Derek Andersen (@DerekjAndersen) and David Spinks (@DavidSpinks) have a lot in common. Each of them felt alone in what they were striving for, brought together like-minded people, and ended up growing communities and building businesses around them. After a string of startup failures and hardships, Derek turned a small support group of entrepreneurs into the global community for founders that is Startup Grind. David turned a small group of community builders into CMX, the premier community for community builders world-wide. In this episode, we talk about why every founder should care about community, and how bringing together like-minded people can be a productive first-step for any new founder.
What’s up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are 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 did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own successful online businesses.
Today, I am sitting down with Derek Anderson and David Spinks. Derek is the cofounder of Startup Grind, a global community of entrepreneurs meeting each other in person and at conferences, and today he runs a business called Bevy, which allows companies to host and run thousands of real-world community events, like he did with Startup Grind.
David is the VP of Community at Derek’s company, Bevy. He’s also the founder of CMX, which is a business he built after realizing the ironic fact that there are thousands of people like myself all over the world who are building and organizing communities, but none of them are actually talking to each other because they’re not part of a community themselves. So he built CMX to fix that. David, Derek, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast. It is a pleasure to have you both on there.
Thank you so much.
Thanks for having us.
Derek – All right, we’re going to run a tight ship here. Derek, you go first, David you follow up.
Excited to be here.
Thanks for having us.
So there’s a lot of similarities between the three of us. Probably the most striking one is that we’ve all started communities, but specifically I’ve started a community, Indie Hackers. I ran it as a business until it was bought by a bigger company, Stripe, where I work today. And David, you did the same thing. You recently sold your community, CMX, to Derek’s company, Bevy. So we’re really similar in that respect.
This show is usually about people who are doing things the other way around, people who quit their jobs as employees to strike it out and become founders. What’s it like going in the opposite direction and no longer being a founder?
It’s definitely a lot of change, different expectations, different pressures. I think, as a founder, you’re constantly thinking about, “How are we getting to that next stage? Are we going in the right direction?” You feel a lot of the weight on your shoulders to make all those kinds of directional decisions, and so no longer being a founder, definitely feeling a weight lifted that it’s not all on my shoulders. It’s mostly on Derek’s shoulders.
Yeah, it’s his responsibility now.
Yeah, it’s Derek’s responsibility. But there’s also unique pressures that I wouldn’t have as a founder. As a founder, you have a lot of freedom that the other side of that coin of having to make the decisions is that you get to make the decisions and you get to choose a direction. You don’t really have others that you’re necessarily answering to.
Now I’m not my own boss and I do have to consider other people’s goals, other people’s direction and the direction that Derek wants to take things, and align with that, which thankfully we have been very aligned on the direction of things and spent a lot of time making sure that that was true before moving forward with the acquisition.
You have a much better job title than me. I think you were VP of Community at Bevy?
I think mine, I’m like Chief Indie Hacker at Stripe or something completely silly. I think what you’re saying is very true. There’s a very different type of pressure when you’re a founder that you just don’t have as an employee.
But at the same time, when I think you come into a company through an acquisition, at least for me, I feel this intense pressure to make sure the acquisition is a success. I don’t want Patrick from Stripe to be disappointed that he bought Indie Hackers. Do you feel the same with CMX and Bevy?
Just a reminder, David, that I’m on this podcast, too, so just to let you know I’m listening in on everything you’re saying.
Derek, if you just want to take a walk around the block, we’ll call you when we’re ready. Yeah, I think there is pressure from multiple angles. There’s definitely the pressure to want to make it successful, and to have Derek and the rest of the team feel really good and excited about the decision cause they’re taking a risk on us.
There’s also pressure from my team that I made the right choice for the employees of CMX who all came over with us, that they’re happy with the work they’re doing and with the direction of CMX. And then, of course, there’s the pressure from the community and wanting to make sure you do right by them, which is the biggest concern, ultimately and risk when you have a community be acquired, is the community has a lot of questions about how things will change. Will we still be community driven and focus on the community? We definitely put a lot of effort into making sure we communicate that stuff really clearly and we’re really transparent, and that we continue to be community driven.
Derek, what about you? From the other side of things, I know that buying a company, actually making an acquisition, has to be stressful. And I say that because, for me, just hiring a contractor is stressful, so I can’t imagine buying an entire company. What goes into that, and how did it feel to actually go through this process?
Well I think the whole thing sort of started from the right place, started where David and I had a lot of mutual respect for each other, had developed a friendship, and that’s not necessarily the norm. I think sometimes these things happen really fast and sort of spur of the moment.
I will also give David a lot of credit. I’m probably more loose and fast and David’s much more methodical and I think patient, and I think sort of driving a lot of the questions up front of, what is this going to look like? And I do this, sometimes, and I think it’s a good exercise. When you are going to employee one of your friends, which is not really advisable -- I highly recommend not doing that in almost any situation – but when I do that, I always sit down with them, and I’m like, “Look, here’s the worst-case scenario. Six months from now, we hate each other, I fire you or you quit or something, and what happens? What had to happen for that to happen, and how do we avoid that?”
And so I think David and I discussed all different types of scenarios, and it was exhaustive and I’m grateful for that level of detail at this point. It felt great when it was completed, and it felt great when we got to announce it. It felt great when we had the really positive response from the community. We didn’t get a single piece of negative feedback about it, which I think, of course you hope for that, but I don't think that’s a realistic expectation. And it’s been really fun to spend more time with David and his team and to work for them and for us to get better overall.
We’ve taken some of their values and tried to adopt some of ours, to better match what they had, which in many cases they had a better way of describing things or better way of doing certain pieces of marketing, or there’s just all these things that we’re learning from them that’s helping us get better, too.
