In this episode of Startups For The Rest Of Us, Rob talks with Tracy Osborn about things she would of done differently during the 9 years she ran WeddingLovely.
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Welcome to Startups for the Rest of Us, a 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, and today with Tracy Osborn, we’re going to share our experiences to help you avoid the same mistakes we’ve made.
Welcome to this week’s episode of Startups for the Rest of Us. On the show, we talk about building startups in an organic sustainable fashion and while we are ambitious founders who want to grow our companies, we don’t do it at the expense of our life.
We have many different show formats. Oftentimes, we will talk about tactics and teach things. We answer listener questions. We have some founder hot seats. Today, I’m doing an interview, but it’s more of a conversation with Tracy Osborn, founder of WeddingLovely which she ran from 2010 until late 2018. I believe she actually shut it down technically in early 2019.
Tracy and I now work together at TinySeed. She’s the program manager for the accelerator. We’ve known each other for several years now. She spoke at MicroConf in 2016, and I believe that was the first time we met in person. Obviously, we’ve gotten to know each other much better over the past three or four months as we’ve worked together on TinySeed.
What I like about Tracy’s story is that it really is a story of high highs and low lows, from teaching herself to code to bootstrapping the company in 2010 and then going through two accelerators—although one of them really didn’t put much money in—winding up going through 500 Startups. WeddingLovely was really hitting on all cylinders and then catastrophic stuff happens. It’s fascinating to hear her thought process of some regrets, things she would have done differently, and other things that didn’t turn out, but she made the best decision she could at the time.
I really appreciated Tracy’s honesty and transparency in the interview today. It makes for an interesting story, like several of the guests we’ve had on recently who were able to dig into decisions they made, things they might have done differently, as well as things that they did do right, and the learnings that they took away from running a startup.
As a quick background, WeddingLovely was a blog and a wedding marketplace that matched up wedding vendors with couples who were going to be married—the engaged couples. With that bit of background, we’ll take you right into the story. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoy this interview, I’d really appreciate it if you’d reach out on Twitter. I’m @robwalling and Tracy is @tracymakes. Let’s dive in.
Tracy, thanks so much for joining me on the show this week.
Tracy: Thanks for having me.
Rob: Listeners already have some context about WeddingLovely and how you started it. I want to start by looking at the decision you made to move from bootstrapped to taking $50,000 in funding from 500 Startups. What led to that happening and how did you make that decision?
Tracy: That was a really tough decision because before 500 Startups happened, I was fully in the bootstrapped camp. This is 2011 so TinySeed didn’t exist. All these other alternate funding or different paths, they didn’t exist. It was like, “Are you going to do a full funding route or are you going to go bootstrapping?” That was it. There was no middle ground.
I was fully in the bootstrap camp. I was already following Patrick McKenzie’s (patio11) writings about this at the time. I joined the Designer Fund in San Francisco, which is totally different than how they are now, but at the time, it was a small accelerator-ish thing where we got a really small chunk of money and we just worked together for three months meeting up every week just to work on our projects together.
One of the Designer Fund founders was a mentor at 500 and he decided to set up interviews with 500 just in case for everyone who was in Designer Fund. For me, I was like, “Okay, this is a good practice. This is great for me to go in and practice pitching and whatnot.”
It was a really interesting experience because I met with Dave McClure and Paul Singh, who I don’t think is involved with 500 anymore, but I met with Paul first. Paul was like, “I’ve seen your articles. I’ve seen you talk about WeddingLovely and why you’re building. I think you’re awesome.” He called me a cockroach which I thought was awesome. He’s like, “You’ll never die, you’re persistent, you’re in there. You’re in.” I was like, “Wow, that was easy.”
Then I sat down with Dave McClure and I gave my presentation. He said, “All right, we’ll get back to you soon.” I was like, “Oh, Paul already said I’m in,” and that totally threw Dave McClure off because I didn’t talk about this. I totally threw everything off for Dave McClure and probably what they were planning.
At that time, I wasn’t sure I was going to take it yet, but it was a thing where it’s like, “Okay, cool. I have this opportunity to go through 500.” My husband had just gone through YC. I knew I was really into bootstrapping beforehand, but it was like, “Okay, I have this offer on the table. Let’s see what happens.” That was the thought process about it.
Not everyone gets this offer, this chunk of money. I wasn’t ready. Hindsight being 20/20, that’s where I hesitate right now because I look back at the decision and be like, “I should have thought more about this. I should know more about what goes into a funded company, the growth that’s required when you’re a funded company, when you have investors, what’s involved with raising a full series A,” that kind of stuff. But it was, “Okay, this is going to be a learning experience. I have this opportunity here. I watched my husband go through YC. Let’s do it.”
Rob: Yeah, the hard part that I see with the 500 Startups investment was that they only gave you $50,000, but it came with the expectation of, “Now, you’re on venture track.” It’s not enough money to act like a funded startup in my opinion, but it sounds like you wanted to, or felt the pressure to start acting like a funded startup.
