After spending years pursuing a career in science, Lynne Tye (@lynnetye) shocked her family and colleagues by dropping out of grad school. Thus began a months-long journey of discovery and experimentation that eventually saw her managing 150 people at a high-profile tech startup. But when Lynne realized the fast-paced startup lifestyle was not for her, she quit that, too, and began her search all over again. In this episode, Lynne shares the story behind how she took her career into her own hands, learned to code, and started a business doing what she loves.
What's up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes.
How do they make decisions both at their businesses and in their personal lives and what exactly makes their businesses tick? The goal here, as always, is so that -- Lynne's making me laugh here. The goal here is, as always, so the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own successful internet businesses.
Today is a special episode. I'm here with Lynne Tye, the founder of Key Values. What's up Lynne?
Lynne is a really good friend of mine. We met in college 12 years ago. We moved to San Francisco together.
Eight and a half, nine years ago, back in 2010. I think it's safe to say that Lynne is my best friend.
Stop, you're going to make me cry.
I'm also like a mentor, advisor, whatever you want to call it, to your business, Key Values. So, I've been there since the very beginning, two years ago, when you started the company.
Almost to the day.
Almost to the day. And I remember very distinctly you saying that your goal was to eventually come on to the Indie Hackers Podcast, which I had just started two years ago as well.
I know, and you were like, "Well, you have to make some money first."
Yeah, you got to make some money and now you have. Why don't you tell listeners how much money you're making at Key Values?
So last quarter, Q4, I did about 80K sales and this quarter I'm on track to do the same or even better. Last week I did 25K in sales. Did I tell you that?
You've been telling me all week.
True, it's just been like a really awesome, energizing week.
Only every day. So, you're on track -- you're at 300,000, $350,000 a year run rate with your revenue. What do your expenses look like? How much money do you spend to keep this business running?
Not much. I don't have employees. I don't have an office. I work out of here, from home, or out of Oliver's office, my husband's. My paper subscriptions, posting.
A few hundred dollars a month you spend?
It's almost all profit with your business. You are a solo founder. You don't have employees. You don't have an office. You're a first-time founder. This is the very first company you've ever started. In two years, you're already at the point where you're making way more than you made as a developer.
How does it feel?
It's surreal, but it's also the new normal. I'm really proud. I remember two years ago you were like, "If you just do anything, you show up every single day, it will happen." I was like, "Promise? You promise? And you're like, "I don't promise."
I'm not writing this down. If you just show up for two years, it'll happen. You weren't wrong.
And it's been two years. I think one of the cool things about your story is that you are not what I would describe as a business guru. You're not devouring startup essays and books, you're not reading on the philosophies of sales.
Yeah, I'm not. I feel like you're calling me out right now.
It's true, though. It's like, this is how you identify.
I'm definitely not, I'm not.
Your first time of the gate starting a business, you've achieved more success than I ever had, than most people I've talked to. And I think there are a lot of special, unique things about Key Values that make it a really good business and that contributed to your outside success. So, I really want to get into those details, but before we do, why don't you tell people what Key Values is, how it works, who uses it and why.
Key Values is a website that helps software engineers find jobs based on their values. So, if you're an engineer and you want work/ life balance, you want to contribute to open source. And I don't know, maybe you hate going to meetings.
You would go to Key Values, select those as tags and filters and you'd find teams that share those values. Then you get to learn about companies before committing to the long and exhausting interview process.
And how does your business model work? How do you make money with Key Values?
It's not a recruiting platform. There's no placement fees or contingency model. It's a subscription model. So, companies pay me. I never charged engineers, never would. Companies pay me a flat fee for the year to generate the content and list their page on Key Values.
So it's super straight forward. Let's get into the story of how you started it. We're going to go way back into our history. Do you remember when we first moved to SF? Do you remember even before that in college I was always obsessed with the startups? I was obsessed with coding.
You were on a totally different spectrum You were, I think, neuroscience?
Yeah, I was brain and cognitive sciences. Goodness, it's so weird to think back. It's like everyone thought you were the weird one and now living in San Francisco, it's the norm. Everyone's in this space. I remember you would always be coding at parties and whatnot. People would literally be chugging beers behind you and you'd drink a beer and then go to your computer and code.
In college I was in brain and cog. I always wanted to be a professor. My mom, my dad and my sister, they're all academic professors. So even before I got into college, I knew for certain that was my calling. And so, in college I was laser focused on doing research and making sure I got good grades and everything that set me up for success for that path.
And then when we moved to San Francisco, I was doing that. I went to UCSF to get my Ph.D. in neuroscience. You were still coding. You've been so consistent. I've had so many life changes and you've – I mean you too, but more or less linear. And then when we first moved, I remember you were like – I don't know if you've ever, you were in YC.
I hadn't gone into YC. We moved to San Francisco and I didn't have a job. My plan was I'm going to somehow get into Y Combinator, and I did while we were living together.
Got it. I remember living together and you would go to Mountain View. And I was like, "What the hell is in Mountain View?" And you went to the thing that was two letters. I literally didn't even remember that it was called YC. I was like, ZW whatever. I was just totally not in that world. And I was cleaning up mouse poop, doing surgeries, wearing booties. Doing lab work.
Do you remember the summer before or two summers before we actually moved to SF you had an internship and you brought me to your lab where you were working with your sister and you're showing me all the surgeries.
What? I do not remember. Oh, in Emeryville?
Yeah, in Emoryville. You were showing me; I had no idea what you did.
Did we show you the animals?
Yeah. You're literally doing brain surgery on rats.
I don't remember that. That's so crazy. Two years in, I was just not into it anymore. I think you had already moved out at that point, but we were definitely still good friends. The path of being a professor was my identity for so, so long.
I realized -- I was crying a lot. I was so unhappy. I wasn't sure if I missed Boston. If I missed my friends, I didn't like my project. I don't know. So, some source of misery somewhere and took me awhile to figure out what it was. But ultimately it was just that I wasn't doing something that I loved.
You cried a lot when we lived together. I don't know what it was. It was a whole bunch of random stuff. But I do remember always thinking of you as somebody who followed in your sister's footsteps. Because your sister was six years older than you?
Totally. Seven years older. I have one older sister. You know Kay really well, but Kay and I are super close, and she's always been like this mentor-role model for me. She's a professor at MIT in neuroscience. We wanted to do it together. My sister and I would be like, we're going to start an institute together someday. Which was actually not -- definitely ambitious, but that was our north star.
It was a really big deal when I decided to not continue down that path. It was really hard on my family. It was really hard on me and it was definitely by far the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. And I talk about it a lot, though, because it's also a huge part of my identity.
Honestly in a lot of ways it's still behind the ethos of Key Values where it's just like life is just way too short to do something you don't love. And if you're miserable every single day doing your work, get the fuck out, like quit, do something else. I think it's scary when you're older, in your 20s and your 30s and beyond, to like just change careers. But just do it. I think that's kind of where that came from.
You say that, but it was pretty hard for you to quit.
Oh my God, I cried so, so much. I cry a lot in general.
It was a big decision because that was your whole life up until that point.
It was really hard. Then I guess at some point I knew, though. People always talk like Eureka moment, like "Aha," light bulb switches. And I've never experienced that. I thought that was just like a nice thing. But I remember sitting in this talk a postdoc was giving about their research progress and I was eating this bagel, it was like 8:30 a.m., the bagel was stale. I was so tired, and it was so boring. And I just literally had this "Aha" moment when I was like, I don't have to do this. No one's making me do this. This isn't a life that I have to live. So, I can choose, and I choose that I'm out.
You chose to drive Sidecar.
No. So, it's true. After I dropped out of grad school, I had no plan, which was obviously really scary. Everyone is like, "Have something lined up." But I just knew that I wouldn't be able to figure out what I wanted to do if I was doing something that was draining me every day. (Laughs.) Stop laughing.
I did not quit grad school to become a taxi driver. After I dropped out, I didn't have a plan. I barely had any money saved. When you were in grad school at that time it was like a $30,000 stipend. So, I was really poor. So, I had to make money. Sidecar was this thing that was the competitor to Lyft. UberX didn't even exist yet.
Someone was like, "Hey, you have a car, you should drive for Sidecar. " And I was like, "Cool, I need money." I was basically a cab driver.
You were good at it. People like you. You're probably the most extroverted person I know. And so, you're driving this car around SF.
It was so fun.
People are giving you tips for being a good driver.
Sidecar was donation based at the time and people were super generous at the time because it was like a novel idea. Everyone's response was, "One, you're a woman, two, you're young, three, you speak English.” Everyone was always like, “Your English is so good. Whoa, you're young, you're a woman.” It was just really jarring at the time. I think it's not weird or abnormal now, but back then it definitely was.
You weren't like the other drivers at all.
Yeah, for sure. Everyone's like, "Whoa, you're an American. That's weird. Why are you doing this?" But yeah, it was a great, honestly, it was a really fun job. I met so many different people. I really got to know my city. It was a fun job. I did that for a while, and that definitely funded my life until I got a real job.
You did a ton of stuff back then. I remember I was super focused on the startup that I'd gotten into YC with and I was working all the time and I felt like every time I turned around you just met some new person who'd gotten you into some totally new job.
During Sidecar also had this few months stint where I was producing EDM concerts and it was so random. I met these two DJs from Burning Man and I'd fly up to Boston and Rhode Island and we produced these concerts, massive concerts for Steve Aoki and Big Sean. And I was also really, really fun. But I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do forever either. And so, what did I do?
I quit again, common theme. I went and backpacked in Southeast Asia, like the classic soul-searching journey. Yeah, I did that for months and it was actually -- that was hard, too, because it was around Christmas time and I had just dropped out of grad school still. And my parent, it was uncomfortable. My family was not – they wanted to be supportive, but it was just so hard for them to be. Then I came back to San Francisco and started working at Homejoy, which is an on-demand cleaning company, which is really cool and well- funded. But at the time my parents were like, holy shit, our daughter dropped out of a Ph.D. program in neuroscience to work at a cleaning company. We have failed. We have truly, truly, failed. I don't know. I don't know what they thought, but they just were like really, really worried and kicked off a panic. And then I think Homejoy got written up in Forbes at one point and my parents were like, “Oh wait, what is this? Maybe it's okay.” That was interesting having to explain that. Tell me about getting
Tell me about getting the job at Homejoy. How did that happen?
I don't know if you know this story. So, there were some friends, one of the cofounders of Homejoy went to MIT was your class, I think. And there are several other, like MIT people, they weren't like close friends of mine, but they reached out and it was because I went to your Pi reunion. MIT has this reunion 3.14 years after you graduate – so nerdy – in Vegas, I think it's always in Vegas.
I crashed the year above me and they remembered me because I was like really bossy this one day because I was a long story. Everyone was putting their stuff in my friend's cabana and then the people at the, at the club were like, “You can't do this. There are too many people in your cabana. And so, I just like stood on a table.
