When Cesar Kuriyama (@cesarkuriyama) first got started, he had nothing but a dream of freedom, an app idea, and a rapidly declining bank account. When every dev shop in New York City turned him down, things looked dire. But through sheer persistence and a penchant to seize every opportunity in front of him, Cesar managed to create an experience that people loved, give a talk on the TED main stage, launch a successful Kickstarter campaign, bootstrap his app to millions of dollars in revenue, and even get it featured in a Jon Favreau movie. In this episode we break down Cesar's improbable path to success, and in the process discover why you should never give up as a founder.
What’s up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
How 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? 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 am talking to Cesar Kuriyama. Cesar, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. I’m really excited to chat.
You are the creator of an app called 1Second Everyday, or 1SE for short. Every day for the past eight years, I think, you’ve recorded.
I’m over eight and a half at this point.
Eight and a half years of every single day you record a one second video of what’s going on in your life and you stitch it all together, so every year you have a six minute video. So now you’re at something like 50 minutes of video for the last eight and a half years of your life, where you can easily go back and easily watch everything you’re doing.
This is now, recently, my favorite app, so I’ve got like eight seconds of video. I can see what’s been going on for the last week. It’s pretty cool, man. I love what you’re doing. Now it’s not just you, it’s many millions of people have used 1 Second Everyday and recording one second videos of their life every single day. Why did you start this? What set you on this journey?
My background is in visual effects and animation. I work agencies and advertising at the beginning of my career after I went to art school. I was always doing film stuff, video stuff, graphic design, some photography. I dabbled in a lot of different mediums beyond animation. Animation is just how I ended up in art school accidentally.
I was a computer science guy, I thought I was going to go do computer science stuff. I started doing animations. I started winning these local animation things in high school. I thought, “Oh, I want to be an animator because I want to tell stories.” That’s how I ended up in art school.
It took a little bit of time working in advertising to realize, “Oh, I’m not actually in control of the ideas I wish I was working on. I’m just executing on other people’s ideas so I became disenfranchised with it pretty quickly.
That was how I got started. I don't know what my exit strategy was out of working in advertising. Then one day I saw this TED Talk by Stefan Sagmeister who was an alumni of my art school, Pratt Institute, here in Brooklyn. He gave a talk called The Power of Time Off. It instantly changed my life.
He talked about how every seven years he closes down his studio and takes a one year mini-retirement. He’s going to do that. He’s going to retire five years later but he's going to have these little retirements happening throughout his life because when he’s old he may not have the energy or capacity to some of the things he can do when he’s young. That really hit a chord with me because I was working 100 hour work weeks all the time.
Sometimes, yeah. We would be on deadlines and I would literally work until like 2 a.m., sometimes literally sleep at the studio. Sometimes a car would take me home, I’d be up at 9, I’d be back at work at 10. I would rinse and repeat for two or three weeks if we really were on a crazy deadline.
What was so important that you needed to work 100 hours on it?
Deadlines. We were famous for taking on the tight deadlines that every other studio would just laugh and say, “There’s no way we could do that.” And we would say, “We will. We’ll do it.”
But we would charge crazy money for it and that money would basically go towards over time and it was just like, “Oh, we have to get this commercial out by the holiday season.” It was just whatever it took to get it done. And that almost always took just staying up all night. Then the next looming deadline on the other end of the that project when we finished it.
Sometimes it was months and months of that and it broke me. Frankly, I’m grateful that it broke me, because it broke me at an age when I was still capable of pausing and figuring out how to do something else with my life. Because I was like, “This is not sustainable. This is not how I want to spend my time.”
You were at least getting paid well in compensation for working these 100 hours weeks?
Totally. I think up until this year I was making more in advertising than I was running this company because we’ve been bootstrapped for this entire journey. Me and my co-founder pay ourselves as little as possible so we can make the next hire and make the next hire.
Those were lucrative times but luckily I ended up saving my money and that’s what allowed me to quit my job eventually so I could take a year off from work and that’s how I landed on 1 Second Everyday. If it wasn’t for that I might have gotten a better apartment and bought fancier clothes and got used to what I was making.
But instead I’m pretty frugal and the only thing I splurge on is tech stuff. Like a drone came out I wanted. That’s the only thing I’ll spend that I don’t need to but I do. This TED Talk convinced me in order to figure out my exit strategy I needed to build time for myself.
It wasn’t about figuring out what I was going to do after advertising, I needed to buy myself enough time to figure it out. My headspace was 90% work. There wasn’t a lot of headspace left in my brain to think about, “Oh, maybe I should be an entrepreneur.” It never really crossed my mind. What I did was, I went up to accounting as soon as that Power of Time Off talk was over.
I said, “I just opened up a savings account. I need to put half my paycheck into this account from now on.” And I didn’t touch it for two years. And I gave my job a two years heads up. Like, “I’m quitting my job in two years. Basically will live off half my paycheck.” Figured out how to do that, no matter what. I drank out of a flask when I was hanging out with friends.
Cut off cable and all the things. Bare minimum lifestyle. That bought me a year and leading up to that year I knew that I had this life-long frustration with my memory. I’ve always wanted to keep a journal or a diary. I could never keep the habit. I’d do it for a couple of days. I’d stop. I thought, “Man, this might be the only year of my life that I get to have total freedom.”
I probably won’t be able to pull a Stefan Sagmeister and just take a year off every seven years. This might be it. Let’s make it count. I don’t want to turn 40 one day and not really remember the day to day of that year off. I was like, “What’s the little bread crumb I can leave for myself every day where I’ll never forget a day of this year no matter how old I get?”
I realized, well, the iPhone has gotten pretty good. Writing was never my medium but the iPhone was shooting HD now. It was iPhone 4 or 4S. I realized, “Oh, video has always been my medium. I should be journaling with video.” But I was also somebody who would go on vacation and take a million photos with a tripod and it would all end up on a hard drive that I never had time to look at.
So I thought, “What is the minimal amount I need to record every day to still give me enough of a memory trigger?” That’s how I landed on 1 second. I think my background in animation helped because I realized that a second was actually a pretty substantial amount of time. A lot of people will think it’s like a photograph but there’s a lot more to it, not to mention that sound is a big memory trigger.
I also wanted to final project to be easy to rewatch. Landing on one second per day meant that every year came out to six minutes. Six minutes is that sweet spot of, “I can always make six minutes of time to relive a year of my life.”
If it’s like 30 minutes, how often am I going to sit around and watch 30 minutes of my life. So the idea was just the bare minimum and that came to one second. That’s how I landed on one second. That was just meant to be a one-year project for that year off so I would never forget that year off.
But even after a couple of weeks I realized what a positive impact it was having on my day-to-day life. I thought, “Well, I should do this for the rest of my life. Why would I only do this for a year?” That’s how it came about.
Yes, I’ve been using the app for the last week and it’s taught me that my life is pretty boring. Trying to figure out a new second I can record that I haven’t recorded that is not just me sitting at my computer. I can totally see how doing this and getting in this habit makes you want to live a more interesting, varied life.
You mentioned taking a year off your job. The talk that you mentioned that inspired you by Stefan Sagmeister, he, also, was taking these years off from his job every seven years and basically go on a sabbatical. What it is that makes that year off successful for you?
The thing that he said that really resonated with me, among other things, is he talked about all the work that he was doing, for seven years working on the studio, his creative work was the work for clients. He was being creative but in pursuit of selling something. It’s a job.
You’re being creative because you’re being hired to be creative about a particular company or brand or what not. That year off allows him and all his employees to have a year where they can be creative for whatever they want to do. Whatever is their version of exercising their creativity.
That is how I felt because I’m never short on ideas. I have an Evernote that has a thousand ideas that I’m happy to give away. My day to day life was just spent on “being creative” on things that were in lieu of some brand or some project.
Right, for other people.
1 Second Everyday is the perfect example of, I was just doing that for me. I’m going try to keep a journal. What are the things that worked for me that’s going to get me to not do the journal thing for three days and then stop, like I always do? I’m a video guy. It should be video. I need it to be short. I need it to be this. I need it to be that.
