In Episode 564, Rob Walling chats with Sol Orwell about growing his website, examine.com to millions of views per month, changing revenue models, and the importance of doing customer interviews.
The topics we cover
[3:06] How Examine started
[7:21] Examine’s differentiated approach based on scientific research
[9:33] 10,000 paying subscribers
[10:59] Building trust through transparency
[15:26] Interviewing customers
[21:14] Getting hit by Google
[26:52] Sol’s stunt marketing pages
Links from the show
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!
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Rob: You guessed it. It’s another episode of Startups For the Rest of Us. I’m Rob Walling, and this week I’m talking with Sol Orwell about growing his website, examine.com, to millions of views per month. He’s ten years into it. We talk about why he built it, talk about changing revenue models, and how today it’s a subscription business. While it’s not Software as a Service per se, it is Information as a Service, and he’s built up one of the most reputable nutrition information websites on the web. That’s examine.com.
I also asked him why when you google ‘who is the most attractive man in Toronto,’ his web page ranks first for that. He does some fun SEO stunts like that.
I just find Sol super interesting. I came across him because Sherry and he met at an event. Since then, obviously me being in the B2B SaaS world and solving in the online marketing/nutrition information world, he and I would not normally cross paths. But it does come down to digital entrepreneurship. It’s about being an online entrepreneur.
When I look at his path, working with domains and becoming essentially a digital nomad then a self-made digital entrepreneur, there are more commonalities between what he and I do than not.
Obviously, this episode is a little different in that it’s not straight SaaS, but we also touch on his subscription numbers, how he reduced churn, and some other things that I actually find pretty fascinating.
Before we dive into our conversation, there are just a couple more weeks left to get MicroConf local and MicroConf Europe Growth tickets. We’re hosting our locals in Portland Oregon, Boston Massachusetts, and Austin Texas, here in September—just a few weeks out—and then in Croatia for MicroConf Growth Europe.
Tickets are going quickly, and I believe we’re going to sell out at least a couple of those events here in the next week or two. So microconf.com, look for in-person events. If you’re interested in hanging out, I’ll be at all four of these events and I’d love to see you there. With that, let’s dive into my conversation with Sol Orwell.
Pleasure to have you on. We were talking offline a bit. You are the co-founder of examine.com, which, first of all is a kickass domain name. Your H1 is “Nutrition information you can trust. We have no conflicts of interest. Our team is composed of scientists, all we do all day every day is to analyze studies on nutrition and supplementation to answer your questions.”
Someone listening to the show—a lot of SaaS founders—software folks might be thinking, how is this relevant? How is someone who built a health information site useful to SaaS founders? We’re going to get into all that because you’ve done a huge amount of stuff.
I am really curious about Examine. It’s a huge site with a lot of reach. Can you give us an idea of how large it is? Maybe daily visits or monthly, or whatever you share publicly?
Sol: Yes. The content itself is, I think collectively now on the website, we have eight or nine million words that we’ve written. We’ve been around for 10½ years, so obviously, we’ve had a lot of time. I think our research team, which is just basically everyone who actually does the research, analyzes the research, and writes about it, itself is up to 14 people. I think we have four or five copy editors and a bunch of reviewers and whatnot.
Collectively, I think we’re at 2½–3 million visitors a month. I got to be honest. I don’t look at it too much, especially with the kerfuffles we’ve had with Google and whatnot. But one of the things (I think) that is relevant to the SaaS founders is we have roughly 10,000 paying subscribers for content. Even though we don’t offer a product or solution, we actually have a lot of health professionals that rely on us for analysis. There are a lot of analogous situations like decreasing churn, onboarding, and all that kind of stuff that we’ve learned that would be also relevant to other people in the SaaS industry.
Rob: That makes a lot of sense. I was going to ask you more about your revenue model. I had clicked around the site. I’m not super familiar with it. I just haven’t been a user of it, but I was clicking around seeing you have a $29 a month plan. You can prepay annually for $17 a month. Then there’s lifetime access for $800. That is very similar in cost to lower-end SaaS or a lot of WordPress plugins.
You’re 10½ years into building this. I do want to talk about subscriptions, pricing and stuff, but I first want to hear, what was the impetus for you starting this? Did you and your co-founder start at the same time, or did he join you later?
