Walter Chen

Josh Pigford on June 19, 2017

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This week I talk with Walter Chen from iDoneThis & Animalz. Walter grew up a reluctant math wiz and became a lawyer primarily because he didn’t know what else he wanted to do. Soon after actually becoming a lawyer he realized that wasn’t his jam and quit to go on and found multiple startups. Walter’s an amazing content marketer and we learn how he used that to grow iDoneThis and ultimately to start Animalz, his content marketing agency. Enjoy!

Josh Pigford: All right, thanks for joining me, Walter.

Walter Chen: Thanks for having me, Josh.

Josh Pigford: So lets, I guess to kick things off, I’d love to kind of get your backstory. What were you like as a kid?

Walter Chen: Yeah, so as a kid, well I think one of the big formative things is that my dad is a math professor, so growing up I did a lot of math and I had to do math all the time. My dad made me do a lot of math. So, that was both good and bad for me, because obviously I was a huge nerd and I grew up in a relatively small town in Texas, so I got picked on a lot.

But on the flip side, I learned math, which was good for the future.

Josh Pigford: Did you enjoy it or was it a chore?

Walter Chen: It was very much a chore, I hated it. Yes, every summer when kids go out and play I had to stay in and do math problems and then I would go over the math problems at night with my dad, and then that was before I learned that the answers were in the back of the book, so that I should have figured that part out, but yeah.

Josh Pigford: So instead of your parents telling you to go outside, they’d tell you to do math?

Walter Chen: Yeah, exactly. So whenever we went on vacation we had to bring math books, and we would do math problems. Take a couple of hours of the day to do math. But the thing about my dad is he really loved math, and for him, it was like a way to, he grew up really poor in Taiwan, and the way he got out of that was by being the best student. But he really learned to love Math, and he doesn’t want to retire, he just wants to die doing Math.

But he never instilled that in me. And for me, it was just like, you have to do Math all the time and I hated it. It was just something that I was always trying to get out of.

Josh Pigford: So did you feel like you were good at it, even? Was it even the source of, I don’t love it but I can do it?

Walter Chen: Yeah, you know, I was pretty good at it, I got pretty good.

I had some pride about it, but on the other hand too, it kind of made me fearful, because everyone expected me to be even better, you know what I mean?

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: Everyone was like, oh Walter is a math prodigy, blah, blah, blah. And then that made me really scared because I knew I wasn’t a math prodigy I was just pretty decent at math and made to do math all the time. Like, these people thought I was really good at math, it turned out I just did a lot more of it than they did.

Josh Pigford: If anybody sat there and did 20 hours of math a week they’d get good at it.

Walter Chen: Yeah, so actually that was part of growing up. I was actually, it made me really fearful and I was always afraid of looking stupid or getting stuff wrong, and so then that was the kind of thing where I didn’t want to show people that I was trying. You hear this all the time, but that was something that I had to later fix, which was not being afraid, trying to do my best, asking questions, being not afraid to look stupid, that kind of thing.

Josh Pigford: Yeah, so math was a chore, was that the case with all of school or did you enjoy some parts of school or other subjects?

Walter Chen: Yeah, you know, I’m like, I don’t know, I would say that I mostly didn’t like school and I just, my whole life one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is what do I like, you know? Because most things I don’t really get that much enjoyment out of. So yeah, school I didn’t really like. I liked playing soccer, playing basketball, going outside, running around, that kind of thing.

Josh Pigford: Was there ever any sort of entrepreneurial bone that you got to flex as a kid or did that come later?

Walter Chen: Yeah, you know, when I was a kid I had some garage sales and lemonade stand, that kind of thing. Nothing big. My dad tried to encourage me, actually, he went to Denmark once and he saw these really cool things, they were just little chatchkes or whatever, like little things, diff that they spin and they make lights and stuff and he was like, oh you could sell these door to door, and I was like, all right, sounds good, so I tried it and I sucked at it.

Nothing happened there. He was imagining dollar signs, but nothing happened.

Josh Pigford: Sure. So for your dad, math and I guess education was his way out of Taiwan.

Walter Chen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Josh Pigford: So do you feel like he viewed education as the end all, be all or just more like the relying on yourself, to make stuff happen.

Walter Chen: Yeah, that’s a good question. To me, and you hear this a lot. To be an immigrant, to give up everything and come to the United States, that’s the ultimate entrepreneurial spirit, and you know, I have so much respect for what my parents did, and I admire them a lot.