Tracy: Yeah, for sure. There are so many other complicating factors. My time in 500 was I did not utilize it as well as I should have. I’m taking a lot of stuff I’ve learned, actually, from being in 500 to what we’re building at TinySeed. Some of it was, I was a solo founder and complicating factors, I funded another wedding company the same time in my batch. They also required you to get desks at their space and they’ve set us across from each other and we were not friends. I want to be friends with them, but the other people were very aggressive. That’s like a stereotypical startup, that bad stereotype you might think of a start-up founder. That’s how they were.
Rob: Something from HBO show Silicon Valley or something.
Tracy: Exactly. We are not friends. I just felt so awkward being there with a competitor and they actually pivoted more into my space during the batch. I didn’t show up to any of the networking stuff. I didn’t do anything like the evening stuff. I didn’t really connect with the other founders. I just decided to stay in my own little world, heads down, work on things, hired someone at that time, brought her on.
This is a time that I found a co-founder, which we can talk about later, but in terms of 500, I didn’t really involve myself in the program. I didn’t really utilize the mentors that were there. I didn’t use any of the help that 500 gave me and I look back at that time being like, “Wow, I wish I could redo that,” because my social anxiety just came into play there and I didn’t use it as well as I should have.
Rob: Right, because as we’ve heard from so many people in the TinySeed batch, the community and the mentorship is at least as valuable, if not more valuable than the money they invest. It sounds like you feel you squandered that opportunity a bit.
Tracy: Absolutely. That working is so important to one’s career and the connections I could’ve made during that time. Who knows where I could be right now? Maybe the same, but if I use those connections… There are some people in my batch that have gone up on to really big startups, really amazing things. Those are the kind of connections that would have been really awesome if I was trying to find a job somewhere, but I’ve completely lost contact with them. I wasn’t friends with them during the batch. Who knows what would have happened? I look back at that time. If I could have redone the accelerator program, absolutely being involved in using the opportunities that are available, it’s something I didn’t do and I regret that.
Rob: Do you regret the decision to take the funding?
Tracy: I would say no. We can do a whole podcast on how insane the wedding industry is. I talked to a lot of people who are jumping into the wedding industry because they look at it as this industry where a lot of people are spending a lot of money and therefore is going to be really easy for someone to build a startup and just take some of that money. If you’re spending $30,000 on a wedding, of course, they’ll pay $10 for an app. It gets way more complicated than that.
With wedding history, because there’s so much competition, there are so many startups, so many people are trying to compete for people’s attention, and you have a 100% churn after a year because all these people are dropping all of your platforms, it means that advertising is a really big thing. Advertising is really expensive and that chunk of money did help. I could apply it to things to help boost the business as absolutely necessary in the wedding industry if you’re targeting people who are getting married.
That money was used. I also used that to hire someone; that was great. I did learn a lot from being in the program. I look back on it being like, “Okay, that was a really good learning experience and I wish I could redo it, but I don’t wish I did something differently,” I guess is what I would say. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t a perfect experience, but I learned from it. For better or worse, that’s how I got to where I am right now.
Rob: At the end of the program, there’s a demo day and that’s where folks essentially raise their seed round or preseed round these days, I guess. You decided not to raise a round. I believe you had a co-founder by that point. Do you want to talk a little bit about the co-founder and then a decision you made to pause funding right as demo day approached?
Tracy: The roller coaster of WeddingLovely; this is the peak. I was in 500. Again, I wasn’t using the program as much as I could have, but at the time, I was like, “Cool, I’m doing everything right.” There’s this absolutely amazing awesome person, Julia Grace. I believe she’s the Director of Infrastructure at Slack now. She reached out to me asking me if she can become a co-founder. I was like, “This person is amazing. She’s an amazing engineer. She would be a great CTO,” I was like, “Absolutely, come join WeddingLovely.”
Julia joined, I was in 500, and at the time, I was traveling in New York and Kellan Elliott-McCrea was the CTO of Etsy and he invited me to come into Etsy for lunch. I was again, cloud nine. I’m kicking ass, everything’s going awesomely, CTOs of Etsy are inviting me to lunch. I go over to Etsy for lunch and he drops the bomb on me saying, “Hey, let’s talk about acquiring WeddingLovely,” and I was just like, again, cloud nine, “Oh, my God, I’m doing everything right.”
The demo day was right around the corner and Julia and I decided not to really pursue it because we wanted to focus on being acquired by Etsy because I loved Etsy. Etsy would be a great fit for WeddingLovely. What they were doing at the time were switching some focus into wedding so it would have been a really awesome fit for both of us.
I did do demo day through 500 and I got to say, I bombed the first two ones. I’m much better at presenting now, but I look back on my first two pitches at demo day. They gave us two minutes to be on stage. It’s really stressful, there’s an audience of people, and I did not do well for the first two. By the third one that we did in New York, I finally got my stride. But I was like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter because I’m going to get acquired by Etsy.” Long story short, that didn’t fall. That fell through, we can explore that in a second.
Rob: I was going to ask, you didn’t do well because you weren’t preparing, you weren’t focused on it because you were counting on Etsy acquiring you, is that right?
Rob: Do you have a regret around that of just knowing most acquisitions fall through? But it doesn’t feel like that when you’re in conversations with them. It feels like it’s going to happen. Do you feel like your judgment was clouded there or do you feel like you made the right call?
