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This week I talk with Luke Beard, Founder of Exposure, a visual storytelling platform! In this episode we talk about moving from a small town in England to San Francisco on a whim, working on products like Hipstamatic, Buffer and Zerply and transitioning from product designer to product founder. Enjoy!
Hey Luke, how’s it going man?
Luke Beard: I’m doing very well. It’s kinda chilly but otherwise perfect.
Josh Pigford: Very nice. You’re in Atlanta?
Luke Beard: Yeah.
Josh Pigford: Is that right?
Luke Beard: Yep, we moved here 8 months ago, I think.
Josh Pigford: Oh, cool. Cool. I’m in Birmingham so we’re actually not that far from each other.
Luke Beard: Oh, what’s up. Come through, come say hi.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, no my wife and I were talking about having a little weekend getaway there in the next month or two, so we should hang out.
Luke Beard: It’s lovely, come.
Josh Pigford: Yeah. So, let’s actually start, speaking of where you are now, I’m actually curious more going far back, but where you’re from. Like where’d you grow up?
Luke Beard: Sure. Much to the amazement of most people I talk to, I’m actually British. I grew up in a place called the Forest of Dean, which is the Royal Forest of Dean if you’re gonna give it it’s full name. It’s kinda right on the border of Wales. It’s closest cool city is Bristol and our crowning achievement is, there are tons of sheep that just walk around. They have free access, they can just walk in the roads and stuff and they filmed a bunch of StarWars, I forget the name now, The Force Awakens, all the forest scenes are actually filmed in there so that’s how I can say it’s cool these days.
Josh Pigford: So the sheep thing, is this one of those things where they’re a protected species and everybody’s gotta just let them do whatever they want.
Luke Beard: Nah, it’s a legacy problem. If you’ve lived in the area long enough, you can mine coal and you can let your sheep walk about. It’s very bizarre but it’s adorable. It’s a really nice to go home to, it’s absolutely beautiful. I like going home for the fact that you feel like you’re in some Merlin looking shit. They actually filmed some of the BBC’s Merlin there too. They do a lot of the filming. Otherwise, yeah, it’s a rural area, sheep, cows, not a lot going on.
Josh Pigford: So how long were you there, growing up basically in small town?
Luke Beard: I think my first big city move, I say big city, I moved to a town called Cheltenham when I was 18, 20 something like that.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So as a kid what where you into? Were you into computers then, or were you into sheep?
Luke Beard: So that’s a whole different story for our local [inaudible 00:03:29] the sheep have a bad reputation. No, when I was a kid, cars. I was really into sports in terms of motor racing, forumla 1, [inaudible 00:03:43] things like that. Teenage was skateboarding. All I did was skateboard for the longest time. Listen to shitty metal and punk and try and do the best kick flip I could. I can still do a kick flip. I check now and again. That’s my crowning 30 year old achievement that I can still do that. It’s weird, I don’t remember any hobbies per se. I like doodling. I used to doodle spaceships and stuff, but there was no overarching, Luke’s gonna be this kind of person when he grows up or anything like that. For a hot second I was like “I’m gonna be a fighter pilot”, but I think that was maybe a week.
Josh Pigford: So were you into technology at all or I mean really just the sports and skateboarding thing for the most part?
Luke Beard: My dad was. He used to love buying, I remember we’d always get one big tech purchase a year essentially. One year it would be a video camera, which I would immediately break, or our first digital camera, but our first computer came pretty early. We had dial up internet and whatever it was, Windows 95 or something crazy. And once I got my hands on that I was pretty into it. I remember I figured out how to change all the noises that the interface made and I just recorded my own voice saying what was happening and then changed all the noises on our computer. So that was my first hack, is the fact that it would say “startup menu” every time you clicked the menu and then I think my dad got the computer formatted because he didn’t know how to fix it. Technology wise, I don’t know, mp3 players, because music was really important to me growing up so anything that facilitated that was kind of my journey into having technology on me or near me was definitely music based.
Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So, after high school, did you go to University anywhere?
Luke Beard: Not University, so the British education system, University is American’s college and after high school you can do this, I guess it’s kind of like community college kind of thing and I went there and I did, it was called BTECH National in ICT, which is they just basically teach you how to use computers and all the things that they think you might need in the future of the digital workforce. So it was literally these spreadsheets we’re processing, some light database stuff, but there was 2 modules on software stuff, which included Photoshop and web design, which included some really bare bones HTML CSS, sorry. But that was the critical moment in my life for introduction to technology I could get my head around, I think. Once I knew how to create, everything changed.
