In Episode 548, Rob Walling chats with Zack Naylor about Aurelius and the harrowing tale of launching multiple times and having to rewrite and re-platform the codebase before finally finding success. They also discuss how to interpret feedback from your customers and the importance of listening to your instinct as a founder.
The topics we cover
[03:24] Background on how Aurelius helps UX researchers
[07:56] The struggles of building and launching multiple alpha versions
[15:14] Bootstrapping during a pandemic
[22:20] Taking risks as an entrepreneur
[26:28] Building a third version of the product that lead to unprecedented growth
[30:48] Using your gut as a founder
Links from the show
- Things You Should Never Do, Part I
- Episode 541 | Faster Horses & Product Myths, Life-changing Money, Dual Funnels, and More
- Zack Naylor (@zacknaylor) | Twitter
If you have questions about starting or scaling a software business that you’d like for us to cover, please submit your question for an upcoming episode. We’d love to hear from you!
Rob: I’m back with another episode of Startups For the Rest of Us. This is episode 548. We’re about to hit the 550-episode mark. As you know, the show is about building ambitious startups, bootstrapped and mostly bootstrapped, but without sacrificing our freedom, our purpose, and our relationships to do so.
I have a great conversation today with the co-founder of Aurelius, Zack Naylor. Aurelius is a SaaS app for UX researchers. It’s for them to organize, tag, and search all of their research notes, both audio that gets transcribed as well as text that you enter in. You can imagine doing jobs-to-be-done interviews, or doing any type of UX research and interaction research, needing to filter that, and search through it later.
The two of them are working on it full-time. They’re what I’d consider a mostly bootstrapped company, having bootstrapped it for the last five years and through many versions. You’ll actually hear us tell the harrowing tale of re-versioning and having to re-platform it. It’s a hard story in the sense that they were getting some traction, but not enough to quit their day jobs. They realized there was one section of the app that people really love. They just had to rebuild it with new technology and really focus on this one piece of it. It’s a fascinating story. I hope you enjoy it.
Before we dive into that, if you haven’t downloaded our two exclusive episodes along with the PDF guide, you should head to startupsfortherestofus.com and enter your email address. The first guide is 8 Things You Must Know When Launching Your SaaS. The second is 10 Things You Should Know As You Scale Your SaaS. These are essentially solo podcast episodes where I dug into 8 things and 10 things respectively that I feel like everyone should keep in mind as they’re doing this. These are takeaways from 20 years of entrepreneurship and 16 years of thinking about, talking to, and advising entrepreneurs. Startupsfortherestofus.com, sign up for the email list to get those. With that, let’s dive into our conversation.
Zack Naylor, thank you so much for joining me on the show.
Zack: Definitely. I’m really honored to be on. I’m actually pretty humbled that you asked. I’m happy to be here.
Rob: Yeah. It’s great to have you on, man. We’ve known each other for a few years. You live here in Minneapolis where I do. You and I had some bourbons now and again, you might say. It’s been a while though due to COVID.
Zack: Yeah, unfortunately. You might say and I will say.
Rob: Indeed. I’m fascinated to have you on today to talk about a few elements of your journey with Aurelius. Your H1 is, Your research is solid. But it only matters if you can get from data to insights to influence, faster. Prove what you know with the more powerful research repository and insights platform. It’s aimed at UX researchers. Is that right?
Zack: It’s really anybody who’s doing regular research with their customers. That tends to be, for us, primarily UX research teams. It also then means general UX teams. That could be designers.
If you’re in a company doing UX but you don’t have a dedicated research team yet—maybe because you’re not big enough or they haven’t recognized the need, whatever, you’re still doing that. Maybe you’re in product management. You’re doing customer research all the time either with UX or not. Those are the folks we tend to find the most value out of Aurelius.
Rob: Got it. To give people an idea, UX research is a fairly new thing, at least in my experience. When you first told me about Aurelius—was it three years ago or four years ago when we met—you were explaining it to me and I was like, I’m not sure I really understand what it is or what it does. But these days, you have enough traction that you and your co-founder, Joseph, are full-time on the product. You’ve been accepted into TinySeed batch three. Congratulations. You have traction here.
