Starting your own business and growing it to 50,000 dollars a month in revenue is something that many of us have only dreamed of doing. But Jason Grishkoff has actually done it. Teaching yourself to code from scratch and then going on to build and design your own websites that attract millions of visitors, is something that a lot of people would love to accomplish. And Jason has done that too. Finding a magic bullet that kick-starts your business's growth into overdrive is something that most founders fail to achieve. But Jason has done that twice. I'm Courtland Allen and this is The Indie Hackers Podcast. And today I'm going to be talking to Jason Grishkoff the founder of IndieShuffle.com and SubmitHub.com. Jason has a ton of valuable stories and experiences to learn from, and we were only able to get about halfway through the list of topics that I initially prepared to talk to him about. So I definitely recommend that you listen all the way through to the end of the episode because some of his best advice comes near the end. If I can I'll try to have Jason on again for a future episode, but in the meantime I hope you guys enjoy this conversation as much as I did. This episode is brought to you by SparkPost the world's fastest growing email delivery service. Trusted to send over 25% of the world's non-spam email. Built on AWS, SparkPost's robust cloud API lets absent websites send and receive email and it's designed for the way developers work today. Sign up now and send 100,000 emails a month for free forever with all the same features that come with paid accounts. Go to pages.sparkpost.com/indiehackers to learn more. SparkPost start fast, deliver more, guaranteed.Okay what's up everybody, I'm Courtland with the Indie Hackers Podcast and today we've got Jason Grishkoff, founder of SubmitHub with us. How you doin', Jason?
I am peachy, how about you?
Doing great, you're joining us all the way from Cape Town, South Africa. That's amazing.
Indeed, and it's about 10 hours later over here than it is where you are.
Yeah, so it was fun trying to schedule this and figure out how to sync up our timezones.
Nah, it's easy now, I guess I have to deal with this pretty often because the internet is global but still quite U.S.-centric so.
Yeah it is.
It's pretty normal.
So you I've already interviewed for Indie Hackers back in October for SubmitHub. And back then you were doing 46,000 dollars a month in revenue after only running the business for eight months which I think is awesome. A lotta people would envy you being in that position, and SubmitHub is a way for people who haven't read the interview, it's a way for artists to submit their music to be featured on popular music blogs and websites. Is that correct, Jason? Would you say I've got the gist of it?
That is the main original essence of what the platform provided. And today I think it's still rings true, it's one I'm still pushing.
And it's evolved a little bit, hasn't it?
A little bit, I mean we also I think at the core of it it's about connections and allowing musicians to connect with industry professionals with whom they would have had difficulty connecting in the past. And so that can be blogs, it can be record labels, and pretty soon I think it's gonna be radio stations as well.
Oh, cool. Yeah. So you guys are just like super expando mode.
You guys, yeah, yeah like me. Now I've got some support now, so we're okay.
Great, so I wanna start this interview by just asking you some simple questions. For example, what is your whole life story up until this point? And how did you get to where you are now?
Oh, wow, so simple. I think, I think well it comes back in a wonderful circle because you might be asking how, why am I in South Africa and I think listeners may have deduced at this point that I've got something of a weird accent that borders between American and something else which is South African go figure. So to sum it up in one minute: I grew up in South Africa, I went to a Waldorf school, so I've got a bit of a creative fundamental structure to my education, and in 1997 my family immigrated to the states. So my parents and I've got a younger brother as well. And I think it was always inevitable because my father is American and so it was in the books that eventually we would move back to the states given that I suppose it's almost cliche to say, but the American dream, right? There few countries in the world that can offer as great an opportunity in educational foundation and future career as America can. And so my dad always knew that at some point we'd be moving back to South, uh to the states. So moved to California when I was 12 in 1997, went to high school, ended up at University in San Diego at UCSD, studied history and political science and I decided I wanted to be a strategy consultant. So I I did a bunch of interviews and a lot of the guys I was taking the angle that okay so you know most of those guys economic background and I'm coming in with a liberal arts major, I was taking the angle that clearly you want someone to think differently within your company not just an economics background but something more holistic, blah, blah, blah, blah. And I got rejected I think close to 60 times.
I was pumping out resumes and cover letters as fast as I could, and I managed to get a few interviews I think even at Bayne, and KPMG, and I got flown out to the East Coast a couple times to interviews and every time I just got rejected. And eventually I found this consultancy in Washington, D.C. that did something called executive compensation which I had been clueless about up until the time. But what their company did was provide consultancy for other corporations who needed to justify their exorbitant executive salaries. So they're, they'd say hey we wanna pay someone 500,000 dollars a year can you make it look like this is legit.
Could you make this look all.
Yeah, so I got hired to do that and I went to D.C. and did it, it was a lot of Excel spreadsheets collecting data, kinda pulling peer group samples, trying to shape the peer groups, and comparisons.
I hated it, I hated it. I think my coworkers noticed that I hated it and one other thing I think a lotta people might relate to this, but when you finish university and you leave a lot of people move to different cities for jobs. And when you get to that new city, you often don't know anyone maybe you've got some weak connection from high school or second class. And that was very much me in D.C., I had no friends, I hated my life, I was depressed, I was like left college, man college is..
Epic, yeah, and now I've left it behind so when I was in D.C. working this terrible corporate job where I had to wear a suit every day. I decided to kick off a blog just to keep in touch with my friends and so that's how Indie Shuffle was born, and what's interesting about it is that Indie Shuffle actually led to me getting fired from that corporate job, and led to me getting hired at Google.
Oh, wow, I wanna hear the firing story first because I wasn't aware of that.
Um, so while I was working this gig we would often have to travel to and from different jobs, and I remember we were consulting for Fannie Mae no Sallie Mae and Freddie Mac that's it, something like that, those big loan companies that were going out of business, this was about 2007, 2008 as the crash was happening.
