Todd Garland went from being a blogger who published ads on his website to creating one of the leading advertising platforms on the web. Here's his story.
Hello everybody, this is Courtland Allen from Indiehackers.com, where I talk to the founders behind profitable Internet businesses, and I ask them about their stories, and about the things that make their businesses successful so that all the rest of us can learn from their examples. Today I'm talking to Todd Garland, the founder and CEO of an online advertising company called BuySellAds, how's it goin' Todd?
It's going great, how are you Courtland?
I'm doin' excellent. So if I believe correctly, you started BuySellAds in 2008, and today it's one of the most successful online advertising companies. But I think that term advertising company is somewhat vague, 'cause it covers a lot of ground, so can you tell us exactly what BuySellAds is, and how it works?
Certainly, so first things first, advertising is like a dirty word these days, it's almost like a four-letter word. But the basis of the web in terms of how people make money is through advertising, so it actually isn't the worst thing in the world. Obviously, we all love to hate ads that are horrible, and the ones that follow us around and annoy us, but there are a few of us who are actually out there trying to not be those people and enable that kind of behavior on the web. And so that's ultimately how I would actually explain what BuySellAds is. We try to promote authenticity through advertising, if we can call it that, and all that really means is we work directly with advertisers and publishers, the people selling the access to their audience, to find matches that are actually a good fit for both. And so, the ads come through as less of an obtrusion and more of a recommendation if you will.
Cool, and how did you get started doing this? Just like a little bit of a back story, I once worked with a guy who worked in advertising, and we were co-founders, we considered pivoting into an ad business. We spent the better part of a day just going over the entire field of advertising, and bidders, and exchanges, and networks, and publishing, and all sorts of stuff that was way more complex than I thought it would ever be being an outsider, and it just strikes me as interesting that anyone would wake up one day and say, "I want to get into the ad business," so how did you make that decision?
I kind of stumbled into to it to be honest, at the time back in 2007, 2008, I was running a few blogs. I'm a front-end developer by trade, so I think I might be able to consider myself ancient in terms of building for the web because in that time period was when we were transitioning from table-based layouts to CSS-based layouts, back when CSS Zen Garden was the thing you woke up to like see what was new the next day.
Yeah, I remember thinking CSS Zen Garden was amazing.
Yeah, exactly. Really, I was publisher, I was running some hobbyist CSS-related websites, sharing free code samples, using those to really just teach myself and learn the evolution of front-end development on the web, and advertisers would reach out to me and ask to put ads on my site, and who's gonna turn down a hundred bucks here or there? Not me. That's how I would make some money on the side through those sites, and it got to the point where I was making maybe like $2,000.00 to $3,000.00 a month, and it just felt silly to be chasing advertisers down for like a hundred bucks here, a hundred bucks there. Emailing them every month to see if they wanted to renew, coordinating payment, sending the ad assets back and forth, the whole process seemed silly for the amount of money that it was. Not that I wasn't appreciative of that money from the hobby, but I was focused on a full-time job, I didn't want to be doing this kind of stuff.
That sounds exactly, if I can interrupt, exactly like what my experience was like running Indie Hackers for basically the first eight months of Indie Hackers's life: randomly getting emails from people who wanted to advertise on the site; trying to find a good place to put their ad; coordinating with them on the copy; emailing images back and forth. Then after their ad would run, checking up on them, and then trying to get them to do another ad et cetera, et cetera, and it just builds up to an incredible amount of time spent just talking to advertisers and getting their ads on the site, so I can identify with you and this is what? Like almost 10 years later then you were going through the exact same things.
Yeah, yeah, no, it's exactly that. Really I just set out to in the most simplistic terms possible build a shopping cart that would allow you to purchase advertising on websites without having to talk to the publisher, and that's literally what the first version of BuySellAds did. Talk about literally just having the basics back when I launched the first version of BuySellAds: there were no stats, so you'd pay 100, however many thousand dollars for an ad, and you couldn't actually see how many times the ad was viewed, or how many people clicked on it, you had to rely on your own Google Analytics tracking. When a publisher would join the service and I would approve their site in the admin panel, I would very quickly go to their site, manually take a screenshot, manually resize it in Photoshop, and manually FTP it to a server. The actual initial product was not as polished as it is today without a doubt.
I think one of the most common pieces of advice that you hear people tell beginning entrepreneurs is that, "You should launch with a minium viable product, MVP." Just like a super basic prototype that's so bare-bones that you're pretty much embarrassed by it just to get your idea out there and test it on the market, and make sure you're actually goin' in the right direction before you end up spending months or years of your life building a product that isn't any good. It sounds like you just did that on your own. What made you so confident to launch a product that was in this kind of shape? Did you know about this advice back then, or did you just kinda stumble onto that path?
