Ketan Anjaria's (@kidbombay) path to success was paved with hardship. He was flying high in the 90s dot-com boom, until he lost his job in the crash. His funded startup won awards at TechCrunch Disrupt and earned him interviews with Time magazine, until it ran out of money and he had to shut it down. But despite the setbacks, Ketan always managed to rediscover his optimism and try a new path forward. In this episode, we discuss the importance of not giving up in accomplishing your goals, why community is an underrated foundation for building a business on top of, and how Ketan has grown his business HireClub 20% month-over-month to reach $30,000 in monthly revenue.
Hello, hello, 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 did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions, both in 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 profitable internet businesses. Today I’m talking to Ketan Anjaria. Ketan, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast.
Thank you for having me.
You are the founder of a company called HireClub. We interviewed you on the website about six months ago and you were doing $11,000 a month in revenue at the time. What’s changed since then and where are you at now?
Well I’m a big fan of Indie Hackers. Thank you for having me on the podcast. A lot has changed. We are actually now doing $31,000 a month in revenue which has been incredible.
I think one of the big things that’s changed is we are constantly improving our product. We don’t rest on our laurels. We are always listening to users. We’re always listening to feedback. Sometimes we’re fixing issues like next day. And I think that creates a lot of trust between – so the product we have is career coaching, So, what we do is we help people get ahead in their careers by matching them with a career coach and then we take a cut of that.
And what we’ve realized is that trust is probably the most important factor in coaching, So, our job is to build software that creates trust. And how do you do that? So, I think what we’ve been doing is creating more trust by having more quality software, by having software that you can understand better, by having coaches that listen to you and understand you better. And it’s created this amazing organic growth. We’ve grown 20% a month for the last five months straight.
Yeah, it’s crazy. How does it feel to go from $11,000 a month in revenue to $30,000 in just six months?
It feels absolutely incredible. While I don’t want to use the word product market fit (ph) because that’s like the golden goose that everyone wants to have, I think we’re seeing early signs of it by seeing retention to go up and churn go down and revenue go up. And so, it feels really great.
It also feels – I feel like a startup is like a child where every age has different needs. So, like a six-month-old startup has a different set of needs than a year-old startup, and so every time you hit the next level, you have different challenges. So now I think we’re in this awkward teenage phase where we’re like, “Hey, we kind of know what we’re doing, but we’re also kind of awkward and gangly and still got to figure some stuff out.”
It’s like you’re coming into your own as an adult but also you suddenly hate your parents.
Yeah, for sure. That’s a good way of putting it. Yeah, and I think that is the interesting and amazing challenge about being a founder and having a startup is there’s new challenges every month. Every growth milestone, there’s new challenges.
HireClub started off in its infancy as a Facebook group in 2011. Is that accurate?
It is. It is.
What was your goal in the beginning with starting a Facebook group?
You know, I was a big proponent of Eric and the lean startup movement, And I had a design agency back in 2011. So, we had clients like Adobe, Microsoft, Twitter, Skype and we were making different mobile apps and things like that for them.
And I actually instituted a 20% a day like Google has where our team could just think up ideas. And one of the ideas we came up with on a Friday was HireClub. And the goal was, back then, we wanted to find amazing people to hire immediately. And we didn’t want to spend a lot of money doing it. And hiring, as I’m sure you know, is one of the hardest things in any business, startup or not.
And so, I had this idea. I said, “Hey, let’s create” – and obviously I’m a big fan of Fight Club, a big fan of the movie and the book. And we said, “Let’s create this thing without spending money.” And what can we do to kind of help people find jobs, help hire great talent?
So, we had these five rules from day one. First rule, don’t talk about HireClub. Second rule, vouch for your friends. Third rule, post jobs you have access to. Fourth rule, be kind. And fifth rule back then was fuck recruiters.
And our whole goal was moving fast in hiring. And interestingly enough, we had posts on our first day, and our very first day we had our first interview. Someone got interviewed right off the group. And the first week we had our first hire. And this was without spending any money. And I think when it comes to user research, when it comes to product development, if you can learn without spending money, it’s a wonderful way to learn about product.
And Facebook’s groups back then were pretty – they were in their infancy. No one was really doing anything like this back then. And so, the group just organically grew. And we kind of took off from there.
So you had rules right at the beginning, partly inspired by Fight Club. I run a community. Indie Hackers, has many tens of thousands of people on it. I don’t have any rules, nothing explicit.
And my thinking is that people will generally use their common sense. They’ll watch how others are behaving and sort of adjust their behavior likewise. And I don’t want to have too many rules because I don’t want there to be a lot of friction like some of those Subreddits, for example, where you go on and you can’t even make a post because you’ve got to read a whole book of rules first. It doesn’t seem very friendly.
How do you think about striking a balance when you’re running a community between making it easy to participate and having rules so that it’s actually useful for people?
So, one of the things I think that’s really important in any kind of talk about what you’re doing is we didn’t really know what we were doing in the beginning. And I think it’s – you figure things out as you go.
And so, we started with these five rules and in fact they’re still our rules. They haven’t changed. We were lucky enough to hit the right rules from day one. And I think that the balance is this: Is what you’re doing helpful? Is it helping people accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish? And are you moderating in such a way that you keep the content and the community really engaged?
There’s a saying: “You have to be really intolerant of intolerance.” And so I really love that saying. So, what that means is I’m sure as we all know, there’s lots of online communities – Reddit is one, Facebook is one of them – where there’s a lot of negativity. There’s a lot of posting that can be acrimonious and attacking.
And we have done what I think is a stellar job of really saying, “Look, this is a professional group. This is for talking about work and there is no tolerance for hate. There is no tolerance for rudeness.” I mean I even mean using bad language often. And obviously, no personal attacks allowed.
And so, I think if you create the right environment – it’s like having a party. If you have the right drinks, if you have the right music, people will have a great time. And that’s what you want to do with community moderation. You want to create the environment where people can thrive and you really quickly want to say, “Hey, that was a party foul.”
And I think by setting those examples and me doing it myself – and we rarely delete comments, we rarely ban people. But it’s just by leading by example. And that’s – luckily enough, to this day now that we’re about to hit 30,000, still have the same kind of wonderful – in fact, even better – energy.
So what’s cool is that with all of these rules and with however you structured the group, it seemed like it was working right out of the gate. You said you got your first hires in the first few days to the group.
Tell me about the mechanics of this group. How did it actually work and what was the experience for somebody joining it?
Yeah, so we started by just – you had to be invited. So alone in moderation that says something. You had to know someone to get in. We weren’t trying to be elitist. We were just trying to maintain the quality. So, that kind of sets like if you invite a friend you know, you invite someone you trust and it will work that way. Fight Club, same exact concept.
So, the rule was originally like this. If you look at job postings, most job postings aren’t very social. And they don’t really tell you much about the job. And so, our rule was to talk about the job in a real way. We had guidelines saying – a job post might be like, “Hey, I’m the founder of HireClub. I’m looking for a senior Rails engineer. We’re in downtown SF. We really love helping people succeed in their careers. We’re looking to hire tomorrow or today” or whatever you want to say.
And people would comment and say, “Hey, my friend, Courtland, would be really great for this.” “My friend, Sheila would be really great for this.” And they would vouch for each other. And because it was in a social feed, other people would see it. And it kept on popping up in your feed and it kept on showing activity. First, it’s something like – when have you ever gone to a job post more than once?
It’s useless. It’s almost like a static page you never touch. So, we made job posts social. And I think we were one of the first ones to do it where people were actually interacting and talking about jobs. And that created this really unique thing of you could talk to the job poster.
And we all know looking for a job is honestly really hard. And you never get to talk to a human. And we humanize the nature of posting and looking for jobs. And I think that creates such engagement and such kind of like warmth that people just kept on doing it.
So it was almost like a marketplace early on where you had some people who were posting jobs and other people who were basically either applying for jobs or discussing the jobs. How do you grow both sides of this marketplace early on when you’re starting from nothing?