Ah, the worst time.
Yeah, totally, and so we're consulting for these guys and on these long commutes I'd be sitting with my boss talking about this really cool blog that I'd kicked off to communicate with all my friends. And after a while she stopped me, you know the third or fourth trip kind of talking about the progress, and she said, "I'm concerned that you're not focusing enough on your professional career, and instead you're just playing around with a stupid website. And we have a major concern about that and we think it's probably time that you consider quitting your blog."
What? Yeah. That's ridiculous.
Like you just are not allowed to do things outside of work.
Right, so at that point I was like f you guys, I hate this job anyway go ahead put me on a performance plan. So they put me on a performance plan, which is I think anyone who's ever been on a performance plan it's a clear sign that you're on the way out. Oftentimes, oftentimes it's because of a personality mismatch rather than an inability to do the job, but those two can be tightly interlinked, and in this case every time I messed up at work I had, I don't know if you've ever heard of the halo and horns theory?
Okay so it's cool, I learned it when I was at Google, and it made so much sense, but if you're at work and you do something really great out of the gates, you build up a reputation that you're always good at what you do and so when you do mess up, people go, "Oh, no, that's cool, Jason, you know everyone messes up it's cool if you messed up. Remember that one time that he totally killed it. We know he can do better than that, it's great." But if you've got the horns, every little mistake you make becomes the biggest deal in the world, and every time that you do something well it goes unnoticed. So it's more like, "Oh, well finally you did something right." And when you do make mistakes, it's like, "Yeah, dude, that's totally what I expect from you, you mess up everything."
So you had the horns I take it?
At this company I definitely had the horns. Like most of my coworkers hated me, and I'll give you the most ridiculous example I ever had was at lunch we were talking about something and I mentioned that one of my favorite things to do at UCSD was lie down on the grass and watch people walk by.
Yeah, just people watching.
And their reaction was, "Ew, ew, oh my God, that's so creepy, why would you just watch people?" And like, "Oh my God, like the bugs, like oh my God how can you be." And so.
Right? And so it's made me realize that oftentimes performance issues at work are very much related to personality clashes and not necessarily just work because everyone no matter how good they are, messes up.
And I think it's more about perception.
In SF they just call it culture fit.
Yeah, at Google they called it Googliness, but it was totally it was culture fit. And so anyway I was on the performance plan and I got a LinkedIn message back when LinkedIn was cool, and it was from Google and they said we're trying to find someone to do executive compensation internally at Google, are you interested? And, of course, you know I had to catch my breath, calm myself and go onto Google and absolutely yes, I would love to interview, funny that you email me executive compensation is my life calling, it's my passion, I'm doing very well at work. It's absolutely, they would hate to see me leave but I'm willing to interview just to see what it's about.
Ha, that is awesome.
What a break.
And so, yeah, oh God I hope they're not listening now. No but it is so much about cultural fit and how that affects it, because once I interviewed with Google at the time they were still stuck in that phase of going through like 10 or 11 interviews for every candidate, which I think they've gotten a lot better at. And much of it was testing for cultural fit, and what I found as I was interviewing was that the people I was interviewing with were passionate about music, and here I was building a music blog on the side, and immediately that cultural fit kicked into place and I felt like I was welcome like these were people I wanted to work with like I might actually enjoy coming to work.
So the next thing I knew this was 2010, I was moving from to D.C. back to California, to San Francisco and I started at Google, which is friggin' rad, super cool.
Yeah, you mentioned in the interview that we did earlier you were meeting all sorts of like high-level Google execs because your job was to determine their compensation so you had to interact with them. Who did you meet?
In my first week, I sat down with Eric Schmidt who was still CEO at the time, and I thought that was gonna be pretty normal, and it turns out it wasn't.
That's a pretty intense first meeting.
No, I think I was it was and it wasn't, it sort of, I'll draw a parallel, when you're working in the music industry and you're actually quite entrenched in the blogging or you get to a point where I am if you have a chance to meet some of these great artists, at this point I've become jaded and I've sort of expected that it's normal. And you break down that whole celebrity intimidation type of factor that kicks in, and you no longer feel it anymore. And so if I were to meet someone today like extreme example Barack Obama, you'd get the celebrity shell-shock to it, and I think some people would feel that way interacting with Eric, or Larry or Sergey, but because of the nature of what I was doing, I had taken it for granted in a way. I just thought it was normal. That's what I did.
That's like a perfect segue back into Indie Shuffle, I really wanna pick your brain on Indie Shuffle I think I can learn a lot from it and our listeners could too, because it's a content site kinda like Indie Hackers but you feature music, you know new songs, curated playlists instead of business interviews like I do with Indie Hackers, does that, is that correct, how would you describe Indie Shuffle?
I think it's gone through a couple different phases and the content's always stayed the same. You're right that's what we do we feature good new music. There was a point where I was trying to position us as a music streaming service, and I'm shifted away from that because it's a ridiculous statement when you're having to challenge against companies like Spotify and Alfa Music and Google Music and YouTube Red, and all these companies. What we do at its core is we discover the best new music the stuff that you won't find on Spotify yet, the stuff that no one's heard of. And we try to keep the quality really high, and yeah, I mean it keeps to the core element of what blogs in the music industry have always been.
Right, and I totally agree with you on the high quality thing cuz I was on there yesterday preparing for this podcast, and I started listening to songs. I must've been on there like an hour and a half just listening to different music that you posted on there, and like checking out your playlists, it's an awesome site.
Yeah, dude you did a good job, it's awesome.
So what is, what's the backstory on how you created Indie Shuffle because you had a liberal arts degree in college, then you went into consulting, at what point did you decide maybe I should get into tech or creating websites? And in your interview you know you're talking about using React and Meteor so you're a programmer today, but how did you start down that path?