Josh Pigford: So you do a ton of design stuff and that kind of got you into, I would say, the tech world. So, I mean, it was this intro to Photoshop and using computers for design and stuff, that was really what kinda got you into that?
Luke Beard: Yep. Once I knew Photoshop, I knew how to make album covers. Once I knew web some stuff I knew how to spin out god awful PHP CMS’ for my friends bands. So I basically started soft teaching myself all the things I wanted to be able to do because the education past ‘here’s how to make a banner’ there was nothing after that so it was the tutorials grind for a long time. Learn how to do all those silly bubble effects and things like that. Which all seems, now in 2018, it seems so hilarious to me all the crazy stuff you learned in Photoshop. But it definitely gave me a deeper understanding of a creative process even though I didn’t have a formally trained one.
Luke Beard: Like I said, I tried to reverse engineer album artwork I liked so I could see how the multimedia was put together. Because I think, my gut growing on this, is it was all graphic based, I didn’t really have an interest in technology or products or building a business or anything like that. My dad was an entrepreneur, he built his own labor business but it was definitely not in the vain that I consider myself now kinda thing. Once I had those chops about me, I basically kinda of was like “Hmm, maybe I should try and get a job in this.”
Luke Beard: The UK government, they had a kind of really awesome program, which was also critical to my career that was basically “Hey, you’ve been looking for a job for a long time, we’re gonna place you.” Because I was probably overshooting what I actually wanted and they were like “we found you a local web design agency” which was like an hour and a half bus ride from my house “and you’re gonna go work there for 3 months for not much” and this agency was 3 dudes in a tiny corner office and they just did local websites for housing developments and rugby clubs and things like that.
Luke Beard: And they basically put me in there with that, with my limited Photoshop knowledge and HTML knowledge and yeah, shout out [inaudible 00:09:13] and Mike from Magnetize in Cheltenham because I think if I hadn’t of gone there, I don’t think I’d be talking to you right now.
Josh Pigford: Were you excited about that? Taking on a job like that, or was it just sort of like “I need to work.”
Luke Beard: No, it was super validating. It was like, I can make a career from this, or I can at least make a living. Maybe career was a long shot when I was 20. I don’t think I understood what that really, really meant. I remember, I have a photo, it showed up in my Flickr the other day, it was me signing my job agreement essentially, my hire agreement. It got me out of my dumpy town, it moved me to Cheltenham, it put me working with clients, it put me learning dot net for God’s sake. I consider my small town web design agency life my years in the trenches. It’s where I learned a lot more process around people’s creative decision, especially people who don’t know what they want. It was absolutely, fundamentally important to my further journey into whatever all this is.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, yeah. So how’d you make the jump from doing the agency job stuff to working with tech startups?
Luke Beard: Twitter. Twitter gets a lot of shit these days, but Twitter was fundamental to this jump. The story behind it is one of my favorite things about my whole journey, I think. So during this web design agency time, Twitter was starting to be more important to me. I would follow as many designers as I could find. I would try and contribute to the community and I think I did a few PSD’s I shared and things like that. But it became really apparent to me that there are people building these services.
Luke Beard: So before I had the lens of product, before I could look at a website and just see a website with content on it, I didn’t see how it was built, I didn’t see the UX, I didn’t see anything else. Once I figured out that people are building Twitter and building Google and everything I really enjoy using, there’s mountains of people behind it. I was getting eventually frustrated with working on client stuff because it’s kind of, I mean, I’m not dismissing people who work on client work because it’s definitely validating for the right kind of people but I was just getting to the point where nothing I do matters. It matters to these small businesses but that didn’t feel enough to me. I wanted to make more of an impact and have more potency. So I started following all these startup people, I think it was just tons of Twitter designers or, like I said, whoever I could get my grubby little follow finger on, and at one point I found a service called Zerply, who were basically turning your Linked In or Facebook information into a pretty CD website.
Luke Beard: They had a bunch of themes. They had one of the themes done by Mike Kus, who’s a British designed who I always really liked. So I had signed up for that, it was super early on. I think they had maybe been up for like a week and a half or something. I had had a few emails with the founder, Christofer, and then subsequently followed the founding team on Twitter because I was like “They’re doing cool stuff, this feels like the kind of thing I want to do. I’m gonna see if I can learn anything.” One random night after maybe two glasses of white wine because I was apparently a fancy 20 year old or something like that, I made this completely nonsensical tweet that was like “Hey, I would really love to work on a product in either America or Australia.” I’m really not 100 percent sure why I said Australia.