I think for us we were lucky enough, because I had been in SF for a long time and I had worked with various companies, that I just invited people I trusted and they invited people they trusted. And a lot of times they were leaders of companies or managers of companies. And we just found some really great folks to kind of seed the network.
Reid Hoffman talks about this LinkedIn, how he seeded LinkedIn was very similar by having the people that he thought would be great in at the start. And I think that created this natural growth mechanism. And the reality is companies always want to find good people to hire. So, any other option for them to get a unique point of getting their word out, hiring is often just as much about branding as it is about hiring.
So, if you can write a great post and people are showing interest in that post for hiring, that shows your company is exciting. So, when a company like let’s say Stripe posts in HireClub, which they have, a lot of people get really super excited about it because it’s a company that people love.
And I think that energy and that kind of socialness around hiring is what other companies see and say, “Wait, I want that, too. I want people to know about my company. I want them to know about my jobs and I want to have discussion with this community that obviously really cares about hiring.”
While all this was going on and you’re sort of bootstrapping this amazing social hiring Facebook group, in 2011, you had another company at the same time called CardFlick, and you raised money for it. You went the whole nine yards. What happened there?
So, I like to say I successfully ran that into the ground. (Laughter.) Interestingly enough, CardFlick and HireClub were born the same day, March 28, 2011. And CardFlick was the startup we decided to put money into. And HireClub was the startup or the idea that we just put on autopilot in the group.
Who’s “we” at this point?
This is my design agency, kidBombay. So, I had a team of about 11 people back then. We were doing various mobile projects. So, CardFlick, the idea was sharing digital business cards. And we were the first ones to move to portrait designs. We had this really in-person, amazing flick gesture that everyone loved. It demoed really well. And we ended up going to TechCrunch Disrupt in 2011 and we won Audience Choice.
And we went from like having 7,000 downloads to having 50,000 downloads our first day. And it was like this really incredible rush. I mean Time Magazine interviewed me. Everyone was loving this app. Everyone was saying it was the next big thing. And to be frank, it probably went to my head.
While we were solving this amazing problem of making beautiful business cards and having people share business cards, which was back then a huge problem – it still is a problem in lots of ways today – it was kind of something that happens very infrequently. How many times a day do you meet new people?
I’m a big networker. I might meet one new person a day. So, the usage is low in certain places but people like VCs, people like salespeople, people like founders who are going to conferences and events. That was really what we were taking off.
The problem with CardFlick was we never had a business model. This was during 2011 where social was everything and everyone was like “Hey, use growth at all costs. We’ll find ways to make money later and Snap Chat was doing this and Facebook doing this and Instagram was” --
You weren’t supposed to have a business model back then.
You weren’t supposed to have a business model. I was doing what – literally I had investors who said, “Don’t worry about the money.” And so, I put some of my own money into it from my agency and eventually we decided to go full-time on it and we got into 500 Startups. We had a great few angel investors. I think we ended up raising around 300k.
And really what happened is everyone loved the product, the initial version. And I think I just got some stuff into my head and I tried to make – instead of making a version two, I revamped the whole concept. Instead of making incremental, small changes to improve the product, I tried to think really big and be like, “Okay, wait a minute. Can we take on LinkedIn with five people?” That literally was the vision I had.
In hindsight, obviously, that sounds dumb. That sounds really stupid. But to this day, let’s be honest, most people don’t love LinkedIn. Even to this day, it’s not a product that everyone loves. And we went from this simple idea of just sharing business cards and sharing contact info and meeting people, to saying, “Can we take on LinkedIn and can we own your network and can we help you connect and can we be this digital rolodex?”
It went from this really simple beautiful thing to this convoluted kind of like, “Wait, a minute, how is this team of five going to do this?” And we tried to raise money and we weren’t raising more money and then I made a lot of mistakes.
I hired an engineer through a recruiter. That cost a lot of money. And we hired this engineer that we had never worked with in person and it turned out we literally had to fire him that week because we had worked remotely but we had never worked in person, and that was a really bad idea when we started working together.
Without having a business model, without having clear revenue, without having – without being careful of spending money, we basically ran out of money. And honestly, this was around 2013 when we ran out of money. I was devastated. I thought – you know, I had Time Magazine interviewing me. I had everyone being like, “You’re going to be the next big thing. This is going to be amazing.”
To give you an idea, I think Instagram had 25,000 downloads on their first day. We had like 30,000. And so, it’s really easy, I think back then, especially as a founder, to get lost, to kind of not know where your North Star is and attention and publications and press and all this stuff can be really exciting. But that’s not really what you’re doing it for. That shouldn’t be what you’re doing it for.
I kind of lost sight of that. I’ll be honest. A lot of this was my fault. It was not anybody else’s fault. I can’t blame anyone else. It was on me. When the company shut down, I was really bummed out. I was basically depressed afterwards. I had to lose my investors’ money. I had to let go of my team who relied on me to find an income.
And I mean just to be frank, it was just a shitty, shitty time. It was really bad. And to this day, people still email me about CardFlick and asking about, “Hey, what happened to that?” People are still trying to do this business card idea.
But I learned a lot of what not to do during that time period and I learned a lot of how important a core model and caring about your users really is.
How do you recover from something that catastrophic, that terrible, losing your job, losing your startup?
I’ll be honest, I didn’t at first. There was a couple months of me just wallowing in self pity and kind of – my relationship with my daughter suffered who was like in middle school at that point. I was just a jerk to everybody. I was like, “Woe is me” and it wasn’t good at first.
What I ended up doing is I just took a few months to kind of figure it out and I ended up starting consulting again. This was like in late 2013. What’s funny all this while HireClub was just running. It was doing its own thing. It wasn’t doing anything with it. It was just growing and people were adding to it, and I wasn’t even thinking about it.
But I kind of just put my tail between my legs and just started going back to consulting and just trying to get clients, and I found a few small clients based on my past experience and things here and there.
And eventually that just built up again because people knew my work. And I knew how to build mobile apps. I knew how to build back ends. But I can’t say it was like a one-month thing. It literally took three to six months before I was back on my feet.
Yeah, and it wasn’t your first rodeo watching a startup go up in flames because you were also part of the first .com boom, not as a founder but as an employee. What was that like?
Yes, Yes. I’ve seen lots of startups go belly-up and I’ve been a part of that when they have gone belly-up or gotten laid off because they’ve gone belly-up. So, I’ve seen it from the rough side plenty of times.
Does that not discourage you from starting new companies after watching so many fail?
My dad is an immigrant. I’m an immigrant, too. I came to America when I was five. My dad worked with computers. He was an H1B visa, programmer. And we lived in the projects in India. There’s a building that my grandmother used to live in before she passed away, and literally it’s the projects. There wasn’t running water. She had to wake up at 4 a.m. every single morning to – what’s called a (inaudible) and fill up water and bring it downstairs. There were shared toilets, like three toilets to a floor. Literally, the projects.
My dad is the American dream. He came over and he raised his family and he’s now successful and retired. He was always a really big optimist. He was always someone that said, “You can do anything that you want to do. You have to believe in positivity.” And I think I have a lot of that in me. I have a lot of that immigrant kind of work ethic plus the positivity that my family inspired.
And eventually you want to stop being sad and you want to get back to helping people and you want to get back to making money and you want to get back to building something you care about. I think it’s good to take breaks when you have those pauses.
But I really am an optimist. I really am. Even though I’ve gone through hard times, it is so much better to be positive and to find beautiful things to work on and to find beautiful people to work with. Look, you’re going to have ups and downs. That’s just part of the game.
Yeah, I’m super big on optimism, especially as a founder. Being a founder is sort of an exercise in applied optimism. You’re basically believing that this thing can work where all the odds are against you and it’s so much easier just to go get a job elsewhere.
And I think it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy because if you’re optimistic, you’ll try harder because you think it’s possible and then trying harder helps you succeed; whereas if you’re pessimistic, you will have all sorts of reasons why you should quit or why it’s not going to work and it just makes it way easier to actually follow through and quit.
Yeah, there’s some study that was done on newspapers where they asked people if they were lucky. And the people who said they were lucky, they gave them a test that said find this word and count it in the newspaper.
