I don't really blame large corporations necessarily for having the work environment they do, in a lot of ways I contributed to it when I was there... I was a really bad employee. I created exactly that which I hate, just because I felt like there was no other option, but there probably were other options I was just too lazy to do them. I don't think of myself as necessarily a great actor, or that I think of corporations as necessarily evil. Just, I personally often don't fit that well into large groups.
What's up everyone! 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. The voice you just heard belongs to Vincent Woo. Vincent is the founder of a remarkable company called CoderPad. He came onto IndieHackers.com a few weeks ago to share his story and it absolutely blew up. In part, that's because CoderPad is a small company that's doing something like $2 million of revenue per year, but it's also in part because Vincent has a very interesting personality, so I hope you guys have as much fun listening to this episode as we did recording it.
Okay, why don't we start off by... I think it's an interesting story and I want to go into exactly what made you a bad employee and what that looked like, but why don't we start off with you introducing yourself and telling us a little bit about what CoderPad is, and where it is today?
My name is Vincent Woo, I'm twenty-eight years old from the Bay area. I went to college at Berkeley for computer science. I worked at a string of companies, let's see... in order: Zynga, Amazon, Google, Everlane, and then I started CoderPad, so I went around the tech block and didn't really find my place in it.
CoderPad is itself a tool for interviewing programmers in a more, what I think of as humane manner, so it allow you to synchronize on basically a text editor with a candidate over the internet wherever they are through a web browser, and also evaluate online the results of whatever code they've written... live in real time. Which I think is super powerful and important for doing a real interview and not just a white boarding thing.
What would you say the measure of CoderPad's success is? Like how much revenue are you generating, how many employees do you have?
Dollars probably, yeah.
Okay, what are you at right now?
We make annually a bit over $2 million, recurring.
And there's four of you total?
Yeah, or like four and a half, it depends on how you count them exactly, but four people in the office on a given day max.
That's pretty cool, that's a very high revenue to employee ratio.
I think so.
Does it beat Google?
... I think Google is like over a million? It might be but for most small businesses started by one or two people, it's much much less.
Well Google was once a small business started by one or two people.
Do you think Google could have grown to anything, even a fraction of what it is now if they just decided that they wanted to stay indie? Do you think they just would have been killed by someone?
In what sense did they not stay indie, I would say. It seemed like Google mostly controlled the destiny of it's own fundraising, I don't think they were ever hard up for it. They turned down billion dollar acquisition offers or whatever. This is a lot of what this podcast is about as far as I can tell about the differences between bootstrapping and startup-ing via venture capital, but I don't think the line is so cut and dried...
Oh, it's blurry.
It's very blurry, there's like private equity deals you can do... even in venture funding, to say you've raised like a $30 million series B can have enormously different outcomes for the founders based on liquidity preference, based on overall valuation, based on hidden clauses that basically only the board members know about, so there's a huge, huge range of how much independence companies are able to retain through fundraising. My suspicion is Google actually, I mean, if you look at it today it seems to be acting with relative impunity to it's board's desires so in a lot of senses I would say that Google essentially remained indie...
They were always in control, they always done whatever they wanted.
I don't think there was like a dark night of the soul the way there was with Steve Job's absence from Apple and subsequent return as savior and messiah, ect.
So while we're talking about big companies, you talked about working at Google, working at Zynga, at what point during this process did you realize that you hated working for big companies?
Before I even started working.
Why'd you start?
Well I didn't really see another option at the time. It's just what you did, like, I need to eat and I was out of college, so you had to do something. I had a lot of ideas about projects I wanted to do but none of them seemed like they could ever make money, because they couldn't. What I was doing for fun back then was doing stuff like writing cheats for video games and I made a little bit of money off of that, but not enough to eat off of. So I was like, well I'm good at this programming thing, I might as well work at job at it. To be honest, when I interned at Zynga for the first time I did kind of fall in love with the idea that these idiots would hire me, out of Berkeley, pay me some absurd amount of salary for an intern... I think at the time it was like $5,000/month, which to me was like an insane amount of money to pay to a child, and they put me and another intern essentially in charge of the development of a new Pokemon clone that we worked on, on and off for a couple months. It went nowhere, but we hired artists, we had all these plans, but we ended up playing a lot of Pokemon in the office. Like, they had cereal on tap... all this weird shit. The idea of Silicon Valley being this sort of bubble nerd paradise was foreign to me at the time, I didn't really know about that. I just wanted a job out of college, and this was 2008 or something right, so people were obsessed with the real estate thing...
Yeah, and why did you not like that job? What you described would be a lot of people's dream job, you're playing Pokemon and you're fucking around all day.
I liked it but I also sort of knew it was a sham. I got up in the morning, walked ten minutes to work, ate a bunch of free cereal, then maybe in the late afternoon sit down and maybe try to get a little bit done... that felt... I was both pleased and kind of disgusted at it, right?
What's weird is that, what you just described is a productive day for most people. For you that sounds like, ughh, that's nothing at all, but for a lot of people that's a good day's work. You start at 12pm, you finish at like 2pm...
Well, I don't know. Yeah for a lot of people they have tricked themselves into believing as if they are productive, but I have met what I would call actually productive programmers and they are really in their own league. They don't really talk to a lot of other people are far as I could tell. The best programmer I ever met in my life was this sixty year old, plus, dude at Amazon and he had been there who knows how long. He knew everything there was to know about everything computer related, as far as I could tell. It was amazing, and I had no idea why he worked there. It didn't make any sense to me, but he was there.
There's this notion that there's all this untapped gold of extremely good programmers who are more or less content at their job, and just like really being good at it, all around the country, and I believe that. I think they're in the vast minority, but I think they exist.
What should they be doing otherwise, starting businesses?
