Episode #021

Starting a Mission-Driven Company with Rachel Carpenter of Intrinio

The early team behind Intrinio got off to a very challenging start. In this episode, Rachel explains how being dedicated to their mission helped them stay scrappy and persevere through the hard times.


Enjoy the episode? Review us on iTunes! 😇


Courtland Allen 0h 0m 7s

What's up everybody? This is Courtland, from indiehackers.com where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of how they got to where they are today.

Today I'm talking to Rachel Carpenter, the CEO of a company called Intrinio. Intrinio really does two things. Number one they have access to financial data, like stock prices and index prices, and they make this data available to developers through their API's. Number two they have apps and analytics built on top of this data which they sell to investors, who use these apps to make better investment decisions.

Now what's really cool is the story behind how they built all of this stuff. 'Cause it wasn't easy, on the contrary it was super hard, and they had to be scrappy and determined, and not give up when things got tough. So there's a lot to learn here, and I'm super excited to get into it. So, Rachel thanks for coming on the show, how you doing?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 0m 55s

I'm great, thank you so much for having me.

Courtland Allen 0h 0m 57s

Yeah, no problem, thanks for coming on. Let's start at the beginning. Because I think one of the coolest and most interesting parts of your story is how you got started.

You guys actually weren't in the data business to begin with. What you started doing is totally different than what Intrinio does today. But, while you were on that path you ran into this wall, and you ended up pivoting in order to tear down that wall for yourself, and for other people. So, what's the story there?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 1m 22s

It is an interesting story, because we weren't always in the data business.

I met my co-founder Joey French when I was in college. We both went to the University of Wisconsin Madison. Heavy into the finance side of things, he was studying to become a CPA. I was studying finance. And we came together and had an idea for an app that we wanted to build. We wanted to build something to disrupt the valuation space.

So, giving a valuation, whether it's a stock that you wanna buy, or a business or an entity or an estate, is a really expensive service to have done. It's typically like 50,000 to 100,000 dollars to have a valuation run on your business. But a lot of what happens there is really automated. So, that's how we think. We always think about what's a more efficient way, how can things be automated? And we wanted to build an app to do that.

So, we set off and actually taught ourselves how to program the following year. Lesson to be learned here, we built the app before looking for the data for it. So, we took an entire year. Which ended up being a great decision, because it really shaped both of our perspectives, as leaders, to teach ourselves web development. So, Joey learned all of the back-end side of things, Ruby, database architectures. And I learned all the front-end design language and stuff we needed.

So together with a finance background, and then all of the technical skills built on top of that we started to build our app out. And we probably put a year and a half into this. Originally we were screen scraping data from 10,000 websites you know, things like the added finance API, and different things like that. Because there's a lot of different data that goes into building an app like that for valuation. And, obviously that is semi-illegal and not a way, not a product that you can commercialize, or use publicly, or sell anywhere.

So once we finally had everything built, we started looking for legitimate ways to store set data. Things like financial statement information, stock prices, you know, there's a multitude of different types of data you need to power an application like that. So we went to the big providers, the typical suspects. The Bloomberg, Capital IQ, Thomson Reuters, Stocks at Morningstars of the world, these big five firms that basically have an oligopoly in the data space. And we got quoted 50,000 dollars a month.

So, I think for many of the listeners, you know, who were kind of in the same boat that we were in. When you're in early stage, you know, I was sleeping on a couch that year. I wasn't making any money. I was, I had just learned how to program, and we were trying to get this thing off the ground. We thought we had a really good idea. And it was just a complete dead stop for us. So we had to really reconvene and think about it's pretty much impossible at that stage to justify an expense like that. We would have had to go out and raise at least, you know, 5,000,000 dollars to be able to afford those resources to power our app.

So we had to stop and think really long and hard about how can we solve this problem, which kind of catapulted us on this new journey to figure out data, because data was a roadblock. And if it was a roadblock for us we knew it was a roadblock for other people and, you know, as was mentioned in our article: we were angry. We had put all this work in, and building an innovative app like that is just not feasible. And it's, it's hindering a lot of innovation. So, we took that anger and productively went out and figured out a way to source all the data. And that's kind of how we ended up in the data business instead.

Courtland Allen 0h 4m 37s

Wow, so there's a lot there. But I wanna start by zooming in on the fact that very early in your businesses life, you guys decided to drop everything and learn how to code.

What's fascinating about that to me, is that there's a lot of aspiring founders and entrepreneurs who don't know how to code, and are trying to make this decision. Should I learn how to code now and then start my business or should I just start right now, and outsource all my development? Or maybe, find a co-founder to work with who's technical.

It's a tough decision to make. Because obviously both options are pretty expensive. Learning to code takes a ton of time, and that's a huge investment. And hiring developers also costs us a lot of money. So how did you guys come to the conclusion that you did, where you ended up learning to code? I mean, did you pick that just because it was the cheaper of the two options, or were other factors at play?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 5m 26s

Yeah, it was cheaper. We thought we were onto a pretty powerful idea and we didn't wanna give away a huge chunk of the business was one part of it. Save money, not give a bunch away.

But on the other hand as well, FinTech is so specific to having area expertise of finance. The calculations that were being run in the background of all of our code, and understanding how the relationships among line items in a financial statement, and how you calculate return on equity, and how all of these different ratios and metrics are calculated and standardized. It's not just basic coding. It's very complex when you add in all the financial side of things as well.

So I lived in the easy happy front-end land. But Joey, Joey spent a lot of time in the back end, building our database and all of our algorithms, and machine learning stuff out. So he was in the thick of basically taking his knowledge as a CPA, and coding that into logic. So, if you would've taken a CPA and put them next to a back end developer it probably would've taken four times as long for them to communicate. Also, because a CPA doesn't think like a developer. They have very different mindsets, very different ways of attacking problems, and, and solving things.