And the people that were lucky saw this one part (inaudible) and it literally had the answer. “Oh, this word is in the newspaper 17 times.” And the people who were unlucky never saw that. The answer was there all along. And I think what optimism and kind of where luck comes from is being positive enough to see opportunity.
And I’ve always really wanted to (inaudible) to that. And I think a lot of what innovation comes from is saying, “Hey, what’s out there for me? What can I see in front of me? What am I missing that’s right in front of my face and what can I grab onto and go with?”
Speaking of opportunity right in front of you, CardFlick was crashing and burning. But at the same time, HireClub which you started on the same day, was growing in the background, sort of unceremoniously.
So incredibly, the community just kept growing. We invited more and more people. We started doing meetups. We had our first meetup in South Park (ph), about 25 people came and we just kind of talked about hiring and more and more companies started posting and we would invite more people.
And I had worked on different startups at that point. I had done other things. And around 2017, we hit 10,000 members. And I hadn’t literally spent any money on HireClub at that point. We hadn’t built product. We hadn’t spent money. It was just a thing. I said, “Well hey, 10,000 members. That’s something.”
And talk about luck and opportunity. I had always said to myself “I’m really bad at social media.” And someone had to point out, “Hey, you have 10,000 members. I think you’re pretty good at social media.” I still – my Instagram is terrible. (Inaudible.) But we hit 10,000 members. And I said, “Okay, we can do something with this.” “Let’s try doing something. How do we make money with this?”
Now, everyone and their uncle was saying, “Hey, go build a recruiting platform.” “Go get people hired and take a cut of that.” And I’ll be honest, I mean that is something we did try. I don’t love recruiting. I don’t love this notion of going out and sourcing candidates and helping companies. I ultimately love helping people.
And what we realized is – one of the first things we tried was headshots. So, I had this idea of like, “Hey, everyone needs a professional headshot.” My background is in photography. I went to school for it. Can we do a photoshoot where you get these beautiful headshots?
So, we found a photographer. We started booking sessions. We made $5,000 our first day. I was like, “Wow.” And these photos that came back – I’ll send you a few. They’re beautiful. Every single person who’s gotten a headshot from us has made it their profile photo and literally has gotten 400 likes on their photos. It becomes their professional photo. It becomes their dating photo.
And it’s just this really great way of showing up for work. Hey, who doesn’t want a great headshot, who doesn’t want to look good and with social media and photos, just such a big thing? It’s on HireClub.com/headshots. You can still book them. You can still do it.
I’ll have to come over. We’re both in SF, so it’s pretty easy for me to head over.
Please do. Please do. And we didn’t charge a lot of money. It was like $100 for one headshot, $150 for two and $300 for three which gives you 30 minutes plus styling and makeup.
Our headshots were fun. We had DJs, we had mimosas. I would come help style you. We had jewelry designers that you could try out their jewelry. We really made it a thing. It wasn’t just like show up and take a photo. And people came to hang out. They would get their photo done and they would really hang out.
And they would say to me, “Hey, look, I’m trying to show off – I want to speak at a conference. Where’s the look that I should have?” And because I have a background in design and I have a background in photography, I could help them work through it. Our photographer could help them work through it. And these photos, honestly, they’re really beautiful. They’re really amazing.
A lot of people are shy about photography and don’t feel like they look great. We literally help people look and feel their best. It was a good feeling. And interestingly enough, because of how we did the licensing, we said, “Look, this photo is yours but HireClub retains the rights to use it as we need for marketing purposes.” It ultimately ended up being – a lot of what we use in our marketing materials is to show our community’s headshots.
So, we did this like three or four times in 2017, made a bunch of money. But I will be honest. If we counted my time, we probably didn’t make that much money, but we made revenue. We weren’t counting my time but we made revenue. And we had like 100, 200 headshots that are amazing. They’re beautiful, high-quality headshots.
So, like cool, this is cool, but will this scale? Always the startup question: Will this scale? And how many times in your lifetime are you going to get headshots? Like I love photography but maybe at the most once a year, you’ll get a new headshot. So, we knew that wasn’t going to scale.
And interestingly enough, just randomly, a friend of mine Shaherose Charania, who is involved in Women 2.0, she reached out to me in early August of 2017 and said, “Hey, there’s this new TV show coming out called Meet the Drapers. Do you want to be on it?” And I’m like, “What? What is that?”
So, it’s Tim Draper, Jesse Draper, his father and it was kind of like a version of Shark Tank, except it’s tied to a crowdfunding platform called Republic which the founders of AngelList started. And basically you go on the show, you do your pitch just like Shark Tank, but anyone can invest.
So, it was kind of unique because instead of the sharks deciding or the judges deciding who would invest, the community gets to decide.
So, having incorporated (ph) HireClub, we had no legal documentation. We were just getting – we had nothing. Sometime like August 1st, she reached out to me. August 11th we were doing the TV shoot. August 17th, we incorporated. And I’ll be honest, I bombed the show. I had never pitched HireClub. I didn’t know what we were doing.
Were you nervous?
I was super nervous and the runners of the show – they’re amazing, they’re wonderful, and they wanted to create a warm and inclusive environment, and I think they did a pretty good job of that.
But they were grilling me on questions. Originally, at that point, our vision for HireClub was we would be like Upwork. Anyone could come on and get contracting work. We would take a cut of that and grow from there, kind of like a gig model of that shit before. And I hadn’t really nailed the pitch or anything. We shot video. We spent all this money. But incredibly enough, we raised $47,000 from our community as a (inaudible) Republic.
We didn’t even have this product yet, But just from the sheer will – and also simultaneously our community grew from 10,000 to 20,000 in eight months because it started investing in growth on that.
So, we raised $47,000 before we had product. We raised money from people who didn’t even have a job. They were like, “I believe in you. I love you. I love this community. We really care about what you’re doing. I want to see where this goes.” And people were putting $25, people were putting $50. One person put in $5,000. And I was like amazed. I was like, “Holy cow. People really support us.”
The show launched. We totally – I thought we bombed. The Drapers definitely didn’t like us. There was three other – there was three total startups on that episode we were on. We were on the very first episode. And eventually the producer came back to me and said, “Hey, we did testing. Actually, people loved you. You were positive even when you got tough questions, you held your own. You never spoke back rudely and you really tested well. The audience really liked you. And they really – you were the underdog.” I was like, “Cool, awesome.”
The show now I think is in its third season and I think they have a lot more things worked out. I’m really happy that we went through it. It was my first experience with anything kind of like reality TV. And literally, I was on a TV show one week after someone talked to me about it. So that was kind of interesting.
And that’s when we started developing the coaching product. So, September of 2017 – what we realized with HireClub was all these people were getting referrals for jobs. And one of the things that I would say is the skills to do a job are very different than the skills to get a job.
And we would send someone on a referral and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. Now as you know, social capital is pretty sparse and it’s very valuable. And if I send someone to a company and they don’t do well, that’s going to reflect bad on me.
And so, we started coaching people and we started saying, “Hold on, let me help you with your resume. Let me help you with your interview skills. Let me help you with your salary negotiation.” So, we had these single sessions and I think we started pricing – our first sessions were $59 a month. And if you think about the Upwork model we originally wanted, what we really did was a similar model but only for career coaching. And what investors would call a managed marketplace, we built a managed marketplace only around coaching. And we got some great coaches coming on board.
Career coaches have this issue where it’s really hard for them to find customers and it’s really hard for them to do the marketing and the growth and we had these 20,000 members that were trying to find jobs and seeing jobs every day.
So, it tied in really well to that model. It was a natural cycle that tied into it and we took like a 30% cut of whatever – it was 70/30. I literally said, “What’s Apple do? We’ll do the 70/30 split.”
And we started getting $1,000 a month, $2,000 a month in career coaching sessions and they were making really big differences. People started getting jobs. People’s resumes were improving. We had reviews as part of the coaching process so we started getting all these great reviews. People were saying, “I love my coach. I love the experience.”