I don't know, what you're asking me fundamentally is more than just "What should highly productive programmers do?" you're asking me, what should people do? What is valuable in life, is essentially what that question boils down to.
Why don't you just apply it to yourself, since it'd be impossible to apply that to everybody else?
Yeah, I mean, no I don't think it's impossible, like I'll venture a guess... I don't think people should start businesses for the sake of starting businesses. I think they should do it if they think that it would be satisfying for them to do it, but you don't live a long time, you've got ninety to a hundred years tops, right. I like to think of it from the perspective of when I am dying, I'll be in a hospital bed, I'll be hooked up to an IV, one or more of my major organs will probably be failing, and I know I have like a month, or a week, or a day, and I won't know which, like I wonder what I'll think about, so that's how I approach it. I try to look at whatever I can do in the short term, medium term, whatever, like what will be memorable sixty years from now? That's a useful heuristic for me. I don't always follow it because I'm lazy, but if there's a guiding light for me it is my eventual mortality.
The long term, thinking about what you're going to care about sixty years from now but...
Not care, I can't hope to possibly predict what I'll care about sixty years from now. I just hope that I'll remember, memorability is all I'm really shooting for here.
That's funny because it reminds me of the first two years after I moved to San Francisco. I started a startup and I basically just coded for sixteen hours a day, every day for two years, and the problem is that if you're in flow for that long and you don't vary your activities... you don't make new memories, everything just blurs together, so I have a two year block of time in my life where there were zero memories, and I swore that I would never do that again.
That's kind of what I suspected happened to that sixty year old plus guy at Amazon, I think he just sat down to code one day and then he woke up, and he was sixty. I don't know, I think flow is both really seductive and also kind of boring in it's own way.
It's a tool that you can use to a certain end, but it's not...
I can't do it anymore, I can't program for eight hours anymore, like I tried, I just can't do it anymore.
You probably shouldn't given your role at your company. Let's get into the genesis of CoderPad, because it started... I guess you eventually found your way to Everlane and you were conducting interviews. One of the people you interviewed by the way was my brother, who I had just taught to code. I don't know if he mentioned this to you...
Yeah! If I search for CoderPad in my gmail the oldest email that comes up is my brother forwarding an email from someone at Everlane to some CoderPad questions in 2013.
What position was he interviewing for?
I think front-end engineer, but he was interviewing for his very first programming job...
We missed Channing Allen...
Haha, you missed the one and only Channing Allen.
My whole company is morally bankrupt, there's no way I could justify continuing to work on this project haha.
Well that was 2013 that he applied... what year did you start CoderPad?
Yeah, that was right then.
Yeah, that was probably one of the first, that's amazing. Do you have any other memories of this? I'd love to hear.
I remember he didn't get the job, I told him that's fine, it was like his second programming interview ever, and he had just learned, but I remember he liked you. He thought you were very fair. You were his actual interviewer.
That's amazing, I wish I remembered this. I really have no recollection of that time period in my life. Even the story that I told you for Indie Hackers is a reconstruction based on emails and timelines that I know must have happened around then. I had no direct memory of sitting down to start CoderPad.
What was the birth of CoderPad like, why did you start it, what kind of head space were you in, were you trying to get out of Everlane?
No I wasn't at all, I imagine I was merely frustrated with an existing set of tools to do interviews, namely Collabedit, it's really annoying. I remember having, vaguely this debate with my co-worker about whether it would be possible to run code in the browser or something, and I think he showed me Repl.it by that guy, Amjad Masad, great guy, they're more focused on education but I was like, you could totally take this and slap it on a collaborative text thing, then boom presto, you would have something usable. So I just did that, it wasn't an original creative work, it was just slapping two totally disparate things together and seeing if it would play, and it did.
Did you need permission from anybody at Everlane to incorporate this into the interview process, or did you just go with it?
I just did it. There weren't a lot of us back then and I think we all kind of looked at it, and was like "Ah, this is a good idea." My boss at Everlane was great, a great manager in a lot of respects, and in one of those respects he was very defensive of us. He ran interference, he let us do a lot of things that would be difficult in other environments to justify doing. Was that the best thing for the company's bottom line? Hard to say, but it let me do things that I enjoyed doing, it kept me happy and I think that was important overall.
Yeah, and it eventually led to you leaving Everlane, because the things that you were doing turned out to be pretty promising and at least moderately profitable early on.
That's true, but I think honestly if I hadn't done CoderPad I think there's significant odds that I would have left Everlane around the same time, just knowing myself, for reasons I won't get into here but yeah it seemed like I would do that sooner or later.
Okay, so what were the early days and challenges like of turning this, essentially side project into a business... and when did you realize it should be a business, and not just something that you were building for fun or for your own use?
Oh I think I knew pretty quickly that it should be a business. I'm going to answer in reverse order, you asked me how do I know that a side project should be a business or whatever... it seemed obvious, like that's not a satisfying answer but a lot of this stuff is just so ex post facto rationalization of the past, and the truth is I don't really know. I probably took a guess and it seemed reasonable, and I was like okay, I'll spend an extra few months building on with the payment flow and all this other random quota crap, so that other people can use this.
Did you use Stripe?
I did in fact use Stripe. Oh, I'd also like to throw a shout out to Firebase, which really let me get going in the beginning. I neglected to mention them in the written interview and they kind of chewed me out for that...
Absolutely, and rightfully so because the early prototypes of CoderPad could not have succeeded nearly as quickly without Firebase. We still use them today.
I mean it's like a instant real time database, so...
Yeah, it was sort of built for the application we were doing so it made perfect sense.
Nice! So, you essentially just decided on a whim that this had business potential?
Whim is the wrong word, I think it just seemed obvious that it had business potential.
It was just obvious, and then did you change, besides implementing Stripe, ect, did you go out and say, I need to make my first sale?