I think if you checked in most programmers today in their late 20s early 30s, I'm 31 now, so most of us, I'm guessing you're a similar age?
29, I'll be 30 in March.
Cool, so similar right?
I'm gonna go the limit and say you've always really since you were a cognizant individual there have been computers around.
MSDos, Windows 95, and continuing through there and for myself when I was quite young, I was building GeoCities sites for my band, like a high school band type of thing. I was playing Counter-Strike and then I got into Counter-Strike full-time, and then next thing I knew, I was a professional Counter-Strike player.
You were a professional gamer, what, really?
Yeah, but this is before it was cool,
Oh, my God.
I played a lotta Counter-Strike, I was terrible at it.
Okay cool, yeah so I was professional, we were ranked, I was getting interviewed and I got noticed by a company who was kicking off a server company they were hosting the servers for people to play on, and they needed someone to come in and help with their marketing. And I think that was my first entrepreneurial journey, I think I was about 17, 16 or 17 and they asked me to come in and help out with this, and they were two programmers running these servers and what they wanted me to do was market it such that people would buy the packages so that they could play Counter-Strike on these servers. And coupled with the band websites that I was working on that was my first introduction to tech and in a way it faded, because that company ended getting DDoSed to hell by Chinese hackers.
Which I think is par for the course in the gaming industry and my partners who are I think very technically advanced today at the time they were only 19 or 20 so they didn't really know how to battle a DDoS attack.
It was much harder back then too.
Yeah, so that ended up fading on and through most of University I actually didn't really touch tech, it wasn't until I moved to D.C. And kicked off the music blog that I began to dabble in coding again. And from high school to the blog a lot had changed. I don't know if you ever messed around with GeoCities sites but I recall you had to create different iframes within your website if you wanted like a sidebar and a top menu. And then if you wanted to angle things, you would make it in Paint Shop and then copy the image over and.
Yeah. The old days were rough.
It was. Thank you.
I was making websites in the '90s just for fun, or for school, or for my parents friends and I remember the pre-CSS days when everything was a table, so you had to add table rows and table cells if you wanted to shift things over.
But I was such a rookie I couldn't even told you what a table was. I have no idea, I probably didn't learn that until two months ago. So what happened was when I launched Indie Shuffle I got kinda hooked on building a better and better platform on which to present my discoveries, and I was sourcing most of my music through BitTorrent at the time on a really cool platform called wipe.cdu which actually just shut down about a month ago. And I was uncovering a lot of really cool artists on this I mean this was before SoundCloud existed, before Spotify existed, this was like an amazing time in the internet. And I wanted to present it in a better and better way and I think that's how I started to get into coding was I built it on WordPress and I'd look at the sidebar and the theme that I did, and I'd say well, I want that background to be black, or I want that text to be white, or and then I'd have to go learn and enter the code. I almost felt like I was reverse engineering everything. As if.
Yeah, I have the same that feeling exactly, that's exactly how I.
Wasn't there a Ben Affleck movie or something roughly in the early 2000s where he had to reverse engineer something?
Probably, there's a lot of Ben Affleck movies.
Maybe Tom Cruise, I don't know. And I always felt like I've always tackled coding to the frustration of many of my friends who do code, from a reverse engineering angle, and I've never entrenched myself on the fundamentals. So I'm probably a pretty frustrating person to talk to from a coding side particularly because most of these coders have never really built something cool.
Right. As shitty as I think. I think there's this big divide, or kind of conflict I follow Peter Lovells on Twitter as I'm sure many of our listeners do. And he's got this kind of get shit done mentality when it comes to programming.
And the first priority is really building your product, adding the features to your product, and getting them in the hands of users, doing things like choosing the newest framework, or writing the most unit tests, while those like matter in a professional software development environment. When you're a founder I don't wanna say it doesn't matter it does, having good code is actually very important and will save you time in the long-run, but if you obsess over it then you're gonna be neglecting other parts of your business that are extremely critical.
It it matters so much and at the same time it matters not at all, and I think I got at this in the original interview we did for me the MVP is so essential. Build your product first worry about scalability and how to develop it thereafter because you shouldn't be worrying about scalability when you have zero users.
Exactly it doesn't matter yeah.
What a waste of time and I know you might be kicking yourself in six months when you go, "Oh, crap, we have to rewrite the whole thing." But what a wonderful position to be in. And you're never gonna get there if you spend 12 months trying to craft the perfect framework because I guarantee by the time you get to the 12 month mark before you'll launch you'll be, "Uh, crap, someone launched a better framework."
Exactly, it's a dog. I think people just underestimate the difficulty of actually building a business and building a product that customers wanna use, and so they feel like it's okay to spin their wheels on all sorts of other tasks. And I think these other tasks just are more tractable. If you're a programmer, you're used to deciding on the language, and framework and structure of your code, and so that feels like an easy thing to do. But at the end of the day, it's irrelevant if the product you're building is.
Or things like ownership shares and stuff like that.
Yeah, exactly, I mean these are just irrelevant details that I mean they have an affect but at the end of the day like you said, you don't actually build a product that people want if you're not putting on your marketing hat and figuring out how to do sales, and figuring out who your users are and talking to them and understanding your product, then all this other stuff is completely irrelevant and just a waste of time. I mean people will spend literally days or weeks deciding on what their name is and what their logo should be.
Oh, God, do you know to this day SubmitHub still doesn't have a logo.
Yeah, I noticed that because I always do the logos for the Indie Hackers interviews and I remember doing yours and it was just like the words SubmitHub.
You're the only one who's made a logo for me. Thanks. But I think you get to the point of after that interview a lot of people reached out to me trying to get me to code parallel systems for them. And a lot of them had some pretty cool ideas for how SubmitHub could apply to different industries, but I think that the crux of it is A) I don't have time to do that, I'm working on my own thing. And B) I'm really not concerned about their ability to spend an hour and do it on their own, or competitors for that matter because this takes so much work to build up that I don't think anyone's gonna be able to just come along and copy it.