All of that came out of my frustration and my pain point but it also came about from me having the headspace to do that. What I mentioned earlier about when so much of your headspace is taken up by work. Let’s just say 60% of your headspace is taken up by work. What happens when you remove that and you just have this empty 60% of your headspace?
What do you fill it with? That’s where the magic comes. You need time to let that linger and see what happens. See what manifests. That’s the thing that was so powerful about that year off, was giving your headspace emptiness and then who knows how you fill it? Live your life and then gravitate towards whatever you gravitate towards because now you have free time.
I took a year off when I started Indie Hackers. I took that year off not to have a sabbatical, not to enjoy life and remember every day. I took it off with the express purpose of starting a profitable business so I would never have to get a job in the future.
What I did when my headspace was clear is I spent six months just messing around. Not building anything that was serious, nothing that worked. Then after I saw that I had drained half my bank account I got very serious and I was like, “Oh, I need to actually figure out what’s going to make money.” You didn’t do that.
You didn’t have that plan when you started and yet you ended up coming up with this idea for an app. How did you eventually turn it into a business and then get out of the situation where you had to go back to this job.
I actually had an almost identical journey to you. I did not intend to just squander the year off. I did intend to figure out, “OK, I have a year to figure out how do I make a living? How do I change the trajectory of my life so I don’t just work in advertising on things that I’m not passionate about until I die?”
The first couple of months I made very little progress. I didn’t know what I needed to do. I played around with some ideas. I directed a music video that did very well a couple of years before I quit my job. I did that in my spare time.
It took me 14 months to put together that video because I had very little spare time but it ended up doing very well, it got good reviews. I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll be a music video director. Maybe I just need to direct a couple of more videos to build a name for myself.”
That was one idea. I had a whole bunch of ideas. I even had an idea of going back to graduate school to do film or whatever. But it was after just a couple of months of doing 1 Second Everyday, which was just supposed to be my way to keep a diary.
It wasn’t ever meant to be a business. It just started becoming clear to me, this was me scratching an itch that I’ve had for a long time that seemed to finally solve my problem. I thought, I really believe if this is helping me it could probably help enough other people that there’s value in finding a way to make this a something that other people can do easily.
At the time unless you were pretty good at Final Cut Pro or iMovie, you’re talking 365 videos per year that are being spliced. It takes work and skill and some knowledge of the software. I thought this should be as easy to do as Instagram.
I’m describing a moment from a video per day and logging it. I’m not even watching the video until I’m done. I came at it from the same way and it wasn’t until the second half of my year off that I was like, “Oh, wait a minute. I think this could be the thing.” It didn’t start off that way. I had all these other ideas.
You weren’t a software engineer and you’re not. You didn’t have a ton of money saved up. You mentioned you were drinking from a flask, you were saving money living frugally however you could. How do you get a quality iPhone app built with no money and no coding skills?
The journey on that is, I literally started by Googling, “How do I make an app?” I went to art school, put together a mockup of what I wish existed. I’m also very techy. I bought an iPhone on day one. I’m an early adopter. I knew what I wish existed. I had no idea how to build it. I took some programming courses in high school but I wasn’t remotely proficient for it.
I started by asking everybody who would listen to me out for coffee, asking questions. “All right, I need this kind of program. I need this thing.” I started cold emailing every development shop in New York City that I could find on Google. I started showing up to iOS Developer Meetups in New York, even though I wasn’t a developer.
I would just blend in and hoped that nobody asked me a programming question. I was just trying to make friends and see if I could meet somebody who might be a good co-founder or something like that. I was getting ready to give up. I had talked to everybody and every shop said, “We’ll build this for you for $100,000.” I was like, “I don’t have $100,000, but thank you.”
The thing that made me even more queasy after they would say $100K is that they would say, “This is a very difficult thing. We don’t know if we can do it and we’re just going to charge you $100 an hour while we figure it out. It could end up being way more.” I’m like, “Well, I mean, I don’t –.”
This is 2012. There’s a lot of stuff about building an editing app that just didn’t exist like it exists today. Out of the box, though, essentially. I got lucky. I ended up at this agency party that a friend of mine was at and invited me to. He was the only person I knew and he was busy mingling with 40 other people he invited so I just stood there and I did the classic just sit next to someone.
I was standing next to someone who also wasn’t talking to anybody. I just said, “Hi, I’m Cesar. What do you do?” and he’s like, “I work in a development shop.” I’m like, “Wait a minute, which one? Because I’ve talked to all of them.” He said, “Alchemy 50.” And I’m like, “How have I never heard of you guys? I’ve Googled all of them.”
He’s like, “Oh, we just started. We just opened up shop. We all quit our jobs at this financial place and we’re going to start our own thing. We don’t have SEO yet.” I’m like, “Well, can I have your card? Can we meet? I’m trying to build an app.” Two weeks later I was at their offices. I showed them the mockups. This is what I’m trying to do. I caught them at the perfect time.
They were trying to get their business going. They saw that I spoke at a TED and there was some credibility to the idea because the video had done really well. It had gotten millions of views, the original 1 Second Everyday video. So they came back to me two weeks later. To their credit they event spent time on their own before they gave me a quote making sure they could do it.
They were doing their own internal testing, making sure they weren’t over promising something. They said, “Hey, we want to be the guys to make this. Because of that and because we know you don’t have money, we’re going to do it for the lowest possible amount we can. We’ll give it to you for a flat fee of $20K.” I’m like, “OK. Amazing. All right, high fives, I’m in, let’s do it.”
And then I followed that by saying, “I also don’t have $20,000 but I am going to find it.” I came to them a week or so later and said, “I’m going to launch a Kickstarter Campaign and that’s how I’m going to raise the $20K a I hope you guys trust me that I’m going to pull it off because my request is that I don’t launch the Kickstarter Campaign until we have a working prototype of the app because I don't want to promise something.
I don’t want to be one of those Kickstarter Campaigns where like, ‘This is what we’re going to build. We’re going to put a statue of Robocop in Detroit. Figure it out later.” It’s like, “No, no, here’s the app, working and useable. Here’s video and this is going to happen.” To their credit they trusted me. We launched it. It took me months to put it together and to this day we’ve got the most backers ever for an app on Kickstarter.
We got a lot of press. We had over 11,000 backers and that allowed us to build the first version of 1 Second Everyday. We launched it in January of 2013. We launched it two weeks after the Kickstarter ended, by the way, which is a record for a Kickstarter Campaign. Two weeks later, we launched.
That’s crazy. Usually Kickstarters are notorious for eight months after the project is over, they’re like, “Sorry, this is an update. We’re behind schedule. It’ll be out another year.” It’s funny to hear you go around to all these different dev shops to talk to developers at parties and say, “Hey, I’ve got an app idea.”
I’ve been on the other side of that equation, literally hundreds of times. “Hey, Courtland, I’ve got an app idea. I know you can code. Why don’t you build this for me?” Ninety-nine percent of the time I’m like, “Why would I do that for you? I have my own ideas. I’ll just work on my own stuff. What do I need you for?”
But your case is a little bit special because you had given a TED Talk. You were legit. This idea had legs. There was excitement about it. We glossed over that part of the story. You were initially inspired by a TED Talk that you heard from Stefan Sagmeister but you ended up, eventually, on the stage yourself.
Not TEDx, not to disparage TEDx speakers but the fully fledged, actual TED Talk. I think your video now has –.
Yes, main stage. You have 2 million views on your video. How do you get into that position? What happened there?
The threat there, the story is I had just started recording 1 Second Everyday for myself. I was about two months in, maybe less, maybe six weeks in. The reason I saw that stuff in Sagmeister’ s TED Talk that changed my life instantly, that just convinced me I needed to do is quit my job and buy myself a year of time to figure things out.
That talk, which inspired me to quit my job, I watched it because I would watch every TED Talk every day. Every day there was the TED Talk of the day. This was back when Facebook, 2008 or 2009. The Facebook algorithm wasn’t scoring things yet. If you like a page on Facebook, you would see everything they posted.
