What is your background and what are you working on?
My name is Andrew Carpenter, and my background is in industrial/organizational psychology, which I studied at Colorado State, as well as business analytics, which I studied at CU-Boulder. My mission is to combine these two fields, the study of business data and the study of business people, to produce business processes that make people successful.
Intrinio, where I am the director of HR analytics, is giving me a chance to do just that. I joined Intrinio as employee number four in 2015. Since then, I have helped create the sales, support, HR, and marketing infrastructure the company needs to scale.
Intrinio provides financial data and apps that analyze that data in a fintech marketplace. Our users are evenly split between developers that use our API (application programming interface) to build apps for investors, and investors who use those apps to make investment decisions. With the help of the internal systems we have developed, we've managed to scale to over 10,000 users, and we're currently onboarding 50-60 users per day.
My hope is that, through this interview, I can shed some light on the business processes and tools that let us handle such high volumes affordably with a very small team. They've helped us grow from a startup doing $10,000 a month in revenue in 2016 to a scaling business whose users make 5 million API calls a day.
What's the story behind how Intrinio got started?
Joey French and Rachel Carpenter (my sister) founded Intrinio in 2012. They both had backgrounds in finance and thought there should be a way to automate financial analyses. They set off to build an app that would value a stock with the push of a button.
However, when they went to financial data providers looking for data to power the app, the quotes came back at $50,000 a month.
At the time they had no funding, so shelling out $600,000 a year just for data was impossible.
Instead, they decided to get the data for themselves and spent 2012-2013 learning to code so they could pull the data directly from the SEC. In the process, they realized the data they were gathering was more valuable than their original app, so they pivoted away from app development and started thinking about how to sell the data.
What convinced you to join?
Joey and Rachel were pissed off at data providers, and their anger rubbed off on me.
There aren't a lot of apps out there that enable everyday people to make good investment decisions, because startup app developers can't get the data they need to build innovative tools. The result is that poor people can't learn to invest for themselves, because only a "professional" can afford the training and tools needed to understand the market.
Since we already had the data, we ended up building the original automated investing app idea, but by 2015 the data was the focus, so we made the app free. Today, we keep the financial data affordable and easy to access, especially for independent developers.
What went into building the initial product?
We raised $500,000 over the course of 2012-2015, a tiny sum in the financial data industry. The money came from a few individuals with experience in the finance industry that knew first-hand how expensive financial data could be. They understood the problem — finance students, individual investors, and developers don't have access to data.
That capital helped pay for AWS servers, a tiny office, and some outsourced development work until our team really learned how to code.
The outsourced developers at RokkinCat used Ruby Padrino to connect the back-end database that would house our financial data with an API where developers could consume it. Internally, we worked with HTML and CSS to build a website where users could sign up and pay through Stripe, as well as Visual Basic to make an Excel add-in for investors.
The funds we raised were, at the time, just enough to build an MVP (minimum viable product). However, it didn't sell well at first, so most of our team got jobs as bartenders at Wine Madonna to make ends meet. Two of us lived on a sailboat; two more lived in a studio.
It was hard times, but it enabled us to "bootstrap" more of the platform, because we kept our costs way down. If we had raised a lot of money, we would have had to charge high prices to justify the funding, and that was the opposite of our goal.
By mid-2015, more than three years after starting, we had the basics of a data platform. Developers could subscribe to our API and build apps, and investors could subscribe and analyze data in Excel or Google Sheets.
Where did you find your first customers. How have you grown from there?
In the beginning, we didn't have a clue how to get traction. No one had sold data the way we were selling it. Our prices were so low relative to the competition that our potential customers (independent investors and developers) didn't know how to use our services. They weren't even looking for a solution because they assumed financial data was unaffordable.
We didn't have any funding to educate the public, and we only had a trickle of web traffic.
The solution was chat support, which we added to the website in late 2015 using Intercom. Intercom let us message visitors on our site, and also let those visitors ask us questions. Everyone on the team had the chat feature on around the clock, and we started answering questions about our product, making it easier to use our service.
We also started asking questions of our own:
- How did you find us?
- What do you like about Intrinio?
- What do you hate?
