and I’m out on the streets?

What I realized when I sat down and thought it through rationally was I did like a little sensitivity analysis. I’m like if I turn down this check, I’m giving up $120,000 for a year. That’s the downside. If my business doesn’t work, okay, whatever I’m not going to be homeless. My parents are putting my up. I’m going to be able to eat. That’s very fortunate, right? Not everyone can say that. I had no real downside other than not having more money. But on the upside, I was going to be doing what I loved and if it worked could potentially make a lot of money.

So I actually put math to it and I said if it doesn’t work, my opportunity cost is -$120,000. If it does work, I think this could be a $1 million business in two years. I said, “What are the chances of that?” I’m like well, even if I have a 20% chance of success, that’s modest, that’s not cocky–well, 0.2 times $1 million was $200,000 on the high side, -$120,000 on the low side, mathematically, the right decision was to move into my mom’s basement and run the business if my chances of success were 0.12 or higher. And luckily it worked out that way and it worked.

Andrew: Oh boy, did it. We’ll find out how much you made the first year right out of college in a moment and then this dramatic thing that happened on your website as I’m looking at it from 2008. We’ll come back to it in a moment. First, I’ve got to tell people about Toptal. By the way, just to let you in a little bit on what’s going on with the advertisers, Joel, we told the advertisers we can run the ads for you at the beginning of the interviews.

This was like 2014. I think we were getting $1,000, $1,200 a month for ads. Basically, I didn’t care about ads. It was just one advertiser and I was even going to stop doing that. And then I got this email from a guy who said, “Andrew, let me sell your ads for you. You don’t care enough about ads. You’re ruining the ads. I’ll sell it for you.”

This guy, Sachit Gupta, started selling them and companies were throwing tens of thousands of dollars a month for an ad. I said, “What do I need to? We’re now switching over. I can’t go from $1,200 to tens of thousands and not do more.” So we started telling these sponsors I will do these ads before the interview starts so that people are sure to hear it. Surprisingly, they turned it down. They didn’t want the ad at the beginning of the interview. Do you get that?

Joel: I do. The listeners who are going to actually hear the ad in the middle of the interview are highly engaged and they’re probably going to appreciate that it’s now part of the story and not being crammed down their throats at the beginning.

Andrew: I know when I listen to other podcasts, if I kind of learned where their ads are, I know how many times I have to hit the skip 15 seconds button to skip the ads. And I guess that’s part of it. The reason I was surprised is there’s definitely some drop off, some number of people are not going to be listening this far into an interview, right? Wouldn’t they want everybody and that’s the beginning of the interview.

It turns out not enough people have dropped off and the ads are actually doing well enough that even now I’m looking at my timer, 42 minutes and 8 seconds into the interview I’m doing an ad for Toptal. It’s still working. Toptal is the place where they’ve got a network of–do you know these guys?

Joel: Yeah, I’ve heard of Toptal.

Andrew: You have? But you haven’t hired them yet?

Joel: I have not personally, though I don’t actually know all of our hiring resources. We may be using them. I don’t know.

Andrew: I’ve actually interviewed this guy who said, “No. I don’t know Toptal,” and then someone over their shoulder said, “We hired from Toptal.” So obviously, not every hire goes through you. The thing about Toptal is it’s a network of developers that these guys decided they were going to pre-screen, they were going pre-test, they were going to have to do interviews with the top developers at their company and only allow the best of the best into their network, into their address book.

Once they did that, they had this network of great developers. They put up a website and they said, “Anyone who wants to hire top developers can come here and hire them. The way it works is you go to their website. You say that you’re looking to hire. You get on the phone with somebody at Toptal who hears what you’re looking for, what you’re building, what your vision is for the product, how many hours you need. Is this like a part-time job? Is it a gig-based job? Is it a full-time position? Do you need a whole team? Just one person, whatever.

Then once they understand all that, there’s a matcher, someone who’s a professional matcher on the team who then goes out and finds the perfect person from their database and matches you up. If you like the developer. If you think you can work well together, you can get started often within days.