Another similarity between us, besides the fact that David and I have sold our companies to bigger companies is that all of us are involved in the communities. All of us have started communities. But the people listening to this podcast aren’t necessarily obsessed with building communities.
If they have one thing in common, it’s that they want to be founders. Being a founder is really freaking hard. There are a million things to do. So a question for both of you. Maybe David, you could go first. Why should founders care at all about communities?
I think every company is a community. So from the very start of building your company, what you’re doing is actually building a community. It’s a community with the intention of growing and driving profit and growing a team and providing a lot of value to customers.
But it starts with a founder or founders with an idea, that goes out and convinces other people that this idea is worth investing in and spending time on and being a part of. They get people to join their team. That team is going to have a set of values. They have a common interest, a common goal, a common mission. It’s all the things that we know to be what makes a community.
So from the very start, I think founders need to be thinking about not just how to we build a successful community, a place where people feel connected, where they feel aligned with that mission, where they feel safe, where they can express themselves safely and communicate safely. Those are the things that also make really successful businesses.
Now that’s on a cultural, values kind of mission and brand level. In a practical level of how can I actually help a company achieve its goals, I think that community is the future of how businesses are working.
I shared this today. I think an interesting way of thinking about it is companies have traditionally formed or functioned as sort of authoritarian governments in a way. They centralize power. The team owns everything, the team decides everything, and then they distribute their product and their marketing and things out to the customer.
What we’re seeing is the shift to the democratization of businesses and marketing, where you have your brand, you have your product, you have your marketing, and then you have these customers who want to be involved. They want to be advocates. They want to help you improve your product. They want to help bring more people in.
And we’re seeing more and more companies actually give control and give power and autonomy to their customers and to these advocates and ambassadors and contributors to empower them, to be a part of the business, to be a part of the brand.
So step one is building a strong sense of community, something that people feel like they belong to and they want to be a part of, and then step two is looking for those opportunities to activate those people, give them the opportunity to contribute to your mission and contribute to your objectives. And if you do that, you can actually scale up your business and all the parts of your business in incredible ways with relatively extremely low cost.
If I’m a market and I’m trying to reach 10,000 people in real life, actually trying to build connections with them through offline interactions, I can either hire a thousand people all over the world to host events, or I can empower our community members to self-organize and create events. Now I can actually have touchpoints with 10,000 customers and be spreading that brand in a very on-the-ground, grassroots kind of way with a relatively small team. It’s that exponential value of community that I think is a real opportunity for businesses.
As a founder, day one you’ve got a million different things to do. It’s really hard to focus on something that might not pay off for a while, like building a community. Is that true? Should founders start thinking about community from day one, or it is something you should put off until later?
I think the quality of the community you build around your business will translate to the quality of your business. So if you build a culture in your business that doesn’t really value the voice of your customers and the people who are taking that early leap on you, that’s going to build a foundation that as your company grows, that will just become part of the values that you have, that you don’t value community.
I think by starting out with a fundamental belief and investment in community, what you’re doing is creating a strong foundation for the future of your business. So as you get more customers, as you grow, that value continues to show itself and continues to be a part of what kind of company you're building. It really depends what kind of company you want to build.
There are people that want to just build an app, have very little interaction with customers but just get kind of passive income, and that’s all they want. They just basically want passive income. They don’t have a grand mission. They’re just trying to make a little bit of money.
If that’s the case, then yeah, maybe you don’t really need to invest in community. But I haven’t met too many founders like that. Most of the founders I meet are building something because they’re really passionate about it, because they’re trying to make a meaningful impact on the world. They’re trying to solve an important problem or a problem that they’ve experienced. And so the kind of company they build and how they interact with people, and the experience they create for employees and customers is going to be really important to them.
So investing in community is, for those kinds of companies, I think a nonnegotiable. If you’re an indie business owner, especially in the early days, you have to. Your product is probably still really minimal. It's probably got a whole lot of issues and doesn’t solve all the problems. So the early adapters who are there are only willing to overlook those things and stick around and continue to be involved because they believe in you and your mission and they feel like they're a part of something.
So community is a tool that can keep people engaged through those early tough times. Make sure you have consistent communicate with those users and customers so that you’re learning how the product needs to be improved, and building a foundation that will help you get to that point where the product is actually selling itself and has reached the point where people are there just for the product.
That’s such a good point. A lot of indie hackers ask this question: “How do I compete with a bigger business that has more features than I do and more resources, a larger team, and they charge less money than I do?” I think community’s a good answer.
A lot of times these early adapter users you have are very excited to talk to you. They’re very excited to talk to each other, and a bigger company might not take the time to really nurture those relationships.
I want to understand how both of you guys ended up where you’re at, but you guys had two wildly different paths that only just converged recently. So we’re going to go one at a time. Derek, let’s start with you. You are the creator of Startup Grind, which is an incredible in-person community of entrepreneurs and founders meeting all over the world, in person. What was the first step you took on that path?
Ten years ago, I was working on electronic arts. I decided to leave my job. I wanted to work for myself. I wanted to be more creative. And over the next four or five years I stumbled through many different types of businesses, different ideas, different products that I had built with the teams that I had assembled around me. And most of them were totally unsuccessful other than the fact that they launched, but they didn’t really have any overly passionate users or customers or community around those products.
Amongst doing that, I started hosting an event series in my office with some other founder friends, and we called it Startup Grind because that’s what my experience that I was going through reminded me of. Five or ten people came to the first event, and five or ten people came to the second event, and it sort of grew slowly and was not really intended to be anything other than just a gathering of friends and an excuse to hang out late one night each month.