Well, the assumption that I was confident is incorrect, but what I mean to say though is that like it's really hard, it's almost like it takes a piece of you to have the courage to actually pull the trigger and launch a business. I mean, everybody is human, you don't want to put your heart and soul into something and then show it to the world and have it rejected. And so, I think for many people it's a really hard thing to get to the point even where they're willing to put their business out there and see if it's going to resonate with folks. I think the other piece of advice there is until it's something useful, nobody actually really cares, so it's like if people hate it the worst thing that can happen is you don't hear that they hate it because it's that bad that you don't even get any feedback, you know what I mean? I think when people are, I think that's one of the most critical phases of a business actually, is that initial launch of having the courage to put it out there. When it comes to minimal viable products having the courage to put something out there that you know isn't your final product. That's one of the things I love about the web is that you're not like, you're like a different kind of artist, you're not painting on this canvas and then eventually there is a point at which it ends and you have to go either hang it on the wall or sell it to somebody, it's a never-ending canvas. And so, I think that's the beautiful thing about the web: no matter what you put out there you can continue to improve it over and over again, every day.
It's like the opposite of being a performance artist, or a basketball player, or something where you basically spend all your time practicing, and then you get one shot on the stage and hopefully you don't blow it versus on the web you can just continually refine it over, and over, and over, and over, until it becomes something good, so it doesn't even matter if it's crappy to start with. In fact it's probably, another reason it doesn't matter is because there's so few people, like you pointed out, using it at the beginning that no one really cares.
I think another interesting thing about how you started BuySellAds is that you were really solving your own problem. I think the first thing to come to people's mind in that situation is, "Let me just fix this for myself. I'm running these blogs, people are paying me to put ads on my site, why don't I just automate this process for myself so it's easy for me?" It seems like you skipped over that step and just went straight to step two which is, "Why I don't make a business out of this, and sell the solution to everybody else in my situation?" How did you make that decision?
I feel like I had a series of realizations along the way before I got to that point. In like a very general, or a broad sense. I would have these ideas but they would turn out to be like really small ideas. So for example, one of the hobbyist sites I was running, but like literally the entire idea was to build CSS-based menus, release enough out there for free where I would be able to generate a lot of traffic, and then at some point release premium versions thereof and try and make money. When you think about building a big business, that's like on the scale of big ideas that's probably like a negative-five. But I think that kind of progression, you don't have to come out of the gate saying, "I'm going to start the next Uber and change transportation for the world," you know what I mean? I think it's okay that you have a series of these smaller ideas that eventually you keep thinking to yourself, "Well, that didn't feel quite big enough, what's the next one, what's the next one?" I think a lot of younger folks go through that, and I think that's really, really good, because it forces you to continuously reevaluate how you're sizing up an opportunity really. And so, what was the question again? I lost my train of thought.
Was there a phase when you were running, because you were running basically these two blogs on front-end development where you're doing advertising on these two websites, was there a phase where you decided, "Okay, managing these advertisements by hand is too painful, so I'm going to automate the process," and you wanted to build something like that for yourself before you decided that you wanted to sell this to other people? Or did you go immediately into the realization that, "Hey, if I build this platform for managing advertising, then I could sell it to others rather than just use it on my own websites."
I used myself as the test case but interesting fact, I actually sold one of the websites about two months before I launched BuySellAds.
And so, at that point I think I was far enough along with the product development where I was like, "You know what, what matters more is me focusing on doing this for other people than like trying to make it only work for myself." At that point, too, I had had a landing page up, this is like Landing Pages 101 from like the year, when was that 2007, from like 2006?
Old school landing pages.
Yeah, old school landing pages, it's like the advice was, "Put a one-pager up that is pitching your idea," short and sweet, so that you're not scrolling, like very, very short one-pager, and just have a call to action at the bottom which is like, "Be the first to know about when this launch is," or "Learn more, put in your email address." So, I had that live for about a year, and what I would do is I would go out and buy ads from other blogs and sites directing folks to this page. So, I was collecting email addresses along the way, gaining confidence in that the idea had more depth than just for my own sites, and so by the time I was actually ready to launch I had a decent amount of validation where I felt like this could actually do something, ya know?
Interesting, so can you describe that process of how you got these initial signups and you validated this idea? 'Cause it sounds like a lot of work went into it.
It might sound like more work than it actually was, especially in today's world because you can go to MailChimp or Campaign Monitor, both customers are awesome, maybe I'll see if I can get them to pay me for that mention, just kidding. And like, you can spit up an email signup form within let's say 30, 40 minutes. And you can go to, this is a great, plug all the advertisers that work with us, you can go to Wix, you can go to Squarespace, you can go to whoever else advertises with us that has those website builders, and you can get something that's probably less than 10 bucks a month and literally just type ideas into a preformatted template. Because when somebody is looking at a one-pager, it's not like you need to go through the process of having this amazing logo and all this amazing branding, and all this kind of stuff, you don't need any of that. I mean, it needs to look good enough so that somebody believes it and will put their email address into it, but it's more so the idea that you're trying to connect with the person on than the brand and all this other stuff, right? You don't have to come out of the gate being the next best thing from Silicon Valley that's ready to raise a series A, you know? You can start much smaller than that and much quicker than that to try and validate ideas. And so what I did was essentially that, just with like not those tools back then, and then I bought some ads to drive traffic there with publishers who had the audience I believed would be most interested in the idea, and that's literally the extent of it. I actually never did anything with those email addressed, which is obviously stupid but...