So, having both of those mindsets, that we both had financial expertise and we both had the technical skills, we were able to move really fast, and building something pretty powerful quickly. It was a competitive advantage for us to learn how to code on our own. Because most people don't take the time to do that, and then there's a communication barrier there, and you can't move quite as quickly. So it was a good decision.

Courtland Allen 0h 7m 4s

That makes perfect sense. Do you have any tips for people who are listening who might've just started learning to code — who are thinking about it? To help them, I guess, succeed and learn as fast as possible. Like how did you go about it? And how long did it take you to learn?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 7m 17s

Oh my gosh, it took. I mean, Joey was in the programming mindset since he was like 16. He started with VBA, so doing self programming. And then Drupal, and then kind of moved on to the Ruby technologies and database technologies. So, he has been learning I would say, casually for a few years, and then pretty seriously for about two years, to get to where he is.

I took an entire year to get me from complete zero computer literacy, like none at all, literally just Googling: How do I set up a development environment? How do I make a square appear on the screen? How do I turn that square blue? How do I rotate it 180 degrees to the right? Just step by step teaching myself using Google. Using Codeacademy a little bit until I got to a point where I could build an entire website from scratch, more or less.

It wasn't great, don't get me wrong. But after that year of self teaching and getting to that point, I took a course from a group in Chicago, called The Starter League. It's actually a pretty phenomenal organization. They're called The Starter League because they help you start something, is their idea. You have to get started in learning how to code is the way to started. So people that wanna start a business don't know how to code they take you in and they help you start basically.

I took an advanced HTML and CSS course, for animations, transitions, you know, all the complex stuff I hadn't taught myself, to take myself from kind of high school to college level. It was a journey of about a year and a half for myself.

And to be honest, I've since hired a CTO, who is ridiculous at coding. He is extremely talented. And I don't necessarily do the day to day coding anymore, because we've grown and I've since hired people to do that. But, learning even just a little bit at the beginning, is so important if you're gonna be the leader of the company because it's my job to consistently communicate between what we call the back of the house and the front of the house, the development team and the revenue team. And being able to communicate between both teams.

I don't know if you've ever seen that hilarious skit where they have the project management team talking to the developers and the project management team is like well we want the lines to be parallel and perpendicular, why can't you do that? We wanna see red and blue at the same time. And the developer is like oh my god you just don't understand why that's impossible.

Courtland Allen 0h 9m 33s

It makes no sense.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 9m 35s

Yeah, but it's hilarious because that is the reality of, of the front of the house talking to the back of the house. And you can run into problems like that if you don't understand at a base level how development works, how logic works, back end, front end.

So I would say that I'm not a great developer, but I got to the point where I knew how to hire a great developer and I know how to talk to them, and how to communicate well between the teams. And that's pretty important, at least it has been in our experience so it's worth whether you wanna be great, and really focus on it and be the programmer, or whether you wanna just learn enough to be able to be knowledgeable about it. Either way I think it's pretty important.

Courtland Allen 0h 10m 11s

So fast forward to like 2015. You guys have learned, basically, how to code. And just for some context, your brother Andrew Carpenter, who works with you at Intrinio, and once was one of the first employees, actually did a text interview on Indie Hackers. So if you're listening and you haven't checked out that interview definitely give it a read after this podcast.

But one of the things he mentioned was that it took you guys a few years to really get to the point where your product worked and it was something that you were ready to push out to people. Besides learning to code, what else went into that time period? What took so long? And also how did you persevere? Because it's super easy to quit six months into a project, let alone three years.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 10m 51s

Yeah, definitely. So we went about it in an interesting way. Whether it was the easiest way to do it or not I don't know. Probably not, but we built what I would call our technology before we built our business.

We needed to find a way to source data, and we spent a year and a half manually sifting through financial statements, as thrilling as that sounds. Trust me it wasn't, and that was a bad year. In order, in order to basically train a machine learning algorithm you have to feed it the correct data, and let it kind of grow over time. So we have to understand the logic and the relationships within financial statements in order to teach our code to automatically clean them up and organize them. So, there was a big manual approach.

Then once we understood it well we turned that into just algorithmic rules based kind of a system. And then we took that algorithmic system, and eventually started incorporating aspects of machine learning to it, to get it to a point where it's really just humming and ticking along and pulling in financial filings and other structured data sets, and automatically cleaning them up without, with very little human intervention, at a really high quality rate.

So that solved our problem, right? We had built a better way to source data. It was faster, it was cheaper, it was algorithmic. And it meant that we ended up with higher quality data. And that was great, and we started feeding that into our app and we knew that that was a more powerful business, even than the app, and we wanted to build a business around it. So we were sitting on top of a disruptive technology. We'd built it, and it was great.

That took over a year just to build that technology, and at that point we had to look at it and go, okay but now how do we build a business around this? Because our technology isn't useful unless you have a business around it. And that's when that journey kind of started, of how do we price this?

It's so disruptively cheap for us to service this data, relative to these super expensive seat licenses and subscriptions with all these restrictions. How do we land on the right price to build a profitable business with it. But also making it still affordable enough that we can reach huge markets of people. So, figuring out pricing was one whole problem. And then figuring out distribution was another one.

Courtland Allen 0h 12m 54s

So let me stop you there, 'cause I definitely want to like deep dive into like the whole pricing thing, and the fact that you guys compete on price, which is pretty unique among the people that I've interviewed. But before we get into that, how many, how many of you were there working on like, this initial product, to get the technology done?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 13m 9s

So building the technology was pretty much, that was a lot on Joey's shoulders. He did a lot of that. And it was myself and him for a solid year and a half. And then we brought Conor Farley on board, who's now our Chief Revenue Officer. So that was about the time the technology was getting there.

We were seeding securities and working our way up to full coverage of US companies. So the technology was built but it took a lot of time to feed all of the data through it. So, Conor came on about that time. Which was perfect timing, because it was at that time we needed to figure out our business model around the technology. So then it was just three of us for about.