It was at the pool and I was like, “Hey, everybody, you’ve got to get your shit out of here. They're gonna throw it away.” This guy was like, “Oh, she's bossy.” And he recalled that memory and hit me up to be like, “Hey, I remember you bossing people around. You want to be a manager?” So that's literally how I got that. So random.
I remember being super excited that you got this job because at MIT none of my friends were programmers. When I moved to SF, I didn't have any close friends who knew anything about the startup scene. And meanwhile, you were on this weird journey doing all sorts of stuff and you ended up at this high growth Silicon Valley startup.
It was one of the hottest companies, for sure.
I was so excited. I was like, "Lynne, you're finally in the startup world," and it had been completely alien to you before that. What was it like being at Homejoy?
Homejoy was an awesome experience. I remember I tried to get you to work there.
I was like, "It's fucking awesome. Join us." And you were like, "Hell no." Homejoy was my first real job. I was getting paid, I started at 65K, but at the time I had just come from 30K a year. It's more than double and it was all the things I was craving that I wasn't getting from grad school.
It was super-fast paced. It was super high energy. It was really social. I was traveling a lot when I first started. It was just everything that I needed. It was a journey, man. We all worked long hours. I don't know, 80, 90 I feel like there was definitely a couple of weeks where we'd work a hundred hours a week.
We slept at the office. I know saying this, a lot of people are like, "That sounds awful." But it was really, really fun for us at the time. I think we were just super passionate, and whenever you're passionate about something, it's always -- there's nothing better than finding other people who are equally passionate about the same thing, too.
Homejoy was a really good experience. I was a manager, so that meant -- it was my first job. I was like 24, 25. I was managing 150 plus people. It was crazy how much work experience I got crammed into those few months.
So Homejoy was basically Uber for home cleaning. You would use a service to book people to come into your house. My memories of you working at Homejoy, were basically that it was this rocket ship startup. I didn't know very much about it. I know they kept raising more and more money. I remember going to some party you invited me to you where it's like they had just raised $40 million, and it was some elaborate party.
That's where the money went. Then, of course, it ended up folding, but for a long time Homejoy was a rocket ship. In my 18 months there, I saw three offices. We had to break leases and keep going to a bigger office because we kept growing. We went from -- we were just in San Francisco and maybe Seattle or something when I joined and then we were in over 36 cities across North America and Europe when I left. It was pretty wild.
Why did you leave?
It's a really good question. My heart just wasn't in it at some point. I loved it until I didn't. I think there was -- it wasn't the long hours or anything, it was just the direction. My vision for Homejoy was that it was like more of a matchmaking service. Which is super foreshadowing for Key Values. I think I just like making good connections.
In order to be the Uber for anything, -- it's like the idea for the direction of the company was that it didn't matter who showed up to your house, you'd get the same quality clean. And in my mind, that's not possible. Letting someone into your private space for four hours, unattended, when you're not home is a really big deal. There's no way that you can make two people do that same job, the same.
I think when I realized that my direction, the direction of the company wasn't something that I was really passionate and excited about, it was time to go. I left before things got -- started looking bad and everyone thought was I was so crazy for leaving. In fact, everyone was like, “Oh, where are you going? Are you going to go start your own company?”
And it pissed me off, actually, at the time because I felt like everyone was just projecting their Silicon Valley dreams onto me. I was like, "No, I'm not like -- if you want to do that, you should. But stop trying to --" I don't know, it was a weird time.
It was weird, too, from my perspective because you had been so adamant about trying to recruit me. You were Homejoy's biggest champion, their biggest cheerleader. I would go there sometimes and work on my laptop because you were trying to get me to work there. And I never even really considered it, but to see you sort of 180 from "Everybody should work here, it's so great," to, "Hey, I'm not really feeling it," and eventually quitting, was pretty shocking.
To be fair, everything, when you're working at a high growth startup, is accelerated. It wasn't like overnight. It was probably the last six months were me figuring out that it wasn't exactly what I wanted it to be or what I thought it once was. I think this is something I see commonly now, actually relevant to Key Values, is that people say, "Things used to be X, Y, and Z," and that's just the nature of startups. Like you can't – it’s impossible for a company to stay the same way from 15 employees to 150 employees. It's just, it's impossible. I outgrew Homejoy or maybe Homejoy outgrew me, I'm not sure. But we started diverging.
So, anyway you quit Homejoy. Homejoy exploded and folded as a company sometime after you quit. So, it was a good move. What did you do after that?
So I didn't, as always, I didn't know what I wanted to do next. I just knew that I didn't want to keep working at Homejoy. I went to Machu Picchu and hiked, and Patagonia, did more backpacking, soul searching, and that's when I decided that I wanted to learn how to code. Which I thought you'd be excited about, but then when I told you, you were like, "Nah, man, I don't know. I don't know."
I spent years trying to get everybody I knew to learn how to code. I taught my brother to code. I helped one of our mutual friends, Christian, who's now an engineered Slack, learn how to code and I never thought you would actually say yes.
I know, that's rude. Even in college when I was like, "No, no way, no chance," like falling on deaf ears. But then yeah, you've been telling me to learn how to code. Oliver, my boyfriend at the time, now husband was also like, "You should learn how to code. I think everyone should know how to code." And so, I spent like two months really thinking about it and I was like, "All right guys, like you're right, I want to learn how to code.
We were both shocked. We were like, "What?"
"Help me." Then both you were like, "Oh, you know, I don't know if you're gonna like it. Like I don’t know.” It was so weird.
You said it earlier at Homejoy, one of the things you liked about your job, was that you talked to so many people. Even at Sidecar, you were constantly talking to people. And being a programmer, I was kind of worried that you might not know what you were getting into. It might be too solitary. It might be too boring for you.
It is pretty, yeah. But it doesn't have to be. It’s something I think about all the time. I am really extroverted, but I also do like alone time, especially when I'm working. So, it's this weird trade off. Your concerns were valid. You were like, "You're going to hate coding and sitting still all day, looking at a computer, not talking to anyone," but it's still social.
So tell us about this process of how you learned how to code because a lot of people listening in are considering this process themselves. Should they learn how to code before they start a business? What did it look like for you?
I knew I wanted to learn how to code. I just didn't know how I want to learn. And after much thought I knew that I wouldn't be able to self-teach. Christian, for the most part, our friend, he just bought a bunch of textbooks, like fat textbooks, read them and just learned himself. And that's just not my learning style. And so, I knew that I wanted to do something like a bootcamp.
So, I did something called Dev bootcamp. I wanted it to be in person. I wanted to have experts who knew all the answers to my questions, be able to answer them when I ask them, and I need to not feel guilty asking them a hundred questions every hour. And I wanted to have other people who are learning with me. So, I did a bootcamp. Until I quit that, too.
Until you quit the bootcamp, too. I remember all the complaints that you had about this bootcamp. Maybe a few weeks in or a month and a half in, where you were, I think, moving a lot faster than a lot of the other people who were learning to code. Because you were sort of full-time, all in. This is the only thing you were focused on.
So was everyone else, which to this day I was just like, I think I honestly got unlucky, but like people in my cohort, in my particular cohort just did not have urgency. It was expensive. It was like $14,000 or something. No one's making money during that time. Everyone's learning.
And I obviously wasn't making -- I didn't have that much saved from grad school and from Homejoy's really generous salary. It was a huge deal to me, and I wanted to make the most of it. And I felt like everyone else was just like super chill and like just like go home at six and I was like staying there until 10:00 PM, midnight trying to learn and make them get my --.
You were literally teaching other people in your class what you had learned that week. And you complained to me, you're paying this bootcamp money to teach other people, to do their job for them.
You know how people always say like the best way to learn is to teach, which is true, except for when you're paying teach people. And I just felt like at some point I was like, this is bullshit. And once I found out that they would refund me if I left early, I was like, I just bounced. And also, in part, because after complaining and you were like so annoyed hearing me complain. You were like, “Well, why don't you just quit? And then like I'll help you continue learning.” And I was like, “Deal.”
You ended up coming over and think every day or at least a few times a week.
No, every day. How dare you? I was very committed. I literally would walk from the Mission all the way through the Tenderloin to your apartment. And I never Ubered or never took a Lyft or anything because that costs money and I was saving money. I would just walk through all the needles and the bums who are like yelling mean things to me. And I would sit in your living room and make you answer my questions. You were really helpful. I'm always, I will forever be grateful, forever, that you helped me.
COURTLAND ALLEN: 00:22:05 You were a good student. I remember the contrast between helping you learn how to code and helping my brother. And he was fighting every step of the way. I would check in on him after a few days.
Well, also he's your brother. He's like, fuck you dude. Don't tell me how to live.
Exactly, who are you to teach me? I think this is one thing that characterizes you as a founder in general, is you're a very humble person. You're not trying to prove what you already know. You're more just trying to get help from any source that you can.
Oh my God. I don't know how people do that. If you don't know why do you pretend that you know? I'm like, "I don't know anything. Help me. Someone, I'm lost." That's like more me.
That was a perfect impression of yourself, Lynne. (Laughs.) How long did it take you to learn how to code and get your first contract gig after you started coming over to my place?
I probably quit in April. I remember I quit Dev Bootcamp around my birthday, and I was crying a lot on my birthday. Then, I guess, my first gig was like a shared gig-ish and then the first real gig I got my own was in July, maybe.
But to be honest, I don't know if I would say I knew how to code. I don't know. This is a constant debate. When, at what point, does someone know how to code?
COURTLAND ALLEN:] 00:23:11] Well, eventually there came a point when you were getting contracts without my help. Because the first contract I was like, "Let's get a contract together and we'll sort of work on it together." And I think that was a cool learning experience for you. At some point, I think maybe it was January the next year and maybe even earlier than that.
No, it was earlier. It was at the end of the year. I remember at least AltSchool. I got that gig around Thanksgiving, in November of that year. I definitely had some other, smaller gigs before that. Like Rosalie tea and Learnivore, which I got over a tweet. That was an awesome -- that happened really easily. But I was getting gigs on my own probably in the summer.
How does somebody go from not knowing how to code to sort of kind of knowing how to code and suddenly getting all of these contract work from home jobs?
So this is the question people ask me often and I wish I had a better answer. I don't know if it was partially luck or timing or if it was luckily, I had this network. But for me to get my gigs in the beginning was kind of random. But the thing I definitely did was tell every single person that I knew that I was open and available for contract work as a web developer.
And the other thing I did that was really careful to do, because three months before that I was non- technical. I didn't even know what languages meant, I didn't know anything. I made sure to let everyone I knew who didn't code know that, "I'm available to make websites, I'm available to write in these languages."
