In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, the tables have turned as Rob is interviewed by Dr. Sherry Walling. They talk MicroConf, the podcast, state of independent SaaS report and TinySeed but also explore bigger themes like what Rob wants to accomplish with all of his businesses and a unifying theme he’s established across the board.
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Rob: Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. I’m your host, Rob Walling. This week is a show we do about every three months. It’s a catch-up with me, my wife, Dr. Sherry Walling. She’s a clinical psychologist, a founder, and an executive coach. She comes on the show and interviews me about what I’ve been up to since the last interview. Tracy Osborn interviewed about three months ago. I hope you enjoy this episode as it continues to follow my story.
Sherry is (as I said) a clinical psychologist. She’s also built up a really nice personal brand in the space of helping founders succeed, and helping them stay the same while starting up. You can check her out at sherrywalling.com or @zenfounder on Twitter. With that, let’s dive in.
Sherry: All right. You feel ready?
Rob: Yup. I’m all good.
Sherry: You’re good to go? You’re focused? You’re here? You’re in the game?
Rob: Yup, I think so.
Sherry: It’s so much harder to talk about your own stuff than it is to interview other people.
Rob: I don’t know. Sometimes. I am on the interviewee side probably as much as I’m on the interviewer side. Maybe that’s not still true today, but I’m on it quite a bit, so I’m cool to chat.
Sherry: Do you tend to get the same questions over and over when people are interviewing you?
Rob: Yeah. If it’s a new audience, a new podcast, or someone’s who’s just doing a bunch of interviews with people that he or she doesn’t know. They kind of go with the surface stuff, and they have the same set of questions. They’re all pretty similar. But every once in a while, I go on a one called, What Works, I think it’s what it’s called, and she asked questions about values, imbuing things that you do with your values, and how you do it. It’s just a very different, whole different tact. Those can be interesting, or they catch off guard, frankly. They look at things from a different lens.
Sherry: What’s one of the most interesting questions that you’ve been asked recently?
Rob: That would probably be in that interview. She basically was saying, “How do you pass along your values?” or, “Which of your values do you want to be in the companies that you start and be delivered to the teams that you worked with?” and then, “How do you do that?” It was just a whole path of thinking about that. The reason it was interesting was because I had really not done a lot of thinking about it. I had to think on the spot what those things are and how I do those.
I listened to it today. It came out good. That’s actually the beauty of being asked the same questions over and over. You learn how you think about them. You learn how to answer them eloquently and in a way that’s succinct, not just you thinking out loud and trying to find your way to an answer.
Sherry: Okay. One of the things that I think is interesting about you is that you are working on three interrelated but separate businesses at the same time. The way in which those businesses are growing, they’re all growing and shifting right now. I’m curious how you direct that growth. Of course, we’ll talk about each of them separately. We’ll talk about MicroConf, we’ll talk about Startups for the Rest of Us, and of course, TinySeed. What’s the unifying thread? What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want out of these three businesses as they grow?
Rob: I realized this over the past two years after I left Drip. I was saying, “What should I do next?” I was looking at buying a tabletop gaming website. Just going completely off into a different direction, down a different path I had gone previously. But the more I looked at what I have done all these years for free (in essence), compared to the software products, the startups, and all that stuff that I had started, blogging, podcasting, and starting a conference are either completely revenue-neutral or rounding errors of revenue. But I did them, anyway.
That was a big sign to me that it should be the direction that I had. I realized that the things those had in common and that the three things you’re talking about—MicroConf, TinySeed, and the podcast—have in common is they help entrepreneurs. They help founders, they help us bring us strategies and tactics, but they also bring us together, and they inspire us to keep going.
Startups for the Rest of Us are free. It’s every week. There’s a little bit of community around it because you can tweet about it or be in the comments. You can hear other people answering questions and sending their questions in. But really, it’s a low level of engagement, and the cost is zero. If you take that up one notch, probably my first book Start Small, Stay Small is between $10-$25 depending on which version you buy. There’s no community there but there’s a lot of strategies, tactics, and some inspiration.
If you take it up another notch, then there’s MicroConf, which is our local events will be $99, and our growth is $1000 or $1100. There’s way more engagement. It’s super intense in terms of strategies, tactics, and inspiration, but they all do the same thing. They’re purely to help startup founders. One does it for free, one does it for cheap, and one does it for less cheap. Then there’s TinySeed. You can see the path, the thread that binds all those together. That’s really what I found of everything I’ve done in my life as a professional. That’s the most fun, and that’s the one that I’m most excited about. You can tell because I’ve been doing it for 15 years now. The same thing.
Sherry: But you’re a teacher. You’ve always been someone who learns something thoroughly, and then wants to explain it to someone else.
Rob: Yeah, there’s that element. That’s how it started with the blogging, the podcast, and the book (I guess). The interesting thing is it did not occur to me until a couple of years ago when it really hit me. I saw myself as a facilitator, getting people together to learn, and in the early days it was all about the tactics and the strategies. Then about (I’d say) seven years ago, we realized, “Boy, it’s much more about the relationships in the community,” and then a couple of years ago, I realized I really am bringing people together, like that’s the most important piece.
Sherry: It’s interesting to hear you say that as something that came to you later because in my life with you (which began 20 years ago), we identified ourselves as gatherers when we were in our early 20s. People would be at our house.
Rob: Yeah. That was always something we did, but you and I did that together. I didn’t know if I could do it on my own, if I should, or if I’m good at it. Then you looked at the track record of it. The interesting thing is when I actually looked at what I’ve done. There’s a certain amount of being successful, whether it’s as an entrepreneur or not, and it’s knowing myself. The more that I’ve learned about myself and removed those blind spots, the more I feel like I’m able to manage my own psychology, manage my own pros and cons, and strengths and weaknesses.
When I look back, I’ve had this blind spot of, I didn’t realize how much I wanted to get people together. You and I did it naturally (again) 20 years ago. One of my favorite parts of the podcast—which is a very unidirectional medium, is basically one or two people talking in the mic while everyone else was listening—are these Q&A episodes, where we get all the listener questions, feedback, and the voicemails. We can rally around that and feel like if you listened to five or six listener questions, you know, “Wow, it’s not just the two hosts that are answering this. It’s five or six other people.” Every month we do an episode. You hear they’re being people, even in the medium that is designed to not to be.
In my first book, I was going back and reading that, and I used a bunch of examples of Ruben Gomez, Ted and Harry from Moraware Software. I don’t remember who else, but even at that time when I didn’t need to do that, I realized that bringing other folks into the mix only benefits all of us. We are all smarter than me.
Then of course, MicroConf. Is that and TinySeed much more intense and much smaller scale? Having the batch of 10 founders is this super in-depth and intimate community.
Sherry: Let’s do a little bit of a deep dive into the podcast. There’s been some significant shifts lately. Mike is not on every week anymore, still part of the podcast but is not the weekly co-host. And you’ve made some other personnel changes by hiring an assistant producer. How’s that going?
Rob: It was touch and go at first. It’s just kind of scary to be on a show that has had a certain format for 450 episodes. Then there’s suddenly turned that over and say, “Can I do this? Can I really keep this going at a level that it deserves (given the audience), and just giving all the stuff we put out there?” Right now, it feels like since then, there were some touch and go moments, but pretty much everything feels up and to the right. I feel really positive about it.
I have a renewed energy around it, and I think people can feel that. I’m also, every week, thinking, what can I do differently this week? What can I mix up? The novelty of that, of even trying different formats, I’ve tried some that just don’t work out well, but people were like, “That was an interesting experiment. Have you thought about doing it this way?” It’s almost like customer development. Try something new and try something new, and just keep the variety going.
The interesting thing is when you do that, it takes a lot of time. You just don’t show up every week and talk for 30 minutes like we used to. That’s where the assistant producer comes in. I find myself spending more and more time each week just going guest research, writing questions, trying to find folks, and just doing all the stuff—calendaring, moving MP3 files from here to there, et cetera. It’s just all stuff someone else can be doing, so that’s really where I started looking for someone to help out and take that burden off because I wanted to keep doing it.
This is why podcasts stop. People can come up with great ideas and want to do them, but real life gets in the way. Running MicroConf and TinySeed, then having this podcast as well, there’s a lot going on in doing day-to-day stuff.
Sherry: Just a lot of admin, too. Moving files around is not that fun. You tried this discussion format. Did you enjoy that? Was it fun? What were the pros and cons of that?
Rob: Yeah. It was a news discussion show-type thing. It kind of worked. It mostly worked. It was super fun to record, but I think I want to put some tighter reins on the couple of the topics, and try to make them more current events. I also think that having three of us on the mic or even four at once and doing round-table on topics, I think it could be really interesting. I know a couple of other shows that do that. They focus on news topics like startup news or tech news. You hear a variety of voices from a variety of perspectives. It’s really interesting.
Again, that’s logistically a lot of work, to find those people, to find the time that works for everybody, then get all that audio files. Just get everything together. Writing the show notes, finding the topics, on and on and on. The shows I’m talking about are either the people who literally do them full time or they have full time staff doing them. That’s what I’m looking at. I’m expanding into that one because there’s no one doing that in our space. They do it more in the Silicon Valley or in the tech news space.
Sherry: Did you try a show format that you weren’t such a fan of? That you didn’t like? Or you didn’t feel like working well?
Rob: I don’t know. I did a couple of hot seats. I got mixed reviews or really I would ask people, “What’d you think of the hot seat?” They’re like, “Oh, you did a hot seat?” I was like, “Yeah. I went through this, this, and that.” Someone’s like, “Yeah, I don’t remember that episode,” which tells me it probably wasn’t memorable.
Sherry: It felt like an interview, maybe?
Rob: Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve also heard people say, “The ones where you go through with an entrepreneur, your troubleshooting things, and trying to think through, those are the most interesting ones,” which essentially are the ones with Mike and the ones that are hotseats. That’s always the issue. You only have a handful of data points in any of these things.
Even when I call for feedback and say, “I’m going to try this interview, call everybody back for a Q&A, and try this thing out. Give me your feedback.” I will get 5 or 6 people who sent me an email or tweet me out, or maybe it’s 10 or 12. But it’s not so many data points, that it’s not an end of 100 or 1000. I will often get two that say, “Yeah. That was really good.” And two that say, “I was kind of bored.” What do you do with that, at that point?
Sherry: You keep going.
Rob: Yeah, no doubt.
Sherry: Which is what you’ve done for 10 years now. The 10-year anniversary of the podcast is next month. Is that true? Is it really 10 years? That’s crazy long!
Rob: Yeah. March of 2010 was our first episode.
Sherry: Wow. Almost 500 episodes.
Rob: Yeah, that’ll be in June, that 500th episode.
Sherry: Dude, you’re an old podcaster.