Courtland Allen 0h 13m 43s

And if I can just interrupt here for a second. You guys weren't generating any revenue here at this point. So how did you afford to pay for all of this?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 13m 49s

We had raised a small amount from friends and family at that point that was pretty much enough to keep ramen noodles on the table. We lived off of a 100,000 dollar investment, from friends and family, for like close to three years, with three people. So it was, it was tough.

But again, we knew when we were getting this powerful we didn't wanna give it away. We knew we were close to figuring out the right formula for the business model, and we didn't wanna get ahead of ourselves and we wanted to get further, before we raised further funds. So it was really Joey and I for a year and a half, Conor came on, and then right when things started getting figured as a business model was when my brother, Andrew Carpenter, joined us. So now we have eight employees, so we're getting up there.

Courtland Allen 0h 14m 31s

So you guys must have had like pretty fanatical belief in like your eventual success to have pushed on through that period, 'cause that's not a lot of money for three people to live off of.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 14m 41s

No, not at all. And as Andrew points out if you, if the listeners have a chance to read the article, it's pretty hilarious. But, my mom actually owns a wine bar in St. Petersburg, Florida, and we all bartended at the wine bar.

I think Joey was the only one who didn't bartend, it was just because we used to make him wash dishes sometimes. But, so we were bartending, working, coding, programming, building the website, figuring things out during the day, and then bartending through the night. Joey and I were sharing a studio apartment together we had two beds in a tiny box. And Conor and Andrew were living on a sailboat together.

So we had probably combined with the four of us the number of square footage we were living in was pretty, pretty pathetic but it made us stronger, and kind of reinforced, it's not always easy, and there's definitely the top and the bottom of the roller coaster continuously to get through, if you're building something great it doesn't happen overnight. So yeah, that was a tough year, I'm not gonna lie. But it was after that that we got to a point where we thought we had something pretty good and it was easier to raise angel capital at that point, and we were able to get off the ramen noodle diet.

Courtland Allen 0h 15m 48s

Yeah and you guys are obviously like a very mission-driven company where you care a lot about making this data cheaper and more easily available to people. Do you think, this is a topic that a lot of people have brought up to me recently actually. They've asked me whether or not I think that you have to be mission driven in order to succeed.

What do you think about it? Like do you think it's possible to build a successful company if you're just in it for the money, or for the lifestyle? Or do you think you have to passionately care about the product that you're building too?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 16m 15s

I don't know, because I've never known anything else. I wouldn't even call myself a serial entrepreneur. I'm just a single entrepreneur. This is the only thing I've ever done. Straight from my senior year at college I started doing this and I had friends who would ask me, this is great Rachel, but you're sleeping on a couch, and you don't have any money, so what's your plan B? And I'd just look at them with this like stare, because I don't have a plan B, this is.

Courtland Allen 0h 16m 37s

Yeah, what's a plan B?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 16m 38s

I believe very strongly in what is, yeah, what is that? So I believe very strongly in it, and I've done my best to instill that in everybody that we've added to the team since that point. So, I don't know anything else, and I think it's been the reason we got through those hard times.

I mean I can count dozen times that we would look at each other and go is this gonna work? Maybe we should stop. And we didn't I think, and pretty much the only reason we didn't is because we cared so much about making this available, you know, we were personally affected by the gap in the industry. So I personally don't know anything else. And it's the reason we're still here. So I think it's very important.

But I do also recognize that there are different business models — business models that you don't necessarily need to raise capital to grow. Business models that are more brick and mortar. Or kind of lifestyle businesses. So I think some of those types of businesses are easier, if you are super passionately burning with desire to build something.

But if you have a big idea that has a big market, and requires time and effort and raising capital especially, because that's one of the biggest pieces of feedback I've gotten from investors that I've spoken to, is that my passion shows through. And that's the reason we've gotten some of the funding we have. So, if you need to raise money and you have a big idea, it's super important. But there's definitely business models in which it's not as important.

Courtland Allen 0h 18m 0s

Yeah, I mean if you're an investor and you're, and you're looking at someone, and she spent a year and a half learning to code… and she's living in like, sharing a studio with her co-founder… and has not done anything else… and could easily get a job elsewhere making a lot more money… then it's like this is somebody I can believe in. You know, this is somebody I can invest in, and I know that they're not gonna quit until they succeed.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 18m 17s

That's the thing.

Courtland Allen 0h 18m 19s

So let's fast forward to, to you're four people now, and you're kinda thinking about pricing, your business model as a whole, and how you're actually going to find customers and start making money. What was going through your mind at that time?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 18m 33s

Oh my goodness. Well, we were getting feedback from… everybody tells you something different. I had traditional older advisors and investors who were like you're way under-pricing this, there's no way. You're leaving so much on the table. And then I had other people saying yeah but, you wanna capture all the market share and make it a no-brainer for somebody to sign up. Make it so affordable they can't say no.

If you have kind of these pressures coming from both sides, then… the evolution of our pricing model is fricking hilarious, we did everything. We started off with just, "It's 25 bucks across the board for anyone." Which was great, we got a ton of people to sign up, but we were giving away like massive amount of value. So we had a lot of signups right away, which is exciting, and then we realized okay but this is wrong.

So we swung from that direction so far to the other side to this like enterprise only pricing model, and try to make it look like this institutional product which scares people away. Because we didn't even put the pricing on the website, we just said contact us for pricing, enterprise pricing. Which is the exact opposite of that. And that didn't work either, that was way too far to the other direction.

So then we came up with this like crazy tiered approach, where we had like eight tiers of pricing. Tier one, tier two, people are like what's a tier? Like, nobody had any idea what that meant. And it was so complex in terms of like API call limits. Like, it was like a slider bar basically, up and down with API call limits, which to a degree is at the root of our mission, which is like, you pay for what you use. And also just, eight different levels and tiers, it was so confusing and so complex, it was damaging our sign up rate.

