Startup Juicer. Questions answered by the people making good things happen in startup land

 

Short interviews from 2012 – 2013 with people building interesting tech products.

Shib Mathew, Founder & CEO of YunoJuno

Shib Mathew, Founder & CEO of YunoJuno YJLogo_circle

Staff: 6
Founded: 2012
Location: London
Website: yunojuno.com

Why did you decide to build YunoJuno and why is it different?

We started YunoJuno because we experienced a particular kind of pain when trying to find and hire the best freelancers for our creative and tech projects. In our eyes, the system favoured the wrong people. The people winning weren’t the people with the talent or the people with the great projects. But rather the system favoured the guys in the middle – recruitment agents – brokering deals based on what was best for them.

So we wanted to build a community and a tool that 1) allowed great freelancers to connect with great projects 2) made everyone’s lives easier, and 3) served a fully transparent service that allowed for people to simply get on with creating great work.

What’s been the toughest challenge so far and how did you get over it?

Our toughest challenge changes month on month. When we first started it revolved around how building a real community from scratch and build a truly worthwhile product for the industry. But we managed to answer that by dedicating a considerable amount of time in simply asking freelancers and employers what they would want in a system like ours. This then became our product roadmap and our YJ family is a truly engaged community pushing our product forward.

Our next challenge centred around completing the search-to-booking process through the system. Was our system going to work? Where people actually going to use it? Thankfully for us, the response was immediate. The day after we came out of public beta, we had our first live search and signed contract. And this has continued with a steady stream of bookings as well as new registrations from freelancers and employers on a daily basis. Momentum is starting to build.

How did you decide on the business model and has it changed?

Our business model has not changed since our very first meeting at a pub in Camden. There is no cost for our freelancer community and we charge employers a flat 5% commission on a booking. The 5% is part of our core values because we believe the industry is crying out for a fairer pricing structure to what exists today.

We’re also responding to the current angst in the industry around the lack of transparency. We don’t hide any additional charges in a magical ‘all-inclusive’ rate nor do we get in the middle of any rate negotiations between freelancer and employer.

Why have attempts to disrupt the recruiter model failed and why will Yuno succeed?

I’m not sure if I’m the best person to say why another model has failed but if they have, I would imagine it’s because they’re simply recreating the same recruiter model under a different guise.

For us, we’re hopefully creating something much larger – a community that works together in connecting projects to the most suitable talent. Any tool we build must facilitate that aim for us otherwise it’s simply a vanity project – and the world doesn’t need another one of those.

We’re not from the recruitment world, which we think is an advantage. This allows us to be a little non-conformist which suits us nicely. At it’s very basic, we’re just three guys who had a problem and thought it was time that someone fixed it.

Your communication is unconventional and hilarious. How’s that working for you?

Yes it may be different but more importantly – it’s us being ourselves. The three of us are a pretty easy-going bunch. I’m an Aussie so it’s dispensed at birth like Pez . Chris and Hugo are jaded enough fellas as well so a Monty-Python-esque approach to life simply becomes a vocational asset.

We’re serious about making a difference but if we weren’t true to ourselves YunoJuno and its community wouldn’t get the most out of us.

Getting noticed is one of the toughest things for startups. Can you tell me about your marketing techniques that have/ haven’t worked for you?

Well this is an area we don’t claim to be experts at so any techniques that we employ probably shouldn’t be used as a template just yet as the jury is still out on whether we’re doing things right.

But we believe in honest and frank conversations so we try and communicate that in any publicity we get.

Coming from the creative and advertising industry, I think we had a head start on how we wanted to come across to the world. The years spent in pitch and development teams held us in good stead when presenting what we are trying to build at YunoJuno.

Going for an idea takes commitment, what has it taken to get to here?

Well I think commitment is the key word but within it lies a lot of different aspects that we’ve each had to come to terms with in getting to where we have.

At the beginning stages of any idea, you’re simply dreaming on what it could become – which is good and necessary. But from there you need to progress. You get to put a stake in the ground and commit to doing something – even if it were the wrong thing or not what you originally thought your baby would look like. We definitely had those moments – whether that was producing an early stage registration site without any real promise of what YunoJuno would be, through to publishing a warts-and-all public beta. The learning is definitely in the doing.

Commitment also came in the form of putting our time (which also meant our money and security) where our mouths were. So towards the back end of 2012 we took that leap and resigned our jobs to work on YunoJuno full time. Obviously we saw a dramatic increase in our productivity but more importantly, we were able to make decisions quicker. This was a huge turning point in the business.

How did you find the team and what business mentors/council did you seek?

The phrase I commonly use is that I had a vision that Chris made commercially viable and Hugo made into a living, breathing product. Reason being is that my experience of the problem was only from one particular perspective. Chris and Hugo were also incredibly frustrated but from different vantage points. That joint frustration, along with each of us bringing different skills to the table, allowed us to have a fair crack at trying to solve the problem in a new way.

Having worked together for years in the same company as well continuing to collaborate on projects when we went to different organisations, we developed a level of trust and familiarity to the way each of us work that helps focus on what’s important.

We are also extremely lucky to have some very experienced and wise counsel as part of the wider YJ team. Jon Claydon (Work Club, Agency Republic, Claydon Heeley Jones Mason) is our Chairman and real life Gandalf The White. Brett Akker (Streetcar.com/Zipcar.com), Neal Fullman (GetTaxi.com) and Matt Miesnieks (Dekko.co) have all been incredibly generous with their time and insightful with their advice in pushing the business and product forward.

How are you funding Yuno?

We funded YunoJuno ourselves along with one Angel investor.

What metrics are you tracking and why are these the ones that matter?

One of the great things about having a FD on the startup team (Chris) is that he tracks and crunches numbers in his sleep. We knew early on that we couldn’t simply guess why some connections have a higher success rate than others or which skillset were the most popular search during the Summer solstice.