To give folks an idea of what the product does because again, I almost come at it. Of course, have I done job-to-be-done interviews? Yes. Have I done light UX research myself? Of course. As a founder, I had to do all of this stuff but I am not a professional at it. I’m definitely an amateur who’s trying to do it. To get my head around it, I’m looking down through what the product does from a nuts-and-bolts level, not the benefits, but the literal features.
It looks like you can take all of your research notes, whether you’re doing a job-to-be-done or whether you’re doing just a conversation. You’re taking a bunch of notes. If you have interviews that are audio, you can upload them and you’ll transcribe them. The idea is to get all this stuff into text. Then you tag things so you can highlight this sentence, do #featurerequest, #error, and then, later on, you can filter and you can search by those hashtags. It’s taking these volumes of notes and other textual data and being able to apply a taxonomy to it that’s later, searchable and filterable. Am I explaining that relatively well?
Zack: Yeah, you are. I obviously think about this a lot. I would just add to that or maybe even try to distill it further and say the biggest question you get is what do we know about our customers who need X, Y, and Z? When you think about that, how do you get that today? It’s everywhere. It’s email, spreadsheets, Post-it notes, everywhere. But really, it’s the place that people refer to as a central repository where you can search, share, and reuse that stuff all in one spot. Absolutely.
You’re talking about job-to-be-done interviews. You take all those notes. You’re actually a perfect example. You said you’re not a UX researcher, but you play one on TV kind of thing. You do all these interviews and you go, how do I make sense of all of that?
There is a lot of stuff in Aurelius that helps you do that. We actually do automatic keyword analysis to help you find patterns, themes, and frequency to make you analyze and make sense of this. Then, when you say, what did you learn from all the interviews, that’s when you capture these key insights. You can filter and sort off those themes and tags, and say, these are the things we learned. But then, that becomes one central bank of knowledge where you can get a lot more mileage to that where next time when you’re going to figure out what you learned from research, you don’t have to do new research and waste time on resources which nobody likes. You can actually get a lot more mileage out of the research you did.
Rob: Right. That’s the thing. Again, we go back three or four years. You told me about this idea. I remember thinking isn’t this solved with Google Docs or with Evernote? There are all of these tools to do note-taking. I’m sure there are ways to taxonomize, hashtag, and organize it, but it sounds like there isn’t a tool like this aimed at UX folks or I guess researchers in general.
That’s the thing you were mentioning offline where you’re saying market researchers or something, that they were using some crappy tool or Evernote, that they saw what you had, and were like, wow, we could use this in our field.
Zack: That’s a really good observation. I think because we are in such a nascent area of the industry, the solutions are Google Docs, Confluence, Spreadsheets, and stuff like that because those were just the tools that were given to us. We think that those are free. That’s a whole other conversation. Oh, these tools are free. They’re not. You’re always paying for them in some way, but right, they’re not actually built for the purpose. The things that you want to do with these notes, with being able to capture these insights, with being able to share them with people actually requires stitching together multiple tools. To have it in one place not only use efficiency boost but also a lot of other features that don’t exist in something like Evernote.
Rob: You know the old adage—I love to say this—anytime someone is using a spreadsheet, that’s a SaaS company in the making. Eventually, it can and/or will be replaced by that. I think Anaar may have said that. I’ve heard a few people say it, but it’s a great takeaway.
I don’t want to spend too much time on the product itself but I really wanted folks to understand what it is because it essentially is a verticalized tool. It’s for researchers. If you don’t do much research, as myself coming to it, I was like, why would I need this? Why does this solve a problem that people will be willing to pay for? With that in mind, you started the company six years ago, 2015, with your co-founder. In 2016, you launched an alpha and you started testing it with folks. The product wasn’t very different from what it is today. In fact, you’re telling me on the side, including that alpha version, you’ve literally had four versions of this product.
That’s just painful to hear because I know that each of those times, you had to make a decision to scrap the version and start a new one. That could not have been easy. It probably was a pretty big blow to your ego, but also just a blow to your motivation of, oh […] do we really have to do this again?
Can you talk us through maybe the first one or two of those? Did you scrap the code and started over? Was it just UX? What got you there? There have to be people listening to this podcast right now who are in that space of like, we built something but people don’t want it. They don’t want all of it. What was that process for you as a professional UX researcher and product person? How did you go about going down this path in the early days?