So, then we kind of realized at that point, after having been through three different models we were like, "I think what we need more is personas." You know, we have a challenge in that we are selling API's. But we have one API with a bunch of data feeds that get sent through it. So for developers thinking about API call limit. Obviously we understand it, but we also sell our data to investors who just use it in Excel. They don't know what an API is. They don't know what an API call is. So we said maybe if we personify these plans people will understand where they fit a little bit better.

And that's when we finally landed on this individual, professional, developer, startup, enterprise. Which is kind of the taking the tiered approach, slimming it down and putting personas on top of it. It was just made the user experience a lot better. Somebody comes to the website they're not looking for a plan, with a 100,000 daily API calls. They're looking for I'm a developer, and this is the plan for me.

So you know, through personifying it… that was about the time that we realized that we needed to make a marketplace out of the data, because we had so many products at that point. So switching to the marketplace plan and switching to those kind of personified pricing plans was hitting a sweet spot for us. And that's where we finally landed.

Courtland Allen 0h 21m 15s

Yeah, the personas thing is really smart. Because like you said it's basically just tiers. But I think when people go to a website, and they're looking at, you know, a product or service, the question at the top of their mind is, "Okay, is this for me? Is this something that's made for people like me, or is it made for like some other type of person and I shouldn't use it?"

And so if you just like change the wording and say, "Okay hey if you're a developer this is what you should do. Or if you're an investor here's what you should do." Then it instantly answers that question for people. When you're iterating through all these different pricing models did you have in mind the entire time who exactly your customer would be? Or were you also kind of figuring that out along the way?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 21m 48s

We were figuring that out along the way. And you know, I think Andrew kind of touched on this in the written article as well. That we were beating our head against the wall. Because initially we were more focused on investors than we were developers. Coming from a company where at that point in time 75% of our employees were developers. We weren't even really focusing that much on that. We didn't realize that we were on a hotbed.

We had the most efficient distribution architecture for data that I've ever seen in the finance industry. Through open, easily accessible API's, with chat support, great documentation. That just screams developer. I mean, the feedback we get today from developers is phenomenal they love our system. So we were like this is financial data, it should be sold to financial analysts, and quant funds and hedge funds. And it is, and we still do.

But we were almost beating our head against the ground with that. Because it's not as easy for them to switch. We're seeing margins tightening. And we're seeing the financial landscape change, and that those investor types are looking for more affordable solutions. But, it's really hard to convince them. I think they'll come around, and we're starting to see them come to the site, but going and knocking down the door of Morgan Stanley and telling everybody to use our data instead, it's not a smart strategy I think, as we're, as we're scaling up.

I think our story resonates a lot better with developers, because we're selling products to developers that are going through exactly what we went through. We created this solution to solve that problem. So we have this massive brainstorming session where we went, "Are we targeting the right people? Should we change our language? Should we change what we're doing? Twist it a little bit towards a different target market?"

And we realized that developers were the sweet spot. You know, what we built is a perfect solution for them. It is an API at the end of the day. Underneath the Excel addon it's an API. Underneath Google Sheets it's an API. And that's the system we've built.

So we did beat our heads against the wall with the investors, and I went to meeting after meeting not understanding why they didn't want to get rid of their Bloomberg terminal, or they didn't want to get rid of their Capital IQ subscriptions. So it was a struggle, but we figured it out. And the community of developers that we're building around ourselves is fantastic. And it's so rewarding to see all these apps come alive with our data. Because it's kind of why we started in the first place. So I think we found a sweet spot.

Courtland Allen 0h 24m 0s

Yeah it sounds like it. And I totally understand from a revenue perspective, the appeal of wanting to target investors, just because there's so much money there.

What kind of information informed your decision to switch your focus to developers? Because you said that you had this brainstorming session. What did everybody bring to the table in this meeting?

I mean, were you talking to customers to find out who they were, or did you see an uptick in your user growth coming from developers? Or did you just kinda reason from first principles that you would be better off targeting developers?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 24m 28s

It was a combination of a couple things. We, we use Intercom which is something that Andrew talks about, it's one of, it's not one of, it is the most transformative tool we've used in building our business: It's the chat support on our website.

It's a very easy integration. Chat bubble, analytics on every single thing the customer's doing, how, when did they join? How many API calls have they made? How much are they paying us? What's their location? What operating system are they using? I mean, you have a direct insight into the customer you're chatting and you can help them along the journey in real time, which is great.

We survey our customers. We talk to them, we chat them. And just the general sentiment: we were talking to a lot more developers than we had been. We had just launched our developer program, which gives for qualifying startups it gives data to them for free for six months. We were adding like two to three startups to that program a week. The inbound interest for that program was huge. So the company… through kind of just a sentiment of talking to our customers all day long, you know, we've had thousands and thousands of conversations with them. And also, that program starting to take off.

It was about that time too that we brought Alex Solo on as our CTO. Who obviously lives and breathes in the developer community, and has been for some time. And he's like, you guys this is the perfect product for a developer. He's like, it's funny having somebody from the back of the house come from not even remotely close to the marketing side of the business saying this is who we need to be marketing to. I live and breathe in this and these guys are loving this. So Alex is a pretty big influence in saying hey wake up, this is a better direction for us, than you know, listening to our customers as well. So it's kind of a combination of those things.

Courtland Allen 0h 26m 7s

That's really cool. I think there's a lot of people who are in the position where they've got a startup or they've got like, an app that they launched, and maybe their targeting or their marketing is super vague. It's kind of like it's everything to everyone.

And they might run across the advice online that this should target like a particular niche, or they should find a customer for whom their product is a really good solution. And it's just so hard for a lot of people to figure out who that is.