And it's funny actually yesterday, literally yesterday, I discovered another website called SubmitToBlog.com, and what's hilarious about it is if you go visit it, the title tag is still SubmitHub because they have copy-pasted all of my code and just tried to replace it with their own stuff.
My God, I just opened it up and you're right. It says SubmitHub.
Yup. And they've added.
That is ridiculous.
And they're launching soon, they've got a Twitter, they've got a Facebook, but I guarantee you they have no idea how it works once you login. How does a blog see, how does a blog filter through submissions, what's the copyright process look like, they don't have a copy, they don't even know that exists. Because I've never really talked about that outside of the platform and you probably don't even know, but there's a robust copyright sign off thing that spits out PDFs and does all this fantastic stuff within SubmitHub so that channels can upload to their YouTube or the SoundCloud and without legal issues.
Yeah, they're just copying the tip of the iceberg. And they have no idea.
Dude this guy saw this and he's like, "Ah, this is such a great idea, I could do better than that." I welcome that because Jesus this takes a lotta work.
Yeah, it really does.
Yeah, so anyway.
I just think the entire phenomenon of people copying all the superficial features of a website or a business and thinking that that's going to be enough for them to succeed is it's just indicative of the fact that people really, really are bad at understanding what it is that makes a business work, right? They like I said earlier, they do the things that are tractable that seem easy and because they don't see other things that are going on behind the scenes, they just assume it doesn't exist. And that goes for people who are ripping off websites but it also goes for people who are building business for the first time and end up spinning their wheels on all sorts of mundane tasks that aren't important. So don't worry about the copiers.
Imitation is the highest form of flattery. And I really welcome them to try, but and it's very true like there's so many better developers than I am out there who could they would look at my code and go, "Dude, that's not how you write React."
Ah, who cares?
And my answer to that would be like, "Well it works." So the ends justify the means in a sense.
I mean I think people are really just asking the wrong question, you know they're trying to solve the wrong problem. They're just solving the problem they're used to which is how can I be a successful and productive software developer? When the question you need to be asking if you're an Indie Hacker if you're staring your own business is how do I build a successful business? And that is a very different question that's going to oftentimes have different answers. So yeah it's just something that people don't really get and programmers especially.
Yeah, that's cool. Anyway that's how I learned to code. I reverse engineer everything and try just make it work.
Yeah, it's super cool to hear how you've learned and there's all sorts of different ways to learn for example I've taught four people how to code including my brother in the past few years. And all of them wanted to get jobs within six to eight months. They've come over and I just teach them in my living room and give them assignments and three out of those four ended up getting full-time jobs working at startups in the Bay area, but far more common than having a tutor or being taught I think is for people to be self-taught. Right, to do like you did and reverse engineer. I mean I went personally I went to school for computer science which is great but that was more theory than anything and from a practical standpoint I was programming and creating websites as a teenager way before I went to school. So if you're listening and you're not a programmer but you're considering learning I think that you should totally go for it because I mean hopefully my background and Jason's background are inspiring, but you could just start by learning something useful but bite-size. Like HTML or CSS which you can grok the basics of and I mean the absolute basics in just a few hours. And if you're making a website, or paying somebody to make you a website, or using WordPress or something just that tiny amount of knowledge I think will help you. And the other thing I wanna say is don't be discouraged by people online who are gonna be telling you that you need a ton of knowledge and that you know these people who are obsessed over best practices and they say you need to do everything the exact right way et cetera, et cetera. Because that's just crap, the number of companies that are amazing today that were started off of pretty crappy code in the beginning is staggeringly huge. So it's totally doable
And it's fun.
Yeah, especially once you get the hang of it.
I have three anecdotes coming into mind. The first one is coding's cool cuz it's a micro reward system. So you're constantly working on small little pieces and every time you finish them you feel good. I can't remember the other two, but one of them was and this is interesting the reason I got serious about coding was because I hired a team in Bangladesh, six people I hired then full-time for one year to rebuild Indie Shuffle from scratch and get us off WordPress. And it was the most frustrating experience I've ever had. And I'm so grateful I did it because I had to jump in so many times to fix things, that I learned how to code properly, well not technically but I actually learned how to do things. And so at the end of one year, I was able to say, "Guys, thanks for setting up the framework, "and everything I need as a foundation, "and from here I'm just going to tear it apart, "mess it up and make it work the way I want it to." And it was cool because up until then I was thinking, this was after I quit Google, I was like, "Sweet, I got some money, signed some cool contracts "with Indie Shuffle for advertising, "and I'm gonna hire a team." And everything fell apart so I ran outta money, and I had to take back coding into my own hands, and it's.
And I was able to do it because I was constantly trying to fix things that I didn't like about the Bangladeshi's approach. Not because they were doing it wrong but just because I was a nitpicky client.
Yeah, exactly you're probably a perfectionist. I imagine. So back to Indie Shuffle and let's talk about the growth side of things because you mentioned that when you launched Indie Shuffle you got kinda hooked on this game as you called it of generating visits. What were you doing to grow Indie Shuffle as a blog and to make it more popular?
Oh, man this is like the secret sauce that people look for right?
Right, it's the number one.
You wanna know the answer?
The answer is that there is no secret sauce. It's just about persistence. You have to attack it from any angle you can, constantly push things, and just see where it works. And so I'll give you some examples of what I did. I learned quite early on that the more I published songs the more people visited. So I learned up front that pumping out content generates more traffic. Both from SEO and just from the existing fan-base who wanna come back and see what's new. In a way blogs have died today but Facebook has sort of replaced this where they've got this wonderful thing, God I hate Facebook as an aside, but when you're on Facebook that home button at the top is constantly updating with like a plus 20 or 13. So you can see these new stories coming up.