But after about a year, we started to get a lot of traction and people really enjoyed it. We started to get better and better speakers and I’d spend 29 days of the month working on my product that not a lot of people liked, and I’d spend one or two days a month working on Startup Grind and everybody liked it.
So after about a year and half of doing that every month, we started to spend 10 days a month on it, and 20 days on the product, and then eventually spending 10 days on the product and 20 days at Startup Grind. And I had someone in the audience say, “Hey, can I do this in my city? I love the brand. I love the values. I love the community,” basically.
I thought it was a terrible idea and I thought he must not have any idea what he was talking about. He said, “Oh, we don’t have this in LA. We need something like this,” and so we started doing it in LA and it worked.
Fast forward a few more months. We were able to sell the product that we had been working on and to completely get out of it, and then we just went to work on Startup Grind. And within six months of going full time on it, we’d gone from 5 or 10 cities to 30 or 40 cities.
It’s been about 6 years, 7 years since we started working fulltime on it, and in that time, we’ve grown to over 650 cities. We have millions of entrepreneurs in the network. Our goal is to educate every entrepreneur in the world and the startup teams that are associated with those entrepreneurs. We have about a thousand volunteers to work on it.
So it was not the thing. It was meetup, and as maybe small and inconsequential as that sounds it’s what people wanted, unlike the products we were building. So we listened to people’s feedback and had a great ride working on that.
Well you just blew through the story and made it sound easy. I want to talk about your Startup Grind period, though, where you were spending year after year working on these ideas. It didn’t really work out. Cause I’ve been there, spent a long period of my life in that phase.
I think a lot of people listening have tired that as well and it’s pretty scary to quit your job and go into this place where nothing seems to be working. What’s one of these failures that you worked on and maybe a lesson that you learned from it that you took with you into your future ventures?
You know, I wish I kept a journal through that time, because so many of the things I think I’ve blocked out and I think those lessons would be good for me to remember. Of course, I remember a lot of it. I remember the big things.
I at one point raised $250,000.00 for an iPad game which we launched and nobody bought. I put probably $250,000.00 of my own dollars, consulting dollars, into a social networking product that nobody liked or downloaded. Well, we had some people but very small amount of people.
Numerous people that I tried to start companies with, I could not find a technical cofounder to work with me and I was sort of a product manager and begged dozens and dozens of dozens of people and tried to find ways to work with dozens of engineers to partner with me, almost totally unsuccessfully.
I had a micro founder who I work with today. He’s a full stack engineer. His name’s Joe Fernandez. He and I worked together for nine years, so that’s been really fortunate for me to have found him and to bring him to work with me.
You asked me for one specific thing that I learned. Just to not give up. It sounds so cliché. I know, it’s the worst advice. But I just really believe there were many, many times where the tunnel was completely dark and somehow Joe and I squeaked out of it and got to the next phase.
I’ve been rejected by I don't know how many incubators. All of the things that can happen, I’ve trod. And I think 10 years later, some things are working. It’s not all working. It’s not all perfect, but we definitely have momentum. And once you create momentum, a lot of good things just happen to you. But it’s so hard to get momentum, and you just have to survive a really, really long time in order to do that.
You may not be working on a great idea right now. You may think it’s the best thing you’ve ever done, and no one likes it, but if you can just figure out how to survive, I think you’ll get a chance. I believe everyone gets a chance to showcase themselves and basically a shot on goal. Everybody gets a shot on goal.
But it may be that you don’t have the right puck and you don’t have the right stick, and maybe you’re in the wrong position on the field, but just stick it out and you’ll get the chance. But it’s going to take a lot longer and cost a lot more than you could ever imagine or hope, so make it work with what you’ve got.
You know, “don’t give up” is cliché advice, but at the same time it’s underrated advice, because the fact of the matter is most people give up regardless. No matter how much people will say this advice, no matter how often it proves to be true, it’s still really, really hard not to give up. And I think people would benefit from trying to find a way to make it so that they’re less likely to give up.
If that means consulting on the side, if that means building a community of friends and entrepreneurs and founders around you or finding them online just to keep supporting you, it’s so important not to give up that you’re really doing yourself a disservice if you don’t actively think about how to make following that advice easier for yourself. How did it feel, after these years of hardship, of wasting your own money, if getting rejected from accelerators, to start Startup Grind and see this thing actually picking up momentum?
I really remember when people started to say, “What are you working on?” It’s like, “I’m working on this thing called Startup Grind.” They’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m know Startup Grind.” I’m like, “You do? Really, are you sure? Are you just saying that?” And I would call people out, which isn’t very nice, but I just didn’t believe them.
But they had, and they’re like, “Oh no, no. I attended it in LA, or I attended it in New York or something. I saw you do this, or I saw one of your videos on YouTube” or something like that.
It wasn’t like this huge, overwhelming financial moment or something like that, but I think it was just, did we finally build something? As Paul Graham says, we built something that people actually wanted and that they needed. And that was incredibly satisfying.
I think, too, at some point we had so much failure and we had survived in spite of it that we just didn’t really care about all the things that you shouldn’t care about anymore. It didn’t matter to me that the press didn’t write about us. It didn’t matter to me that people didn’t know or like what I was working on. I didn’t care anymore. I’d been through too many cycles of screwing up to care.
So I think when people finally start coming around and saying, “Hey, actually what you’re doing is cool,” or “I’ve seen it,” and it seems like it’s got this momentum. I think because we’ve been through the Valley of Death, that actually meant a lot to us. I was still working in my garage for many years. To work in your garage and to have people like, “Oh, it seems like this thing’s getting really big,” it’s like well I work in my garage.