So it's fascinating to hear about you guys talking to your customers on Intercom. Did you have everybody at the company doing customer support or was it just a few people?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 26m 37s

Oh, it was a nightmare, oh my god yeah. I mean it's that, it's that growth stage where you're not expanding your team quite yet and everybody has to help out. We have somebody who does it full time now. But last year there were five of us, and we were all doing customer support. We got to the point where we had to schedule it 24 hours a day.

Thankfully Joey, my co-founder he has to do a lot of his programming when the markets are closed, and he prefers programming at night. So he has like through three to four a.m. covered pretty well, and I'm an early riser, so I had like five, six a.m. covered. So there was really only like an hour of the day, in which customers in like Asian markets were messaging us that we didn't have great coverage. And our response time for that entire year was like less than 60 seconds to consumer, customer messages.

Intercom's great. Yo have it on your phone, so I'd be at the gym answering questions. I could be in my car at red lights answering questions. And everybody is doing it constantly all the time. And we would almost make a game out of it, a race to see who could answer the question faster. But it was great from my perspective as well, because steering the ship it's important for me as well to understand what's going on at the ground level.

Having conversations and getting the sentiment of our customers and, you know, if anybody's upset, me jumping in and being able to chat with them. When they find out they're talking to the CEO, even though they don't know it's the CEO of a five person company, it still means a lot to them to know that. It's important for me to talk to the customers, and I still hop on chat support every once in awhile just to get a pulse on it as well. But it was definitely tough for awhile.

But at the same time, it's a good thing, because people are visiting you, visiting your website. So it was a challenge, but it was good.

Courtland Allen [00:28:15] Yeah, I was gonna, I was gonna ask how you balanced doing all that customer support with actually like working on your product, and doing like marketing and stuff. 'Cause it's like, it can be a lot of work, just answering emails. I mean people will send you just the most random requests. You can spend an hour, easily, on one customer's email, let alone hundreds.

Rachel Carpenter [00:28:35] Yeah it's a challenge. Like I said we just scheduled shifts. There's obviously sometimes there's conversations we can't get to right away. But you're also talking about an industry where chat support doesn't even exist.

I mean, on a Bloomberg terminal they have, they have pretty good support actually, but we've talked to customers where some of these bigger data vendors take six months sometimes to get back to them with like a spreadsheet update or something. So people aren't used to having real-time support like that, which works in our favor, because nobody has ever done it before in this industry.

So, that works. Sometimes we can't get there right away, people are still grateful that we're helping them out on chat. But really it's just scheduling.

Courtland Allen 0h 29m 15s

So you were just like, you were just blowing their minds basically, they're like oh my god this is ridiculous.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 29m 20s

Yeah, not only is it chat support, but I'm talking to the CEO and this has never happened with a financial product before. So, having it on our phones, the mobile app Intercom had was huge because if I'm, you know, running between meetings with investors or out on the go, I can hop in, you know, maybe somebody else is on a sales call, or Joey's deep in a coding project. I can still hop on and help when I'm on the go, and then scheduling shifts is pretty important too. But it was not easy, definitely not easy.

Courtland Allen 0h 29m 44s

Yeah and I think one of the things that makes it hard for people to kinda strike the right balance, or it makes it hard for people to commit to doing good customer support is that it's easy for it to seem like, "Okay, well, I'm helping out my customers, but is it really the best way for me to spend my time? Is it making my company better?"

You guys talked to thousands of users. What kinds of things did you learn? And what was the best thing to come out of doing customer support?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 30m 6s

We went through evolutions, right? We didn't, we're in, we're in a constant state of adding new data feeds to our marketplace. And we're in a constant state of adding features and functionality like our API call builder, our formula builder, our data explorer, different features and things like that.

So, I think constantly having a pulse on what people are looking for, you know like currently, we're getting so much, so many requests for Indian market fundamentals, we have Indian markets stock prices, but we don't have fundamentals yet. And the amount of interest we have in that. People chat us and say do you have this, do you have that? And we keep a tally of it saying oh we had 75 conversations in the past month with people who want this data feed, maybe we should prioritize adding that to the marketplace. So in terms of directing our product expansion and which data feeds and data sets we go after is huge. And then also just general like support type questions, like frequently asked questions.

So, maybe we had like at one point a bunch of conversations with somebody who said where do I enter my credit card? And we went oh maybe our credit card page sucks. People aren't finding it, what's wrong with this? And so it helps you kind of direct your attention into those different areas of the website that maybe need a little UX touch up or a little help. Maybe things they don't understand the way something is worded, it doesn't make sense. It kind of helps you fix those things. And then we also have a system that Andrew built which is pretty genius where if we get asked a question a certain number of times we write a blog about it. Just because we don't have time to answer these questions over and over again.

So Intercom, Intercom has a feature where you can have saved replies. So if somebody frequently asks like we get questions all the time about market cap, it's hilarious. Like the amount of times people ask us about market cap. How do I pull historical market cap? And so we have a saved reply where you just start typing market cap and the answer automatically comes up. And it saves a ton of time. 'Cause when you have twenty conversations going at once with customers being able to just shoot them an answer really quick is huge. So, we use a saved reply.

And then like I said if we get enough questions, we wrote a blog about market cap. We went hey, here's all the ways you can pull market cap. Current market cap, historical market cap, here's how you pull it through the API. Here's how you do it via Excel. Here's how we calculate it. Here's where it comes from. Every piece of information you would need and then we just shoot a link to that blog through a saved reply to the customer, and their questions are immediately answered. Another huge one for us.

Microsoft Excel is clunky, and when people try to download the add-ins, to, to use the data in Excel, it's a nightmare sometimes. And it's frequently something really simple, like you didn't enable your macros, or something simple like that. So instead of diagnosing the problem step by step with them we wrote a troubleshooting guide. And we just shoot them the troubleshooting guide and say hey have you gone through all these steps? If not, okay then go check this out, I'm sure you'll solve your problem. If not, come back and chat to us, and we're more than happy to help you. So just little efficiencies like that helps with UX, helps us determine which products to go after and helps fix little, little areas of the website that maybe people are getting stuck on. So it's been a huge help to us.