Josh Pigford: You just didn’t want to seem like you were obsessed with America.
Luke Beard: USA. I was just ignorant to the whole thing. I had no idea, past kind of understanding that these companies are full of people, I didn’t really know anything else. And, Daniel Jacobs, who is one of the founders of Zerply, tweeted back to me and was like “oh, you should go to Silicon Valley” and my most vivid and ridiculous memory is furiously googling Silicon Valley and then reading the Wikipedia page to understand what they hell that was because I just didn’t understand that that was a thing. You know, small town life, those things don’t penetrate the way they do now. There’s no sitcom called Silicon Valley because it wasn’t in the lexicon of people talking about technology. I also worked right next to GCHQ, which is the huge spy building in the UK so technology was weirdly overshadowed by this huge tech hub of government dominance, which was always there. So I remember reading the Wikipedia page and being like “Oh, this is where Google’s made, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, oh wow, this is the spot, this is definitely where all the things are.”
Luke Beard: And I, this wide eyed, busy kind of guy, and I tweeted back at him and I like, and you can still find these tweets somewhere, and it was like “Oh man, that would be the dream, something something” and he’s like “oh, just send me an email.” And so it turns out they tried to apply to YC and actually moved their team to a house in Mountain View. So the most start-uppy thing you can do in 2012, 11 something like that. A few emails back and forth and he’s asking what I wanted to do, things like that, and he’d been following me a little bit and they’re like “okay, well we need a designer and I think if you want to come to Mountain View for 5 weeks and just hack on some shit with us, how does that sound?” And bearing in mind, I think I’d left the country once at this point, to go to Disneyland Florida so I didn’t even leave the country.
Luke Beard: That whole decision, that whole string of emails is, again, one of those critical moments in the journey. I just didn’t have a clue what to do for a minute. I mean I gravitated towards a decision, but it terms of my life, everybody around me is always like “you need a job, stick to your job, don’t get fired, yada ya.” I think this was my first really big step into the world on uncertainty that comes attached to working on early stage start ups and it was really apparent, because I just remember feeling super bad and excited at the same time, which is my default feeling these days. Building a business is both exciting and nerve wracking. So yeah, I talked to my dad, I talked to my parents, they were just like “whatever, if it goes to hell, just come home. What are you gonna do?” I’m like “Good point.”
Luke Beard: And that was it, and then I was like “Okay, goodbye job. I’m gonna jump on this plane, on my own.” Which was, again, terrifying because I’m just some fuckin dweeby 20 year old and yeah, I went to Mountain View, got off at SFO, never been to California, just blown away. It smelled nice. I always remember how nice SFO smelled. I was like “Mm.” They picked me up, they drove me around. I went to the Google Plex. Day one, just walked around a little bit. I felt like I was inside the internet and it was very validating. I was like “this is gonna be awesome.” I don’t know, and then yeah I just sat in their house with their team, Christofer, Eliza, Ethan and Daniel and we just built Zerply for like 5 weeks straight.
Josh Pigford: Was there any part of that, that at any point did you feel some level of fear or was it just pure adrenaline of this is all so exciting?
Luke Beard: That part wasn’t very scary. I get this question a fair bit, of what to do with that feeling because people are very scared, right, to make big risky career moves, it’s a challenge. I mean there’s a certain amount of privilege that comes with a decision like I made because, like I said, I can just go home. And I know that’s not always the case for everybody but that’s how I persuaded myself that it was gonna be okay and alleviated the answer of “what’s gonna happen?” And I’m like “I just go home.” Having the answer at the base level, enabled me to do the rest of it pretty care free. And 5 weeks in California, it’s not gonna completely suck. The Zerply team were also Estonian and Swedish so it was just a grab bag of Europeans. I was like “they’ve made the risk, why not me?”
Luke Beard: I’ve always considered that you make your own luck with this kind of stuff and the amount you get back is completely related to the amount of risk you put in. And this was one of those moments. I’m either putting in a huge risk with a huge payoff or I stay at home and don’t do any risk and stay here. I was like “absolutely fucking not.”
Josh Pigford: So 5 weeks just hacking away at stuff at Zerply. What came of that?