Tracy: Again, hindsight being 20/20, definitely judgment is clouded. I’m just not as good as a public speaker as I am now and I know that I didn’t prepare enough. It’s a silly thing to think about, but I was like, “Oh, just roll up,” and I just gave my little two-minute presentation.
Speaking of, two-minute presentations are the hardest thing in the world. It’s really hard to give a proper presentation in such a small amount of time. It’s really hard to hit all your marks and stress about making sure you remember every single moment in that presentation because you have such a small amount of time. There’s a lot of regrets for that.
Again, that’s also an opportunity. If I kicked it out of the park, even though I didn’t decide to raise money then, but the connections I could have made in that audience, of the VCs who were there, the people I could have met, the people I could have connected with is another thing that I regret not doing. I’m a huge fan of networking and meeting as many people as possible and becoming friends with as many people as possible because those are the things that are going to transform one’s career down the line.
A lot of the things that where I am right now is just because of connections I made beforehand. Like this TinySeed thing is probably because I met you at MicroConf and I spoke at MicroConf. Who knows what’s going to happen down the line? I regret not trying to pay attention during those demo days, making those friends, making those connections, and just being consumed by anxiety, making my presentation, and then running out.
Rob: I’ve done very similar things, especially early on. This is probably 10 years ago, but I would go to conferences. I’m an introvert and I don’t like meeting new people. I get stressed about it, I wouldn’t meet the other speakers, and I was anxious to go talk to people. I know how that feels.
I learned from that pretty quickly because I saw other people having those relationships and I saw what they did both for their sanity and well-being, but also for their businesses and just the opportunities that it affords. Saying yes to things that scare the […] out of you often will lead to things years down the line, as you’re saying, that you never could have predicted but that they changed the game for you.
I literally look back at my history. Not to go off on a tangent here, but I had a very similar experience where I had never met Jeff Atwood of Coding Horror. He and I blogged, we used to email back and forth, and we’d link to each other’s blog post. This was 2005–2007. I never met him in person.
He was running an event and I was super terrified, but I went up and I was just like, “Hey, man. I’m Rob Walling.” He’s like, “Hey, I love your blog,” and we were talking and he’s like, “You go into business of software?” I was like, “No, I’m not really good. It’s not my thing.” He’s like, “You should go. Let me just link you over to Joel Spolsky.” Just that step moving forward, these are the things of overcoming fears and taking risks is really what this is about, even though it’s hard.
Tracy: I have something similar. If we’re going to go even farther back in time, I feel like my career directly leads from my university graduation. I was graduating with an art degree, I was really into web design. All my classmates were into product design or physical mediums. Our keynote speaker at our commencement was a designer from Apple, came in and speak. I was like, “Whoa, a web person,” she’s talking about web and stuff. I talked to her afterwards—this was 2007—and she said, “If you want to get into the web industry, you need to go South by Southwest,” and again, I have so much anxiety. I could tell in our podcasts about how much social anxiety I have.
I did a keynote at DjangoCon US about it and it was the most terrifying thing. I took her advice and I booked myself a hotel room. I went to South by Southwest alone, didn’t know anyone there, and it’s so overwhelming. Most of the parties, I just walked in, panicked, and walked out, but on the flight back, I happened to be sitting near some attendees. Those people became my friends in the Bay Area, that introduced me to more people that I went to conferences with, and that’s a direct line to where I am right now.
Rob: There’s a concept that Jason Roberts on TekZing talks about what’s called your Luck Surface Area, increasing your luck surface area by doing a lot of things. I love the little quote from Thomas Jefferson, “The harder I work, the luckier I get,” but this is different. It’s not necessarily hard work unless you consider just getting over your own fears is hard work, which I guess I probably do, but it’s like taking risks often equates eventually. You take enough of them and it gets you to some “lucky outcomes” but they really aren’t luck.
Tracy: Right. On the anxiety topic, it still rears its head now, but 10 years of actively working on reducing it and making sure that I’m going out there and being open to these opportunities has been hard, but it’s been worth it. I’m glad that I’m a lot better now.
Rob: To resume this story, you were talking to Etsy. You weren’t putting much effort into the fundraising, into preparing for demo day, counting on that Etsy thing working out. They did ultimately make you an offer. What was that like when you received the offer? Was it via email? was it a phone conversation? Talk me through the emotion of that.
Tracy: They stepped back one step. It was funny because I had the final meeting in New York, and again, cloud nine, we’ve got flown into New York, put up in a really fancy hotel. I’d offered a non-fancy hotel and they’re like, “No, we’re going to put you up in a fancy hotel.” We had the whole day’s meetings, met with Chad Dickerson, went out to a fancy dinner afterwards with me and Julia and all the top level team. Again, I’m just like, “I am kicking butt.”
Throughout this time, I’m talking with 500, Dave McClure helped me out, getting me prepped for what happens in an acquisition, how to compose everything, and how to compose myself. I had other advisors in the Bay Area, they’re helping me figure out valuation, didn’t want to give the first number ourselves, but I wanted to have a good range of what a good valuation for my business would be so I don’t make bad decisions. I thought the prep work was great. I did everything right for that.