So, the first iteration was really based on what was happening in our community. We wanted to help people find jobs. People were posting jobs all the time. But how do I actually help you get a job? And if you think about most job products, how does LinkedIn actually help you get a job? How does Hired actually help you get a job? How does Angelis actually help you get better at getting a job? So, what we started doing was saying, “Let me coach you to become better at getting a job.”
I have so many questions about this.
Please, let’s jump in.
I want to talk about how you grew your Facebook community from 10 to 20k. I want to talk about how you came up with this idea for the coaching business.
But first, just to sort of zoom out and get an idea of the picture here, how were you supporting yourself financially while you were working on all these different experiments with the headshots and going on reality TV, etc.?
Consulting. You know, I had consulting clients and they were paying good money. I’m lucky that I’m an engineer and that I could make good money at that. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t easy trying to do two things at once. What I always said was whenever I had like one day free, I would try to make one day free to focus on HireClub. And the other days we would focus --
But eventually – there was a startup I was working with called Up All Night (ph) and I ended up actually joining them for a while. But slowly, HireClub just started taking more and more time and more and more interaction and the community just got stronger.
So, I was really, really lucky for Up All Night (ph) and the experience that we had with that. Through that Up All Night (ph), I actually learned a lot about subscription businesses. I learned a lot about retention. I learned a lot about churn. I learned a lot about how to build a lot of what we ended up building in HireClub because I had done it before. So, I used my consulting really just to gain experience on what I needed to do next.
Yeah, if you think about the different ways you can raise sort of your revenue for any business, improving your monetization strategy is a big one and transitioning from one-off payments, “Hey, hire a coach to help you,” and to some sort of subscription-based pricing is kind of the Holy Grail of monetization for growing your revenue.
And that’s exactly what you guys did.
I don’t want to make it seem like we had this grand plan from day one about subscriptions. I mean I literally – we tried everything before this. We tried headshots, we tried recruiting, we tried making a referral engine, we tried building a LinkedIn clone, we tried building a Dribbble clone. We just literally tried – when you (inaudible), see what sticks.
So, I don’t want to make this like, “In hindsight, oh, yeah, we figured all this out.” It was a series of many, many mistakes.
But two things that we always did: We measured. What was response to things that we did? And we had models for it. Can we make money with it?
Because of my experience with CardFlick and not making money, I said, “This has to make money. If it doesn’t make money, we’re not doing it.” Because I already had a job making money, So, I didn’t want to do this thing for free on my limited free time. And honestly, it’s good to make money. Because people can tell you that they love your product. They can tell you that they – “Oh, you have a great idea and it’s working well.”
That’s I think one of the things with founders you have to be really careful of. If someone tells you that you have a great idea, you don’t have a great idea. But if someone pays for your service, you have a great idea, at least the beginnings of one.
So, I looked at that as the model. So, we were using Stripe, obviously, as our payment platform, and we were monitoring everything. We used Baremetrics as well. How much people are buying? What is our take? How quickly is it growing?
So, we were really – I’m big on analytics and I’m big on measurement and I’m big on setting small goals. I think as a founder, everyone’s like, “Oh, I want to get $2 million.” Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Get to $1,000. Get to $2,000. Get to $5,000.
So, interestingly enough, one of the things we did, every time – now we had 20,000 people on HireClub. Every time we made a milestone at HireClub as a business, we would share it with the community. Oh, we have $1,000 in revenue. Oh, we have $2,000 in revenue. Oh, we – you know, we hired someone. Or we have an event.
I was really, really transparent and shared pretty much everything, ups and downs – “Oh, an investor turned us down, oh, this happened” – all the time with our community. And I think that created a lot of people being excited about, “Oh, wow, this is someone that is being really transparent about their growth.”
Yeah. And just to go back to you trying everything but the kitchen sink, trying the headshots business and trying recruiting and all sorts of stuff, I think that’s really a testament again, to your optimism as a founder.
You were convinced that this business, that this community, could turn into something that was valuable and you weren’t frustrated by the fact that a few things didn’t work out. You were like, “Okay, I just tried these things. Now there’s more things for me to try.”
I think an experimental mindset is super important at the early stage or even in the later stage of any company because everything is an experiment until it’s proved out. So, I really viewed it that way.
If something didn’t work out, that’s learning. If you tried something and it didn’t work, you just learned from it. It’s amazing. So, I stopped viewing things as failures and more as learnings. That was a big change for my attitude, because in the past, let’s say you launched something and it’s just crickets and then you feel like an idiot.
But the other thing we did is we constantly asked our users, “What do you want?” “What do you need? How would this help you?” And to this day, we still poll our users almost on a weekly basis. “Hey, what do you think about this? What do you think about that?”
One of the things I think founders don’t do enough is people always say, “Talk to your users,” but no one knows what that means. I think what it means is literally talk to your users every single day. Understand what their pain points are. I think a lot of people try to build features. Users don’t care about features. They care about, “Are you making my life better?” So, what can you build that makes their life better?
How do you talk to users effectively every single day? Because I imagine you’re hearing the same things day after day. I imagine sometimes people are giving you suggestions for things that you’ve already tried or you don’t want to try. How do you, as a founder, parse all that information and turn it into something useful?
So one, I make myself really accessible. To this day, people DM me every single day, even though now we have 30,000 members. Because I have a background in design, when people give me feedback, I don’t try to change it. I don’t try to argue to it. I just say, “Why would you want that?” I keep on going further. “Okay, and how would you like that to work? Okay, what is the problem you want to solve?”
I think a lot of founders and product people when they have an idea and they hear feedback, they get really clenched up and it feels like it’s a personal attack. “Oh, you don’t like what I’ve built? Oh, my God.” I never really had that. There are some times where I get a little bummed out when someone doesn’t like something I made.
But I look at it more as what’s the feedback? What are people telling me? And we did this in a group and we did it in person. You know, we would have events where we would ask people to give feedback. We would pay people $25 a session and give them an Amazon card or a Starbucks card and say, “Hey, come to look at this UI.” The magic number is around 5 to 10 people where you get good sets of feedback. But we literally, to this day, test every single day. We get feedback all the time.
I think there’s a couple things as a founder. You have to be responsive. This is 2019. If you’re not accessible, you’re not really listening to your users.
And I think second of all, you have to understand the pain points people are going through. It’s not about what your product does. It’s about what problems you solve for your users. And then I think three, you can be transparent in social media and share these learnings with everybody and then tell people what’s going on.
You’ll start seeing patterns. So, we started seeing a pattern of people being like, “Hey, I would go for a job and I wouldn’t hear a response back once a sent a resume.” And I would hear that over and over and over again. Or I would hear, “Hey, I went to an interview and I didn’t get a call back after the interview.”
So, you have to start looking for patterns. And this is how you derive a signal from noise is saying, “Okay, is 25 people saying the same thing,” okay, there’s probably a pattern here. If one person is saying it, it might be an interesting data point. It might not. You don’t know. But I try to look for patterns in the noise and then also look at who you’re talking to.
So, if you’re building a product that is meant for, let’s say, engineers, is the feedback from this engineer relevant or more relevant compared to the feedback from a designer. You have to know the audience, too, that you’re talking to. So you have to – some people might give you feedback, and honestly, that feedback is useless because they’re not relevant to your audience.
Yeah. I think it’s so important to talk to people so often like you’re doing because there’s also this element of recency bias, where if you’re not talking to people that often, then you know, you only have a few conversations and – whatever the last couple of conversations you’ve had are like this out-sized role in your mind. You’re like, “Oh, this one person said this thing. I’ve got to change it.”
If you’re talking to way more people, you’d be able to put that in perspective. You’ve be able to say, “Oh, this is just one person out of a million saying this.” Or you’d say, “Oh, this is part of a consistent trend.” And you can just make a much better judgment.
And the other thing I’ll say is never listen to investors. Investors will tell you all this stuff that they think you should be doing, and honestly, they’re not operators. They’re not running your business. They’re not talking to your customers. Oftentimes, investors only have a certain kind of viewpoint into what your business can do or your users want.
So, often investors will tell us something and I’m like, “Sorry, no, that’s not what our users say.” There’s obviously investors who are very knowledgeable and understand large trends across product areas and they are very useful in the large trends. But when it comes to your internal product and your micro-trends that are happening, you have to know what they are. I would say your best investor is your customer.