Rob: It’s just really ancient in podcast years, yeah.
Sherry: In podcast years, that’s OG for sure.
Rob: Yeah. It’s a trip. To me, the 500th episode is a big milestone. 10 years and still super interesting. I don’t know if I’ll do anything fancy for that but 500th episode, I’m trying to wrap my brain of like, what do you do to celebrate that? What do you do that’s different not just the same episode that hasn’t been done before?
Sherry: What are you going to do?
Rob: I don’t know yet. I’m still thinking about it. I have some ideas.
Sherry: If you could live podcast while skydiving.
Rob: I could do that. I think the audio quality would probably not be great. Imagine that. “I’m your host Rob Walling.”
Sherry: It’s just like a long scream.
Rob: That’s the thing. A bunch of the formats that I do here, Mike and I did a live podcast recording at MicroConf Europe for our 300th episode. It’s okay. As a podcast, live podcasts are not that interesting. They’re always my least favorite. If I’m listening to a series and I do a live show, I’m sure they’re great fun to be there in person. There’s that energy, but it’s not as interesting. People are either… I don’t know. I don’t even want to conjecture why that is. I just know that I’ve listened to 10–15 live episodes from different podcasts that normally record in a studio. They’re just off their game. I can’t think of a single one that was better than just the normal episode that I normally record.
Sherry: I’m curious what the audience would recommend or would want to do with the 500th episode.
Rob: Yeah. I’d be happy to take suggestions either at Twitter @robwalling or email@example.com. Definitely open to ideas and ask a few close friends of mine who listen to a lot of podcasts, what are the best episodes you’ve heard. Again, I have some ideas. I’m just trying to whittle it down and figure out what. I can come up with ideas that are really, really, a lot of work, and I’m trying to figure out how to either pair that down or make it happen or whatever.
Sherry: If work, money, time, and resources were no option, what would you do?
Rob: No limit, I would have 500 startups experts, founders, or people we respect answer a question, ask me a question, or something outrageous.
Sherry: That’s a really long podcast.
Rob: Well, that’s the problem. I can’t do that.
Sherry: 24 hours of Startups for the Rest of Us.
Rob: Right. Wouldn’t that be a stunt? Wouldn’t that be crazy?
Sherry: It would be a stunt, that’s for sure.
Rob: A three to four hour podcast. Maybe don’t do 500. Maybe just do 10. You can just see where it goes. I have to arrange that and figure out who to ask, get the files back, and all of that. And it has been done. I kind of have enjoyed some of those episodes we’ve done it ourselves. Our 100th episode was basically asking a bunch of people a question. We’ve got, I don’t remember, it was like Shawn Ellison, Andrew Warner, and a bunch of people answering questions that we tied in. That was a fun one. But, do that again for 500?
Sherry: I don’t know. I just know that the need to do something novel or new with that big pizzazz is maybe the best way to celebrate 500 episodes. I mean, 500 episodes is just relentless execution which is the Rob Walling theme. I don’t know about this pressure to do something new.
Rob: It’s possible. We did it for 400. We have a lot of these out. Four hundred was just an episode Mike and I recorded about being consistent. That was the whole thing. We looked back, and we talked about our metrics changes, audience listenership, and how we have shown up every week, why we show up every week, just all that stuff. We have done that, I’ll say, but I certainly could revisit that theme for sure.
Sherry: Well, that would be consistent.
Sherry: Right alongside this monster anniversary for Startups for the Rest of Us, you also have a new little baby podcast, the TinySeed Tales. I have to tell you, every time I see that title, I think about the DuckTales, a Disney show that existed when I was a kid.
Rob: That was an awesome show. That show holds up.
Sherry: It had this really cool song. So TinySeed Tales. How’s that going? You launched season one.
Rob: Yeah, season one went out. It was a podcast I wanted to do for years, but it took a lot of time and a lot of money because we have to pay a producer who’s producing it at a pretty high level, voiceovers, scriptwriting, and all that stuff. That was a cool experience to see how that’s done. You haven’t heard any episodes right?
Sherry: No. Confessions of the wife.
Rob: I know you don’t listen to my podcast and I listen to yours. Let’s put that for the record. If you listen to nothing else, you should listen to TinySeed Tales. It’s 8 episodes, they’re 20 minutes each.
Sherry: Why should I listen to it, Rob?
Rob: Because it’s good radio. It’s really good.
Sherry: What makes it good radio. I know it’s not just the production value, the money, and the time. Why is it good?
Rob: One part is you talk for 40 minutes then you take the best 15 minutes of all that audio. You pack it together, write five minutes of voice-overs. That is inherently going to be more interesting than a 40 minutes interview. You just get better tape. In addition, I really started doubling down in my interviewing skills right before that because I didn’t want it to suck. You know me when I’m new to something or feel like I’m not good at something, I dive in pretty deep.
Probably some of my best interviews I’ve given are in TinySeed Tales. The first season was with Craig from Castos. He’s also very thoughtful, he’s really good on the mic, it was a very natural fit for him to do. He wasn’t nervous. I could imagine doing it with somebody who hasn’t podcasted before, and I think it would have been a lot more challenging. Then there’s cool music, too.
Sherry: Oh, as long as there’s cool music. Is it the Tiny Tales theme song like DuckTales?
Rob: No, but we should’ve done that now that you said that. Dude, you’re mocking it. DuckTales holds up. It’s one of the cartoons from the 80s that’s considered to be very good.
Sherry: I’m not mocking it. I am singing along. You misunderstand me, sir. I’m not mocking it.
Rob: They’re redone it; Disney just redid it. The new one has Chucks, too.
Sherry: Have you been watching Disney Plus at night while I’m sleeping?
Rob: No. Maybe Finn has.
Sherry: Okay. One last question about the podcast. I know there’s lots of other things that you’ve been working on that I want to ask you about. What is your growth area in podcasting?
Rob: What do you mean? What growth area?
Sherry: You’ve been doing this for 10 years. What are you working on getting better at? What are you continuing to learn about and press into as someone who is guiding Startups for the Rest of Us?
Rob: Two things, you’ve heard me do intros and outros or solo episodes. I want to be able to do those almost without editing. When you and I are here talking, I’m not starting and stopping 20 times for five minutes of response. It’s just a natural conversation that flows. When I sit down to intro and outro this episode, Josh, our editor, is cringing right now thinking of how much he has to edit those two minute or three minute intros. Something about it when someone else’s not in the mic, I get stuck. It’s weird. I’m trying to work through that.
The other thing that’s more visible to the listeners is every interview I do, I’m trying to become a better interviewer. I’m trying to get better asking the right questions, asking them in a way that brings out the interesting answers, that touches on the emotions, but also brings out tactics and learnings. There’s a lot to be learned there. That’s what’s still exciting for me about the podcast. I think once I peek at anything, most of us, once you peak and you’re like, “That’s it. I’m the best there is,” it’s only downhill from there. That still feels like I can see a lot of mountains up ahead of me that I haven’t climbed here with podcasting. I think I can only get better in a lot of ways.
Sherry: Are you going to be doing this in 10 years?
Rob: I don’t know. I would say yes because that’s my personality, to just do things forever. I said that on purpose. I said it on purpose because I knew you’d laugh. Every software company I ever started I have not done forever.
Sherry: I know. That is absolutely not true, Rob Walling.
Rob: That’s the opposite, yeah. The Interesting thing is with books, blogs, podcasts, conferences, that stuff, I have done for a very long time. That was the signal a couple of years ago where I was, “I keep coming back to these things,” and podcasting is one. TinySeed Tales, while it’s been on this feed, I’m setting up another feed for it, and it’s going to be in seasons. But really, I have two podcasts now, and I could see having another. I enjoy it that much. I enjoy consuming podcasts that much, and I enjoy creating them a lot.
Do I think I will be podcasting in 10 years? I do. I think it might be Startups for the Rest of Us, but who knows? So much can change. If you think back 10 years ago, I hadn’t started Drip. I hadn’t bought HitTail. I hadn’t started this podcast. So much was different, so when I think 10 years ahead from now, where could that lead?
Sherry: Speaking of things leading places, let’s shift gears, move down the funnel a little bit, and talk about MicroConf. It has been a huge year for MicroConf already. You did this big announcement talking about reorganizing the schedule and structure of MicroConf. We are getting ready for MicroConf here in Minneapolis in just a few months, which I’m very excited about. So, 2020 compared to 2019, what are the significant changes that you’re implementing with MicroConf?
Rob: As you said, it’s a huge change. In 2019, we did three in-person events.
Sherry: Which was Growth Starter in Europe. Now, what’s 2020 looking like?
Rob: We’re doing seven in-person events. It’s Growth Starter in Europe, and then four were local events.
Sherry: You just sent me all the calendar invites in these events yesterday, and I was like, “Holy crap, you’re basically gone most of the month of October traveling around doing the MicroConf Roadshow.” It’s what I’m going to affectionately call it.
Rob: Yup. That’s exactly a good name for it. We went to seven of those, then we were doing the State of Independent SaaS reports. I’ll say we’re doing it. We did the survey, issued the report, did a live stream, which is I’ve talked about was quite an endeavor and a little bit nerve-wracking.
Sherry: A little bit nerve-wracking? Are you kidding me? You were sweating that for weeks. I haven’t seen you that stressed about something. Maybe the Drip sale or the decision to leave Drip, but you were like, “Which outfit should I wear?” It was really occupying a lot of space. Why do you think it was so challenging?
Rob: Probably because I wrote this blog post here years ago called Terror of First. I said that the first time you do anything, it terrifies you. Then, you just do it until you get numb to it. Pretty soon you’ll get better at it, and you’ll get more comfortable with it. First time I ever published a blog post, I was freaking out. First time I ever published a podcast episode, I was freaking out. First time I ever did a talk in front of people, I was freaking out. On and on and on. Each of those I have become more comfortable with. I think most of us do, and that this was one.
Doing a 30-minute live stream where you are standing, looking at a camera and nothing else, is not the same as standing on a stage at a conference and talking to 500 or 1000 people. It’s crazy how different it is. The energy is different. It’s a skill and it’s something that, if you’d ask me what’s my personal development this year, a lot of it is that it’s getting better in front of a camera. I’m not nervous. I don’t get the sweaty palms, hair standing up at the back of my neck, and throat closing. I don’t get that. You just get awkward naturally. The camera just doesn’t feel like a natural conversation because you’re talking to no one. You’re […] an abyss and trying to have a personality, and I don’t think it’s a natural thing for us to do, at least for me. I’ll speak for myself.
Sherry: Oh, no. It goes against every part of our brains that’s geared towards interactive communication.