Sol: The impetus was actually that I used to be very overweight, like you don’t go to […] or that kind of stuff. When you’re starting to lose weight, we can’t help but—we’re humans—we always look for the shortcut. I think I literally bought 35 different supplements. There’s a picture of it where it’s just every single one imaginable.
Eventually, when you start actually getting into it, you realize the supplements don’t really do much. There are certain targeted specific situations, like a lot of us are deficient in vitamin D, or zinc, or magnesium. At this point in time, finally, as I started losing weight and figuring it out, I realized that a lot of supplement companies are ripping us off, and doing what most anyone else would do, I started complaining about it.
I was in a different position. I had already started online in 1999, so I’ve been building websites. I remember learning Perl and PHP3 way back in the day. I’ve been around for a while. I was in Colombia with two of my friends who were both postdocs. She’s Colombian. I was complaining about this. They’re scientists and just got fed up with me.
You know when you just keep hearing someone complain about somebody, just go do something about it. That’s what they said to me. That’s what I did. I emailed someone I’d known from Reddit. I’ve been on Reddit now for 15 years, way too long. I emailed someone there and that’s how we got started.
Eventually, it’s always been bootstrapped. I’ve never taken the external funding, but it was just meant to be something small. We’ll bring in some people who will answer some questions. We’ll talk about all the supplements and stuff like that.
Eventually, we realized there’s a real demand for information you can trust, especially when you can look at social media, the algorithms always trend towards extremism. Having someone that’s not as simple and there’s a lot of nuance, there’s a lot of context. We eventually realized there was a huge opportunity there for us. That’s when we properly incorporated, the co-founder fully came on board, and built out the team. That’s where we started, it was just a lark.
You’ll hear from a lot of entrepreneurs that are like this. They just did something for themselves. They realized there was an opportunity and ran with it. That was kind of the same for us.
Now, our vision has expanded. Originally, it was just fitness and bodybuilding supplements. Actually, we weren’t creating that kind of stuff. Now, we’re more in the nutrition space, but I think that’s just part of the smart evolution of any company, figure out what people want and go from there. That was our original random start.
Rob: It’s so interesting because when I first visited examine.com—I don’t remember when this was, but someone mentioned it to me and I came through—I thought, this is nutrition and health information. There are a bazillion sites in my uneducated mind. I’m not super into health or nutrition. I eat well, but I don’t do a lot of this stuff. I was thinking this is just like all the others. That’s what it felt like. So I can imagine you getting started thinking you want to be different. I guess it’s just a much less biased and a more scientific approach. Is that the idea?
Sol: Yeah. Originally, the idea was that the baseline was always that anything we will state will be based on research. If you ever really gone to the gym, or if you know anyone who has, there’s that broscience phrase which is just dudes will spot out things that make no sense. It’s like the gospel that’s been passed on, the 10 commandments from the last God knows how long.
The original idea was we’re just going to analyze and research, and we’re going to put it together. Part of what happens is you might see a headline like, this supplement does this for weight loss. But it turns out it’s for overweight women who are suffering from menopause. I don’t think you or I are suffering from it. We’re not experiencing menopause, so that stuff doesn’t really apply to us. That was the original genesis of making something that’s research-based.
That has been a huge challenge for us and a lot of other health sites. We might get into the entire YMYL update that Google did a few years ago, unless you are well, well-established (billion-dollar-companies) like Health Line, WebMD, Everyday Health.
It’s been a bit of a slog. How do we differentiate ourselves? A lot of the energy that we spent originally was on building up social trust, building relationships one-on-one, showing them that we’re very, very serious about what we do, because a lot happens with nutrition. There’s always a dogma, and it’s not even just nutrition. It’s now pretty much everything online. I’ve got this view, and everything I see will either agree with me or there’s some shoddy, they’re going to pick up the smallest nitpick details out.
We’ve always tried to also take a very Switzerland approach. To me that’s a very long-term thing. We’ve never made it about personality. It’s been like this. The research says like it or not, we don’t really care. Honestly, you can go away. It makes no difference to us. It’s been a slog, but eventually people recognize excellence here. They also recognize context and nuance, which unfortunately, is becoming a little bit more rare these days.
Rob: And to build something like that because you’re talking about trust, and trust is heavily related to brand. Your brand makes people trust or not trust you. In this case, I can imagine you had a tremendous amount of trust the first day you launched or the first month you launched, but 2, 5, 10 years in, now it’s a staple to have, you said 10,000 people including health professionals are subscribed?