So in 2008 – in 2018, excuse me – you transition into subscription coaching. Did you have investors at that point? And do you have investors now?
In 2018, after months of users literally saying, “Hey, I want to do multiple sessions” and I was like, “I don’t know if I really want to do that. How is that going to work? What about the single session thing? What about this Upwork thing?” I really wasn’t listening, I’ll be honest. Then I finally was like, “Oh, crap, we could build this as a subscription. We could turn this into subscription.”
So, here’s the model we launched. We made it a lot like a cell phone plan. You get time with a coach and you could pay for 30, 60, 120 minutes a month. And you get those minutes. They’re in your bank account and then you can use those minutes when you’re talking to a coach.
We launched that on June 1, 2018. And because we already had our community, because we already had our single session customers, we immediately got 10 subscribers. And we started pricing it at like $79 a month. I think that was our original price. And we made $1,000 in MRR in our first month. Literally, the – I have to look at the data, but literally, I think in the first month we had $1,000. Second month, $2,500.
Now throughout this whole time, I am planning this Product Hunt launch and being like, “Oh, coaching is going to be big. Let me get on Product Hunt. Let me figure this out.” So, we worked with designers. We made a video. We made a little gif that Product Hunt wants. We made sure all the flows were correct. We had to adjust the product a lot to make sure it was easier to use.
Then in September we launched with Product Hunt and we went from $2,500 in revenue to $7,500 in revenue. Product Hunt, I’ll be honest, if you do it right, it was just an amazing launching point. And TechCrunch reached out to us. Companies started reaching out to us. Press started reaching out to us. And people were like, “What is this thing? Oh, career coaching. Oh, you’re a lot more affordable than other organizations. Let me see how it works.”
And it was really awesome and also really scary because we went from – in three – I think the average SAAS company gets to $10,000 a month in revenue in 450 days. We did it in 150 days. So almost three times as fast.
So, here’s what happens. Then it’s October, September, YC application time. And I’m like, “Okay, I got this. I went from zero to 10k in monthly revenue. Look at all this cool stuff. We’re going to be great. YC is going to love us. It’s going to be awesome.”
Meanwhile, before we applied for YC, I did find one of my old CEOs. We helped his daughter through coaching get a job and we helped her get a $25,000 raise. He was like, “Yeah, I’m going to invest. Yeah, don’t worry about it. Right. Okay, I see the broader working.” So, he – his name is Ted. He was our first investor. He was my old CEO, fantastic person. He put the first 25k check in at literally a time we really needed it. I was like, “Cool, awesome, we got 25k in. Amazing.” That was our first check for a very long time. Like literally months and months, that was the only check we had.
And then we applied to YC when we (ph) get the interview. And I post it in our HireClub. “Oh, my God we got the YC interview.” Literally, a thousand people liked it. It was like everyone was so excited for us. I’m like, “Oh, my God, a YC interview. I’ve never done this. Let’s go to this.”
Go to the YC interview. We just get rolled, just hammered. They were coming at us. And I had the answers and I thought I was doing good. I’ll be honest, the YC experience is pretty brutal. It’s not a fun experience. It’s not an experience that makes you feel like, “Oh wow, that was fun.” Like, “Oh, wow, that was really – I can’t wait to work with these people.”
And a few weeks later we got the “no.” And I had a team ready to hire. I had an engineer that wanted to come on board. I had a designer that wanted to come on board. I was like, “Okay, we’re going to get this 150k. It’s all going to be good.” We were all at lunch – or we had planned a dinner together. We’re like, “Maybe we’ll get the ‘yes’ and we’ll do the dinner together and if we get the ‘no,’ we’ll at least be together and do it.”
Man, ask my co-founder now. I was bummed. We got a no. And we got a no for a reason I don’t think is really relevant but YC is YC. They said, “Oh, you’re not going to be able to find coaches to grow your business,” which has actually literally never been a problem for us. We’ve never had a coach acquisition problem to this day. Maybe in the future that might be a problem, but it’s not been a problem for us.
Whatever. They said no. And you know the optimism we were talking about? It was gone. It was gone. Because I really looked up to YC. I really think they have made such amazing inroads into helping founders build amazing products.
And I’ll be honest. Even going into the YC interview process – I’m 42. There was no one being interviewed that was younger – that was older than 30 in my section at least. And it was really hectic. I had all these people helping me. I had all these people trying to help out. I had founders vouching for us.
But I was – we didn’t get in and I was super bummed. I was like, “We have $10,000 a month in revenue.” And we did it in three months. And every investor said, “Show me three months of growth.” We were like, “This is it.”
So, November 2018, I just basically was bummed out again and I have suffered with depression a lot of my life. I suffered with anxiety and my team – I wasn’t there for them. I was bummed. I was like, “Man, I put all my hope into this. I really thought we were going to get this.” It’s kind of hard to talk about. We didn’t get in. And that was the reality.
But here’s going back to how negativity affects your mind. The same month in November that YC told us no last year was the month we hit $14,000 in revenue and I didn’t even notice, because I was so bummed out, because I was so just focused on this one source, this one kind of validation from obviously a great place to be validated by, but external validation.
So, I took kind of November to nurse my wounds. And I said, “Okay look, what can we do to automate some of these things that we’re running across. How can we get back to product (ph)?” So, December and January we started automating. I started going back to coding. I started going back to talking to customers. I started improving product.
And we did have a dip. We had a dip in December. We made less money than before and then January of 2019, I think we were at $11, 000 and then we just started improving product. We just started listening to users and saying, “What do you want? How can we fix this? What do you need next?”
Then, I think, sometime around January – I don’t remember the exact date – another friend of mine came down from Seattle said, “Do you want to get drinks? I said, “Sure.” And we came over, we talked. I told him what we were doing for HireClub. He had been a member for a long time and I (inaudible) for coaching. I showed him my numbers. And literally, five minutes into the conversation, he was like, “Yeah, I’ll invest.” I’m like, “What? What?” And that was our second 25k check.
Then he introduced us to someone else and we got another 10k check and he introduced us to someone else and we got another 10k check.
And at some point we had raised like – with the 47k from the crowd fund and then with Angels we had raised another 75k, so like 125k basically that we had raised. And that was most of 2019 that we were running off that money.
And we were being super, super scrappy, like not spending money on anything. I spent all on my credit cards. I spent all my savings. We were trying to save money as much as possible but we were also making money. So, we when you’re making like $10,000, $15,000 a month and keeping 30% of it, hey, that’s money you use.
So, we had something to survive off of. And I had set a goal: After we hit 10,000, I want to get to 20,000. So instead of aiming for this big goal that a lot of founders say, “Let me get to a million” I said, “From 10,000 let’s get to 20,000.”
So, in April, I think we hit 20,000 and then in May it was like 26 or something like that and it just grew, 20% month over month. And August the final numbers were 31k which was our new record. Then what happened was investors started coming to us.
Meanwhile, I’m sharing this. Every single month I share all our numbers with the community. There’s an interesting thing about doing crowdfunding. There’s a thing called Form C where you have to yearly report your numbers to the SEC. It’s literally like being a public company.
So, I said, “Look, if I have to do that anyway, I may as well share it with my community.” Because someone can go to the SEC forum, they can look at our numbers, so why not share them? Why do I have to hide anything? I don’t want to be like we were going to hide this stuff until it’s too late.
So, I started sharing our numbers. I started saying, “Hey, this is how much money we made.” Every single month I would start sharing it, good or bad. And people started really responding. And the interesting thing in a business: The more money you make, the more people want to use your product. They more trust it.
And on top of that, we raised prices four times. We’re still not at our highest price point. So, one of the things I would say for our founders: Charge more. You’re not charging enough. Literally, you’re not charging enough. Because until people start canceling because it’s too much, you’ve gone over, you’re not charging enough.
But also provide a good service. Then so sometime around August, one of our coaches who was on our platform who had made lots of money with us said, “I want to invest.” I was like, “What?” This is the equivalent of an Uber driver saying I want to invest in Uber before it was Uber. I was like, “This is incredible.”