Rob: Yeah. No one’s nodding. No one’s saying, “Uh-huh.” You’re not getting any positive feedback, which in an event, I can be nervous, get up, start doing a talk, I start talking about things, I see people in the audience are going with it, they’re smiling, and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah.” You feed off that energy. You know that feeling.
Sherry: Oh, yeah.
Rob: And you don’t get that with the thing. That’s where, standing for 30 minutes with no script, no cue cards, talking, and knowing that there’s really no cutaways, even to get a drink, there was not enough time for me to stop and get a drink of water in the middle of that. I could have, but people would literally be waiting on a live stream while you do that. That’s a new experience for me. I’m sure over time, it will become more comfortable just like now on stage. If I need to stop and get a drink, the deafening silence that you hear…
Remember the first time you did a talk whenever you were quiet? It sounded deafening like you should be feeling the silence. Everyone was waiting for you to say the next word. Then, the 10th or the 20th talk you do, you’re like, “The silence helps.” It gives people space.
Sherry: Yeah, the silence is fine.
Rob: Yup. That’s where doing a live stream like that, I was like, “Which rules apply? Which don’t? What do I have to adjust here? How do I get in front of this many people?” It got recorded and now it’s on YouTube. I think it’s 2500 or 3000 views. I’m going to be seen by 3000 people on the camera. How do I make that interesting for them? How do I make it provide that value of 3000 people giving me 30 minutes of their time?
Sherry: Why was it so important for you to do this State of Independence SaaS? To do the report, to do the study, then to do a live stream? Why is that significant?
Rob: The report for me is like a passion project that I’ve been wanting to do for years because there just hasn’t been data in our space. We see all these reports about venture capital raising companies, their stats, and their benchmarks. I’ve just been so curious because people asked me, “How many people go to MicroConf have raised some kind of funding?” I was like, “I think about 10% but I don’t know.” I was super curious to hear that. I have all these rules of thumb like what your churn should be, what’s good, bad, and great churn, trial-to-paid conversion ratio, just all these metrics that I have developed the rules of thumb over the years, but it’s just from seeing a bunch of apps. It’s beyond anecdotal. It’s not that I had an end of one, but I had an end of dozens, I’ll say, that I’ve combined, and I wanted to see how those held up.
It wasn’t just a personal thing. I want this whole space. I think this is the future. I believe that this space is the future because venture capital can only be invested. It’s like 1 in every 100 startups or something; it’s a really small number. We’re “for the rest of us.” We’re startups for the rest of us. We’re the other 99%. I believed as we move forward (and had believed this for a long time), we are the long tail of startups, so where’s the data on us? Where’s the stuff to help us? Where’s the stuff to give us some type of benchmarks?
Sherry: How do you see the information in this report and in the live stream impacting an individual founder?
Rob: The live stream was 22 minutes, plus Q&A of me just walking through some high-level findings, and it was to get people interested enough in it to read the report. The report itself is 65-80 pages, depending on which version you get. There’s a lot more in the report. You can think of the live stream almost as an advertisement to download the report. Just to be like, “Hey, look at this thing. This is interesting and these are my thoughts about it.”
Sherry: It’s an abstract.
Rob: It is, that’s a good point. An abstract, like an academic paper. Whereas the report, if I was the founder, I would be looking, “Oh, where am I? What percentile am I at with my churn, with my trial-to-paid, and with my hours worked per week? With how many years I’ve been in the business versus growth?” There were just all types of findings in there that I think it depends on your situation that we can benchmark ourselves to. In addition, there were some interesting findings with which marketing approaches, which advertising approaches, are working best for you right now.
We now have a ranking on that in our space. We have payback periods for Facebook and Google Ads. You can see it. My gut was always, “1–3 or 1–4 months is where we want to be as bootstrappers, indie-funded, self-funded, founders.” That was the majority (I think) or maybe it was 40% or 50%. Again, it reinforces some stuff that I already knew. If I hadn’t already known that or if you’re just coming new to the space, you’re just trying to figure stuff out, you can just look through, and be like, “Okay. This is the sanity check range of where most people are.”
Sherry: And on some really, really, concrete things that affect choices that founders make every day. What’s this MicroConf Connect? More Slack channels for me to deal with? Oh my God, why would I do that?
Rob: Yay. I’m totally going to invite you. That’s another thing. It’s the State of Independence SaaS live stream. We’re doing a MicroConf Remote, which is a remote event here in (I think it’s) July or August. I don’t know if we have the date nailed down yet. Then, we have long been asked like, “I want to stay in touch with folks from MicroConf year round; there’s no way to do that,” because would set up a Slack channel for an event, use that as a communication method, then we shut it down 30 days later. The reason we did it is because managing a Slack channel is a lot of work. You need to moderate it, keep it healthy, and there’s all kind of stuff to be done.
We now have the resources to do that. So, that’s what it is. It’s connecting founders, it’s an online home for the MicroConf community, founders and aspiring founders who want to build these ambitious startups, as I often say in the intro of this podcast.
Sherry: All of this stuff and change that’s going on with MicroConf in it, it is all rebranded and packaged in a great website now. You have that all redesigned and redone.
Rob: That feels really good.
Sherry: It looks so much better.
Rob: It was a side project. That’s the thing. The podcast and the MicroConf were literally side projects of Mike and I. We both felt like these should get more do. These are good things that should be treated better, look better. It feels good to finally have a logo that (I think) will last us a long time on a website and all that stuff. That’s been the big push since we brought Sander on full- time here about six months ago. It’s just getting your ducks in a row, how these all fit together, and how do we expand this in a way that helps more founders.
It comes back to that whole thing, why am I doing this? Because it excites me. I want to be in the space. I want to help founders. So, how do you help more founders? You do stuff that’s hopefully cheaper because a lot of people are bootstrapping, and you try to reach more people. That’s where you get the remote and local events where we roadshow out to folks, so they don’t have to travel.
It’s been a fun experience to try to brainstorm how to do that, how to accomplish that.
Sherry: What founders need.
Rob: Yeah, and how to do it in a way that’s economically viable. If you think about MicroConf being three in-person events per year, you can’t just expand that infinitely. It doesn’t scale. You can’t do 100 events per year. You can’t easily switch to that. How do you do that and expand it in a way that’s intelligent? Intelligent but somewhat scalable. That’s a balance we’re trying to strike. Some online stuff, some in-person.
Sherry: You just need to see it grow up. I think Startups for the Rest of Us, MicroConf, as you said, they were side projects. They were things that you did on the evenings and weekends when you were running your real company. Now that you have more time and energy to devote to them, they really are starting to look like that, and reflect that this is some of the core of what you’re doing, what you’re working on, and the ways that you’re serving the founder community. I love how they look. Both the Startups for the Rest of Us and the MicroConf websites are looking good.
Let’s talk a little bit about TinySeed. Since that is (I guess) your “real business” now.
Rob: Yeah, for sure.
Sherry: You’ve closed the batch two, right?
Rob: Almost there. We’ve made offers. We’ve had verbal yeses if everything goes through. You never know what’s going to happen when you get due diligence and paperwork, and we’ve basically in the midst of that right now, so sending docs, getting some stuff signed.
Sherry: Is that the least fun part?
Rob: For me, yes. The due diligence. I think for everybody, probably. It’s the due diligence, trying to get docs signed, and just all the questions.
Rob: Totally. Papers and paychecks. It’s been really nice to have Tracy around because she’s spending a lot of time that I spent last batch. She’s focusing on that and then Einar’s, working with her on that. Given the podcast expansion and the MicroConf expansion. It was like, “I can’t do that again.” You can only do so many things at once. That’s been the reason I haven’t been able to focus more on these other things.
Sherry: Is it the hope to bring batch one and batch two together in Minneapolis right around MicroConf time? Just everything converges?
Rob: Yeah, it does, which is kind of cool. That was by design and it will be by design. Since we are remote, there’s not a ton of overlap between the batches. It’s neat to be able to have the batch two meet batch one, and hang out. There’s the alumni association, so to speak. That’s a big factor in a lot of these accelerators. It will be in TinySeed, where the alumni help the next batch get acclimated, and can offer some mentorship or some guidance on a number of fronts. I think that’s the value.
Sherry: Yeah. They become mentors of sorts.
Rob: Exactly. That’s such a big part of the value of being an accelerator and not just being a fund. When you have a fund, you write checks to companies. Oftentimes, they never meet. They don’t really know each other. They’ll know of each other but they won’t hang out together. The batch part brings people together in such a tight community, and even across batches, being able to propagate that, and to have—by the time you get to batch three, four, or five—them reaching back to batch one who (a lot of those companies) will be wildly successful at that point. I’m willing to wager and have been willing to wager. They’re able to then continue to learn from them and also get introductions and work on the networks. The network of TinySeed founders will expand naturally each year.
Sherry: What changes have you made between batch one and batch two?
Rob: The process for batch two, the application process was more streamlined. It was just a better process. Of course, we tweak the application questions a lot. It was good to have three people who weren’t just myself. Actually, you were involved more on the first one because I have someone off questions. This time, Tracy took a lot of the third person role to weigh in on things. That was helpful.
We did change the funding amounts. We tweaked them very minorly. The version two terms, I believe, are the same. I don’t think we changed that term at all. Then batch two, we’ll tweak some stuff with the calls. We’re going to do fewer retreats. We did four retreats this year and our feedback was…
Sherry: Too much time in Florida?
Rob: One, too many retreats. Yeah. We’re going to move to three in-person gatherings which feels good.
Sherry: It’s nice to have some space to implement all of that retreat content between time.
Rob: Yeah, that’s the idea. What we found is you learn a ton in the first couple of months, let’s say, 3–5 months, 3–6 months. Then you really know where you’re headed after that. You have some small questions beyond that but it’s not the huge directional shift. Like in the first two months, we had multiple people that needed to completely redo pieces of their business. You’re charging three times too little or your on-boarding is no good. Your entire pricing structure is off. Let’s help you figure out how to tweak that or your copy is this. There’s some major changes. While those continue to happen in some former fashion, it’s not to the extent of the first few months of a program like this. There’s actually less of a need as you get through the program.
There’s a reason why a lot of accelerators are three months. You can provide a lot of value in that time. Of course, their goals to raise around haven’t really raised funding. That’s not our goal. We do think that SaaS, we know that takes a lot longer. We do want it to be longer than 3 months, but we also think that a call every week for 12 months is probably the initial hypothesis. It starts to feel a little heavy as you get further and further in. It’s like, “Do we really need two mentor calls a month still?” Even if there were 8, 9, 10, months into this. Or, am I just focusing on needing to implement right now? It’s almost accountability mode. I need someone to keep me accountable to sanity checks and stuff, to just keep me accountable to continue to implement these plans that I’m trying to get done by month 12.