So we’ve built mechanisms to help us analyse where we are winning and where we can improve – whether that’s briefs vs connections, or the conversion rate of a freelancer saying they are ‘interested’ in a project to a signed contract. Now that we are starting to generate solid traffic on the site, we have some real data to help us focus on the areas we need to.

Which bloggers, writers do you find influential?

It’s very easy to be insular when running a startup. It’s easy to continually have your head down and not come up for air. Problem with that is that you miss out on a great deal of where the world, and even your particular industry, is going. The end result being that your product or idea suffers.

Marc Andreesson – He writes about a topic and then the rest of the world reblogs it. There’s a reason for this.
Dave McClure – Plain speaking intelligence. I’ve learnt more about focusing on what matters when presenting your idea from Dave (via the tinternet) than anyone else.
Venture Hacks – just plain helpful.
Read Write Web – old faithful.
Jason Santa Maria – smart guy who gets designing for the web.
Creative Review Blog – great collection of what’s happening in the creative scene today.
The Contemporist
MoCoLo

The last two are because I have a degree in architecture and nothing inspires me more than reading about people that engage with design in a physical way.

 

What book would you recommend reading?

For work:
Rework by Jason Fried, David Heinemeier Hansson
(37signals). Simply brilliant.

For play:
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Favourite book of all time.

More stuff

YunoJuno’s blog

Yunojuno on twitter

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Sacha Greif, Founder of Folyo

sg-headshot

Staff: 2
Founded: 2012
Location: Osaka, Paris
Website: folyo.me

Where did Folyo come from and why is it different?

As is often the case with new projects, Folyo came from my own needs and experience. I was having to turn down a lot of client work at the time, and I was lacking a place where I could simply point people when they asked me to recommend another designer. It seemed to me that the bottom of the market was well-catered to with sites like 99designs and Elance, but it was hard to find a high-end freelance designer unless you were a designer yourself and used to browsing Dribbble and Behance.

How are you testing the proposition and iterating?

The honest answer would be that I’m not, which is a problem. I have a lot of projects, and I have neglected Folyo a bit in the past few months. Part of the reason is also that I’m not entirely happy with the way Folyo currently works, so I was wary of iterating on a concept that doesn’t feel right (i.e. climbing the wrong hill).

But I recently started collaborating with a developer friend and he suggested a couple improvements to the business model that makes a lot more sense. So hopefully once we take the site in that new direction we’ll be able to do more iteration and customer development.

How did you arrive at your pricing model?

$100 seemed like a good price point to start off compare to what competitors (Dribbble, Authentic Jobs) were charing for job listings. My intention was to test the waters with that price and hopefully raise it once demand picked up, but since that didn’t really happen I ended up keeping the same price. I could probably have experimented with the price more, but I felt it would’ve been pointless without first fixing the underlying problems with the overall model.

The current model requires the prospective customer to do an unfamiliar and complex task (writing up a job description) right away, long before they have a chance to become more engaged. The model is also based around single payments, which means a customer will at best be worth $100 to me over their lifetime, which compared to most SaaS apps is pretty bad.

It also requires me to spend a lot of time editing job offers and emailing back and forth with potential customers. While I don’t mind educating people through blog posts and guides, doing over and over through email quickly gets tiring.

For all these reasons, I’m thinking about evolving towards a slightly different model where I let companies browse designer profiles without having to post a job offer first. While that feature is currently available for free, I would drastically revamp the profile search to make it worth paying for. So basically, I am planning to pivot towards a less innovative model, but better executed.

You’re written a great book on UI design. Now you’ve launched Folyo what business design problems are you finding most challenging and what are you finding helps?

The part I struggle most with is probably customer development. I know all the theory about validating your ideas first, coming up with MVPs, etc. but in practice it still doesn’t feel quite right. Same with analytics stuff, conversion rates, etc. I’m terrible at all this, more out of laziness than anything else really.

You’re big on side projects, why do you think they matter and how they helped you?

A lot of people have hobbies and passions, but online projects give you a way to actually share that passion with the rest of the world. And if you mostly work by yourself like I do, side projects can help you make new contacts and build a following. Since I can’t go to the office water cooler, side projects are a way (among others) to bring the water cooler to me.

What tactics do you find work well growing awareness of a project?

If we’re talking side projects (e.g. something like Patternify), I don’t think you should need to do anything special to grow awareness outside of posting to Hacker News and Reddit, and contacting a few relevant blogs. After all you’re giving away something for free, so if you can’t get people interested you probably need to go back to the drawing board.

Of course it’s different for more serious projects. For something like Folyo, I’ve relied on blogging a lot, but there are a lot of other approaches.

For example with Sidebar, I’m focusing on making the product itself more viral, by including sharing links in the newsletter and working on an upcoming referral program.

You’re from France and have lived in China, now in Osaka. How does the approach and outlook differ from place to place in terms of product development? Are there any stand out products that we don’t see in the west that are a consequence of a different culture?

Each place has a different approach, but I’ll come right out and say it: when it comes to product design, the U.S. is miles ahead. I suspect this is due to the huge amounts of cash floating around in Silicon Valley. Eventually some of that cash trickles down to designers, and gives them the opportunity to improve their skills.

Of course a place like Japan has countless design innovations you won’t see elsewhere, like sensor-equipped toilets and speaking bathtubs. But in my opinion, these innovations seem a little trivial when compared with something like the iPhone.

Don’t get me wrong though, I’m hoping this changes soon, and that the rest of the world will be able to catch up with the U.S. Hopefully with new design techniques evolving both online (responsive web design, new frameworks) and in the real world (3D printing, etc.) the gap will start to shrink.

What are the biggest challenges and opportunities founders, designers, developers face designing in our multi-platform world?

The biggest challenge is that it takes a ton of time and effort. Compared to math or computer science, creating products for the web doesn’t involve any complexity. It’s just that there are so many things to learn and take into account, and if we’re honest most of them are mind-numbingly boring.

Of course we all love it and wouldn’t exchange it for any other job, but when you stop and think about just how many moving parts go into rendering a webpage onscreen, and how many of then could potentially break down, it’s enough to make you want to quit web design and become a rice farmer instead.