So, one of our coaches invested another 25k and then – here’s a really interesting story about negativity. There was a firm called Unshackled VC, and I actually had done their website in 2014 when I was a consultant. And they invested in this company called Career Karma which doesn’t do what we do at all. But in my mind, in my negative mind, I was like, “Oh, they’re not going to invest in us. It’s too competitive.”
And one day, I go to this event in downtown SF and Manan who was one of the partners at Unshackled who I’d done the original website for, I go up to him and say, “Hey, would you be interested in investing in HireClub? I thought it would be competitive with Career Karma.” He’s like, “No, this is fine. We’ll invest. I don’t think it’s competitive.” So, we start talking to them, we do the numbers and they ended up investing. And now, to this day, we raised $500,000.
And we’re making, you know, 30k-plus a month. We’re paying our bills. We’re not paying all our bills yet because our burn has increased, but we have a real-life startup funded by a VC firm and a couple other Angels came in. And we’re super happy and growth has been great and our churn has been reducing, and we’re listening to users and improving the product and this was like a two-year journey.
This was not like I pressed a button and magically I got money. This was not like I pressed a button and the product launched and everything was amazing. This took years of iteration. It took years of ups and downs. It took years – and we’re not like at a point like we’re not – $500,000 is not that much to raise. It’s something to raise. I’m very proud of it and I’m very proud of the product that we have that helps people get further in their careers.
But I think a lot of times in the VC world and the SAAS startup world people think, “Oh, you just talked to a VC.” You read TechCrunch and everyone is getting funded left and right. We just got turned down by an investor last night, to this day.
So, I’m still going through this ups and downs. A perfect example: The investor that turned us down invested in a similar startup years ago with someone who had no traction with the same exact product. And I’m like, “What? How does this make sense? We have a community. We have traction. We have product. We have investors you know.” We have literally everything lines up. And honestly, I think a lot of people play chase-the-VC-money game and that’s a dangerous game.
Why try to raise money at all if you’re making $30,000 a month, if your revenue is growing 20% month over month? You did your Indie Hackers interview earlier this year before you raised a lot of this money. What changed? Why the focus on raising money?
I wouldn’t say it was a focus. It was more along the lines of – well, I stopped doing all my other consulting and I was full-time on this and I didn’t want to be poor. While we were making money, I think my co-founder wasn’t making enough money. Some of our team members, our contract, wasn’t making enough money and I wanted to do them a solid.
Because I was putting literally an insane amount of hours in. I’d wake up at 5 every morning and I don’t stop until 10 p.m. basically, which is not healthy at all. Something I’m working through. That’s a different topic. But I felt that we had enough to have conviction. And the question is yes: How much do you raise and how much do you want?
So, we only gave a small percentage away of our company. We didn’t try to give away a lot on purpose. We actually had an investor come in a few weeks ago and make an offer that would have given them 20% of the company and I was like, “No, I don’t want that.”
So, I don’t think it’s a hard and fast rule in terms of how much you raise or how much you don’t raise. I do think – I live in SF. It’s expensive. And I do think some of the goals we have require some money to build.
For example, we just hired our hired our first full-time engineer. So, I’ve been the main engineer for the vast majority of this. He starts next Monday. I’m super excited. It’s a big turning point to have an official full-time engineer working on this in addition to me.
Those are some of the goals we had. Because what was happening is I couldn’t do everything. I literally was like – we had hired customer support because there was so much support coming in.
It’s almost like the product is calling us out. Because I have to design, I have to build. We hired a designer. And so I don’t know if we’ll be one of those companies that’s going to raise like $30, $50, $60 million in the future. I don’t know.
But I do know that we want to raise enough to make sure that we’re not stressed in building what we want to build, because in the two years prior to this, I probably gained 30 pounds. I’m the heaviest I’ve ever weighed and stress has really got to me and my health has deteriorated.
Since we’ve gotten the investment, all of that has changed. You can use your revenue to grow. Yes, it’s a wonderful way, it’s a fantastic way to grow. You can also offset it with the right amount of investment. It doesn’t have to be you raised $10 million and gave away a lot of your company.
I see a lot of different models for this. You see companies like Zapier who went through YC, raised money and then never raised again. And then I see some companies doing the opposite where they bootstrap their way up to some insane amount of revenue and then they decide they’re going to change their business model and then they’re going to raise. There’s all sorts of combinations in between.
Let’s talk about growth. Because we’ve talked about how you’ve grown 20% month over month for the past six months, but we haven’t talked about how you were able to do that. Is that growth that came through sort of spending the money that you were raising from investors or how did you get that much revenue growth?
We don’t do ads. We have – we did ad tests once and we spent like 2K on it. I’m not a big fan of ads. I’m not a big fan or giving all my money to Facebook or Google and not seeing the return I want. The entirety of our growth has come through our Facebook group and events – in person events we do.
So, a lot of companies build a product and then build a community. We are the exact opposite. We had a community and then we built a product. And I think that’s the right way, at least for us, to do what we want to do. Our product is 100% in line with what our current community wants. We literally built the product they were asking for.
And so, there’s a couple things that go into that; one, just improving the product. Earlier, people didn’t know how to find coaches so I built the automated coach-matching system. Earlier when people wanted to cancel, it wasn’t so easy, so we made that a lot easier. Earlier if someone didn’t like their coach at first and didn’t know how to switch, we now – switching coaches is built into the platform and you can switch coaches at any time and we give you 15 minutes.
Basically, there’s just a series of small improvements based on what users are telling us over time that make the product better. That also includes redesigning landing pages, testing out verbiage, writing better copy.
So, a perfect example is we do a salary negotiation session and we were charging at first like $99 for it. We were getting – our median salary bump for someone doing salary negotiation is $17,500.
The lowest we’ve ever raised for someone is $2,000 and the highest we’ve ever raised is $120,000. I mean additional compensation. Like we were spending $100, $150 and making $100,000, that’s ridiculous. Best ROI on the planet outside of illegal things.
And so, people weren’t booking that session enough. So, I went to HireClub and I said, “Hey, guys, explain this to me.” We have this salary negotiation session. The numbers are great. Why aren’t you booking?” We got 150 comments on that post. “Hey, you know what? It’s not clear to me how much you actually get back. Oh, wait a minute, I didn’t know this was even a service. You didn’t explain it clearly. Oh, wait a minute. What happens in this case? Is it just for people getting new jobs? Is it people for getting promotions? Hey, what happens if I’m not happy with it?”
I literally went through and looked at all this feedback and we re-wrote the landing page based on all this feedback and all the numbers went up. So, I literally say, “What is the problems we’re having people? Please help me.” And people gave us the feedback. And we listened to that feedback and we improved.
So, a lot of the growth – one comes from – it’s a variety of things; one, sharing honestly with the group what’s going on with our community; asking for feedback and taking action on that feedback. And when we take action, using the right user research – and my co-founder, Lisa, is incredible as our PM – to decide how to enact that feedback.
Because someone can tell you X, but what does X actually mean in terms of product? That is, I’ll say, our secret sauce. We’re really good at saying, “What are people really saying and what do they really want from that? That is good product.”
So, we’ve gotten a lot better. We can definitely improve more. We’re not by any means at the end of that. But we’re really good at listening to people and turning that into that.
And the fourth one is events. So, we started doing events. We’ve now done events in 12 cities. We just did an event in San Jose. We’ve done events in New York and in SF, in LA, Austin, Chicago. I fly out. (Inaudible) investor money is spent on that. We’ve templatized our event content.
So, we do a resume makeover event. We do a salary negotiation event. We do a mock interview event. And these are just three events we do and we just repeat them because it’s a new audience every time. And originally when we were doing events, we weren’t really good at selling at the event. We’d be like, “Here’s all this great content. See ya.”
Now, in the last few months, we have a signup sheet and we have discount codes. Don’t forget I have a discount code for this podcast and we literally improved our process. I think in September, 10% of our new subscribers are from events.
And so, I don’t think there’s any one thing you can do that’s the magic trick to say like, “Oh, I want to have all this growth.” But I do think all of it ties down to community, whether it’s your online or offline community.