Well, I knew I needed to make sales but if you asked me exactly how that happened I'd have difficulty remembering. I remember my first sale was to a group of Udacity tutors, I remember driving down there. My then girlfriend worked at Udacity and was like, sure I'll do this intro or whatever. We were in this room, we had Thai food. I presented on a projector, I don't really remember any of the details, at the end they kind of nodded and said okay, we'll buy, but buying for them was nothing because it was like $20/month, and I was like, yes, I made my first sale! Like it was for no money, but it was fun, it was kind of when I got hooked I think. Like, I can just drive places and convince people to do things...
And they'll do it.
And they don't really seem to care, yeah.
Yeah, you don't need any sort of rails or golden path that's illuminated, it's just kind of like the wild west where you can make things happen.
Yeah, you don't really need permission. There's no magical process to it, convincing people to buy is like convincing people of any other thing about the world, and I don't know, I had been used to that. I had been used to fighting, or debating, or convincing other people that my viewpoints were correct for a long time, so I don't think that sales seemed too foreign to me, like, I'm not conflict averse, so getting used to sales to me wasn't the hardest transition.
I think it's hard for a lot of developers, like you're probably an exception.
I, I don't know. Stelly has a great course on this. I actually think, while it might be hard for a lot of developers, I think it's much easier than they think it is. Sales is, most of the time, about being friendly and persistent, not about being mean, so like 1% of the time it's about being mean, and you don't even really have to do that 1% if you don't want to. So if you just like making people happy, you can probably be good at sales, it's mostly about remembering to send seven followup emails, that's a hard part.
So we kind of blew right past the whole process of you building CoderPad, because I think a lot of people listening in, and a lot of people starting their first companies never really get to the point where they've actually built something that they're even ready to sell, because they're too busy, work gets in the way, life gets in the way, how did you find the time to build CoderPad, while you had a full time job?
I don't know what to say man, I worked nights and weekends. If you want to do it, you'll do it. I don't know, there's this web comic that really lays out... I think it's a quote from... it might be Faulkner, I can't remember, but it's about how people who say they always need more time and space to their art are almost always making something up. Like, the people who do art do it because they are compelled to do it, they'll cram it into every crevice in the day. There's sixteen plus hours in a day and honestly you can get through a day job in like five hours if you actually wanted to, so if you actually want to do something you'll do it. You don't need encouragement to do it. I generally don't know what to say to people who say, "Oh, I don't have enough motivation to do this thing I know I should do" like, that's a core personality issue that can't be addressed by advice, or by learning from other people's experiences. You have to want to do it.
Yeah, I just always assumed that means you don't actually want to do that thing so maybe you should find something you want to do.
Well I think there's a big difference between wanting something, and wanting to want something. I think sometimes wanting to want something can be enough, and it can be a path to actually wanting something enough to do it, because I didn't always want to do it enough. Only and the right time and the right place did I finally feel like I wanted to do something enough to actually do it. I had a bunch of projects that never finished, I still do. Like, I work on all sorts of weird stuff that has nothing to do with programming or whatever, that just often never sees the light of day because I lose the motivation at the end, so I don't claim to have this problem solved... I think I just got lucky. I don't think there is a good answer to that, if you don't feel as if you have the time to do something... you may or may not be correct, and there's no way for us on the outside to know, nor anything we could recommend that will make that easier for you.
Have you worked on any other projects that you intended to turn into businesses, or some sort of financially successful endeavors that didn't work out?
Yeah, like one or two.
Before CoderPad or after?
One after and probably one or so before, I can't remember exactly. The one after was like a... I'll you about it if you're interested.
Yeah, I would love to hear about it.
I had this idea, so basically there's this company that has a monopoly on all of city and municipal governments for hosting archival footage of city hall meetings, which cities I think are basically required by law to distribute, so they're obligated by law to engage such a contract, or perform this service for them. The existing provider, Granicus, is not really good. I've been using their website a lot because I've been trolling a lot of city hall figures. One of the guys at Hackathon that I was at for city politics stuff came up with the idea to basically mirror all of their stuff, and then they provided transcripts, to make that transcript searchable by time stamps, then you can sort of search any given city hall meeting for a key phrase of whatever and instantly jump to that point in the video. I thought that's a great start, and I built that basically, then I had the thought, why not just build the whole thing and compete directly with Granicus... it seems like a fun business and you basically have a monopoly once you land the deal, it seems like a pretty defensible move... I gave up because I got bored. I still think it's a good business, I was just distracted again by something else.
I think essentially almost all business failure comes down to giving up in some way, either because you're not enthused about the idea and it sucks to work on it, or because it's a bad idea, or you run into business challenges. Was there ever a time on CoderPad where you felt like you wanted to give up?
What about in the early days? Because I know for a lot of founders, those first few months where you're not sure that this is something that's going to work out or be worthwhile can be pretty nerve racking. I know you started off with CoderPad as a side project, but you eventually decided to make it full time, so where there any bumps in the road, or challenges, or any insights that you had growing from zero dollars to, what was it, $4,000/month?
Yeah, I quit it when I hit $4,000 MRR.
What was that decision like?
This is going to sound really stupid, and I had to explain this in the YC interview as well, they were like why $4,000, you haven't quit yet? I was like, I'm quitting at exactly $4,000 MRR, and they were like, why? I was like, okay, here's a reason... it's stupid. It's because when I hit $40 MRR, I posted on Facebook as a joke, haha my business makes $40/month guys, isn't that funny? Then when I hit $400 I was like haha, guess what, I made 10x what I made the last time I posted, that's crazy bro. Then I thought, oh shit, if I do this again at $4,000 that's actually kind of real stakes money, so I might as well quit then. Also $4,000 kind of pays for rent and stuff, so that's why. There's no reason to it, I just did it because I felt like it. I could've quit at any number, I mean if I quit at the beginning it would have been fine too, it didn't really matter.