The best part is if you don’t go to Toptal.com but you go to Toptal.com/Mixergy, they’re going to give Mixergy listeners 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours. So, you’re going to get 80 hours of Toptal developer work, of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks.

It’s an outrageous offer that they’re making us because they really want the Mixergy audience. Use them and then start spreading the word. This company has been doing fantastically well on Mixergy, which is why for the last year I think I’ve been talking about them. They just keep buying ads because our audience keeps signing up and having good experience with them.

I urge you to go sign up. I don’t expect that many people to do it because obviously it’s a big decision for a company, so I would say that if anyone out there wants to connect with Toptal and wants me to make the introduction to my person over there, I’ve given you my email address already in this interview, so I’ll do it again. It’s Andrew@Mixergy.com. I’d be happy to make an introduction to the guy that I work with over at Toptal.

He just invited me over to his house. He said, “If you want to come over and stay here…” I forget what part of the country he’s in, “You could do it.” So, I haven’t done that. I don’t know that I will stay at his house, but I do know that we’re really close and I’d be happy to make that introduction for anyone out there who wants to connect with my friend, my guy over at Toptal.

All right. Coming back to your story, Joel, first year out of school you make how much?

Joel: That first year out, actually hit the $1 million mark.

Andrew: $1 million? So, what did you do that allowed you to hit $1 million?

Joel: So, when I talk to young entrepreneurs who are in school, I tell them whatever success you have in school, I think you can magnify it by ten just because all of a sudden you have all of your mind state on the business. So, I went from college classes, a fraternity, a full schedule and running the business on the side to waking up and eating and breathing the business full-time. That was the main difference. With a full 18-hour day every day to hustle on the business, I was able to–

Andrew: What did you do with that hustle? What was different?

Joel: Part of it was just figuring out how to market the product better. So, I was already convinced that we had a product people needed and had a good price point and then it was a question of how do I get this in front of more people. So, that year out was when I really started learning about online marketing and search engine marketing, email marketing. Those were the tools.

With search as an example, once I got search marketing dialed in so that I know how much we’d make off every customer on average and as long as I paid less than that to acquire then, it was arbitrage, then it was just scaling the machine up.

Andrew: It was SEM, search engine marketing.

Joel: Exactly.

Andrew: Here’s a dramatic thing that I saw when I started looking into the evolution of your business. You leave school and it’s no longer selling one-off products. You then shift to a membership, which was I think like $29-$39 a month, am I right?

Joel: Yeah. It wasn’t right after school. Right after school I was hot on the DVD concept and got into doing these flash sales. So, we would shoot a city or a location and then do a one-week sale where you could buy the stuff unbelievably cheap. We’re talking like $8.41 for a DVD of content. But then we would ship thousands of them. We had this email list of customers that kept growing and growing.

So, that flash sale concept worked really well. That $1 million in revenue was almost all flash sales compared to–the breakdown is probably 95% flash sale versus 5% of people hitting our website and buying a product full price.

Andrew: I see. Wow.

Joel: So, it was all merchandising. What I realized was a) digital downloads were the way of the future. So, we could not be stuck in the past forever, even though we were making a ton of money–and I think this is where some entrepreneurs get caught up. We were making a fortune. It was all working really well. That was the time I started getting the most scared because I realized if I don’t start testing new concepts, one day I’m going to wake up to find that this way of business is dying and that’s sad.

So we started testing digital downloading, found that the subscription model was working really well with a company called Netflix. What I really liked about Netflix was they kind of flipped on the head this concept of value for dollars. So Netflix basically said you pay us x-amount of dollars per month and we’ll let you have as many movies as you want. People loved that unlimited nature. Some were going to use it a little bit, some were going to use it a lot. But they felt like they were getting a great deal.

So that was where we came up with this concept for VideoBlocks.com, which we started building in 2009 my first year out of college and soft-launched in 2010 and the whole concept there was you pay a monthly fee and you download as much video content as you want. We took everything that I’d shot for years and put it on this website. So I think we launched with like 30,000 clips, not a lot, and a really low monthly fee like you said, like $39 or something like that.