But it came in a call and it was the financial person. It’s not the CFO. It was actually a financial analyst or someone at Etsy. It was a call, sat down with me and Julia, and they gave us a number. The number was one-fourth of what the lowest valuation all of my advisors said that WeddingLovely was worth, especially considering that Etsy had told me that they were going to keep the website up. So, it wasn’t just going to be an acquire-hire or they were going to use the properties. I was like, “Okay, thank you.” Don’t say anything on the call, hung up. Julie and I are like, “Oh, crap.”
We went back and forth and like, “Okay, it’s a negotiation so we’ll just give another number and see if we can meet somewhere in the middle. We sent them back an email saying, “Thanks, that was not what we’re looking for. Here’s what we actually think the business is worth,” they responded with—completely unexpected; I did not expect this— “Okay, it does not look like a fit. Goodbye,” which is devastating because I expected this whole negotiation process and it was so weird. It’s so weird to me today that’s how it happened and all of my advisers in the Bay Area were like, “What is Etsy doing? This is not how an acquisition process is supposed to go.” We just went through all that effort and it just went away. It wasn’t my counter was outrageous.
So, that was weird and really devastating. Like I said, we didn’t do the full fundraising process when we had the best time for it, which was demo day, we didn’t follow up any of those meetings.
Now, this is two or three months afterwards. Our momentum has stalled. There’s no big 500 Startups demo day anymore. It was like, “Okay, what do we do? Do we launch a new product? At launch of that, do we then raise money?” Then it got really confusing, really weird, very depressing, and very crazy. That was around the time that Julia decided that she wanted to move on to other opportunities. This high that was on before just free-fell. It was horrible. It was the worst part of the business.
Rob: Just a couple months, it just went from the top top to the bottom bottom. Looking back, do you wish you’d taken Etsy’s offer? Have you ever thought about that? Even though it was low, it wouldn’t have made sense at the time. If you had, everyone would have been like, “You’re nuts.” But what if you had? Do you think that would have been a good thing?
Tracy: Oh, I go back and forth on that all the time. I can’t say numbers, it came out to being a hiring bonus essentially. If I’m going to be a proper startup founder, I’m glad I did not take it because that was a ridiculous number. Everyone agreed that was a ridiculous number and I shouldn’t take it. But having that stamp of approval, that, “Oh, I got acquired by Etsy,” on my resume, what doors would that have opened? Because people just look at those titles, that achievement, and then assume you’re so much more awesome than you actually are, which I wish I had that. I wish I had an acquisition on my record.
Working at Etsy probably would have been really great fun. I would have avoided that devastating drop of what happened afterwards with Julia leaving, I had to layoff someone. That’s when I switched the business back to bootstrapping because there was no way I was going to be fundraising at that point. I just gave up on it.
The way that WeddingLovely was built, I could just put it on autopilot. It’s at that point I was just like, “Okay, business, go do your thing and I’m just going to go over here in a corner, curl up, and be really sad.”
Rob: You’re at the highest point and within a couple of months, you have lost this acquisition offer that you really thought was going to come through. Etsy essentially walked away from the table which is surprising. In different acquisition talks that I’ve had, companies have walked away from the table, but they’ll come back a couple of weeks later. Did you expect them to do that or when they said they were gone, you were like, “This thing’s done”?
Tracy: It was a while ago. I’m trying to member exactly what happened, but I know that the feeling was this thing is done. We had an advocate at the company and we reached out to the advocate. He was like, “This is weird. I’ll get back to you.”
What happened in the end is it sounds like there was some weird miscommunication. Something happened on Etsy’s side that I am not privy to, but something happened on Etsy side where they’re like, “Wait, this is a bad decision. We’re not going to do it,” and it wasn’t how you do with WeddingLovely. Something with financials or something, but it’s just like, “No, we can’t do this right now.”
Rob: Wow. That falls apart and then Julia leaves shortly thereafter. What is that like? When Julia calls, or emails, or however that happened, how does that make you feel? Obviously, there’s got to be some despair and stress, but were you at that point thinking like, “This isn’t going to work, I should just shut this down, everything’s falling apart”?
Tracy: The day Julia sent me an email and saying, “I’m going to come to your house to work.” We didn’t have an office. We had an office for a little bit in Mountain View, but at the time, we shut it down also because everything was free-falling and she asked to come over to my house.
We sat down at my house and she was like, “Okay, I’m just going to open up with this.” I figured the exact words she said, but essentially it was like, “This has been a really interesting experience, but I’m going to move on to something else.” I was […] back, I did not expect that, and I think, “Okay, maybe you should go home now. I need time to process this. Thanks for driving all the way down to my house.” She left and I walked around the neighborhood with my dog just dying, just like, “Oh, my God, what just happened? I can’t believe this happened.”
I was really bad at Julia for a long time and I’m not mad at her now. But at the time, it felt very personal. It was very much she didn’t believe in me. A lot of it, a lot of the business, a lot of WeddingLovely, a lot of it’s my personal mistakes I’ve made as being the founder, the person who started as “CEO,” and that was never my title, which is weird. There’s a lot of mistakes I made, but I took it so personally and I did not like her, I was so mad at her for so long, but we’re friends now.