In San Francisco $4,000 pays for literally just rent, haha.
I had a roommate, we were splitting a one bedroom you know, I had the converted living room kind of situation, one of the shitty old Victorian's in a basement.
Was it a hard transition going from your developer salary to just $4,000/month...
Would you say that you were motivated to... what was pushing you the most, just to increase your revenue or to...?
These motivational questions are hard for me, I don't think I'm like most people. Why was I doing what I did? The truth is, I don't know. I don't actually believe that most people know why they do what they do. I was doing a thing because it seemed like the right thing to do but... okay, I'm going to take a moment to explain. I'm what you might call an optimistic nihilist, like I don't think anything's really real, up to and including money. Money is like a dead person's face painted on a green piece of paper... that it signifies material wealth to me is almost amazing. That, that system actually works to me is terrifying and awesome at the same time. So yeah, I thought it would be fun to make more money, but I knew abstractly that if I failed at CoderPad, literally the worst possible thing that could happen to me... is I would just get a job. Which I had proven that I had been able to do at least a couple times before that, so I wasn't worried about it. There was no anxiety for, because to me this is all a big game.
Yeah, it's almost like a role playing game. Where you're essentially leveling up and acquiring skills, and to what end... I don't know haha.
I think of it more like an open world exploration game, like GTA or whatever. Like just seeing how much you can get away with before everyone figures out that you have no idea what you're doing, and you're just making everything up as you go along.
So one of the reasons I asked you about your motivation was because one of the earlier things that I saw you in was actually a video where you gave a talk at Dropbox.
I saw that you did do opposition research on your interviewees before you bring them in.
Haha, yeah, I thought it was a cool video. I actually watched this video last year before I even started Indie Hackers, and I was trying to find out who I should have on Indie Hackers. I don't remember the exact title of your talk, it was something about...
How to start a side business without quitting your day job, I was tying to provoke the Dropbox audience.
Well that's what I wanted to ask, why give a talk like that?
It was to provoke the audience.
Did you want to tell them that...
That they were doing their lives wrong? Yes.
How did they take that? They seemed pretty supportive.
They liked it. I mean it was tongue in cheek, obviously. It was in this building, probably on this floor, just a different room, it's Stripe now. We could do the same thing if you want... could come back and do the same talk again, in the same room. Why did I do that? I mean...
The impression that I got watching it was that it seems like it was a core principle of yours that people should do this, or that it's better for the world if more people do that.
There's more of the premise for the talk than necessarily a core belief of my personality. I mean I was invited to do a talk and they even payed me, it was crazy. This was a best topic I could come up with, so I tried to make it compelling, but I also gave reasons to not start a business. I actually think there are tons of reasons to not do it. Many people I think are unsuited for it, and also it's not terribly pleasant in a lot of ways, so I don't know necessarily that I actually recommend everybody who's listening to start a business. I know that's sort of the premise of Indie Hackers, and also it's acquisition by Stripe is sort of, how do you put it? Grow the GDP of the internet.
Exactly, nailed it.
Right, so readers at home, if you can start a business, do that, but also maybe don't. It's not easy, it's a lot of work and there are a lot of things that valuable in life that have nothing to do with money, that's how I'd put that.
I think one of the cooler things that you touched on, that I've also found to be true is that a lot of people who would love to start a business don't, just because they've never even considered it as an option. Especially being the smaller, Indie Hacker type business where you're just making money and you're not trying to be a unicorn, especially if you're a developer, that doesn't get advertised as much. Do you think that's changing now-a-days?
I think it must be changing. If there exists people like you, who's sole job is to promote this lifestyle, I would take as some indication that things are changing a bit. On the other hand, I touched on this in the talk, I think this is kind of cyclical. It used to be a cultural norm that everybody kind of wheeled and dealed, at least that's my impression. If you go in other countries that's way more true too. We probably hit peak corporatism and are trying to dial that back a little bit, I think is natural, it was probably inevitable in some respect that people would get upset with... we've had cultural satire and lampooning of corporate life for decades now. I remember my entire life I would watch stuff like Office Space, or cartoons...
Yeah, no one paints a favorable light of corporate life anymore. There is no work that makes the work of an office seem noble. In some ways that's tragic because I don't think that's necessarily true, but on the other hand it reflects reality. I think the majority of office work, in the world now, is in some way deserving of satire.
Yeah, and now-a-days if you don't like the corporate culture you can just do your own thing, it's never been easier. You can build something, especially if you're an engineer, that reaches across cultural lines, that reaches people who aren't in your immediate vicinity, and you could build something scalable like you've done with CoderPad and I think people seeing that really inspires them.
Thank you, that's a very nice compliment. For the listeners at home, Courtland is a really nice guy. Everyone seems to like him, that I've talked to, I don't know how he got so popular, it's kind of amazing. Can we talk about you for a little bit?
Yeah, you can ask me anything you want.
I can ask you anything I want?
You can ask me anything you want. Doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to answer... haha
How much did Stripe buy you for?
I can't tell you. I'd love to share but it affects more people than just me.
At what number would you have said yes to a buy out without pausing?
Haha, without pausing?
Like if you got an email from Patrick, right, and it said acquire Indie Hackers, and the subject of the body was just a number, no explanation whatsoever.
And I can't think about it, I have to immediately say yes.
What number would be so high that you would not think about it, you would just say yes, at the time?
I don't know... $3 million maybe? Just to not even ask a single question though, I don't know if there's any number if which I would just say yes without asking at least some questions. I mean you would have to figure out what's the deal here...
No there's a number, come on. Who are you kidding here haha.
If someone emailed you today and said, I'll give you a billion dollars for CoderPad, you wouldn't have any questions?