The whole goal was to then do marketing so that we get in front of Andrew and you say, “I don’t really need this right now, but for $39, I should just go on there and start downloading like a mad man so that one day when I have this need, it will be on my hard drive.”

Andrew: Yeah, what’s to keep people from just downloading all those videos in the beginning?

Joel: So it’s a great question. What I liked was it put the burden on us to continue adding fresh new content. I think it’s the same reason people don’t leave Netflix that often because they keep coming out with new content. If Netflix got stale, you’d pull your membership. But because they keep coming out with new “House of Cards” seasons and new movies, you want to see what’s coming up. So, for us, it was we continually pushed the envelope with adding new stuff and greater and greater stuff. That was the main reason.

Andrew: And this was 2010. So I’m looking at Archive.org and I see the site in March, 2009.

Joel: Yeah. It was hideous. 2009, it was me and maybe like one full-time employee. I hired my first full-time employee in 2009. So everything that was built was all outsourced.

Andrew: To a company called IForWeb.

Joel: Yeah, IForWeb. I’ll tell you who they are. It was a company I found on Elance, a firm in India. Basically I had this idea for a membership download website. I bid it out to a bunch of firms locally and also nationally. The average bid was $150,000 to build the website.

Andrew: Wow.

Joel: Wow. And I was like, “That’s a fortune.” So I put it on Elance and this company said, “Well, we did something similar like this for another group, so we can pretty much reuse most of the bones for $2,000.” I was like, “$2,000 sounds good. I know it’s not going to get me all the way there, but it will get me close.”

So, for a couple grand, we built the basic infrastructure of the site because again, all we were trying to do this time was test it. This was going to be a very, very minimal test to make sure this actually flew before we built a big site. So, $2,000, hired these guys, they built it. I found a local developer on Craigslist. He came in and got it the rest of the way there, helped me polish up a turd. We then started test marketing it to existing customers, found what worked and then tore down and rebuilt the entire site.

Andrew: So then what about all these existing customers who just paid–I guess they didn’t pay more than the monthly fee to get each DVD. Got it. Right.

Joel: Yeah. They did great.

Andrew: So, you were mentioning how it was just you. You first hire–who was that?

Joel: My first hire was a customer support representative. It was basically an office admin. I lived in the office basically, many times actually slept in the office because I was working the phones, doing email, packing shipments, getting them out the door.

So I hired a girl named Laura and found her on Craigslist. She was a local college student at George Mason and she came in immediately I started learning that there are people that are much better than you at certain things and you need find those people and relinquish control. One of them was customer support. She was so friendly. People loved corresponding with her. She was great at getting shipments out on time. All of a sudden I had hours of extra time in my day to focus on other things like marketing. So, Laura was the first hire.

The next hire was a marketing hire because I realized if we’re going to grow this business, we need to keep scaling up this marketing, so I found a great guy again on Craigslist to come in and take some of the marketing burden off of my plate and then again realized he was really good at this. I’ll be honest. I was afraid of hiring at the beginning. This was like a huge fear factor for me.

Again, it was a lack of a confidence. I’m like 21, 22 years old. What do I know about managing people? I don’t want to have someone’s livelihood in my hands. Too much responsibility. Freelancers are easy because I didn’t know them, they were distant. So I think a lot of your listeners might have a similar pain point, which is it’s scary to hire people, but what you realize is once you get good people, it just changes the game. That’s what happened, it changed the game. All of a sudden I had more hours every day.

My biggest regret if I could go back and redo some things, I would hire earlier. I waited too long. I just held on too long. Part of it was fear but part of it was also being cheap. I thought, “Why would I pay this person a bunch of money when I can do the job and that money goes right in the bank account?” That was a very naïve way of looking at it because there are only so many hours in the day.

Andrew: Did I understand that you raised money so you could hire people and have the credibility to get better people? Is that right?