We really have seen a shift in a lot of the thought process and the stages these companies are at, which is good. It shows there are emotions. A lot of folks came in relatively early stage and you hit a point where you don’t need all that anymore. You’re just plowing forward, blocking, and tackling, as they say. Just implementing.
Sherry: What are you most excited about a new batch, another round?
Rob: I think that with any startup founder (which I still consider myself), we’re implementing some things differently. I’m excited to see how that works out and don’t work out. I’m excited to get to know everyone. The relationships that I’ve had with batch 1 founders are truly valuable to me. And I don’t mean monetarily. I mean, I would call so many of these folk friends. Certainly, deep acquaintances but people that I enjoy hanging out with that I truly wish a lot of success on. I truly wish that they have a lot of success, purely because I think they’ve worked hard. Building new relationships is probably the best way to say it. That feels exciting. It’s exciting to me to be able to help people. It’s another group of folks.
Sherry: Yeah. It’s a deep investment in humans.
Rob: That’s what it is. That’s the part that excited me the most. Just in general, investing deeply.
Sherry: Well, you have a big year. Has it been two years since you left Drip? Almost two years?
Rob: Yeah, almost two years.
Sherry: There’s been phenomenal change in growth, the development, the inception of TinySeed, all the way to now, your second batch. It’s amazing to see the pace which you’ve moved, but also, you’ve been executing on these ideas and these materials for many years, at least 10 with the podcast. Again, we have that dichotomy of 20 years to overnight success.
Rob: Yeah, that’s how it feels. It’s that thing of showing up every day. It’s relentless execution, but what’s funny is that it makes it sound like you work to the bone constantly and work 60 hours a week. That’s not what I do. Not really what I’ve ever done for any stretch of time. You can build it up, as you’re saying, but you do anything consistently for 10 years. You’re going to make some progress. You’re going to get better at it. You’re going to build something.
Sherry: Thanks for letting me take over your podcast today.
Rob: Yeah, it was great. I enjoyed the conversation. It’s cool to be interviewed by different people because they think about things along different axes, lands in different questions, and looks at progress along different axes, I guess, to say again. Yeah, I really appreciate you taking the time to come on the show.
If the folks want to keep up with you, you have your own podcast called ZenFounder. You are @zenfounder on Twitter and sherrywalling.com on the Interwebs. Thanks again to Sherry for coming in the show and look for another Rob catch-up episode here in about three months.
In the meantime, if you have questions for me or other guests who appeared on the show, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also have a voicemail line people use from time to time, (888) 801-9690. As always, voicemails and audio files go to the top of the stack. If you’re not already subscribed to Startups for the Rest of Us, head to your podcatcher, search for startups. We’re typically in the top five. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer a number of listener questions on topics including the value of startup accelerators, onboarding, liability insurance and more.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Rob: In this episode of Startups for the Rest of Us, Mike and I talk about the value of startup accelerators, better onboarding, liability insurance, and answering more listener questions. This is Startups for the Rest of Us, episode 435.
Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers, and entrepreneurs be awesome at building, launching, and growing software products whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Rob.
Mike: And I’m Mike.
Rob: We’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. To where this week sir?
Mike: Well, I wanted to give a congratulations to Ty Wood. He was the winner of the AppSumo contest last month and he won a all expense paid trip to both MicroConfs.
Mike: That was courtesy of AppSumo. I just wanted to say a big shout out to those guys and say thank you to them for sponsoring that. We’ll see Ty Wood at MicroConf.
Rob: Yeah, Ty, please come up, introduce yourself. It would be good to meet you. Thanks to AppSumo for that. Speaking of MicroConf, I believe this episode goes live just a couple of weeks before MicroConf. I’m guessing we might have a few tickets left either for Starter or Growth. If you’re interested with hanging around with a couple of hundred other serious SaaS software startup founders, you should head over to microconf.com, take a peek at it and hopefully, we’ll see you in Vegas.
Today, we’re going to dig into some listener questions after we’re down to absolute zero a couple of episodes ago. We got a nice little influx, we got a few voicemails, but I wanted to kick us off with first a thank you from James.
He says, “Hi, Mike and Rob. I’ve been listening since 2014. I’m a solo entrepreneur living in Central Africa, in Burundi, Rwanda. Here, we don’t have angel investors. Instead there are people with cash but most of the time, they aren’t people who share my same values. There’s a lot of financial corruption here. I decided to go solo, train another developer. Now we have two main products that can serve two different niches locally. The wisdom on your podcast has helped me so much during my journey. We have different realities, but I regularly find motivation to continue on and a clear understanding during the journey, so thank you so much.”
Thanks so much for that, James. I really appreciate it. We started the podcast, both to find other people like us because it was like, “Hey, you and me, are the only people doing this,” and then to find a handful of others that were doing it? Along the way, I’ve really seen it as an amazing by product that we’re able to help people whether it’s directly or indirectly, whether it’s us just talking and giving motivation or tactics or through the conference that we started and the community we’ve built. I love getting emails like this. these kinds of things make my week.
Mike: Yeah, congratulations, James. It’s hard enough to put one product together but you’ve got two that are serving two different niches and both helping out underground where you’re living. It’s fantastic to be able to help out the local community and be able to make a living from it as well. Really appreciate hearing from you and best of luck with that.
Rob: Our first question of the day is a voicemail on the value of joining an accelerator if you ultimately want to raise institutional funding.
“Hey, Rob and Mike. This is Sree, cofounder of clocr.com, it’s short for cloud locker. We are an early stage startup company based out of Austin, Texas. CLOCR empowers you to manage and protect your family’s most important documents and enables you or your loved ones to have instant access in case of financial, personal, or medical emergencies. We are currently in a pre-launch stage and we’re giving away about 1000 lifetime subscriptions for early adopters. I found you guys about four months ago on the podcast and it changed my life forever. Seriously. The amount of guidance you both provide is invaluable. I wish I had found this podcast about a year ago. Please do keep up the good work. I can’t wait to meet both of you at the Micro Conference.
I found several co-founders for CLOCR and that is [inaudible 00:04:20] our LinkedIn and angellist. I’ve been self-funding CLOCR for about a year or so—less lower than a year. I’m getting ready for the launch in the next four weeks. My strategy is to seek a small amount of funding, $200k-$300k for the next 18 months or so to a kind of a workable debt. Our plan is to aggressively bring in users before going in for institutional funding. I denied a few requests for funding. Here are the questions: Now that I have a few advisers joining CLOCR and I continue to add advisors as we go, is there a value in going down the accelerator path? Will that add any value in terms of the buzz and visibility or will it be a distraction? Will these accelerator programs help set-up for funding, or will they help me grow the user base? My main goal is to increase the user base and set-up the [00:05:17] vision thing and folks to build the company. Second question, I do like the participate in a startup innovation competition, do you have a short list of companies that we can participate on? Thank you.”
I kind of took three questions away from that. He said, “Is there value in joining an accelerator? Will it provide buzz or visibility?” Second question is, “Do accelerators help grow the user base?” and will it help him get set-up for funding or will it be counter to that, will it be a distraction. The third one is about innovation competition.
I think I’ll start with the innovation competition and say, I don’t know, I would probably just Google it. There’s one called 59 Days of Coding in Fresno. That’s really the only one I’ve been involved in that and that’s the only one I know off the top of my head.
Mike: Going back to Sree’s first couple of questions, is there value in going through an accelerator in terms of buzz and visibility. I would think that for some accelerators you would get some buzz from it but for something like CLOCR that is more B2C oriented, I suspect that the buzz you get from it is probably not going be to nearly as helpful. They may have PR outlets that could help you generate more publicity and get in front of more consumer type of users. But I think the main value in joining an accelerator—I guess there’s a couple of different things you can get out of it—but the first one would be the mentorship.
It’s not necessarily about growing your user base directly by virtue of joining an accelerator but rather you get mentorship to point you in the right direction and helps guide you in terms of what other people have done before you, what mistakes they’ve made, what things they’ve done that’s gone really well, people they can introduce you to, the network. Those are the types of things that are going to grow your user base. It’s not like you just join and you suddenly get a magic ticket that pumps 5000 new users into your app. It’s not how it works. You have to basically go through the program and talk to people and figure out what it is that you’re supposed to do that’s going to have the most impact and then go do it. That is going to grow your user base.
The other thing that the accelerator’s going to do for you is if it’s coupled with funding of any kind, it’s going to help give you runway and allow you to focus on working on the business as opposed to working on it as a side venture. Because if you’re trying to do something nights and weekends, that’s great and all, but you only have so much time to do that, and a lot of your time is probably going to be spent on your main job trying to make ends meet for you and your family. Getting rid of that as a distraction is going to be one of those main benefits of that accelerator.
The other one is if you’re looking to raise money down the road, an accelerator, going through a program like essentially gives you validation, and to some extent, trust from other investors that, “Oh, this accelerator invested in me and the business because they believe what we’re doing.” By virtue of that, that’s transferred to other investors. There’s a lot of credibility that you can gain in your business just by virtue of being attached to them. But because they have presumably vetted you in some way, shape, or form in order to accept you into the accelerator program.
Rob: I would agree with that. I imagine someone gets 900 applicants and they pick 10 and you’re one of the 10. There’s some signaling there. There’s some halo effect—I don’t know what you want to call it—but you were chosen. It’s different but it’s like getting into Harvard or getting into Yale; you make it through a selection process and that does lend some type of credibility.
I think like you said, it’s going to depend on the accelerator. I mean, there’s hundreds of accelerators and some of them are going to be really good, like helping you grow your user base. But you can either contact prior companies who have gone through it or you can look at the people who are running it and who the mentors are and think to yourself, “Do those people know how to grow a user base? Do I think that their advice or their network, whatever it is that they have can help translate into that?”
I have seen accelerators where I’ve looked at the list of mentors and I don’t know who any of them are or a lot of them are business coaches or college professors or people who maybe have not run a business directly. That’s always a question in my mind of like, “Are they going to give me MBA advise or are they going to be boots on the ground and really dig in to what’s going?” That’s one question I would ask about how to do that.
Certainly, a top name accelerator like YCombinator or TechStars, I think that gives you buzz and visibility. Obviously, the elephant in the room is I run TinySeed which is a startup accelerator designed for all community. I think that there will be a certain amount of buzz and visibility given within our sphere when we announce. I think that as time goes on that buzz and visibility will get bigger and bigger as we become more successful, and as our alumni, do more interesting things.
Our answer is probably the same, yours and mine. It’s like, yeah there is value, but I also—you’ve probably heard this advise of like, “If you’re going to get an MBA, you do it for the network and you do it for certain things.” There’s advises I don’t bother getting it from bottom tier school because it’s not the information, it’s more about the prestige of having Harvard on your diploma or whatever. I would think similarly of there are going to be accelerators that I’ve heard that don’t bring a ton of value. This is not a blanket answer for all accelerators. There really is a vetting process that you’re going to have to go through.