It wasn’t like throttled where unless they paid, then I would see it. Every day I would see it. That’s how I knew. I would see it in my feed, TED Talk of the day, I would watch it. Because I saw every post, they posted about the first ever TED auditions and I clicked on the link, I read it. I thought, “Wow, what an amazing opportunity for someone out there to be able to audition for the first ever TED auditions. If only I had an idea worth spreading.” I just kind of forgot about it.
The link stayed there in my browser, just hanging there with a TED logo. As I’m on the web, which I’m on the web a lot every day, I would just see it there hoovering and it just stayed in my headspace because of that. I was at my dad’s birthday. I was recording my second of the day at my dad’s birthday.
As I was recording it, I thought to myself, “This is having a really positive impact on my life so far. It’s such a silly idea. All I’m doing is recording a second of video per day. There are people curing cancer. There are people fixing the planet and countries. I’m going to submit this as a TED audition,” because it came to this, “If I don’t do it, I’m going to regret it forever. I just need to do it so I never regret it.”
That was the only reason I did it. That itch of, I don't like regretting things. One of my high school guidance counselor, my mentor to some degree at the time, said, and this is something that is hard-wired into my head, which is like, “Live to regret the things you did, not the things you didn’t do.”
That’s always been hardwired in my head, always. The deadline was that night at midnight and I just recorded the video. I had to record a one-minute video of me doing the TED audition, my TED Talk in 60 seconds. I included 30 seconds of the first 30 second of the 1 Second Everyday video. This is online, by the way, which is very embarrassing. It’s a little hidden.
Nobody ever finds it. Two weeks later I got an email from TED saying, hey, we chose essentially me and 17 applicants out of a thousand, to speak at an event in New York City in front of a crowd of TED attendees, like people who go to the conference. They’re going to be judging. That’s a whole story. Reggie Watts was one of the auditioners which is crazy, just give Reggie Watts a TED Talk. Why is he auditioning?
They ended up choosing four of us. I got an email two weeks later. They chose four of us to speak at the main stage TED. I threw up that entire week. I was just a mess. I’ve never done public speaking and my first public speaking event ever was the TED Main Stage.
That was rough but I got through it. That obviously kick started the idea because immediately afterwards people were walking up to me saying, “I want to do this, too. I want to do this, too. How do I do this? How did you do it?”
That’s the moment that it really clicked on me, like, “I have to build an app that makes it easy for anybody to do this.”
That explains why you had the wherewithal to go from dev shop to dev shop and figure out how you could get this app built because you had so much validation that this is something people actually wanted.
Yes, it’s like a version of traction. It’s not like, “Oh, I built this and we’re growing 10% month to month.” It’s just like, “Hey, look at how many views this has. Look at the comments.” Outside of the TED Talk just the video in and of itself on YouTube and Vimeo had a lot of views. We got the front page of Reddit.
The comments were like, “Oh, my god, I want to do this.” That helped validate the idea beyond just, “Hey, I’ve been doing this thing and I think it’s cool.” It was like, “Hey, I built this thing, put it online, got millions of views. People say they want to do it, too.” I think this goes a long way without actually building anything.
Every now and then I talk to founders that are so secretive about their idea they won’t even tell it to you at a Meetup or a party. “Oh, I can’t tell you the details.” Yet, here you were, you hadn’t built anything and you were on the main stage at TED, broadcasting your idea to millions of people, on the front page of Reddit without a care in the world, putting this out there for everyone to see.
Anyone could’ve built it. Did you feel any pressure to hurry up and get the app developed? Did you worry other people would take the idea or were you just cruising along?
A hundred percent, man. I was that guy, I’ll be honest. It took me a long time to realize that’s just not helpful for anyone. I definitely was secretive. Even after the app came out people would ask me, “What’s next? When are you going to do this? What’s next?” I’d just be like, “Oh, you know,” just be very vague, “we’re working on stuff.”
I would keep my ideas close to the chest. I can’t remember who it was that really talked some sense into me on how no one is out there trying to steal your idea. Trust me, after the app came out there were certainly people who were like, “Oh, that’s a thing. We should make a clone.” But generally speaking, the pros of just sharing your idea to anybody who will listen are gargantuanly better off than the cons.
The cons are very tiny and miniscule and edge cases. There’s just always edge cases of somebody stealing an idea. The people who built clones built it without heart, built it very utilitarian without any insight into – they weren’t somebody who did actually did 1 Second Everyday for a year and then built an app to figure out what they wished existed, which is what I did.
They just built something that does the thing. It was functional but they were never able to put the kind of love we put into it. At the end of the day, execution is king and luckily I came to my senses. I get so many emails from people who want my help and want me to sign an NDA. I’m like, “Dude, I’m not signing an NDA.” I try to give them a quick, “Trust me, this is not the way you want to go about trying to get your idea to the world.”
More often than not, sadly, when I do convince somebody to just tell me their idea, I’m like, “Well, OK. First of all there’s a very successful company that’s already doing this that I guess you haven’t heard of.” I have to be that guy who wants to encourage people. I’m always trying to help.
I answer a lot of cold emails from people who are looking for my help about, specifically what you said earlier, “I’m somebody who is not a programmer, who had an idea and wanted to build something.” I got so many emails from people who are in the same position, where “I can’t build the thing, I need help building the thing. How do I build the thing?” I’m like, “I know. It sucks. It’s hard. Here’s what I suggest.”
I want to reemphasize some of the things you’ve said because I’ve talked to so many founders in this position and you nailed it on the head. Number one, the benefits of telling people your idea, seeing how they react, engaging with them about it are gargantuan. The risks of somebody cloning your idea are miniscule. It’s an edge case.
You probably shouldn't worry about it. Regardless if you build something successful people are going to clone it. People have cloned Indie Hackers. People have cloned most apps and most people cloning your app are not the people you want to be worried about because they don’t have the knowledge, they don’t have the heart. They’re just arbitrarily cloning what you did.
They’re usually not that good, they’re usually not that scary. It’s more than worth it to share your idea with people. I want to talk a little bit about this TED Talk. TED, obviously, as you mentioned, has a lot of very accomplished people, a lot of people who have been working on world-changing ideas for decades, spoken to audiences about it hundreds of times.
This is your first time on the stage, your first time public speaking. How do you prepare for something like that and what are some of the things you learned from the staff at TED that you think would be generally useful for others to know?
I don't even know where to start. The one thing I learned that got me through it. There’s a couple of things that got me through it. When I auditioned there were events here in New York. I went onstage during rehearsals which was like my “me” time with the stage.
There’s only a couple of people connecting wires and stuff, no one is really paying attention. It’s just your time to get comfortable with the stage. I had written this. I had three minutes. I was allowed three minutes for my talk. I had this perfect three minute thing that I wrote up, like, “Here’s my talk.” I went up on stage and said it or tried to say it. After two sentences I couldn't remember what the third sentence was.
I just stood there. With empty seats I just stood there and I panicked. I just pretended that my mic was working, or I wasn’t sure if my mic was working and I just walked off stage. I was mortified. Every bone in my body. I was panicking. I froze. I went up to the bathroom.
I locked myself in a stall and I just sat there, like, “Oh, my god. What am I going to do? I don’t know how I’m going to get through this.” I was shaking. I just sat there and I was like, “What’s my game plan? What’s my game plan?”
The game plan I came up with, that saved me was, I said to myself, “If you forget what you’re supposed to say, just keep saying stuff. Just explain the thing in your own words in the moment. No one is going to know you’re fucking up except you.”
So I had my little printout and I read the thing I wanted to say for the next four hours over and over and over again. I got up on stage and the exact same thing happened. I said three sentences before I just completely blanked. I’m so nervous, all these eyes looking at me and I’m just panicking. I’m like, “Just keep talking, just keep talking.”
I said a bunch of stuff I didn’t mean to say. I got pretty morbid. I was like, “Someday when I die I just want this video to be what I leave behind. I don’t want a tombstone because I don’t need to take up space in this world.” I just blabbed.