Joel: Yeah. That’s right. So, in 2010, we kind of tested this video blocks thing. 2011 we actually launched it and the website started doing phenomenally well. I kind of sat back and said, “We might have ourselves a multi-hundred million dollar company here if I don’t screw this up. My biggest fear again was, “Well, I’m going to have to start hiring executives, top-level talent, but are they going to look at this 20-year old and say, ‘Who’s this guy?'”

So I went out and did a fundraise. We did a $10.5 million series A in March, 2012. A lot of the purpose of that raise for me was to give us credibility to hire. It actually worked out that way too. A couple of good things happened–we picked a great partner who was very helpful in guiding us and getting examples of past businesses, but also helped us find some key hires, which was great.

Andrew: Who was that? Who’d you raise from? Who helped out?

Joel: It was two firms–one, Updata Partners and they had originally invested in a company called iContact, if you remember iContact, right?

Andrew: Yeah. I know Ryan, the founder.

Joel: Yeah, I know Ryan. Ryan recommended them. I liked that the understood subscription businesses. It turns out Updata, the majority of the businesses they invest in are SaaS-based businesses. So, they understood our model. The second was QED Investors. That’s a firm started by Nigel Morris, who cofounded Capital One here locally. Those guys are data ninjas. They use data to do everything and so do we. So, with those two firms, we were in a pretty good place to have assistants as well as bring in talent.
Andrew: QED invested in SoFi, which is a really hot company right now and The Muse, which I didn’t realize how big The Muse was until I did an interview with them and then I started realizing the size of the business. Credit Karma, which I use and I really like–do you use Credit Karma?

Joel: I do.

Andrew: Just free credit reports, right, on your phone?

Joel: Yeah, legitimately free. That was cool because that was a business opportunity created by FreeCreditReport.com, which was a total scam. So here these guys, Ken and the guys at Credit Karma said, “Why don’t we actually provide the product people thought they were going to get and build a business around that?” And they did great.

Andrew: It’s clever too because then they offer credit card offers that I imagine them making good money on that are just right there in your credit report app.

Joel: It’s perfect.

Andrew: When you say you’re a data company, what kind of data were you looking at, at the time?

Joel: So, the biggest was A/B testing to see what drove sales. So, going back to before I was using an actual A/B testing engine, we would have multiple landing pages and drive traffic from ad campaigns, like search engine campaigns to multiple pages and would try different price points, so price point testing was a big early day thing. But then also call to action. So we had to decide, “Do we do a free trial with a credit card or without a credit card? Do we just go straight for selling the product?”

What we ultimately found that we’ve now changed a bit as people have gotten to know our product for was a free trial worked really well. Years ago most people didn’t know what stock video was and they certainly hadn’t heard of us. What you find in sales is the more you can reduce friction in the sales process the better. So, free trials, it’s easy. People go, “Let me give it a shot. See if I like it.” Then it was up to us to try to sell them.

So then the next big testing, the next big place data came in was over the course of your seven-day trial, we would look very closely at what you did. It was like Andrew downloaded this, but then he took two days off and hasn’t come back. Let’s get in front of him. So we came up with all these triggered email campaigns to try to keep you active because we would find that the more active and engaged you were the more likely you were to subscribe and pay.

Andrew: How could you tell that? That’s really impressive you would know that?

Joel: We would know because we had so many data points. Because of the free trial, we were having hundreds of people a day sign up. We would then look at those accounts and we could tell with each account how often they logged in, what they downloaded, when they stopped.

Andrew: Were you eyeballing it?

Joel: No. We weren’t eyeballing it. This was all using SQL. So, doing SQL queries, using Excel to do basic analysis of averages to see, “What’s the average…” basically building a formula to predict retention and trying to find the coefficients that would predict it. What we would find is things like recency of login was a big predictor of whether or not you were going to stay around and actually become a customer.

Andrew: I see.

Joel: Then we would use email campaigns to try to drive recency of login, found that it would work and we’d kind of go from there. Now, today, we’re very scientific about it. We watch everything and we have over 100,000 customers. We know anonymously kind of, but we know exactly what people are doing and that drives the output. The dependent variable is someone stays a customer or they leave us. Then there’s all this stuff that happens through the funnel to help us decide what we can do better.