Zack: Okay. Where do we want to start here? In 2015, we officially formed the company. Sometime in 2016—I want to say it was March-ish but don’t hold me to that—we launched the alpha. You weren’t paying for it yet. This was a pure sign-up on our website. Let’s collect the emails. Let’s get you in an alpha or beta program. In fact, I was even doing this manually, personal connections because I worked in the industry. I would like you to come in and check this out. You use this for free, yadda yadda yadda. That version was actually a product strategy platform. It was a classic start mistake. We built too much too soon. We were way too broad.
As I was talking with you a little bit about this, what happened during that point in time was out of 100 people that came to us, 10 were like, I’ve never seen anything like this. I want it. This is the way it worked. We’ve been looking for something like this. The 90 were like, I wish we could work that way. This is really cool, but tell me a little bit more about this research and insights piece you’ve got.
At that time, we were doing research and insights but it was also connecting to product decisions, trying to connect the analytics, and then tracking that back to goals. It was a very ambitious platform, let’s just say, for a couple of pirate bootstrappers. But people just were not ready to work that way, that scale. We had enough interest to where we eventually the actual live version of that and we’re getting some paying customers. Nothing to really write home about. Then, this feedback continued to roll in. It’s just like, yeah, this is really cool but we just really need a way to organize all these insights and research that we’re doing with customers.
It just became apparent to me particularly, as somebody who’s been working in the industry for over 15 years now. I was like, yeah, it’s actually always been about that. The idea was, okay, we’re going to take the research and insights piece, pull that out, build it in its own app, basically inject it with steroids, and integrate the two. Sounds reasonable enough. Sell them to separate products and you can plug and play.
We launched the beta version of just the research and insights app and even our paying customers were using the beta version of that more than the old one. That was a clear signal, sunset the old product. At this point, we’re head-first into the research and insights piece and we’re building that.
Fast forward to—I don’t even remember the exact year—2017, 2018, somewhere around there. The old codebase wasn’t working for us. We want to really put the pedal down on the research and insights piece. Completely redesigned, completely re-platformed, new codebase, and everything. Yes, it was painful but it was necessary. It served us pretty well.
The thing was back then, I think it was mostly Angular and also Riot.js—not easy to find developers, not easy to run people up, slower development time. We go, we’re going to change that. We did that. Okay, fine. Then, we finally go, well, there have been a lot of advances in technology that we had. The initial database was actually a Neo4j because we were doing some things with making recommendations and stuff like that which suited us well for that.
But then it just made sense to move off of that, do the Mongo, and then re-do the front-end and React because way much faster to have time being a team that is bootstrapped. Speed to development is huge. That was version three which actually launched “version three” of using codes of what you see today in Aurelius which launched in September.
Every single one of those times, yeah, it was absolutely painful. Every single one of those times, we had that conversation. I’m sitting here like you already said it. Do we really have to do this again? But we were able to accelerate every time after that. You just basically crawl through glass uphill and then you’re able to go down the other side of the hill.
Rob: Right. I have a saying that I say all the time which is so much of being an entrepreneur is making hard decisions with incomplete information to where you can never get to 100% certainty. There is no data that tells you although there has to be a God element. I say that with product validation when people do customer development, trying to do a lean startup, you put up a landing page, whatever. It never gets you to 100%. Maybe it gets you to 50%, maybe 60%. I found that these massive, pretty undoable decisions are often like that.
How did you feel? How did you and Joseph reconcile that each time? Was it like, well, this is what our gut tells us and enough of the data is pointing in this direction? Did you lose many nights of sleep as you were trying to make the decision? How did that happen?
Zack: That’s a really fair question. The first time around, it was really moving away from the database and being Neo4j. When we first built it, it made a ton of sense because we were trying to help automate, create recommendations, connect decisions, and stuff. Again, very ambitious.
It worked, which is cool but then we moved away from that. Then in creating different connections within the data, Neo4j just did not serve us well. Painful, but we didn’t lose any sleep. It was a clear necessity. Incomplete but still we’re clear set. We aren’t going to do what we wanted to do with that.
I would say in the more recent world, when we looked at the front-end technology and how things were built, we just looked at it and thought—here are the questions I asked—if we were to build the X feature we’re working on right now, which we’re now on React TypeScript, how much time would we save?