And my dad is a really curious person, so yeah, so I think it’s kind of more that bit. At the same time, there was a lot of emphasis put on education and also within Chinese culture, respect for elders and stuff like that. So it’s kind of like a weird hodgepodge. I would say that it doesn’t fit the mold of what you would typically think of as entrepreneurship but I think of my parents as very entrepreneurial and instilling the spirit of just trying to be your best and achieve the highest that you can achieve and that kind of thing.

Josh Pigford: So after high school, went to college, and you went to law school?

Walter Chen: Yep, yep.

Josh Pigford: So how does somebody who’s not super into school but … end up in law school?

Walter Chen: Yeah, actually, that’s a funny way to put it. That’s a really good question.

So yeah, growing up in addition to math, obviously I, like a lot of kids, I screwed around with computers and stuff like that, mostly just to play video games. So I played Star craft and I had no idea what I wanted to study in college. But I would just remember that I got a kick out of computers and I thought computer science might be cool, so I did that.

But when I got to college, I went to Cornell, which engineering is kind of known for being a little bit more hardcore and also I kind of had that thing too where I liked to, I thought it was cool to stay up all night and stuff like that. You know what I mean?

So I was doing that, pulling all nighters and in the computer lab for a week straight, you know? Awake from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. and then I was, I got super burned out of that.

And I was like, one, I never want to pull another all nighter ever again, and I never did until I started practicing law, and then I was also like, I’m sick of computers, I’m sick of hanging around with dudes all the time. Hanging out, I was sick of all that stuff, right/ math, all that stuff.

So I thought I’d try something different. Law is still applying logical thinking, blah, blah, blah but in a different context. And I didn’t know what I wanted to do, that was the main thing. I had some job offers to do software, to be a programmer, but I was like, ah, you know, it’s like eh, it doesn’t seem that exciting, so …

Josh Pigford: I mean, it seems like, for somebody who doesn’t … when you don’t know what you want to do you pick like some of the hardest things you can possibly do.

Walter Chen: Yeah, well that’s actually funny because my dad always told me, my dad’s thing is always if you don’t know, if you’re going to go to college, if you don’t know what you’re going to do, do something hard because if you do something hard like math, then you can do, if you wanted to do physics later, you can do that. And if you wanted to do computer science later, you could do that. Stuff like that.

Of course, I didn’t want to do physics or computers, I didn’t want to do any of those things, but it seemed reasonable to me.

Josh Pigford: Right, right.

Walter Chen: It seemed like a good point, trying things that are hard, there’s some value in that. I think I learned a lot from that.

Josh Pigford: So you finish law school and then what, you go on to actually practice law?

Walter Chen: So yeah, so I went to Michigan for law school and then I stayed, I worked for a judge in Detroit for a year and that was a formative experience for me and it made me think that I might actually enjoy being a lawyer, so then I took a job at a relatively large corporate law firm practicing law in New York City. And I did that for …

Josh Pigford: So and you were doing, actual corporate law?

Walter Chen: Yeah, yeah, it was, and this was a bunch of jargon, but it was like litigation, so I was on the litigation side but it was for large commercial interests.

Josh Pigford: What part of that, I mean, what aspects of that, I guess, were appealing to you. You mentioned, not that it’s something that’s not appealing to people, it’s like, obviously every kind of job or field has parts that aren’t great or you don’t enjoy but I’m curious, what parts about being a lawyer did you actually enjoy and get …

Walter Chen: That’s a really good question in that, yeah, it’s like people assume being a lawyer totally sucks. Actually, it can be really interesting and intellectually stimulating and I think it’s actually more intellectually stimulating than being an entrepreneur in that …

Josh Pigford: It’s a ton of complexity, though, you just kind of have to sort through it.

Walter Chen: Exactly. It’s very, things are very complicated, there’s a lot to learn. You’re expected to learn really fast and learn lots of areas of law that you don’t know, very quickly. And you need to master it very quickly and so that’s interesting.

There is stuff at stake, right? Because there’s a dispute of some kind, right? So it’s not, there are interests at stake, people care about what happens, and so that’s cool. And then you go home and read about what you’re doing in the paper. And that’s cool. For example, I worked on the Lehman Brother bankruptcy and this was in 2009 so it was cool to feel like you’re at the center of the financial universe.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: And stuff like that. So I think that part is cool. And then, reading and writing if you like to read and write it can be really cool. I think the part that makes it drudgery that a lot of people complain about is in large scale commercial litigation, there’s a lot of documents, right? So one there’s a lot of documents, so people spend their time doing what’s called doc review, which is going through thousands of documents, I did that, where I went through 5,000 documents in three days, or whatever. It’s pretty mind numbing.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: And the other is there’s a lot of process and sometimes it just feels like it’s all process and all kind of like making each other miserable, and complaining.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: Sorry, that was probably more than you wanted to hear on that.