But you don’t care about those things anymore. You care about the things that matter and keeping customers happy and being able to afford to hire one more person. It’s such a luxury, and I don’t have to do every single job in the company anymore. What a gift.
You can’t tell anyone about those things, but you feel it in the impact in your life and you bring somebody that’s way better at it than you. I remember saying, “No one can ever sell sponsorship for Startup Grind but me.” I remember having explicit conversations with people about that and they reminded me. Why can nobody sell Startup Grind but me?
And then somebody came along and in two months they sold it way better than me. And it was like the greatest feeling ever. And the feeling I should have had is like, “Man, you are seriously inept. Look how much this person is in two months than you are.”
But actually it’s such a relief and joy that this can work, and you don’t have to do everything. There’s a lot of personal satisfaction in that, and that’s even just with two or three or four employees. You can get that basically immediately once you get through the Valley of Death.
There’s so much good stuff in there. There’s something that you said keeps coming up over and over, which is that your perspective of your own success and impact as a founder is oftentimes understated. You’re just so -- your head’s in the weeds. You’re actually doing work day to day to day, and you’re not really sure how the work you’re doing is affecting people.
So you said people come up to you and talk to you about Startup Grind in the early days, and you didn’t even believe that they really knew what it was. And I know so many founders who do that. My friend, Cadran, runs this online community, Elpha, and people who are part of that community talk to me about it all the time. It’s a community for women in tech, and I’ll tell her. I’m like, “Hey, Cadran, someone told me this great thing about Alpha.” And she doesn’t believe me, because from her perspective it’s just not as big as it really is.
I want to get into the story of how you transitioned from Startup Grind into Bevy but hold off and switch over to David. David, you ran a community called CMX, and it was a community for people who themselves run communities. So I imagine there’s a lot of pressure to do that. What was the origin story? How did you get your first community members? How did you build CMX into what it eventually became?
The thread of community goes way, way back for me. Like, childhood, very much struggled to find community, felt pretty ashamed of who I was. Didn’t really find my group, didn’t really find my identity. I ended up turning to video games a lot to find community. Ended up -- I was always very entrepreneurial as well, so if I couldn’t find community, my -- I would end up building one or I would end up creating something to solve my own problem.
So in the early days of video games, I built the Tony Hawks Pro-Skater 4 community. It was like the first online community ever built, and we had a very active forum. We were running online competitions. We had a whole ecosystem going, and I was 13, running it out of my house in my room.
So I’ve always been fascinated by how technology can bring people connection. As someone who struggled early on to find it in the real world, and then found it online, that power was always really impressive to me.
So as I grew up and new social platforms kept coming out, whether it was the early days of DeadJournal, LiveJournal or MySpace and Friendster and all those kinds of platforms, I just became really interested in all these new tools and how they’re connecting people.
So when I went to college, I ended up going for business and started writing a lot about how community was developing online, about how businesses were starting to use these kinds of social platforms to connect with customers, and that ultimately led to me getting first an internship that was focused on digital media and how businesses were going online, and then eventually to my first community manager job.
So I graduated college. I got this community manager job. I was pumped. I felt like I knew the space in general, and just kind of assumed that there were a lot of other people doing this work that I could learn from. So when I got the job, I started looking around for training programs I could take or other people that I can learn from or communities that I can connect with around community management and building community for business. There just wasn’t anything there.
No one was talking about it as a profession or an industry. There were no resources on who to do this work. There were no communities to connect with other people, so I found myself just figuring it out on my own and then slowly but surely would find other people who were doing this kind of work and connect with them and ask them questions.
I was living in New York and started having regular lunches or breakfasts with other people who were doing community work and supporting each other. We found each other all feeling isolated in our work building community, ironically, and over time it started to grow.
The group started to grow. More people started to talk about community. There was a meetup in New York called the Community Manager Meetup that started. So we started all getting together in person once a month. I ended up cofounding thecommunitymanager.com. We were one of the first sites focused on this profession.
We had a job board. We had articles that we were publishing. We were inviting other people who were doing this work to publish their articles, so starting to create more of a narrative and a messaging around this category of community.
Kind of simultaneously, I had also been building other businesses. After that first community manager job I ended up running a company called Blog Dash, which was connecting businesses with bloggers. I did that for a year and a half before joining Zaarly as the head of community there. I was running a full community team and running our New York office. Mind you, this was still two years after I graduated, and I was a director of community, managing multiple people, so I was in way over my head in a job that still had no guidance on how to actually do that work and knowing you had a value community.
Then I also started a company called Feast, which was an online cooking school, which is very random in my narrative of my career but an incredible learning experience. It didn’t work out in the end. We worked on that for about two years as well, went through 500 startups. One of the first batches, we were about 6 of 500 startups.
So thecommunitymanager.com was a side project while we were working on that. We had talked about doing a conference for a long time, but it just never quite happened. Running a conference felt pretty intimidating, pretty scary to run a big event. I didn’t know how to do all the logistics.
It was actually my friend, Max Altschuler, who ran a conference called Sales Hacker. He came to me and said, “Hey, you know that conference that you wanted to start for community professionals? I know how to run a conference now. Do you want to start it together? I’ll handle all the logistics.” He was going to help with sponsorships and stuff like that as well, and I would handle all the marketing and curating the speakers and essentially create the messaging and shape the whole event.
So I said, “Yes. Let’s try it.” And we just put it together. It was kind of Fyre Festival style. It could have gone really poorly, because we just started selling tickets and we didn’t have a venue or food or anything. And then when we’d make enough money, we would put a down payment on the venue. And then we’d sell more tickets then we’d put a down payment on a caterer.
Oh, man. Sounds stressful.