Sol: Yeah. Health providers are subscribed, but trust is interesting. When we started off, we kind of spun off Reddit. What really happened was we were very active in Reddit fitness, which back in the day had 5000 people. I think it’s now at 5 million, so it’s grown just a little bit. We were well-known commodities, but prior to what happened was newbies would come—including me, originally, how I ran across Reddit fitness—and then ask the same questions again. Is creatine okay? So I take vitamin D?
Eventually, you just get tired. This is before Reddit introduced like Wikis and FAQ functionality. We just got so frustrated. We’re like, hey, we’re just going to build this website that answers these questions.
We had a bit of a leg up on Reddit, or at least in our little subreddit, we were known commodities. We were obviously irritable and […] because that’s the internet—you’re always just a jerk online—but we were known to be a little bit at least obsessive about this.
The hard part, of course, was how do you branch outside of Reddit. How do you break out of that? There are steps you can take. So we were inspired by a charity called GiveWell. They do a our mistakes report. I think they do it much more structured like every quarter or something like that.
So we introduced something like that where like, these are the mistakes we recognize internally, and now we’re talking about it publicly. These are the ones that we’ve taken steps for. These are the ones that we’re still failing.
It’s very cliche to talk about transparency. But I’ll be honest. Being transparent sucks. You’re basically saying like, this is everything I’ve screwed up and this is everything I’ve deprioritized. Other people will always disagree. That’s generally okay, but no matter what you do, people will come across like, hey, why are these jerks not doing this instead of focusing on this? This is obviously more important.
We went through this process. We had legitimate complaints that we didn’t have enough women’s health information, like PCOS, menstrual cups, all that kind of stuff. But partly, we didn’t have that because we didn’t have many female researchers. It’s not that male researchers can’t look at something. There’s also a level of experience and empathy, and being able to understand some of the nuances.
That was in our transparency report. We fail in being diverse enough for our team. Then people attack you, especially nowadays. What do you mean by diversity? Of course, it’s funny, because both my co-founder and I are ethnically South Asians. What happened was when people would actually read the description of why we said this is a failure. Every single person was like, oh, okay, that makes sense. Okay, I understand where you’re coming from.
It’s a slog, it sucks. People talk about being vulnerable online, like real vulnerability. It’s uncomfortable. But if you do it right, it builds so much trust that one of the things we […] internally a lot is responsibility. Like we can say MSG is the devil and tens of thousands of people would believe us. We can say MSG is the greatest thing in the world, and same thing. So there’s the downside.
We have to be very careful of what we talk about, but it took a while to get there. You can’t just maintain it easily. We have to constantly be on top of things. But I think it’s worth it because now for us, with our customer base, our subscriptions, and our trust that our users have with us, we get more leeway. If we make a mistake and we own up to which we do, people forgive us because these guys are being honest, they’re not being disingenuous.
So it’s a slog to get to it, but if you can achieve it you can empathize. You have trust with a lot of people and you can be honest about your mistakes. People are like, cool. Rob fessed up, he owned up. I’ll give him another chance. It wasn’t fun, but it was worth it in the long run.
Rob: Two things come to mind as you’re going through that, I think of it as a trust bank, or we’ve heard that phrase of, it’s like a credit score where it takes a long time to build up, and it’s pretty easy to drop quickly. You make a couple of mistakes that you don’t own up to where you’re trying to cover up or whatever, and suddenly that trust is gone. We see this with scandals at companies. There are all types of examples of people who we all love and trust, then they do some crappy stuff, and suddenly the trust is gone.
The other thing I think about is, you mentioned transparency. Transparency is something big enough to start up in the SaaS space, but I find that most of it is […] transparency. It’s fake transparency for marketing purposes. We’re being transparent, but they’re actually not. We’re being transparent by telling all the good things. Oh, it was so hard and look at how it turned out. I said, wait a minute. They’re not telling the real story.
I feel like you’re touching on more about telling the real story. I know that you have a blog, it’s at sjo.com, which I assume are your initials?
Sol: They’re not, actually.
Rob: They’re not?
Sol: No. I used to be in the domain industry. So that’s partly why we got examine.com because people remember it. I just got SJO because I thought it was very easy to remember and that was literally the only reason.