You just collected 'em and...
Yeah, it was a dead end, but it was just me trying to validate the idea, it wasn't a lot of money, right? Like I mean, I probably spent maybe like, I don't know, seven, 800 bucks over the course of like eight months, or however long it was.
Yeah, I think you mentioned all these excellent tools that people had used to collect email addresses, and I think because things like MailTemp exist, and things like Wix exist, and Squarespace, you're right, the process of putting up the landing pages is the easy part, and as long as you don't get bogged down in irrelevant stuff like spending weeks coming up with the perfect name, or the perfect logo, which you can always change later, then you can just focus on driving traffic to that landing page, which I think is the hard part no matter what day and age that you live in. It sounds like you had a cool strategy where even though you didn't end up using the email addresses you collected, what did you do, you bought ads and directed them at publishers to get them to sign up?
I did, yep. So, I bought ads on publisher websites that other publishers would frequent, and that was literally the strategy. This is even before the influx of inbound marketing and the other techniques that are being used on the web today, so the progression of the story of BuySellAds is that actually after I started working on the idea in 2007, I went to work for HubSpot full-time, and so I actually worked at HubSpot for almost two years before I left. The reason why I bring up HubSpot is like they were one of the main companies that helped steward the idea, and process, and strategies behind inbound marketing that we see prevalent on the web today.
Can you describe to us what is inbound marketing?
Totally, so instead of buying ads everywhere, and like doing a lot of outbound cold-calling, or cold-emailing, or intrusive strategies to get customers to come to you, instead you're pulling them in with things you're doing on the internet that are creating value. A perfect example, which is a lot easier today than it was before, you can immediately jump into conversations with intelligent people on Twitter, most of the time, not everybody on Twitter is intelligent, let's get that straight. But you can put yourself out there and put your ideas out there and get involved, and you can get noticed that way. You can go onto Medium and start writing some posts on things that you're passionate about where you can either teach people something new, or do something that helps them provoke thinking, or look at things differently. There are tools out there where you can go and basically use the idea behind inbound marketing of kind of sucking people into your world, per se.
So, you're working at HubSpot for two years, acquiring all this information on inbound marketing and how to drive customers to your website. You're putting up on the side a landing page for BuySellAds, which is this idea you have for basically an advertising marketplace, or an advertising network. And then at the same time, you're driving traffic to that landing page by buying advertising that appeals to publishers, which is people like me at Indie Hackers who have a website where we need to host ads. What did your ads look like? How did you know where publishers hung out, and how did you devise ads that would catch the eyes of publishers and convince them to check out BuySellAds?
Yeah, so back then people actually clicked on display ads.
Oh, what a quaint time!
Yeah, so this is like the ancient web where people actually paid attention to ads. A lot of the stuff I could actually probably find in archive.org, but it was literally as simple as BuySellAds online advertising for publishers, or by publishers for publishers, be the first to find out when we launch, it was literally something as seemingly pathetic as that, really.
Yeah, it was just very straightforward. But again, the core message that we tried to hammer home on that initial BuySellAds landing page before anything ever existed is actually still true today. It's like, you know, we are here to help quality advertisers get placed on quality publisher sites, and help everybody avoid the black hole that is online advertising today. And so, it was this very authentic, transparent marketplace that we sought out to create, and that really hasn't changed.
Okay, so can you walk us through how at this time you built BuySellAds? Because I assume that on the side of having this landing page up you were actually doing the hard work of building out the platform, and like you said earlier, it was kinda bare-bones, but how long did it take you to go from idea to something that customers could actually use? What was that process like, what programming languages did you use? Did you hire other programmers to help you out, did you do it all by yourself?
Sure so, I'd say it took about a year, which maybe today feels like a really long time, but I don't think it's like horribly long still today, that's really just kinda pecking away at the idea off and on. Interestingly enough the, so I'm a front-end developer by trade I'm not an actual programmer or software engineer. I was using an Adobe Dreamweaver plug-in called Interact, I believe it was this company out of Romania that was later acquired by Adobe. But effectively, it was like a PHP framework embedded within Adobe Dreamweaver 4, if I'm getting the version right, and quite literally that is what I built the first version of BuySellAds on. So, picture actually showing that to a real engineer, a real software engineer and developer for the first time, and them thinking to themselves like, "What on earth have I gotten myself into?" I think the lesson there is that there's nothing noble or required about having the best code that actually makes things work, until you get something out there that can be validated on some level. So, regardless of the fact that it was probably one of the worst-built applications in the history of the web, that didn't matter because the core problem that I was solving for people is what was relevant there, not the quality of the code behind the app. And so, that first version was literally just myself, it was PHP and MySQL, your traditional LAMP stack. I remember the fist couple weeks when you'd sign-up on the site, it would send you a welcome email and it would have your password in that email saying like, "Thanks for signing up," and somebody emailed me said, "You can't do that." I was like, "Oh, yeah that makes sense," so I changed that right there. We weren't using version control, it was just me like manually editing and uploading onto the server, it was very, very, very non-developeresque, I guess you'd say.