It was hard not to take it personally. It’s hard not to take the company failing personally. That’s a lot of the reason why I didn’t shut it down because I was clinging to this idea that I’m not a failure. If I shut down the business right now, then it’s me admitting that I’m a failure, that everything fell apart, and it’s all my fault. By keeping the business up, it was just like, “No, I’ll keep growing. I’ll keep building the business.” It’s still going on and it’s still making me money. I’m glad I built it in a way that I don’t have to continually spend marketing money on it because it was a marketplace. The marketplace part was pretty active at that point, so I had these businesses working with me. It was just me just trying to prove to the world that I can still make WeddingLovely a success.
Rob: I guess the question that comes to mind is, Julia was with you for eight months and she was a co-founder who came on two years after you started the company, It’s all hindsight again because you thought it would work out, but do you regret that decision of bringing a co-founder on? Not Julia. I mean, you’re friends with Julia, she’s a rock star so not for her in particular, but do you think this would have been better, easier, different if you had just not evaluated the idea of taking a co-founder on?
Tracy: Hindsight being 20/20, I wish that I was like, “Okay, I’m going to stay the founder, but you can be the CTO,” because that would have switched something in my brain. A lot of my being so offended about her quitting was like, “But you’re a founder. This is supposed to be your baby,” but no.
Because she started so late, it’s not her baby. It’s my baby. I built the first version of all the websites. I built everything from scratch myself. Of course, it’s my baby and she came in and she updated some things, she built some things herself, but she didn’t have that personal feeling like I did.
It was a disservice to everyone to call her a co-founder when it’s CTO or some of these other titles would have been a better fit. Then when she left, mentally, just like a weird logic thing, it would have felt a little better, I don’t know. That’s how I feel about it. You can’t bring a co-founder a couple years in. They’re no longer a “founder.”
Rob: I agree with that. The title is the issue here and I don’t think bringing Julia on was a mistake at all, especially at the time, it was a good move and even in retrospect, you made the best decision you could at the time. But it rings true to me that that title maybe wasn’t right because a co-founder wouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t say wouldn’t have, but there would have been more conversation and more consideration, because you’re right, having only been there eight months, she was less tied to it than you.
Tracy: Yeah. We didn’t have a lot of good conversations back and forth. I didn’t actually treat her like a co-founder and that’s my fault. I was running all the administration of the business. I was running all the vision for the business like where we’re going, what we’re doing, whatnot. I wasn’t really involving her in those conversations, which is absolutely a huge mistake because I wasn’t allowing her also to make it her baby as well.
When she left, I remember being gobsmacked. I had no idea she was unhappy, or that she wanted to leave, or if she was looking for other things. I had wished that she had told me that she was out there looking for another job because she told me she had another job lined up.
Years later, I looked back in that being like, I wasn’t involving her either and we should have had that personal connection if we’re going to be founders together of talking to each other, talking about things are going right or what’s wrong, involving her in how the business is going, and letting her be part of that planning. In those processes, I probably would’ve found out from her earlier on that she was unhappy, but I didn’t know that and that was a big failure on my part as being a founder of WeddingLovely.
Rob: You mentioned earlier that after Julia left, you went back to bootstrapping. Was that the point where you put it on autopilot? I have a blog post from you in 2016 where you talked about putting it on autopilot, but what was the timeline like there?
Tracy: This is where things get a little bit wavy. It was 2016 to now. There are points where I was like, “Okay, WeddingLovely’s running itself. I’m just going to spend a little bit of time on it.” I started working on my book business around then. It wasn’t really a business, it was like on my side, I’m going to start writing a book because I need something to bring me joy in my life and right now, WeddingLovely is not it.
Rob: This was 2016 or this was 2012?
Tracy: It’s been so long that some of these dates get mixed up, but after Julia left, I just started ignoring the business for a little bit, not really working on it. I don’t remember what I was doing, I spent a lot of time just in a depressed state.
Rob: How did that manifest itself with you? Were you just sitting at your computer, responding to email, and not actually working, but feeling like you were trying to work? Or were you just avoiding work altogether?
Tracy: I did the bare minimum to feel like, “Oh, I’m still running WeddingLovely.” I was still responding to support emails. I was still running the blog. That was a big part of WeddingLovely is that there was a weddings blog. A lot of WeddingLovely’s income came through that because we had affiliate revenue. I was so dedicated to at least doing a daily post everyday because one of my things I did well with WeddingLovely was by having this big group of businesses that WeddingLovely is representing and I tied them into our blogs. We got free content from them by sharing what the businesses were doing. It would be like photo post from our photographers, real wedding posts from our planners, or looking at invitation designs from our designers.
This allowed me to work with the companies that were on WeddingLovely and give them something of value and also encourage them to move to paid accounts by running this weddings blog. That was probably the largest piece of involvement I had was I continued to run this blog, grabbing the content from these people. I had a contractor I was working with so I didn’t actually have to move things to WordPress. I just took what the email said to her, she put onto WordPress for me, and then I came back in and set up on social media, set up the scheduled posts and stuff.