Rob: Wow, okay. Anyway, your blog is on hiatus because you’re busy focused on Examine, but folks can go back through and read. There’s a lot of stuff you talk about. You talked about, like you just said, your dramatic weight loss. You talked about some we’ll get into soon, just google ‘smacking the crap out of Examine in 2019.’ You talked about all types of stuff that I find refreshing and I feel it’s a pretty honest take on things.
I want to switch things up a little bit, dig into Examine, and talk about these 10,000 subscribers. That is a lot of paying subscribers, man. I mean, there are very few SaaS apps in the world that have that many. I want to find out what you said earlier. You had these subscribers and you have worked on onboarding, about churn, about reducing that and then I want to jump to the Google smackdown because I have to imagine that you get a ton of traffic from organic search, and that Google doing anything as they update their algorithms every few months, that’s going to hurt.
You have all these subscribers, which you’ve built up over 10½ years. Did you have a big learning or two that you learned about ‘our onboarding was crap and everyone was leaving,’ versus ‘we did a few things and this changed the game for us’?
Sol: I have two really good friends of mine that bootstrapped a company called Precision Nutrition. They started in 2001 and they sold 80% of it three years ago for $205 million, so a chunk of change. They both live in Toronto and we’re good friends. I would talk to them about this kind of stuff all the time.
They have three things they think are critical for their success, and one of them was something called Jobs To Be Done. Jobs To Be Done, you might have heard of, is also known as Appreciative Customer Inquiry.
Rob: Our audience will be familiar with it. We’re very familiar with it. That’s totally in our wheelhouse.
Sol: Perfect. I think honestly, that was one of the most fundamental things. What happened was 2017–2019 were the three roughest years of Examine. We were almost bankrupt. I had to put it in my own cash to keep it going. I’ve never been shy about admitting this. It’s also funny. People are like, aren’t you afraid people are going to think you’re a failure? I’m like, who? They’re not even in my life. I never see them, so who cares?
Anyway, it was bad times. What had happened was we started creating guides around popular topics. The ketogenic diet was very hot. We did a ketogenic diet and it’s a little spike in revenue. We launched and we got excited. But long-term, that’s not why people were coming to us. They were coming to us for research analysis.
I’m sure most of you have heard of the PMF (product/market fit) survey. The biggest thing that was important for us was doing these interviews properly. Far too many people when they do these interviews, they do them more like a UI/UX investigation, like how was this? Were you confused or excited over support? Which is important. But I don’t feel like enough people actually dig into what the hell are people actually trying to do.
Obviously, we have a lot of people with chronic health conditions who come to us, but there’s a lot of people who just like appearing smart to their friends and family. They’ll never admit it, they’ll never be like, yes, I just wish to feed my ego and seem so smart. No, they’re not going to say that. It took us a while to figure out they want to share this information and feel smart.
So really, they’re not coming to us for a guide. They do want nuance, they don’t want this long thing. They want, here’s all the research across all the categories. We have 25 Health categories and we do five to 10 new studies every month, we summarize them. So instead of you spending 10 hours learning about the latest cannabis research, anxiety research, immunology, or whatever, we analyze it and we summarize it for you. That was one of the most fundamental things that we really changed.
Just as a reminder, if someone hasn’t heard of Jobs To Be Done, really the quick 30-second version is you want to understand the timeline. Someone went from passively to actively, to deciding and then consuming. And everyone focused on the consuming part. That’s like the PMF survey. But most people ignore the first three parts. How do they actually decide? How do they figure out what matters? That would be my one little thing that I thought was fundamental.
I have a stack of 100 interviews I’ve done. We spend maybe 45 minutes, on average, talking to the person and there are usually four people listening. Then we spend maybe an hour-and-a-half afterwards breaking down everything we did.
Yesterday, actually, we had an hour-long session just breaking down eight studies or eight interviews. We had emotional energies. Was it a functional energy? Was it social? Or was it emotional? So function is the actual thing they want, emotional is how they feel, and social is how they see others perceive them as. We spent an hour-and-a-half just discussing eight interviews.
So I have a stack of 100. I’ve spent 100+ hours on this kind of stuff. I think that was fundamental. We bring everyone to the team. Random researchers join, customer research team, whoever they join in on these calls because now we really understand not only what the customers are looking for, but what is the language they use.
It’s important. Surveys are important. You get language from surveys, but getting to dig in and be like, what does that mean? What does successful mean? Or what does being a type of research mean to you? What does it look like? I think that would be the single most important thing that a lot of SaaS founders missed out on.