Josh Pigford: No that’s great. No, so that’s what, 2009/2010.

Walter Chen: Yep, 2009/2010, yep.

Josh Pigford: And so then, I guess, is this after you made the transition to I Done This or …

Walter Chen: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: I mean like, how did that?

Walter Chen: Yeah, I quit my job in September 2010, so …

Josh Pigford: And what was the impetus for quitting?

Walter Chen: Yeah, so there were a few things. One, I got mono that year and while I was at home for six weeks or whatever with mono I was like here I am with mono, first of all, at 26 years old, that’s not cool. And then I was also like, what do I want to do with my life, right? And am I enjoying what I’m doing, all that stuff.

So it was around that time when I decided when I get better from mono I’m going to finish out the last few months to make it a year and then I’m going to do something else. And around that time, too, a good friend of mine, who became my co-founder with I Done This, he was doing a Physics PhD and he was not enjoying it either, so we were kicking around a lot of ideas on what we might want to do.

We had actually been introduced because when I was in law school and before when I was in college I had been interested in starting a company and starting a tech, I had always been interested in technology.

Josh Pigford: Yep.

Walter Chen: So we had always been kicking around ideas, so it just kind of came, it started bubbling up.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha, and what was, how did the idea itself, the product part, come?

Walter Chen: Yeah, so Rodrigo is my co-founder, his name, so in September he quit his PhD I quit my job and we both moved to San Francisco. We had this idea that we were going to do, we had kicked around a million ideas, many of which were, some of which were interesting, and in retrospect some companies have done stuff with them, of course we would have had no idea what to do with it. But anyway, we were like, okay, we’re going to do apartment rental applications online.

This is a common idea that you see because it’s a problem for people like us, which are dudes who are renting. So we were like, you should do this better, it shouldn’t be with paper, it should be online, blah, blah, blah. So we built this thing and we tried to talk to customers and stuff like that, but obviously it was pretty far outside of our wheelhouse, talk to landlords and stuff like that. If we were to do it now we would do it a lot better. Back then we were really green and also afraid and fearful and stuff like that.

So yeah, we built that, nobody cared, we got one person using it, and then we had this third co-founder and he actually owned property in Chicago so we ended up selling just like the code to him, and so that happened from September 2010 to December 2010, so in December 2010 we had hit a low point because we were like, so excited, we are building an amazing start up and then in December we were like, this sucks, we just sold.

Josh Pigford: It’s hard.

Walter Chen: Exactly. And then in three months we’re like, now nobody is using this then I guess we will sell the code to this friend of ours for pennies on the dollar.

Josh Pigford: Right.

Walter Chen: And it was during that low point, and I was moving back to New York and it was during that time where my co-founder Rodrigo was like, hey I got this idea, I want something to help me keep track of what I get done every day, and I want to use it to work out and exercise. Do you want to build it with me. We can launch it for New Years, January 2011, and I was like, yeah, let’s do it.

And it was the last thing I did, and then before I moved back to New York, so we built it not expecting anything, we launched it and then I left.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So, I mean, what was, did you move to San Francisco purely based on the that’s where the tech scene is? Or was there something else?

Walter Chen: It was that, and it was where Rodrigo wanted to live. And I always like San Francisco, I lived there one summer before when I was in law school and I always thought it was cool, so yeah, it was a combination of all that.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha, and the moving back to New York City was that just, if you enjoyed San Francisco what was the reason to move back?

Walter Chen: Yeah, so, my girlfriend was in New York.

Josh Pigford: Okay.

Walter Chen: And I just really like New York better, and that’s why I live here now.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: So that was what brought me back.

Josh Pigford: So I Done This comes out, what, January 2011? Did you guys launch it in January?

Walter Chen: Yep, yep.

Josh Pigford: So I mean, what happened after you launched it? Obviously the apartment thing sort of fell on deaf ears, didn’t really go anywhere. What was the reception like for I Done This?