Luke Beard: Landing pages, interface, learning product. This is the first real product I’ve ever built. So it was a lot of, not pair programming, but I sat next to Daniel, who developed all the front end with me and I had fairly okay HMTL CSS chops at that points but I felt like I learned and taught myself 10X the amount of stuff in those 5 weeks than I had done the past 2 years. Just the rate of which you’re excited to work on it with people that are stoked to work with you. That fed the fire that was like “I gotta make this, I gotta make it amazing.” We shipped a new landing page and saw results. It was way better than they’re old one and that sort of instant gratification that you can get with shipping stuff is like “Yeah.” And yeah, while I didn’t call it shipping at that point, I think that really was where I understood just how good it is to work on something that you have such a large potency into.
Luke Beard: But yeah, at the end of it, it was 5 weeks, I remember they gave me a Apple Magic Mouse because I was using my trackpad for everything. I used to be a trackpad master, that was my jam. People didn’t know how it did it.
Josh Pigford: My hands cramp just thinking about doing that man.
Luke Beard: It’s gonna be okay Jeff. And they were like “do you want to keep working on this with us” and they basically wanted to make a creative Linked In and I was like “yeah, absolutely” I was like “just hell yeah, let’s do it.” But at that point they weren’t gonna be in Mountain View full time, visas, etc. So I actually went home, I worked from Cheltenham, from my house and then a basement, which I moved into for the next year, essentially. For not much money. I remember trying to get my brain around that, that was like “I’m working really hard for not much money” and for some reason every time I thought about that I always ended up with, this is the most fun I’ve ever had, I’m just gonna keep doing it until I can’t do it anymore so …
Josh Pigford: So you spent what, I guess at year working at Zerply and then what’d you move to?
Luke Beard: At that point they were like “yeah, we literally don’t have any money to pay you anymore.” I was like “uh, okay we can’t do this.” To be fair, they’re killing it now. I highly suggest checking out Zerply if you’re a VFX artist because they’re basically powering hiring for all of the Marvel movies and stuff. They’ve done an amazing thing, it’s fascinating to watch, go look at it. But at that point, Zerply had been picked up a couple times. I actually went to 500 startups during this time, too, with them and did like 3 weeks in Mountain View again, in Palo Alto, which was bananas. That sort of accelerator program is just insane to see in person. They’d been picked up on a few blogs, I remember Swiss Miss blogged about them and took down the site for a minute. So they were in the lexicon of names in terms of creative spaces to be part of and thus my name is attached to it because I was the designer of the site.
Luke Beard: I think it’s maybe a reputation prestige-esc situation at that point. So while staying in Cheltenham, whilst they were like “hey, we can’t pay you” I’m like “we completely understand” I’m like “cool, okay I’ll see what I can do, see if I can rustle up some clients.” Out of that came Buffer, the social scheduling, so I did version 1 of their, or version 2 of their dashboard on the first version of their iPhone app. As far as I’m aware, if you go on Buffer today, it’s still mostly my design, which is kinda cool. I think they’re actually changing it soon but it’s had its day. It’s been up there a while. So that was a really cool client, that was one of the bigger ones I took on. One of my more permanent clients was Hipstamatic, who were awesome. A product that is day one in the Appstore and such a game changer in terms of community and just pure market saturation was really cool to work on.
Luke Beard: So I basically handled their web properties for probably a year and a half or something like that, design and build all their websites. So that was, again, learning a whole bunch, working with a team like that is really cool. Shout out Lucas and Ryan, good dudes, still talk to them.
Josh Pigford: So after Hipstamatic, you’re essentially just doing client work at this point, you’re a hired gun. From there is that when you ended up working with Kyle Bragger and who else, is was at Elepath?
Luke Beard: Yeah, there’s a step between that, that is kind of, it was a necessary but smaller step. At one point, after a couple trips to San Francisco, I kind of came to the conclusion that if my career was going to advance I would probably have to move, either there or the Bay Area for a bit or full time. I don’t really know how to validate that to myself because it sounds really unattainable to be like “hey, move to San Francisco” considering how hard it is to move to San Francisco, especially as a European guy. One of the clients I was working with were like “hey, do you wanna come over? You’ve been working with us for a while, do you want to join the team? We’ll handle all your visa stuff etc, etc and I was like “you know what, this might actually be the time to go.”
Luke Beard: So, I know, I was like “sorry”, girlfriend at the time, “I’m moving to America, I’m moving out, uh.” I was like “this is a rough step”, that’s again, if there was a story point, that’s one of them. So yeah, moved with one suitcase full of stuff, lived on a mattress on a floor, was all fucking crazy bananas. I think I spent most of the time partying, I’m pretty sure. And then kind of immediately, at least 3 weeks in, I realized that it was bad move for the company, the company I had moved for.