Courtland Allen 0h 33m 5s

I think people really underestimate the benefit of talking to users, because it's so easy to have a model in your head of what your business does, and who uses it, and where to find them, and what the best things to work on are. And if you don't actually talk to people, you never reconcile that mental model with reality, so it's super helpful to talk to people.

Was there any, anything that customers asked you about, or asked you for all the time that you just decided not to do?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 33m 30s

That's a great question.

Courtland Allen 0h 33m 32s

'Cause it's, it's difficult to draw a line sometimes between, "Okay, what are we gonna do, because we know it's the right thing to do, versus what are we gonna do that's reactionary?"

Rachel Carpenter 0h 33m 40s

Yeah, one of the biggest challenges we have right now is with novice developers. We can absolutely support API issues. If it's an issue with our API, e.g. that the data point is not working correctly, and even kind of on the fringe, e.g. how to authenticate correctly with the API, getting it set up, getting it running. But when it comes to, "Hey, I got authenticated correctly and I'm pulling your data through, maybe my Python code, but something's not working." We can't teach you how to code.

In the nicest way possible, right? You can't just add us to your GitHub repository and have us go in and fix it for you. We're not your code teachers. And it's tough for me, because I learned how to code, and the amount of times I'd run into a bug and be stuck for two weeks and it was something super simple that if somebody had just looked at it and fixed it… It's painful for me, because I totally get it. But at the same time, we're chatting customers about to pay us and do all this stuff, and we can't edit your code for you.

So that's a painful one. But we do have to draw a line there and say, you know, we leave it open, we're like we have developers on staff if somebody's feeling really nice, maybe Alex our CTO is bored and he wants to hop on there and just be nice and solve something for you. He's like, maybe we'll take a look at it. But we don't solve code issues. So if you're having a problem with the API we can help you, but go on Stack Overflow, Google it, be diligent, I'm sure you'll figure it out. That's a tough one for us.

Courtland Allen 0h 35m 9s

So let's, let's go back in time a little bit. Because in order to even get to the point where you're doing like this fanatical customer support and writing blog posts to preempt customers questions, and having everybody stay up at all hours of the night to talk to customers you actually have to have people coming to your website, right? So they can actually get into this Intercom widget. How did you go from just having your technology and your product to getting your first customers? The first trickle of users to your website.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 35m 35s

Well the good news about marketing to developers is that you guys are really smart. And unlike a lot of normal consumers, you know how to find what you need on the internet, and you do it very well.

We found that the Ruby developers were living in these little communities online and talking to each other. And the Java developers were looking to use communities. The thing that we figured out is that they were really good at finding us, which was great when we were getting started, because we didn't necessarily have a marketing strategy figured out on day one.

Just in terms of search engine optimization, we were kind of killing it from day one. We optimize our site really well. We were doing a lot of blogging, a lot of content, a lot of quality content. And that piggybacked really well into our marketing strategy.

I know Andrew spoke a little bit in the article about Quora, but Quora was one of the most genuine ways for us to drive traffic. Because you're searching around Quora finding somebody that says, "Where is there an affordable data API for stock prices? I can't get it from Yahoo, it's illegal. I can't buy a Bloomberg terminal. Like, where can I find this?"

People are literally asking specifically for what you do. You can find an answer those questions, and it is not only the most genuine answer, you know, but we're not selling you. You're literally asking for this. A link that links to our website that lives forever, as long as Quora is around. And driving really high quality traffic for us, which is important too. I mean, you can drive hundreds of thousands of hits, but if they're not the right people it doesn't matter.

So it was super targeted, super genuine, and super evergreen in terms of just the links living for a long time. So we were able to really target in on customers that way and after that strategy started, I mean within a month, Quora outside of direct and search engine, Quora was our number three driver of traffic to the website, above social media, above the blog, above anything else. So building content, quality content was important. Finding people asking questions on forums, and being genuine was really important. So our SEO strategy was huge in the beginning. And that's, that's a big part of what drove our growth.

But, I gotta give credit to the developers themselves. I mean they find us. They find us from all stretches of the internet somehow. They, they know what they're looking for. And they search for the right terms. We pop up and they find us. So, we were very lucky and fortunate earlier on just to have a lot of traffic and people, because I think for a long time people didn't have a solution like this and they've been waiting for it. So, they were ready to come, to come say hi, which is good.

Courtland Allen 0h 37m 59s

Yeah, I think that's like a huge benefit of your decision to focus on developers because like you said, like developers are a community. They're a good niche where they hang out with each other and they talk to each other, and they share things that are good.

For people listening, if you're worried: "Oh, should I, pivot my business to target a specific niche? If I do that won't I be excluding other people?" I think the benefits are well worth the cost. Because people in a niche talk to each other. You're not gonna have your product spread via word of mouth if it's something you sell to everybody. Because teachers don't talk to construction workers about your tool. But if it's only one group, you know exactly where they hang out. And you can get them talking and spreading your stuff, so I think that's really awesome.

Did you guys have an SEO expert in the house, or a content expert, or were you kinda just winging it early on?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 38m 47s

We were winging it. I had a C in marketing. And I did all of our marketing in the beginning. So, I just researched. I'm true to my nature the way I taught myself how to program there's a lot of content out there that can teach you pretty quickly. So, you know I looked at YouTube videos and blogs, and different things and webinars, and different resources online that I could look to to figure out what the right strategy was.

When it comes down to it, it's content. It's creating quality content that actually matters to the customers that you want. So that's what we started really focusing on on our blog. Andrew, who did the article with you guys online, is a phenomenal writer. He's actually a published author, and he has a degree in psychology, which is really interesting for creating content. So, he's done a great job of building out our blog. He writes very clearly about topics that he knows our customers care about. So he was great on the content creation side.