Walter Chen: Yeah, it was like people liked it, that was the weird thing. I mean, we didn’t, by today’s standards obviously was not an impressive launch, but we put it on Hacker News, and it was on the front page near the top and then the next web wrote about us, and then so after the first day was over we had 200 users or something like that. 200 people signed up.

And we’re like, oh my God, this is the greatest thing ever.

Josh Pigford: Right.

Walter Chen: So yeah, that was kind of what happened.

Josh Pigford: Were you guys, you said you have 200 sign ups at this point, can anybody even pay you for it?

Walter Chen: No it was just the personal product, just for free, just to keep track of what you got done every day.

Josh Pigford: So I mean, a to do list, essentially.

Walter Chen: Yeah. To do except the reverse, it was what you got done rather than what you were setting out to do.

Josh Pigford: Right.

So what’s the next steps to transition this from a free consumer based thing to something people could pay for and would pay for?

Walter Chen: That’s a great question, so just kind of fast forward, yeah, we didn’t even work on it for a few months. April we picked it up in April because it got picked up by Life Hacker and that’s when we went from hundreds to thousands of users and then we were like, what should we do with this, and so we applied around to some start up accelerators or whatever.

We ended up getting into Angel Pad, which is based in SF, and the thing about Angel Pad that they were really excited about was that they had, they were all from Google, and at Google they had done something called Google Snippets where they would send an email out to everyone in the company on a weekly basis asking what they did last week and what they planned to do in the following week.

So they were like, oh this is really cool and this could be something like Google Snippets, which they all found really useful. So we moved to SF in June, I moved back to SF in June, fun fact, our first office was, we shared an office with Post Mates, when they were just three founders, and so we got to see them take off.

Josh Pigford: Wow.

Walter Chen: And then we did Angel Pad, so it was around that time we had this momentum where we had tens of thousands of free users by that point and then we were able to, it was sort of like a freemium thing, we were able to convert them to paid users. The ones that signed up with the work email address, and that kind of thing. We converted a fair number of paid users, and we would basically build I Done This for teams, which is basically the same as I Done This except when you write what you got done every day it got shared with everybody, and then in the email digest that came through the next day.

It was kind of like a progressive transition, and then at that point we basically had two products that were very similar product wise but very different customer wise, there was a few people who were using it as a journal and then paid customers who were using it within their companies as like a Google Snippets kind of thing.

Josh Pigford: Did you guys, I mean, was there a basic future parity of the two, or did you treat them as two separate problems?

Walter Chen: We were really stupid, I would say in that we didn’t have a coherent strategy for it. We just wanted to see the numbers go up. That was one of the big problems, we’re focused on our paid users, we want to make more money, but we also want to sign up more free users because it’s cool to get those numbers going up.

Josh Pigford: Right.

Walter Chen: So they shared a similar code based but they had different, it was pretty hacked together. They shared similar code and so they had similar features, where you could give a feature for free, kind of apply across both but there was a lot of, it wasn’t well organized and so some stuff was for both, some stuff wasn’t, etc.

Josh Pigford: So from a marketing standpoint, the thing that sticks out to me the most, when I think about I Done This from a marketing standpoint is the content side of things.

Walter Chen: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: So what role did that play in the grand scheme of things in terms of growing?

Walter Chen: It was huge, I mean, obviously Bare Metrics does a really great job with content. And so thanks for saying that. It was huge, so basically it started because I used to be a lawyer, right, and I was like I like to read and write, and also a major influence was that Buffer was in our Angel Pad class. They were in the same class with us, so that was huge, because we saw what Buffer was doing and not only that, Leo who is the main guy behind it, he was really generous and he would sit down with us and explain what he was doing with content, like explaining what was working, blah, blah, blah.

What he was thinking, what his angles were, and Buffer was a huge supporter and amazing friend to the company. And so yeah, so basically it started like, let’s write some blog posts for the company blog. And see what happens, and we did and early on a lot of, we had a lot of initial early success with that, so we had huge uptake and then these blog posts got tens of thousands of views and it drove huge spikes in sign ups. And seeing that success early on is what made us keep doing it.

Josh Pigford: And so at that point, I mean, I think one of the things we have the hardest time with at Bare Metrics in producing content is that the stuff that does really well is stuff that I’ve written, not because I’m amazing or anything, but because the stuff that I’m able to write, purely based on the fact that it’s from one founder to another, works really well. So I mean, were you producing the large majority of the content, or were you outsourcing some of that stuff?