The biggest opportunity is that if you’re willing to actually deal with all the bullshit, you can end up creating some pretty cool stuff.

What do you regard as the most exciting ideas, opportunities upcoming in our technologically enhanced world?

One idea I find really exciting is how so many people seem to embrace the “work for a company / work for yourself / launch a product” transition.

Of course, for a while this means we’ll end up with a thousand project management apps and marketing eBooks because we’re still afraid to take risks. But eventually, I’m hoping we will see more people embrace their passions and be truly innovative, and even skip directly to the last step.

So maybe in a couple years launching your app will seem like a completely reasonable career choice not just in Silicon Valley, but in the rest of the world too!

Which bloggers, writers do you find influential?

I’ve always liked reading Jason Cohen. I don’t know how he does it, but he’s the only blogger who manages to write about startups without being boring. Rian van der Merwe is also somebody I enjoy reading, as well as Marcelo Somers, Chris Coyier, and basically all Sidebar contributors.

What book would you recommend reading?

If you’re interested in psychology and marketing, I would recommend reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. And if we’re talking novels, my favorite book ever is Ubik by Philik K. Dick.

More stuff

Slide presentation on side projects

His step by step UI design eBook

Sacha’s blog

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Steve Leighton, Founder & MD of Has Bean

steve_hasbean hasbean_logo

Staff: 14
Founded: 2003
Location: Stafford
Website: hasbean.co.uk

 

How did Hasbean come about and why is it different?

Well it all started from a dream and the back of my garage. I bought a small roaster and decided to do it instead of talk about it. From then its been a rollercoaster of a a ride with mainly ups.

Anyone who has read your story of how has bean began can’t fail to be impressed by your persistence and passion. When you’re facing challenges, how do you work your way around them?

By doing that working around them. there are no stop signs just changes of direction. We have always tried to look for every alternative. A vision is good, but one without flexibility is sure to fail. For example; When we were told we couldn’t sell online because the bank wouldn’t give us a merchant account then we found someone else who would. In our case worldpay, who were very new at the time, gave us a merchant account (and cost the earth) that meant we could sell online.

[SJ: read steve's full story]

You started selling online early. How have you changed the way you use digital and why?

I started selling online as no one else was selling what I wanted. I’d seen some sites in the states and thought “we should have that” Also if you have ever been to Stafford you would know why we ell on line. We needed a huge market for our small neiche, it was perfectly suited.

What do you find works well in reaching customers and growing your audience?

Everything. Every customer wants to talk to you on a different level, be thats twitter facebook, audioboo, flickr. Everyone wants something different so I try to cover as many as is possible. We found lots of success through video, but focusing on just this would be so narrow, we try to reach out everywhere.

What role are social networks playing in your business?

They are everything. for an online business its like your landlord knowing what your favourite beer is when you enter the the pub. It makes you feel special and wanted. Knowing and being social with your customers is super important, just as it always was in shops. People buy from people, this is your only chance to show the person you are online.

Do you find there are typical customer life cycles and how has that changed how you engage them?

I think some people have been with us for 10 years, some for just a few weeks, but each one needs to be treated the same. As the short ones are normally back at some point or will share with the world the one experience they had that will have positive ramifications for the future.

How do you see the internet changing your industry? (from farmers through to consumers)

I think people are being more social more reaching out to the consumers. I’d like to think a little because of what we have done, but mostly because it makes sense to look after your customers / consumers. Customers are also understanding that they can speak to the roaster and in some cases growers and taking advantage of that.

You travel widely to remote places to source beans. What do they think of the market and environments their produce is sold at?

It varies so much from country to country. In a recent trip I went from El Salvador to Guatemala to Costa Rica, all so so so different. What I have seen in my short 8 years travelling is people being far better off, being more aware of how much they can get for their coffee and interacting more with the buyers than ever before.

Which bloggers, writers do you find influential?

James Hoffmann of Jim Seven is a good friend (and fellow uk roaster) and someones work who I love. Big fan of Gary Veynerchuk too and keep a close eye on what he does although nothing to do with coffee. But I find so little time to read blogs now, twitter killed the blog for me (along with my rss) [SJ: long live newsletters & blogs ;) ]

What book would you recommend reading?

Crush it by Gary Veynerchuk again I liked it so much I bought 50 of them because he did a hang out thing on live stream where he said anyone one who bought 50 books he would do something special for. So I did it and asked to be a guest on his very very popular wine show. It was lots and lots of fun. The book is an interesting take on social media.

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Loren Brichter, Founder of atebits

Loren Brichter atebits-logo

Staff: 1
Founded: 2007 (re-founded 2012)
Location: philadelphia
Website: atebits.com

Where did Tweetie and Letterpress come from? (How did you choose between the ideas in the backlog to pursue?)

Both came from an itch I had; with Tweetie I wanted a new Twitter client for myself, and with Letterpress I wanted a game to play with my wife. I enjoy working on many things simultaneously, so for a while I wasn’t so much choosing as exploring tons of stuff. Eventually things got to the point where I thought Letterpress could be viable, so I put everything else on the back burner and put all of my energy into it to get it out the door.

Once you’re set on an idea how do you approach the early stages of shaping of it into a more defined product?

I may be an outlier, but I prototype first in my head, second in code. Rarely will I circle back and draw something out on paper — usually if I hit a wall that I can’t reason through. And if I hit that point it might be a symptom of an error in my thinking.

In the case of Letterpress, we played rough prototypes as I fleshed out the guts. Tweaks and polish happened in parallel as I finished off features; I like jumping back and forth between a few different things to let my subconscious chew on one problem while my conscious works on something else.

Screen Shot 2012-06-04 at 6.22.34 PM

^ An early prototype of Letterpress

How do you decide on the rollout of features on the roadmap of a product?

I put all the ideas on the todo list and constantly re-sort it, knowing I’ll only be able to tackle 1%. Lots of times finishing one “thing” can knock of a bunch of disparate things from the list by making them irrelevant. Those are my favorite things to work on.