It was very stressful. But I did a bunch of research first and talked to a lot of people to gauge whether or not they would come to an event like that and got a very positive response all around. So I felt pretty good that there was demand for it.
Then when we did it, the demand was there. We had 300 people, came out from all over the world. All of them were practicing community professionals. They were people who, as part of their job, was building community. All of them felt like they were the only ones who were doing that. They didn’t know that there was anyone else who did that work for the most part. They all felt isolated.
And we put them in a room, 300 of them, put the best speakers I knew in the space on stage and inspired them and gave them a message of importance and validation, because I said, “I think this is the future of how businesses will work. I think community professionals, it’s going to be an entire professional industry. I think community’s going to be extremely valuable to businesses, and essentially validated that their work is important and that it’s a growing space, which is something they never heard before.
The response was incredible. People felt empowered. We got tons of messages from people that just couldn’t believe an event like that could exist. They just walked in expecting it to be like other marketing events or something else, but then realizing they were surrounded by their people. It was really impactful.
So going back to what Derek was saying about momentum, we had felt zero momentum for a while with Feast, and I all of a sudden felt this huge amount of momentum around CMX and building the community industry.
My cofounder and I at Feast, Nadia Iqbal, we were on the same page and mutually decided to wind down Feast and I switched my full time focus over to CMX. We started growing the community and products that we would offer from there.
First I want to make a note to people listening. If you are in the market for coming up with an idea, you’re not sure what you should work on, notice the similarities between my story with Indie Hackers. I wanted to be an indie hacker. I didn’t know anybody else who wanted to be one, so I started a community where like-minded people could come together.
Derek, similarly, was a founder, was going through all these struggles, wanted to meet up with other founders. Suddenly this small meetup among friends turned into something much bigger, and that is now Startup Grind which has hundreds of thousands of people attending events all over the world every year.
And David, same with you, right? You wanted to meet other community managers and these community managers have never met each other. And just by bringing them together you created a ton of value.
This is an idea that I think can exist in myriad spaces. Probably everybody listening to this right now has some area where they feel slightly alone, where there’s others who probably feel alone as well and there might be some value in bringing them together.
The other thing I want to mention is that in both of your stories, and in mine, there’s this common thread of starting things over and over and over again, and some things kind of working out, some things not really working out, but then having a real success.
All of us can tell it’s something real and meaningful because we can compare it to our past failures, basically, and say, “Hey, this one really stands out. This one’s got legs. Let me double down on this.” David, where did you go from the point of your first conference succeeding to building CMX into what it eventually became?
We immediately put the profits back into the company. We took a little bit to pay bills and started planning our New York conference. That conference did not go so well. We were kind of high on the momentum and we’re like, “Great. We’ll throw an even bigger event on the East Coast. Now that we know how to do 300 people, let’s go 400 people.”
And it turned out, the Bay Area was a much easier market to sell tickets in and they’re just more community people here at the time. And in New York, it was much harder to sell tickets. So we kind of bit of more than we could chew and made commitments on venues and things that we ended up not really being able to afford.
So we had to make some pretty massive decisions in crunch time to -- we actually switched our venue in the months before the event. If you’ve ever organized a conference, I’m sure you’ve just had a heart palpitation just hearing about that. It was a very scary moment.
But we were able to make some really big key changes and still throw a pretty incredible event. All of our speakers were happy. All of our attendees were happy. It just ended up being smaller and we didn’t really make money on it. But that was better than losing $50,000.00 which is the predicament we were facing. That would have just ended CMX right there.
So we survived that and then just kept our heads above water, basically, and started planning the next San Francisco event again. And all three of these first three events were in the same year, in 2014. So we threw three conferences that first year, which, in hindsight, was insane. Now we do one a year. But we were hungry, and we felt that momentum and tried to take advantage of it.
We held the next San Francisco event and that one went really well. The next year we did one in San Francisco and one in New York again, and this time were just smarter about predictions of numbers and we were able to make money on each one. So we just made a little bit of money and put it back in, and made a little bit of money and put it back in.
So the first event we hosted, we created a Facebook group for attendees, and then after the event we were like, what do we do with this group now? We decided to open it up to anyone who wanted to join. So that’s now the CMX Hub Facebook group, which has been the heart of our community for the last five years now, and it all started from that first event, just a space for attendees to talk to each other. And now there’s close to 10,000 members and it’s extremely active, extremely positive. We do very little moderation. It’s a pretty incredible space for community professionals.
So the next five years, here’s the interesting thing. Because we talked about that momentum and feeling something that worked, and it definitely did. But the next five years was somewhat of just pushing through plateaus after plateau. It was like we’re trying to bootstrap this business. We’re trying to figure out a profitable, sustainable business model. We’re running two events a year.
We launched a training program. We started doing some consulting for companies, helping them with their community strategy. We tried all these different programs and products and things. But, you know, it turned out to be a really hard space to build a business in, because even though it’s growing, it still has been pretty nascent over the last five years. It’s been pretty small. Community professionals are still hustling to get buy-in in their companies and hustling to get budget. So when we asked for a premium price point on products, it was hard for community professionals to get that support from their companies.
I struggle with this sometimes, where CMX doesn’t feel like it -- it wasn’t a runaway success or anything like that. It’s been a lot of really, really hard work and keeping our heads above water over five years, to keep bringing value to the industry and keep experimenting and iterating.
That said, I think the impact we had on the space has been really substantial, and it’s definitely the most impactful work that I’ve ever done. So it’s been worth continuing to really hustle and push through those hard parts, to just keep getting to that next level which ultimately led to the acquisition with Bevy, which has been pretty incredible.