Walter Chen: Yeah. Early on I did all of it and then we hired Janet who is a friend of mine from college and she had just graduated law school and wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. It was so funny that she had just graduated law school. She didn’t know what she wanted to do, so I was like, hey I know you’re a great writer, why don’t you write content for our blog? And she joined, and then she joined full time, and now she runs marketing at Customer IO, she’s amazing.

And then after she left, we hired this guy Blake, who was a journalist from Michigan and he did a great job and then when we sold I Done This, he joined Status Page, did an amazing job for them, runs content there now and is there now and was there through that transition.

So I did a lot of content early on, we had great luck hiring great content people.

Josh Pigford: Did you guys do any other kind of marketing, or was it 100% content marketing?

Walter Chen: It was nearly 100% content marketing, we did some other stuff, some of which was actually successful but we didn’t double down on it, so the only thing we really double downed on was content, so for example, we did this whole outbound thing.

This was before a lot of people were doing it, we built our own system for sending personalized emails to companies we thought would be good customers. So for example, we had a thesis of companies who had just raised their seat around, they’re just scaling their team, so they’re becoming more anxious that they don’t know what’s going on, on the team on a day to day basis. Let’s send them an all email telling them about I Done This, so we would pull from Angel List and Tech Crunch and stuff and we would create email lists and we would email them.

Actually, it worked really well. It wouldn’t work well today because it’s just so much saturation on that front, but it worked really well back then.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: It’s just that we didn’t, any time anyone sent us email that was angry it made us depressed, and then, also it wasn’t that fun. Not that that’s a good reason, and now I realize that is very not necessarily a good reason.

And then another thing we tried was Google Ads but we did a really bad job of it, and actually at one point, I accidentally spent $5,000 without knowing it and then when that happened, after that happened I was like, “NO MORE”, I’m not good at this. And I was trying to do it on top of a lot of other things we were doing so it wasn’t, given the lack of focus and the lack of knowing what I was doing, wasn’t really a good idea.

Josh Pigford: So something I always noticed about you specifically is that, I don’t know if you still are, but certainly during the I Done This days, you were a prolific guest writer. I mean, so many, I just kept, whatever it is, Inc, and what others have I seen, Business Insider, there’s just tons.

Tell me about that, how did that stuff come about? And what role did that sort of play in ultimately growing I Done This?

Walter Chen: Yeah, that was a great question. So one common problem we had and a lot of companies have this problem, which his basically we saw initial success with our content, and it was because distribution happened on Hacker News and it gave us a huge bump. But distribution via Hacker News was not a repeatable strategy, right? Especially now. It’s like, back then it actually was much easier to get on the front page whenever you wanted to. Now it’s basically, it’s very difficult.

So we needed to diversify our distribution and build our own distribution, you know what I mean?

Josh Pigford: Yep.

Walter Chen: So you actually go from this place where this is a common start up graph is like huge spike early on, you’re feeling great, and then you go through the trough of misery, whatever.

Josh Pigford: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Walter Chen: So, as part of going through that is building your own distribution. So one of the ways we did that is through guest posting. So, for example, Business Insider, we actually just through reaching out we built a syndication relationship where they actually read. They set up a feed on their end of I Done This posts and just syndicated the ones that they liked.

So that’s a great example of enlarging your distribution in a way where you don’t have to do any extra work. So we built a relationship with a business insider team. They agreed to syndicate nearly all of our blog posts as Business Insider, great for us, amazing for us, right?

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: Similarly, just building relationships with other content people, anytime you wanted a guest post, reaching out and this was about doing something valuable for both sides, and also giving value to them too, so obviously other folks guest posted on I Done This and we helped promote other companies.

So it just came out of that problem of how do you build your own distribution and make it really reliable and repeatable?

Josh Pigford: So I mean, in that same vein, I think one question that a lot of people who produce any amount of content have is how do you balance doing something like self hosting all of your stuff, you’ve got the company blog or whatever, vs. lots of guest posting vs. using medium as the place to put all that content.

How do you view content in the grand scheme of things, there’s like the SEO side of things, but there’s also lots of other reasons why you would post content. So for you, what’s the maybe high level strategy that you think works really well?

Walter Chen: Yeah, let me think.

Yeah, you know, I think at the end of the day, content is about creating value for other people and helping them be successful in what they’re trying to do with our without your product. It’s about helping your audience succeed, right?

My general take on that is it’s really important to build value on your own property, so owned channels like your own email list, you need to build traffic to your own blog, that kind of thing. The thing is though, that what a lot of people do, they’ll save all the good stuff for their blog and then when they do a guest post on another site it’ll be awful.