Luke Beard: So I started freaking out, which was really bad, because being in America with no visa, freaking out is no good. At that point, I had been hanging out with Kyle Bragger on Twitter for God knows how many years, hung out in Forrst, etc and he just moved to the city to work at Elepath so we ended up getting a bunch of drinks, bunch of coffee, etc. I told him my situation because he seemed like a guy that would know what to say about that and he was like “well, why don’t you come talk to Elepath” and that’s how it got introduced to that stage of everything.
Josh Pigford: So Elepath is essentially this place to … you guys were just trying lots of things, right? I mean, whatever, you’d build it.
Luke Beard: I don’t ever think there was a full blown explanation of what it was. It was always conceived as an experiment and they were coined creative developers, right? Creative developer means engineer, designer, copyrighter, anybody who creates and if you put enough of them in a room, there will be a hit, per se. So a studio model, kind of, incubator model, kind of, just lots of kind ofs, but we all knew it was a crazy experiment. It was funded by Jake Lodwick who was one of the Vimeo founders, and he’s a really eclectic guy, so being near that sort of person is energizing. So it was just like “here’s all the resources you need, what problems do you have? Build products for it.”
Luke Beard: There was a rough process, that was like sketch, beta, business. Sketch being the horrible thing that you make to see if it looks and feels right. Beta being, give it to a couple people, see what they think of it. Is it a good idea, feedback. And then business is, if you think it will work, turn it into a business and launch it. So, that was how most of the products that came out of Elepath ended up being conceived.
Josh Pigford: So what were you working on for most of your time there?
Luke Beard: Like [inaudible 00:27:42] this musical sampler that we were working on. But really I rolled up and started Exposure immediately. I didn’t really get to work on a whole bunch else.
Josh Pigford: I know that you, Kyle Bragger, was anybody else working on Exposure?
Luke Beard: Nope. Well, that’s a lie. There were other collaborators here and there but once it was validated as a product people would like, we jumped on it just us two full-time essentially.
Josh Pigford: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative). So what was the impotence or the idea that kicked off doing Exposure in the first place.
Luke Beard: So it was a nice way to tie it back. While my visa was getting sorted out, I went to Estonia to hang out with Daniel from Zerply because, why not? Estonia rules. I had never been. As he says, “it’s the greatest country in the world” so I had to see what that was about. Turns out, it is. I had taken a new camera with me because I had been taking photography progressively more seriously as I had been progressing through my creative years. Then I got a 5D Mark 3, I think I stuck a 40 mil lens on it or something like that, and I was like “you know what, I’m gonna actually document my trip.” Because I had been kind of doing it with my phone but I felt like I wanted to level up that part of my process.
Luke Beard: The main body of work that came out of that trip was a trip to a old prison and it was a really crazy old Russian battery prison or something gnarly like that. It was in ruins, there was glass everywhere, old vials of crazy medicine or whatever, concrete falling off the walls and what’s amazing is that it was like $2 to get in and some little tiny Estonian old lady gave you a flashlight and was basically like “good luck” and then you just went into this ruin and it was awesome.
Josh Pigford: Hopefully you don’t die.
Luke Beard: Honestly, I think they’ve actually turned it into a legit tourism thing at this point, but then it was so sketchy and yeah, she was just like “have fun.” Basically this prison had been opened a bunch of different times throughout it’s life so there was actually a lot of different chairs everywhere in terms of styles. And the lighting was really good, so I basically took these chair portraits of different styles I’d see around the prison as well as the prison itself. At that point, I came home and I was editing these photos. I was learning to use Lightroom, jumped on some vsco presents, figured out a style that I like, and then I basically had this big chunk of photos that were a visual story of some sorts.
Luke Beard: I didn’t really maybe put that together until after, but I was like “what do I do with these photos now?” I didn’t want to start a WordPress blog, Tumblr was already on its way out into whatever it became. Instagram was single photo at the time, mostly just square crop so that felt like it wasn’t the right context for what I wanted to do. Twitter was 3 photos, what are you gonna do, there was no threading at that point, it would have been garbage. I really just loved Medium, Medium’s whole what you see is what you get attitude towards publishing. No chrome, no branding, focused. I remember being on, what instant messenger[inaudible 00:31:17] were we even using at that point? It was pre slack, so it was Google Chat or something crazy and I was like “what do I do?” And he was like “well, we’re in a situation where we can just build stuff. What do you need?” And I was like “I just want Medium for photos” and he’s like “okay.” And that was it.