Drawing the line at 1.0 is always tough. There were hundreds of items I thought I’d get to before releasing, but at some point you have to say “it’s finished” and ship. So that’s what I did. The game was fun, and it was solid. It was exactly what a 1.0 needed to be.

For point releases my approach is to have one notable feature along with as many smaller tweaks as I have time to get in. The notable feature in 1.1 was Rematch. 1.2 will be Replay and Share.

Letterpress is wonderfully addictive. The behaviour of the UI has its own personality, from the bounce effects to the way modal dialogues drop off screen at a slight angle. How do you think about that when designing products?

The UI is representative of my own — still evolving — personal aesthetic. I wanted to make something as simple as possible, but not simpler. Minimal, but still human. At the same time I wanted to build something that was true to the capabilities of the underlying hardware. Getting the visual, interaction, and implementation design to align is the way I like to work, and I’m still learning how to do it.

Devices are becoming more capable through multi-touch than is commonly used. What are you thoughts on designing for multi-touch and how do you see this evolving in the coming years?

A lot of people are of the opinion that multi-touch “gestures” are like the “keyboard shortcuts” of touch. I couldn’t disagree more. Having opaque, disassociated complex gestures to do complicated things on screen is wrong on so many levels, it’s unintuitive, hard to learn, hard to remember, and inextensible. Instead I think the future is in *composing* simple gestures to perform actions greater than the sum of their parts. Leverage the simplicity of direct interaction, but allow many things to be interacted with at once. Let me interact with an object on one part of the screen with one hand, and use another hand to perform another action that can compose with the first interaction. Each interaction on its own is obvious, and putting them together is obvious, but the end result is incredibly powerful. Letterpress barely scratches the surface, it allows you to interact with multiple tiles simultaneously, picking up a tile with one finger, manipulating the order of letters with the other, then letting you drop the tile back down. Enabling simple interactions without complex coding was one reason why I decided to experiment with my own UI framework.

You developed Tweetie back when the Twitter ecosystem was a friendlier place for developers to innovate. App.net sprung out of fracas in this area with FB. What do you see as the impact of this changing in the web ecosystem for developers, businesses, consumers?

Just as there are cycles of innovation and consolidation, boom and bust, in any industry, I think we’ll see this entire system of monolithic centralized services get replaced by something that is modeled closer to the true distributed underpinnings of the Internet… all while enabling a massive explosion in new types of “apps” and eventually, human behavior.

What do you regard as the most exciting upcoming technology enabled ideas & opportunities?

Self driving cars and the human colonizations of Mars.

Which bloggers, writers do you find influential?

Scott Adams Blog is one of my favorites.

What products inspire you and you love using?

iPhone

What book would you recommend reading?

I just finished reading 2312, by Kim Stanley Robinson, thought it was great. Just started on his Mars trilogy, which is equally awesome.

loren_workspace

^ Loren’s workspace

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Wade Foster, Co-founder & CEO of Zapier

Wade, CEO Zapierzapier_Logo

Staff: 5
Founded: 2011
Location: Mountain View, CA though we got our start and still have employees in Columbia, MO
Website: Zapier.com

 

How did the idea for Zapier come about and why is it important?

Zapier was created because of two problems Bryan, Mike and I had. 1) When we were building our own SaaS tools we always got asked for integrations, but could never provide all the integrations we wanted to our customers and 2) customers are always demanding new integrations and using an API is too difficult for 99% of the population.

Zapier is what makes it easy for SaaS vendors to connect with hundreds of other services and it’s easy for customer and end users of SaaS products to get integrations between the tools they are already using.

Where on the continuum of [MVP --> Early Traction --> Scale] would you put Zapier? can you identify some of the key points on that journey.

Zapier is definitely in the early traction growth stage. In November 2011 we launched our initial MVP to relatively few early customers. The UI wasn’t great, but it did what our early customers needed it to do. Another key decision we made was to charge from the get go. Every single beta customer we had paid us.

By March we launched our current iteration of the UI which got much more traction and allowed us to publicly launch the site to anyone. Soon after we applied to Y Combinator and got in which really gave us the legs to grow the product and get to where we are today.

You’ve got gamified interactions as part of the experience from getting extra tasks to unlocking features on plans. Why did you adopt that approach and how’s it affecting the way people use the product?

One of the reasons we added that was to get users to use the product. A lot of times people think that’s just a way to get users, but for us it’s more about incentivizing first time users. We’ve found that users who are able to get one Zap setup and get a few tasks completed are much more likely to be long time users. So we added a little incentive that encourages a user to get to that stage instead of just giving up.

How are you using data to change the pitch to potential customers?

We use a lot of qualitative data at Zapier from talking to users via support, twitter, facbeook, you name it. One of the key things we do is collect email addresses for services we think users might like. We then keep a running tally of the most popular ones and those are the services we integrate next.

Zapier is a company that couldn’t have existed even a few years ago as API’s were not commonplace. What other advanced do you envision changing the way businesses operate?

APIs are just the first piece, but it’s still the wild west in the API world with APIs constantly changing. One thing that will happen is APIs will move away from polling driven to push driven. That way API consumers don’t have to constantly asking providers for new data like a kid on a long trip asking “are we there yet” but can instead rely on the API provider to send us the data when we get to the proverbial travel destination.

What your thoughts are about the changing landscape of API access with some of the free big networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are becoming increasingly restrictive in the way they allow developers to access their feeds?

The only services I’m seeing become more restrictive in how they allow developers to use their APIs are free tools. Many those services are in the high growth stage and are starting to think about monetization and are experimenting with lots of different ways to make money. Unfortunately this means instability for developers. Zapier leans heavily B2B though. And B2B services are doubling down on their APIs. For them, more usage of the API leads to more usage of the core product and since their core product is a paid service that means more paying users and the paying users are upgrading to higher plans. That means a service like Zapier is highly valuable to both API providers and to consumers alike.

What is your distribution strategy?