It’s only been two months since acquisition, about, and we’ve already been able to unlock so much more value and do so many more of the things that we’ve known needed to be done in this space, but just couldn’t have the bandwidth and resources to do.
Now, with Bevy we’re growing the event by more than 2X this year. It’s going to be over a thousand people. We relaunched our local events program. We’re relaunching a research program, all these things that were really important that we just weren’t able to do. So it’s just the next chapter of this journey.
It’s something telling in your story that I think really highlights the value of community is that you have sort of the opposite problem that most founders have. Most founders I talk to, they’ve got their business model sort of straight. They have a business model that makes sense. They have a product. But it’s really hard for them to get customer or users or anybody to care.
Whereas, you were almost the opposite situation, where you had a ton of people who were touched by CMX who were actually impacted, who cared about what you were doing, and talking to you about your business, but you couldn’t fit a successful business model onto that. I think it just speaks to the fact of, community is so good for growth. It’s just so strong if you want to actually build a loyal customer base and user base to organize them into a community, even if you don’t have a business model, it still seems to work on the growth end of things.
So the question for both of you, since Derek also had a lot of success with growth, turning Startup Grind from just one small meetup into hundreds of events and conferences all over the world. What have you guys learned through your struggles and your trials as entrepreneurs about growth, about marketing and about getting people to care about the things you’re building? Derek, why don’t you go first since you’ve been silent for a while?
Well I think that having one clear goal or two clear goals and everyone driving around that, I think that helped us early on. Our goal was to get into 20 cities, and once we got into 20 cities, our goal was to get into 50 cities. And it seems to me in my brain that if we could get what we were doing into 50 cities, that somebody who was much more established, that had a much bigger brand, that it would be very hard for them to come displace us if we were in 50 cities.
There were other people that were doing similar things to us, but we were relentlessly focused on that one goal. And I moved my office back into my garage. I was sharing an office with someone. And this predates all the co-working spaces and everything. I moved back into my garage and I worked and ate dinner with my family and got my kids to bed and then I went back and worked. And it was just around this goal.
We took phone calls at hours of the night, trying to convince chapter leaders in different cities around the world to do it. We were on Skye sometimes for five, six hours a day just trying to talk to people and find people that matched who were and try to figure this out, with lots of failure people we thought would be great that didn’t work out, others who we didn’t think would be great who turned out to be great.
So I think having a clear goal in the early on -- once you sort of figure out “This is the general direction I need to go,” you don’t need to -- you know, Startup Grind’s mission now is to educate every startup team in the world or every entrepreneur in the world. That’s not what the mission was in the beginning. I had no concept that there were hundreds of millions of entrepreneurs around the world. I had not concept of that. But I could see into 20 or 50 cities. I sort of thought once I got to 50 maybe we’d be saturated across the world, but I knew we could get into 50.
And then when we finally hit 50 and then we plotted those dots on the map, for sure, okay, great. It’s going to be really hard for anybody else to catch us and copy us, so they should just partner with us. And then I plotted the dots on the map, and it was like, oh my gosh. We’re not even in a fraction of the biggest cities in the world and we’re in 50 cities.
We have a chapter in Reno or Boulder or something. Sheesh, we don’t even have a chapter in Paris yet or in London. So then our minds sort of started to expand to what was possible. But the only thing that mattered was getting into 20 cities, getting into 50 cities. We just were relentlessly focused on that one goal and then we popped our heads up at that point and then we reevaluated the goals and set new goals.
I remember at one point somebody saying in one of our brainstorm sessions, we were in about a hundred cities, they said, “What are we going to do when we’re in 500 cities?” And I remember laughing, because I just thought, it’s just not possible to be in 500 -- it’s not possible to manage 500 cities. Who does that? Who has 500 cities?
Well now we have 650 cities and we’ve hosted events in over 800 cities, but we have 150 or so that aren’t active, and so we don’t count those or try to reactivate those, but now we’re talking about, well how do we get to a thousand or two? And the people that we work with, some of the companies that we work with, they’re in thousands of cities.
And it’s like, sheesh, how are you -- I think that now. How are you doing this in thousands of cities? That’s impossible. I have somebody I’m talking to right now that’s saying, “What are we going to do when we’re in 10,000 cities?” And I’m like, “This is just insane.”
But then you get there, and you’re like, “Oh, why did I ever think this was insane? It’s totally logical to get here.” It’s just like the compounding interest of time and energy and all of this work over time. And now, many years later, it would be very hard, it would be stupid for somebody to try to copy Startup Grind. They should just work with us or try to be a partner or something, which people like Google and Intuit and ORC and others have done. Stripe’s been a great partner of ours for many years.
I think over time your mind expands and grows into what you can actually be and what this can become, but in the beginning, just one or two really clear, simple goals and just charging at them at all costs, that was just really helpful for us.
Yeah. I think, to build on focus, knowing what direction you're heading is really important, and then something I’ve learned is to give up control to really great people. That can mean people on your team, and that can also mean your community.
I think especially when you’re a small, indie kind of company, it’s tempting to do everything yourself. For a long time, I probably needed to have my hands on everything too much and I handled most of our growth. I handled most of our things.
And then, eventually I was able to hire really great people. So we have Erica McGillivray, who runs CMX Summit, who took our event to a level that I never could have and saw things that I couldn’t see, because she had a different level of experience with running events and different viewpoints.
And that was hard. That was really hard for me, at first, to give up that control, cause it’s like handing over your baby to other people, but that’s what unlocked that next level of growth. And then we hired Sam Weber about a year ago who’s now our head of growth and marketing, and he took all of our content and our marketing and all of our metrics and everything to a whole other level.