Luke Beard: I threw together some mock ups of some things, some visual language I’d like. So New York Times had just started shipping those really big, gorgeous, visual essays where you’d scroll things. I think it was Mount Everest, it had a video header, I remember that. Squarespace had started doing these really great, clean aesthetic to more CMS stuff. I was like “let’s marry all this together.” So I did a couple mock ups. I actually did a mock up of Ashley’s content, who you spoke to last week. One of Kyle’s wedding, which apparently made him cry a little bit which was good. I was like “okay, I’m on to something here.” So I was like “yeah, okay, I hate the cognitive dissonance between an editor and the results. Like “let’s steal all this Medium stuff with what you see is what you get.” Content editable, the technology was actually in a pretty good spot.
Luke Beard: Image processing is really good. What could we do. So we basically tried to do a really horrible prototype and it was exceptionally horrible. I think it might be the worst thing I’ve ever done, but visually it was on point to the kind of creation and canvas that I wanted. When you really boil it down, I wanted a canvas for these visual stories that I wanted to create and write. Context is everything, like if there’s no canvas to give content to it gonna be pointless. So that was really the founding story if you need one. I needed a thing, we chose to make a thing.
Josh Pigford: Yeah, yeah. How did you, and I guess also still how do you, sort of compete, or get over the hump of … so much with photo sharing in general is this instant feedback, kind of, oh I took a photo, I threw a filter on it and I posted it and that’s that, to helping people actually craft a coherent story around some sort of trip or event or something like that.
Luke Beard: A lot of it comes from the idea that most content is temporary, right? Your feed is for the most part a limited time window into someone’s life. When was the last time you scrolled back through your Instagram photos? Even to yourself, your content doesn’t live …
Josh Pigford: It’s impossible because they jumble it all up.
Luke Beard: Sure, sure sure. Basically you create based on your outlets, I think, when it comes to internet stuff. And you were just saying, you throw a filter on it, put it on network, whatever. And that’s fairly careless, right? And there are a bunch of people that have a lot more to say. There are a bunch of companies and brands messaging, there’s so many stories in the world, that in some part, while social media lets you get it out, it’s very hard to keep a permanent home for it. If you think about it like snack sized content. One of our members, Visit Copenhagen, they have an amazing attitude towards this type of content. And they refer to Instagram and Twitter as snack sized stuff. You just nibble on it. You eat it, it’s done. But a bit more permanent homes for visual story telling, like Exposure, live in the more meal size, you get something out of it, you’re actually nourished by the story right.
Luke Beard: So we can position ourselves like that. We’re definitely more of a CMS rather than a social network, which I’m fine with. We have a community, we need to do a lot more to foster it, but there is one there. All that kind of plays into the message of “hey, here is your canvas for your visual storytelling. Here’s all the tools too and it’s super fast, super easy, what can you create. We back into a home for your content verus a network you contribute into. So I always think about the URLs, right, where it’s Twitter slash Baremetrics, that’s Twitters content of Baremetrics. Well, we live on sub domains so that’s where it was like Tumblr to a degree, because it was Luke.Tumblr or whatever. But Luke.Exposure.co that’s my content it’s just housed by Exposure.
Luke Beard: We always try to steer away from grubby, gross growth things around DAUs or upsells and things like that. I think that, that really, I mean it’s a long tail plan to let a business like that grow, but it definitely helped in the very beginning to keep it simple and focused for the storytelling. Like I said, it’s all about just like “hey, this is what this tool is for” versus you’re trying to get something out. Use the other networks to get this piece of permanent content out there.
Josh Pigford: Yep. How do you view, because I feel like there’s a lot of correlations or similarities between what you, you mentioned Medium earlier, almost like a Medium for photos, but to me Exposure feel more permanent to me than Medium. To me, one of the big pros of a platform like Medium is exposure to the community that is built around it, so how do you view, I assume you don’t look at yourself like essentially a website hosting platform for photos. What role does the community aspect play in that, I guess?
Luke Beard: It’s growth, for sure. People like to tell people that it’s hosted on Exposure, which is always a plus. Medium has a great network effect. They did really, really well in building that really, really early on, but it’s a free tool also, so something you pay for, your mental cognition of that is like “I’m paying for this, it’s gonna be around as long as I pay for it.” While as a free service, there is always an anxiety around it, changing the terms and conditions. Just look at any service that is free that has tried to change something as critical as terms or anything like that and look at the backlash. I mean we do consider ourselves a photo host, but we’re just a visual storytelling CMS, which is much more easier to sell than a story editor attached to a social network or visa versa. So there’s always that question. It’s like why Exposure at all? And it’s just the attitude we’ve taken towards sustainability, what we actually stand for and who’s in control.