I made it really clear and easy for people to remember because otherwise people, they just don't know what kind of engineer you are and then they put you in touch with their company and it's not a good fit. It's obvious. I was really lucky. I think most of my gigs came in from people that I already knew.
It was pretty inspiring watching you do this because I had done a lot of contract web development work. And I guess I always just felt like I got kind of lucky getting jobs. I would make something cool just for fun and then get inbound requests, but I didn't really have a network or tap into it.
And then you came on the scene and less than a year after learning how to code you were making -- I think you're charging like a hundred dollars an hour. All these clients --.
I went from like $30. I remember the first time –because in the beginning –. And this is advice everyone will give you, is start building side projects so you have a portfolio, so that when someone reaches out or you reach out, they have something to look at. And so, I think for me it was like, "Why don't I just get paid to build my portfolio? Why don't I get paid to learn?”
There are people who just need some basic – like the Shopify example. She had a very simple site. She just wanted some help figuring out how to make a new landing page or something. I should do that and get paid. So, I was like, "Pay me $30 an hour."
Because I would've done it for free. And it was like a weird thing. And it's really analogous to doing sales for a company, knowing how much your rate is, how much you're worth. And then eventually the story of how I started charging $100 an hour is embarrassing. So, I don't want to tell it.
Oh, now you have to tell it.
Do you not remember?
No, not at all.
I did the call at your apartment. You don't remember?
I don't have any memory of it.
So this is embarrassing, and I don't know if I maybe want you to cut this out because it's just so terrible. I was talking to a recruiter for a company and I was like, "Yeah, I want to say $80 an hour. But my last client was $100 an hour,” which was kind of true, but it's really short. And then he like paused, which probably wasn't even longer than half a second, but I'm just so crazy.
I was like, but I'll do it for $65 and then he was like, "Um, why don't I just pretend the last 30 seconds didn't happen? And I heard you say a hundred sometimes, so why don't I go in and say that you're charging $100 an hour? Is that okay with you?" I was like, "Yes, thank you. Sorry." I guess he must have gotten paid a percentage.
I don't remember this at all.
It was just so embarrassing because I immediately backpedaled and I was like, "I'll just do it for free." No, I mean it didn't go that far, but basically, and he negotiated for me. I didn't need to go -- he was on my side. I'm sure he got paid more if I charged more. So that's how I started charging $100 an hour.
But then after that, it was a hundred dollars an hour for everybody.
Once I started doing, I was like, "That is my worth." If anything, I should have raised my rate.
Well, that's amazing. The power of really just code. You went from poor grad student making 30K, to operations manager for Homejoy making 60K, learn how to code and in under a year you're charging $100 an hour to work from home on whatever projects you thought were interesting.
It's so funny hearing you say it now because it's like, "Wow, that sounds magical." But it was a lot of hard work. It did not feel fast at the time at all. I remember, I was getting antsy. I was like, "What am I going to do to start making money? When am I going to start making money? I'm starting to run out of money. I need to get a job. How do you know you're ready? What kind of gigs should I get?"
I remember in the beginning you were talking me through this. I was like, "I need to build up my portfolio, but I don't have much more time to keep building and learning on my own without getting paid. So, if someone offers to pay me to simultaneously build my portfolio – because when you work with a client that's building your portfolio.
How low can I go? Because if I'm going to do it anyway, why not do it for $30 an hour? And you were like "No, Lynne do not. That's way” -- you're like no, no, no. I think it's hard to know, but just say a number and take a stab at it. And people can always negotiate down. Don't do what I did, which is backpedal immediately.
One of the coolest things about how you found jobs that really differed from the way that I found jobs as a programmer, because I did a lot of contract work back then. And what I would do is work on some cool, open source project that I thought was fun and just put it out into the world. And then people would reach out to me and be like, "Hey, can you build this?"
Can we use it for our company?
Can you build this for our company? And I find like a lot of jobs that way. But you were more of a networker. You just learned how to code.
You flexed your advantage. I did not have 10, 15 --. You were coding when you were an infant. Like seriously, you've been coding since you were like, what?
Fourteen. That's fucking crazy. And so, I didn't have that. So, I can't lean on that. So, my strength at that time was my network. So, I leaned on that.
Even watching you network, it wasn't like you're going to networking events. It was literally, you just talked to everybody you knew. And I distinctly remember this because I was, "Oh, that's super smart."
And Stephanie Herbert, she's been on this podcast, did the same thing, where, to get contract work she just literally told everybody that she knew, "Hey, I'm a programmer or whatever it is, and I am open for work." And you told everybody that and people would just keep that in mind and when they had the interactions, they would think of you and forward work requests.
It's not a very clear, guaranteed way to get stuff, but why not? Definitely it's not stupid to make sure everyone knows what you're doing now and to help you generate leads.
It just sticks out to me. I gave this talk at a conference last summer, I think it was called, "How to Get Lucky." And one of the big points that I made was just tell what you need help with, tell everybody what you're doing.
Broadcast that shit.
And it just gives people the chance to help you out. And I think a lot of people struggle with like, "What is networking? How do I leverage other people?"
You know what's funny? There are so many people who want to start businesses around this where it's like, "You need help and someone within like a 10-block radius has your answers," But how do you know anyways? But it's true. I think since no one's cracked the code yet and there's no product that exists that solves this problem, hit up all your friends.
It's a good excuse to catch up with people you haven't talked in a long time. I definitely hit up everyone who used to work at Homejoy, and I was like, "Hey, what are you guys up to now? If you're not there, want to help me find a job?" And they did. I think the first four gigs I got were all through friends.
Fast forward, I guess, a year after that. I had started Indie Hackers. You were still doing lots of contract work, charging 100 bucks an hour, maybe more at some point. And I remember going to your boyfriend Oliver's office, where you would work in sort of a back room. And I would come and work on Indie Hackers.
We co-worked every day together for months, I felt like.
Yeah, I would come, and I was super jazzed cause and Indie Hackers was brand new. I was getting on the front page of Hacker News once or twice a month.
Yeah, I remember. We'd be like, "Woah, look how many people are on your site right now."
Yeah. And then I was super excited about you because you're making so much money.
That was an exciting time.
You're working on these interesting projects, you're making more money than you ever have your entire life. Why leave that all behind to decide to start your own company?
Oh God, this is like memory lane. So, I actually remember a lot of this. So, I remember in December and January, like the cold, rainy months in San Francisco in 2016, going into 2017. I was so into making money because this is honestly, you just heard my whole backstory. I did not get paid very much at Homejoy.
It was like the first time in my life that I was making real money and I had never, I didn't obviously save any money from my grad school days. So, I was like addicted to just watching that dollar amount grow my bank account for the first time and I was working – I had two full time clients. I was like working around the clock, worked through Christmas and New Years and I felt like I was really killing it.
And then it must have been March. Yeah, I worked through February. March was like this crazy storm. It was like a perfect storm of events. So, the weather was getting nicer, which is, I know that sounds crazy, but for me, weather really impacts my mood. My mom had just visited. My mom lives in Hong Kong, so I don't see her very often.
She was 70 and was supposed to retire, but she was actually traveling to San Francisco because she was doing some talks or something because she'd actually just made this huge discovery in science.
I don't know if people care about the details, but she basically made this huge discovery and breakthrough in science and was like peaking in her career. And that was so inspiring because my mom's like 70 killing it.
And then also, at the same time you, Courtland, were entertaining this idea of getting acquired and I was like, "What? You just started Indie Hackers eight or nine months ago, what's going on?"
And all that happened, and I felt really inspired. There are all these exciting things happening around me. And then I had no outlet because my project ended, and my other main client actually had to pause the work that I was supposed to do.
I was supposed to do this huge project that's coming up, but they needed like four or six weeks to get it started and do paperwork with the third party that they were using. It's a long story. But basically, everything was happening. I had all this energy, I felt super inspired by you and my mom. My birthday was coming up. I had so much energy and nowhere to put it.
I think I kind of went a little crazy and I was like, "What do I do with my life?" I had this whole existential crisis of like, "What do I want? Like what is the purpose of – what is the meaning of my life? What do I want?" And I think everyone -- you and my mom both were like, "You should just follow your dreams, Lynne. Like do whatever you want, follow your dreams."
That definitely wasn't me.
It was. You were like, "You should do what you want." I don't know. Well, you were probably like,” You should start a company.”
I probably said something very analytical and tried to make a --.
No, you were like," You should start a side business." You were doing Indie Hackers, so you were like, "You should start a side business." So anyways, what freaked me out was I didn't have a clear dream and that was freaking me out because I was like, "Oh my God, I'm a shell of a human walking around planet earth, dreamless,” this was a dreamless state.
And I remember I was like seriously manic for a couple of weeks. Then I realized that there was like three things that I think maybe could count as a dream because I had sort of wanted them loosely for at least a decade. And they were one, I always wanted to do an Iron Man. Totally random. Two, I always wanted to start a family and have kids.
And then three, I think I always wanted to, in some way work with my friends, in some capacity and maybe have some type of -- in a perfect world, would be so cool to have a business that you own.
I think everyone knows this, but consulting is a gateway drug into entrepreneurship because you get a taste of the freedom and setting your own schedule. You get to create your own little world and set your own rules. So, I'd been sipping on that for a couple of years and I was like, “Yeah, I like that.” I guess dream number three was like maybe starting a company with my friends or something of that nature.
Then obviously, Oliver, my boyfriend was like, number two, starting a family. Let's not – don't chase that dream just yet. So, I picked number one and three.
All right, so we're not going to talk about the Iron Man as much, as this is a show about entrepreneurship. Let's talk about dream number three, starting a company, working with your friends, and following, like you said, the gateway drug of consulting into entrepreneurship.
You eventually settled on the idea for Key Values. How did you get there if your dream was as vague as, "I want to do something and maybe work with my friends.”? How did you sort of shape that into the concrete vision that became Key Values?
I tried to think of a bunch of ideas. They were all really shitty. I wasn't excited about any of them. I started some and 24 hours later I was like, "I'm over it." And then you were like, "Well maybe you should find a full-time job." Because I also was pissed that you had abandoned me.
So, I didn't say this before, but the deal was if you helped me learn how to code, I had to promise that I would try consulting, not become a full-time employee. And I was like, "Deal." So that was how I even started thinking about consulting.
And then here this whole – as long as I've ever known you, you're like, "Being an employee sucks, like Blah Blah Blah." And then here you are, entertaining becoming an employee of Stripe. I felt so betrayed. I felt betrayal. It was weird because I'm like, "Okay, you're leaving me out in the dust."
Then I was like, "I should look for full time jobs." And so, I spent a week or two on a job search and it was just so shitty, and I complained about it so much. And it finally, like always, when you're like, "All right, Lynne, you've been calling me about this. Could you build a business around it?"
You have this problem. Maybe you could build a business to solve this problem.