So you have to be really clear on what your goals are. They’re excited to have that really clear focus. Then put really great people in the position to execute on those goals, and get out of the way, or just try to unblock them and make sure they’re set up to be successful.
You can continue that mentality into your community, like Startup Grind being driven by these local organizers who are running events all over the world. CMX has had local event organizers all over the world. We’ve empowered members of the community to be admins in the online community and to take more active roles there. We have entire Slack network that’s completely run by the community.
So giving up this need to control every aspect of our brand and every aspect of the business and trust our community members to continue to grow it and to take it to the next level, that’s really how you grow, is you empower other people to take that special thing that you’ve built and spread it.
Easier said than done, especially as a founder of a tiny company where you’ve led everything by yourself and you’re worried other people won’t understand it or care about it as much as you do.
Yeah. And I think we’ve also probably all had experiences where we handed it off to somebody and they didn’t do a great job, so you develop this fear from those experiences that we can’t hand it off. “They’re not going to do it as well as us.” Might as well just do it all yourself. But I think you have to keep trying, because ultimately that’s the only way things will scale beyond yourself.
David, you had a community of community managers. I think one of the coolest things about running a community is you just learn from so many talented people, kind of like we’re talking about right now. What are some things that you learned from the people, the community leaders and the people at CMX?
I don't know, that’s a big question. I learned an insane amount. We’ve had a couple hundred different speakers on our stage at CMX Summit who have all brought completely different perspectives and voices and tactics and things that they’ve shared. I would say everything that I know is a combination of insights that I’ve learned from our community and from the work that we’ve done.
I guess I would say that I’ve spent the last five years in this kind of meta role of building a community of community professionals and now working with Bevy has been kind of an exciting new experience where I get to actually think about building community for our brand again and focus on customers.
And it overlaps really well with Bevy, obviously, because Bevy customers are also CMX community members. It’s the same audience, but instead of just building community largely for the sake of community, like with CMX, now there’s a Bevy platform which is this really powerful tool to help them manage our community.
So Bevy’s still a growing and at a relatively early stage to a lot of other SaaS products and it’s fun to think about the onboarding experience. How do you create content and materials and support that ensures that people are really successful in using the product? And how can community contribute to that experience?
How can you build a community that makes every single customer who uses your product feel not just supported and not just that they can get answers to their technical questions, but that they are truly valued and connected to everyone else who believes in that mission and who’s using that product. So taking all those lessons from the last five years, and now getting to apply it to a real business.
Derek, what about you? You spent a decade as an entrepreneur. You’ve run an entire community full of founders. What are some of the things you’ve learned from that that you’ve applied to Bevy, especially getting started with Bevy in the early days?
Well I always think that actually Startup Grind is its own greatest success, that we made mistake after mistake after mistake, and then started doing these interviews with these influential and brilliant people who had been there who had done it. And then you couldn’t help at the end of these events, like sort of go home and sort of sit back and in a chair and be like, “My gosh, why am I not doing that?”
And compound that and in the next month you get somebody else new and somebody else new and somebody else new. So we applied all the things that we learned on the stages and from these people.
One thing that I’ve learned is that spending time around these speakers, these very successful people, billionaires in some cases, people on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek magazine or other things, I’ve learned that these people are as human and as similar to you as just about anybody you know.
We have spent a bunch of time on Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest bus. 60 Minutes just did a big feature on them recently that you should check out if you haven’t seen it or heard of it. I spent hours and hours and hours around Steve Case, observing him, talking to him, having dinner with him, traveling with him, and the overwhelming thing that I learned is that Steve Case, who is one of the first -- you know, first Internet IPO was AOL. He’s the cofounder of AOL. He is no different than anybody. He’s no different than my uncle or my dad or my neighbor. He’s got the same issues that we all have.
So that really started to empower me to say, Wow. These people on the covers of these magazine, they have their own success, but really, they’re the same. They’re human beings. They’re really not that different from anybody else.
So that’s something and another thing that I’ve learned is that despite people being somebody that’s at the top of the food chain, besides somebody being really successful and wealthy and whatever, a lot of these people, they’re still very thoughtful and kind and generous people.
The narrative we have about a lot of - you know, the founders of Stripe, Patrick and John, being at the very, very top of that list. These guys have every reason in the world to be rude and to be demanding and to be high and mighty, and these are some of the most humble people I’ve ever met. They’re also the smartest people, literally, that I think I’ve ever met. So it’s very interesting to see people who have been incredibly successful in business who are also still just decent human beings. And that’s not always the case that we see in the media.
It’s interesting listening to you guys talk about the things that you've learned, because there’s these salient events where you hear somebody talk and they bestow some amazing wisdom or advice on you, and you go home and you ponder it.
Then there’s this undercurrent of things that, you’re not really aware that you’re learning, but you look back ten years from now and you’re a totally different person and you realize your entire world view has changed.
Most people listening into this podcast are in the very early stages of their careers as founders and entrepreneurs. Their worldviews haven’t changed that much and they’re going to be completely different people 5 or 10 years from now. What advice would you guys have for fledging entrepreneurs? How might they change the way they look at this entire journey today to help them be more successful?
I look at my entrepreneur career as a 20- or 30-year journey. What happens to me this week is probably not that important, unless it’s something just absolutely crazy outlier thing that happens. But generally speaking, it’s not really going to matter that much, and so I’m not going to get too worked up about it whether it’s good or bad.
It happened. It’s a dot on the radar. And I’ll get another dot next week and it’ll be better, or it will be worse than the dot was today. But I think when I left EA and started working for myself, I sort of thought, “Oh, I’m going to” -- like, you know. My impression of it was more of like doing it for all of the wrong reasons.