Which, I’m good at blabbing. I’m not good at rehearsing a set amount of characters to say in order again, after I read it. I’m not a memorizer. I’m just not good at it.
And I didn’t know that about me because I’ve never had to do public speaking. But luckily, I got through it. I went a minute over my time. Sorry, TED. It’s funny because there’s the total possibility that if I had said what I meant to say I wouldn't have been chosen to speak at the main stage. I don't know.
Maybe it’s the random stuff that I spoke out of my heart in that moment of panic that is what got me to main stage. I’ll never know. I’ll never know what the outcome would’ve been. But the same exact thing happened to me on the on TED stage. I got up there. That was an eight minute talk.
As much as I tried to memorize what I was supposed to say, I just couldn't do it in the moment. I just froze. Again, the crowd doesn't know. I just started speaking from the heart. I’ve only been able to watch my TED talk three or four times and it was only because my parents were watching it. They don’t know what TED is. They’re just like, I don't know, cute, thank you.
They’re like, “I don't know. Congratulations, I guess.” When I hear it, half the things I meant to say I didn’t get to say and I feel pain about that but I got through it. People seemed to resonate to it and people message me to this day about it. Speaking of TED, what did I learn? Number one, what works for me is speaking from the heart.
Ever since I give myself bullet points to memorize, ideally with a Power note that makes it super easy and I just speak from the heart as I see the Power Point Presentation play out. I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I know why I put this up there. I want to say, I want to explain X.” That’s how I do my public speaking. Speak from the heart based on a Power Point image.
I’m the opposite. I will memorize every line, verbatim, of a 45 minute talk. You have to do whatever works for you. You, off the back of that, found some developers who were excited to work with you. They built a prototype for free. You got on Kickstarter. Kickstarter went well. How many backers did you end up getting? 11,000?
They each paid you what? An average of a dollar, a couple of dollars?
Right, the terrible business minded Cesar of that time. I wasn’t trying to build the business. I was trying to build the app and then put it on the app store and have it exist. I just wanted people to be able to do 1 Second Everyday. That was my goal.
The additional cherry on top of that goal, ideally, was I make enough money passively through the app store, on the app, that I can use the that income to work on my other creative endeavors that I had.
Like make another music video as an example, or something. That was a terrible business decision. I decided to make the app $1 because I just wanted people to have it. Eight thousand or something of the pledges were a dollar. I did spend a lot of time figuring out how to build value without adding more work into the Kickstarter.
So for $5 we’d put your name in the credits forever. So until this day the app has a Kickstarter backer section and there’s something like 3,000 to 4,000 names in it. That was amazing because those people were paying us five times more for the app than they had to, for their name in the credits. It was perfect because it was an CV file we upload into the app.
It created very little work for us. That was one of my takeaways from doing a lot of Kickstarter research. A lot of Kickstarters promise, “We’ll do this, we’ll do that if you give us this much.” And it’s like, that’s going to take you a lot of – somebody who is giving t-shirts away for $20 tier, that’s going to cost you a lot.
You’re going to make $3 or $4 per pledge on a lot of work, at least at the time. There’s better solutions for that stuff now. I made sure each tier, all the way to the $250 tier, which was like, “You get the app right now. For $200 you would become a beta tester and we send you the app right now.”
We were limited to 100 beta testers rule at the time from Apple. We only had 40 slots but all of them filled up in a heartbeat. If we could’ve filled that up with unlimited, oh, my god. Plus we would’ve had way more beta testers, we would’ve figured out way more bugs before we launched.
On day one we had 50,000 downloads. It was a support ticket per second. It was like, boom, boom, boom. The first two to three months were rough just fixing bugs. Part of the limitation of only having 40 or 60 or so people testing.
Who was “we” at this point when you launched? Was it just you and the dev shop?
Yes, so it’s just me full-time and the dev shop part time, essentially. For the first couple of months it was very active, back and forth, but obviously over time they needed to make money and they had other clients. For the first two years, I just still thought in my head, “I can’t wait to finish – once we finish these bugs and these updates I’ll “finish” the app.”
It took me a while to realize, “Oh, you don’t finish technology. There’s always going to be another iPhone, there’s always going to be a new iOS update, there’s always going to be a feature that’s going to be really important.” I learned the hard way.
Halfway through year two I realized, “Oh, this is a business. This isn’t a thing I can finish and move on to the next thing and just forget about it. This is taking up all my time.” This is around the time when Chef, those listeners of yours who have watched the movie, “Chef,” Jon Favreau’s, Chef.
We were featured in that movie. Jon had seen the TED Talk, had started using the app, loved it. Asked if he could write it into his movie. That movie is largely about social media, by the way. It’s a bootstrap movie and it’s about parenthood but it’s also about social media.
At that point it was like, “Oh, OK. This is a business.” That’s when I really started to think about, “All right, how do I grow and make this something permanent and forever and not just an “I’m done” thing.
It’s crazy how much attention you were getting. Jon Favreau liked the app, you put it in his movie. You got 50,000 downloads right after you launched. Where was all this attention coming from? Were you doing a ton of marketing? Was it because of the TED talk?
Until this day we’ve never spent a dime on user acquisition. Our growth has been organic all these years. Everything has a story, probably. So with 50,000 downloads on day one was essentially because, well, the Kickstarter did really well. We had the ability to email 11,000 people. So that’s pretty powerful.
We did not have a way to deliver the app to 11,000 people, which was a problem. I contacted someone at Apple and maybe lied that I was in San Francisco and I would like to talk to somebody there. Because we were like, “How do we deliver 11,000 apps to people?” There’s no way to do, to this day I don't think there’s a way to do that.
They said, “Yes.” And I got on the next flight to San Francisco. I just got met with a lot of red tape. There was no way for them to give me 11,000 promo codes so I can give 11,000 promo codes to 11,000 people.
There was no way to do that, and so we were stuck with only one option, which was, “We are going to make the app free for 24 hours and we’re going to message every Kickstarter backer as much as we can leading up to this moment and say, ’Please, please, please download this app during this 24 hour window because it’s the only way we can get you the app before we turn the app to paid.’”
Because of that, there’s a couple of that happened. A, obviously there’s a lot of people who run newsletters or whatever, who see this email. So the day it goes free, A, you have thousands and thousands of people posting on social media and blasting everywhere, 1 Second Everyday is free today only.
We got tons and tons of free press from that. I was getting Google alerted like crazy about these Mac websites that are like, “1 Second Everday for 24 hours only, it’s free, it’s free.” The word got out because everybody was like, “This is the only time you’re going to be able to download this app for free.”
That’s how we ended up right next to Instagram on Day 1. That’s how that happened. That was a headache because obviously a lot of people didn’t see the emails and a lot of people for the next many years, I was getting emails from Kickstarter backers saying, “Hey, I never got the app. I missed the 24 hour window.”
I would have to send them a promo code, which we only got 100 of every time we submitted an update so sometimes it would take us a while to get the app to people. It was an ongoing nightmare in that regard. It was rough. In regards to “Chef”, basically I’m a giant nerd and I write comic books throughout growing up.
I was an intern at Marvel Comics when I was in college and Marvel had started making their own movies and I was a huge Jon Favreau fan. I was following him on Twitter. When Iron Man 3 came out, he directed Iron Man 1 and Iron Man 2 but he did not direct Iron Man 3 and he cast himself in Iron Man 1 and 2 as Iron Man’s driver.
Happy Paddy. He still showed up for Iron Man 3 even though he was no longer directing it. I thought, “Why isn’t anybody giving this man credit for having the class to still show up as Iron Man’s driver in an Iron Man sequel even though he’s no longer directing the movie?” Why isn’t anybody giving him his due credit? It was like 4 in the morning and I just tweeted at him that.
I was just like, “Hey, Jon, thank you for having the class to still play your role in Iron Man 3 even though you’re no longer directing it.” Something like that. I didn’t even send it. I was afraid somebody would see it and judge me. I just fell asleep on the couch and I woke up at six in the morning and I was walking to bed and I swiped up my phone, whatever, at the time I hit the home button and it opened.