Yeah. And that was, I remember how excited I was. I don't remember exactly the day, but I remember at the end of the day like running up to Oliver and being like, "I'm so excited about this idea." And he – I probably said the exact same thing multiple days in a row and then just dropped those. But this one felt like it really stuck.
What was the problem you had that you ended up building a business to solve?
Well, if you remember, actually it's so funny. I kind of forgot this detail, but there's part of me is like, "Well maybe, will you hire me for Indie Hackers? Like maybe I should work with you." Or like "Maybe I should help Oliver with his company," he's a startup founder also. That way, that checks the boxes. So, I was also, for a couple of weeks, loosely seeing what other startups there were.
And of course, I was looking at like what my friends' companies were doing, because then I could then work with my friends. But the process of looking for jobs was so dreadful, so, so, so dreadful. For me, I've always had a strong affinity for startups, like being scrappy and starting something early. I never was interested in working at the Googles and Facebooks of the world.
But I couldn't find any information about these cool startups. And I felt like that was ridiculous because you know, I'd worked at Homejoy, which was a YC company. All my friends were in the startup scene. We were sitting in Fi Di, which meant in a 10-block radius, there's hundreds of thousands of startups.
But I didn't know, how do you know that they exist? And then, of course, people are like, “Go to Angel List,” and then you see a long list of companies and logos and not knocking angel list. But it's just the long catalog of companies with their logo and that's it. And I just felt that they all start looking – you scroll and scroll, and they all look the same. And you don't get to know anything about these companies.
And so, for me, if you're going to work at a startup, like anyone else, you're not doing it for high salary. If you are, you're doing it wrong. If you're optimizing for salary, go somewhere else. But if you're working at a startup, it matters so much who you're working with because that's the value. And for me it was just felt so crazy that I couldn't get to know the people I'd be working with until so much later.
And I know this is – I wasn't – I'd only been coding for two years. I wasn't a super senior expert, but I still feel like I'm a really good hire. I think that any startup would be lucky to have me because I work really hard. I'm really scrappy. I'm really good at learning on the job. Throw me into any situation, I'll figure it out. And I think I felt a little offended by all of the hoops that they ask you to jump through.
You have to write a cover letter, you have to apply, you do a phone screen. Sometimes you do a screen with someone who doesn't work at the company. They're like a third-party recruiter. They're not technical. You ask them a bunch of questions, they can't answer it. You wait a week, they invite you on site, you do a bunch of coding questions, you pair, you do some whiteboard questions, then you come back tomorrow and then you wait another week for them to decide.
What is all this? You never even really get to sit down and talk to the people you'll be working with. This is the pain point. And you were like, "Well how do you turn this into a business?" And it was like, "I wish there was a resource where I could learn more about what the day to day was like before I even have to commit to a conversation with these people because maybe it's not even a good fit."
And thus, Key Values was born. This is March two years ago, pretty early on.
2017. And you're like, "I want to come on the Indie Hackers podcast." Because I think I had just started the podcast a month before.
You were like, “Yeah.”
I'm like, "Not yet, but make some money."
No, you said, "No". You're like, "Lynne, you don't have, you're not, no." Nice try. You said if I make money, once I make money, I can do it. So that was my goal.
I remember releasing a podcast episode around that time and I can't remember who was with exactly, but the upshot from the episode was that it's okay to have competition, it's okay to enter a crowded market.
And I remember that was something that you had been struggling with a lot as you kind of grappled with this initial idea. You didn't necessarily like the fact that there are other companies already helping developers find jobs. I wish I could remember the episode.
That's it, Laura.
Is her name Laura? You had been circling around this idea. It was a theme, a common theme in Indie Hackers. All of these successful founders are like, "Yeah it doesn't matter. It's good to have competitors". And it took me so long for that to click, so long.
And that was another, "Aha," moment. I remember, I was driving in a car. I was listening to your ass on my speakers interviewing someone else. I pulled over cause I was like, "Holy shit, that makes so much sense." Every other industry aside from tech, there's tons of people making new sunglasses. I think that was her example.
There are a lot of other companies that make sunglasses, but people start companies that make new sunglasses every day. And it was like water bottles, pens, papers. Notepads. That was her example.
And the other thing I think that came up over and over again was pricing. Because we knew that companies pay hundreds of thousands.
I learned that after Homejoy. I was like, I don't want to work at a company that sells to consumers again. It's just brutal to not sell to businesses.
And so you knew like from the get-go that with Key Values, if you help solve this problem, you were going to be making a lot of money. You can charge your customers thousands of dollars. It wouldn't be like $5 a month. It wouldn't be ten dollars a month. It wouldn't be 50. It'd be, "We're gonna pay you, Lynne, a $2,000 referral fee because you hired an engineer for us.” Or something like that.
Because today, headhunters and recruiters charge 20, 30. I just talked to someone who says they charge 35% of the first-year salary. That is wild. They're placing executive level, that is nuts how much. So recruiting is definitely -- there's a lot of money changing hands. That's what you always say. I didn't even really think about it as analytically as you were at the time.
I'm a business nerd, so the whole time I was –.
It's funny because for me, at the time, I was more like, "I want to help people, but I don't want to charge them." And so, it was like, "Well, there's only two sides on this marketplace. If I'm not charging software engineers, I'm charging companies."
The last thing, and the reason I'm going to all this detail is because I want to highlight some of the good decisions that you made early on that made Key Values the rocket ship that it's been, even though it's a lifestyle business.
I don't call it a rocket ship.
But it is for you personally. The last thing I think you did that was really good was rather than starting with a product idea, you didn't say, "Okay, here's exactly what I want to build." What you did was you started with the customer, you said, "Here's the problem that people have. Here's the thing that is a pain point that's very valuable to solve as evidenced by the fact that money is changing hands here."
And then you went in search of, "What's the product that's going to fix it?" And after talking to so many other founders, especially first-time founders, it's more common for people to do things the other way and say, "Oh, I've got a great idea for this thing I want to build. I don't know who's gonna use it. I don't know why they're gonna use it. I don't know if they'll pay money for it, but I want to build this thing."
That was you.
That was me for ten years.
You did that for a long time.
But you started off with the problem and then you spent, I guess it was like a month of you trying to figure out what the product should be.
It was longer, man. For weeks I just talked to everyone.
To try to figure out what the product should be to solve that problem.
I talked to technical recruiters. I talked to every single person I knew that was an engineer, which was a lot of people. Engineering managers. I was researching dating sites and Myers Briggs. I wasn't sure what it was. Should I administer some questionnaire to help people figure out what they want and then match them? I didn't know what it was.
But it's interesting hearing you always talk about stuff like this and I was like, why it's a good idea. But for me I was never in danger of doing it the other way because I'm still relatively new to building. Like it would take me a long time to build something.
So for me it was like I have to be fucking sure that this is – I really have to plan a lot before I commit, because unlike you, you could like whip up a product in a day and be like, "Okay let's iterate, let's start over. Here’s a new idea." For me, it would take me a lot longer. In no universe would I ever just start building something and see if someone uses it. I just never –.
It took you a long time to get to the building phase of Key Values.
I did the other thing too much. I remember I was like thinking about the idea, what the product would look like. I also spent a whole week devoted to picking a company name and you were like, "Lynne, start coding."
Write some code. Code something.
I hadn't even written a single line of code and I was thinking, I spent so long thinking of the name Key Values and I'm glad I did cause I fucking love that name.
One of my favorite company names of all time.
Thank you. I remember it was almost Culture Code and you liked it. At the time you liked it. You're laughing now.
I was like, “It’s the name. Get the domain, let’s go.”
I know, but Culture Code was already taken so I went with Key Values. It's funny, you remember earlier this week I sent you that a screenshot from the beginning of Indie Hackers. I'm like, “Oh Lynne, which one of these names do you think sounds better?” I said, I'm starting a community website for developers who want to learn how to build profitable side projects. Which one of these names sounds better? And I sent you that list of horrible names.
You guys. Indie Hackers was almost Wage Breakers.
Can you imagine, Wage Breakers.
It was probably between IndieHackers.com,
Dream Catchers, Wage Breakers, I forget there were all really bad names.
Indiefounders.com was the second best.
Indie Founders is not bad.
Yeah, it wasn't bad. But you came up with Key Values for your own company and at some point, you finally had the vision for what the product was going to look like.
And then, building it was like a slog because –. I was happy with how much I had learned. I felt so empowered. I spent two years building websites for other companies as a developer. I definitely felt that was fun and what I knew. The design part, though, was really hard. I’m not a designer. It took me – do you remember the early mockup?
You were mean. You’re like, pass, hurts my eyes. That was your feedback.
I took a really long time designing it and looking back I’m really proud that it looks the way it does but now, with the experience I have I would love to re-do Key Values someday. But it’s just not a priority. Then, of course, getting the companies. That was the really – that was so hard. It’s so fun to look back because now – I have so many companies inbound, reaching out to me wanting to be on Key Values that it’s hard to remember there was a time where I was begging companies to let me show up to their office, interview them. I was like, “Hey, I’m Lynne. I’m going to do free labor for you. Do you accept?” And companies would say, “No.” That took a long time.
It’s very analogous to when I first started Indie Hackers and there was nobody on the website. The website didn’t exist. I was just emailing all these founders saying, “Hey, will you come on my website and share your revenue numbers?” And everyone was like, “Fuck, no.”
They’re like, “Who are you?”
“Absolutely not. Who are you?”
Who is your first person? Who said yes first?
I had like ten people. I don't know who was the first to say yes.
I remember you saying you emailed like 50 people and you’re waiting. You’re like, “I hope someone responds today.”
No, it was just crickets.
No one would respond. And then it would just be like, “No, no, no.”
But yours was, I think, a better sale because you were telling companies, “Hey, I’m going to help you with your hiring process and I will come in and put together a profile that will help you.”
Hello, that’s what you could’ve said, too. This is where my sales skills come in now. By the way, I learned so much sales in the last year. For anyone starting out and you’re offering a free service, because that’s how most people get started. You should make sure that you realize you are providing a service.
You’re doing something for free. For you and me both it’s really analogous where it’s like, “Hey, I’m going to help tell your story. I’m going to help you with branding. It’s content that’s going to be quality that you can share. It promotes you. It’s hosted on a third-party site.” You probably didn’t do that. To be fair I didn’t know how to do it either. Which is why so many people said, “No.”
We just glossed over a whole thing, which is something I don’t think that we can take for granted, which is that you knew eventually that your business model would be to charge companies. But in the very beginning it was free.
Yeah, it was free.
You ended up onboarding companies charging them $0. Why was that?
Why was that? If I’m going to launch a site with a bunch of company profile, there has to be company profiles. You go to a site and there’s one company profile. You’re like, “Cool, bru.”
Did you ever consider, though, going to these companies and saying, “Hey, I’m launching this site. It doesn’t exist yet. It’s going to cost you a $1,000 to have a profile.”