Yeah, you said build a community first, build a product later. Every now and then I have someone on the podcast and we talk about building communities and often those are the least popular episodes because I think people don’t take it seriously.
I think to them community doesn’t feel like a real business. It doesn’t feel like a real strategy, which is unfortunate because number one, in my opinion, a business can look like anything. It can be pretty much any activity as long as it’s attached to some sort of self-sustaining revenue mechanism. So a community can definitely be a business.
But on top of that, it’s also strategically super advantageous to have a community at the core of your business. Like you’re saying, you’re able to share transparently with the community members that help you celebrate your wins. They’re constantly giving you feedback, helping you basically improve your product. They’re customers for the products you’re releasing, etc.
What are your thoughts on some of the strategic advantages to building a business on top of a community like you’ve done?
I think people are kind of blind to a lot of the community stuff and it’s unfortunate. I’ll give you an example. Facebook started as FaceMash which is based around the Harvard community, specifically around meeting women in Harvard. That’s a very small community. Then Facebook went to Harvard, then it went to other schools. They used the college communities for growth.
Instagram used to do photo walks when then first started. You could meet someone from the Instagram community. You could do photo walks with them. People would post photos. They went and talked to photographers. They would do all these events and that’s how they grew their community.
And so, if your product has any offline component, community is a wonderful way to do things. I mean Indie Hackers is a perfect example. I love the community you built. People are commenting and talking to each other and giving each other feedback and listening to each other.
And so, I actually say community is our product. If you think about coaching, coaching is a form of community. It’s a one-on-one community, but there’s also group coaching. There’s also multiple (inaudible) coaching.
So, to me, I can’t imagine these days being successful without community. And a lot of products that we think don’t have community, they actually do. We just don’t recognize it.
And we haven’t seen the early days – like the early days of Twitter, there was definitely a community. There was – early days of LinkedIn, it’s literally who Reid invited. That was the community. Product Hunt is a perfect example. Product Hunt started as an email list, right, that Ryan started. It was a small community and then it became the website.
So, I actually think most of the successes we’ve seen around anything social related are based on community. But often founders and investors think you need to have product. But your community can tell you what product you need to have. I mean Product Hunt is a perfect example of that.
Yeah, I say this all the time. It’s so easy as a founder to look at these success stories of companies that are in their later stages that are already successful and try to copy that. And you’re totally blind to the sort of winding path they took to get there.
You’ve got to start at the beginning of the path. You can’t just skip straight to the end. You can’t go to a gym and copy the biggest person there and lift as many weights as they’re lifting. You’re going to get crushed.
So, I think this is such a keen observation, the sort of genesis of so many of these consumer-facing applications and products. They started off with a really small community and that gave them some advantages that they could build on top of.
How do you build a successful product off the back of a community once you’ve got it going though? Because not all communities really lend themselves to some sort of product that you can sell them. And even if you do, you have to be kind of careful not to be too salesy otherwise it’s pretty easy to compromise a trust that your community already has in you. It seems like you’ve avoided that completely and your community is super enthusiastic about all the stuff that you’re doing. How do you walk that line?
I don’t know if I agree that not every product can have a community because your customers are your community at some point. So even if you’re building some total SAAS, maybe just some pure marketing product, the customers you have are your community. You want to engage and learn from them.
I think ultimately it is about listening and asking what they want and understanding what their pain points really are. Like I have a saying: benefits, not features. If you go to a lot of home pages, they’ll have features like, “Email 1,000 people. This costs $30 a month and have merged link list let’s say, for a mail product.”
The benefit is reach your customers at any time. For like (inaudible) product. Create beautiful marketing that your customers can relate to. Talk to your customers every day if you want. That’s more benefit-oriented. And I think when you talk to the community, you can understand their pain points and you can create benefits for them.
In terms of not being too salesy, we do a lot of stuff for free. So, the group is still free. People can post jobs for free. People can ask to say they’re looking for jobs for free. We often do free resume reviews. We often do – all of our – most of our events are free. When we charge, it’s only to make sure people show up and don’t flake.
But our events that we partnership with – GA (ph) or We Work (ph) or any of the athletic (ph) or beta brand – these events are really there to help understand what people want, and because they’re free, that we can create content for them.
We built a free resume builder. We have built a free job search tracking tool. We built a free profile tool for people. So, we’ve built a lot of things for free that says, “Let’s show you value without having to spend money.”
I think in terms of sales, I appreciate your compliments. I don’t know if I necessarily nailed it in terms of that balance. I think recently we just got our first message from someone saying, “Hey, I hear a lot of posts about HireClub but I want to see more posts from companies.”
And I was like, “Ugh.” And you know what, this question that you ask about sales, I’m literally going to do a post this week saying – a poll: Do we sell too much or do we not sell enough?
And so, I don’t know the answer to that. I think what I often do is I write good content. And when I say “write good content,” I talk about my hiring difficulties, I talk about my career difficulties, I talk about my issues with confidence, with anxiety, with depression, which is so much related to hiring and coaching and jobs. And we just tell people honestly and we let them share.
A woman just posted the other day or a couple of days ago, she went to like seven interviews and they didn’t hire her. She posted in the group and you know what? I think something like 90 people responded in support and giving her positivity.
Imagine that. Imagine a place where – you know when you go for a job and you don’t get it how much it sucks. Imagine if you can go to a place and people can literally support you and say, “You know what? It’s not you. You’ll find something. We believe in you. If you want to talk, I’m here.” That is amazing community. And so, I don’t really – we haven’t done a lot of ads. We probably could do more ads. We probably could do a better job of like looking at our analytics and looking at our funnels and that stuff.
I don’t know if I necessarily solved the balance. But I think what it is – I mean, people use the word “authentic” a lot and sometimes it’s overused. I’m just me. And when I say I’m just me, I’m unapologetically me. With all my frustrations, with all my positives and negatives, people just get to know me and know our community and know what we’re talking about.
Yesterday I did a post saying, “If I don’t listen to Lisa, my co-founder, I’m an idiot. And a lot of people liked that post which is very true because she has got amazing instincts for product and every time I don’t listen to her, I’m wrong.
I share these honest things. Sometimes I try to make them humorous. Sometimes I try to make them meaningful. There is a lot of – especially in coaching there’s so many – like the Instagram generation with ads and posting and we see so many people being like, “Sign up for my course, you know, and all this stuff.” I don’t really like that style. I’m more like, “Hey, what’s the issues you’re dealing with? Maybe we can help you with that.”
You’re building a very human business and I think it’s intrinsically good for what you’re doing. Because like you said hiring, applying for jobs, it’s a very human process.
There’s a lot of emotions that run through that. You get rejected from a job or you make a bad hire or something like that, it’s a real thing. It has an emotional impact on you. And so, of course, you’re going to want to do that with the help of – this is another advantage of community.
You’re going to want to do this with the help of a community of supportive people. You’re going to want to do this with a business that’s not like super salesy and pushing everything on you but actually has a human founder with a face and a name and experiences that you can relate to.
You know what’s really cool? I go to places and people recognize me now. I was in Napa having Father’s Day brunch with my daughter and this guy was like, “Hey, are you the HireClub guy? Can I take a photo with you?” And I was like, “What?”
I loved that so much. I was in Prague. I was in San Jose and people come up to me. I was at the Bart (ph) and someone was like, “Hey, area you the HireClub guy?” And I’m like, “No (inaudible) HireClub guy in San Francisco now which I think is actually really adorable and I really love it.” And I’ve always said, “Please do that. Please come up and say hi to me. Please come up and tell me what you’re working on and how can I help.”
And I think – there’s a lot of research saying millennials want to work with companies that have mission statements. But I think we’ve seen the push backs of companies, like the larger companies like Facebook and Google, when they become a faceless organization, even Apple where you don’t feel connected to the company anymore. I think the modern world, especially if you’re a startup, you can really talk about what you believe in. You don’t have to build a company that looks like other companies.
I’m not doing this business just to make money. I’m doing this business because this is what I believe in. And I want to be me. And I don’t want to necessarily change who I am to do the things I love to do.