I would say yes. I would not hesitate. I would assume they were lying but I would hit yes as fast as possible. Right, you got to lock that in, that's a billion dollars.
What about something that I can actually share, some non-hypothetical details about.
How do you like it here?
Stripe's awesome. I don't know if you know this about me, this is my first ever full time job.
I didn't know that about you.
I didn't ever have a string of working at big companies to find out if I didn't like it, I just assumed I wouldn't like it.
For the readers at home, how old are you Courtland?
I am thirty years old.
Wow, so you have somehow, for the majority of your adult life managed to avoid working at large companies. How did you do that? I heard you play poker, are you just really good at poker?
No, you know, I lose a lot at poker, it's actually contrary to my ability to survive without a real job, but I started a startup right out of MIT and we won this business plan competition, we tied for first, so we got $25k and I lived off of that in Boston for about a year. After that startup died, I used the remainder of that money to move to San Francisco, and my plan was really just to get into Y Combinator and get funding that way, or to get a job if that failed, so I was kind of like you. I knew I could fall back to my programming skills, therefore it wasn't really that scary to take a leap. Getting into YC worked out and the money they funded our business with lasted me more than a few years.
Were they incidentally funding a startup with that, or was that just money for you to live your life for five years...?
I just asked them for money, haha. No, they actually funded a startup that I was working on called Taskforce, which didn't end up succeeding but we did work very hard on it.
How did you tell the YC people that Taskforce would be worth a billion dollars. what was the pitch?
It was one of Paul Graham's requests for startups, so he had this idea that email was sort of this trojan horse into something bigger, and if you could actually get in and change the way people used email, then you would get hundreds of millions of users, and then from there you could do anything. So we were building this task management application that let you convert your emails into tasks, check them off, it would notify whoever sent to you, "Oh, Vincent has completed the email that you sent."
Just to clarify for the readers at home, you built a to-do list app.
We built a to-do list app, haha, and I guess the plan was to turn that into a billion dollar company somehow.
God... how did you feel... did you believe that it would be worth a billion dollars, or did you convince yourself that you had to believe?
You know what... even back then, I think my role models were the guys at 37signals, so Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, and they were pretty much the only people talking about just making money with a simple, small online business. It was always kind of crazy to me, especially when I moved to San Francisco for the first time, that people would throw around numbers like a million dollars in annual revenue and say "Oh, that's cute, that's not actually a solid business." and so, for me I didn't feel any obligation because I was in YC to try to shoot for a billion dollar company, I thought it'd be cool.
But you had to spin the story before you get in right?
Yeah for sure, you have to pitch them on building a big company.
You just saw that as some lie you had to tell and it had no real bearing...
Oh, don't get me wrong, I would have been happy much, much less than a billion dollars, but we still tried very hard. For the first eight months of Taskforce's life we didn't charge a single dime for the product, and this is a productivity tool aimed at business users we were giving away for free, but it became apparent eventually that this is not going to work. So eventually we ended putting a price tag on it, we were one of Stripe's early beta customers in 2011, and I think in our first weekend we made something like $2,000 after we emailed everybody and said that we're now charging for Taskforce.
That's pretty good.
Yeah, it was great! What's funny is that we didn't really have a barometer for how good that was. Nobody else in our batch was really doing that, there wasn't very much written online about just charging money...
No one else was receiving money as payment for services rendered?
As far as we could tell back then, nobody was building a business off of the back of a Chrome extension. It felt kind of like a little rinky dink application and we were surprised people were paying us money to begin with.
Dude, do you have any idea how much Boomerang makes?
Yeah unfortunately I do, haha, it's a lot of money. We missed that boat for sure.
Oh my God dude, I wish I had come up with that, like holy... it would be a lot of money, to come up with this incredibly simple Chrome extension in the right time and the right place.
Exactly, and the other thing is in the present the past always seems like it was incredibly simple, and easy, and now things are hard.
But also buy Bitcoin, for those at home yeah, going back in time when were talking about that. Anyway...
But now we have the presence of hindsight to see where things have gone, there's a lot more written today about how to start a successful business. For example, your interview on Indie Hackers where you just kind of broke down exactly what the process was like, as best as you could remember from beginning to end, would have been a gold mine seven years ago to someone trying to do that.
Oh yeah, and I want to make it clear that absolutely I have stood on the shoulders of giants. Patio11's writing for me was a big inspiration. I don't know about the actual businesses he's started, but his writing, eloquently describing what the core fundamental issues of small business are were confirmations of long held suspicions for me that pushed me over the edge, like okay, if this random guy in Japan can make it doing this random bullshit... in Japan, I can probably do it here in America, it's probably fine. Just normalizing these ideas has done a lot. You're definitely normalizing this idea and I think that work is highly valuable for society.
I'm trying to, and I think that ten years from now there will be far more people starting independent businesses, and I think the path towards doing so will be a little more mapped out, as much as it can be. There's some argument to be made that the better off, or the more information there is out there the more competition there is, and the harder it will be to be to succeed...
Good... lower the profit margin, I'm fine with that. It's crazy how much money the winners make, in tech. If the tech industry is different than all previous industries in any way, it's probably the profit margin. It's fundamentally unlike any other industry that's come before and until we get a handle on that we don't really know what's right, so I'd be totally comfortable with more competition in the tech space. I don't think we have enough, I don't think we have nearly enough, and I think consumers suffer for it.
Yeah, what about in your own space, like since you've started CoderPad and grown it to a $2 million business, have you seen a lot of competitors take note...
I mean, yeah, the Legacy people started copying us, new incumbents started copying us. I don't know, I've met my competitors in real life and they are like weak, spineless, soft people, and I don't even think about them anymore. They have no vision... I don't know, one of them is a YC company and I don't know what they saw in these guys. I used to worry about competition when I was starting out, when it felt like it was possible that I could just be squashed, but now I sleep very soundly. I worry about other stuff.