Never. It didn’t even cross my mind. I don’t think anyone would – well, I can’t remember, but no. For me, I was like, hell, no. That’s going to take way too long. Doing sales takes time. So, if my goal was to get as many companies on as possible, reducing the friction to get them on is the goal.
There was this whole plan. Get enough companies onto Key Values and then once there’s enough companies, launch and start getting developers onto Key Values and once there’s enough matches, start charging people.
It’s like a chicken and egg, classic marketplace problem. I remember, I ended up launching in September of 2017. It was like, 20 companies, 22 companies. Everyone’s like, “How did you get those companies?”
The answer it was basically a catalog of all the ex-Homejoyers now worked. I just milked my network, again. I was like, “Hey, I’m trying to help your company hire.” Which every company is struggling to do. Let me help you do that, for free. Free of charge. Come on, say yes.
What’s the process like of contacting a company and creating a profile for them? Because I think it sounds well and good when you say, “I found 22 companies.” But who were you emailing? Who did you talk to? How long did it take?
It was a lot of work. I got so many nos. I see people struggling to get started, too, and the answer is straight up grind and hustle. I would show up. I would email, I would call, I would text. I would do cold emails to like the CTO or founder. I just hit up people. I remember this was a huge hurdle I got.
It was like, am I being annoying if I email three times without a reply yet? And at some point, I was like, fuck it, no. I’m just going to keep emailing. I’m just going to be annoying. Sorry I’m annoying. I would say it in my email.
Sorry I’m annoying. This is my fifth email to you. You haven’t responded yet, but I just wanted to check in. Eventually some people would be like, “Thank you so much for following up,” actually. I’m sorry, thanks for bringing this to my inbox again and again. I’m interested.
Do you remember what some of the first things you did were to attract developers to your website after you got this first batch of companies to create profiles?
Launching. It was basically crickets. I posted on Indie Hackers. I wasn’t even on Twitter yet, I feel like. There was no developer traffic until I launched. And then after I launched it was great. And then there was, of course, the trough of sorrows.
The trough of sorrows.
The post-launch trough of sorrow, which, there was like so much traffic and then where’d it go? Where’d everyone go. Come back, come back.
How did you launch?
I launched on Hacker News and on Product Hunt, although that was kind of a mistake. I wrote about all this. My first post that I ever wrote about Key Values was on Indie Hackers because everything comes full circle. I launched on Hacker News, which, to be fair, I always knew that Hacker News would be a distribution channel. So, in a lot of ways I built Key Values and designed it with the Hacker News audience in mind.
Because you just knew there were a ton of developers there who needed jobs.
Even still today. Go to the ask thread and it’s like, “How do I interview?” “How do you learn about company’s culture before you join?” There’s all these – people always want to know these things. It was a recurring theme.
How did the launch go?
It went really great. I was so high on life that day. I remember being physically tired from being excited all day. It went really great. I had basically no expectations. I had never launched anything before. I guess it wasn’t a business yet. But I’d never even worked on a side project long enough to see it through to launch it. It was only positive things.
You mentioned that you had a trough of sorrow period after you launched. For those who don’t know, it’s basically the shape of this graph where you launch, day one, day two --.
Huge spike in traffic. You’re riding a high. You just feel amazing. And then people leave. And you realize that your site isn’t that good at keeping people coming back over time.
You’re like, “They’re going to come back, right?” Oh, no, they’re not.
They’re not. They’re gone.
They’re gone. That’s it. Cool, now what? You know what’s funny? I naively thought that all you needed to do was launch.
I told you that wasn’t enough.
I know but, I guess --.
It was an experiment because we weren’t sure whether or not people would come back.
No, you were like, no, you told me. I think everyone told me, but it just felt like such a monumental right of passage to even launch, put yourself out there. To put anything that you’ve been building out there. That’s all I could focus on.
Then I wake up September 6, 2017 and I’m like, “Oh.” (Laughs.) There was a little trail, but basically, that’s it. It’s weird to look back. Now I feel like I was so naive. It’s so cute that I thought that or that I felt that way.
What did you do to combat this problem? What were your next steps?
Truthfully, I’m still in it. I remember we set a goal. My goal was to have 2,000 sessions a day without pushing anything. I could go on vacation and have 2,000 sessions a day. I’m still working towards that goal. It’s hard work and this is the part of showing up every day for two years. Content marketing, a little SEO.
I launched a side project; I did side project marketing inspired by Unsplash crew guys. I don't know but someone posted on Hacker News. I’m not giving credit. We saw this post on Hacker News – or sorry, on Indie Hackers about someone who had done side project marketing.
And I was like, “Oh, cool. Maybe I should do that.” Because content marketing was like not that fun. So, I built Culture Queries which was this tool, you can go to it on Key Values now, but it suggests good questions for people to ask their interviewers.
So the idea was that the developers would come to this thing, basically use this tool, in the process of you helping them ask questions in interviews you would push Key Values and be like, “Hey, here’s some great companies –
that match those values. Exactly. You can join my newsletter and all this stuff. I think that really helps. There’s no one fix. It’s not like you flip a switch. “Oh, turn on growth. Yay. It started; it’s working.” It’s a constant. I think most companies struggle with growth.
It’s tough. It’s the hard part. For you the easy part was growing the company side of your market. You were really good at convincing people to come on to the Key Values platform, especially since it was free. But it was hard to find developers.
For sure, and I think it’s still the case. I think the crux is getting senior, high quality engineers to visit Key Values. It’s also tricky because it’s not like Indie Hackers where you want people to show up every day or every week. I forgot, I also did YC to help. I thought that was some. This is a long story.
It’s a very long story. Let’s go into it. Tell us why you decided to apply to Y-Combinator.
You may have to remind me because I’m not going to answer this question. I’m going to answer a different one. I just want to say that I never, ever would’ve started any company and definitely Key Values without Indie Hackers. Because like I said, after my experience at Homejoy I was like, “Uh-uh. This is not for me.”
I was convinced to start a company was that you pitched investors, you get them to give you money, you hire a big team and then there’s all this pressure to grow really, really fast. I didn’t subscribe to that model. It was only through you, talking to you as a friend, not even using Indie Hackers at the time, to be honest.
But for those months of you being like, “I just talked to this really cool guy.” I’m making something up. I don’t remember who was who, but they’re like, “There’s this one guy living in the mid-west and he just built this thing and he’s making 500K a year by himself. And he doesn’t even work that much. Isn’t that cool?”
And I was like, “Yeah, that is really cool.” Then you’re like, “Hey, I met this other guy who, like, he blogs a lot and then he started this newsletter and he was like, ‘Hey, people love my newsletter. Maybe I’ll just charge people $3 a month to read my newsletter.’ And now he’s making 40K a month.” I was like, “What? People do that?”
I was like, “Holy shit, there’s other ways to start a business?” For me, that was always the plan. So, the YC thing was a really random thing. I totally didn’t think about doing YC and then I talked to someone and they were like, “Oh, you know, applications are due soon. Maybe you should apply.” And I was like, “No, I don't know because my experience at Homejoy, companies that raise money, not so good.”
I think I got Jedi mind tricked. Someone was like, “You know, it’s a really good introspective exercise.” And I was like, “Okay, I’ll do it.” So, I filled out the application and it honestly was, I recommend everyone fill out a YC application. It’s just a nice – it’ helps people zoom out because you’re just so focused, you’re so close to what you’re working on every day.
It’s nice to step back and see it holistically. And I got the interview. I remember you – did you tell me not to do the interview? I can’t remember your advice.
I think I told you not to focus on the interview until a few days before it was going to come up. Because if you knew it would just consume all of your mindset, all of your time.
That was good advice. That’s so true. I was like, I got the interview. I won’t think of it until the weekend before. That went well, I got in and at that point I – that’s when it was like, “Oh, do I really even want to do YC?” I thought they were going to make me be Homejoy and I was so scared of being Homejoy. Homejoy is great but I just didn’t want to have that experience and be the leader of that.
The investors in Silicon Valley they want to see you going for the gold.
It was stressful, Homejoy was stressful and I don’t even know what it would’ve been like to be one of the founders for a company like that. I was so attached to the bootstrapper, self-funded, Indie Hacker. Is that the definition of?
Yeah, you are an Indie Hacker.
That’s, to me, what the identity of Indie Hacker was and so doing YC was like selling out in a way. It was weird. It sounds stupid. Everyone’s like, “You got into YC. Of course, you’d do it.” For me, I wasn’t positive.
But the main reason that I did was like, I am helping really cool companies who are doing really cool things, talk about them and get on people’s radar, because people want to know about them and YC is a network of really cool companies doing really cool things that no one’s ever heard of.
So, I was like, perfect. I was definitely opened because this is my first time ever doing anything. I wanted to stay open-minded about different ways to run and build the business.
So YC, it’s like a three-month program. Companies go through it. I regularly hear from people who go through YC and I felt this myself, that it’s the most productive that they’ve ever been. It’s three months, full sprint.
Was it for you?
I think it was. I think during YC it was just this combination of peers having a batch of peers doing the same thing and you’ve gotten into this prestigious institution. You just all really want to go fast. You want to impress each other. You want to check in with your partners every week and show progress. For you it was the opposite.
I’m like, if it was true for you, too, I’m jealous. It was like the least productive three months of my life. That’s not fair to say but I was not nearly as productive as you were or anyone else was.
Why was YC so hard for you?
YC was really hard for me for a number of reasons. One of them was just that I was just so – and this is true for everyone, but I just didn’t handle it very well. I was so overwhelmed by the amount of advice. Pre-YC I’m in a desert, looking for water, water being advice from smart people.
And you go to YC and you’re drowning in an ocean. There are all these smart people, there’s all these partners. There are super experienced founders. They have so much good advice to give but of course, that advice is not – a lot of it was conflicting and it was just really confusing for me.
And there was all the pressure of leading up to demo day. YC is three months. You pick one metric and you focus 100% to growing that number and for me it was like – even talking to you we couldn’t even agree what the metric I was trying to focus on. Do I even want to do demo day and fundraise? And they’re like, “Why else would you do YC?” It was really confusing. Thrash/
It was a lot; it was a lot of thrashing.
Hashtag thrash. I don't know what else to say about it.
It’s funny because earlier I was talking about you being such a good student when I was helping you learn to code. And I think that played into you doing YC. Because you cared so much about what everyone thought.
I know, I’m so Asian, I’m like so Asian.
I just want an A+. That’s so true. I just wanted to be an A+ student and anyone who gives me really good advice and I think they’re smart, it’s like ingrained in me to follow the advice, do a good job and then thank them. I want to make people who help me proud of me. There were just way too many people to make proud. It was my own internal issues.