- What should we add?
We quickly learned that if you are ridiculously nice and helpful, web visitors reciprocate. The trick is to have no life — you literally have to be there pouncing on user questions morning, noon, and night. Maybe 1 in 20 conversations results in a sale, but 20/20 result in useful information.
As development was incorporating user feedback into the platform, the rest of the team was targeting the Q&A sites and chat rooms where developers said they found us. We began posting on Quora, Reddit, Stack Overflow, and social media forums where, to our amazement, potential users were literally asking for our product.
This approach really worked well for Intrinio (and continues to do so), but it requires our marketers to put serious effort into their posts. If you waste people's time with low quality posts and don't find forums and user questions that really apply to your product, you'll do more harm than good. These sites are good at weeding out marketers that aren't following the rules. If you are sincere with your posting and make sure you are helping people, you'll get a growing stream of traffic.
If you want to grow your traffic even faster, set up Google Analytics and experiment with different websites. Check your traffic from a source, post for a few days, then check again. Be scientific. Stick with the sources that produce and drop the channels that don't.
What's your business model, and how have you grown revenue?
In keeping with our mission to make financial data affordable for everyone from startups to students, we give away a lot of data.
We have a freemium model where everyone who signs up gets fundamental income/balance sheet, economic, press release, and basic company data for free. By giving away data, we make it really easy for users to start engaging with us. I think this is why we get so many signups each day — our free products are actually really useful, and other providers charge a lot of money for them.
We also give free data to startups for 6 months. This feels great given our own experience trying to build an application and not being able to afford data. We've had more than 70 startups participate in the program so far, and we expect to be the largest fintech incubator in Florida by the end of 2017.
This business model has grown revenue because startups don't hesitate to sign up for a free program, and we don't spend a lot of time trying to sell to them. After the six-month program, many of the startups end up paying Intrinio for data. They get to test out their apps for free, and if they succeed we don't jack up their rates. This makes for loyal customers.
Another unique aspect of our business model is that we don't have contracts, and we try to keep our actual prices ridiculously low. This also contributes to our high volume.
If you don't work in finance, not hassling customers and having great prices doesn't sound like a novel concept, but it sure hasn't been done before in fintech. Our users can subscribe to the data feeds they need and our terms and prices make sense to normal people. We don't make a lot of money per user, but this is exactly what we set out to do, so it's okay.
We still offer free chat support to everyone. I've had 2,500 conversations with users in 2 years. The rest of our team has had just as many. It can be exhausting, but when your platform is complicated and takes some time to learn, it's worth it. Getting a fast answer from a nice and knowledgeable team member is the difference between a loyal user and a leaving user.
Besides Intercom, another great tool we use is Pipedrive. It's affordable on a shoestring budget, and it's great for keeping track of potential sales leads we get from chatting with users. Every business should sell in a way that fits their product and market, but with a CRM (customer relationship management) tool, it's easier to figure out what works and what doesn't by tracking the sales deals you win and lose.
What are your goals for the future?
The short answer to this question is that our goal is to increase our web traffic by experimenting with new marketing channels. We get the team together and brainstorm a list of digital places where our users might be, build graphs using Google Analytics showing our traffic from those sources, then start posting and measuring the outcomes. If a source is producing good traffic with low bounce rates, we go after it. If not, we drop it.
The long answer to this question is that we use business data to determine what our goals should be. Our customers all go through a very similar journey. They find us (web hits), create an account (free signups), use a free product (active users), and subscribe to a paid product (paying customers). My business analytics training gave me the skills I needed to measure the volume of traffic at each of those steps as well as the conversion rates.
We know how many web hits we get, and how many convert to free signups, and so on down to paying customers. The volume and conversion rates are strong at each level of the journey, so our focus is on getting more traffic. Here are our data sources:
- Google Analytics API: Volume of web traffic
- Intercom API: Volume of free users and conversion from web hits
- Intercom API: Volume of active users and conversion from free users
- Stripe API: Volume of paying users and conversion from active users
- Pipedrive API: Volume of sales
Using these tools saves us money, but it also lets us track sales, marketing, and support, so we can measure our progress on company goals.