It's absurdly addictive.
Right, but blogs were trying to capture an early essence of this where you could visit every day and sometimes twice a day, and sometimes three times a day and you'd see new content. And so I learnt early on that the more content I could push out, the more visits we would get, but naturally as one individual working in executive compensation job, that was a bit difficult. So what I did was I took any revenue that Indie Shuffle earned and I pumped it back into paying people to post content for me, like a modest amount, 10 dollars per review. And I was able to run it sort of a zero profit type of thing, but my target was two posts per day, and then five posts a day, and then roughly two years into running the website I was nearly at 10 posts per day.
It was with knowledge that with every one you do, maybe one out of 10 will blow up, but the other nine are gonna bring in some incremental traffic and they're going to keep the people who use your website satisfied. So that's one thing I did. The second thing I did was constantly improving the website, and I'm still doing that today seven years later, eight years later, constantly improving things, making it work better, faster, more fluidly, more intuitively, and I think, me as a user, I really love it when I visit a website I use all the time and they've changed something, like a design element, or it just looks slightly different, and it feels fresh and new. And so with Indie Shuffle I've been keeping that up. We've gone through countless redesigns which have all been pretty much done by me while I'm stoned.
The design looks really good.
Thanks man, I was stoned.
It's a beautiful website.
I find that for inspiration when I'm trying to do a new design element or something different because I'm so involved in the site from day to day, it helps to try and step back and look at it from a different perspective. And eating a space cake can do that for you. And then you'll spend like the next two months trying to process through that vision that you had that night, but I think what you see on Indie Shuffle today has a lot to do with that.
And then the third is like inbound traffic or how do you get people to visit your site who aren't already users, who don't love the platform itself, and that spans from SEO to social networking and there's no real magic arrow there you just have to consistently keep trying to hammer it from every side. So solid SEO is a great one, but you've experienced this too on Hacker News, a successful post on Hacker News can make or break that article and a lot of it has to do with the timing that you publish that on there. And the content, and the way you write the title, and unfortunately today like click bait has become pervasive on the internet, but hopefully in two years it won't be something completely different and that's the bottom line. People are looking for a magic bullet and there isn't one it's about waking up every day and just attacking it from many angles.
That's funny because that really is the magic bullet then, realizing that you're going to have to do some exploration, and you're gonna have to do some work, and the first thing you try won't necessarily be the best way to grow your business. I know with Indie Hackers, for example, I've tried tons of channels. I posted on all sorts of forums and communities and social media and the one that works the best for me by far is Hacker News and I would not have realized that if I didn't try that along with a bunch of other things. And so I'm curious if Indie Shuffle is there any sort of channel or strategy that was better than all the others?
Yeah, yeah, definitely, definitely. I it was a website called Hype Machine which is still quite big today, but what they do is they aggregate sort of like a form of an RSS feed, like Digg they aggregate all the music blogs and they've handpicked who gets to be in there. So it's not all the music blogs, they've got I think about 700 in there they've handpicked and what they do is they try to collect information on what those blogs are posting and then bring it all together cohesively to say something like that 30 blogs have posted about this song in the last two weeks, and their charts are really influential have been for the last few years in what you listen to today.
The things that you kind of see it Coachella and music festivals et cetera, many of those discoveries have made their way to the forefront through Hype Machine and indirectly because blogs who Hype Machine scans have covered them. So if a, if 30 blogs pick up on a single track, Hype Machine is going to indicate that and all the record labels, and Spotify and Apple et cetera are still to this day watching Hype Machine for their cues on who they should be paying attention to now. Like who's next, and it's changed quite a bit over the last year, I think SubmitHub has actually played a role in how that's changed. But for us Hype Machine through all its different iterations, and its evolution has been one of the strongest kind of foundations of our traffic and why we had visitors today. Cuz we used to be up today I think we're the most followed active blog on Hype Machine. And that's cuz in the early days I was gaming the system I was trying to hack it, the same way you are, like what times should you post, what titles should you put in. I was trying to do all of that early on in 2010, 2011 and we were getting tons of traffic from it. We were getting two or three thousand visits a day. So I'm eternally grateful to Anthony and Hype Machine for providing such a cool product for the music industry. And that's an advantage I was able to leverage that I don't think many people can leverage today. Especially cuz they've lost a lot of their traction as well. Thanks to Spotify.
Yeah, so it seems the overall story behind how Indie Shuffle grew was mostly just the content part, just producing high quality content, at as fast a rate as possible, and after that, places like Hype Machine will pick up on it which is a little bit of gaming the system included.
This reminds me that I wrote a blog post not too long ago, I think it was a few weeks ago. My November month in review, I looked at everything that I did in November. And my original plan for November was just hit every single distribution channel and constantly all day promote Indie Hackers and post frantically everywhere that I could think of. And at the end of the day, none of that ended up moving the needle as much as simply doing a really good interview and sharing it in the usual places. I think this is probably the case for a lotta content sites or for anyone doing a product or service where you're also trying to use content marketing to drive traffic. You can always find ways to game different systems and drive traffic and that helps, but at the end of the day if you don't have great content or if you're not posting your content frequently enough then people aren't going to come.
It's a bit of that 80/20 principle as well, right?
So 20% of your content generates 80% of the traffic, but it's probably the other 80% that takes all your time.
Yeah, exactly. So you mentioned SubmitHub kinda changing the face of the music industry in a way. And I wanna talk about how you how'd you start something like that, how'd you even get the idea?