Joseph was giving me some answers on that and I’m just doing the calculations. I’m like, we’re basically launching features that would take us probably all of next year, and essentially, six months is the estimate. We’re never right on that but to me, that was such a huge deal because every single one of our competitors is venture-backed. They’ve got a team of people sitting around working on stuff. It’s me and Joseph. It was just a clear decision. It wasn’t easy to make. I’m not trying to trivialize it like, oh, yeah, it was a no-brainer, because it sucks. You’re re-platforming the whole thing which is stopping essentially new feature development and stuff, but it was just so necessary looking at the time to develop it in the future knowing that that was something we’d never be able to keep up if we didn’t do it.
Rob: That’s tough. It’s tough to make these whole sale changes whether it’s code-based or whether it’s positioning any of these changes. I definitely feel the pain there. You’ve made these hard decisions to re-platform. You have an alpha. You have a V1. You have a V2. You and Joseph are working your day jobs. Joseph’s the developer and you’re everything else I’m assuming, product, marketing, sales. It’s all that. You’re on the operation side. Just trying to keep stuff off is his plate.
I’ve been there. It’s like, we need features so I’m going to do everything else. The two of you are working day jobs. You’re working on Aurelius on the side and COVID hits. There was a big shift that happened to you guys there. Talk me through what happened.
Zack: It was business as usual as it was at that time. It was the end of March, the beginning of April, around that time. I had actually been placed on furlough. None of us knew how long this was going to take. That was fine. I was placed in furlough and just worked from home, but then I thought, well, no problem. I’ve got a company I’m trying to build. I will just focus on that during my day, which is what we wanted to do anyway. Then, Joseph also got laid off from his job. We just looked at each other and said, okay, we can look at this as a challenge and freak out or we can use this as an opportunity.
We decided to use this as an opportunity and we just focused on Aurelius. We had a target in mind. We said, look if we can get to this revenue number—because again, we had no funding—that gives us this runway. We both agree that we’ll go full-time. The pandemic, as terrible as it was and actually still is in many ways, was both a gift and a curse to us. It forced us to do that, also allowed us to get really focused, and reach that goal. We did and part of that was when we launched version three which did not come without its speed bumps on the road to getting there. It was a huge deal because after that, everything, just as the saying goes, went up into the right.
Rob: Getting furloughed or laid off is painful. There are no two ways about that, but it sounds like the realization quickly set in like, wait a minute, I have this side thing. That’s one of the basics of being an entrepreneur. You always have a plan B and often a plan C, D, and E, whether it’s a side project or whether it’s just being an entrepreneur forces you to be pretty creative as a problem-solver.
Were you stressed? When you’re furloughed/laid off, were you ever like, oh, my gosh. This is terrible. Or was it pretty instantly like, now I have time to work to focus on this?
Zack: I don’t think that there is one or the other. They were some of both. Although funny enough, initially, it was more of a fine. I’m going to go heads down on the thing that I’ve wanted to go completely heads down on for years now anyway. That was great.
Some of where the mega stress came in was definitely as we got later in the summer and version three was a real slog for us to get off the door for various reasons. At that point, things start creeping into your mind. I’ve got a family. I’ve got a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, married, house, and stuff like that. I’m the primary income. My wife is a stay-at-home. You got things that start creeping in your mind like, how am I going to feed my kids if this doesn’t work? I know that I’m certainly not alone in the entrepreneur world of people who think about that. Things cross their minds. As gutsy as a lot of us can be and a lot of bravadoes a lot of us might have, that stuff still comes in.
They just got to this point where we were working so hard in getting this version out that I knew was going to bring us success. It was almost like I could just predict the future. Honestly, I can’t describe it any other way. But it was such a pain to get there. I’m not going to lie to you, June, July, August of last year was definitely and literally the hardest time in my life. Absolutely, without question, and I’ve done a lot of hard stuff in my life purposely. I tend to seek out really difficult challenges. Without question, the most stressful or the most difficult time in my life.
Rob: What was going on there? I feel your pain because I’ve obviously built many software products whether I was a developer or someone else was. It always took longer than we wanted it to. I felt stressed, but I wouldn’t say for me that those times were the worst in my life. Was it the confluence of I need money, I need this to work? Otherwise, I’m going to have to get a day job in the middle of COVID plus the delays?