I ran all of that and it was like, “Oh, I’m still running a business.” I still told myself I was running a business, but I wasn’t looking at the numbers. I wasn’t looking at how many businesses were joining over time, was that number going up or down? What was my traffic like? It was complicated because I had 11 different properties I was running so looking at traffic for all 11 properties was terrible. That’s why I never looked at my analytics and I didn’t pay attention to any of the data that’s going on. I just ran the blog and accepted the money that came in that went straight to my bank account.
Rob: Ran it almost as a side business or like a true lifestyle business, that definition of it, it literally just is a salary and you weren’t more ambitious with it, it sounds like. At that point, you have a blog post from 2016 and I’ll quote yourself back to you, but you say, “The planning and marketplace sides of WeddingLovely would probably grow faster with dedicated marketing and sales work, but will grow naturally, slowly, but surely on their own. 2016 is already shaping up to be the biggest year yet even though I haven’t had much time to work on WeddingLovely. I’m not going to shut WeddingLovely down even though I’m looking for a full-time job since it does largely run and grow by itself. Ideally, I’ll be able to keep feature growth as well by eventually hiring a remote developer, that’s my baby WeddingLovely.” How does it feel to hear that?
Tracy: Oh, my God. I haven’t read those in a long time. I really should reread them because I have almost no memory of that. It’s so funny. Who is that person? WeddingLovely had this little peak. The marketplace was growing, like I said. It was growing and that was great because I didn’t have to worry about it.
Then the affiliate sales on the other side was growing pretty steadily. It’s one of those things I knew that would go away, but Google’s magic SEO turned in our favor and one of our blog posts got to the top of the results for a very big listing, and therefore there’s tons of money was coming in through affiliate revenue. At that time, I was like, “Oh, wow, I’m doing this lifestyle business right. Our income has doubled overnight. I can use this income.”
Around this time is when I decided to hire someone full-time to run everything for me, like a marketing person, but she also helped do emails. Ideally, it was supposed to be like she was going to help do vision and run the company and that ended up not happening which is fine. But I hired someone in Florida. I had a contractor, the same person doing WordPress, but she grew into more social media stuff in Washington, I also hired a full-time virtual assistant in the Philippines and she did all the nitty-gritty stuff. I was able to train her to help out with the social media stuff and do all the support emails and release me from doing a lot of those day-to-day things. So then I was only doing salary, taxes, bookkeeping, that kind of stuff.
That was like going back into, “Hey, I’m doing this right.” I’m doing it like a different way than when I was doing the whole Etsy stuff, but I was like, “Cool, I’m doing this lifestyle business the right way. I have people employed, the business is growing, I can start paying myself again at some point.” At that time I started paying myself, a $1000 a month was just peanuts, but it was cool to be able to employ all these people and pay myself.
Rob: Was that the right call?
Tracy: It was fun. I don’t know if it’s the right call. It’s so hard looking back on that, because…
Rob: You don’t know what’s going to happen, right?
Tracy: Yeah, but in terms of what I’ve learned in that time of having employees and running a remote business, I brought me so much joy, honestly, to have these employees and be able to, especially, Jenny, my marketing person, I reveled in being a good boss. I did everything correctly. She was engaged, she was working on things, I was hands-off, I directed her, I was able to pay for online classes to help improve what she was working on, and hopefully, now I hope she takes it to her current jobs. It was really fun.
I loved being like, “Okay, cool, I’m working on this book business that’s bringing enough money to run myself,” so I’m happy taking majority of the income of WeddingLovely and putting it towards these other people and giving them an okay lifestyle. They seem to be pretty happy. It was fun.
Rob: What happened between then and 2018? Because in October 2018, you wound up shutting it down.
Tracy: This whole time, for the last five or so years, it could be like, “I’d like to sell this business someday.” I’m just waiting for the right moment and that ended up not ever panning out and 2018 is when that Google magicalness just reversed itself. I knew that was going to happen. Google giveth, Google taketh away. One day you’re the number one on search results and then one day you’re not. I rescued this post a few times already by switching things around and returning the SEO juice back to where it was and this time, I wasn’t able to do it.
I knew that to fix the post or fix the affiliate income that was coming in, I would have to spend a lot of time on it, write a new post, or do something because instead of our income increasing by half overnight, it drops by two-thirds overnight and I was like the big panic moment. It was that moment where I was like, “Finally, I have to make a decision about this, because now it’s just not easy money anymore.”
Rob: It forced your hand. Was the majority of the income of the business coming from this one post?
Tracy: I leaned into it and that might be a regret. Because it started happening and I was like, “This is going really well. I’m going to start more posts. I’m going to do more things for affiliate revenue,” and that helped buffer everything and maybe worried less about the income that was coming on the business side, worried less about income that’s coming from other sources. When it dropped, I was not bad, I was just like, “Oh, look, it happened.” I was expecting this to happen someday.
If I wanted to continue working on WeddingLovely, at that point I could be like, “Okay, cool. Let’s switch our focus really quickly back over the business side,” because our metrics on the business was not great. The people we had almost 9000 businesses and maybe 100 paying customers—this is embarrassing to say—but I wasn’t really worried about it because I had those income coming from those sources and I wasn’t really looking for 10% month-over-month growth, I was just looking for just enough to keep things running and so when it drops, it’s like, “Okay, I can go back and spend time and work on the other side of this business or I can finally face the music and be like this is the time that it needs to go away.”