What do you worry about?
You don't worry about anything with your business?
One of the cool things that I think you talked about in your Dropbox talk, was the constraints that you have as a solo founder. If you're going to start a business by yourself, and you have these YC funded companies that are trying to crush you, or copy you, you need constraints so you can actually be effective.
Well I think every company needs some kind of constraints... they're more severe when you're solo.
They're extremely severe. It's funny, even working at Stripe I'll look at people who's entire job is something that I have to do for Indie Hackers but it lives in such a small fraction of the attention that I have to give it, and it's like, here, there's an entire team devoted to just that one thing. It's interesting looking at the constraints that you impose on yourself for CoderPad, for example, you never did any marketing. You never did any... I guess you did a lot of sales.
I don't know that not doing marketing, I don't think of as a constraint, it's just I never wanted to do it so I didn't do it. It's never a thing that we had to lock ourselves back from doing, it wasn't a temptation to do marketing, it was just marketing's stupid, so I didn't.
What were your biggest constraints?
In the Dropbox talk I do actually mention decision theory constraints for how to choose what task to do next. I think the ones I mentioned were like, it either, it has to have two out of three - make me money, make customer's lives better, and three be easy to do. So you could do a task as long as it was two out of those three, so you couldn't do anything hard that would make you money but wouldn't make people happy, it had to be easy and make me money, or easy and make people happy, or make people happy and make us money then it could be hard.
And another thing I think you said was that it needed to be intuitively obvious that it was one of these things, so you weren't using Mixpanel, for example to prove to yourself...
It should be obvious, if it's not obvious what are you doing?
I think that's one of the hardest things especially for developers or people who haven't had a customer facing role, to connect the things that you're doing, the features that you're building with the value that the customer gets and why they're actually buying what you're selling, it's kind of what makes sales hard as well, or writing marketing copy, how do you...
Look, I don't like the idea of enshrining that this is a hard thing. For readers at home, it is not hard. It has never been hard, it will never be hard, all you have to do is do it. Think about what the customer wants, if you don't know yourself, call them. This isn't that hard, it's how you find out any other piece of information in the world before the year 1990, or whatever. We're spoiled now, we have Google, we have the notion that people are just ones and zeros, that's never been true, never will be true. You need to understand the people that your company services in order to service them. I don't like encouraging that, actually it's not hard.
I don't think it's hard either if you know those things, but I think it's a little bit unintuitive for them...
Yeah, they haven't done it before, but starting a small business is doing a hundred things you've never done before. You have to be okay with that idea. If you only do the things you're used to, you will fail, guaranteed. I've seen it happen so many times. I talked about that in the other interview a little bit, that founders often get sucked into these productivity holes, where like you said, they're coding sixteen hours a day or whatever right. If a solo founder is only programming sixteen hours a day, I can promise you they will fail. There's no ifs ands or buts about that, they have to do everything else too.
I think one of the cool things about you not having to do marketing, and not even being tempted to do marketing is that really you guys were growing by word of mouth from early on. Besides the sales that you actually did, people would go on interviews, use CoderPad, tell other people about it. Patio11 had a tweet last week where he said, he kind of repeated this off quoted startup advice, that your idea is not what matters. In fact your idea is valueless, it's 100% execution.
Oh that's just not true.
Yeah, I've seen a lot of disagreement about it. I wondered what you think about it...
It's obviously untrue, like, okay, I'll give you a terrible idea, let's see you make a successful business out of it. You have to make, I don't know, fitibits for dogs, oh wait they did that. I don't know, it seems obvious to me both your idea and execution have to be good. That seems like table stakes, not only that even if both those things are true you still might fail, so to me it seems useless to talk about this whole notion because it's not even scratching the surface of what you actually need to do.
And to be fair to Patrick I think he'd probably agree with you and was directing his advice towards newcomers who tend to believe that starting a business is 100% about coming up with the idea, but on the flip side I think if you look at, especially VC funded startups, there are just a lot of founders who take this concept to heart, and who really believe that it doesn't matter how bad your idea is when you start. The entire goal of execution, or maybe even the definition of execution is to iterate, and to pivot, and to eventually arrive at a good idea.
I've seen that happen a couple times, good products have out of terrible companies like Docker, but for every one time that happens you don't see the ninety-nine dead people, good luck. I would suggest starting with a good idea if you can. If you don't have a good idea and you're a solo founder I would highly suggest not doing it, or thinking harder, or finding low cost ways to iterate on the idea that don't involve you spending up a whole company first. There's a lot of risk/reward trade offs to make here.
Yeah, I think ultimately almost every company has some sort of clock on it. Whether it's the founder running out of time, or patience, or money, and to the extent that you can start with a good idea that's somewhere close to the mark, you're significantly raising your chances of success. How much has CoderPad changed since you first built it? I know one of the early emails I also have from 2013 is you sending out an email to everybody at CoderPad saying, "We just hit 1,000 users, here's what I'm working on!" then at the bottom you have a whole paragraph basically asking people to tell you, what should I build? What came out of those efforts and how much has CoderPad changed?
So in the literal sense, how much CoderPad has changed, I mean we've redesigned the site a couple times, but not in ways that are shocking, more like streamlining and refocusing attention of the user on what we think the important parts of the interview experience are, but fundamentally the philosophical value prop is exactly the same as it's always been, it's been refined a little bit, but CoderPad as an idea has not changed at all. The original form of the idea is more or less the one that exists today, because it was the correct idea I think, I got lucky with that. I could imagine another world where that's not true very easily, I don't think I'm a genius or anything, I just lucked into the right problem at the right time, and had the right set of skills to execute on it. I wasn't the only one with this idea trying to execute on it at the same time, there are other people with similar backgrounds who try to do CoderPad that I never even knew about, that I found out were dead later, or were still kind of limping along. I just happened to be the one that won. The reason I am sitting here talking to you is because by definition, I am lucky.