It was out of frustration, was the main reason I started it. So as Indie Shuffle grew and grew, and it wasn't just me but we became the target of these massive campaigns to promote new artists, and it generated huge businesses for these PR companies who could now charge money to clients and say look you try to email Indie Shuffle but they never respond, but I know how to get a response from them. And it got to the point where late last year we were fielding something 300 plus submissions per day of people saying, "Hey, could we get on your blog?"
I imagine you're getting a taste of this now as well as Indie Hackers grows there are more and more people who many of them have interesting stories, and they feel I could be a great fit for your blog. And they're acting in a self-interested manner, but you on your side also have some interest in it. At a certain point, you just can't handle it anymore. You only have the capacity for so much and these guys are hammering you so Indie Shuffle was in this situation where we would getting 300 submissions a day, and I created a fake email address, email@example.com where people could email us and it just disappeared into oblivion, and that's where I pushed everything. I always knew in the back of my head that there had to be a way to harness that, and there were a few people who approached me prior to that. Actually, I got some flack for this, from a guy who had approached me about three years ago with he was partnered with the guy who started who was employee number one at Dropbox. I forget his name but.
Have you seen their website? Yeah, yeah.
Yeah him and the other Dropbox guys are a couple years ahead of me at MIT.
Right, that's him. So he had been trying to develop an app that filtered your inbox for music submissions and put it all into a good feed. And so I chatted with him a bunch and they were cool guys and I was like this is a great idea, it's got solid potential I just feel like you need to flesh it out a bit more and do this type of stuff. And then I forgot about it, and this frustration mounted in me more and more that I was getting bombarded and so late last year I decided to develop an application so I could learn a new coding stack, I was I felt like Indie Shuffle was dying in a way because advertising revenue was drying up because God, that's a whole different story but display advertising is the death of the industry and I hate it. Totally different tangent, and I wanted to do something different, I wanted to diversify. I wanted to put my eggs into a different basket and so I decided to learn React and Meteor and build a stack on that, and I thought a great thing to tackle would be this problem of submissions. And full circle like once on Indie Hackers interview went alive they emailed me asking why I didn't give them credit, and I had actually forgotten about it until that point. So what's interesting they weren't the only ones to approach me with a similar idea. There were a lot of people who realized that the whole industry of trying to contact bloggers was broken, and that bloggers were feeling overwhelmed. And yet there was huge potential for anyone who did get featured by the blogs to make a career. And so there were people trying to tackle this problem but none of them were in the industry themselves, and they didn't really understand how it worked. So when they approached me I would always kinda roll my eyes and be like, "Cool, let me know when you've got it up "and running." And yeah flash forward last year, on November 9th or so I launched this MVP where people could just fill out a form instead of emailing me. I set up an order responder on the submissions in Indie Shuffle's address, and I said, "Hey, we don't "check this, you can fill out this little form right here "on the website I've created called SubmitHub "and we're guaranteed to listen." And then from my side I had all those come through as a consistent feed where I could just hit play, give it a thumb up, a thumb down and that was it. And so overnight I went from ignoring hundreds of submissions to actually listening to every single one. And it changed the way that we blogged our music, because we stopped paying attention to what everyone else was posting, we had so much already coming to us through this feed on SubmitHub. I think fast forward today a year later, and there are about 250 other platforms using SubmitHub to do the same thing. So they've all in a sense they've stopped paying attention to what, to what everyone else is pumping out and that whole idea of group think has sort of died in a way which is ironic because people were concerned that SubmitHub would create group think and I think it's done quite the opposite. It's given a rise to diversity in new music that hasn't been seen for a very long time.
Yeah, that's a lot and it's all really interesting, and I think what stands out.
Yes I do that, it's like boom how do you say that cohesively but lots of people had the idea and this was one of the first times to cohesively bring it together.
And what makes that so interesting to me is that probably the biggest filter between founders, Indie Hackers, and actually building a successful business is not the stuff that comes after they start the business even though that's all extremely difficult, but most people get stuck in the idea phase. Trying to pick an idea to work on, or trying to come up with an idea in the first place which can be difficult because not everybody has an obvious problem that's valuable to solve in their own life that they can learn from.
I struggled with it, I struggled with it, it didn't dawn on me instantly, I spent two or three months trying to hack different things together to just, just cuz I wanted to do something different and just one day I kinda like, "Oh, yeah I should solve this."
Did you keep a list of ideas while you were running Indie Shuffle because you always knew that one day you would do something different and SubmitHub was kind of at the top of that list or was it more of a process of figuring out one thing?
Going into it I felt a bit panicked I think because Indie Shuffle was losing traction and today flash forward a year, it's doing great, I'm actually fine I feel very comfortable with it. But at the time I was thinking, "Jesus like this is my "sole source of income, I quit Google for this."
And I'm earning like you know median U.S. Income from this right now, and that's not comf, like you don't feel good about that coming from the Silicon Valley. And so I was a bit panicked and SubmitHub was never at the top, no. But once I clicked on the idea I got so hooked, so hooked I couldn't stop coding and like I started dating my girlfriend at the time and thank goodness she, thank goodness it was early days and we only had to go on dates once a week, because, dude, the rest of the time I was I couldn't put it down, I just couldn't. It's cuz that learning curve was so high, I was learning React for the first time. I was learning Meteor for the first time. I was building a product from scratch and it was just so cool, I was so hooked.
It gets you hooked and I think it boils back to that micro reward system that I referenced at the beginning of this interview. You get hooked on it.
Yeah, it's almost like a.
Thank goodness for that.
Yeah, it's almost like Legos or something you know you build something and then it exists, but imagine like if your Lego creations then came to life. Because you build code and it's like constantly working in the background, forever, until you shut it off. You know, so like having that continue back or breaking it does that a lot.