We rely on two primarily: 1) Search. Users are looking for integrations between various tools and we are there for nearly all of them and 2) Is content marketing with our integration partners.

Which bloggers, writers do you find influential?

I like Patrick McKenzie, Dharmesh Shah, Rob Walling, Paul Graham and Jason Cohen. I particularly like reading from active practitioners and people who bring real-world practical advice rather than “Top X style” posts.

What’s the tech stack you’re working off?

Python on the backend and Backbone.js on the frontend

What products are blowing your mind right now?

I like products that are really simple and just get out of my way and let me get stuff done. A couple products that do that really well are GitHub, Stripe, Help Scout and Buffer.

GitHub: because they are constantly releasing new features that just let you write a ship code with a team.

Stripe: payments are a nightmare.Stripe makes them less so.

Help Scout: when Zapier started having a support problem we wanted a Help Desk that basically let us share an email inbox. Help Scout does that exactly with some nice reporting tools around.

Buffer: When you are constantly trying to share little snippets of information or content with customers and fans it becomes time consuming. Buffer lets me do it all in ten minutes a day, but then spaces out the sharing I do on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc without me having to actively do it.

What book would you recommend reading?

This is a tough question since there is so much good stuff. I’m a big fan of Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston though. I don’t think there is another book that gives you as close of an insight as to what it’s like to run a startup than Founders at Work.

zapier_team

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Matt Verity, Co-Founder and Creative Director of TrueView

Matt VerityTrueView

Staff: 3
Founded: 2012
Location: London, UK
Launching: Soft Launch Dec 2012 – Main launch Jan 2013
Website: Trueview.me

What problem is TrueView solving? and why did you choose to pursue it?

We are helping you to discover real people and make real connections through the things you love doing. It is a problem my good friend and Co-Founder Andrew Ibbotson identified when he moved to London and used online dating. We soon realised it is a common issue and that people are not having the rosy experience that the industry paints. The industry needs to change, people need a helpful, simple, caring and trust-worthy service that actually wants you to meet like-minded people and makes it easy to do so.

TrueView’s technology core sounds like a learning engine that evolves its personalisation through activity. What are most innovative ideas to providing relevance that make TrueView’s suggestions great?

Yes we are using an algorithm to learn and evolve as the platform grows, helping us to strengthen our service offering. But, we are not into robots making all the decisions, using psychometric testing and hundreds of questions. That isn’t how you meet people. We have worked very hard to make the platform as intuitive and simple as possible so people understand and enjoy using it.

The design has been informed by the information we want to show, the platform it is shown on and where people are most likely to use. It hasn’t been perfected yet but that is the beauty of being agile. We keep tweaking and testing and as we gather more data I am sure we will see the need to iterate even more, understanding how people use the app, where they go first, what area’s they use the most, and which ones they don’t is probably the most important stage of our development.

Dating platforms are tough to start due to their inherent need for a wide user base. How are you tackling this acquisition conundrum?

For us we have a new and unique approach, which has been well received in our focus groups and our social channels. Being one of the first in the industry to listen to what people want, developing a relationship with our growing community and build a product around our customers, our brand ambassadors are going from strength to strength. Having those people who support us and understand what we are trying to achieve is vitally important for us to build trust and expand that user base.

Having a strong marketing and customer acquisition strategy has also been put in place to super charge our growth as well. We understand the analogy of going into a club and nobody being in it, but we have our own, which is going into a club, which is over crowded, with huge queues at the bar, getting hassled and drinks being over priced. Nobody wants that either.

It has been tough but we have found the best way to grow a strong community is to go out and tell people about your idea. Start with friends and family. Present, network, beg, steal and borrow and it will start to gain traction.

We were lucky that we met a girl at Start-ups who really liked what we were doing, wrote about us and entered us into the start-ups top 100, which we placed 60th. She has left now but continues to support us and it is those people whom are vital.

Not just people that have good contacts but the people that really get what you are doing and genuinely believe in you and your idea. We don’t choose brand ambassadors they pick you and it is just making sure you engage and build a relationship with them to help show your appreciation for their support and knowledge.

How are you managing the line between providing enough information to be useful with disclosing too much private information?

You obviously haven’t seen our demo video’s ;-) For us security is paramount. We are not like all the other location aware businesses out there. In fact we are not that at all. We never give away your GPS location in real-time or want people to feel unsafe at anytime. We are looking again to be one of the first in the market to implement some neat validation techniques that aren’t imposing but still effective.

We are talking to a company called MiiCard, which is a digital passport solution and we have some ideas that we haven’t seen before so we are just working through them to see if they are possible. But, again it is finding a balance between it being a helpful tool or it being imposing itself and actually putting people off using us.

You would be surprised how much people are prepared to share with the digital world and not prepared to add to an account to help with the prevention of fake profiles. Our platform allows people to share the things they love doing, whether that is cooking a new recipe or going for a run, it is then up to the user what and when they log this information if they want to at all. The data is insightful and not a security problem.

The best way we control this is to talk to our users. What they want, what they don’t want and what they are happy to share. If people aren’t using a specific feature we can see this in our analytics and either remove it or develop it into something that is useful.

We live in a world now where people are comfortable with sharing they life on the web. We use that social media behaviour apply it to dating and give the user the control over what they share at all times in an environment that is safe and secure.

After identifying the problem, how did you progress? (are you into lean and MVP’s etc.. or did you follow a different process?)

It was funny because we actually had no idea what a lean start-up or MVP was when this project began, we all had full-time jobs so we just fell into being lean. We had to be. With no cash what so ever we had to be resourceful and utilise our own skillsets. At the time we had no developer so I made a little film to help tell the story, which we later discovered would be called our ‘MVP’. We basically then took that everywhere and anywhere we could to get the validation we needed to progress to the next level.

What is your growth model?

We want to be systematic with this. We are moving people onto our app now to test and de-bug. We then have different trenches of our community that we will start to engage with and increase the number of testers so when we go into our mainstream launch in January there will already be an existing user base ticking over nicely.