Luke Beard: I think having paying customers is a much more exciting way to grow a product than a free product because you’re optimizing for very different things.
Josh Pigford: Absolutely. What’s the most unusual thing that you guys have done, or tried, to grow Exposure?
Luke Beard: We some way thought, it was kind of unvalidated, more of an assumption, that people just wanted general photo galleries too. So we’ve always had the story editor, which is very robust, we spent a lot of time making it pretty great, but we also thought “you know what, people don’t always want to tell stories, maybe they just want to have a photo galleries.” So we built a whole gallery system in the assumption that people would invest more content into it and therefore become more involved in the platform but that didn’t really pan out. Adoption was not what we thought it was and that’s not necessarily a weird thing but the result is weird because you’d think, photo stories, people will be into photo galleries, but that’s not so.
Josh Pigford: Not so. Not so. Who’s the ideal customer for you guys? Because you don’t want everybody just to dump all their photos on Exposure, that’s not the point. But what kind of person is the ideal customer for you guys?
Luke Beard: That’s an issue I’m working through right now because we’ve never explicitly said that. My favorite line for the past couple years is that Exposure is like the Seinfeld of products. It’s not about anything. It’s like the [inaudible 00:40:31] pitching the show episode. But if you give someone a canvas and tools, they do all sorts of stuff with it. Whereas if you think about what’s the ideal things for us as a business, then it’s brands and it’s sports teams, it’s nonprofits, it’s college athletics departments. It’s the people that will pay for the higher plans, who are using Exposure for marketing reasons, essentially. Or [inaudible 00:40:57] or fan development or things with an actual goal past just publishing content. So ideal business customer, probably that. But in the grand scheme of things we also have thousands of personal people who use it for travel, their families, their businesses, to accent their photography business or maybe behind the scenes stuff, etc.
Luke Beard: So that’s a real problem for us, is to process how to talk to such a wide birth of ideal customers because a $9 customer who hangs around for 5 years is also, in some part, as valuable as a business customer who pays 10X that and hangs around for 2 years. There’s a really interesting balance for Exposure, like I said, because we are this ubiquitous canvas. But at the same time it’s just incredibly challenging. This is where, me as a product person who has built a product extensively for 4 years and made it really good, that’s why people sign up right? And whenever we do questionnaires about why people care about Exposure they’re just like “it’s the easiest thing I use. It’s better than our website.” Crazy feedback like that. That’s coming from MLS teams and things like that.
Luke Beard: But at the same time, it’s like “yeah, who do you talk to. How do you talk to them? When do you talk to them? That’s why the Baremetrics blog has actually been really fascinating to read because your stuff on messaging and what to focus on has been super helpful to read.
Josh Pigford: Well good, I think we’re sort of at the same point, really, where for the past 4 years we focused super hard on the founder. Not making the assumptions, but just trying to reach the founder and then hoping that they’ll sign up or have someone on their team sign up. But reality, especially as we’re trying to grow more, somebody like the CFO or something like that ends up using the product more, especially at larger companies. So, who do you talk to at a company to actually make them … I think about myself, I’m many times the worst person to ask to use some new product because I don’t want to use any more products. I already got too many. But yeah, finding the right person to market to. I think with Exposure, you’ve got the consumer side of things but then you’ve also got the business component, but I think a lot of those consumer use cases, those people they have jobs a lot of times too, right?
Luke Beard: Exactly.
Josh Pigford: If they work at the athletics department they’re like “I’ve used Exposure for myself, it would work great for our sports team or whatever.”
Luke Beard: Yeah, I mean it’s all about empowering storytelling. One of the bigger, broader visiony missiony statement things that I’m thinking about is like “if you really want to base decision in Exposure about building Exposure on empowering story telling, does this enable someone to tell a story?” And it’s those personal people that go from “oh I kind of have some photos kickin around” to 4 year old customers who are gonna pay for this for the next 10 years and then go and take it to their athletics departments, to their marketing manager, to whoever, whatever crazy job they are in. It does work on both sides to promote. So creating consumer promoters equals better business customers.
Josh Pigford: Yep. Yep. Have you guys tried any offline stuff, like hosting a photography meetup, stuff in that vein?