I saw that I had that draft of that tweet that I didn’t send. It’s like, I’m groggy, it’s six in the morning, whatever. I just hit send and I went to sleep. And then, like, cut to me on the set of the movie of “Chef” a year later.
I was talking to the guy who was shooting the Making Of – he shoots the Making Of for all the Marvel Movies. And he was like, “Do you know how John found out about your app?” And I’m like, “I have no idea.”
And he’s like, “I guess you tweeted something nice at him a while back.” And I’m like, (gasp) “That’s how this all happened?” He saw that tweet, looked at my profile, saw that I had given a TED Talk, clicked on the talk, watched the talk, saw there was an app, downloaded the app, started using the app, loved the app. Then eventually I got an email from a producer of “Chef” saying, “Jon Favreau would like to include your app in his movie.”
Then they send me the script of it for my approval and it’s like the best, most important part of the entire movie. And I’m like, “Oh, my god, this is incredible.” That’s how that happened. Until this day, obviously, we have people who watch “Chef” and find us through that movie.
It’s crazy because there’s so many bad things to be said about social media. In fact, most of what people share publicly about social media is negative.
It’s about how it’s ruining the world, it’s ruining our attention spans but never before has it been possible to get in touch with a celebrity or somebody you find so inspiring so quickly and trivially, and easily as just pressing send on a tweet at six in the morning when you’re groggy and have that be a life-changing event.
Yes, sometimes I think about in a multiverse way, what is that perfect tweet you can send to someone to change your life, right? There must be something you can write, like a set of 280 characters you can send, if you were to nail it and you were to time it right, could literally change your life.
Your whole life.
Your whole life, the trajectory of your life changes. You could play out millions of simulations on life and find the right thing. It’s a fun thing to think about. You could totally do that. Anybody has the power to do that. Social media.
At 1 Second Everyday we spend a lot of time thinking about, “What are the things about social media that we love? What are the things that we hate? How do we unbundle those into something that we think will benefit our customers and hopefully be around for a long time without having to compromise with the user experience?”
It’s funny because there are a lot of people out there who aren’t doing very much. Maybe they have big dreams but they’re not taking action. They’re not trying to figure out that perfect 140 character tweet they could send.
But on the flip side here you were, basically sending out this Rocketship that was getting so much press, so many downloads, so much attention and you didn’t conceptualize it as a real business.
For you it was a temporary means to an end. You were going to move on to other things. Why do you think it took you so long to really double down and figure out that 1 Second Everyday was something you should be treating as a business?
It used to be in my Twitter bio, I think I took it out. I used to say I was an accidental entrepreneur. I would have conversations with my friends in college saying, “Ugh, owning a business sounds like the worst possible scenario.” Everything about it seemed awful to me.
It just seemed like so much responsibility, so much weight on your shoulders. You’re responsible for making sure all these people get paid. That just seemed so stressful. I just want to go work at Pixar, 9 to 5, walk out, work on Toy Story 7.
That’s where my head was at but it wasn’t until I got into the real world that I realized, “Oh, actually being an entrepreneur is the only way to really be in control of what you do and how you do it and really actually have creativity.”
The same reasons I got into computer animation and all of that, which was I wanted to tell stories and I was in high school making my own little animated shorts. Those are my ideas. I was executing them on my own. I was distributing them on my own. I was in charge of my destiny with all of that.
I realized after just working in the real world for a bit, “Oh, I’m not in charge of my destiny at all. I’m relying on all sorts of other factors that I have no control over all the time.” Being an entrepreneur was the only way to literally feel like I’m in control. I could make it whatever – if I worked my ass off I can make it work, I can make it happen.
It took me a long time to really – there was a book called, ‘The Art of Non-Conformity’ that I read right when I quit my job. At that time I had no intention, I was just going to take a year off and go back to work and hopefully, go back to work on something I’m more passionate about or what not.
That book was a huge catalyst for helping me. My entire bubble was just other animators. Other artists. Art school does not prepare you to become an entrepreneur. Art school prepares you to go be an artist for other people. It was a huge pain point for me.
I was an adjunct professor at Pratt, which is where I went to school afterwards. I was 23, 24. I’m going to change the system. I was having all these meetings all the way to the president of the University. I was trying to change – there should be entrepreneur class, there should be this, there should be that.
Just red tape, red tape, red tape. It took a long time to figure all this out, frankly. That book opened up my eyes beyond my bubble of, “You go and you get a job, you get the best job you can,” and that was it.
That opened up my eyes to all the possibilities to really be in control of your time and your life. I’m very grateful to that book for helping me see that entrepreneurship is not what it was. I always thought of entrepreneurship of like, you become an entrepreneur because you want to get rich. That’s never been my goal. That’s not what drives me in any way.
I’m more driven by helping people or doing cool stuff and enjoying who I’m around. I’m just not driven by those elements, which is why I went to art school, which everybody said would be the worst possible thing I could do for my career because I’m never going to make money. That’s what every artist gets told when they go to art school. “Well, you’re just going to be a starving artist the rest of your life.” There’s a lot of elements.
When you decide to turn this app into a business, when you realized, “Hey, being an entrepreneur is not what I thought it was. It’s a pretty cool thing. I can structure my life how I want it to be.” What’s the process from going to just have a passion project to having something that you’re really serious about? What did that look like for you?
The immediate thing for me was, “I can’t do this by myself.” Once I realize, “All right, this is going to be a business. Also, I’m killing myself running the business.” Those first couple of years were rough. I was waking up, checking my inbox and there would be endless emails.
Hundreds of them were support tickets. I would just put headphones and block out three hours to reply to support tickets. Replying to support tickets, a lot of the support tickets were really rough because some things that were, “All right, yeah. We’re working on that, fixing some things.”
Some things were like, “Yeah, we have part time development.” Everything was just slow. I’m not going to be able to help some of these people out. I had to start making some hard decisions about where I was distributing my time best and sometimes that meant I had to ignore some support tickets because that meant I could fix the thing they’re writing the support tickets about.
Just really, really tough stuff. At the same time I know what my strengths are, I know what my strengths are not. I just started thinking, “Man, what are all these things. I’m OK at them but it’s just not the value I bring to this.”
Luckily as I was piecing together these pieces of things that I just didn’t think I was really good at I started thinking through the rolodex of my brain, “Who are the humans in my life that are into these traits?”
It was pretty quick. I thought of one of my best friends, Schoneck Shoaf, who I went to art school with. During my year off from work he also quit his job and we drove around the U.S. and Canada for 95 days throughout the summer of 2012, 25,000 miles and during that time we did not kill each other.
95 days in a car together, camping together, crashing on couches together. We got along and I thought, if I was going to “get married” because being in a co-founder relationship is a marriage, if I was going to get married with somebody to really stick it out with me on this journey for the long term, I think Shoneck and I make a good team.
He’s the perfect other half of the brain where he likes making pie charts and graphs and systems and business models. All that stuff just makes me run away for the hills. I like the product, I like the ideas, I like to talk to people. There’s all this other stuff that I’m way better at and he was perfect for the other stuff.
So I took him out to drinks, I said, “Hey, what will it take for you to quit your job at Nickelodeon and join me full time?” It took some courting, it took a couple of drinks, it took a couple of meetings. One of his stipulations was, “I don't want to live in New York anymore.” I was like, “Cool. We’re a remote company.”
That was the day we became a remote company when we were two. That got the ball rolling. At that point, up until he came on board or he quit his job and joined me, at that point things started moving. I was just drowning in all the to-dos of being a single founder with part time development.
I think a lot of people in that situation would say, “Hey, I’ve got a tech company. I’ve got an app.” And what tech founders do is they go to Silicon Valley and they find some investors and raise millions of dollars so that’s what I’m going to do. And that’s not what you did. You decided to bootstrap, at least for a while. Was that a conscious decision you made?