And obviously a social media strategy that goes hand in hand with that. And I did a lot of social media early on as well. So, you know our CTO Alex, in terms of like the on site SEO he kills that, he's very good at it. And then the content stuff we just kind of learned as we went and figured out over time.

Courtland Allen 0h 39m 57s

Do you think blogging and writing articles, or the SEO aspect of things, was more or less impactful than, say, your efforts to answer questions on Quora? If you could only choose one of those, which one would you have done?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 40m 10s

Quora hands down.

Courtland Allen 0h 40m 11s

Interesting. So Quora was just driving crazy traffic for you guys, huh?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 40m 15s

Yeah, I mean, it was, it was phenomenal. It's a tough one, because you can't not blog. I mean, there's, if you have to have a pulse and a presence and we have to, we have to have somewhere where our customers can come learn about new features, and, and different things like that. So you kinda have to blog. But I would say Quora was way more powerful, in terms of driving traffic, than our blog was.

Courtland Allen 0h 40m 34s

And what kinds of things were you blogging about? Because it, I totally agree with you, like you can't not blog, but at the same time you, it's like, very easy to just not blog. Or to do a really bad job at blogging. 'Cause like I heard I have to blog so I guess I'll just write about how I started my company, and then I won't post for another three months. Like, what did you write about? And how did you come up with ideas for content?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 40m 52s

Yeah, I mean obviously early on we weren't great. We all made mistakes, I mean I wrote blogs sometimes that just didn't make any sense, or nobody cared about. Joey did a massively academic 12-page blog that nobody ever read. So we made mistakes, don't get me wrong. There's blogs out there that are not great.

But I think it's a combination of a lot of different things. First of all, the support questions. Which, for us, it's more of we wanna be able to direct people there so we don't have to spend time answering their questions, to be frank with you. But those are so importan. People can, if they have a problem, they can search and find a blog to help answer their questions. So, how to do this, how to do that, troubleshooting guides.

And then we do a blog every single time we introduce a new product in the marketplace. "Hey, we have a new product, you can come here to read all about it." You know, who did we partner with? Or did we source it ourselves? How is it used, what's an example of the data? How are other customers using it? What are they building with it? Just kind of an announcement about a new product on the marketplace, which is another good piece of content.

And just updates from the company. You know, how are we growing? We do updates once in awhile, when we add new people to the team.

And then we also do a lot of spotlights. So, examples of developers that have built something cool with our data. Everybody that goes through our developer program gets a six months free data program. We do a spotlight on them and we say, you know, here's how they got started, here's how they learned to code, here's what they've built with our data. It's great for us because it's an opportunity to show what's possible. These are the kinds of things people are building when they get access to this.

But for them it's also important too, because they might not necessarily have marketing skills. They're probably a badass developer who built an awesome FinTech technology, but they might not necessarily know how to talk about it, or how to describe it yet. So it's a promotional help for them too to get the word out, and kind of showcase the hard work they put in. So, that's one of my favorites — the developer spotlight series. I personally write those because it's so rewarding to dig into the new products that are built. So that spotlight series is great.

So it's a combination of help, FAQ, troubleshooting guides, new product announcements, just updates from the company, spotlights of people that are using, using our data. It's a pretty big range, but it's getting robust.

Courtland Allen 0h 43m 0s

Yeah the spotlights sound great 'cause it's like, like a perfect demonstration of what your product can do, so any one who's like on the fence about using it, or who doesn't understand it can just read that, and be like oh I get it, look what this guy built.

Rachel Carpenter 0h 43m 10s

Yeah it's great.

Courtland Allen 0h 43m 11s

On that note, you got all these developers basically talking about Intrinio. And I know you guys aren't the only company to exist that sells financial data and API's. What do you think differentiated you from the competition? That made it so people would talk about you instead of talking about other companies?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 43m 28s

Well, I mean obviously we've beaten Intercom's support over the head. I can't stress it enough. The amount of love we get from our customers that are like, "Oh, you actually talk to me, you're a human being in the United States. It's most likely your developer himself that's chatting with me, and it was instant, and you solved my problem." So we get a lot of respect and a lot of shout-outs in terms of support, which is great. So support is one big thing.

The other thing that's huge for us is the fact that we actually source a lot of the products on our own. So, there's other marketplaces out there, and other places to buy data. Half of them are big firms, but restrictive and expensive. And the other half are marketplaces that just redistribute data from the big firms. So, they're not necessarily sourcing any of the products on their own.

And because we have this underlying technology underneath marketplace, it means that we can source data sets. And since we did it algorithmically it's cheaper and not centered to any restrictions. That's why we have such a loose and open redistribution policy with all of our data feeds. So the fact that we're built on top of that solid foundation means our products are cheaper and way less restrictive in terms of, you know, we want you to go build something. That's why we focus on developers. Like go build something off and take this data, we wanna power you to go, to go build something cool.

So support's huge, the fact that we have the technology, it's cheaper, it's higher quality, and it's very, very low restriction is huge as well.

And then also our architecture. I think the fact that we have spent so much time from a financial perspective, we're dealing in, with a niche of financial data. And in terms of the architecture that goes into constructing, constructing that, you have to be very organized. You're dealing with 300,000 over 300,000 global securities. Some of them trade on multiple exchanges. They have different identifications, you know, between tickers and, and other, other identification numbers, different classes of stock, different securities within companies. It's crazy how complex it is.

And hats off to Joey, because he's the one who built our security master. So, we are one API, which makes it so much easier for developers to integrate, versus integrating multiple API's. You just choose which data feeds you want, and they all flow through one singular API. Which makes development so much easier. We did it on purpose, because the point is to market this for developers.

So, having that clean architecture that, you know, if you're calling a piece of data you want from, let's say Tesla, from three different data feeds, now you want the stock price, we wanna see do you want the revenue to another feed, and you want the executive proposition from the third feed. You're getting the same data across all data sets, not just like individual status databases that are still in there. It's a totally integrated data set. So that is the structure I think is pretty important and especially makes development a lot more efficient for our customers.