And I think as the years have passed, as the failures piled up, and then as a few successes, which is what we spent most of this time talking about is David’s and my successes, which is probably the things that impacted us the most and the things that we think about the most are probably failures.
You’ve got to think, “What am I going to be doing in 5 or 10 or 15 or 20 years? And when I talk to somebody, am I treating them that way? And when I’m dealing with a customer, am I treating them that way? And when I hire somebody?”
I used to think, man, no one ever works at companies for more than two or three years anymore. I hve people now that I worked with -- I mentioned my cofounder -- for nine years. I think he and I -- I hope we work together for the rest of our lives. And I have other people that I’ve worked with for 5 or 6 years.
So now I’m thinking, how could I get that person to work with me for 10 years, or maybe can I add other people to that career journey, and we can all go through life together? And now I’ll just think about things on a much longer scale. And I think when you think like that, you won’t get so despondent when somebody shuts an important door on you, and you won’t get so euphoric when somebody opens a door for you that you really need open.
You kind of stay in the middle, and just realize it’s going to ebb and flow and I’m going to take it as it comes, and just keep plodding along. And I’ll look up every couple of years and see, “Woo, I’ve personally made a lot of progress. Wow, my business has made a lot of progress. Wow, the people that work with me have really grown as human beings. Wow, my customers, their lives have really been impacted by what we’re doing.”
Those things, to me, are ultimately the most rewarding things that I’ve gotten from being an entrepreneur, not speaking. I love this podcast, Courtland. I’m really grateful to do it. But it’s not speaking. It’s not press -- it’s certainly not press. It’s not the praise that people give me. It’s not what my parents think, or my in-laws think about me.
It’s really these core things that, am I personally growing? The team members around me, are they growing? Are my customers finding joy in my product and success? Is the business healthy and is it more healthy today than it was before when I last look at it? Hopefully, people -- if they don’t have that perspective, maybe they can start to try and find that perspective if it’s good for what they’re doing.
David, what about you? How do you think your perspective has changed throughout the course of your journey as a founder, and how do you think some of these changes might benefit others who are just now getting started?
Well first, what Derek just said really reminded me of a line from Ted Rheingold, who was an entrepreneur, founder of Catster and Dogster, two of the earliest, most successful online communities. He passed away recently, but one of the messages he left, it was actually an autoresponder that he put up when he was in the hospital, but one of the key messages from that was, “The journey is the destination.”
That really stuck with me. Everything that Derek just described, that I think for most of my entrepreneurial career, he kind of paint this picture of this point that you’re going to reach, where now you’re successful. Now, you have the answers. Now, you’ve done it all and you’re accomplished, and people see you as successful.
And you have this state that you imagine you’re going to reach, when in reality, the day you reach that you’re probably going to be terribly bored. You’re probably never going to reach that, right? Because you’re an entrepreneur and you’re always going to have more questions. You’re always going to have more challenges. You’re always going to be trying to improve yourself. And the day that you’re not growing, and you’re not seeing yourself improve, you’re going to get really antsy and you’re going to look for new challenges.
So just reminding yourself that the journey is the destination. There isn’t this destination that you’re going to reach where, now you have everything figured out. What you’re doing now is the point. Your experience now, whether it’s good or bad, and that’s going to change from day to day or even hour to hour, that is it. That’s the experience and finding that appreciation for that experience is what’s important.
And I think one other thing that I’ve learned is just to not take all advice at face value. Early on in my entrepreneurial career -- and I still do this, where you’ll see someone say something on stage or tweet something about how you should build a business or how you shouldn’t build a business, or what you should do to grow, what you shouldn’t do to grow.
The temptation is to immediately apply that to what you’re doing and say, “Oh, well shit, I should be doing that,” or “Wow, I’ve been doing this think all wrong.” What I’ve actually found in practice is that most advice is not that helpful.
You have to take into context where that person giving the advice is coming from. So if somebody’s running a billion-dollar company and telling you how to build your culture, that may not be helpful for you if you’re just staring your company and you have two employees.
People coming from different backgrounds or different levels of privilege affect their advice. People give advice based on what they know best. So if you asked a hundred different marketers how to grow your business, the SEO person will tell you to do SEO. The ads person will tell you to do ads. The community person will tell you to do community.
So you get all this advice online, offline, from mentors, from advisors. It can really create analysis paralysis and make it hard to make decision. So listen to advice. Consider it. But always come back to your own truth and come back to what you know and what you believe. Follow that, because you have to figure out where your center of gravity is, so that you’re not constantly being pulled in every different direction. I think that following too much different advice has directly led to failures that I’ve seen throughout my entrepreneurial career.
Yeah, and it would really such to follow somebody else’s advice and have that take your startup to the graveyard because you don’t even have the satisfaction of knowing that at least you did things your own way and you really gave it your best shot. Anyway, I’ve enjoyed having both of you guys on the podcast. Can you let listeners know where they can go and learn more about your journey to Startup Grind, CMX and Bevy?
Yeah, absolutely. My email is just [email protected] That’s my primary email for Startup Grind stuff or just advice in general, so feel free to reach out to me if I can be useful. And in terms of Startup Grind, you can just go to StartupGrind.com/aboutus.
If you want to learn more about it or if you want to attend an event in your city and you’re not sure if it’s worth it, you can drop me a note and we’ll get you a ticket for a local event. I’m DerekJAnderson on Twitter.
And I’m @DavidSpinks on Twitter, [email protected] You can find everything out about CMX as cmxhub.com. You can find our conference there. You can read more about the Bevy acquisition on our blog there. Yeah, that’s it.
Alright. Thanks so much, guys.
Thanks for having us. This was great.
Yeah, thanks, man.
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