Sometimes I forget how long ago 2008 was.
Yeah, I mean like in terms of building for the web, it's like light years ago. Today you could build that same exact thing without actually custom coding anything on your own, I believe. There are companies, and tools, and software out there where you can visually build something of the significance that, limited significance that BuySellAds was for version one without actually touching code.
Without having to spend a year hacking it together. I like what you said also about the importance of code quality, or the lack thereof, and I think what it comes down to for a lot of people is just knowing what advice to take, and when advice is relevant. For a lot of people listening who are considering building an internet business, you might be a software engineer, in which case you probably follow other software engineers on Twitter, and you read software engineering blogs, and you have software engineering co-workers, and you get software engineering mailing lists, and they're all talking about how to be a good software engineer. They give you these giant lists of best practices, and exactly what you should do, and then when you go to start a company it's really hard to put that advice in context where being the founder of a company it's not the same thing as being a software engineer. It doesn't matter that you write the most A-plus, bullet-proof, beautiful code on the first iteration of your product if your product sucks, ya know? And I think a lot people spend a lot of time worrying about little things like that. In a way it's a form of procrastination, you stick around the things that you feel comfortable doing and the things that are easy for you, and for a lot of programmers that's programming, for other people that might be different things. And then you don't actually do the thing that matters, which is like making sure your product is something that people want and that they know about it, and that they can use it.
Another example I'd chime in there with is like fast forward from 2006, '07, '08 till today, the depth and variety of, I don't know how we want to classify them but maybe we'll just call them microservices, that exist out there today, right? Even look at somebody like Facebook, or Twilio, or Uber, using something like Twilio to send out text messages and manage some of their two-factor authentication, or whatever, right? I don't know specifically what each company uses from Twilio, but the fact that there are companies that have thousands of engineers, but still don't think it's valuable for them to solve some of these problems is very representative of how people should approach how they manage the time that they spend building the app and trying to solve the problems of their customers. It's like people don't use Uber to get really fast text alerts when their cab's going to arrive, you know what I mean?
Yeah, it's not core.
Exactly, and so like you have to abstract away all the things that don't actually matter to that core value that your customers are getting from your business. Let other people deal with that, even if it's a pet project or you really want to do it, I can remember back when we at one point at BuySellAds starting building a support application, because like I wanted to, you know what I mean? It's just the silliest thing and there are so many things that we spent time building way back in the day that have zero relevance to our business today, weren't our core competency and we should have pushed off to third parties. When anything like that is in question err on the side of not doing it if it's not core to your business.
It's so tempting to do stuff like that and it's so hard to resist because you can come home with a million justifications in your mind for why you need this feature, or why you need to build your own home-grown solution. I built the Indie Hackers forum from scratch, why did I build the Indie Hackers Forum from scratch? I can't tell you, I just wanted to , I just wanted to do it. But it's funny because it's actually, the more constraints you have, like let's say you're not a programmer, well then you can't really be tempted to build something on your own just to use your programming skills, right? If you're actually paying someone else to do all your coding for you because you're not a programmer, you're probably going to be a lot more judicious in what you have them build; or if you're low on money, if you're a bootstrapper and you don't raise a ton of money, you're probably gonna be a lot more focused on finding customers and delivering value, I think there's something to be said for having constraints.
But anyway, so know you've launched BuySellAds, back to your story. You've got your first customers coming in the door which apparently weren't people from your email list 'cause you just threw the email list away. How did you find your first customers, how did you get publishers and advertisers signed up?
I had maybe I wanna say like eight to 10 advertisers that I had been working with on the sites that I owned, and so basically I went out there and looked for other sites where they were spending money. And for the advertiser the value proposition to them was that instead of contacting 10, 20, 30 publishers each month to manage these ads, you can now do all of that through this one simple little tool called BuySellAds. On the publisher side it was a very similar approach, it was like instead of talking to eight to 10 advertisers a month, and trying to coordinate all these different things, and collect the money, and all that kinda stuff, you can do all of that very simply through this nice little platform called BuySellAds. It was really that, like I went out, found publishers where my advertisers were advertising, tried to convince them to use BuySellAds. When they'd say, "No," I'd try to convince their advertiser to use BuySellAds to help kind of leverage them into BuySellAds. Ultimately, once I got both parties at the table and using the application, I just worked my butt off to make sure that they were incredibly happy. Another thing I did early on, I don't wanna say like because I was smart, I just kind of like hadn't built the functionality yet. As a publisher when you wanted to withdraw money from BuySellAds you had to send me an email; and as an advertiser when you wanted to cancel an ad on a publisher's site, you had to send me an email. Both of those things sound completely ridiculous right now, because like you know, I don't know, it's like I don't wanna have to do that to do that, but back then for whatever reason that worked out really well because that forced these people to interact with me, and once I was able to get them in an email thread I could then ask questions to help better understand how I could make the product and the service better.