Rob: This is something that I hear people talk about and I don’t think that they totally understand how hard it is to “autopilot” a website, or a software company, or a start-up. I’ve heard people talk about a SaaS app should just be built to be profitable just like a dry cleaner or a car wash. The thing is, is (a) most dry cleaners and car washes don’t last 10, 20, 30 years, they do go out of business, and (b) it’s way more volatile with these types of businesses because as you said, Google can change overnight, another competitor can spring up.
Just the online marketing stuff changes so fast that truly having a business that is profitable and lasts for 10 years online without quite a bit of concerted effort every 12–18 months to just fight the fires, I’ve done it. I’ve owned at least 15 different software products and another probably 10–15 different websites that made money from every conceivable thing, from ecommerce to content, to Adwords, to selling software one time, to selling multiple software or subscription software, to info products. I’ve done them all and in the end, putting something on autopilot is so, so hard to actually last anything more than one, two, or three years.
That is why the multiples on a lot of these companies are so low. You’ll see a content site sell for two years of its net profit, it’s like, “That’s preposterous, that’s just crazy, that’s such a deal,” but then you get into it and you realize, “Oh, Google smacks it around every six months,” and you experience that in full force. It sounds like if you had been focused on WeddingLovely, you probably would have diversified the revenue streams, you would have had used the SEO because getting money from SEO is great from affiliate stuff. It’s a great way to do it, but to rely on it as a core focus and to build most of the company on it, it obviously isn’t going to last forever.
Tracy: Yeah, and ike I said, I was not mad when I went away. I knew that day was going to happen. It happened earlier than I thought it would. It’s funny listening to this time because I just like, “Ah, that was a lot of effort.” It was never like you said, it never was completely hands-off. My brain power, even when I hire people, I was playing so much brain power on it. After I shut it down, it was this whole process of laying off people I hired and shutting it down. After I shut down, any hackers article that I wrote at the peak which was great at the time, but now it’s like, “Oh, no,” because it’s talking about how amazing things are, like that blog post, it talked about how amazing things are and people are like, “Why don’t you just keep running it? Why don’t you just keep it off the background? Why don’t you put it back to its autopilot?”
I get this email pretty often and it’s because the brain power required just to even have something there and knowing it’s there, getting even a few emails every day or every week about it, having the deal when something changes in your server and you have to upgrade the server because everything broke or something like that, it takes a lot of time. It’s really hard to focus on doing something else appropriately when you’re split focus like that.
Rob: Yeah, focus. It’s such a huge thing and it’s undervalued in our space. In a blog post that you published in, I believe it was October 2018, about shutting it down, you look back and you talk about your decision to put it on autopilot and you said, “My passion has largely moved elsewhere to Hello Web Books, it’s been my focus for the last couple of years, but WeddingLovely largely ran itself and is making a good amount of revenue through affiliate and subscription accounts so I hired a team to keep it running a few years ago and stayed on as an advisor. It was the lazy way out. The business wasn’t evolving significantly, no new features were being launched, but the businesses and engaged couples that used our services seemed happy. I was able to employ a few folks who seemed happy as well so why not continue with it?”
It sounds like you still feel that putting it on autopilot probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was working for people. People were using it, you were employing people, and it was just the decision you made at the time.
Tracy: Yeah. The theme of this episode is always hindsight is 20/20, now that I’m working at TinySeed or just having a job. At the time, I was so hesitant to shut things down because I knew that I’d have to go in the process of actually finding something else. The book stuff wasn’t supporting me full-time and I had this decision whether I wanted to launch a new book, turn my book thing into a publishing platform, go all in on this other project that I was working on, or find an actual job. I was so scared of finding a job after working largely for myself for the last 10 years. The only other two places I’ve been employed were terrible, terrible experiences. I was dedicated working for myself because I thought that I could not have a boss.
Now that I have a job that I really enjoy, it could’ve been four years ago when I just run this business and I had employed people and it wasn’t really something I was interested in, but I was working on these other things. What if I made a decision four years ago to shut it down? Where would I be now? I don’t know what the answer is. I’m really happy again with the path that I had taken, but it is interesting to look back on that with the knowledge I have now and looking at my previous decisions and being like, “Oh, interesting.” It’s funny having those blog posts because I could see my thought process back then for better or for worse.
Rob: That’s the hard part. You said you had two jobs, you didn’t like them and therefore in your head jobs are bad. You’ll hear the same thing. You’ll hear people talk about venture capital, “Oh, I read two TechCrunch articles of a founder getting screwed by his VC, therefore venture capital is bad.” Or you’ll hear “Oh, a business built their revenue on organic search SEO and then Google smacked them around and now they went out of business.” It’s a common story. “I’ve had entire products just go under because of Google. Therefore, I’m never going to do organic search.” But no, these conclusions are too broad and they can shift, they frame your mindset in a way that you don’t even realize.