This is the problem with advice in general, I think all Indie Hackers interviews should come with a disclaimer, just because I think it would be funny, but like, by definition when you ask successful people for advice what they do is they enshrine, it's a hagiography, they just blow up these little details of their life and give them such explanatory power, like I could sit here and tell you why optimistic nihilism is the correct philosophy to have for someone who wants to start a business, but I don't really believe that, I have no idea. By definition the people you talk to are the lucky ones, what they should really say is the way to be successful is to be lucky.
Haha, just make sure you get lucky.
Yeah, that's like 90% of the variance right there. The other 10%, you have some control over but not a lot, so I'd say the real advice is to not worry about it so hard, the odds are you will fail. That's okay. You have to be okay with that before you can do it. If you absolutely cannot let yourself fail, then you shouldn't be doing one of these, I don't think.
What do you think, in your path from starting the company to two million in annual revenue, what do you think is the most lucky thing that happened to you that accounted for you success?
We were lucky to win the confidence of certain large customers, it's not clear exactly why that happened, I just happened to know someone at the right place, or got an intro, or something like that. It's maybe surprising, but I actually don't have many friends in tech, so I didn't really have an easy time getting intros to tech companies, of the few that I did they tended to pan out pretty okay. I remember one time, Bob Lee, he was a VP at Square or something like that, gave a talk at the VC that put most of the money for Square when they recruit all the founders to come have a conference or whatever, and he had some panel on hiring and he just told the whole crowd, "Hey, you should buy CoderPad. It's this weird product made by some guy named Vincent Woo." The only reason I heard about it was because my boss at Everlane at the time texted me, "Hey, heard you're doing pretty good buddy!" and I was still employed there, like I had no idea this even happened. That was lucky, some of that stuff sort of serendipitously happened in the background, and it was useful for getting going, but I think it would have worked even without that stuff honestly, it'd just been slower.
What about the opposite, what do you think is the most advantageous thing happened that was sheer effort, or skill, or that was very deliberate?
I am a very good programmer, so that's a huge advantage. If you're making a product that is mostly code, being a really good programmer almost by default is a big advantage. Another founder doing this job with more average programming skills would take longer, or they would make more mistakes, so I'm lucky in that respect too.
I think last July I emailed you before I started Indie Hackers, I had watched your video on Dropbox and I said, Vincent I like CoderPad. I think it's been pretty incredible what you've done, I think you also shared some Hacker News comments about how you've grown, and you didn't come on Indie Hackers because you said the downside to sharing the behind the scenes details was not worth the upside...
No, not at the time I don't think.
My perception of how vulnerable the company is. At the time I probably was worried more about attracting attention of the wrong sort... I was just anticipating a bunch of difficulties that I don't think actually now will manifest. For instance, if our customers know our revenue numbers will that change discussions we have with them? At the time I might have been a little paranoid about that, but now I don't think that's nearly as likely as an outcome, it seems like so much more of the business has gelled since then that I feel like the company is in a pretty good place and that it can totally tolerate sharing some of it's internal workings with the outside world. Not because I think sharing is the right thing or anything, I just felt like bragging. I'm going to be totally honest, It's mostly vanity. After four years to be able to brag about it a little bit feels nice, because I've actually been really secretive about it. I've definitely brought people over who have expressed incredulity at the idea that I am a wealthy business owner given the way my then apartment looked like, with my roommate, and the living room, with the bedding in it, they kind of look at me like a crazy person, so it's nice to get a little bit away from that. I have to admit, it's for me.
Yeah, I think that's honestly what makes Indie Hackers work. If it didn't feel satisfying to talk about what you've done, what you've accomplished, then I would never be able to get people like you to come on the show.
Right, I think you should get people who have fucked up in a huge way, if you can somehow entice those people, because you're only getting the success viewpoint. I don't think doing a business is as much about doing everything right as it is not committing a few huge errors that everybody commits. Do you think of the game of tennis as being about making the best plays, or not making mistakes? At the highest levels it's about making the right play. At every level below the highest level it's about not committing unforced errors. There's this YC saying, I crib a bunch of notes off YC, we owe them a lot, that more startups die by suicide than by murder, and that's absolutely true. I've seen so many people fail for completely avoidable, stupid reasons that everybody but them saw coming, it happens over and over again. Listening to the successful people they say things like, oh yeah I knew what I was doing, we had this plan, we did it, then we were successful, which I think lulls people into this sense of, okay if I just feel as if I have a plan and do things I'll be successful. The truth is, they did the right thing. The difference between the right thing and the wrong thing is really hard to illustrate by only interviewing the people who did the right thing. I think interviewing people who fucked up in this incredibly huge way I think is totally valuable.
I think a lot of the reason why people do the wrong things, or avoid doing the right things is simply because it's not because they know that those things are there to be messed up on or excelled at, and they just do the wrong thing, but it's because sometimes they don't even know. For example, like you said earlier we kind of live in this society where customers have been reduced to bits, and just numbers and words on a screen. Where in reality, you should be talking to your customers and it's difficult for a lot of people to... or a lot of people fail to talk to customers not because they've decided they don't want to or that it's not important, but because it doesn't even strike them as something that they should be doing.
I don't know man, I think it's more than that. We've been shouting that idea for the last ten years. YC's been around a while, it's definitely changed the game. If you haven't heard the notion, that starting a startup, you should probably talk to your customers... every VC would probably tell you that, anyone you'd go to advice for would probably tell you something like that. If that lesson hasn't sunk in, there's something deeper there, it's not just that you don't know but that you're the kind of person that really doesn't want to do that for some reason or another, like, why. I think that's a lot of people definitely but I think the emotional motivation's there...