Now there’s things that can grow on all this all the time and I do want to have my coaching to help me with my growth and my exercise and my personal trainer. But I do think when I purchase things from companies, I purchase things from companies that I respect and I like what they’re doing and I trust what they’re doing. And privacy is a big part of this, how they use my data is a big part of it, what they invest in.
So, Apple, for example, I think puts a lot of investment in green energy. Now Apple’s not perfect in a lot of ways, but I know they care more about privacy than maybe some other companies. Or, at least they say they do, and I think they’re doing a better job than some companies.
And so, I think when you’re talking about commerce, when you’re talking about sales, when you’re talking about buying something, I don’t think in the modern era it’s just about buying a product that works for you. It’s buying a product from people that you can relate to.
I think there’s a startup, Simple Analytics, that is like the Indie Hacker version of Google Analytics. And I think – I don’t remember the founder’s name, but I think they’re doing really, really well because they have a very similar concept. We’re Simple Analytics, you can trust what we’re doing. We’re not selling your data to everyone. You can do with your data whatever you want. You can delete whatever you want.
And I think that kind of movement is really powerful. There’s another movement called – I don’t know if you’ve seen this article, but “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break,” and it’s all about the unicorn is the giant companies that raise billions of dollars and that are ad-driven and are using VC money to grow, versus a zebra which is community-driven, there’s profit models built into it, it’s about working together versus competition, it’s about a positive-sum game versus a zero-sum game.
And I went to the zebra conference a couple years ago when HireClub was first incorporated, and it was a really great experience for me. I met a lot of wonderful people talking about this idea of: What is startups in the future and what are the ways we interact with our customers and do we have to be these exploitive, data-hungry, privacy bashing companies, or can we build products that give back and make money?
I don’t think we need to be altruistic necessarily in the sense of we shouldn’t make money. We have to feed ourselves. But I think there’s a wonderful movement happening right now with a lot of founders saying, “Hey, can I build not just a better mousetrap but can I be a better mouse?”
Yeah. I’m looking at this “Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break” article right now. And it says zebra companies are black and white. They’re profitable and they improve society and they won’t sacrifice one for the other.
We talked a lot about building a human business, building a zebra company. Talked a lot about optimism and continuing to try as a founder even when things get hard. What’s your advice for founders who are just starting out who aren’t sure if they should even start a company or maybe they’ve started and they’re in the early days and things aren’t going well?
Yeah. My first advice would be to get a coach. I have a coach now and it has been instrumental in having a sounding board, having someone who can call me out on my shit. I think it’s massively – I don’t think HireClub would be as successful as it is without – I use my own product.
I think the second one is: Figure out what problem you’re solving. And why does that matter to you, why does that matter to people? I think a lot of people try to build a widget and sell it, but they’re not really understanding the emotional and need-based methods of what this product needs to do.
Don’t start coding. Don’t just jump into coding. Don’t just jump into design but talk to people. What are the problems you’re having? What do you use to fix this problem? What’s the frustration with the fixes that you have? What are the solutions that you use that are terrible? What are the solutions you like for this?
And then you can get really wonderful ideas if you talk to enough people. And you don’t have to talk to 100 people. You need to talk to 10 people and you can learn a lot.
And so, I think for founders, don’t sit behind your laptop and think that you’re building a product. The coding and the designing is the last step. Understanding customers is the first step. And a lot of people, I think, jump into code, jump into design, jump into putting something up on Product Hunt.
I think the last thing is figure out your business model and charge more for it probably. How are you going to make money? And one of the things we’ve noticed: The more we’ve charged, the more customers we’ve gotten. People pay for valuable things. So, if you give away stuff – I see so many startups giving away the whole farm. And they’re like, “I’m not making any money or I only have $500 in revenue because I’m charging $10 a month.”
I think there were a couple articles on Indie Hackers about this. If you’re charging $10 a month, you literally have to have something like one million users before you’re even close to making ends meet. But if you’re charging $50 a month, that is an exponential change. If you’re charging $100 a month, it’s another exponential change.
And so, your product should definitely be worth it. Don’t charge more just to charge more. Your products should have features and value for the end user. But a lot of people and I think founders are afraid to charge. Maybe because of my consulting background, maybe because I don’t want to be poor, I’m not afraid to charge.
And I’ll give people stuff. If they’re unhappy I’ll definitely give them a refund. If they, you know – if someone is in need and they don’t have the money, we’ll figure out a way to work with them. But like you have to understand the mechanics of your business.
We have a forecasting doc for HireClub that talks about all the revenue coming in, all the expenses going out. It is modeled out to January of 2021. And I mean it’s modeled out to every single expense. How much are spending on Google? How much are we spending on Baremetrics? How much are we spending on gas? How much are we spending on rent?
I have done the work of modeling the growth, modeling the churn, modeling – like I’m in Excel. I’m not in here just designing a product and being like oh, what’s – I want to know where my business is going to be. And I think a lot of founders – especially in my earlier days, especially with CardFlick, I did not do the business modeling.
I did not look and say, “What are we going to do with this money? Where is it going to be in a few months? How are we going to keep our lights on?” I was literally just being like, “Oh, we’ll get money and then we’ll figure it out.” That’s stupid.
And so, I think there’s a lot of things like “Build it and they will come” and we all know that’s not really true. But build your business model. Model out, “Okay, if I’m charging 100 customers x amount of money and the churn is 25% and the growth is 80%, let’s say, what’s going to happen in one month, in two months, in three months?” Hopefully your churn is not that high. Do the work of figuring out your model. And if you don’t do that work, you will likely fail.
God, every single time I ask you a question, I want to ask 50 more questions. I’ll have to have you back on the podcast at some point in the future.
Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your story about HireClub and sharing what I think, frankly, is just the inspirational journey of you going through so many hardships and trying so many things that didn’t work, to finally arrive at a place where things seem to be working spectacularly well.
Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to at HireClub? How they can find a coach, maybe a founder coach if they’re looking for one, and also the promotion you mentioned earlier in the episode?
Yeah, yeah. So our website is HireClub.com. HireClub.com. Just go to that. Click “Get Started.” You’ll get free 15 minutes with a coach of your choosing. We have a coach matcher so you can get matched to a coach based on what your needs are. We work with a lot of founders. We have an Indie Hackers code. It’s literally just “Indie Hackers,” your brand name. That will give you $20 off your first month, and we’re going to keep that open for all the community at Indie Hackers which we’re big fans of.
And if you are facing challenges, you don’t have to do it alone. This is what community and coaching is all about. You can do it with someone else. You can have people on your side helping you. Please don’t go out there and try to change the world on your own. It’s really hard. It’s very frustrating.
So, we’d love to have you join. If you’re looking for a job, we can help you. If you’re looking for a promotion, we can help you. If you’re looking to get a salary increase, we can help you. If you’re stuck on your resume, we can help you. If you want to become a better manager, we can help you. We have coaches for all this stuff. You want to become a better designer? We just got some great design coaches that are starting with us. We can help you.
We have a Facebook group. It’s Facebook.com/groups/HireClub or just search for HireClub. You’ll see it. Feel free to join. Mention Indie Hackers so I know, because we do still have the invite process but we let most people in once they’ve created an account.
But we’d love to help you. One of the things I love about Indie Hackers because it is my same background is like I want to help people succeed in their career. That’s what I’m here for and we’d love to help all the Indie Hackers do that.
Thank you so much, Ketan.
Thank you so much, Courtland.
Listeners, if you enjoyed hearing from Ketan, I would love it if you reached out to him and let him know. He’s @kidbombay on Twitter. So, if you learned anything useful from the episode or if you just appreciated hearing his story as much as I did, just reach out and tell him thanks. It really means a lot to him and to me as well.
I also appreciate hearing from you. I am on IndieHackers.com which is a community of founders like you and me building online businesses and really just helping each other out. So, whether or not you have an idea that you’re working on or if you’re just thinking about getting started, go to IndieHackers.com, make a post and feel free to tag me. I’m @csallen there and I would love hearing from you.
Thank you so much for listening to this episode and I will see you next time.
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