I think his second question was kind of like, “Do accelerators help set you up to raise subsequent funding?” My understanding is pretty much unequivocally, yes. That’s actually the goal of most accelerators, to provide you enough money to get to that demo day to have a product to raise funding. TinySeed in particular, that’s not our end goal, but there’s nothing in our terms or even in our goals for our companies that say you should or should not raise subsequent rounds.
One example is some of the angel investments that I’ve made in the “bootstrap space” most of them have not gone on to raise subsequent rounds but one or two have. I’ve been super encouraging about that because the founder saw the opportunity, wanted to level up, the money was there, and the choice is something you evaluate when you get there. I guess the answer to, do startup accelerators help set-up for funding, I think across the board, yes. I don’t know of an accelerator that won’t help you do that, that won’t connect you to angel investors or VCs down the line should you want to raise that money.
Now, one thing I would say is that there are some funds that are offering money to the bootstrapper space that do have clauses in them that will make it hard to raise funding later on. Just be sure you have a good lawyer, or you really look at the terms, or read. There are comparisons of these alternative funding approaches, the non-traditional VC stuff. Do your research and figure out, “If I did want to raise the $2 million later on, is this basically a poison pill?” Poison pill clause doesn’t allow me to do that. As I’ve said, we do not have that in Tiny Seed. We’re going to make it very easy to have [inaudible 00:12:37] investments. I’m thinking most will but there are some that whether intentionally or accidentally do have some clauses but those are not, as I said, they’re not accelerators.
The last thing I realized, innovation competitions. Since he’s a B2C, you should try to go on Shark Tank. It’s not a competition per se. I don’t think Shark Tank is the [00:12:58] all of anything but I do enjoy it for the entertainment value and that’s why B2C companies go on there, is to get that exposure. In addition to potentially getting a high-profile investor, but just going on there is going to drive some interest.
Mike: I’ve seen stories of people who’ve gone on to Shark Tank and whether they got a deal or not, sometimes there’s stories that circle back on those companies afterwards. There is that exposure piece of being on there whether that investor helps you or not doesn’t matter because people will see you. They see your business, they see your company, and you’re getting exposure that you probably would not have gotten otherwise.
Rob: Thanks for the question. Super interesting one. It’s good for this community to be thinking about it and talking about this. our next question is super interesting. It’s about how to better communicate to users who should be connecting to an existing SaaS account. Basically, they’ve been invited as sub-users but instead, they’re signing up for new trials over and over and over. Let’s listen to this one.
“Hi guys. It’s Jarrod from sportstrackerapp.com here. We run a website that helps teachers and students organize their track and field and swimming needs. We’ve been really successful watching it grow. At certain stage, we introduced the feature that will allow admin staff to welcome sub-account access to their students so that they can login and register themselves into different events.
It’s dramatically cut down the workload of the admin staff. However, we’ve noticed that since opening up this feature, some students—regardless of the communication that we make available to the admin staff—students are coming through and signing-up to the website as an admin user and starting trial accounts and obviously, that’s not something that’s even remotely close to what they need to do.
What actually happens is the admin staff are given a piece of print out paper or an email that they pass onto the students and it sends them to a different URL [inaudible 00:15:13]. However, regardless of that communication, we still can’t get past the few students signing up on a daily basis. What thoughts do you have around making this as clear as possible without making a trial require a credit card, because obviously that would stop students. I look forward to hearing what you think about it. Thanks!”
Should we start by saying how we would design the ideal flow just to make sure, because I know he said no matter what the communication is, the students still come in sign-up for the trial. But could we walk down the steps of how we would do it. What would the ideal flow to at least communicate to them so that maybe there’s one or two things that he’s not doing that they could try then actually get to his question.
Mike: I think that there’s a couple of assumptions that you need to make or at least clarify as part of this while we’re going through this mental exercise. Are we assuming that this app is design explicitly for colleges, universities, schools, etc., and then the students that are part of it? Or is it like a general-purpose app that can be used outside of that system because it seems that this is a very specific situation. I’m not clear on whether or not the app is geared that way.
Rob: I think it’s focused on the niche of sports, managing sports teams. I’m guessing it’s more like junior high high school.
Rob: Let’s make that assumption.
Mike: I guess based on that, it sounds like that the fundamental problem is that there’s confusion passing the information onto the teachers as to how to invite those students. If they’re getting forwarded to a particular URL, that’s fine, but if they’re printing something out and handing it to them and then the student comes to the website because they see that on it, that poses something of a problem.
I think that one thing that does come to mind though is if this is such a serious problem and it comes up constantly then I would take a look at the sign-up process itself and ask people when they go to register, are they a student or are they a teacher/coach or whatever. By that, you could basically interject yourself into that sign-up process and say, “Well, if you are a student coming in here, chances are you’re not going to be signing up for an actual trial of the product, you actually want to be attached with a sub-account.” How do you direct them to that?
Obviously, that’s going to depend on whether or not they’re signing in with an email address that is part of the school system for example. Because with this, you can match them up and let them select stuff, but I don’t know how much privacy controls or concerns are around that either. I think that the very first thing that I would look at doing is seeing whether or not you can differentiate between a student signing up and a teacher/coach because that right there should tell you whether or not they should be actually creating a trial or not.
Rob: I would agree with that. I think that what you could do is sign-up for trial and it’s like, “Are you a student? Are you a coach or administrator?” If they say student, then you default to saying, “You should’ve received an invite from your whatever. Check that email or check the flyer. But if you really are trying to sign up for a brand-new account for your school, then click here.” Make it like really have to opt in. you have to double opt in if you’re a student where you have to click that and then click another thing whereas if you’re a coach or administrator or whatever, then make that the default.
The other thing I was thinking about—I’m trying to think how to make this work. What I’m imagining is that I’m a coach, I have my account, I log in, and it says, “Invite Users.” I can enter some email addresses of students. Then it either gives me a PDF to print out and physically hand to them, he said, the physical paper, or it sends them an email. What if on that PDF and the email that goes to the student there is no mention of the name of the URL? It does not say Sports Tracker. All it says is, “Your coach so and so is inviting you as an administrator on the thing that organizes your sports team. Go here to sign-up or to accept this invitation.”
That URL could feasibly be just a totally different URL. Just pick whatever, a random one, thesportstrackersignup.com or even just signupfortheapp.com—just pick something. If they go to the homepage or if they go to the full URL, because my guess is it says like right now, it’s sportstracker.com or .com—I don’t even know what their URL is—but let’s say sportstracker.co/ a bunch of stuff to accept the invite, and people are just typing in sporttracker.co and then hitting trial. Don’t even allow them to do that. Just give them a completely different URL and the homepage is something that says, “You need a special code. Enter the code in the URL,” or whatever. You can figure out a way how to do this intelligently but not let them get back to your main URL in anyway because you can control the message. You have this PDF and this email that go directly to them. What do you think about that?
Mike: I think that’s fine. Unless you have a situation where the professor or the coach or whoever is telling them, “Hey, I use this app. Here’s the name of it.” Because if they search for it and I think that that’s the problem he’s alluding to is that if they go online, presumably they’re web savvy enough to go online and search and then they come to the website. The one thing I would think about is giving somebody a sign up that is literally just a single field that says, “Accept Invitation,” or something along those lines or as you said, give them a PDF that they can print out.
I don’t know the mechanics of how it’s currently being done because do you want to just print something out that’s exactly the same for all 30 people on the team or do you have individual ones for all 30 of them? I would imagine you would want the former rather than the latter so that you don’t have to plug in 30 different email addresses. You print the exact same thing, hand it out to everybody in the team and say, “Go here and do this.” And then they basically join. Maybe it’s like a 6-digit code or a 10-digit code or something like that. They just go to, as you said, the URL, plug it in, and that’s the end of it. I think hiding the name of the product is probably the best bet because that way, the kids won’t search for it.
Rob: To be honest, Sports Tracker, when I go to just search for that phrase in Google, there’s a bunch of iOS apps that come up. I can’t find the app that he’s talking about in Google right now. There’s sports-tracker.com, there’s SportsTrackr with no E, there’s all these things and I don’t think any of them are his app. I actually don’t know that even hiding the name, I really think it’s just the URL. You know what people could do is if it says Sports Tracker on the PDF and they go to Google and type it in then sign-up for the first one, it’s going to be the wrong app. Maybe they should just hide the name and the URL and try to get them there.
Like I said, it’s an interesting problem—user behavior thing—to have but I think there are probably some ways that we’ve thrown out. Hopefully, those are helpful to him. Thanks for the question.
Our next question is about liability insurance. It’s from Z and he says, “Hey guys. Could you talk about what types of liability insurance SaaS companies should get? It’s very confusing, there’s not much information out there. What type of insurance should founders get for their companies depending on the stage they’re in and to protect themselves and the company?”
We have talked about this in the past, right, Mike? We’ve talked about getting an LLC and maybe worrying less about the insurance aspect of it because you have the liability protection there in the early stages. Obviously, we’re not attorneys, we can’t give legal advice and really, you should not take advice from two chuckle heads like us. But in the early days of a product, I would tend to have any type of E&O insurance. When you have 10 customers or something unless you’re in a particularly litigious niche.
Mike: I think the question here is different though. He’s talking specifically about liability insurance versus the liability of having things under a company. To his point, this is very confusing and there’s not much information out there. The reason it’s confusing is because insurance is one of those old industries where they profit based on your lack of knowledge and them being able to be kind of opaque about stuff.
If you go to, let’s say, two or three or five different insurance companies and ask them for a quote for liability insurance for your company, they’re going to say, “Okay. Fill out this form and give us a bunch of information.” Every single one of those forms is going to be different. It’s not like going to a sandwich shop and ordering a ham sandwich. That’s going to be basically the same between 30 different ham sandwich shops.
But with insurance, even liability insurance, it’s different for every single one of them. They’re going to have different questions, they’re going to want to know different things, and each of those forms is going to be different. Then they’re going to plug it in their back end of the engine and they’re going to say, “Okay. Here’s the risk profile, etc., and these are the things that we cover.” If you compare the output of each of those plans, there are going to be differences between them. It’s not like there’s a standardized liability insurance. There’s going to be some like Plan 1 from Company 1 might include XY and Z and then the same exact information that you gave to Company 2, they’re going to say, “We cover X and Y,” but they’re not even going to mention Z because it’s not covered but they cover QR and L.
It’s complicated and the reason you’re finding it that it’s confusing is because it is confusing. It sucks. It’s weird when you have to go through those things but really, there’s the umbrella policies. You have to be careful about what you’re doing in terms of what access to customer information you have, what your access level is to your on-site software or databases, or level of access that you need in their environment. All those things are going to be questions, are beyond those forms. Every company is going to quote you differently.