There’s a couple of ways we got to that. One of them was I am just so removed from Silicon Valley land at the point where I’m starting 1 Second Everday that I just don’t know this stuff. I don't know that you go out and you raise money. It just never. My head doesn’t think – I didn’t know the space.
I came from art. I would go to art galleries not, like VC holiday parties. I came from a totally different space. I don't know anything about business. One of my early seconds of the day was me at a book signing that Ferris did in New York City at the Apple Store. He had just released The Four Hour Body.
I had read The Four Hour Work Week and I had started catching up on Tim Ferris’ blog. And I just hovered around him hoping to talk to him but I’m the kind of guy who – I’m not pushy. I’m not going to “Screw all these people. I’m going to get my way and I’m just going to cut through everybody and say my thing.”
I just stood by waiting, hoping the crowd around him would dissipate after he finished his talk. I waited two hours and there were still ten people around him. Clearly some people were like, “I’m not leaving. I’m just going to hang here.” I could hear Tim say, “Listen, guys, I’ve been here for two hours. Sorry, I really gotta, I have dinner. I’m going to be late.”
I was like, “Uh, no.” I was hoping to just be the last person to talk to him. I just mangled my way in there and I said, “Tim I just gave this TED Talk about this thing. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to build an app for it. I don't know what I’m supposed to do. I don't know how to get money to build it.” He said, “Don’t raise money. Figure out a way to build a prototype without investors.”
And that really stuck with me. That’s how I landed on Kickstarter as a means of funding the app. But that also resonated for me long term. Once I started being a part of the tech ecosystem, early on, that first year after launching the app, I’m like, “All right, I guess I’m a tech guy now.” I started becoming privy to this VC land.
It sounded alien to me. I couldn't believe that I could just pitch someone this thing and they’ll just write me a check for a million dollars, for example. All they get in return is, on paper 20% of it. And if I fail, I never have to pay the million back. That sounded insane to me. I couldn't believe that was real. I always thought to myself, “There’s gotta be a catch. What’s the catch?”
That being said, at that point, I did try to raise money. As I was understanding this ecosystem, I was like, “Where are these investors? How do you get a meeting with these guys?” Again, I don’t come from a background where I just ask for an intro from my good friend who knows all the VCs.
Getting the access to actually get a meeting with an investor that I was alien to, “How do you do that?” Once I started getting some meetings, I would get the meetings and the investors would be like, “Well, wait. Who is your CTO?” “Uh, we’re outsourcing it to a development shop.” Giant red flag. We’re not the technical co-founders so that’s a red flag.
There was a, “You’re charging for the app? Why isn’t the app free?” “We can’t afford to make it free because we need to make money.” It was crazy to them that we would charge for the app instead of just, like, whatever. There was just all this stuff. These conversations would lead into, “What are you going to do with it?” At the time, you have to remember the ecosystem. This is 2012, 2013. I am positive if we had raised money to build this company in 2012, 2013, 2014 we would be dead. We wouldn't have made it because iPhones had storage of like 8 to 16 gigs.
Sharing video was very difficult. Sharing video at the time was, you have to connect your phone to your computer to get the 600 MB HD file that our app created, put it into your computer and then upload it to YouTube or Vimeo, which are the only two platforms that could take that much for free.
Then you could share a link out on your social media. Nobody had native video yet. That was it. We’re talking 3G at best, you were lucky if you had 3G. So you couldn't upload directly from your device. The zeitgeist wasn’t ready for what we were doing at a huge scale. We weren’t going to be growing 10% month to month.
Not to mention, because we launched as it was a bird’s eye view of your life, not this daily sharing. We weren’t an instant share platform. Our platform was, you’re going to build up to this thing where you watch in a couple of months or in most cases a year. No investor wants to hear, “Well, yeah, people are going to download it to the end and share something a year from now.” So we had red flags left and right for the VCs we met.
We weren’t a venture scale thing to any of them. On the one hand, yes, I tried to raise money and I was probably not educated enough at the time that if somebody had offered me money at the time I would’ve been like, “Hell yeah, I’ll take. 20%, whatever. I’ll sign anything.” I’d just be so excited to just do anything We got lucky that we never raised it.
I started speaking a lot. I started getting mor and more friends who were CEOs and we’d sit around and we’d chat and they’d tell me their experiences with venture capital. It always sounded awful. None of my VC backed friends would be like, “Yeah.” Well, maybe some. There’s always exceptions.
Most of them would talk about the really difficult hardships they would go through to grow their company as fast as possible, by any means necessary. Timing is a huge thing. We would never have made it this far if we had raised capital because the timing would have been awful. We weren’t ready to do the things we can do now.
Today people can share video very quickly. They can share it straight to Instagram feeds. This has all been a driver of our growth and we’ve been lucky enough to be sitting on the surfboard so the waves started coming every time there’s a new thing that allows people to share easily or do something better.
Stories was huge for us because people had a place to create and put their story somewhere it wouldn't disappear in 24 hours. We were able to ride those waves as they’ve come. We’re part of the journey on getting to a place where, I don't know if VC funding is what we want or what would be good for the company long term. So we got lucky but also it came a little bit from the fact that we just didn’t know what we were doing.
You intuited, “This can’t be real. There has to be some kind of a catch.” Then through talking to VCs you realized there was a catch it’s kind of a psychological one, the pressure to grow at all costs.
I know a lot of founders in SF, I live in the Bay area. They’re usually so gung-ho and so excited when they do it but then after that, if you’re not growing 5x a year, even if your business is doubling every year, that’s not what your investors want to see. They want to see more growth.
So you can feel pretty bad about what you’re doing even if it’s helping people, even if it’s growing, if it’s not growing at the level your investors want. That’s an awful feeling to feel like you’re letting people down who have given you millions of dollars but at the same time they’re driving you to make your company into this growth monster that isn’t necessarily healthy or what you want to do.
Part of the issue is you are forced to grow something that the market might not be ready for because you have this runway, you’re burning cash, you’re not monetizing yet. You’re hoping the timing is going to be right within the burn, the amount of cash you have for your burn, your runway.
It’s all way more obvious now that the VC model really is a rocket fuel for companies or markets that are already mature enough to grow very quickly. The thing that killed me in the early day is like, I’d be perfectly happy building a hundred million dollar company that is doing good and is still growing.
We’ve been growing at 2x a year and that’s – there’s a lot of stuff we’re working on that we think is going to escalate that dramatically but the problem is over all these years I see so many great ideas die. Just because they had a great product but they just didn’t have the business model or the ability to just stop and say, “This is pretty good. Maybe we don’t need to keep forcing.”
I mean, Path is an example of something that so many people loved, except, of course, at the time subscription models really weren’t a thing yet. That’s something that could’ve been around today when Facebook was going through their privacy issues and they could’ve rode that wave if they had still been on the surfboard. They, sadly, were forced into a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t best at the time. It was just the timing was off, in my opinion, for Path.
That’s a pretty tragic story. I think they raised, I don't know, like 50-60 million, a crazy amount of money. They were turning down acquisition offers. I think Google offered to buy them for 100 million dollars and they were, “No, we’re going to grow.” And now it’s dead. It’s no longer even a thing.
I talk to a lot of founders who are like you were. They are coming into tech and they didn’t know a ton about the ecosystem. They certainly didn’t know a ton about business and business strategy and what it took to run a company. Yet, they were able to successfully wing it and learn on the job and figure out what they needed to learn.
A lot of listeners are in the same situation. Maybe they’re artists, maybe they’re marketers, maybe they’re developers but they haven’t gone to business school. They don’t know exactly what it takes to run a business.
In your experience as someone who has been learning all this on the job, do you think you’re at a disadvantage not knowing all that stuff in advance and how do you learn on the job while you’re running your company?
If anything, probably just because of things like, “I don't know about things like venture capital.” My lack of knowledge probably helped and saved the company. I just wasn’t tuned into, “This is how you do things.” I think a lot of people fall into this, “Here is what you do.”