It’s a tough thing for any founder. Which is that, you have all sorts of advice flying at you from every channel. Even if you’re not in Y-Combinator, even if you don’t have mentors or advisors. You might be reading books or blogs or various videos on YouTube. And you have to filter out which advice applies to you, which advice you just don’t have time to do.
I think some of the advice around – I had no experience building a company. I’d never – I was new to all that. So, it’s hard for me to filter because I don’t have any data to pull from. I don’t have a pre-existing mental schema or rubric to filter advice through because I’m new to this.
But the one thing that I did know, is I know how I want to live my life and I know how taking investment will make me feel if I have people to answer to. I knew that part. So, there were lots of things going on.
With the tactical advice versus the religious question of what kind of company I wanted to build. All that together just made for three months of straight crying. (Laughs.) I cried so much.
You cried a lot. I think the religious part of it is big. What do you want to do? What is your actual goal? And if somebody doesn’t share the same goal as you--,
Their advice doesn’t help.
Their advice doesn’t matter.
But it’s so interesting, people ask for advice and they’re so bad at asking for advice. People always ask, “How do I be successful?” Like what the fuck question is that? I hate seeing that question so much. First of all, what does success even mean? What are your circumstances? There’s just like the most vague questions.
What does success look like for you? It depends completely.
I know. This is another thing. It’s not a knock on YC. Looking back, I’m so glad I did YC. Of course, if I could do it again I would do it very differently. It was partially my fault, too. I was naïve. I genuinely didn’t understand that the goal of YC is to go to demo day and fundraise.
I think if you talk to some partners at YC they won’t agree with that statement. But it felt like that in the batch. Everyone was like, “Why would you do YC if you weren’t trying to go to Demo Day and fundraise?” And I was like, “Oh, shit. I don’t belong here.”
Explain what Demo Day is and the story behind you deciding not to get on the stage at the (inaudible).
I feel like you should describe Demo Day because I’ve never been to a Demo Day.
I went to Demo Day nine years ago.
It’s probably really different. I’m not even confident I know because I just dipped before Demo Day. I didn’t go. And I’ve never been to one since. But every founder, one person from each company goes on stage. I think it’s a 60-second pitch to a room full of investors.
You are just trying to get people to give you money. And for me it was like, it was just all so conflicting. You read all these essays from PG. There’s just conflicting advice everywhere.
Whereas if you don’t need to fundraise, don’t. If you don’t need to raise money and have investor and board, then don’t. And so, I was like, “Okay, I don’t need to.” I had been prepared to do this bootstrap, self-funded thing and live super poor and frugal and eat ramen every night.
I was prepared for that. I was just confused that other people at YC were telling me, “You should fundraise now. It’ll never be easier. You never know – you might not need the money now, but you might later, and it’ll be too late.” Everyone else was so excited about Demo Day. It was really confusing.
Why were you so confident that you didn’t need to raise money?
Well, because just the math. We talked, I don’t have burn, I had a bunch of money saved and I was confident I would be able to start charging companies soon enough. Worst-case scenario, I would just do the bank loan/credit card scenario. Worst-case scenario, worst, worst-case scenario.
I was confident. I’m good at living in San Francisco on 30K a year. It sucks but I can do it. It sucks but I can do it. I have years of experience. I felt confident that I could do it. I wasn’t confident in saying it, which is why the thrashing happened during YC. I think I spent the bulk of YC defending my position.
It was my fault because, “Maybe --.” I flip-flopped so much, and it must have been so frustrating for everyone, including you. Honestly, I’m really s-. It must have been so frustrating for you.
It was frustrating but I think it was a process of discovery for you because you got so many strong arguments from very smart people about, here’s why you should raise money, here’s the ups of going this VC-funded path.
You had your own Indie Hacker instinct where you didn’t want to raise money and you really wanted to do a lifestyle business that would make you personally happy. You were super – I don't know if scarred is the right word, but you were just cautious after your Homejoy experience.
You can’t give – I guess Buffer did it — you can give your investors back the money. But for me, it’s a pretty permanent decision. If you fund raise --.
It’s hard to go back in time, buy back your equity from investors. Doesn’t happen super often. The hard part was that all the advice was true, and it just depended on your goals. That was a personal question. So, I had a lot of soul-searching during YC of just, “What do I want?”
There aren’t right or wrong answers. The truth is, if you raise from angels, it’s not the same as raising your Series A or Series B. The pressures are different, it depends on who your investors are, everyone’s, “Angel – they’re really cool. Angel investors will help you grow your business. They’re like mentors.” I don't know, I just felt like it wasn’t for me.
One of the interesting things to talk about here is your financial situation. You mentioned briefly that one of the reasons that you weren’t too concerned with not raising money is, number one, you had the money from YC. But number two, you had your savings. You’d literally spent a year and a half, two years contracting at $100 an hour.
You were living super frugally even though you’re in SF. I don't know what your runway was. I think it was two or three years of savings.
I definitely had two years of runway before, especially with the YC money. So, I felt like there was no reason to. And honestly, people really underestimate how much energy goes into doing Demo Day and fundraising. Since I’m a one-woman show, if I’m spending two months fundraising, that means no one’s working on the product, no one’s doing sales, no one’s growing developer traffic.
And so, it was just a really expensive decision to me. And it wasn’t – and I know this sounds all hippy dippy and whatever, but I think the best way for me and making decisions is just what energizes me. Because I had two years of runway, it wasn’t an issue of running out of money, it was more of a concern that I would get frustrated or uninspired, unmotivated and quit. So that was what I was protecting against.
Quitting seemed to always be on the table. It was always something looming. If you don’t like this, you’ll quit.
I’m so good at quitting, if I hate something, I’m going to fucking leave it. No questions asked. So, I loved Homejoy – Homejoy, woah. I did love Homejoy.
I did love Homejoy, but. No, I loved Key Values so, so much. I loved doing what I’m doing. There’s nothing – it was perfect to me at the time. I enjoyed working on it and I wanted to make sure I didn’t stop that enjoyment.
Because then I would quit. If my heart fell out of it, I would have quit. I think, for me, it was like, “How do I have enough money to make it?” It was like, “How do I make sure I enjoy this long enough to not quit?”
That’s the story of an Indie Hacker going through Y-Combinator. Not doing Demo Day, not raising money while all of your peers are tweeting about how many millions of dollars they raised. Coincidentally, I was on the YC Podcast not that long ago and the title of my interview was, “Your Whole Goal is Not to Quit”.
And that’s what you did. You did the things that you liked, and you avoided the things that you didn’t so you wouldn’t quit. What did you end up doing after YC Demo Day?
The week right before Demo Day, I was like that Homer Simpson meme where he like fades into the bushes. I just wanted alone time. I needed some isolation for real. I think I just went back to focusing on the company. There are definitely lots of good things I got out of YC, don’t get me wrong.
One of them, for sure, was they pressured me to start charging. During YC – it was funny. They were like, “Wait, you’re providing value? Companies that you have let onto Key Values for free are hiring engineers. What the fuck, Lynne, charge them.” That was a huge debate, too, when I start charging, when’s the right time. I could talk about that for a long time because that’s just --. You’re looking at me.
It ties into that thing you were mentioning, what was your north star metric? I think going into YC your north star metric was, “I need to get more developer traffic. My website is not valuable unless I have developers. And YC was telling you, “Hey, it’s already valuable. You’re already providing a service to these companies. Charge them money.”
I had very luke-warm efforts, trying to charge and it was bad. The first five companies I reached out to were like, “No.” And then other ones were like, “Yeah, yeah. Once it’s valuable to us we’ll pay.” I was like, cool, that’s a positive signal. No one wrote me a check until – actually, it’s around this – right about now, at the end of February, beginning of March. I didn’t even know how much to charge. It was a long journey for that. Basically, 2018 I would characterize as learning sales.
Walk us through this process of these very first sales calls that you made, the very first companies that paid for Key Values. How did you get them to pay? How much did you charge them? Who was saying no, who was saying yes and why? That whole process.
It’s hard to describe because it was random AF. The first thing I did was reach out to companies that were on Key Values already for free and had positive feedback for me, people they had hired. One thing I underestimated is it’s really hard to get people who had something for free and convert them into paying customers.
That was one mistake. I should have had everyone new – everyone that was new onboarding starting to charge but I didn’t think about that. Looking at other job boards, there are other job board that are anywhere from $200 to $500 to post per month. I was thinking about doing monthly subscriptions, three months, six months, twelve months.
I was experimenting like crazy. People at YC --. It was cool, actually. Other founders, we were all going through the same thing, price testing. It’s like, “How are you guys choosing?” One of them is straight up throwing out numbers. One thousand, ten thousand, five thousand until someone says yes. If someone says yes too quickly, raise it.
It was literally random. I should’ve been more strategic, had more structure. You have to ask. It forced me to talk to a lot of people about what value they did find out of Key Values. Then there’s the whole journey of onboarding new companies. So, at some point it’s clear that you should just start charging new companies, getting people who are free to start paying is really hard.
My process in the beginning was anytime a company reached out, I would just send them the same email regardless of the size of the company, regardless if it was founder or recruiter emailing me, regardless of how many people they were trying to hire. It was just the same email. I think I started with $1800 for six months and $3,000 for a full year.
Some people said yes, and most people probably said no. One lesson for sure is that I started doing sales calls and that was much, much better.
$1800 for six months, $3,000 for a whole year on your platform. I just want to highlight how much more you were charging than the average Indie Hacker I talk to charges for their business.
How much are people charging?
I go to Indie Hacker Meetups and I talk to founders and this is the most common thing that I hear, “Oh, I’m going to charge people $5 or $10 a month for the thing that I’m building.”
It depends on what it is, though.
People tend to build these products that they can only charge $5-$10 a month for. I’ve got a to-do list app and no one’s going to pay more than 10 bucks a month for it.
To-do list app, so many.
Don’t build a to-do list app, then.
If anyone wants to build a to-do list app, why don’t you just reach out to Courtland and ask him to show him the to-do list app he built for years, years.
It’s hard because you need something like 1,000 customers to get to the point where you’re even sustaining your lifestyle as an entrepreneur. You’re charging 5 bucks a month.
I did the math. My goal is 300K. At that’s – at $3,000 a year, that’s 100 customers. I think I can do that.
You can talk to a hundred customers and sell to a hundred customers.
It might take a while, but I can do a hundred. A hundred is way less daunting than a thousand.
The other thing that’s cool is you’re pretty much spending all your time doing the things that you hear in startup manuals that you should be doing. Talk to your customers. You’re talking to them, you’re learning how they get value, etc. I think one of the reasons why a lot of founders don’t do these things, partly because it’s uncomfortable. You have a personality where you like talking to people so you’re just naturally good at that.
I love talking to people.
But partly it’s because the product that you built was so simple. Key Values is not –.
Not complicated at all.