Rob: Yep. Insurance—not fun. I think that to protect yourself from personal liability, you can of course get an LLC or an S-Corp or whatever is the equivalent in whatever country you live in. I tend to say, when you’re young and you don’t have a lot of money or what’s called judgement proof, no one’s going to sue you because you don’t have any money. When you get to the point where you have some assets, I recommend getting a personal liability plan. I shouldn’t say recommend, this is what I have done. [inaudible 00:25:43] recommended to me and this is what I did, and it’s to get a personal liability coverage.
You can get $1 million or even a $2 million coverage for literally a few hundred dollars a year protects you from personal liability if you get in a car accident and someone sues you because their neck hurts or whatever. I think it protects your personal wealth and I don’t know all the details. It’s going to depend on your circumstance in the policy you get as to whether or not someone piercing a corporate veil. You don’t come in through an LLC after your personal asset. It’s going to protect that or not.
And then if you really want insurance for your company, personally, I would go to foundershiled.com, that’s who I use. I’m trying to think of some type of E&O or some insurance when we had to deal with a big Fortune 500 company and they required us to have, of course, crazy stuff that no one else requires you to have. I went to foundershiled.com, had a great experience with them when they were first starting out. They’re much further along now and really can’t recommend them highly enough for folks like us who really don’t want to deal with all the nuts and bolts of it but kind of need to get some [inaudible 00:26:49].
It depends on your risk tolerance how soon you want to do this but those are our general thoughts. Thanks for the question, Z. I hope that was helpful. Our next question is from Hamish and it’s about outsourcing development and NDAs.
He says, “I’m a new listener. I’m catching up with previous episodes. I’ve a question. I have a website which at the moment is no more than a hobby. I want to outsource some development to see if I can take it to the next level. I’m presuming NDA is not worth much for a small website. Should I be at all bothered about giving access to the code to a third-party developer? Are there any basic steps I can take to protect the copyright and the ideas?”
What do you think, Mike?
Mike: It goes back to the standard disclaimer: We’re not lawyers or insurance agents. An NDA is probably not going to be worth the time. The one thing I would be aware of or at least pay attention to is it when you are having somebody else build the code for you or write anything for you that you want to have a contract of some kind in place. If you’re hiring them through something like Upwork, that is generally taking care of it for you, but otherwise, you’re going to want to have something that says that it’s essentially a work for hire and that you own the output of that. That is probably the most basic thing that I would do. That ensures that you own whatever it is that they write for you. Beyond that, I don’t know. I wouldn’t worry too much about it because at this stage, it’s just an idea and it may or may not go anywhere.
Let’s say that they build it and you start making a couple of thousand dollars a month from it. The chances of them stealing it and trying to do the same thing, I would say are probably small. But even if they did try to do it, it’s not the app itself; it’s all the marketing and the sales engine and the sales funnel and emails—all the stuff that you do alongside of it—that is going to make that much money, it’s not the code itself and the app.
Rob: Yeah. I’m not sure how much I have to add there. There’s always risk with this kind of stuff. I would say that I’ve had dozens and dozens of developers that I’ve hired, some for really small projects, some for really big ones. As far as I know, none of them have ever stolen my code and gone off and tried to compete with it. I mean, maybe here’s a chance that I had a class in something that interacted with Stripe or with Twilio and they took it and used it in another project. How would I possibly know? But I have not had that experience.
I think that it’s easy to be bothered by this stuff. I think it’s easy to be overly concerned with it. It does depend on risk tolerance, but I would really air on the side of just hiring someone good and interviewing them to the point where you trust them and letting them do it and trust that they’re not going to steal your code because most people frankly, want the paycheck. It’s just so much effort to steal your code and try to do something with it. The odds of it happening I think are pretty slim.
Our next question, Mike, I pulled off of Quora. It was in the startup section and it said, “How much should an MVP cost?” What do you think about that? I love the premise of the question. It’s just like, “Oh boy!”
Mike: How much should an MVP cost? This seem like a trick question.
Rob: I would say that an MVP should cost zero.
Mike: Zero, yes.
Rob: I mean, not in all cases but remember, an MVP really shouldn’t be a software product, if at all possible. It should be me strapping a Google spreadsheet to Zapier, to a VA, to me peddling a hamster wheel that makes the thing go on, and to make give the appearance that I have a product but in fact it’s just all human-powered. I mean, that’s just one example. But I think an MVP should as little as possible. Take the number in your head and remove a zero or two.
Mike: I think the interesting thing about this question and maybe is because it comes from Quora, there’s people who are not necessarily as experienced in understanding exactly what a minimum viable product would actually be. But really what you’re looking for there is, “What is the least amount of work you can do to answer a particular question?” And you have to start with the question. If you don’t start with the question, you’re really not doing the whole MVP process correctly.
That’s kind of the core of the issue here I think is if you don’t understand what an MVP actually means, then asking how much it should cost is almost irrelevant because it really depends on what the question you’re trying to answer is. Like, “Will people pay for this?” “Well, just go online and do a Google search and see if there are other products out there that exist that solve that problem. If so, then yes.” That’s a very simple thing to do and it costs you absolutely nothing more than a few keystrokes. But if it’s a lot more complicated like, “Can you get $1000 or $10,000 people to your website in order to validate that you can acquire that traffic in order to potentially sell them something?” Well, that’s a very different question that you’re trying to answer. The amount that it’s going to cost is going to be different.
I would actually differentiate between how much time it’s going to cost you versus how much money and over what time period because all three of those things are very different. You might be able to find out a piece of information, but it could take three months. It might only take an hour or a week for the three months but the total time span that it takes is going to make a difference. If you’re trying to validate a couple of different ideas against one another or answer several different questions, it can become difficult to answer all of them in a time frame that is appropriate to whatever your current life situation is.
Rob: Yup. I think those are good points. Like I said, I think it should cost, frankly, as little as possible. You should be able to strap together a lot of tools and not have to actually build software if you’ve validated to that point or you get your 10 or 20 buy-ins, your purchases, pre-purchases, commitments, or whatever you’re going to do. I agree with you. I think I like the different dimensions you put on that words like there’s price, there’s hours of your time, and then there’s duration–is it 6 months or 12 months or 2 months or whatever.
I would love to get an MVP done in less than two months for, I don’t know, less than $5000, less than $10,000. It depends on who you hire. If you hire in the States, it’s going to be more expensive. It’s kind of hard to say, I think but I do think it’s an interesting thought experiment. It’s like, “Are you building an MVP of an email service provider or are you building an MVP of a little form app, like something that compete with Typeform or Google Forms or something.” That’s a totally different use case.
Again, if you’re going to give people Type Form, you just build the form UI, have it go straight into a Google spreadsheet so you don’t [inaudible 00:33:48] have a database and then to actually build the UI to build the form, you manually build that directly with your customers, you don’t build any type of form builder. You know what I mean? That could literally be like a weekend project of just displaying a landing page with the forms that you plug into some XML file or some database or JSON thing. That’s pretty minimally viable but it would be a product if you’re trying to test something out.
Anyways, I think that probably wraps us up for the day except for our final question of the day, Mike. The Star Wars Holiday Special marked the first appearance of which Star Wars character? There are four choices: Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, Jar Jar Binks, Lando Calrissian. Do you know the Star Wars holiday special? Have you heard of it?
Mike: I’ve heard of it.
Rob: It’s from the ‘70s. It’s awful. Go to YouTube and look it up. It is really not good. There’s this thing called life day and there’s wookiees and it’s really not canon.
Mike: I sort of vaguely remember hearing about it or seeing it. The question is which of these four characters shows up for the first time in that?
Rob: For the first time in the Star Wars Holiday Special that came out in ’78. It’s Jabba the Hutt, Boba Fett, Jar Jar Binks, Lando Calrissian.
Mike: I’m thinking Boba Fett.
Rob: You are correct.
Rob: It’s in an animated segment of the show.
Rob: Yup. This has never been released on video but as I said, you can hit YouTube or other places to find recordings of it.
Mike: Oh, that is shockingly nerdy.
Rob: It is. It is nerdy. I couldn’t get through it. I watched five minutes of it, and I had to scrap it.
Mike: Is it that painful?
Rob: It’s awful.
Mike: It’s painful as a podcast and our jokes.
Rob: Yes, it is indeed.
Mike: Oh, that’s terrible. Well, on that note, if you have a question for us, you can call it into our voicemail number 888-801-9690 or you can email it to us at email@example.com. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.
In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob and Mike answer questions about accelerators, the difference between working on and in your business, and the benefits of transparency.
Items mentioned in this episode:
Mike [00:00.5]: In this episode of Startups For The Rest of Us, Rob and I are going to be answering questions about accelerators, the difference between working on and in your business, and the benefits of transparency. This is Startups For The Rest of Us, episode 242.
Mike [00:19]: Welcome to Startups For The Rest of Us, the podcast that helps developers, designers and entrepreneurs be awesome at launching software products, whether you’ve built your first product or you’re just thinking about it. I’m Mike.
Rob [00.27]: And I’m Rob.
Mike [00:28]: And we’re here to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made. How are you doing this week, Rob?
Rob [00.32]: I’m doing pretty good. We have some really nice five star iTunes reviews that have come about, we have [Fresch Norlin?] from Sweden, and he says that “this is my absolutely favorite podcast for entrepreneurs, great tips and advice on how to build and launch SaaS products.” And another one from Gurdiga from Moldova, I think this is our first rating from Moldova, he says, “get ready to take notes, the episodes are well structured and information heavy.” Thank you guys very much for your five star rating. We’d love it if you would pop into iTunes or Stitcher or Downcast or wherever you are, give us a five star review, you don’t have have to comment but it does help us stay motivated to produce the podcast and helps us rank at the top of the search engine so that we can get more new listeners.
Mike [01:15]: Awesome, so I don’t usually go on any security rants about things that are discovered in the wild or happen but this one I think is important just because I know a lot of people who use this service. Recently, LastPass discovered an attack their network and if you’re using LastPass at all, your email address and your password reset data was likely lost. I would go ahead and enable factor authentications, change your password, change your password reset question, things like that. They didn’t lose any data directly pertaining to the passwords themselves but just judging from how they protect that stuff it’s pretty well protected to begin with so that stuff wasn’t lost but I would definitely go in and make some changes about that just in case.