And I just asked a lot of questions, like, “Why do I do that? What’s the catch?” One of my “ideas” for when I quit my job was, I was thinking of going to business school, because I thought to own a business I have to go to business school That’s where my head was at. I didn’t consider that you could just wing it.
It turns out, yeah, I would say everybody should just wing it. It seems business school is really built for getting a job at a giant corporate thing that’s already got its systems built. It’s not built for – with some exceptions like Stanford where I think the ecosystem is more geared towards people becoming start up founders but.
I know a lot of people who went to GSB Stanford’s business school and they are all working for bigger companies, not starting their own companies.
Right, which there’s nothing wrong with that. Not everyone is necessarily meant to start a company. Not everyone is an entrepreneur. It’s an emotional journey that is difficult. I was chatting with a friend of mine. I had just met her and she was saying all this stuff and I was like, “Have you considered starting your own company?”
She was like, “I did it for five years. Realized, not for me. That’s not what I want.” Fair. Great, you scratched your itch and now you know that’s not what you want. Now she’s perfectly happy working at a big corporate whatever. I think everybody has to figure out that Venn diagram of what they’re good at and what makes you happy.
I think with the whole business thing, I just consume a lot. If somebody retweets something wise on Twitter, I’m going to start following them. If somebody posted an article somewhere, I’m going to check out what else this person has written. It’s a lot of reading, a lot of blog posts.
I remember at YCombinator where they put the videos online, those classes they were running that would go hour to hour through how to build a startup. That was really useful. I consumed that. Especially today, in 2019, there’s just so many resources online to figure most of the hard things out yourself.
Not to mention all the pre-built stuff. Banking, for example, banking for me and my co-founder. We’re like, ugh. Now there’s great resources for making taxes and lawyer-y stuff easier. Justworks, Justworks for HR purposes makes our lives a million times easier with W2s. It’s a totally different space.
Now you have no-code movement. There really are very little excuses for somebody who has an idea to build it on their own. I don't know what the percentage is but my guess, 30% of ideas are probably possible to be executed without having to go our and find someone who can do it for you.
It’s a golden era to build things online. There’s almost more information than you can consume. It’s not a problem if you come into this not knowing what to do because you can learn it all on the job, as you’re doing. There’s a ton of resources that can help you. I want to get a sense of where you’re at today with 1 Second Everyday in terms of numbers. How many people are working at your company? How many users do you have? How much revenue are you doing?
As I mentioned earlier, we’ve been doubling year to year to some degree, I guess. New Year’s is our biggest time of the year by far. People tend to start 1 Second Everyday when it’s their birthday, when they just got married, when they just had a baby. Milestones in their life. New Years is the one thing that it’s everyone.
It’s New Year’s for everyone not just like people getting married. We get so many people sharing their 1 Second Everday video of their year in review on social media every year that every year has been gargantuanly bigger than the last. A couple of years ago we topped out at number 17 on the app store. The year after that we hit number 3.
The year after that we were the number 1 paid app on the app store in the entire first week of 2018. Then at the time we were still a paid app. Then we made it free at the end of last year, exactly a year ago today, probably. We made the app free finally because we built a subscription tier that allows us to monetize with power users and extra features as opposed to putting the entire app behind a paywall.
It was a great way to bootstrap but it was never a long term strategy. We wanted to have a version of the app that allowed anybody to do at least the basic version of 1 Second Everyday. This year, by making the app free at the beginning of the year on January 1st, it was literally, Instagram, Snapchat, 1 Second Everyday at the end of New Year’s Day.
This year knock on wood, I’m pretty sure we’ll crush them. Then I feel like Tik-Tok we might not beat but we’ll see. Tick Tock is still relatively new, getting a lot of new users all the time. A lot of our growth is also coming from video sharing on Facebook and Instagram and other places like Twitter. People are sharing their monthly videos now.
At the first of every month they’ll share, “Oh, this was my November 2019 in 30-60 seconds.” People see that, people download it. We get a spike every month on the app store. That’s been going on for about two years now. That’s where a lot of our consistent growth has been happening. Before that it was like New Year’s was the exclusive giant spike.
In 2018 we made 2 million in revenue. The year before that we made a million in revenue. The year before that we made 500,000 in revenue. The year before that we made like 250,000 in revenue. So it’s literally been like a steady 2x per year growth. Because this year we got a couple of million dollars so now we’re free.
We have no idea what’s about to happen with New Year’s in a couple of weeks. In the first two years of the history of the app as a paid app on iOS we have 2 million downloads. In six years from launch to making the app free, we have 2 million downloads. Now this year it’s a free app we’ve had over 2 million.
The power of going free, huge. We’re doing well with subscribers. We’re picking up enough subscribers to subsidize the free customers and obviously we’ll be adding more features for pro so hopefully we can continue to build value for our customers. We never want to have advertising in the app.
We never want to screw with anyone’s private information. We want to build a social media experience that we wish existed. There’s so many incentives that are misaligned with current social media models. We want to realign those as best we can. We’ve started to build our version of social that has the potential to have us grow in a far greater way than we’ve grown before.
For that, we finally decided to raise money for the first time this year. We did it without venture capital. Our lead investor was Bryce Roberts of NDBC (ph) who I know has been on your show. I was paying attention to that for a couple of years and when it seemed like, “This social thing we’re going to take a bite on is going to require way more engineering power than we have right now.”
We grew, we were 13 in September. Within 2 weeks we were 20. We hired seven humans. We had a company, we are an entirely remote company from all over the world. We did a company retreat within a month of the new hires in Mexico and we spent a week together just syncing up. It was amazing.
We do this twice a year, every six months we fly everyone in from all over the world and somewhere. Now we’re focused on this huge New Years coming up and we don’t know what’s going to happen. 2020 is about using these resources that we’ve gained from the non-venture raise with NDBC to rescale up the social part of the app.
I think about social media a lot. Indie Hackers is not a social media app, it’s a community but it’s pretty similar. Because it’s owned by Stripe and because I don’t have any real mission to generate revenue or anything like that, Indie Hackers will never be stuffed with ads. You’re kind of in the same boat because you’re profitable.
You’re actually charging your users to use your app and that allows you to take a more thoughtful approach to social media if you decide to make your app social. Right now it’s not. When I make my videos in 1 Second Everyday it’s just for me or for friends if I want to post it to YouTube or something. But there’s no social feed that’s part of the app. What’s your vision for a better form of social media?
NDBC was our lead investor and then we brough in a whole bunch of other investors as well who were aligned with the NDBC model that isn’t forcing us into raising another round in 18 months. That was the thing we were really looking to avoid. It may not make sense. There’s a whole spectrum of potential things that could happen.
If we’re getting crazy dollars every day or whatever, OK, this is huge and we have to raise more capital in which case the note converts. From the NDBC, the note just converts, which is great. But if that doesn't come to pass we can still give all the investors a really great return, higher than the average return of an angel investor.
We brought in Earnest Capital that Tyler, who has been an amazing partner for us. And ustwo, which has a venture arm. They created Monument Valley on the app store, famously. But they have all sorts of other apps and companies out of the UK. We brought in a bunch of people that we really happy, that they really aligned with us and what we were trying to do.
And specifically, we also set out to bring in people who we’ve long envied and looked up to. Joel from Buffer is one of our investors. Buffer has been a company that we’ve been, to some degree, wanting to emulate. They’re at 90 employees. We’re at 20. There’s just so much that we can take away from how transparent they are and how much they write about how they scaled to that.
We painted a picture to all these investors on how we were looking to approach social media. For us it starts with the incentives. If the way that a social media company is making money is because they are basically trying to get you to scroll as much as possible every day, because the more you scroll the more ads they can show you, that seems – be happy paying to not be bamboozled into that way of consuming media.
Engagement, engagement, engagement. That’s all that matters.
Engagement, engagement, engagement, yes. For us it’s just about bringing you the maximum amount of value in the least amount of time possible. How do we give you exactly what you wanted to consume per day? Let’s just say we could do it in five minutes instead of 45 minutes where you’re mindlessly scrolling.