You know what I mean?

Josh Pigford: Yep.

Walter Chen: Or it’ll be the same, and so I think that the easiest thing to do is just to take content, basically this is the win/win. I have content on my blog that I know is successful.

I know it’s successful because I look at the metrics and it is one of the most successful blog posts. Based on that, I will do another version of that content, that I know, because it’s been successful it’s going to help you too. I’m going to post it on your blog and it’s going to be helpful for you.

To someone who is running a blog they’re like, okay that’s great. It’s not a duplicate, and it’s not trash, right? There’s some reason it’s going to be good and we have, so it’s about giving value to everybody.

For example, early on Kevin Lee who now runs the Buffer blog, Leo introduced us, again, Leo, great guy. He introduced us and was like Kevin is one of the best up and coming content guys, you should talk to him. So he did a guest post on our blog about, I forgot it, one of those science behind, that kind of thing. And it was great for him because it gave him a chance to write on another blog, get more exposure, that kind of thing, and for us it actually was a huge article. It gets thousands of views a month today, and over the course of since it was posted in 2012 it has probably gotten nearly 100,000 views.

A lot of people, guest posts kind of have a bad rep, because most of them suck, but …

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: When someone gives you real value on your blog, that’s amazing and then it also benefits them. So it’s about creating that win-win.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So ultimately you decided, you sold I Done This.

Walter Chen: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: So that happened in what, 2015?

Walter Chen: Yep, November 2015.

Josh Pigford: So how did that come about?

Walter Chen: So, the short is that Elizabeth Yen who runs 500 start ups introduced me to Jonathon Seagull, who is a guy who basically runs private equity for Sass start ups and he’s bought a lot of them. Like Follow Up CC and Cloud App and stuff like that.

She introduced us, we talked, and then we kept in touch over the course of a year and a half, and by the end of 2015, Rodrigo and I were pretty burned out.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: So then, yeah, we sold the company.

Josh Pigford: What do you feel like contributed to the burn out?

Walter Chen: Well, a few things. One Rodrigo and I are friends, and actually we just had dinner last night, but and if we were to work together again, we would probably do it better but we have pretty contrasting work styles, and we always kind of were at odds, but we always stuck together because we’re friends, we like each other, that kind of thing.

So neither of us was willing to give up, but it wasn’t a super great relationship either, and the other thing was probably it’s just typical the ups and downs of startups.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: We were going to sell at the beginning of 2015, but then we had this huge growth thing where we launched a new feature and we got four months of really great growth.

Josh Pigford: You get a bit of an adrenaline rush that kind of sustains you.

Walter Chen: Yeah, four to six months of really great growth and then it flattened. It went flat, and then some of the great growth that we got as a result of that feature reversed itself. So we were like, ah, but it wasn’t the first time that it happened, it was the tenth time that it happened. So that was like, we’ve had enough of this.

Josh Pigford: Sure, sure, so I mean, for you what was the big take away from building I Done This.

All said and done what was your big take away?

Walter Chen: I haven’t, I still, I mean, I suck, I still haven’t digested it really well.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: If I were to just say three take aways. I would say, one, founder market fit, so this product we created as a, what I said earlier, it was kind of inspired by Google Snippets, but neither of us worked at Google. Know what I mean? Neither of us had actually worked as a professional developer or in a real professional environment.

Rodrigo had come from a Physics PhD and I came from working at a law firm, which was very different from the way that most of these companies operate.

So we didn’t understand our customer and we didn’t understand the product, really. Half of the time we were just wondering why people even liked it. So that was a big one, and the initial idea was of this personal product. So, that was a big one.

The other one was, and this was something that, I listen to Hiten and Steli’s podcast, the start up chat, which is great.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: And they were talking about don’t treat your start up as like your baby. And I think getting overly attached is a problem that I had. So not being able to make rational decisions about the company because I was always either depressed about it or …

Josh Pigford: Attaching your own self worth to this product.

Walter Chen: Exactly, and I still have this problem, it’s just like, not being able to think clearly because you’re depressed all the time or whatever. Not truly depressed, I don’t want to make that sound cheap, but you’re always kind of sad about it and stuff like that.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: Or manically working on it. Or whatever. And then I would say that the last one is related to market. Productivity got really competitive and the standards got a lot higher.