The secret is not the code. It’s not like you spent eight months whipping together this website. A lot of people could probably build the website in a week or a few days. So, you didn’t really have to spend all day, every day fixing bugs, tweaking your product, etc.
You had infinite time, really, to talk to customers and figure out what they wanted. I think you were able to progress in 2018 along this process of making your product more valuable, figuring out the message, etc. Whereas, other people might take two or three times as long to do that because they’re spending so much time writing code.
You know what’s funny, actually, I won’t say the name, but I just saw on Hacker News this week that a company in my batch folded. And they were a really technical product. Not too many details. They’re going to open source it and I think that was maybe part of it. It was a really complicated product, but it was hard to get people to use it if you’re building product first. So, I don't know, I can’t imagine falling in that same scenario because I’m not –. I don't know, I’m in no danger of doing that.
It’s another reason not to build a to-do list app. Because then you’re like, all right, I’ve gone to catch up to all these other to-do list apps that have a thousand features. I’ve got three years of code that I need to write before I can charge anyone. And there are people listening who have successful to-do list apps.
I’m imagining someone listening right now as they’re coding their to-do list app. And they’re like, “Shit.” Side eye, side eye.
It’s not just to-do list apps, to be fair. It’s just very attractive to founders to build and to try sell these inexpensive, very code intensive apps, especially as a developer. Your advantage was almost your lack of confidence in your development skills.
I know, it was a blessing.
And your energy and your desire to spend your time talking to people.
I know, it’s so full circle. You were like, “I don't know if you’re going to like coding because it so –.” Even when I was coding a lot, I was still super social. That’s just what I’m good at. In general, I think people should build things where they’re at their strength.
And even if coding is your strength you should definitely beware of building something – if you’re really good at coding what that means is, you can build a simple product so much better than all the other people building a simple product but don’t go spend three years in your room by yourself building this product that’s beautiful that no one ever sees.
I think your progress in 2018 speaks for itself. You went from making $0 a month in the very beginning of 2018.
To doing about 80K a quarter, yeah.
What are some of the bigger milestones in that process?
Oh, my goodness. My memory is so bad. First renewal. That was big. I think every time I placed an engineer. That was super huge. It’s so fun to celebrate with a company. “We found an engineer who found us through Key Values. Thank you so much. They’re wonderful.”
Every time that felt like a huge milestone. I’m so thinking about sales that I can’t help but look through this lens. One of the sales milestones, “aha” moments I had was just to actually jump on the phone and talk to people and sell. Like I said before, I was just sending these emails. There was this whole questionnaire during YC, should you have a pricing page?
Someone had a really strong opinion that I should make Key Values self-serve. There was this moment of realizing that if it’s a complicated – if it’s a product that people don’t get right away, it’s not obvious. It’s like, “Is it a job board? Is it employer branding? I’m so confused. Are you an ATS?” Which is an applicant tracking system. People were not so clear.
Jump on the phone, have them tell you what their problems are and then tell them how specifically your product can solve those pain points. And then mention pricing. I think that was a huge – once I figured that out it was like a switch. Sales were going so much easier. Raising prices was a huge milestone, I suppose.
Tell us about that process. How did you raise your prices?
I just started saying a higher number. I remember in the beginning in the middle of the sales call I’d be like, I had a Google Doc opened. Say $5,000 a year. Say $6,000 a year. I’d be like nervous, nervous. They would say something. I would, as I was saying the sentence right before I said the dollar amount, I’d be like, “It’s $3,000.” I would just go back and backpedal again.
It’s just a confidence thing. Then eventually I started talking to companies and I had a sales guru, that’s what I like to call him, Danny. He definitely coached me a lot. He was just like, “Say a big number you can always come down. If anything, companies like to hear that they give discounts.” So, say $10,000. Look at their – it’s a video call. Judge their face.
Some companies are like, “Okay, yeah, it sounds normal.” In which case, you’re like, good thing you said $10,000. If they pause a lot work down from there. If you give them a discount, ask for something. This is another thing, if you’re going to give a discount, don’t do it for free. Instead of $10, 000, “Okay, well, I’ll make it $9,000 if you promise to do a case study, participate in a case study and also be a reference call if another company wants to talk to a customer.”
There like still, “Uh.” “Okay, $8,000. And you’ll help me write some content.” Just ask for things every time you give a discount.
I think one of the coolest things for me watching you go through this process was how much you were, not only just selling companies on the value you could provide, but also learning about the value you could provide while talking to them.
I know, it happened so gradually because I’m doing these calls once a day or definitely at least once a week. My pitch for key values changed so much. It was so gradual I forget that happened. I don’t understand why people don’t do more sales.
They’re too busy writing code.
I know, how do you know what to build if you aren’t talking to people who are buying it or going to use it? I think companies telling me what their pain points were, talking to existing customers and asking what’s working, what’s not, I learned so much about my own product that –. There are use cases that I didn’t even consider when I started.
I remember one of the ones that stood out to me was that companies were basically sending their profile out to engineers as a—.
As their outbound outreach emails, yeah. And just so you know, recruiters see single digit percentage of response rates including the ones that are no. And there’s a company, they are experimenting, and they started linking to their Key Values profile in their outbound outreach emails, making their emails much shorter and letting engineers opt in to all this information and they have a 47% response rate. Is that crazy?
47% response rate for cold, outbound emails. That is wild. Even for me reaching out cold outreach that would be a huge response rate. That was a use case I didn’t even think about before. Talking to my customers helps me learn the value of my own product.
So we’ve been going for an hour and fifteen minutes here. We’re just going to keep going.
We’ve got a lot left to learn; I think. And I want to keep talking about this progression of your sales and analyze why it worked, why you succeeded where a lot of other people have trouble. I look at your customer list right now on Key Values. You’ve got a lot of high-profile customers.
You’ve got companies like Gusto paying for Key Values, you’ve got Intercom, Coinbase, Medium is a Key Values customer. Ease, NerdWallet, Webflow. These can’t have all been companies you had friends at. How did you find these companies and get them interested in what you were doing?
Out of all the ones you just listed, I think those were literally all inbound. All my sales are inbound at this point, which is great. It’s just jumping on the phone with them and understanding what their pain points were. These customers came at different time points.
How does this happen? How do these big companies hear about you and reach out and ask you, “Can I get in Key Values?” I’m curious about the whole process. How do they first hear about you? What is the process like for them to get in touch? Where do they go on your website? What do you say?
It’s interesting because you and I talk about a lot of stuff Key Values related but since you aren’t a sales expert, you never had to do sales for Indie Hackers or for any of your businesses really.
That’s not true --.
Oh, my bad. My bad.
I did sales for advertising for Indie Hackers.
Yeah, that’s true. All right.
That was a lot of time on the phone talking to companies. But I’m not a sales expert, you’re right.
It’s funny because we don’t talk about it as much because it’s not your domain. First thing that’s cool is that every time I jump on a call, the first question I ask is, “How did you come across Key Values?” It’s so awesome and the most rewarding thing to hear that most of the time it’s, “One of our engineers or engineering managers came across it and sent it to us.”
Sometimes I’m talking to the CTO and they’re like, “I saw it. I don’t even know where I saw it. I think someone tweeted about it and then I saw it on Hacker News. Then someone else sent it in the Slack channel.” So people are just seeing it and then the other cool thing is there are, I don't know, maybe one out of six or seven calls, if I’m talking to a recruiter, they’re like, “Actually, we were interviewing this engineer and they asked us why we weren’t on Key Values.” That’s how we heard about it. We were like, “What is this thing? We feel bad that we’re not on it because we’re trying to close this person.”
That’s been really cool because it means I’m reaching the right people. What’s interesting is I’m serving this two-sided marketplace but engineers that are looking for jobs end up finding jobs and when they’re at a company that isn’t on Key Values, they are a champion for Key Values. Then when I work with companies, I always work really closely with the team to create the content and oftentimes it’s a handful engineers.
I work with engineering managers. Now that I’ve been doing this for almost two years, sometimes those people leave those companies. And they’re like, “Hey, I remember when we chatted. I was just wondering if I could pick your brain or if you wanted to help me make intros.” Then they become users on the other end.
I’m, of course, happy for them to use Key Values on the other side. It’s like this cycle – or what do you call those things again?
Flywheel. It’s like a flywheel.
I like that you mentioned that I’m not a sales expert and so you didn’t really come to me for advice for sales. So, it’s sort of a black box me, how your sales process works at Key Values.
The thing that’s cool about it is it is kind of a reflection on a core part of your personality that makes you a more successful founder than a lot of people, which is that you seek out help. You’re a solo founder but it’s like you have all of these co-founders who are helping you build different parts of your business and you do this to a better degree than almost anybody I’ve ever met.
That’s one of my core weaknesses, actually. I don’t ask for help; I don’t find people to help me. I just recently started doing it.
No, you’re so right.
Partly it’s because of watching you and how effective you’ve been at getting people on your side to fill in the gaps. For example, you briefly mentioned Danny. Who is Danny? How did you find this person? How did he play a role in Key Values?
So random. Danny – someone that I met introduced us because of something totally unrelated. It was like, “What’s it like leading a company and how do you figure out next steps?” The soul-searching career – all the things you’ve been asking me today. How did you know what to do after you dropped out of grad school?
How did you know what you wanted to do after you left Homejoy? Transition questions. Hey, Lynne has been through a lot of transitions. She’s a nice person to talk to. We started talking and at the end of the hour I was telling him about Key Values and how I was struggling with sales. And he was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve done 15 years of sales. What kind of questions do you have?”
And I was like, “Well, one thing I’m working on right now is this company asked for this –” I don’t remember, it was something that’s not that remarkable but anyone who is doing sales, like, how do I respond to this email? Obsess over every word and how you phrase things. At some point we had to go, and I was like, “Could I pay you like a couple hours to sit next to me and just walk through all my emails and figure out my flow.”
One question was like, should I have a pricing page? Without hesitation, he was like, “Do not have a pricing page.” It was so funny. It was something I was grappling with for months and all these people had different – and he was just like, “Based on what your product is, you should not have a pricing page.”
So obvious. I was like, (Makes sound.) oh my god, I want to keep talking to this guy. We ended up becoming friends and, I was like, I want to compensate him for his time and his wisdom. That’s just one example. You, for sure. Cadran, Anurag of Render, which now Indie Hackers is now host of.
You meet all these people who are brilliant at what they do. There’s such common advice that you should surround yourself with people who are good at things. You surround yourself with people who are doing the things that you want to do. You are kind of the average of the five or ten people you spend the most time around.
You completely surround yourself with people who are really impressive and smart and helpful in all these different areas. What they’re doing rubs off on you. If you were every doing anything super wrong strategically, I’ll probably comment on it. If you’re ever doing something wrong with sales, Danny will chime in.
Everything is so consistent, but this is a tweet you had not long ago. You were like, “People underestimate how much of what your behavior is, is just imitating people around you.” I think you were saying – I don't know why you were (inaudible).