Zack: It was absolutely the convergence of all of those things. It’s funny. I don’t mean to trivialize it because there’s nothing easy about getting your company certainly as a bootstrap, but that was the easy part. It was doing it under conditions of everything that was going on. We got two young kids at home and one that is like, oh, I’m going to go back to school except you can’t go to school. We haven’t really figured out how to homeschool because nobody’s ever done this before. Then, on top of that, you can’t go anywhere and there’s literally no release.
It wasn’t just building the company and doing those stressful things. It was doing it under an additionally exponentially stressful environment. You know what I mean. Then, of course, the things in the back of your mind. It’s like if this doesn’t work, basically how much time do I have to figure out if I need to get another job so I can just keep my family living well?
Rob: Yeah. That’s the thing with uncertainty, man. It is no joke. I don’t think people stay up at night or wake up at 3:00 AM in the morning worrying about things they’re certain about. It’s always the what-if, what’s going to happen. You feel like you can think your way into certainty but in fact, if you talk to any psychologist, a good psychologist, they will say ruminating on the same problem without new information, if you’re stressing about it, is not helpful.
Trying to solve mentally a puzzle that you’re not stressed about—I often do that in the shower, while I’m washing dishes, while I’m walking around—I just think over and over, how can we solve this? I’m not like, oh, my God, I’m worried. I’m trying to come up with a solution to it. That is helpful. But it’s thinking about something for days and perseverating on it, that is just brutal. It’ll eat you up. I totally get what that feels like.
I didn’t have it last year in COVID but I had it. For me, it was 2014 where there was some mismanaged cash flow. I was transitioning away from HitTail, and Drip was just getting going. It wasn’t growing as fast as it needed to be. Then, the big tax bill came through for the prior year. I was like, oh, my gosh, I don’t have enough cash to pay for it. I remember feeling that and feeling the weight of, I don’t know if I can get myself out of this.
We talked earlier about the bravado, the entrepreneurs taking big risks, or whatever but I’ve often found, especially in our circles, bootstrapped SaaS founders that I would say were maybe more risk-averse than a lot of the Silicon Valley founders would have us believe. The folks I know usually don’t take out $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 in credit card debt like you might hear on some fancy podcast about some multimillionaire or sleep in their cars to get this done.
While we take on more risks than our friends who are developers at Target or BestBuy, we still go about this pretty sensibly and methodically. We want something that has a pretty high chance of success. Would you describe yourself that way? In terms of entrepreneurs, do you think you’re a big risk-taker or are you more risk-averse?
Zack: I would say I probably conform more to the description you gave of most bootstrappers. I think that that’s actually why it was particularly stressful because, at the business end of things, there are certain calculated risks that I know I’m willing to take. Joseph and I are actually extremely on the same page. That wasn’t the issue. It was doing that in a completely uncertain world as well.
It’s fine dealing with a certain amount of uncertainty and risk in one area of your life, but then to also not know when are we going to get to have our kids go back to school again, play with friends, or ever see family, it was just literally nothing but uncertainty and risks honestly, physical and otherwise.
In every area of my life, it’s just like, you can’t be serious right now. It was unprecedented. That’s why I say almost the business side of things was relatively easy except at that point because V3 was taking so much longer to get out the door. It was like, we can’t actually start growing until that happens. I was certain of that. Not having at least some semblance of certainty when that’s going to happen—you know what I mean—everything exponentially grows in that case given those circumstances.
Rob: I had a friend that I used to work with. He said I can handle a large amount of uncertainty in my work life as long as my home life or personal life is stable. If my work life is super stable and chill, I can handle uncertainty in my personal life. But I can’t do both. That’s where it tips me over. You’re basically describing a lot of us, especially those of us with kids. A lot of us felt it last year with the danger from COVID. You have uncertainty at your day job. You’re home all the time. If you had kids that mix of, oh, wow, now I have two kids that are at home, whether you’re homeschooling them or not, if they’re of that age, it’s not an easy scene.
Zack: Yeah. It was completely mental. As I said, it’s just an entirely tumultuous time. To add to that, the fact that you mentioned, we both live in Minneapolis. It cannot go without saying there were a lot of socially relevant events happening around that time, too, that again, just added an incredible amount of additional stress and emotional heaviness with what happened with George Floyd. The aftermath of that. It was just a really heavy-duty time in my life.