It sounds like, you know, I'm not sure if you were aware of it at the time, but building something, that you know, this two-sided marketplace where you've got publishers on one side and advertisers on the other, and it's not really a useful service unless you have both of them, is kind of a notoriously difficult problem to solve. It sounds like you solved it by kind of bootstrapping the advertiser side of it, since you already had those relationships with your previous websites, and then basically pounding the pavement, and using connections, and asking for intros to get the publishers up to snuff.
Exactly. Back in 2007, 2008, I mean even today I'm still a nobody, but back then I was like really a nobody, and so it's like why should you believe this guy who's in your email box with your money, you know? It's a really provoking question like, how on earth are these publishers and advertisers trusting me? And I think the answer is that they had a real problem they needed solved, and the risk of their money not being handled properly, or something not going right, is a risk they were willing to take. And so, I think that with any product or service that you're trying to start from scratch, ultimately like many times you're asking your customers to take risks in working with you, and you just have to take those things very, very seriously, and quite literally stop at nothing to make sure that these people are seeing value. That doesn't mean that the traditional customer is always right holds true, there are times when you have to break up with customers, but for the vast majority of interactions you just have to work really hard for these people, and they'll appreciate it.
What were your goals at this point in time? What was going through your head as you started to realize that hey, people are actually appreciating what I'm building, and they're using the product, and I'm making money presumably, were you thinking I'm gonna grow this thing and build a huge business? Or were you thinking like oh this is nice, I just wanna keep going?
Yeah so I mean, you know, admittedly I have a very lemonade stand outlook on business where it's like step-by-step, slow and steady wins the race kind of thing. I did have a gentleman at one point who was advising me on the business once I had left HubSpot after about a year of running BuySellAds nights and weekends. He was taking me around to a lot of venture capital companies around Boston, and for whatever reason it just didn't feel right to me. It was number one a foreign concept, until I started working at HubSpot I didn't even know what venture capital meant. That doesn't meant that even today I don't appreciate the idea of dramatically accelerating the growth of a business, or having enough funding to really see through an idea like HubSpot, right? These guys literally had to raise $100 million before they could be at the scale or trajectory that would then return incredible profits, you know? I think even today, I mean I don't know they're public, we could probably find out but like, they may or may not be profitable, I don't even know. My point is is that with BuySellAds, for me, the slow and steady approach wins the race has been kind of how we've aways operated. I don't have delusions about building the next Facebook, I'm accepting of our place, and our fate, and our ability to make our own decisions being a bootstrapped company, and grow at our own pace. Sometimes that means slow, sometimes that means fast, right? I think 18 months ago we were 16 people, today we're 32, and I think we have like five or six positions open right now; we very well could be 50-plus people before the end of the year, and that isn't necessarily what I'd set out to create though, you know? All I ever wanna do is on the advertiser side help figure out how I can enable those companies to grow more quickly through user acquisition; and then on the publisher side, how can we make these guys more money and reward them for the authentic and genuine work they're putting into building their own audiences? That's really as simple as it is for me.
So, it sounds like even from the beginning just the idea of raising a whole bunch of venture capital and trying to grow as fast as possible wasn't even really on your radar, but what was on your radar? I mean, did you really wanna be a founder? What was motivating you? Because starting a business is not an easy thing to do, and obviously you were working other jobs at the time and you could of just gone that path, or you could of stuck with your website, were you motivated to be your own boss, or to make a lot of money, or to build an enduring brand? Or some combination of these things, or something different?
I'd say it's a variety of things. I think number one, just like a very primal instinct of like wanting to feel overall security in life, which in 2017 means having enough money to pay your bills, and not feeling the crunch of living month-to-month. And so, I'd say a combination of that kind of primal instinct that I've always had since being a child, to genuinely enjoying building software, like I love it. Although, for the last I'd say 18 months or so, I don't think I've actually committed code for BuySellAds, which is really upsetting for me because I love building stuff. And then also just like, I don't know, I mean, I really enjoy the people that work at BuySellAds, I enjoy working with them. We were trying to create a company where we could all actually work here for our entire lives, and I'm sure that sounds stupid, or crazy, or like good luck with that buddy, but that's just what I like to do. I love going home to my family at night, I love going to work and seeing and helping people around me succeed as I can, and learning from them what I can, and that's just, I don't know, maybe it's not as heroic as many, or heroic enough to turn us into some huge business, but that's just what I enjoy.