I think it's on the advice side to be honest because you'd be shocked at the number of people who hear the good advice over and over and over again, and don't follow it.
I totally agree, I think advice is often useless. You can tell people exactly what they're doing wrong and make it a really stark, obvious picture, and they can still ignore you. Like that Paul Graham quote about their business in YC is giving founders advice they know they'll ignore. This is endemic to human nature, people don't like advice. You have to trick people into doing the right thing almost half the time. That's a key learning for sales, but what's going on there, what are we doing with this, is our to convince people to do the right thing? By producing information like this, how likely do we think it that we will materially effect outcomes? I think that's a really serious question that people who make a living off of advice giving need to ask themselves, and I think there's very little serious examination of even the basic idea of like, does advice work? We know so many famous people who have predicated their whole persona on advice giver, and they're respected by the community, but have they actually ever changed an outcome? Who knows, it's very hard to quantify.
It's difficult for sure. I think people act on advice to the extent that it's obvious that advice will be valuable for them, that's why insider trading is a thing, because people will act on information but it just needs to be clear how that information is going to help them, and it's difficult to measure too. At Indie Hackers this is something that I think about... how many people are starting companies because of Indie Hacker's interviews, how many people are making better business decisions because of something they'll hear in a podcast like this, or something that they'll read in a text interview, or somebody that they talked to on the forum, I haven't figured out the best way to measure it yet...
How many people did anything based on something they read in a interview, this is a real problem. Stelly [unintelligible] had that YC sales workshop that I snuck into, and at the end of it he was like, okay you should make a list of discovery questions you should ask and if any of you does it, you can send it to me and I will vet them, but I know none of you will do that. He knows! People don't do things, it's really really true. People only do things that they wanted to do already and it's very very hard to change what people want to do. As a founder, I think one of your primary virtues should be flexibility, you should know abstractly that your job involves doing a hundred different things, or you should be prepared to do a hundred different things, if you're not doing a hundred different things, maybe you're doing the wrong thing, it's not just any one thing, it's like you have to do everything. You know that well from having done Indie Hackers as a side business, or like your full time gig actually, just the management of this entire pipeline of stuff must be exhausting, but you have to do...
It's all on your shoulders. I think another thing about advice is that as humans were a little bit obsessed with novelty, so you'll see the same advice given over and over again - talk to your customers, make something that people want, ect, and people will see that and say, yeah yeah yeah I've already heard that, even thought they're not doing it at all and completely skipping it just because there's something about hearing something new and exciting that makes you feel like you've been enlightened.
We call that the TED Talk effect.
That's a good name for it, haha, everyone needs to listen to a TED Talk, everyone wants to give a TED Talk, meanwhile the best advice is obvious and repeated at nauseam.
TED Talks are the worst, TEDx talks are even worse, it's crazy that that's still a thing.
Even though we are sort of railing against the effectiveness of advice, why don't we end the episode on some advice? Hahaha, I want to go to this idea of starting a business while you're working a full time job, because that's the situation most people are in. What kinds of advice would you give to someone who's trying to make that work?
Have a good boss. I don't know.
For example, I think one thing I've heard you talk about in the past is how you believe that it's better to start a business that sells to other businesses rather than starting a business that sells to consumers, which is very hard to get off the ground.
Yeah, I think B to B is easier, that's a piece of advice.
Do you have a checklist of things, like if you started your next company you would follow?
Again the problem with advice like this is that I'm highly biased to predicate advice based on what I have done, so I would say... I think it's obvious that you should do a B to B sales thing, it's clearly easier this way, but do I really know that? I give it like 60% odds.
This interview is a chapter in a book and people listening are going to hear...
Yeah, I guess I'm trying to disclaim myself against future embarrassment by saying, really really I don't know everything, but the advice I would give is it's not about even execution advice, I think it's about your personality as a founder more than anything. Again, founders commit suicide way more than they're murdered, so don't commit suicide, don't do weird stuff, do the right thing. Think really really hard about the next right thing to do is, it's going to be different for every company so most advice is too general to be useful here, but I think the one piece of useful general advice is if you're not really thinking hard about what the next thing to do is... maybe you're doing something wrong. What assumptions do you have remaining that have not been questioned sufficiently, are you sure your business will work, like why are you sure, can you convince other people that this is going to work? If everyone around you is skeptical, why are they skeptical? Seek to validate your own judgement, don't just assume everything will work out for you because most of the time it doesn't. Try to set up some checks on your own reasoning and emotions because people generally speaking don't make decisions logically, we just do them by feeling all the time, right, so if you know that's true about yourself because it's true of everybody, the only thing you can do is try to set up some guard for yourself. I didn't do that, I just got lucky, but I know that's the right thing to do and we try to do that more now.
Startups are emotional, incredibly emotional.
It's rough, that's the problem with them, it's that they are so emotional.
Yeah, well you heard it here from Vincent Woo, think hard about what you're doing, think critically about what you're doing and don't just trust your gut feeling all by itself...
Yeah, don't be like me.
Exactly, if you want to end up like Vincent then don't do what he did. Vincent can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about you personally and about the things you're doing at CoderPad?
You can go to my website, VincentWoo.com , that's W-o-o, and I don't know I have a bunch of links to other places from there, you can find my Twitter, or just a bunch of random writing that I've done, stuff like that, and I look forward to seeing you online friends.
Haha, alright Vincent thanks so much for much for coming on!
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In addition, if you are running an internet business or if it's something you'd like to do in the future, you should join me and whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com/forum . It's a great place to get help with pretty much any problem that you might encounter while growing your business, like how to come up with an idea or feedback on a product that you're working on. I try to spend a couple hours a day answering questions and giving people feedback, and getting to know everyone, so I really hope to see you there. That's IndieHackers.com/forum .
Thanks for listening and I'll see you next time!