Andrew: Our producer asked you how you celebrated a big success and you said the big success you celebrated was 10 million downloads and 100,000 paying customers. I get why 100,000 paying customers is exciting. Frankly, that number now that I think about it is shockingly impressive. But why is the number of downloads something you would celebrate. Why do you get excited about that?

Joel: You know, the reason that we get excited about and especially I get excited is I started the business to help creators make better projects. It was that simple. While the customer number is a byproduct of having a good product, the fact that we were actually able to get 10 million pieces of video content out in the creative would where they’re going to be in television shows, advertisements, YouTube videos, that means we’ve actually moved the needle.

To me that was exciting. It was like, “Hey, before VideoBlocks, people would have had to pay a fortune. By the way, over half of our customers have never purchased from another stock agency. So, half our customers are doing creative things they couldn’t have because they couldn’t afford it before and the 10 million download mark was so absurdly much higher than our competitors.

We were distributing up until recently–and this still might be the stat–more video clips in one day than Shutterstock was doing in an entire month. They’re one of our biggest competitors. So the 10 million mark was just a nice symbol of we’ve made our mark on the creative world, people like us and it’s working. Let’s keep going forward.

Andrew: The fact that you know their number and then use it to benchmark against brings up a question that I’ve had, which is why are you willing to say what your revenues were. You said they were what?

Joel: Last year they were around $20 million. This year they’ll be closer to $30 million.

Andrew: Why are you willing to say that publicly? I had a guest on that said no one after they raise a series A is going to talk about their revenues, but I noticed that a lot of people on Mixergy talk about their revenues. Why are you willing to say that publicly?

Joel: So it was decision that we made and it was one we had to talk about with the board and the investors. There are plenty of good reasons not to talk about your revenues. We decided to always be an open book. We’re pretty open with a lot of data, revenue and that sort of thing. Part of it was things like when I originally applied to be on the Inc. 500, you have to put your revenue out there. That was the first time we actually had to make a decision, 2012, do we share this information or not.

I decided it was worth it, like let’s just be open and see what happens. We were the fifth fastest growing media company in the country, which was super-exciting and helped us get a lot of exposure. By the same token, everybody know what our revenues were, but we’ve been on that list now every single year. So the numbers are out there and we’ve decided that it hasn’t been negative.

Andrew: Has there been a downside? What’s the downside?

Joel: I don’t think so. I suppose the downside would be your competitors know and can your competitors use that information against you. But the reality is I know how much–all of our competitors who don’t’ publicly talk about their revenue, I still know those numbers.

Andrew: How do you know it?

Joel: It gets to me through back channels–employees have friends that know investment bankers, all that information gets around. The people who you might be worried about knowing your numbers probably know them anyway. I wasn’t really afraid. I actually kind of like pushing the competition anyway, so it was kind of nice, like let’s push each other.

Andrew: I’ve kind of found that too, that people do talk much more than I expected, especially now if you have companies with a lot of angel investors. The angel investors feel like they have to talk to show that they really are in the no.

Joel: Yeah.

Andrew: I’m hunting to see here you get your traffic. According to SimilarWeb, there are a handful of sites you guys seem to own, like FreeAETemplates. That’s you guys owning it. It’s a major source of traffic for you.

Joel: Yeah. We call these our lead generation sites. Some people would do all these different SEO tactics and content farms and what not. Our approach to SEO years ago was let’s give away some free content, put it on websites where it’s genuinely free, no credit cards, nothing. You have to have an email address to sign up.

The first one we launched was StockFootageForFree.com. You fast forward to today and StockFootageForFree probably contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars in signups because we contact the email list and we cross-promote VideoBlocks. So we then launched FreeStockMusic.com, FreeAETemplates.com–you name it, we’ve got a site for it. many of them are in the top results on Google. So, we have millions of users between all these sites.