The nice thing about it is—again, we go to PMF surveys; all that you need is a large enough sample size—with interviews, just with five interviews, you will glean so much about what they’re looking for. Each interview generates (I would say) an average of 4–6 different things we can do better on the website. That would be my one major recommendation is talk to the customer, and don’t just talk to them in a perfunctory manner.
One of the side things (by the way) that’s super easy to do is you can sign up for a million other services. Even like Duolingo and whatever. Often, they will contact you because they want to talk to you. I love doing those interviews because you find out how other people are doing and you’re like, oh, that’s genius. Then half of the time, what the hell are these people doing? They’re not getting anything from me.
The other final story bit is people will try to help you. You have to remember that whenever you interview them, they’re going to try to give you the answers you want to hear, or they think you want to hear. Your job as an interviewer is to break that down and to really understand what’s driving them. What do you mean by that or can you explain that more? Can you elaborate on why use this word or whatever? I think that would be super important for any SaaS founder to really experience themselves.
Rob: We did a similar thing for MicroConf about 18 months, 2 years ago, and it was crazy enlightening. Just all the terms that we pulled out of that, we were trying to figure out really what our brand was about and what people thought about it. I had my own gut feeling as the co-founder of it, but it helped us realize some other adjectives, the way people talk about MicroConf from the trust and community. We’re these big things—belonging, relationship.
So yeah, Jobs To Be Done. Andrew did those. We went on Amazon for some books, we asked a couple of friends who had done them, then we had some recordings of some, and listened to how people push and push. Like you said, you dig and you dig and you dig, and you get there. I found them extremely valuable.
Sol: I was just going to recommend one guy, Bob Moesta. He’s OG and has been around since the 70s. He’s usually the go-to I refer to whenever someone wants to dig a little bit further into it.
Rob: Very cool. So I want to switch over to this article that you wrote on examine.com. It says Google and examine.com. It’s in your site news category. “Google is waging war on the peddling of magical pills and miracle cures by questionable health sites, and examine.com seems to have been caught in the crossfire.” This is July of 2019 and was last updated about a year ago.
It sounds to me and you have a graph of your Google Analytics chart that looks like over the past 2½ years, Google has decreased traffic to examine.com by roughly 90% which had to have just been excruciating and hit you pretty hard. Can you talk me through after building all of that? You’re 8–9 years into building this company with this huge flywheel of traffic, and then it starts doing that. What was the reaction? How did you pull out of it?
Sol: It was definitely a little bit shocking because it’s a cliff. It wasn’t even like a slow descent. We just got annihilated. The one thing I don’t think we mentioned was we basically hit our baseline because we were getting still 4000 or 5000 visitors a day from Google, and almost everyone was searching for Examine to find us. It wasn’t even that they were still sending us traffic. It was because our brand name was so damn strong that it’s like Examine protein, Examine actually done it, creatine what Examine says, blah-blah-blah. That was literally about as low as we can go.
I got to be honest. It kicked our ass. We never regained it. Funnily enough, I have a little support group of other—I’m going to call it mid-sized in terms of traffic—mid-sized health sites that have all been killed by Google. One of them, for example, has a podcast with NPR. One of them has won multiple non-profit awards for going after pharmaceutical companies. I get it. It sucks.
For people who don’t know, basically Google went after YMYL (Your Money or Your Life), so finance and health websites because of the insane amount of misinformation and disinformation, like vitamin D cures everything, and obviously financial, crypto, and all that kind of stuff caused a lot of pain for a lot of people. They basically were like, hey, unless we can really trust you, we’re going to not really trust you.
Health Line, which is a billion-dollar company, WebMD, which is a billion-dollar company and Everyday Health, which is a billion-dollar company, basically started dominating. What’s so genius about what they did (and mad respect to them) is they then started going out buying old, well-established health websites, and applying the same SEO they did on their main domain to others like Med News Today, Psychology Compass, and Psychology Today. All these other websites that are now owned by, WebMD haven’t really bought anything but Health Line and the other one.
This coincided with the ass kicking I talked about that we had in 2017–2019. So many people can vouch for this from other experiences, you kind of get addicted to the free traffic that Google is just shoveling down your throat, You’re like, hey, I don’t have to worry about my optimizations because we’re getting so much traffic. In some ways it was good because it made us do more stuff like JTBD interviews and understand what we’re trying to do, which pushed us heavily into the subscription area.