I don't know what it was in response to.
I feel like you said it in a hating way, like, “Everyone is just copying everyone.” But I was like, “No, that’s a superpower.” People don’t even realize how much you just imitate people around you.
Assuming you’re imitating good people, if you can surround yourself with good people, then that’s great.
Just surround yourself with people you’d like to be more like and then naturally, just organically, everyone’s a chameleon you just end up absorbing what they do, and you just become that.
How do you do that? It’s much easier said than done. I’m sure a lot of people listening in can look around at their closest friends, the people in their communities and environment and not see a ton of people who are succeeding at the same goals they want to succeed at. How have you been so effective at finding people?
Well, sometimes they find me, to be fair. Anurag reached out to me. Someone introduced me to Cadran, who is the founder of Elpha, an all-women’s tech online community.
How does that happen? Who is making these intros to you and why?
People who know me. Adora introduced me to Cadran way back when both of us were starting out building our products. Anurag just told me yesterday that someone told him about Key Values and that’s how he reached out to me. I think it’s just in the power of reaching out.
If you want to reach out to someone, just reach out to them. Send them a nice email. There’s definitely an art to reaching out, doing the cold outreach. Just even on Twitter, just engage with someone. If they make a tweet, just comment, reply. If you reply once a week, at some point, I bet you do, you notice if someone keeps replying to or engaging with your tweets you just start to notice them.
Then when they reach out it doesn’t feel like they’re a stranger. And it’s natural. There’s lots of people that are really smart that I meet that we don’t end up being friends with. I get excited when I meet people I can help with. I’ve always been a fan of bartering. I feel like anytime someone gives me something, I want to give something back.
I apply this, it’s not – I don’t think it’s transactional. I don't know, people hate on me about this. Same thing with friendships, if someone is a good friend to you, I want to be good friend back. I want to show up and be there for you when you need me the most. I want to return the favor. It’s just a natural thing of finding your people.
I think a big part of it is just building cool stuff and putting it out there. Because you built Key Values. No one else built Key Values. Of course, people are going to want to get to know who you are and you’re going to meet interesting people because they think you’re interesting, too.
So, you just glom onto each other and build up this cool network of people. You could have just as easily never built Key Values or never released it; in which case it would’ve been much harder to meet interesting people. I think the second half of that equation is, it’s not just about building anything, you want to build something that works ideally.
We talked about this earlier, but you started with a problem and then you worked backwards toward the solution. I think if you had done what you had done in the other direction what you would have ended up with is probably just a job board. You would have said, “I’m going to build a job board.”
And you would have released that, and it would look no different than any of the 10,000 other job boards on the internet and it would be much harder for you to find people. I think you did it the right way for meeting interesting people.
It’s weird to hear your high-level analysis because I don’t – these didn’t feel like decision points for me. It was just like, “This is my personality, this is what I’ve got, this is what I’m going to do.” It’s funny to hear this bird’s eye view. To be fair Key Values isn’t a job board. It kind of is. I remember when we were first – you were helping coaching me through getting into YC.
That was my one-liner. In my application to YC, I looked it up the other day, was like, “Key Values is a culture-driven job board.” For engineers or something like that. I think of Key Values now less and less like a job board.
It is its own thing.
I think it’s interesting, in general, that people want to describe something that makes sense to people, it’s easy for them to understand. I didn’t realize how much me describing Key Values as a job board colored my vision of what Key Values was.
I can’t explain it, but once I realized it was this amorphous, hybrid thing that straddles recruiting and employer branding and kind of like a job board, it helped me sell it better because I understood it – it didn’t have to be confined to a “job board.”
Let’s talk a little bit about Key Values today. You’re at a point where you’re doing over 80K in revenue per quarter. What’s changed? What are you thinking about in terms of growing in the future?
I feel like this is a trick question here. I’m in the process of deciding and figuring it out because once you reach your goal, you’re like, now what?
We can even step back and mention that your goal, I think a year and a half ago you were like, “I want to make $300,000 a year in my business.”
I’m not quite there yet. I want to pay myself 300,000K.
You’re definitely there.
There’s a lot of questions. I’m still figuring it out. It’s like a religious question, “What do I want this to be?” I think there’s a lot of, should I scale it? Should I hire people? What should I do? Danny’s doing a transition. He’s doing a lot of other stuff, he’s doing consulting. I was like, “Oh, do you want to spend a few hours a week helping me do sales calls?”
We just started doing this in January of this year. So, I hadn’t been doing sales calls. But he was out of town this last week. I forgot how much I love doing sales. Just having not done it for a few weeks and then jumping back into it, I had this epiphany that I don’t care about scaling. I think I knew this deep down inside. I think this is why I didn’t want to fundraise.
I genuinely enjoy doing this stuff. I know it sounds crazy. I get so much energy doing sales. I love talking to people. I love someone being like, “Oh, my god, I think you’re really going to help me. I can’t wait to work together.” I’m like, “Me neither, like, let’s be friends.” In a way I feel like Key Values is just, I found a way to help people and network and make friends and also get compensated for it. That’s the dream.
You genuinely love what you’re doing. It’s pretty obvious that you do. There are weeks where you’re tired of stuff and you quit that stuff.
I just don’t spend time doing stuff – there’s so many features I could build for Key Values, and I want to but first of all, they are not that high priority. They’re not make or break. That’s less fun to me than the social aspect. I love meeting these companies and helping them write their profiles.
I love connecting and talking to the people and getting people to visit Key Values. I like answering questions when people have them on Hacker News or Indie Hackers or whatever, Dev.to, Hacker Noon, whatever on Twitter. The social part finally gets to live. I do like coding and I actually miss coding but it’s definitely not – you just do what you’re excited about.
It goes back to why you had such a hard time in YC. There’s this school of advice that falls under a circle, let’s call it what you should do. This is what you should do if you want to grow as fast as possible or be as effective as possible. Then there’s, what do you want to do? What makes you enjoy running your business? And you consistently choose the latter path.
Consistently, I’m going to do the business I like doing. I don’t care what I should do. And sometimes you feel tortured because you want to get an A+. If I’m giving you advice you want to follow it. If a YC founder is giving you advice you want to follow it. But more so you just stay true to yourself and you do what you want to do.
I actually had another revelation earlier this week. This week was a big week, in that I think that after dropping out of grad school, I realized – when I dropped out of grad school, I felt fucking scared. I spent six, seven, eight years building toward this dream. I was very outcome focused. This is my destination: I want to be a professor.
Then leaving that it’s like, fuck, I’m starting from scratch. I’m 24, 25. I literally can’t lean on any of my previous experience. It’s scary to start over. And you feel so behind. I feel so behind, behind everyone else. But I think that in a way freed me. And now I know there’s no time to waste doing shit you’re not excited about. There’s this article. I shared it with you earlier.
It’s like being focused on the process rather than the outcome. Not only is it less fun focusing on the outcome but it’s something I learned a long time ago. However, it’s like a fragile focus. And if I’m around other people, since I’m so extroverted, I just absorb everyone’s energy, I have to be really careful about who I’m spending time with because I do get caught up.
If five people walked in here and they were so excited about opening up a bakery, I would no doubt start getting excited. “Oh, my gosh, should I help? Courtland, should we open a bakery, too? Should we help them open this bakery?” I’m not even kidding. It’s kind of crazy I’m just super-excitable. Because of that YC was just like --.
I think the phrase, when you were going through YC, that I uttered the most was, “Lynne, focus.”
I don't know how, help me. Someone help me. Focus. That’s the other thing, I know I’m really extroverted and social but that’s also why I prefer to physically work alone a lot of the time because it helps me focus.
What about on a personal note? Getting to the point where you’re making $300,000 a year? Hitting this milestone that at some point you considered almost impossible, a distant, distant future. What does that feel like?
It’s funny, I think – I don’t think we’ve talked about this at all but, as you know, when I started Key Values I literally had a mini-life crisis when that happened and I was like, “What are my goals? Looking for a new job.” I started Key Values at the same time as I decided to start an Iron Man.
Long story short, I was like, “What are my dreams? What do I want to do?” If I died in ten years what would I want to accomplish? And Iron Man for – I don’t even know if you know. It’s a 2.4 miles swim, 112 miles biking and then you run a full marathon, which is 26.2 miles. When I started thinking about it, I was like “I’m not sure if I can physically do this.”
And it wasn’t a confidence issue. It was just, realistically I’ve had injuries. I have this knee problem. I don't know if I can physically do it. But when I did, it was like cool to look back just a few months ago at something I genuinely thought was impossible and feel like, “That was nothing. Let’s do it again.” I have just borrowed – I apply that to Key Values.
There’s nothing that’s impossible. Honestly, it is not impossible for me to make a million dollars a year. Or even ten. Maybe I’d raise money, maybe I won’t. It’s definitely possible. It’s just, do I want to do that?
Well, we’ve been going for an hour and a half now. I’m sure people have got stuff to do.
It’s been super fun to actually have you on the podcast and walk through all the things that make you a special person and you make your business such a cool success. I probably reference Key Values in giving advice to other people more than any other company.
I tell them to charge more and then I point – I tell them exactly what your finances are. I try to get them to do a better job. I think your story is an inspiration. What do you think people listening in who are maybe considering starting a company or taking their first steps, what do you think they should draw from your story in order to be more successful?
Two things. First, don’t build a to-do list app. (Laughs.) I’m kidding but I’m actually probably not kidding. The main thing I would say is be good at asking for advice. I learned this the hard way. Perfect example is during YC I would ask for advice without first prefacing it with what my goals are and what my circumstances are.
So instead of asking, how do I start a business? What’s a good idea? Frame it with some other things like, “How do I start a side business as a full-time employee?” If you’re a parent, if you have kids, maybe you should mention that. If you don’t know how to code, how do I start a profitable side business as someone who doesn’t know how to code and only has time on the weekends?
That’s a much more specific question and you’ll get answers that are much more relevant to you than just asking like, “How do I start a company?” I think being good at asking for advice. And then the hard part, which I’m still working on, too, is being good at filtering that advice.
There’s no wrong – I guess there is bad advice but sometimes there’s multiple pieces of advice that are different and they’re all good. Instead of thrashing and figuring out which is the better one, it’s really just a question of what you want and you should filter it through a rubric of what you enjoy doing, what’s going to – how do you flex your own advantages, I think, is my advice. That's meta.
So meta. Well, Lynne, I appreciate you coming on the podcast.
I appreciate you.
It’s so cool. I think your story is going to inspire a lot of people to start companies. I hope it does.
I was just going to say, I’m literally an example. I started on Indie Hackers and now I’m fucking on the podcast.
Yeah, you did it. Almost an hour and 45 minutes of podcast. Let’s go get food or something. I’m exhausted.
All right. Toodle doodles.
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