Andrew: These are what look like WordPress blogs with really good email capturing tools built into them and each article seems to be about a free piece of content and then you can watch the content and you can download it if you want. When you click to download it says, “Login with Facebook, Google or a username and email.”

Joel: Exactly right. Yeah. And this is advice I give almost any entrepreneur doing any business. Find a way to give something away for free and all you have to ask in return is contact information. It’s a small price to pay and if what you’re giving away is worth it, people will give you their email address and then don’t be spammy, but feel free to open a dialogue to try and tell them why they should buy your product.

Andrew: It looks like you guys use Mailjet and MailChimp to email them?

Joel: Yeah. We use a lot of different services. Another one we use that I really like is Customer.io.

Andrew: I see that here on BuiltWith. What is Customer.io?

Joel: It allows you to create real-time targeted email messages. So, let’s say you’re a customer and you login to VideoBlocks and we know that you haven’t been logged in, in five days. You’ll get an email saying, “Andrew, where have you been?” Or let’s say you login and you download something from After Effects category, that logic gets fed over to Customer.io and we have a trigger that shoots you a note and says, “If you like this, you might like this.” So, with a lot of triggered email, you kind of set up, it’s all time-based. With Customer.io, it’s event-based.

Andrew: I was looking for you to give that answer, but I think we have the founder of Customer.io coming on Mixergy some point soon or at least he’s been on our radar for a while because it’s such a good company. Frankly, Colin is a guy who’s been a Mixergy Premium member for a long time, the guy who founded the company, right? Colin is the founder of the company, I think? I don’t know.

Joel: I don’t know. But I know it’s a great product and it’s super-affordable.

Andrew: Why don’t we close out with the one question that you said to our producer–we always ask what didn’t we ask you that’s important to talk about. So that’s what Arie Desormeaux asked you and you said, “Why am I even doing this? You guys didn’t ask me about that.” I’m going to ask you now in this interview–why are you even doing this?

Joel: So I started the business because I had a problem. That was I wanted to create video content that people would enjoy watching and I couldn’t afford to make it look good. So I created a business out of a problem that I had a need. I could have stopped doing this a long time ago and gotten out, but the reason I keep doing it is think the creative world is really exciting.

I think that now more than ever, you look at Snapchat and Instagram and the amount of content being created is astronomical. I think what that shows is that people have this inherent desire to create and share. I just think it’s fun to be a part of that system. We’re a part of the ecosystem that drives YouTubers, drives Instagrammers, drives anybody creating content. So, that’s why I do it. By the way, it’s a great way to make money too. So, it’s nice when those things intersect–the passion and putting food on the table to come together.

Andrew: And you’ve got to be so excited about this business. I can’t believe how well it’s been doing. I had no idea. There are other sites too that I didn’t even get into that are all part of this network. We didn’t talk about how you added more products. We didn’t talk about–oh, We Are VideoBlocks is your personal company website. Well, thanks so much for being on here and doing this interview. I appreciate it.

Joel: Thanks, Andrew. This has been a lot of fun. We can talk for hours, I’m sure.

Andrew: I could. I didn’t even get into like I wanted to see what Footage Firm, the first company that you had looked like. I don’t even have to go hunt it down. Anyone can check out what FootageFirm.com looks like right now and get a sense of where you got started, complete with those little images of what a DVD would look like if it came to you in the mail.

Joel: Yeah. We left it up.

Andrew: I love that you left it up. Guys, go check out FootageFirm.com. And of course, if you want to see the actual company, it’s VideoBlocks. And I’m grateful to my two sponsors for making this happen–the first is HostGator. Go check them out at HostGator.com/Mixergy and the second one is Toptal. Check out Toptal.com/Mixergy. Bye, everyone.


  • Stephen

    I’m curious why Joel didn’t mention their new 100% commission marketplace they added on to the original Video Blocks platform. It pays contributors a 100% commission on anything they sell through VB. This was one of their biggest announcements/additions in the past year or so, and it was completely skipped over in the interview. Perhaps a change is a comin’.

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