With regards to the growth of the business this will also scale through additional feature launches and partnerships, which will add additional value to the service and help us grow and build long lasting relationships with our users making us much more than a dating service.

How have you identified and prioritised what makes it in for first release?

For us it is important to get the balance right. We needed to get our product out and into people’s hands but it needed to work at a level where people could see the full user journey. If honest, we actually over complicated our first iterations and our version 1 has been thinned out slightly. That’s what you get with having an iterative approach and being in a start-up -you get over excited sometimes and just keep going. It is important to have a road map and to keep putting the product in people’s hands testing it. Get as much feedback as possible and just get the minimum product ready and out there.

What tools and apps do you use to inform decisions?

The biggest tool I use is my gut. If it feels wrong then it probably is. Communication amongst the team is of huge importance, start-ups work at such a pace it is vital to keep everyone in the loop otherwise you can lose track of things. We live by Google docs and hangout when people aren’t in the office. The more real-time stuff the better. You can all sign-in, edit, paste and build docs collaboratively, which really helps. We have just set up a Ning account to help build a user community around us so they can be part of our team and feedback with bugs and suggestions. When it comes to serious understanding of our market and consumer we are lucky enough to have our team of mentors who have access to data reports and consumer insights that prove to be so valuable when it comes to our targeting and business model.

What’s the Trueview technology stack?

Our Tech Guru and Co-Founder Damian Mitchell, whom I have had the pleasure with working with for the last 9 years is a code ninja so we are doing some cool stuff:

Ruby JSON API (backend)
REDIS cluster for results algorithm
Amazon EC2 and S3 (deploy + asset stack)
HTML5 + BackboneJS + ZeptoJS (webkit frontend)
Objective C (custom native shell for iOS)

Who are some of the voices (bloggers/speakers…) you find most influential?

It is easy to list a few successful speakers on here but for me inspiration can come from anywhere. The people that don’t preach their success, who can admit their failures, who still don’t think they know it all and can identify problems and apply new ideas to existing solutions in an innovative way inspire me. They have such a refreshing approach and just ooze innovation and clever thinking without trying too hard. Two for me that stand out are George Berkowski (Hailo) and Luis von Ahn(Captcha)

What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you?

Don’t be a wimp, just go for it – if it doesn’t work out you can just get another job, if it does then you can buy me a villa – My Dad (as Yorkshire as they come)

What other startups are exciting you right now?

Cloud66, Six3, Chatterbox, NightZooKeeper, Makelight and all of our other friends at the Wayra UK academy – We are amongst some very clever minds.

What book would you take to a desert island?

Boat building for dummies.

More info.

Video of TrueView’s last 3 months

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Jarrett Streebin, Founder and CEO of EasyPost

Jarrett StreebinEasyPost.co

Staff: 1, but speaking with potential co-founders

Founded: 2012

Location: San Francisco, CA

Website: EasyPost.co

What problem is EasyPost solving? and why did you choose to pursue it?

Broadly speaking, EasyPost is out to solve problems caused by shipping companies’ technology, or lack thereof. Their APIs and services are significantly dated and hard to integrate. Because you can only get postage via a few companies they haven’t tried as hard as say Apple or Amazon.

I chose this problem because for years I’ve been buying and selling on eBay and Amazon and experienced problems with these companies first hand. Then, earlier this year I was working on a project that needed to be able to generate postage. I’m talking about static postage, only one piece really, that users could print off. I started poking around and found the situation was as bad, if not worse, for enterprises. Poor API documentation and a lack of support. Since then I’ve been kicking around solutions and finally decided to go after it.

As an API, who do you see adopting EasyPost? (it seems a little like Twilio for post)

I want to start with developers. Twilio for post is what I’ve been calling it (or Stripe for post if they’re YC folk… :) ). But yes, I’ve been infatuated by Twilio for a few years now. Over that time you’ve seen phone (numbers and sms) spreading like wildfire through the web and apps. It was previously an area that everyone avoided because it was an industry and situation similar to postage. Poor services and difficult to integrate. But once Twilio made it easy TONS of developers found a use for it. I believe making online postage Twilio-easy (Stripe-easy) will drastically change how people use postage.

After identifying the problem, how did you progress? (are you into lean and MVP’s etc.. or did you follow a different process?)

I started to poke around at companies I knew to see if they had the same problems. They did so I created the EasyPost site to see how big the problem was.

I’ve worked in VC and understand the dynamics of taking other peoples’ money so I’m very into lean :)

What’s your growth model and what techniques are you finding works in encouraging adoption?

So far I’m still working on the product. My prediction for growth is just based off what I saw with Twilio and others. Make a desired service that’s typically difficult, easy for developers to integrate. Through the site I’ve found it’s definitely desired, now I’m working on making it easy to use.

What is the business model?

I’m not set on this yet but I assume it will be a percentage of postage spend. I like that model better than monthly plans. We’re all monkeys. It’s hard to decide between Junior, Pro, Expert plans or $49, $99, $199. But when PayPal charges me whatever percent on a transaction, I get it.

What tools and apps do you use?

I used Cloud9 a lot for developing the site (and Bootstrap, of course). I really love the service.

Who are some of the voices (bloggers/speakers…) you find most influential?

The usuals: Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jobs, Bezos, and others. Those that burn, burn, burn and are always looking to make the world a better place.

What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you?

Quit your job.

What other startups are exciting you right now?

I like what Parse is doing a lot. They’re going to be epic :)

What book would you take to a desert island?

Lately it’s been the Tyler Hamilton book, The Secret Race. I’m a huge cycling fan and it’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.

EasyPost HQ
The EasyPost HQ featuring Wendy

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Glen Maddern, Co-Founder and CEO of GoodFilms

Glen Maddern, Co-Founder and CEO of GoodFilmsGoodFilms

Staff: 3
Founded: Mid 2007
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Website: Goodfil.ms

What problem is GoodFilms solving? and why did you choose to pursue it?