In productivity, people were expecting, even in B to B productivity tools, they were expecting a consumer like level of polish on the product, and we didn’t have that at all. Both Rodrigo and I were not strong on the design side and we never hired a designer, which was a mistake.

It got really competitive. One of our customers was this great company called Taco, which was this great company founded by, what’s his name, I forgot his name, he’s a very important guy, he was formally Chief Software Architect at Microsoft. At the end of 2012 or something, 2013, he said the two tools I used to most in 2013, were I Done This, and Slack, and we were like, Oh my God, this is amazing.

But Slack just raised the bar so high and it made us …

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: Be like, oh my God, we vaguely are going to have to compete with Slack. I mean, we can build on their platform, blah, blah, blah but it’s big competitive in that it keeps everyone in the loop.

Josh Pigford: Yeah.

Walter Chen: And it makes superfluous a lot of the tools. And there’s no way we can ever create a product with the level of polish that Slack does. So I would say those three things, basically, are the three major take aways.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha. So you wrap up at I Done This and then you take what this whole content machine, that you’ve been building over the past couple of years, and you start, what’s essentially a content agency.

Walter Chen: Yeah, exactly.

Josh Pigford: Correct? So called, Animals.

So did you exit I Done This directly into that or take some time off?

Walter Chen: Yeah, I was really stupid and I didn’t take any time off.

So I was like, yeah, I just went straight into it and i actually felt the effects of that, not immediately obviously, because you’re super high on starting a new thing.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: But eight months later I was like, Oh my God, kill me.

But I did not kill myself, and so yeah, but I would have liked to take a vacation. So yeah, that would have been a good idea.

Josh Pigford: So I mean, give me like the quick summary of what you guys do.

Walter Chen: We try to help B to B SAS company create the very best, high quality content.

Josh Pigford: So what’s for you, the biggest difference between running a software company and just running the content?

Walter Chen: Yeah, just one word, it’s like people. You know?

Josh Pigford: Yep, yep.

Walter Chen: People as far as the eye can see, and how do you manage people?

I think I would have, if I had done this company and then I Done This, basically in reverse order, I think it would have made me a lot stronger entrepreneur, and that’s why I think in part you see a lot of people who have run agencies then start product companies and be successful with it, is that you have to learn a lot about cash flow and also managing individuals, yeah, managing people, which is probably one of my biggest weaknesses.

Josh Pigford: I feel like most entrepreneurs would benefit, not from a business degree, but from a Psychology degree.

Walter Chen: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Josh Pigford: If you’re going to go to college for something, you know?

Walter Chen: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Josh Pigford: So is it harder for you, you talk about cash flow there. So, with software you’ve got relatively stable income, but when you’re doing this sort of project, billing companies for work, it can be a lot more volatile I presume.

Walter Chen: Yeah, one idea that both helped and hurt us that I had coming into this was I’m going to run this company kind of like a SAS company, so all of our contracts or whatever are recurring, so there is recurring revenue, which makes the business a lot more predictable.

At the same time, the main difference is that you don’t have the software margins. So you have to make sure that you have margin and make sure that you’re making money. Some people think it’s really easy to make money as an agency, but sometimes it’s actually trick to understand whether you’re making money or not.

Our model is like, we’ll bill on a recurring basis for a certain amount of work, not a certain number of hours. So sometimes we’re ahead on work and sometimes we’re slightly behind on work, so if we’re behind and people have already paid us it’s like you have to reconcile that, you have to make sure that you’re actually making money.

With the amount of overhead, and different expenses, and how much people cost, it’s like taking an individual salary and multiplying it by 1.5, you know, something like that. It’s insane, right? So making all that work while still delivering a lot of value to the customer, that’s what you have to figure out.

Josh Pigford: Are you guys taking the role of, I don’t know if ghost writing, would that be the right term, or are you guys, do you take a byline on an article or …

Walter Chen: We write under, we don’t call it ghostwriting because I feel like ghostwriting is a big, it’s not that flattering of a word. We write under whoever wants the article under, it’s like, we’ll write under whoever’s name, we don’t necessarily take a byline. And a lot of times, too, it’s their idea, they’re the ones that bring a lot of value to it.

Josh Pigford: Sure.

Walter Chen: So yeah, we’ll write under whatever helps the company the best, that’s what we’ll do.

Josh Pigford: And how are you guys growing, I mean, getting new clients.

Walter Chen: It’s all word of mouth referral, our website used to be had nothing on it, so it had this kind of speak easy kind of vibe. People had heard about us but there’s no way to find out more about us.