No, I think that sounds not at all stupid or unambitious, I mean number one, it's not easy to build a company that stands the test of time and is around for decades. I think if you look at like the top 100 companies from 100 years ago, it's like a small handful of them still even exist. I mean, it's like the top 100 companies of all time, so even like for smaller companies I'm sure it's much harder to stick around. In these early days you were kinda of thinking, "Okay, I wanna build something that's gonna last, I want financial security," and we were just having a discussion about this the other day on the Indie Hackers Forum. There's a thread I made called What Motivates You, and someone asked me, "Is it okay not to be motivated by the mission of the company?" Because I think the most cliche thing, in Silicon Valley at least, is every single person thinks, "My company's changing the world and that's 100% of why I wake up at night." And it's like well you know, if you stop getting that paycheck would you still go to work, would you still do this? And the answer's probably, "No," at least for a lot of people. But there's also what you're doing with BuySellAds, you guys actually are taking a very different approach to advertising. Somebody asked me this question, and I wanna ask you this same question, too: they said, "Do you think that you could of built a successful company by only focusing on like the personal lifestyle goals of wanting to be financially independent or secure? Do you think that you have to have a mission-driven company?" How does that apply to you at BuySellAds?
Yeah so, I think I can tie this up pretty nicely, in my own mind anyway. This morning, ironically, I was writing a Code of Conduct for BuySellAds, and all that really means is like here's how I expect everybody on the team to carry themselves in their interactions with each other, with people outside the company in any kind of public settings, yada, yada, yada. It wasn't because we had something bad happen, it's because I felt as though we're getting to the point, 32 people, likely gonna be many more over the course of the year, where we need to have some kind of like basic foundation established of how we carry ourselves as people who are inherently representatives of the company. And so, I look at it like this, right? I mean, let's be honest, the vast majority of people, you're not changing the world, I hate to break the bad news to you. It sounds lovely, it sounds so great to say like, "I'm changing the world," and maybe that feels good inside you, but I can promise you without a shadow of a doubt, a million times more rewarding is quite literally just figuring out how to improve the life of the person next to you. One of the things that I wrote in the Code Conduct was, first things first, my father wasn't in the military but he went to military college, and one thing I noticed growing up was that every single morning his bed was made and it was made damn well, right? I never got the chance to talk to him about why he did that so religiously every single morning. But what I have been able to take out of that observation from my childhood was that he, every morning he woke up and made his bed very nicely, and that was his way of making sure that, or of establishing a foundation for the day from which he could then build upon. I think the analogy there is that like if you can't get your own life in order, you're not gonna change the life of somebody else's, the lives of other people. You're not going to change the world unless you can get your own life in order, and so that's why I wholeheartedly believe that like, I think it's fine for a company to have this mission of changing the world, but the vast majority of people on this earth are just not going to be able to participate in something that grand. Let's just make that a lot more simple and like try and change the life of the person sitting next to you first.
Yeah, and I think there's something kinda sad about a lot of companies trying so hard to change the lives of like a billion people, and failing, and really like helping zero people. When instead... and instead they could of helped maybe 1,000 or 10,000 people, which is still an awesome feeling, ya know? Even just teaching, I teach my friends to code pretty regularly, and teaching just one friend how to code and then watching them get a job as a programmer where before they had like the worst job, is like tremendously rewarding. Another cool thing about BuySellAds is that, I think people who are trying to get into entrepreneurship and starting a business, one of the biggest hurdles that they run into is, okay I'm super jazzed, I'm ready to go, I just don't have an idea to work on, and I can't come up with a sufficiently unique, and cool, and world-changing idea. Whereas a lot of the people that I've talked to that have been successful like yourself, I don't wanna say BuySellAds is a bad idea, it was obviously a great idea, but what made the idea great was not its novelty, people were buying and selling ads before BuySellAds came through. So, how did you think about the competition when you first started the company, and what gave you the confidence to say okay, this is what I wanna do, even though there already are existing players in this market?
Yeah so a couple things. First things first, the best advice I ever received to your comment about a lot of entrepreneurs wanting to start a business but don't know what to start, go work for somebody else. Let's say the idea for BuySellAds had never popped into my mind, but from working at HubSpot I learned so much from those guys just in the two years that I was there, that I guarantee you if it weren't for BuySellAds it would be something else that I had learned more specifically at HubSpot that I could of taken and turned into a real business. In fact, I think quite a few folks I worked with have quite literally done just that, so many of them have now started their own company. So if you don't know what to do, go work for somebody else, you'll learn a lot in the process, and you won't regret it, I promise. Unless you work for a crappy company, but anyway.
Unless the company makes your life terrible.
Yeah, , yeah and then...
You didn't hear that advice here, you heard it somewhere else.