At the very core, Goodfilms helps you movies you’re going to be interested in. ‘Interested in’ might mean that it’s a genre you like, right for the mood you’re in, available on your subscription movie service, etc, or likely some combination of several factors. While there’s no shortage of information about each movie online, it still feels like a lot of work to find out if it’s right for you. And that’s where Goodfilms steps in.

Goodfilms is social, in a small circle way. You turn down the aggregate crowd in favour of your immediate network. Path is doing something in the same spirit, is this how you see social going?

Absolutely, you see services like ThisIsMyJam springing up around a similar idea – there’s value in only viewing a small, trusted, curated subset of the information on a topic. To put it in terms of films, knowing which of your friends really loved something and which really hated it, can tell you right away whether you should see the movie. We always believed that kind of close social wisdom is far more important than the average of a hundred critics or a million strangers.

Who is your audience and how do you manage the community so it doesn’t become dominated by one bias?

We have a range, from people who enjoy showing the interesting or obscure films they see, to the people who just like to keep a record for themselves, to people who just want to get the most out of their Netflix subscription. Like any online community, the data can be dominated by our most vociferous members, but by presenting your friends’ data ahead of the masses’ makes that less of an issue.

Our rating system departs from the traditional 5-star system that so often gets abused online (we talked about how Youtube and Amazon ratings break down on our blog right back when we started), and as a result outliers have less impact on people’s judgement. Since there’s no ‘score’ to influence, there’s less reason to give a 100% or 0% rating.

And because the rating system can so accurately identify similarities between you and other people that you might not know, we can filter some of the ‘background’ information to only show you what’s relevant.

Do you have any concerns about using the FB / Twitter platforms? (thinking about the app.net debate and big players cutting off the 3rd party ecosystem)

Well, my cofounder recently weighed in on the debate with an opinion piece for TheNextWeb, regarding App.net, Twitter and Facebook. But we also connect into various video streaming services, which add their own complications, and have their own motivations. It’s a moving target, and it takes up a disproportionate amount of our engineering effort, but the end result is that we’ve been able to build something of value for an individual. We’ll jump through whatever hoops we have to so we can keep doing that.

After identifying the problem, how did you progress?

A couple of pieces of advice spring to mind – one is that if you’re not embarrassed about what you launch with, you’ve launched too late. And, a great phrase I came across just the other day: “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.” (Quote source).

So, I built something that only just hung together enough for me to queue up some movies I wanted to watch, and looked like a backend programmer went crazy with CSS3 (that’s exactly what happened), and started showing people. It lurched through several iterations, but showed enough promise to get into a startup incubator here in Melbourne (AngelCube), and that’s how the whole thing got serious. It felt like I had no idea what I was doing, and in truth I didn’t. I’m sure it wasn’t the most efficient way of getting started, but not having any preconceptions about how something like this should be done helped me just get on with things, and that gave me momentum.

As we’ve grown, different things become important, and now I’m pleased to say we don’t operate quite so chaotically. We still ship as quickly as possible, but with a better vision for how things achieve an end goal. We don’t follow any rigid process (we don’t have a kanban board or anything), but we do use few Lean techniques. We just pick the most important thing that’s not working for us right now and focus on it.

Your growth model depends on a viral invite model that can be tricky. What techniques are you finding works in encouraging adoption?

It’s tricky, without a doubt. A lot of the tests we run are designed to increase the rate at which this happens, which works out to be a good metric for the health and usefulness of the application anyway. It’s a balance between making the site as useful as possible as soon as you sign up, and showing you how it could be better with your friends on board, and so far changes in copy at particular points in the flow have made a surprisingly big impact – tailoring our message to be friendly and encouraging to our users. Listening to user feedback is absolutely essential here.

Can you tell me about your engagement model and how you are using that to retain users?

Email is actually a great tool here, and if you wonder why Spotify, Pinterest or, lately, Twitter send you so many of them, it’s because it works. But it’s a fine line, and if you send frequent emails of little value to your users, it’s just spam. I think Quora and Svpply do emails really well, and Spotify and Twitter really don’t.

Specifically to us, we’ll send our users an email when, say, a friend rates a film you want to see, or queues a film because you’ve just rated it. But we have hard limits in place to make sure we don’t send you more emails than is relevant – say, if a friend signs up and enqueues 50 films you’ve rated, you’ll just get one email.

I really like Ryan Singer’s take on this – email is an extension of your interface. The guidelines that help you show only the most relevant information on a page also work for sending email, so that’s how we roll.

What’s the underlying revenue model?

We drive revenue through affiliate sales to transactional streaming services such as iTunes, or by referring people to subscription services such as Netflix. That’s an ideal mid-stage revenue source, as it grows as we do, however we anticipate different sources becoming possible at a larger size.

How do you identify and prioritise next steps?

We’ve used UserVoice as a feedback forum right from the very beginning, and it’s remarkable how well it’s worked for us. We also email many of our users, at different levels of engagement, to ask them how they watch movies, how they choose what to watch, what Goodfilms is doing for them now and what they wish it would do.

We’re obviously incredibly resource constrained, so we break things down into pieces and try to ship something meaningful to someone every day. It’s the best way to keep momentum up, even if your velocity seems low.

What tools and apps do you use?

For monitoring and analytics we use NewRelic, Google Analytics, Gauges, Wormly and BugSnag, and I’d happily recommend them to anyone. Code’s hosted on Github, Sempahore runs our CI server, and Postmark sends our email. UserVoice for feedback, Disqus for blog comments. It amazes me how many problems we don’t have to solve because of how good those products are. High fives all around.

What is the Goodfilms technology stack?

We use Rails and Postgres, and a great little Ruby search enginge Picky. We also use AngularJS on our mobile site.

Who are some of the voices (bloggers/speakers…) you find most influential?

The one class of blog post I find the most influential and encouraging is people in the early stages of their own startup. The wisdom being passed down from successful founders is extremely valuable, of course, but the ones I most enjoy is the honest self-reflection of people in a similar situation to myself. Particularly those from people who have gone on to succeed – the one that springs to mind is Ben Pieratt from Svpply’s post after raising their seed round last year.

