One of my new favorite podcasts is How I Built This on NPR. It’s a tightly edited 20-30 minutes each week with an entrepreneur about how they built their business. They done stories with the founders of Patagonia, Zumbra, Crate & Barrel and more. All of them are great.
The latest one I’ve heard is that of 5-Hour Energy Drink with founder Manoj Bhargava. I’ve never had the product and frankly have always looked down on it, but the story was fascinating and I found a few great nuggets in the episode. My favorite nuggets are:
The three best characteristics, according to Manoj, for someone wanting to start a business are (a) Common sense. Don’t get caught up in MBA-Speak. If it makes sense, do it. If not, don’t do it. (b) Determination. Don’t confuse passion with determination. Passion goes away but to be succussful you have to show up every single day. (c) Urgency. Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Don’t wait.
I also like the part where he talked about leaving money to his son and why he’s leaving him almost nothing. Manoj a billonaire and he had the great quote of “If you raise your kid to be useless, than leaving him money is pointless. If you raise your son to be competent, leaving him money is pointless.”
As a product person, sometimes you prioritize incremental improvements instead of game-changing ideas because “the big swings” take too long. This almost happened at Tinder and the “swipe right” almost didn’t exist.
Here’s an article in Wired where the CEO and CTO recount how they talked about it. Jon Badeen (The Chief Strategy Officer) came up with the idea after seeing it done in flash cards in Chegg. He then showed the rest of the team.
Sean Rad (CEO): We had a five-minute conversation. It was a cool idea, bt jon thought it would take two weeks to build. So I said, eh, probably not a priority. That was right after we launched. We had a whole set of wings we wanted to do
Ryan Olge (CTO) chimes win with: We wanted to do read receipts, typing notifications, all these things
Then all of the sudden it showed up in the app. Apparently Jon worked on it over the weekend because he really wanted it.
The film composer Tom Holkenborg talked about how he keeps getting film work in this article. He says:
If you talk to other film composers and to people who work in the industry, the fact that you’re an original, talented musician is a given fact. What is left then? It’s, how are you as a person in a room? Do you deliver on time? Do you make the movie better? Do you understand what the director wants? Can you walk that really fine line of politics when things get sour and you help solve the problem?
– Tom Holkenborg, aka JUNKIE XL, composer of “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Black Mass”
I love this. This is how I feel about work too. The fact that you’re talented and can actually do the work really well has become a given. You have to be able to go beyond that and be both great at what you do and good at actually working WITH people.
Back in 2010, Toby, Nader and I went into Techstars. In the Techstars bunker we took our seats next to two young guys who had a crazy look in their eyes. These two guys, Ian and Adam, were hard core robotics and mobile engineers and we liked them immediately.
The problem was that they didn’t really have a good idea for their company. After a few weeks of discussing what to do with mentors, they decided to make smart hotel room keys. Keys that could be controlled by your smart phone. It was a huge market and seemed destined to be a successful company. There was one issue with their plan: they totally weren’t into it. One of their mentors asked them “What do you guys do in your spare time?” They replied that they played games. He responded, “why don’t you do that instead?” And thus the robotic ball, the original Sphero, was born.
Five years later the balls are better, faster and in more styles (check out Ollie, he’s awesome). They just yesterday released the coolest version yet, the Droid BB-8 that will be featured in the upcoming Star Wars film.
These two guys went from nothing in the basement in Boulder to producing with Disney the coolest toy in the world. A huge congratulations to them. Well done!
This is post #11 about the Qloud experience. The previous post was about about the launch of Qloud. You can read that here.
Once we launched, we grew extremely fast. I have to say that being part of a company that is blowing up is really really fun. Everyone is constantly happy. As a product person, this is what you work for and when it happens, it feels great.
We did some things that were shady and other things were legit and very smart. Some things we did:
We wouldn’t let you use the application unless you invited 25 friends. We had a nice UI that let you quickly select 25 faces and then it would open. While extremely annoying, it worked really well.
We integrated deeply into the new feed. We knew all of our users play history, including from iTunes and we’d launch really interesting news feed items to friends that read, “Of all the songs played last week by your friends, here are the 3 not in your library. Click here to play.” This is great music discovery, right in your news feed.
We started understanding and using the link sharing networks. Lots of other apps were selling the ability to recommend users download other apps. You could buy space there and buy installs. We experimented a lot with all of them. Some were pretty cheap and effective. Interestingly, Steve Case really dug into this too. For someone with his success, we was not afraid to get into the weeds. I also give a lot of credit to our lawyer and BD guy here, Jim Delorenzo (now head of Sports at Amazon), for this success as he really figured it out.
I give Noah R-S (now Chief Product Officer at DailyMail) a lot of credit for hacking Facebook. He understood it at a level that probably only a few dozen in the world did.
We also started exploring a business model
Our growth was so fast that we’d get lots of calls from record labels and lawyers asking to shut us down. They saw the streams happening on Qloud and wanted it to stop. It took them a while to realize that we had co-opted YouTube for the streams.
This is post #9 about the Qloud experience. The previous post was about about how we used YouTube as a music engine. Read that post here.
The year is 2007 and we’re building as fast as we can our new music service. It’s going to be a full-powered music streaming service on top of a collaborative music search engine and it’s going to be sweet.