Rob [01:53]: The only other update from me is things are going well with Drip. I feel like marketing has continued to ramp up. We have a lot of content going live right now, we have case studies, we have all types of stuff. The person I had hired for customer success and growth is really hitting her stride. She’s about a month and a half into the position and it is crazy how much has been taken off my plate. It’s given me a lot more time to look at higher level stuff and work on the business instead of so much in the business. I was doing so much time intensive marketing work and I’ve been able to step back from that. It’s allowed me to dig into a lot of metrics, it’s allowed me to look through funnels, it’s allowed me to start thinking about some higher level things that I realized I wasn’t looking at because I was too busy head down doing tasks. So it feels good to free myself up from that and get some clarity on where we’re headed next.
Mike [02:47]: Cool. The only other update I have is I completely bailed on Monday at work this week. I ended up getting up late and it was probably 10:30-11:00 and I was like, “you know what, I’m going to take a free day. I’m not going to do anything today.” I went out to lunch with my wife and after lunch we decided to go to a movie and that took me through the rest of the day until the kids got home. I literally did nothing and it was everything I thought it could be.
Rob [03:10]: Yeah, that’s nice. It’s so nice to have that flexibility and to feel okay about it and not stress about it. I took the new crew out for ice cream at this brand new homemade ice cream place that kick-started here locally. It was only a forty-five minute or hour outing but it was in the middle of the afternoon and it was super hot here and it felt good to just be there and not be thinking about work. We were talking about Dungeons and Dragons and other random stuff and to have that flexibility in your work schedule whether it’s taking an hour in the afternoon or like you said taking an entire day, I think that’s one of the biggest perks of the entire entrepreneurship. If you start your own company and you don’t have that flexibility, in my opinion you’ve made a wrong turn somewhere.
Mike [03:55]: Yeah, what I found nice that was on Tuesday when I decided to get back into the swing of things, I didn’t feel like I was behind and I was able to just sit down and work and I got all the stuff done that I would have gotten done on Monday anyway. So it wasn’t as though I got behind or anything. It was a good feeling to go through that and realize that the world isn’t going to fall down around me if I take a day off here and there. It made me think about if I want to work four day weeks over the summer of something like that.
Rob [04:25]: Yeah. So we’re answering some listener questions today.
Mike [04:28]: Yeah, and the first one we have is from Sam Mullen and he says, “Hey, I’d love to hear you and Rob talk about accelerators. I know my opinion but I’m not typical.” So what are your thoughts on accelerators?
Rob [04:37]: Well, it’s a pretty broad question because there must be hundreds of accelerators now. If you haven’t heard the term “accelerator” in essence the first one was Y Combinator and it started around 2005 by Paul Graham, and the idea was that before that if you wanted to raise funding you either had to go to Venture Capitalist or Angel Investors and there weren’t a lot of Angel Investors around at that time. There were these things call Incubators, there were just a handful of them but it was similar to a Venture Capitalist that owned an office building and would provide in house services and provide funding and house your company, but it didn’t spread. I think there was too much money and logistics involved in getting those started.
Paul Graham took a middle ground to that and he started something that was later dubbed an accelerator. That is where they would bring in a cohort of small, young startups. I think they started with college aged kids purely and it’s since expanded out of that but the first one was a cohort of seven or eight companies and it later expanded beyond that. Now I think they’re at 60-80 companies at a time through a YC batch. They basically provide the same amount of funding to all of them, somewhere around $120,000, and they take X percent from all of them. It’s about 7% I think. Those numbers depend on how many founders there are and some other stuff but that’s how it works.
Since then a bunch of places like Techstars, 500 Startups and hundreds of others have sprung up around the world. They’re typically in major metro areas, a lot of them are niche down, so there might be one that is an accelerator purely for medical software or purely for content software or content startups. That’s the landscape as I see it and overall it really depends on your goals. The first question is do you want to go the funding route at all? And I think if your answer to that is “no” or you don’t want to grow to be a hundred million dollar company, then you probably don’t want to think about an accelerator unless you can find an accelerator for boot strappers, which I’ve never heard of. Although Mike, you and I have certainly batted that idea around about trying to organize something like that.
If you decide, “yes, I do want a hundred million dollar company. I want to go for an evaluation of raised funding” in my opinion it’s like business schools. If you’re going to do it you’re going to want a big name. There is a huge value of the network and cache of going to Harvard or Princeton or Yale or going through or going through a YC or Techstars or 500 Startups. I think if you wind up at a random accelerator somewhere, I don’t know that I can vouch for the credibility that you’re going to get, the evaluations, I think it gets complicated at that point. You really need to do your research and know who is involved, know why they’re putting up the funding, because accelerators from what I see take quite a bit of share of your company for the amount of money they put in so they can be not as good as going out and trying to raise Angel Funding directly. How about you? What do you think, Mike?
Mike [07:36]: I think I share a lot of the same thoughts as you. At the end of the day it really boils down to whether or not that’s a route you want to go. Do you want to try and create a high growth startup that has a much smaller chance of success and you really have to drive things forward as quickly as possible rather than feeling things out and being a little bit more careful with your money because when they give you the money the expectation is that you’re going to spend it and spend your way through mistakes and you’re going to spend a lot more money on various mistakes in an effort to learn quickly. That’s really the trade off that you’re making is time versus money. They give you the money so you can save the time and learn those mistakes faster but it’s going to cost you a heck of a lot more to make those mistakes.
Let’s say you’re testing out Facebook ads, your not going to be spending one hundred or two hundred dollars, you’re going to be spending thousands of dollars on a daily basis in order to figure out whether or not that’s a viable strategy and you’re going to really take it to the wall. So those are my thoughts on it but at the same time I feel the same way as you about the name behind the accelerator. For example I heard on Justin Jackson’s Build and Launch podcast a couple of weeks ago, he had a quote on there from somebody that basically said YC is the ultimate validation of your idea because just getting accepted into a Y Combinator gives you a lot more attention than it would if you were at a tech hub or accelerator in Milwaukee or something like that people are going to pay a lot more attention to you. What that means is higher evaluations, more attention, more opportunities to network with people, more introductions to people who have more money and basically a higher chance at successfully landing whatever your next round of funding is. But at the end of the day if that’s not the direction you want to go then an accelerator is probably not for you.
Rob [09:24]: Yeah, I think the one other thing that I would add is that in general I like the cohort approach meaning you’re involved with a number of other companies going through the same thing at the same time. I think the camaraderie and momentum it builds is positive especially if it’s your first time going through this because just raising funding and going out and being on your own is hard and it’s hard to know exactly what to do and it’s hard to stay motivated and I think that’s where a cohort or batch approach like the accelerators tend to take would be a good thing.
Mike [09:57]: So Sam, thanks for the question. Our next one comes from Anders Peterson and he says, “Hi, Rob and Mike, I talked to a fellow Microconfer the other day and he said he started every day working for ninety minutes on his business instead of in his business and it got me to thinking how much time I spend working in and on my business. It’s easy enough to see if others are working on or in their businesses but how do I get that clarity for myself? I’m always wondering if I’m working on or in the business. Can you help clarify this for me?”
Rob [10:21]: I have a couple of thoughts on this. I think the way I would define this has changed over time. I think early on in my business, even doing some minimal things like hiring a VA and getting support off my desk, I would have considered that working on the business because I’m not actually answer the support requests myself any longer. As things have gone on and my team is a little larger now, we’re a total of five full-time, I think there are two ways that I can work on my business and I think Anders, you’re probably in a similar situation with this.
The first one is, is there a recurring task that I never have to do again because of what I just did? To me that is working on my business. If I spent that ninety minutes that that fellow MicroConfer was talking about either described a process, documented a process to hand off to someone or wrote some code to automated or I somehow eliminated that from my plate and someone else was accomplishing that, to me that’s working on the business rather than actually doing that step manually again. Hiring a bookkeeper, to me was working on my business because it eliminated a number of hours each month that I was spending doing things.
The other thought that comes to mind is that I like to do quite a bit of high level planning and thinking ahead and trying to map out what’s next. What do the next sixty days look like? What do the next ninety days look like both in terms of features, where we’re headed and in terms of marketing approaches. Are we going to roll out webinars soon? Are we going to run a contest? That type of stuff takes some brain power that isn’t necessarily tactical. It’s not like going to plug in this ad copy and run a headline and put an image in here but it’s making high level decisions in the direction and vision of the business. So when I’m thinking about that I typically have my black notebook and I don’t even have the computer open and I’m mapping things out, sketching and thinking about them. A lot of them I may not implement. I may hand them off to someone to implement but if I can document them well in this notebook, in my opinion that’s working more on the business because it’s higher level thinking. I think that’s debatable.
I think some folks might say, “well, if you’re still having to plan that stuff out or make those decisions you’re still working in your business.” But I really enjoy that part, the high level visioning and then going one step down and mapping out a whole flow of the entire webinar marketing approach or whatever and then handing it off. So those are the two types of tasks that come to mind for me when I think of working on rather than in my business.
Mike [12:56]: Yeah, for me something like that becomes a very meta question especially what you just said about some people who classify building out those plans as working in the business rather than on it. But at some point somebody is going to have to map out what those plans are going to look like and how everything fits together. And it seems to me like when you are doing things like that you are doing the architecture for how your business is going to execute things. To me that’s working on your business, rather than in it. The deciding factor for me is really are you creating a process for doing something or are you executing the process that is doing something for the business? And to me that’s the differentiator between are you working on versus in the business?
Rob [13:39]: I like that. I like that definition.
Mike [13:41]: The other thing I think is that there are certain cases where you’re going to be required to work in the business because there is probably not anybody else who can do it. For example, doing a podcast tour to talk about what your software does or your approach to a particular problem, that is in many cases working in your business because the process of going through and doing those interviews, you could theoretically outsource it but you’re the founder so you’re the one who is expected to be talking about that stuff. It’s not to say that it would be impossible to find someone else to do it but in the boot strap world of the startups that we deal with it’s more expected that you’re going to be doing that. You can see how that’s working in your business but at the same time you almost have to do certain things like that. So there are going to be times where you have to work in the business not just on it. You can lay down all the plans in the world that you want but if nobody is executing them it doesn’t matter. Your business isn’t going to move forward. Our next question is from Ina Coveney and here is the audio for that question.
Ina Coveney [14:37]: Hello guys, I just discovered your podcast and I love it. My name is Ina Coveney that is I-N-A C-O-V-EN-E-Y. My website is Ina, I-N-A, nutshell web dot com and I’m an entrepreneur and I have a couple of ideas and my question is do I roll out those ideas into a holding company or should I be personally signing as a partner on these other ventures that I’m signing up for? So again, I’m partnering up with a couple people for a couple different businesses. Should I be asking as a holding company? Should my company be with a partner or should I personally be? What are the pros and cons? Thank you, guys. I love the show. Keep it up. Bye.