What’s the best piece of advice someone’s given you?

That it’s our f***ing company. In the context that it’s the only way you’ll weather an incubator program, but it applies more broadly – you need to listen to all the advice you can, but you can’t externalise decision-making. When you meet someone with the insight of having been there several times before there’s a temptation to defer to their advice, but at the end of the day it’s your company, not theirs.

What other startups are exciting you right now?

I think the world of travel startups continues to throw out innovative ideas, and I’m pretty pleased that Australia has produced 3 of my favourites – Adioso, Rome2Rio and FlightFox. But, in my mind, the most important startup of the last few years is Kickstarter. I admit I started as an extreme skeptic, but have been won over by the quality of the projects being backed. And I feel like it’s just getting started…

What book would you take to space?

John, my cofounder, put his hand up to answer this one, because he feels pretty strongly about it. He votes for Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect, since it sets a good framework for consuming all other business books, and helps you separate the really useful information from what they call ‘business fairy-tales’.

More info

Glen on Twitter @glenmaddern…on GoodFilms

Check out GoodFilms, their blog and twitter

^ GoodFilms out of AngelCube

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We have a winner!..Lean Startup Book giveaway

Thanks to everyone who gave it a shot but there can only be one and this time round it turns out to be Chris Lambert hailing from New Zealand. Chris also turns out to be doing some interesting things with data visualisation. Congratulations Chris, we hope you enjoy the read.

Even though there was only one book to be won, when we spoke to Ian we asked him to write his top piece of advice inside. Here’s the snap.

 

Advice from Ian Hogarth

^ “Find something you love enough to spend 10 years on it. This is your market” Ian Hogarth, CEO Songkick

 

Ian Hogarth, CEO & Co-Founder of Songkick

Ian HogarthSongkick

Founded: 2007

Website: Songkick.com

What gets you fired up about what you do?

At its heart Songkick is about connecting fans in the real world to art. For me, going to see some of my early shows was completely eye opening. Seeing the music i loved played by the people i’ve watched from afar in a room full or other people who were as obsessed about the same stuff as i am was such an incredible experience.

What we’re doing is enabling more of those types of moments to happen all over the world. That’s really motivating given how much pleasure live music has given me over my life.

What are some of the biggest challenges you had to overcome with songkick?

The toughest stuff is when it’s not entirely clear what the right direction to go in. It’s tough because it’s a state of limbo that often comes at the peak of some of the most successful phases of a startup. Such as when you’ve launched a bunch of new stuff and it goes really well and starts to grow and then you hit this phase of what to do next?

We get over those humps by having an opinionated team of people who are as passionate as we are about figuring out what’s next. i often like to get the team to take away a subject and rethink it for a few days and then come back and present to each other and the rest of the team.

What I find is that by putting all these ideas into a “hopper” the gradually this sense of the smartest, best path forward gradually emerges. I see my role as being the editor of the best ideas than as the progenitor.

How did you get started?

I met Michelle when i was studying in China and Pete at Uni. We were always talking about all sorts of startup related ideas so when the idea of songkick emerged it was a something that came out of the different perspectives we had on live music. We put our savings into a shared bank account to initially fund it. I quit my job pretty much immediately and the others did the same soon after. That was back in 2007.

When we started there was very little literature about best in class methodologies for building a startup. The most influential stuff we took to heart in the early days were Y-Combinator’s own mantras around making something people really want, starting in a niche and expanding from there and that kind of stuff. We also took a lot of inspiration from other founders and having late night conversations about best way to do things during YC.

Who are some of the voices you find most influential?

The two people who I regard as the best thinkers on startup strategy are Dave McClure and Shaun Ellis.

Dave McClure had just published his Pirate metrics, which to me has been the single most helpful document on building startups that i’ve ever come across. It provides a really great overall framework for thinking about the tension between making a gratifying product and distribution / growth.

Shaun Ellis is the other one. His central thesis is that great startups need to get three things in alignment. The first thing is a really gratifying experience, second is a unique growth strategy and the third is a killer revenue model.

How did you evolve the product? Were there any pivotal moments?

It’s less of one mega idea and more like a 1000 little ideas all coming together. It’s a composite of small clever ideas all rolled into one.

Also as a startup you need to be looking quite externally to find out what’s changing not just in your market but in the broader consumer market. Mobile has been huge for us, but that has been more of a global macro trend.

The stuff that has been more internal has been understanding exactly what we do that makes a fan delighted and really honing and simplifying that core experience. More about taking things out than putting things in. But you have to develop a really clear model of exactly what gratifies someone and how much time they’ve got to dedicate to your product.

I need a new book, what should I read?

To be honest i like to immerse myself in great works of art and people who are trying to express something very authentically rather than business literature. I spend a lot of time reading, going to the cinema, listening to music and going to concerts. The most inspiring thing for me is when you see someone working really really hard to do something authentic. I feel that somehow that can get you back to the core of the creative which to me is about authentic expression. I found Jay-Z’s autobiography Decoded very inspiring in that regard.

It’s amazingly difficult to be authentic in life. It’s so easy to start putting on a voice you’ve heard somewhere else or say what you’ve heard everyone else saying rather than just figure out what your voice is.

Recently I’ve been watching more documentaries. I find stories like Indiegame or Jiro Dreams of Sushi inspiring as well.

One of our team members Robin Tweedie curates a monthly movie night with stuff like that which I think is a great aspect of our culture. The author I’ve enjoyed the most is probably Dostoevsky. Contemporary Chinese cinema also hits me really hard for example Jia Zhang Ke. It’s that sense of seeing someone working to create something truly great, and world class.

It acts as a fly-wheel to help you stay focussed on doing something that you feel is really worthwhile.

What other startup would you recommend we speak to?

I met the founder of GoCardless last week and he had some interesting things to say about mistakes they’d made and their CEO stuck me as a smart, honest guy who might have good stories to share.

More info

Ian on Twitter @soundboy

Ian’s blog

Checkout Songkick

 

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