Josh Pigford: Yep.

Walter Chen: So right now we’re just going through, entirely through word of mouth and a lot of our customers have been really great about telling people about it. There is a need for content, obviously, so yeah, a lot of people have been talking about us and that’s how we’ve grown the business.

Josh Pigford: How do you guys compete with content can be, kind of a commodity if quality is not the name of the game, so how do you compete with people who maybe don’t understand the value of really good quality stuff.

Walter Chen: So we try to work with really great companies, companies who are committed to content, and want great content. And our whole thing is about doing great content, so it’s just, we don’t really pay attention to companies that don’t care about that, and we just focus on the ones that do.

Josh Pigford: Gotcha.

So you’re out of the software game, and now you’re going into the agency kind of things, so what does the next year look like for you guys?

Walter Chen: Yeah, so we actually have built some software. We built a way to manage all of our internal work flow, which, we spent I don’t even want to, I don’t even remember, $15,000 or something, I don’t know, something stupid, and then we decided to scrap it all when we started using Air Table, which I think is basically the most amazing tool on the face of this Earth.

Josh Pigford: Yep.

Walter Chen: So we started using Air Table, we scratched all of the software we had built, but now actually we’re building software on top of Air Table. So it might be the same mistake, it’s possible that it’s the same mistake, but it looks a little different this time, so we’ll see.

Next year, we’re kind of at, we’re trying to scale the business basically and do more high quality content, and the challenges are just one, logistics, keeping track of everything. So that’s where our software really helps, where process really helps. And then the other is just hiring and training people and retaining people, which is also, the major people side. So, that’s the huge challenge there. Yeah.

Josh Pigford: With software, and this is coming from somebody, me, who’s a product guy more than anything.

Walter Chen: Yep.

Josh Pigford: So for me it’s I have this certain amount of excitement about, I know that we’ve got some big new thing coming with Bare Metrics.

Walter Chen: Yeah.

Josh Pigford: So that keeps me really interested in how are we going to present this and launch this, and will customers, how do we make it really valuable to customers. But with an agency thing, it’s less, what’s this cool thing that we’re doing next and it’s, if you’re wanting to actually grow the business it’s about scaling the thing that you’re doing.

So for you, is that a positive thing? Do you enjoy the scaling of people or what is it that makes you really excited about running this?

Walter Chen: Yeah, that’s a good question, so one, I think this is the thing I always ask myself, and I think one of the things I’ve felt recently, and at least reflected on this question is that I do rally like helping people to succeed. So I like to help people internally. We have a lot of young people and I just like helping them learn and grow, and take their skills and turn them into something that’s valuable.

And then on the flip side I get really invested in customers and the people that we work with, and I want to see them succeed. It’s really important to me to help them be successful. And then the third bit is like, every piece of content that we do produce is kind of its own little product. So making sure it’s awesome and then seeing people react to it and seeing people get really excited about it. That makes me feel really great.

So those are the main things, and then we do have product like things where we’re like, okay, so for example, we’re building this app on top of Air Table, and a lot of it is customer facing. It’s making it easier for customers to give feedback on stuff, and it makes the logistics easier because it has a cleaner interface to what the customer is trying to accomplish vs. doing everything over email or whatever. Or doing it over phone calls and then losing so much information.

So a lot of that is just about scaling, but it’s about thinking how do we organize the relationship that we have with the customer to make it as productive as possible and help both sides make this as seamless and easy as can be.

Josh Pigford: Yep, yep. One thing that I have found interesting over the years with Bare Metrics is in the CEO role I found that I enjoy a lot of the, I don’t know, business optimization kind of stuff. It’s almost this puzzle to figure out that is a lot more interesting than I think I would have imagined.

Walter Chen: Yeah, yeah, yeah, definitely. There are a lot of interesting challenges. There are a lot of things that I’m not, as I said, I’m not the world’s greatest manager and I think I’m good at dealing with people in normal life, but there are many times where I’m very bad at dealing with people and some of them have definitely come out in running this business.

But I think there’s enough to enjoy, at least right now, there’s enough to enjoy to make this something that I think is really valuable, and our customers really appreciate what we do and I think that’s great.

Josh Pigford: All right, Walter, that is all that I have got.

Walter Chen: Cool.

Josh Pigford: So yeah, that’s for hopping on a call man, I really appreciate.

Walter Chen: No, no, thanks for taking the time too, it was awesome to chat.

Josh Pigford