But to the latter part of the question there, I mean, everybody loves the David and Goliath story. Obviously at the time, in 2007, 2008, there was Google AdSense, back then AdBrite was a thing. A lot of other ad tech companies, there was Federated Media which was a thing back then. And really, I've always enjoyed the idea of like being the little guy to take on the big guy, and so the idea of there being competition that could you know, quote, unquote, squash me at any time, just makes the challenge all that more interesting. Even if I look at BuySellAds right now today, I could tell somebody a couple ways they could be a pest for us along the way. Every big company has blind spots and things that they're not doing well, customers that are being underserved, and so the idea that these large companies are a reason not to start a company, it's actually the exact opposite. It's like, well because they're large that means they're vulnerable, they're going to be moving slower, and they're not gonna crush you unless you actually do something meaningful. So like, if they do wanna crush you that's a great thing 'cause maybe their competitor will acquire you, as well. So forget the big companies.
I like that quote: "They're not going to crush you unless you actually do something meaningful." In other words, if you get to the point where the bigger companies are taking note of what you're doing, then you're already wining, ya know? That's already a good place to be in, and if you don't get to that point then it's not because of the competition.
100%, now along the way we also had a lot of smaller competition very similar to us in size, and I don't know how to describe that other than like the second you start following them is the second you've lost. And if you notice them following things that you're doing, don't let it distract you, keep doing what you're doing.
Why is that, why is it that copying the competition means that you've lost?
So I mean, you know, as long as we can avoid the Facebook/Instagram references, and all that, or Facebook/Snapchat references and all that kinda stuff, I'm talking much smaller companies, like big and new by... gonna size like let's say sub $10 million in revenue. Every company, every product, you need some kind of vision at the company that is consistently being communicated and driven forward. The second you get to the point where you're not getting a large portion of that vision from customers you're working with and getting feedback from, and instead turning towards your competition trying to take pages out of their playbook, is the second you've lost. Anything that your competitors are releasing is probably something they've been working on for let's say, maybe two, three months at minimum, and so bare minium, you're at least two, three months behind. In a fast-moving space like tech for a lot of things, at the very beginning of a company, two to three months is actually a decent amount of time.
It reminds me of my brother when he was young he was a pretty good singer, he always wanted to be a singer, and he always tried to sing like Michael Jackson. My dad would always tell him, "If you attempt to sing like Michael Jackson, then the best that you can ever be is Michael Jackson. You can never go past that." Obviously, that analogy's kinda weird because it wouldn't be too bad to sing as well as Michael Jackson, but like you're saying, if you're a smaller company you're never gonna beat your competitors by just copying everything that they do, you'll just be behind them.
I'm curious, beyond the fact that you weren't worried about the competition, what was it about BuySellAds that helped you stand out from the competition? Because it's not enough just to not care, like you have to actually differentiate yourself and be something that people choose over the competition.
Even to back up for a second, I definitely worried about competition over the years, I definitely had times where I reacted to things that they would do, or I would let myself get frustrated at certain things they would do. I think it's totally natural for people to get emotional about those things, and have frustration and go down that path of like trying to peek behind the covers of the competition.
Are there any examples that stand out of something the competition did that kind of shook you up, or changed your course?
I think anytime you feel like something you've done has been copied, it's a very emotional thing as a founder, or as anybody writing code, or building something. My best advice there is like quite literally nothing you say or do is actually going to matter. I mean, unless you're in situations where there's like trademark, or copyright, or other kind of legal issues like that, or patent issues, literally nothing else other than that matters. And so, those times where you, and I'll see this on Twitter from time to time, I feel like I saw something this past weekend where there was a founder getting into it with another founder on Twitter, and it's like what are you actually going to accomplish there? Quite literally nothing. So, like take whatever time you're spending getting frustrated or hung up on things from the other side, and use that time to focus on your customers. Without a doubt, 10 times outta 10 that's gonna pay dividends.
It sounds like you're speaking from experience, people copied features or aspects of BuySellAds in the past.
Yeah, it's frustrating, 100%, and it's gonna happen. If the thing you're doing is being successful, or is becoming successful, that's going to happen to you. Just to give you an actual example, back in the very early days a BuySellAd script would start showing up on these websites where you could like purchase scripts, is what they would call it, you know? So like, you could literally, and it would be in the BuySellAds design and everything. I think in the first couple years things like that would annoy me, but eventually I was like, "That's just a sign of respect, we've built something here, folks, this is great! People wanna be like us!" But that's just one example, getting hung up on stuff like that's a waste of time.
One of the things you mentioned earlier that kinda set BuySellAds apart from other people was your focus on publishers. I think you said the ad that you put up initially was like for publishers, by publishers, et cetera, how did you know that that was something that people would care about? And how did you decide to make that your selling point?
You know, that's a great question, I don't actually know. I think one of the reasons why we were successful is because clearly other people weren't focusing on publishers as much as we were. A lot of folks who work at BuySellAds are also, or have also been publishers, or have sold ads on their own personal sites in the past, so we have a lot of built-up experience at BSA in general with selling ads for a living. And then over time, as well, it evolved to be similar on the advertiser side where we're like genuinely involved in trying to make sure that these folks are acquiring users profitably.