Mike [15:24]: I think the usual disclaimer should apply here. We’re not lawyers. You should definitely check with a lawyer on a lot of this stuff but I think if I were in this situation I would probably not personally sign up in any other business partnerships especially if you already have an LLC that is designed to act as a legal buffer between you and somebody else. There are situations that I’m aware of for LLC’s. For example, I live in Massachusetts and in talking to my attorney about it he basically said that a one person LLC has less protections afforded to it than a two person LLC and it’s actually different if it is completely within your family as well. So for example, if I had a LLC and my wife owned 50% of it, legally speaking it’s treated as one person because it’s the two of us combined into a family unit or something along those lines. That’s the way he explained it to me. This can vary between states as well so again this goes back to why you really need to check with an attorney but I think the underlying question is should you use a business to sign onto different partnerships with different people and I think the answer to that would probably be yes. That’s the purpose of those things is to essentially act as your agent in many respects, to assume some of the legal liability and financial responsibilities and that’s what a business is for. Use the business for what it’s intended for.
Rob [16:46]: Yeah, I think I would echo your sentiments. If you have a LLC, one of the reasons is to shield you from liability so that I would use to start other businesses. The pros of doing that is that you don’t have to expose yourself to personal liability if you sign up for those businesses in your own name or set up five different LLC’s. One for each partnership. That becomes a nightmare during tax time, it’s very expensive to maintain, legal fees are high, unless those things are cranking out money it’s not worth doing. The negatives of doing it this way, having an umbrella holding company that houses four or five partnerships, is that if those partnerships are not corps or LLC’s which I think is what we’re talking about, then one of them if it was sued could potentially leak into the others. They’re not protected, there are no walls between them. There is only a wall between your personal stuff and all of your businesses and partnerships. For most smaller operators where you have a lot of small sub one hundred thousand dollar businesses collected, my guess is that there is not enough liability to worry about it but of course this is something you have to ask yourself. It’s a risk tolerance thing and certainly a conversation you might want to have with your lawyer.
Mike [17:56]: Our next question is from Michael Steep and he says, “Hi Mike and Rob, Mike from Australia here. Let me start off by saying thanks for the podcast. I really enjoy listening to it. I was listening to episode 224 and I liked the nontechnical discussion. While your podcast is targeted at boot strapping developers, I think you might be surprised by how many non-technical people listen to your podcast. I’m one of them and I’ve been listening for years. This is in two parts; the fist question I have is do you know of any resources for non-technical self-funded founders?
Rob [18:21]: Yeah, this is a good question. I think the best resource I’ve heard about is Programming for Marketers at programmingformarketers.com, this is from Justin Mares who co-wrote the “Traction” book with Gabriel Weinberg and I’d love to see a programming for non-technical founders but no one has put it together yet. But I think this is a start to give you an idea of what it’s like to code, how to tap into some API’s and just give you enough of an idea to start thinking about hiring someone who would obviously have to build your product or even partnering up with someone.
I like Mike’s comment about how many non-technical people listen to the podcast. We actually changed the introduction a few years ago. We used to say this is for developers who are trying to launch products and it now says developers, designers and entrepreneurs because we did shift the focus to not only cater to developers and technical folks but non-technical as well so we’re definitely well aware that there are a lot of non-technical audiences listening to the show.
Part two of Mike’s question involves how a non-technical self-funded founder could work with a developer on a lower risk basis. He basically says that he’s a business owner and he’s heard that working with developers on a purely equity basis is not going to work and I think we’ve seen that happen a lot where developers get approached all the time by people who have this great business idea if the developer wants to just spend a few hundred hours of their spare time to build it then the person will go out and try to market it. We know that that’s basically a lose situation for the developer.
So Mike says, “I have an idea for a piece of software for my industry and I’m in a position where I have wire frames but taking the next step in hiring a developer is difficult. I have quotes that range from four thousand to twenty four thousand dollars. So my concern is I have no way of moving forward because I’m just not confident in my ability to hire or manage a developer. I think the solution is to engage a CTO. I think there is some space in your community for people to work as a CTO with people like me. The CTO would work as an adviser instead of a coder to make sure the non-technical person has an idea of what’s needed. This could work on a peer consulting basis or some form of discounted consulting or equity basis. This way the CTO does not end up wasting months of development time before they find out it’s going nowhere. So I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.” This is a good question. We’ve heard this before, not asked in the term of a CTO but folks have asked, can I find a cheaper developer and then hire a high end developer to manage them or vet them or view their code and that kind of stuff. The CTO idea is an interesting one so I’m interested to hear your thoughts first.
Mike [20:54]: I think that there are similar problems with this in terms of hiring a developer versus hiring an advanced developer. How do you know that the person is going to be a good CTO and how do you know that they’re going to be able to manage people? I think you can do some of that based on experience, based on things they’ve done before or success with previous projects, but past history does not necessarily indicate that you’re going to be successful moving forward, especially when it’s going to be a new hire for both you and the CTO because it may not work out between the two of them and it may not work if just the developer being hired is difficult to work with.
There are a lot of variables in there and it seems to me like all you’re doing is moving the problem from one place to another. So I’m not sure how I really feel about this idea. In theory it sounds like it could work and on paper there’s nothing that’s really a red flag other than the fact that how do you get to the point of trust with the CTO such that you’re conveying to them exactly what it is that you need and they understand it and are able to convey that down to the next person. Because you’re introducing this other level of abstraction that theoretically and hopefully as a CTO they’re going to understand all the subtle nuances and be able to translate that to somebody else and understand that, “oh, you’re not technical. You’re saying this word that you don’t necessarily understand the specifics of exactly what that means but I can translate that to a developer who is probably not going to be able to interface very well with you and then talk through it with them. I have mixed feelings on it is really what the bottom line is.
Rob [22:27]: I like the idea of couching it as a CTO. I know that Jason Roberts from the Techzing podcast has done some of this work specifically where he comes in at a high consulting rate and does an hour a week or two hours a month or something like that and helps someone keep their guidance as they’re working with contract developers. I think it can work, I think you’re correct, it’ll be a challenge to find someone who will do this. When I was coding and consulting I probably would not wanted to take on small even high dollar per hour projects like this but there are folks out there that I think you’ll be able to find. I think if you looked on airpair.com, that is a YC company and they have a lot of experts on there. I think if you looked at consultants in your niche in terms of the programming language, if you’re going to build a web app, try to find someone who has written a book or is a prolific blogger and consultant and they have a name and their rate is going to be pretty high but my guess is they’re going to be a decent bet to get started because A. they know how to communicate if they’re a decent writer and two, they’re probably an expert in that language so they are going to have high standards for it. They’re not going to be cheap, like I’ve said, but if this is the way you want to go I certainly wouldn’t be skimping on that CTO role and I think this could be an interesting middle ground. I think it’s not a silver bullet and instantly work, I think there are still going to be a lot of challenges but I do like the idea of trying to do that rather than going at it alone if you’re non-technical and riding in blind and hiring some outsource firm where you don’t know what the quality of the code is going to look like.
Mike [24:03]: Thanks for your question, Michael. Our next one comes from Karen Flavel, and Karen says, “Hey guys, thanks for the show. I really appreciate the actionable advice. I’m considering the benefits of opening up and making public the data about site traffic, bug tracking and user issues and even revenue and wondering if you’ve seen this done well. Most importantly I’m wondering how this might be done internally to build staff commitment and trust.
Rob [24:22]: I’m torn on this one. I think it’s up to you if you open up all of that stuff internally. I’d imagine site traffic, bug tracking and user issues are probably already exposed internally because that doesn’t seem like anything that should be hidden from your team internally, revenue that’s up to you. I think if you communicate revenue and expenses people can see how they’re impacting the bottom line. I don’t see any major issues with that. Other folks may have different experiences but I’ve always had a dashboard of the revenues coming in for SaaS apps and the entire team can view revenue for the entire month, go up and down and see how far ahead of the previous month we are and all that. They see all the trial counts and conversion rates and I think that’s helpful so it’s not just some black box that you’re working on and not seeing how you’re impacting it.
Now, making all of that available to the public, I’ve never loved that approach. I know that there is this big movement toward transparency and we see companies like Baremetrics and Buffer putting all of their numbers online, I don’t believe that the world is headed in that direction. I think that there are people who like to do it. I think some people like to do it genuinely to help other people to give them a context, I think others like to do it to brag and show off how much they’re making and you can tell by how people mention it or how they humble brag it when they do it. At a certain point I think there’s a little bit of a transparency backlash. We’ve seen some conversations about that in blog posts like, “enough with the transparency” enough of saying look how much I’m making, public. So those are my overall thoughts. I think if you’re considering making your bug tracking and user issues, site traffic and revenue–that’s a lot of stuff to expose so if you have competition that’s a really nice way for them to get a good idea of what you’re up to. If you don’t have a lot of competition or that’s not really an issue because you’re a mobile able or some other non-competitive field like that, maybe it’s less of a concern. How about you, what do you think, Mike?
Mike [26:12]: I think that opening up the numbers internally is probably a good idea because it gives the people inside your business a little bit of context about what’s going on. How is the business doing? Where are the places where they can help? Are there struggles in terms of the number of bugs and issues that people are running into? Knowing what the company is making is helpful for keeping expenses down especially if you know that the business is struggling in any way shape or form. People are very loathe to spend company money or even waste time doing things that are not directly helping the business move things forward and in the right direction. I used to work at Wegman’s food markets and at the time they had 25,000 employees or something like that and they were pretty public about what their revenue numbers looked like and what they were spending money on and there was a very concentrated effort across the company to help keep costs down. They would not spend money on things that were wasteful and people just generally didn’t waste time and it showed in terms of the customer experiences as well. All the way through to the people who were in the stores. Those people made a concerted effort to make sure that their customers got a good experience and that they were not wasting things.
So I think there are definite benefits and advantages there, outside of the company the only people that you’re helping are your competitors and the people who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs and want to learn form the things that you’re doing in such a way that it’s going to help them do something similar or in a similar market. They may be competitors, they may not but at the end of the day I don’t see what that really buys you especially if you’re going the funded route. If you’re going the funded route they are not going to be happy about you sharing those numbers. But if you’re boot strapped, I don’t know of any clear advantages of sharing all of that information publicly.
Rob [28:00]: I think there is a case to be made. The first few people who did show their metrics like when Baremetrics and Buffer did it, it got them some press, it got them a short term bump of “hey, look what we’re doing” and I’m sure it drove some trials. I’m not convinced that that is the right approach for most businesses, especially if you’re in a highly competitive market where there is blood in the water and people are coming after you. That’s going to wrap us up for today. If you have a question for us and you’d like to hear us answer it on the air you can call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an exert from “We’re Outta Control” by MoOt, it’s used under creative commons. Subscribe to is in iTunes by searching for Startups and visit startupsfortherestofus.com for a full transcript of each episode. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.