Before we launched I went out to lunch with Sean Parker (known by many of you as Justin Timberlake in the movie The Social Network). At the time he had left Facebook and was about a year into his new VC gig at Founders Fund. We sat down to lunch and the subject immediately turned to our upcoming launch. He asked, “Hey, do you know about Facebook’s platform?” I didn’t and he went to explain it to me. Basically FB needed a way to expand and what better way than have companies build their product in to Facebook. While the 3rd party companies would provide the development, Facebook would allow you to message and add their users as your users. It sounded cool.
I went back to the team and explained this upcoming launch. I got in touch with Dave Morin (yep, the Path founder used to be head of Facebook platform) and he gave us access to the platform. Our plan was to build a subset of our service on Facebook and gain some early users. Then, when we launched our new website we could make a claim that says, “We already have 10,000 users on Facebook.”
It did not go that way at all.
Launching on Facebook right when the Platform was launching was probably one of the best things we did. Because it was new, it had a bunch of early adopters. It also had a bunch of loopholes that allowed us to market and message millions of users. If you remember getting a ton of requests to join some stupid game, that was the platform. We used to do things like “You can’t install our app unless you invite 30 friends.” and people did it.
Of course Facebook wasn’t happy about this, but we weren’t going to stop. Kudos goes to our colleague Noah who really figured out how to growth hack the crap out of it.
Lessons learned: at both Kapost and Qloud, we grew because we attached ourselves to a tidal wave in the industry. In Qloud it was the Facebook platform and Kapost it was Content Marketing. Facebook eventually would shut down the platform but not until much later. Heck, even Zynga used it to become a billion dollar company leveraging Facebook’s platform. Sometimes the bright and shiny new thing in the industry is worth going after.
The next post is about the actual launch. Check that out here.
Yesterday, Kapost announced that it closed another $10 million dollars, some of it from Salesforce. Salesforce is the arguably the biggest and most badass B2B company on the planet so to get an investment and endorsement from them is huge.
This is a great accomplishment for the team. It’s never easy raising money and this round took around 4 months to put together (maybe more)
Also, Megan over at Techstars shot a video of us in the office and just pushed it out. Here it is:
The year is 2007 and Toby and I have a great idea to build a comprehensive music service. There were no web streaming services at the time. Some of the players were:
eMusic – a service for indie artists where you could download mp3’s.
PressPlay – a Sony sponsored music service that has only 2 labels and also required a download
Rhapsody – a pretty good service that required a player download and costs $20 a month
We started building the service and went around to all the music labels and providers we could find to license the actual tracks so we could serve up the songs to our users. Turns out that’s not easily done in 2007. To get music you have to strike individual deals with each individual label. Those deals require time (which we didn’t have) and money for upfront payments (which we didn’t have). Hmmm.
Luckily we figured out a nice loophole. Google bought YouTube in 2006. Right before that acquisition YouTube gave equity to the music labels. In exchange for this equity, they struck a deal that forbid the labels from suing YouTube for 2-3 years (I’m not sure of the length). This was a little-known fact, but it was true.
It is also true that almost every music track in existence is available on YouTube. This was pre-Vevo. So, we decided that our backend streaming service will actually be powered by YouTube. Nobody had every tried this, but it allowed us to (a) serve all our music for free; (b) be legal; (c) embed our music right into a browser without asking uses to download a player.
We did one other smart thing. Turns out there are many many videos for each song. Some are correct and some aren’t. We didn’t have time to go through millions of tracks, so we build into the service the ability for users to mark which YouTube video is correct for that track. They could play up to 10 different videos and vote for their favorite. By default, we play the video with the most votes. This tuned out to work really well. Once we launched our users would spend hours voting on videos and helping us curate our library.
We build the service in 4-5 months. Now we just needed to launch. Read about how that went in the next post…
It’s now the Spring of 2007. We’ve been doing the company for a little over a year and we were running out of money. We had rounds of funding spelled out in our deal with Revolution, but for the next round they could fund us or not at their discretion. When we brought up the subject to them, they decided to not fund us.
We had launched the world’s first music search service that searched on tags and usage. It was revolutionary. The problem was that nobody cared. The amount of use we had was small. Granted, we didn’t iterate on it much and maybe over time usage would have increased, but out of the gates it was DOA.
The few thousand customers we had we talked to and grabbed feedback from. They wanted more. Just a list of songs wasn’t enough. They wanted everything. Specifically:
On-demand music. They see a track, they want to click and play it right then and right there (in the browser)
Major label music – all the popular stuff for the 4 major music labels
Indie label music – all the niche stuff from the dozens of indie labels
Unlimited music – they wanted no limit to what they could do (unlike radio stations)
Free. They didn’t want to pay because the alternative at the time (Kazaa, Bit Torrent, etc.) were all free
So, we decided to focus on delivering a full-featured music streaming service instead of a music search service. It was a bold move, but desperate times call for desperate measures.
It turns out we were right. This was the right direction as you’ll see in a later post. However, it created different problems such as:
How do you build a business around free music? (answer: you can’t)
How do you make the record labels happy if you’re not charging? (answer: you can’t)
Technically, how do you get the music to serve to the users? We’ll address in a later post.
I learned a valuable lesson here in that you shouldn’t be afraid to drastically change your service if your usage is low. Don’t hang on to past work just because of the sunk costs. I’ll credit Toby for being super bold. Toby is not one to do things half-assed. He likes to pick a direction and go full steam in that direction. It’s tough to make a decision to throw away a year’s worth of work.
This would come in handy later when we did something similar at Kapost.