And I'm curious, is that something that, is that still the same today? Is that like what you would say the main selling point at BuySellAds is, or has it changed over time as you've talked to different customers and find out what you can do better than other people?
Yeah, it's definitely one of our core tenets today still, and I think the best example of that is a company, or a business like AdSense, right? If you've ever been a publisher trying to interact with AdSense support, I'm sure you just rolled your eyes, it's like there is no support. You have to go to forums and ask people who aren't even Google employees what's wrong, ya know? And so, there was this void for actually trying to help publishers do well with their monetization on the Web that just wasn't being filled. On the high end, a company at that time, back in 2008, like Federated Media, was definitely servicing the high-end, and so we kind of fit in in this like middle tier there where there really wasn't anybody servicing those folks, and that's still true today. How that evolved over time was to also do the exact same thing for the advertiser side. Throughout BuySellAds' history, we've had some really great advertisers come through where we've spent a lot of time working with them to help them acquire user's profitably from the publishers that we work with, and there have been some great success stories. For example Wix, way back when they were one of our original advertisers after they first launched the business, I'm gonna say like 2009 maybe. And then companies like Shutterstock, Fotolia, a lot of companies we've worked with all along the way, not that I'm sitting here trying to take credit for their success, but along their path to success we have taken part in helping them do things profitably, and that's something we thoroughly enjoy. Like I said earlier in the podcast about nobody clicks on banner ads anymore, that's kind of a lie, clearly people do click on them, and we're still helping people acquire customers profitably, but that hasn't been from just like being sedentary and continuing to do things the way we've always done them. We've had to help these folks figure out new strategies that'll work in 2015 and 2017, as opposed to 2008, you know?
Yeah, and I think that's the perfect segue 'cause we're about running out of time here, but I wanted to end by talking about the future, because we're obviously in an industry where things change pretty rapidly: it's almost like this arms race where advertising changes, and then consumers adjust their behavior, and then advertising changes again, et cetera, et cetera. I think it's going in a good direction where ads today are like less obnoxious than they used to be because you can't get away with the old stuff. What do you see as the future of the advertising industry, and where are you taking BuySellAds? And then as a follow-up to that, I think a lot of listeners are kind of early on in their companies, how do you see super-early nascent companies using advertising, and do you have any tips for them?
I believe the future of advertising on the web is like everything on the web, more authenticity. I think the web is amazing, I can't imagine like not being online for maybe more than seven days, right? Or for not being able to get online for a week. It really comes down to more authenticity. I mean, look at ad block or adoption rates, they're literally going through the roof, so consumers are voting with ad blockers telling ad tech companies and publishers that they don't want to be annoyed. This kinda stuff is amazing for a business like BuySellAds because we do everything that is the antithesis of annoyed users, at least that's what we work towards. I love seeing consumers have that vote... Is there like a... I've got like some music blaring.
I don't hear it, it sounds good to me.
Whoa, hang on, sorry.
Oh, no problem.
Oh wow, sorry, um so..
Yeah, take your time.
That actually got interrupted because I had some tab open that started automatically playing a video ad, so how ironic, right?
Literally, I'm on this podcast would be like some advertiser's money was spent unwisely against me, who's not even paying attention to the browser tab that's open. So like you know, I think the situation where I'm with ad tech, and advertising, and making money on the web through advertising is that it's still the Wild Wild West. I feel like I used to refer to 2008 as the Wild Wild West, I think it's even more so the Wild Wild West now. Things are starting to get cleaned up now because users are able to vote with their attention through methods and tools like ad blocking. We've always felt as though companies haven't actually been out there building software in publishers' and consumers' best interests for quite a while, and that's what we exist to do. I think it's fortunate with Indie Hackers at Stripe, 'cause there are some parallels in terms of what we're trying to do for advertising that Stripe was able to do for merchant processing. We're trying to bring publishers easier access to monetization by making it far more simple, but at the same time, really raising the bar for quality on both sides so that people are getting an incredible exchange of value there in the middle, and that's our role is to be in the middle and help enable that exchange of value with as little friction as possible. I'm sure people at Stripe are sick of hearing, "Stripe for X, Stripe for Y, Stripe for Z," for the last five years now but...
No, I can assure, I can assure you they love it.
It's similar to that, right? We're trying to reduce friction, raise the bar for quality, and have some fun in the meantime.
Awesome, I think that's a good vision of the web in the future, more authenticity as users get more of the control and more tools that allow them to filter out the stuff that they hate. Can you tell listeners a little bit about where they can find you and learn more about you and BuySellAds online?
Yeah, sure thing, so BuySellAds is BuySellAds.com; on Twitter @BuySellAds; myself on Twitter @toddo, T-O-D-D-O; or shoot me an email, todd at toddgarland.com. And yeah, I mean, feel free to reach out, happy to chat with folks.
Awesome Todd, thanks so much for comin' on the show.
Thank you for having me, Courtland. Thanks for listening, folks.
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