Luke Beard: We did like one meetup when we launched. This is where, again, like I said, this is more of just the resources on hand. I would love to do that kind of stuff. We are focusing more on that this year, but it’s something I let slip. The community aspects of Exposure did get put to the wayside to a degree once we were just so neck deep in product. Exposure is such a huge product[inaudible 00:45:20] huge experience problem that it becomes all consuming. So being able to do all things product and all things community is actually very difficult. So one thing we’re doing in the next couple months is actually looking for a dedicated community manager to look after all these people. Where, we do a good job with support, community is a whole different world when it comes in inbound communications.
Luke Beard: But offline stuff would be amazing. We’re actually potentially doing something with the National Center of Photography around featuring some of our human stories. But there’s infinite opportunity with the kind of content we have. It’s one of those balls that you keep dropping when you’re building a business like this and you’re trying to keep it fast, keep it small, not keep it small but keep it efficient and sustainable. You really gotta pick your battles, when the only money you have essentially is your revenue.
Josh Pigford: Right, yep. I think we’re pretty similar in this regard, where our brains just work, they’re very focused on the product side of things. I know I default to working on the product side of things before I want to work on the business or even the marketing side. You, in the founder role, how do you balance product stuff and then also the businessy stuff.
Luke Beard: I don’t even know what the right word for this is. Poorly? I don’t know. It’s something I’m learning. I mean I am, like I said way earlier, I’m not wired to be an entrepreneur on this level. I like building I guess companies, I guess products, but understanding the bones of the business, a business that makes real money is actually really time consuming and take a lot of learning. The last 4 months has been me leaning really hard into finances and understanding who spends the most money. More customer interviews than I care to mention. It’s tough to do it all. Thankfully, Exposure has a lot of collaborators, which have been incredibly supportive. We have two amazing board members that have been super helpful to me personally.
Luke Beard: But when it comes to actually managing the time, I don’t actually know. I think it’s currently a blur right now, and I’m sure there are many people in the same boat. It’s probably not healthy. I don’t think it’s gonna be sustainable, but right now it’s the way it has to be.
Josh Pigford: Yep. Yep. We can say any arbitrary length of time, but the next 6-12 months for you guys, what’s that look like?
Luke Beard: Fixing customer success and fixing churn. Exposure almost loses as much money as it makes per month. We do grow, we very rarely have a negative revenue month, but if we were to half our churn or change plan, plan price change is coming, to more expensive, we could fund a lot more development into the community, etc. So there’s tons and tons of work to be done. In terms of communications and just keeping customers. Making sure the check-ins are right, stuff that was skipped because of focus on product. Again, your Baremetrics blog, super helpful. It’s just focusing on getting revenue into a much more elevated spot, that we can start working on the bigger picture in terms of the product. But, like I said, we have a product that sells organically, so if we were to keep people longer, make things more expensive, and essentially put even a little bit of fuel in the fire it would do amazing things for us, which is the goal for at least this quarter.
Josh Pigford: What’s the biggest thing that you guys struggle with on the retention side? You mentioned churn is higher than you’d like. What causes that for you guys right now?
Luke Beard: People don’t post enough. We do a tiny survey that you can do when you churn out, and there’s a bunch of check boxes, and overwhelmingly it’s like “we don’t post enough.”
Josh Pigford: Do you think they don’t post enough because they don’t take enough photographs or do they just not have the time to post the stuff.
Luke Beard: Both. And also, one of the bigger aspects of that is the community angle, right? If you’re coming back to engage in the community you’re gonna post more, you’re gonna hang out more. So, like I said, this all plays into the same issue, as I was talking about earlier, where if you focus too much on the products you are actually missing the more valuable piece of the puzzle, which in our case was community. I mean it’s eye opening when you really dig into it. It’s so easy, especially with the small amount of bandwidth available for each part of Exposure’s life, to lose track of things like that but I really think when people churn out they don’t post enough, it’s actually our fault. It’s not them.
Josh Pigford: Sure. Yeah. Yeah. Gotcha. Well cool man. Well I think that’s all I’ve got. How can people get in touch?
Luke Beard: LukesBeard on Twitter, Luke@Exposure.co, say hi anytime you want, every other platform in the world. Slide in the DMs, do whatever you want. I don’t know. Send me a letter? Don’t send me a letter. I’ll never read it.
Josh Pigford: We need everyone to put their postal address so we can …
Luke Beard: Not creepy at all.
Josh Pigford: Not creepy.
Luke Beard: No this is cool man, I appreciate you having me on.