So one thing that happened after you did your text-based interview for Indie Hackers I submitted it to Hacker News and it did really well and I can't remember what exactly I named it. It was something like how Jason Grishkoff grew SubmitHub to you know 40,000 dollars in revenue in under a year. And a lotta people took issue with that they said this is a stupid click bait headline, it's unrealistic and Jason didn't build it in a year, and it took him you know, and he has Indie Shuffle for seven years before that, and without Indie Shuffle SubmitHub never would have happened, which is to be fair a valid point. So I just wanna get your feedback your comment on this, without Indie Shuffle would you have been able to build SubmitHub and if so like how long would it have taken you?
I can answer that in two ways. The first way I can say no, because I wouldn't have cared about it, and I think that's a really important part about building an app is having some sort of attachment to it. A lotta people go into things trying to solve a problem and fill a niche because they want to build a business and they see an opportunity for it. But they don't really have any attachment to it.
And they forget that in order to build that business they're gonna have to be doing this all day every day, Saturday and Sunday, for the next few years, and they gotta not get sick of it. And don't get me wrong, I get sick of it all the time, but the fact that I can keep coming back to it is a testament to the fact that I actually, I really love this industry and I love what I do in it. It's cool, I often catch myself going, "Shit, I get to "sift through music all day and code and I still make "enough money to eat, that's rad." And I don't take that for granted, and so no without Indie Shuffle in this answer, I don't think I coulda done it because it just would have felt like another project that I was doing. The other answer let's just say that I really loved music but I didn't have Indie Shuffle, gosh it would have been difficult but, man. It presupposes that I knew how the industry worked, and the thing is that's a very important part regardless of how much traffic Indie Shuffle gets, and how many emails it gets, I knew exactly how blogs take their submissions. What's it like to be a blog getting submissions, because that's the problem I was trying to solve. How do I make that an enjoyable and worthwhile experience? And I mean the answer to that was to incentivize like blogs get paid to listen. And I was the first one to do that in a sense. And gosh, nah, I'll take that comment back, people will probably chew into that because I'm sure people tried, but because the first one to make it work on scale and a lot of it did have to do with the fact that people wanted to get on Indie Shuffle. So let's flip it differently, a lotta people are approaching it and saying why haven't you spun out SubmitHub in this industry? And I've thought about it, like what if I did SubmitHub for Instagram, well step one would be I'd have to get a bunch of stakeholders who are interested in doing it. And this is actually the phase I'm about to go through now for SubmitHub for radio, which I'm planning to launch next year. We've done a bunch of interviews with people involved in the industry but we can't really launch it until we've got a bunch of stakeholders on the radio side.
So if I launch SubmitHub for radio, I've got two radio stations on now. They're like come on.
Right, it's just not enough.
I need to launch it with at least 10 and so now I have to go convince 10 people in the radio industry of which I'm not a part of that they should start using SubmitHub to solicit their submissions. And it's a similar thing, and I bring it back all to one core discipline of an entrepreneur, and that is discipline. Just discipline, do it over and over and keep doing those terrible mundane tasks that you don't wanna do, over and over, and over. Like to launch SubmitHub I hand tailored more than 1,000 emails to blogs. It took me about four months, five months of doing it every day.
To get through this list. Like it didn't just launch overnight. There weren't people begging at my door. I had to go and like email these guys and they didn't respond so I would Tweet them, I would Facebook message them, I'd send SoundCloud messages, I'd send another email. Then I'd try and find another contact. And we're still sort of doing this today. Those 250 blogs and labels didn't come overnight and.
And I don't wanna sound defensive on this and I read a lot of those comments and I understand where they're coming from, could I have done this without Indie Shuffle? Hell no, could anyone do this without Indie Shuffle, yes, like the bottom line is it all depends on how determined you are. And like that determination can be misplaced, don't get me wrong, people do that all the time. There are a lot of determined people out there that don't have success because they're putting it into the wrong areas. And which are the right ones? I don't know, this gets to my point earlier where like how do you generate traffic? There's no magic bullet you just try a bunch of them cuz you never know which one is gonna pay off. And some of it's luck and some of it's not. But like people some of those comments were rubbed me the wrong way because I put a ton of work into coding this, I was able to funnel a lotta traffic from Indie Shuffle and I had the reputation. And I don't take that for granted, both of those were useful, but people didn't come flocking to me. In fact they were incredibly skeptical about the system.
And I didn't launch the money component until February so that's where this whole eight months number that comes in. I didn't launch that until then but people were very skeptical and it took a lotta work and like clever tricks in a way. I hate using the word tricks but try to convince like so some of the most skeptical people were publicists. They're the ones who artists hire to try and get in touch with the blogs because blogs never respond. So you hire a publicist because a publicist knows their phone number, or they recognize a publicist's name, and those guys were some of the most skeptical. So early on when we just to so I had this cap where you could only send two submissions every four hours. And I removed the cap for publicists. If you emailed me and we had a chat, I'd do you the favor of removing it. And so in a way I was like sweet-talking the most skeptical component of my customer base to try and convince them that this wasn't the evil, disruptor they were worried about.
And today they're the most eager consumers on this website. I'm not sure they're telling their clients what, they love how effective it is. And even though the rejection rate is really high, they keep coming back because they get a much higher response rate through SubmitHub than anyone has ever gotten emailing blogs.
Yeah, it's streamlined. I mean without SubmitHub they have do something akin to what you did to launch SubmitHub which is find all these email addresses and then just send email, after email, after email, which sucks.
And the irony is that 95% of the time I never got a response, and that's like cuz these blogs don't check their emails any more. And I found it so frustrating and occasionally like once or twice I got responses from the blogs like, "Yo, stop spamming me." And I'd be like dude, no. I'm not spamming you I'm trying to be your friend, I'm trying to give you a way to actually earn a thousand dollars a month.
I mean at this point I be, and then SubmitHub was paying out almost a 1,000 dollars a day to the blogs. And the guys who are on there have found it a life-changing thing, but I get it, it's not for everyone. So I don't push too hard at that point.