Rob: Yeah. I remember that as well. The summer is super stressful. You’re just counting the days in essence until you can ship this. It’s taking longer than you and Joseph want. Waiting, waiting, waiting.
In September, you’re able to launch it. It sounds like things literally went up another right from there. What’s funny is usually, as a founder, we’re so certain that this next feature this, next rewrite this, next whatever is going to be the difference. Usually, it isn’t but sometimes, it is. It sounds like for you, this V3, which is actually if you include your alpha as the fourth version, was really what broke it wide open for you.
Zack: Yeah, it absolutely was. Again, I think that’s what added the stress to all of this for me because I was so certain of that. I was so certain that things go up to the right with version three because I do research with our customers all the time. I’m the one that does all the demos. I’m the one that hears all the feedback. I’m the one that’s literally involved in the communities that we serve. I hear what people say. I’m like, I know what we’ve got to do. We need to get this thing out the door. You’re talking about demos. That was a perfect example. It was the first time I demoed V3. We would get pretty good reactions to the stuff that we built in what we were doing even in version two. Not only our design but also the way in which we were doing some things were hit or miss. You either really loved it or it was like, oh, these are the tools to do this differently and we prefer that.
Okay, version three, most of them are grand slams. I’m not trying to be arrogant or boastful, but it really is. The reaction, by and large, is a rare occasion where people are like, oh, I don’t know if this is what I’m looking for. We got to where we needed to get to. I was very confident of that because funny enough, in a very meta-moment, we do a bunch of research. We’re not talking guesses at what we should build. We’re understanding the needs of our customer base really well. These were all things that touched on so many important points that we weren’t touching on at that time.
Rob: It sounds like V3 was a technology re-platforming where you rewrote it mostly from scratch. In addition, you added a bunch of features. Is that right?
Zack: And total redesign, visual UI redesign.
Rob: Holy Moly. That’s a lot of moving.
Zack: Absolutely. It was a massive move. I wouldn’t say that we came to that decision lightly. We first started talking about this. We should definitely change the design. There’s a number of things that we know we can do that would give us a big lift like the redesign. That’s front-end code, CSS for the most part. No problem.
Then, as we started talking about this more and things that we wanted to do as part of that, what was essential to making this decision was how you were able to take notes in Aurelius. Table stakes. You got to be able to take notes and it’s got to be a pretty nice tool to do that. If you consider what is setting expectations of people on a note-taking tool on the Internet, it’s a pretty high bar that can’t suck.
There was a lot of work as you can imagine. It is definitely the most complicated area of our app and we had to rewrite that whole thing. The thing is you start peeling back layers to this and you go, well, if we’re going to do that, then we might as well do this. If we’re going to do that and that, then we might as well do this, too. We just said all right, we’re redoing the whole thing. It’s going to serve us better and we’re going to move a lot faster. Since 2021, we have literally launched—I can look at the list right here—13 new features or enhancements since January. That would’ve never been true on the old platform.
Rob: Because of the tech. The velocity is so much higher. This is one of those things that’s so tough. Joel Spolsky has written a saying about it 20 years ago of never to rewrite your codebase. It’s the biggest mistake in the history of things, but there are slim exceptions where, if you’re early enough this is something we should point out here.
It’s not like you had 5000 customers and $1 billion in ARR and you were going to rewrite it. You were still early enough and it wasn’t resonating. Your V2 or your early versions weren’t resonating as much as you knew that this one could. You knew this from user research. There seem to be a lot of customer conversations.
Zack: A hundred percent. Everything we do, I use this saying all the time, we eat our own dog food. I’m not just some sales guy who’s like, I think I have a great tool for you to use. I used Aurelius for our customer research. I have worked in the industry for 15 years. That’s how we make decisions on what to build. This isn’t made up or it’s not something we just think is cool. Absolutely.
Rob: With that in mind, I’m obviously a believer in talking to customers but I’m also a big believer in founder gut feeling, vision, and there being some element of that because oftentimes, users will just tell you to replicate all of the features of Evernote or all of the features of Mailchimp.
In the early days of Drip, it was just like, I want a mobile app. Mailchimp does this. We were like, yeah, that’s not what we’re building. There was this element of, we wanted to listen to our users but we also had that founder gut feel. As someone who does a lot of UX, does product direction, does user research, how do you think about that?