Courtland Allen 0h 46m 15s

Yeah, I mean you guys have a pretty complex product. You've got all sorts of different data feeds, and different API's, and then you've got a bunch of apps that and plugins that you've built. I think the coolest one is this, I have a screenshot of it, or an animated gif of it inside the text interview, of like the Excel one where you just go into Excel and you just type "=Intrinio()" or something and it'll give you a stock price.

I think this is totally different than a lot of companies which have the opposite approach. You know, they're just gonna do one super simple thing, and that's it. For example, a company like Scott's Cheap Flights, who I talked to last week, and all they do is just find cheap flights.

Do you see any of your products standing out above the rest, and how do you know what to build and what to focus on when you have so many different products?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 46m 56s

We think about the business in kind of two chunks, data and apps. So the data feeds, like I said we just listened to our customers, you know. Maybe they want the best sentiment data, or some random alternative data set. We know we can go focus on that and get that because we're listening to our customers, so we've got it down pat in terms of the R&D pathway to new data feeds.

And then we kind of let the market just drive the app side of the business. So we drew a pretty hard line in terms of we wanna be the data provider and not the analytics builder. Part of the reason a lot of the big firms have such crazy redistribution fees is because they do both data and analytics. Those guys don't wanna give you an open API, because they know that you're gonna go build something better than what they built, right? So that's why they put massive restrictions on.

So, we made a point to not be in that camp. We want to be just a data provider, so that you can build the app. We don't have a conflict of interest. We want you to succeed, we want you to redistribute. So we have this influx of developers coming to the site and we believe they have the best pulse of the market. They know what they're building. They're the expert in their specific type of FinTech, or whatever technology or app they're building.

So as long as you meet our two basic qualifications, you get into the developer program and you can build an app. And then we put that app on our marketplace. So we're building out our own apps per se, just on the data digestion side. So, Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, the screener is kind of on the border that we built in collaboration with Microsoft. So we're working on enhancing those things, enhancing the ways you can digest the data. Which is where those Intrinio apps, the Excel, screener, come into play. But we're not really playing in the camp of building actual apps, because we want our community to build those.

Then when they do build them, we put them up on the marketplace so that it's kind of like similar to Google Play but for FinTech. It's just extra exposure for them to, to provide that. And then we also offer authentication and payment processing as well. The annoying part to building an app, the stuff that you don't want to build. You can authenticate through Intrinio. We can handle payment processing and stuff for you. So you could just focus on what you're good at. So that's authentication, payment processing, promotion, distribution, the marketplace. We offer all those services so the developers can, if you want them, so the developers can focus on what they're good at and they, they tell us what apps are valuable.

They come to us and say, "We're building this. It's a good idea," and put it on the marketplace. We're just focused on supporting them, and listening to our investor customers about which data sets to go after.

Courtland Allen 0h 49m 25s

Yeah, I mean it sounds like there's a consistent theme here of, you know, how are you growing? Well, you're talking to customers and delivering good customer support, which makes them love you and spread you through word of mouth.

Or how are you deciding what to build? Well, you're talking to customers and figuring out what their pain points are, et cetera, et cetera. It's like the answer to everything.

So maybe the answer to my next question is kind of predictable, but to end with, what is your advice for aspiring founders? Or what is something that you wish you knew right when you were starting out?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 49m 52s

Yeah I mean, you nailed it. It's talking to customers that's the biggest thing

Don't be afraid would be another one. There are so many resources out there. I mean, even us, we're a resource. We give you data, we give you support. If you have an idea and you know it's good, don't wait. Just go after it.

But my favorite phrase I've been using around the office lately is that the big don't eat the small, the fast eat the slow. And the FinTech market is moving so quickly that if you have a good idea, just go after it, you know? Learn how to code, get after it. "Start!" as The Starter League in Chicago would say. Because things are moving too quickly, and you know, there are resources out there, so just do a Google search, find out who's there, to help you and support you. That would be one thing.

And then also talk to your customers. We would've gone down so many wrong paths. We would be getting stupid data sets that nobody wants, or we would still be beating down the doors of institutional investors if we weren't listening to our customers, so that's pretty important. Use chat support, use different things like that. It's gonna be a pain in the ass. Like, I was a CEO trying to raise money, and get those really important things done, and getting up at two in the morning to answer a question from somebody in Singapore.

So, it's a pain in the ass. But you wouldn't be doing this if you weren't willing to go through all that stuff anyway. So it is super important to talk to your customers, and to move quickly.

Courtland Allen 0h 51m 10s

Alright, well thanks so much for coming on the show. I think that's, that's awesome advice, and I hope people can force themselves to follow it. Even when it is a pain in the ass. Can you let us know where people can go to find out more about you Rachel, and about Intrinio?

Rachel Carpenter 0h 51m 23s

Yeah absolutely, just hop on our website at www.intrinio.com. It's I-N-T-R-I-N-I-O. Obviously definitely check out the article that was written on indiehackers.com they did a fantastic job. And thank you so much for featuring us. This has been a pleasure. I mean you guys, you guys have a mission that's very parallel with ours as well, in helping developers get started. So, thank you for having me this is a blast.

Courtland Allen 0h 51m 47s

Thanks for coming on, it's nice talking to you. If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, and you're looking for a way to help support the Indie Hackers podcast, then you should subscribe on iTunes and leave a quick rating and a review. It only takes about 30 seconds. But it actually really helps get the word out, and I would personally appreciate it very much.

In addition if you are running an internet business. Or if it's something that you'd like to do in the future. You should join me and a whole bunch of other internet entrepreneurs on the indiehackers.com forum. It's basically a community of like minded individuals just giving each other feedback and helping out with ideas, and landing pages, and marketing and growth, and other internet business related topics. That's www.indiehackers.com/forum. Hope to see you guys there.

Loading comments...