I will say we never really regained our rankings. Obviously, I’m biased. I still think we’re better than pretty much anyone above us. Not to specifically besmirch them, but like Health Line, we have 19 articles on creatine and kidney and it’s just the same regurgitated stuff.
This is simply the reality we have to work with. We doubled or maybe tripled the amount of traffic that Google was giving us from the ordeal we suffered from, but it’s the reality of life. We’ve talked to so many people from all facets of Google. They talk about E-A-T and all that kind of stuff, and we have E-A-T up the wazoo.
When COVID first hit last year, the New York Times came to us and asked us what supplements could possibly help? And we’re like, you know what? Nothing. But it’s the reality and you have to live with it. People can complain, and I don’t blame them if they do, but I understand we were effectively collateral damage and in a horrific way I understand because the harm that other companies were causing in health, I totally get it from an end-user perspective. I would rather they not see that and not see us, then see us in that kind of garbage.
This is the life of an entrepreneur. You need to keep a level of Zen Stoicism. We can’t change it. We can’t go, Google, why didn’t you listen? We’re doing better. Unfortunately, I never have a nice, clean answer. You just kind of got to deal with it. Thankfully, we actually weren’t that heavily on subscription before, like subscriptions will maybe be 5% of revenue, so we started heavily focusing on it. Long-term I think it’ll be fine, but definitely very unpleasant in the short-term.
Rob: I know a ton of SaaS founders who’ve experienced the exact same thing, who rely on SEO for a lot of their trials, a lot of their leads. Going all the way back to Panda and Penguin, or whether it’s just any update that comes out every quarter or every six months, it’s always a danger. SEO, like you said, is an amazing organic traffic. It’s such an amazing lever. But there’s a little bit of diversification that I always encourage people to embark on.
Sol: Absolutely. It’s all about the distribution. I’ll be honest, I started doing SEO in 2001 when Google was still relatively new. The monthly updates that will be named after a Google guy on WebmasterWorld. I’ve been around long enough to have seen the highs and the lows. I have a website that I started in 2003 that I haven’t really touched in 2009. In the last 11 years, it’s literally gone 10X up and 10X down, and I’ve done nothing. It’s just sitting there. Still it’s gone back up in the last couple of years, not nearly as high as it was, but that’s simply Google to me. I always tell everyone it’s extra. Never, ever, ever, ever rely on it. That’s what it is. It’s just a free bonus. It’s bonus traffic. That’s it.
Rob: I want to ask you before we wrap up, about these pages that you have on the internet that I call stunt pages, or just the stunts that you pull that I think are pretty cool. I say that with a bit of admiration because I want to find out your motivation behind them.
Basically, if people go to sjo.com and then go to your about page, you show that if you go to Google and you type in your name Sol Orwell, then Google autocomplete says, Sol Orwell net worth, Sol Orwell weight loss, Sol Orwell wife, all this stuff. It’s the same thing for my name.
I’ve never paid attention to it, but you went and built pages. Because since your site ranks so well, it ranks number one for your name anyway, you built out all those pages because they didn’t really exist, or they were on crap sites, Yahoo Answers or something. Each of them, you basically just make […] up. It’s like the net worth says, “By utilizing sources such as his multiple Forbes articles, his rugged beard, his odd love for cookies, and combining it with pixie dust, we can ascertain that Sol Orwell’s net worth is roughly $31.4159 million.” Which of course, as I saw that I’m like, 3.14159 as the first six digits of Pi. Then at the bottom, you’re like, nope, I’m just making it up. This is being cheeky, blah-blah-blah.
I just think it’s clever. It’s funny. I don’t know if I do it today, if it still works, but if I go to Google and type in ‘most handsome man in Toronto,’ I believe it links to you or at least a picture of it on your Facebook page. You’ve just ranked. You know how to rank. You’re an SEO and a domainer. You know how to rank for these things. So it’s funny, it’s cool, but why do that? What’s the motivation?
Sol: Honestly, I don’t even have a good answer. So I’ve always joked about internet fame. I mentioned this. I started off in 1999. Most people have no idea I exist. Most people think my co-founder is the only one who owns Examine. Even on our About page, I’m the 20th or 30th name mentioned way down. I’m below my EA, I’m down there.