Zack: That’s really easy to answer actually because funny enough, we just launched a podcast episode with somebody who I have, for years, had an insane amount of respect for their work. A guy by the name of John Coco. He’s one of the people who I would absolutely consider experts on exactly that question of how do you make sense of what you hear from customers and the research you do?
One of the things he said—I’m just going to paraphrase him—is that your world view, your global perspective, applied to what you hear is where the magic happens. We hear this all the time. There’s a difference between what customers say they want and what they actually need. The thing is—and this is also a very meta-moment of something—what Aurelius helps you do is figure out frequencies, patterns, and what you’re hearing in research but being able to capture what that means.
It’s one thing to say, 6 out of 10 people who answered the survey said they want a mobile app. Yes, but why? You say founder gut. I can interpret that a little easier. I have an advantage because I’ve worked in the field but if I hear something, it’s like, well, we need integrations. You don’t actually need integrations. You need an easier way to get the research that you’ve got into a tool. This is why we actually do have integrations in Aurelius.
But that was never a big play of ours because funny enough, we asked people, for example, okay, why do you need integrations? Then, you learn. Well, we have all this research in all these little places. We want to get them into the same tool. That integration doesn’t necessarily solve that. Building tools in your platform that help you facilitate that is what solves that problem, just stuff like that.
Then, I was able to interpret that knowing that a lot of these teams aren’t necessarily using all the tools. For example, to use that example to integrate stuff, they have access to all this other data they want to bring together and analyze together. Does that make sense?
Rob: It does. Did you hear my rant? It’s just probably four or five episodes ago about the Henry Ford quote. If they told me what my customers wanted, I would have built a faster horse. It’s like, yeah if you’re a dumb ass, don’t do that. If you’re a product person, you don’t do what they tell you. You say, what are they saying? They’re saying they want something faster. Okay, don’t build a horse, but build something faster. You don’t take your customers literally. You put your own limbs on it and you figure it out. To your point, it’s what they need rather than what they say they need.
Zack: It’s 100% what it is. Your lived experience applied or filtered through what you hear from customers is actually really valuable. I think that people want to shy away from that. There are some peers who do research. It’s all about what you hear from them and analyzing that. I don’t agree with that. That’s not true. Your lived experience and your interpretation of that are a really valuable addition to it. It just can’t be the dominating voice.
Rob: There’s also an element of innovation that has to happen. Has to is a strong word, but I think that the best companies borrow from what customers want but they borrow from, usually, a pain that the founders discover, whether it’s their own pain or the pain of someone around them. Then, there are innovative pieces that start to creep in that are unique. There’s a certain magic to a lot of startups that if you just make the whole thing innovative, then, it’s too noble and no one uses it. If you mix all those three things together, that’s really your golden ticket for building a great product.
Zack: A hundred percent. One of our most popular early features was an example of exactly that. We knew that people were looking for ways to get research notes, data, and stuff into our app faster. One of the things that I found myself wanting to do is I was like, you know, I can actually describe the situation and how we built this.
This is a really fun, early hacker story. Joseph and I were working together in person. We were actually in my basement. I said, dude, you know what would be really cool? It’s if I could just copy these notes or copy these data into Aurelius. It took every line break and it made a new note automatically that I could tag that individually. I could analyze it individually.
He was like, I’m pretty sure I can do that. We built what is now called our bulk input feature. If you copy and paste any sort of text or data, if it’s a column from a spreadsheet, each cell will create its own new note individually or text file every line break or character turn. It creates its own new note. It was very much a hacker thing. We built it in a night. It’s been in our product ever since. We were getting paying customers. It was one of the earliest most favorite features from our customers.
Rob: That’s super cool. I love stuff like where there’s some scratch-drawn itch. There’s some let’s see if this works. That is the fun of building a product, one of the fun things.
Zack Naylor, congratulations on all your success. I’m super stoked for you guys to be cranking away on Aurelius full-time as well as to be working with you in TinySeed batch three.
If folks want to keep up with you, you are @zacknaylor on Twitter, and of course, @AureliusLab on Twitter as well, and aureliuslab.com. Thanks so much for joining me, man.
Zack: Yeah, for sure. I really appreciate it.
Rob: Thank you for joining me again this week. I’ll be back in your earbuds next Tuesday morning.