But it does make me feel like shit. It does, it's really.
I'm pretty sensitive about Indie Hackers too. if someone says something bad about it or something bad happens.
I take it personally.
I get so much of that with cuz the whole premise of SubmitHub is that people are constantly rejecting songs and so I am on the receiving end of a lotta hate mail.
I've built a bit of a tough skin to it.
Right, I mean you have to, just to go back it's funny because I was impressed with myself for how I launched Indie Hackers. I think I found about 140 emails of different businesses online, that I thought would share their revenue. Then I spent a few weeks sending all of these people personalized emails. But hearing that you sent a 1,000 emails over the course of four months is crazy.
I coulda done it all with just one spreadsheet and emailed them all, but I decided that I wanted to hand tailor every email and then follow up with a tweet, a Facebook message, and a SoundCloud message. So that's why it took so long.
I did the same and by 40 emails I was sick, by 80 I was ready to throw up, after a 100 or so I was like I'm never sending another email again in my life.
I think that's why it took four months. Cuz you can do 10 a day I was like alright that was too much work, it takes an hour of, an hour which is not that much work but it's draining, repetitive work with very little reward.
Uh huh, right. And this a perfect example of one of the things that people underestimate when they spend all their time on programming, or they spend all their time copying the superficial details of a website. Like the guy who cloned SubmitHub. I'm sure he just read your story and was like. "Oh, this is so easy I could do this in a week." And he has no idea how to get people to his website.
Yeah. Well he's planning on charging pounds instead of dollars so maybe his pitch is that the blogs will earn more money, but what he doesn't even know is that like these chat rooms that I've built. And what's really cool about SubmitHub is that there's a community now and I've already shown his website to all the blogs and they've had a fat chat about it. It's funny and it's cool and they love it. And they love picking it apart. And like there's a community it's really rad that blogs can talk to each other again because that's what kind of kicked it off. When I started blogging there were these really cool networks where blogs could all chat to each other and that disappeared for a couple years. And now it's back.
And we're not fighting with each other. We're all like doing this together and it's cool. And so it's been a really fun experience in that sense. But it's not done, it's not done.
What did you use to build your chatrooms are you using Slack or did you build your own?
No I built it from scratch.
What's really cool about Meteor is that it's constantly polling for updates, and you can subscribe to the database which makes it super simple to build a chat client.
So it's just checking for updates to that database. So if you've got a chat between someone as soon as a new piece of data gets entered into that query, it's just gonna pop right through and you've got a chatroom. And so when did I code that? I coded it in June just cuz I, the reason I coded it was cuz I thought, well the whole point of SubmitHub was to get rid of email submissions, so why when I approve a song does it go to an email. It should just go to a chat.
What's rad about it is, at the end of the day you actually get to have a chat, like it's a, I modeled it look like Facebook Messenger in a way. But you're having this Facebook Messenger chat with the artist who created the song that you're approving. Cuz they don't have to hire a publicist anymore to contact you.
So if anything it's like made the music community tighter, but it's I think I alluded to this earlier, it's eliminated this group speak and I think it's confusing a lot of the people who rely on blogs for A&R because the diversity has just blown up. Cuz any indie artist can now reach the blogs. On Indie Shuffle we're covering such small acts compared to what we used to. We'd be like, "Oh, sweet a new Disclosure track, a new Church's track.
And today when that stuff comes out we just roll our eyes, we're like nah, our queue's full and that just sounds like the same old shit.
Right, well SubmitHub is great because I mean I was on there yesterday and one of the features that you built into it is this chart section. So you can go to the chart section, and it ranks songs by how popular they are on SubmitHub. Which really means how many blogs have been submitted to you and what is the acceptance rate of these songs. And I thought this is a great way to discover new music because I can just see how popular these songs are across the blogosphere so. Have you ever thought about rolling that out into its own music discovery feature?
Ohhh, gosh. Honestly it took me a day to code that and I haven't given it much love since. It's cool it's got the country, I'm looking at it now. It's got a country flags next to each song.
Yeah it does.
I'd forgotten I did that so I can see like the number one track in Indie Rock comes from Belgium, that's rad. No, I haven't thought about it because Indie Shuffle is my baby for that. What I was sort of doing here was giving a nod to Hype Machine, and Hype Machine's success is predicated on their popular charts and that being an indicator of what is relevant right now in the industry. And so I was just throwing this up as a quick nod to that because I thought hey, this might serve as a good indicator to record labels so that they can see just another source of information of who's getting attention. And I've actually fielded some phone calls from Sony Music who have definitely been paying attention to this.
I'm sure other people are too. And I myself never look at it, so. That's because as a blogger when I login I've got this submissions feed, like right now we've got more than 70 tracks waiting for us to review. And we have to respond to all of them within 48 hours so.
Right, that's a ton.
It's like this constant feed of new music coming through and so one of the things I have to balance is fatigue amongst bloggers. Anyway I also have to balance fatigue on this interview, right?
We've gone over.
I was just about to say we're over an hour and I've got like 10 other things I wanna talk about there's just no time.
Cool, well we'll do that in the second podcast.
Yes, let's do a second one. It will be awesome to have you on.
Awesome. Only if the listeners are interested and they're not too caught up on my.
I think they'll be interested, this is a really interesting interview. I learned a lot, and I think a lot of listeners will too. It was great having you on.
Cool, yeah, it was awesome. Let's do drunk Indie Hackers history next time.
Yeah, I'll have some wine with you.
No, no it's too early for you. I get to do it and you have to be the voice of reason.
Hey if you enjoyed listening to this conversation, you should join Jason and me on the Indie Hackers forum where we're discussing the episode and answering your questions too. Just visit www.indiehackers.com/forum. Thanks so much for listening, and I'll see you next time.