What were the biggest challenges you've overcome?
The most obvious challenge we overcame was not having access to financial data. Solving that challenge became our entire business.
I think it's common for indie hackers to notice a problem and start a business that provides a solution to others in the same situation. The difference with Intrinio is that we ended up giving the original solution away for free, because the other challenges we faced building it turned out to be the better products.
From an operations standpoint, we didn't see our platform really come to life until we got systematic about how we did our jobs. We tried hiring smart, experienced, highly-paid people to "do sales" or "do marketing". They failed because they were used to working in established businesses. They could manage other people, but they couldn't manage themselves.
The only thing that has worked for us to scale is to literally write down our processes. Here are some examples that seem trivial but that have actually worked:
- How to support a user
- How to post on social media
- How to make a sale
Once we started writing processes for everything we were doing, we realized some of the work we were doing didn't need to be done. Then we started hiring people to "execute the sales process" and "execute the supporting users process". Those new hires have been successful because they have a system to work in.
I wish we had done that from the get-go. It's annoying to run a business that way when there are only four of you, but it gave us clarity and a way to grow.
Has anything been particularly helpful or advantageous?
A huge advantage Intrinio has is anger.
Our team has experienced all of the problems our platform solves: We were students who didn't have the data we needed to learn finance, developers who didn't have data for our apps, and investors that paid high fees because we couldn't get data for our own analyses. We got mad as hell, and that has fueled us through the painful evolution of our business model.
The Intrinio Team, mad as hell.
If we were just trying to fix a problem, we would have quit 2 years ago. We're trying to right a wrong.
From a practical standpoint, not having a lot of funding has turned us into a lean, mean, data machine. We've had to be scrappy; adding to our platform in fits and starts instead of building a comprehensive solution. This has made our platform different from other data providers and, in the end, more affordable because we bootstrapped so much of it.
Not having funding meant we turned to easy-to-implement tools for sales, marketing, payments, and support. Every business tool we use has an API, meaning we can pull our own business data and use it to track company goals. Tools that have great APIs usually have pricing plans that make sense for startups, meaning your cost is small if your business is small.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Talk to your users. Don't outsource this. Great support fuels your sales efforts by starting a dialogue with web visitors. It fuels development efforts by getting feedback from even a small number of users. It fuels marketing because you'll identify the sources of your web traffic.
Build your business operations using tools that have great APIs — Stripe, Intercom, Pipedrive, and Google Analytics are all free or nearly free if you are just starting out. They also give you metrics. Being a small, independent developer doesn't mean you shouldn't think like a big business about your KPIs (key performance indicators).
If you have those tools, or tools like them, you don't have to spend money on marketing. You can make a bigger impact by tracking the impact of your posts on Q&A sites where users are already looking for your product.
Here are some resources that have been incredibly helpful:
The Google Analytics Query Explorer: If you've never worked with APIs before, Google's is one of the easiest to learn. Their documentation is really good. Once you've learned to analyze your web traffic programmatically, you can analyze any part of your business. The Query Explorer shows you what's possible. We like it so much we build our own API explorer.
The Leadership Pipeline: If your goal is to scale your business, you need people. This book explains why the skills you need to manage yourself are different than the skills you need to manage others.
The Advantage: Often indie hackers are running away from 9-5 businesses. This book explains how to get clarity with your growing organization so you don't end up making the same mistakes you are trying to avoid by striking out on your own.
The Stripe API: We modeled our documentation off Stripe's API documentation, because it's so easy to use. Learn to read API documentation here. If you really read it, you'll start to think like a hacker and figure out how to automate the parts of your business your competitors hire expensive employees for.
Where can we go to learn more?
You can learn about Intrinio on our website, and if you check me out on LinkedIn you can see some of the books I've published. Our blog is a great place to learn more about how to use APIs. We're also on Twitter: @Intrinio.
If you comment on this article, I can answer more in-depth questions about how Intrinio is systematizing our business.
Finally, I'd like to thank Courtland for interviewing me. Indie Hackers has a similar mission as Intrinio. We both want to empower independent developers to help solve problems for users of all kinds. Feel free to message me personally at email@example.com if I can help you or your business in any way.