Often times, if you found the right job, then it would be good. If you find the right money under the right terms, it would be good. If you use Google for the right purposes, which is to get you enough money so that you can hire people to have other revenue streams so you’re diversified, then it’s a good thing. But it’s thinking about it in that way.
We’re all guilty of this and it’s not something that’s easy to do, but I think about some roles that I’ve hired for where I remember thinking there’s no way I can find someone to do this. We just can’t hire for this role, so I’m going to have to do it. Even program manager of TinySeed, it’s like, “This is my accelerator. Einar and I started this. Who can possibly run it in a way that it will work?”
I remember I kept telling myself, “But if we find the right person, then it’ll work.” That was what I had to tell myself to take that risk and of course, we found you and you’re the right person. It makes sense and I’m so glad that you have taken over so much of the role that I would be just bogged down with day-to-day and not able to do the other things that I need to do.
Tracy: Yeah. It’s funny about momentum, or maybe not momentum, but it’s just feeling I come on a certain path and it’s so hard to change that path. It’s so hard to consider the other paths that are available when you’re currently in a rut. I was in that rut for a really long time and it’s really hard for me to see over the edges of that rut to see what else was out there or to conceive of the work that would be required to jump out of the path I was on.
I just kept pushing it year over year over year and telling myself, “Okay, it’s great that I’m only making $30,000 or $40,000 a year because of this place that I’m working for myself. I got to travel a lot. I’ve got to work abroad for a long time. I got to do a lot of really great things. It allowed me to launch this book thing which also led to a whole other interesting set of experiences and learnings. But a lot of it is just I got into this rut and it was so hard to move myself out of it.
Now that I’m out of it, it’s interesting to look back on this experience. I’m glad I had that experience. I learned so much from it, I’ve done so much with it, but I wish that I shut down sooner. I wish I looked at the metrics. I wish I looked at how things were going. I wish that I considered that there are other things out there that could fulfill me the same way it would. I know that I’ll take those learnings to whatever I’m doing in the future. It’s all a really great learning experience. I learned so much from it. I wish I did some things differently, but I’m glad that I did it.
Rob: Final question as we wrap up. WeddingLovely could have worked. As an idea, it provided value and it could have provided you with a full-time income and employed people. Why didn’t it work?
Tracy: Wedding industry. I could talk for ages about this; I’ll try to keep it short. I actually don’t like the wedding industry myself, which is funny running a startup on the wedding industry, but I jumped into the wedding industry because I wanted to switch how it was done. I didn’t really like this focus on consumerism in the weddings and I wanted to have a place where instead of worrying about building this event where you have a to-do list of 500 to-dos long, what if you had a website that was more like a friend helping through the process, telling you the big things you have done like getting a photographer, why should you get a photographer, and what’s going on. I thought that was a good idea. I want to lead into this even better ideas.
In the wedding industry, I wish there was a place with an all-in-one booking platform like Airbnb. How great would it be if you’re getting married and you had this one platform to find people, read reviews, talk with them, do some messaging, and then do the payments and have everything under one area rather than juggling all these different vendors? That’s one of the reasons why weddings are really crazy. There’s such an opportunity here for that, but because it’s such an insanely high churn business where if you’re going to work with people who are getting married and these people are going to leave the platform in a year, you have to find a whole new set of customers that kills anyone jumping into this industry.
I did the best I could by working on the business side of things, but combining the fact that the wedding industry is really hard, it’s really hard to have repeat customers, it’s really hard to build a sustainable business on it, and then the fact that I am not interested in going to wedding fairs. I eloped in Vegas. I was not even going to touch a full wedding myself. It’s not something I’m really passionate about. I’m passionate about changing it and I always able to use that passion in that way. But a lot of that also went into why it was not good for me to run WeddingLovely as long as I did and also why WeddingLovely itself didn’t work.
Rob: Tough business, tough industry, and a little lack of product founder fit, it sounds like.
Tracy: Exactly. Again, fun process. I taught myself how to program. By building WeddingLovely, my design skills improved. I learned how to do all is crazy back-end stuff, build this crazy marketplace. I learned marketing and sales to an extent. It was a huge learning process and it was fun working in the industry. I made many amazing connections.
Would I ever do a wedding startup again? No. I liked advising wedding startups and telling them all the terrible stories I have. I won’t ever tell someone to change, but I try to tell all the problems that happens in the wedding industry when you’re building an app and why it’s not as easy as you might think. A lot of people I find think it’s easy, but I tried to be the person who is very clear about the problems I’ve had so other people can learn from it.
Rob: Thanks so much for coming on the show, Tracy. If folks want to keep up with you online, where would they do that?
Tracy: Personal website is tracyosborn.com. I’m also on Twitter as @tracymakes, Instagram, and other social media.
Rob: Sounds great. Thanks again.
Tracy: Thank you.
Rob: I want to thank Tracy again for coming on the show. I like her story because it’s not very often that someone runs a startup for nine years, puts it on autopilot, hires a team to run it, and just has these ups and downs. The experience she did and her willingness to relive that with me today is much appreciated.
That wraps us up for today. If you have a question for us, call our voicemail number at 888-801-9690 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our theme music is an excerpt from We’re Outta Control by MoOt. It’s used under Creative Commons. Subscribe to us on 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.