I’ve never been about internet fame. Part of what happened was I would always make fun of e-fame. I’ve mentioned internet fame is a completely ephemeral thing. One of the things that we started making fun of is people would start googling me and be like, I was searching for your name. People are looking up your real name. What does that mean? I’m like, oh, yeah, I legally changed my name. Oh, what’s going on there? It’s not a serious thing to me.
Really what it was (I think) was a combination of you know you’re internet-famous, or D- internet celebrity, when people are searching for your net worth and your significant other. It’s always wife or husband, or net worth, which is absurd. How are you going to find out my net worth? I’m not in any listing. I’m not that rich, not even close. It goes back to entrepreneurs being very miserable. To me, it was just a funny joke.
I remember, I was throwing some stuff to a friend in Japan that I go see almost once a year, and I just wrote all this off WiFi. I just made these pages because I’ve got nothing better to do. I can’t go to sleep right now. Why don’t we have fun with it?
I got to be honest, you talk about meeting other entrepreneurs. Like one of my best friends, his business was every time there’ll be a national emergency, he would go there by Facebook ads and hook up local contractors with people looking for fire support or whatever. I’ve always loved these kinds of random edge cases, which make no sense. They’re not really meant to do anything other than explore the fringes.
One random last example I’ll give you. Back in the days of Google SEO, having a DMOZ listing was huge, being listed in the ODP (Open Directory Project). What I did one summer just in 2003, I bought a bunch of databases, put all this information online, and I had one high school kid who did nothing but submit every single page he could to DMOZ. We ended up with 300-some listings and we sold the website for $40,000 or $50,000.
It was just something to do. I feel like we get so lost and just doing the work that we lose, having fun, and basically fooling around. So the pages were just me having fun.
The entire ‘who’s the most handsome thing’ was I have another friend who lost more weight, who’s very attractive, so I always make fun of him. But I’m like, you know? In Toronto, you’re not as handsome as me. That’s what it was. It was just to poke him. I made this page if you google, it still says, “Research says that the most handsome guy in Toronto is Sol Orwell. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.”
It really was […] after the one box. The funny part of it is, most people don’t realize one box is just some random snippet. You can go to random strangers—not that I do this—like if I met a friend and they don’t google that internet site, it’s like hey, look at the Internet. Google says I’m the most handsome man in Toronto. They don’t understand it, literally says sjo.com underneath it. So really, it was just me trying to be like a muckraker or a dumb ass. Really that was it.
We spend so much time being serious online and Examine is a very serious endeavor. We’re relatively very uncheeky in it, because it’s science and research. This (I guess) was more just an outlet for me to have fun, so the cookies and all that. All of that is just like, hey man, we can have fun. And if not, it’s okay. I’m just trying to live my version of a best life.
Rob: Yeah, I think it’s funny. A similar story, my kids will troll people if they have an Amazon Echo, an Alexa. If you say, Alexa, tell me about (insert person’s name), she will usually say, I don’t know anything. But if you have a Wikipedia page, she will read the first two sentences while I’m on Wikipedia. So they’ll go […], Alexa, tell me about Rob Walling, and she’ll say Rob Walling is an investor, entrepreneur, and author, blah-blah-blah. And people are like, what? You’re famous? So it’s a similar thing. No, I’m not famous. It’s just people don’t know where Alexa is pulling from. Well, how does Alexa know about you? So I get it.
Sol: I got to be honest. I think 90% of what I do is to mess with my mom because she’s obviously very internet unsavvy, and she thinks I’m this huge deal online, when really, it’s just me being an idiot and like having the savvy to screw around with it.
Rob: Very nice, sir. Thanks so much again for joining me on the show today. If folks want to keep up with you, you are at @sol_orwell on Twitter. And of course, examine.com if they want to see what you’re focused on these days. Thanks again for joining me.
Sol: Thanks for having me, Rob. It was my pleasure.
Rob: Hope you enjoyed that conversation between Sol and I. Obviously a little bit different than some of the other episodes that we’ve released over the years but frankly, I like to expose myself and hopefully expose you to new thoughts, new ideas, and just different paths. The world is larger than mostly bootstrap B2B SaaS. I think there are a lot of disciplines that are orthogonal to ours that we can learn from. And I think there’s a lot of value in having conversations with folks who maybe aren’t in the same bubble and the same little ecosystem that we exist in. So thank you again for joining me this week, and I’ll be back in your earbuds again next Tuesday morning.