I get a lot of value out of Twitter, I get a lot of value out of Facebook but I’m also hyper-aware of the vortex that I can fall under where we end up scrolling an hour. What happened? Didn’t really get any value out of the 55 minutes on the other end of the first five minutes.
For us it starts out with really making sure our incentives are aligned with what’s best for people and not what’s best for advertisers. That’s one of our core things. The other core thing is by actually charging people or at least a subset of people for something valuable then that also makes it so that we’re never thinking about selling people’s info. We get emails from people who want us, “Oh, just plug us into your app and we’ll get this data and we’ll pay you.”
It’s like, “No, we never want to do that.” Being acquired is not a goal. We feel like a sense of stewardship to make sure, people have been logging private moments of their lives for seven years in some cases. I don't know if I could sleep at night if I handed that off to Facebook tomorrow. For us it’s like, “How do we make sure the business model is there so we can always have the best intentions for the customers?” Everything starts from there.
A lot of what we’re thinking about in terms of social media is obviously what a lot of the social media companies are starting to do, like the likes and the metrics that skew things in directions that aren’t necessarily healthy for mental health and stuff like that. The initial idea for what we were building, we call this social media zero.
The idea was how do we give you a social media feed that is finite. That allows you to get the value that you were looking to get and then it’s like, “Goodbye, you’re done. Go live your life. Enjoy your day.” How do we not give you the itch to come back and check your feed all day, every day, nonstop.
That is, in my opinion, at least for me, that thing that really consumes me and I don't like how I feel like, “I need to check my Instagram to see if somebody replied to the thing, whatever.” It’s stuff like that is just not healthy. I don’t like it. I don’t feel good about it. Imagine if you could finish your Instagram feed, right?
Imagine there’s no ads so you finish it faster. One thing we are adamant about with our feed is batch notifications. I don’t need a notification. It feels like every day, every way, shape or form Instagram tries to get me to turn on notifications. I’m like, “No, no, no, no.” Why do I need to know that somebody liked my photo instantly?
Most things don’t require an instant notification. Some of the rules we’re playing around with it’s like, you should just get one notification per day that gives you all of your notifications. You get them, you see them, you’re done with them. You go back to living your life.
We’re coming at social media from all these – there’s a lot more to it than that and we’re still experimenting with some of these models and we change our mind about some of them.
Our alpha is designed to be a little bit loose and nimble so that we can test out a couple different ways to do things but the approach is, realign things between what’s best for our company and what’s best for people and remove all middle men and all exterior forces and let’s make sure what we’re building brings value to people without all the baggage that can come on the other side when you’re optimizing for the wrong metrics.
Right, and you’re perfectly situated to do that because already you’ve created a habit in people to come back once per day. Record your one second video every day. That’s a great place to get your fix, figure out what your friends and family are doing. Then that’s it.
Yes, and one of the way we feel that we’re well suited for this is we’ve been a private experience first and foremost, since we’ve launched. Sharing is optional. A gargantuan amount of our customers never share and that’s our superpower. Our superpower is this is where you can log moments of your life that you never want on the internet.
The thing that I get over and over again is that we fill in the gaps to the things that you would never share on social media. Instagram is like, “I went on this trip and look at me with –” highlights. But our lives are made up of way more than the best things we ever did. My 1 Second Everyday is filled my worst days.
It’s filled with moments that, to you, if you were to watch them you’re like, “I guess Cesar just sat on his desk, working.” Which is often. But I’m very mindful about picking specific things about this day on that workday. It’s getting that email from Apple that we’re going to be the best of 2019. It’s like “Oh, boom. That’s my second of the day because I didn’t do anything but sit here and work but here’s the notable thing.”
It’s just an email. It’s just me recording the screen on my monitor but in six years or two years I’m going to be like – it means nothing to anybody but me. That’s a really important part that’s missing right now. The problem with people journaling with Instagram and Facebook as a means to keep a journal or a diary is that you’re only posting things that you’re willing to have other people look at.
Our lives are made up of things that are only meaningful to us and don’t mean squat to other people. We give people a space to log moments of their life that they know are meaningful to them and no one else.
If we can build a social media experience where there’s essentially a Venn diagram of moments of you are willing to share with not a thousand people but a closer group of people that are really important to you then that is our sweet spot.
What is the stuff that you meant to be private, that you are willing to share with people that you trust? That is how we’re beginning our approach with some of the social stuff.
It’s interesting if you take a bird’s eye view of how things have progressed. If you look at the 50s, for example. Everybody was all about fast food, McDonald’s was new. That was a huge thing. Our generation has been a little bit more intelligent with what we consume. There’s a backlash. We don’t want unhealthy things that are killing us.
I assume the same thing is going to happen with social media. We’ve got the phase I where it’s all about engagement, it’s all about addiction. Then we start to become more conscious about the fact that, “Hey, this isn’t healthy.” How do we keep the good stuff and get rid of the bad stuff? It’s interesting to see the role you and others will play in this phase II more thoughtful media.
It’s also fascinating to see your own personal transition as a founder. A lot of times people wonder, what’s my mission supposed to be if I start a company? I think the answer is that it changes. You get started for yourself, something that’s useful. You want to change your life in some way and then if things are successful and they work out things evolve.
So you’ve gone from “Hey, I want to remember my trips in a way that’s easy and helpful for me.” To, “Hey, other people should do this.” To hey, eventually, “How do I improve social media for an entire generation of people?” What has that transition been like for you as a founder and what do you look forward to doing in the future?
Honestly I come from it from an angle of I have some convictions on how I think would be a really good version of social media that maybe it’s the perfect version of social media for 50 million people. Not a couple of billion.
Maybe there’s not one size fits all for social media. I have a vision in my head for what I think – in the same way I thought, “Hey, this 1 Second Everyday thing is really helping me and I think there’s enough other people out there who would agree.” I’m coming at this social media angle in a very similar fashion. Is it for 3 billion, 7 billion people? Maybe not.
But if we make something that is what 50 million people out there want and we’re profitable and we can always ensure we’re innovating and doing what’s best for our customers, I feel like this is a huge win. That’s one of the reasons we thought NDBC was all aligned to not to force ourselves into things that didn’t necessarily make sense.
I want it to exist. It doesn't have to be us. I have my convictions and we’re going to build it and hopefully it works but if in ten years 20 other companies tackle this better version of social media and some of them win and luckily, for us we’re relatively in a position right now even if we don’t succeed we’re still going to be a growing, profitable business, not maybe growing as fast as we prefer.
I think it is really important for humanity for some of these better options to exist. If they exist, it doesn't have to be me. I’m not driven by ego. I want as many people to take a crack at building a better version of social media. That drives me more than it having to be me.
It’s just something that I think the market forces are going to make it happen. More and more these publicly traded companies are optimizing for things that –. My Instagram is basically just ads at this point. I just scroll. More ads than posts.
It’s like every three posts is an ad.
They’re frankly good at targeting me. I’m afraid to just google things sometimes. I have to go into incognito mode because I’m going to get targeted for this non-stop for the next three weeks. How did we get here?
This is not how I want to live my life, man, thinking, “I’ve got to go into incognito mode to Google this because otherwise every ad I see is going to be about this.” Who do I have to pay a subscription fee to not be targeted for ads everywhere?
Everything is evolving, everything is maturing and one way or another we’re going to be in a better place in a decade with how people consume and how people are aware of the pros and cons of social media.
Listen, Cesar, you’ve been through a lot. You had a successful Kickstarter and broke records there. You gave a TED Talk. You’ve been featured in movies. You’re competing with Instagram and TikTok on the app store. But you came from pretty humble beginnings. That’s where most listeners are at right now. What’s your advice for somebody who is just considering starting a business and might not have any successes under their belt quite yet?
I’ve always been somebody who had side projects. I get an idea, somehow I become really passionate about the idea and I start thinking about how do I make that idea happen. Some things are obviously just too big or too this or too that.
You try to find that Venn diagram of what I am actually have control over and it always leads to something. You never know what’s going to come of it. I would say if there’s anything that’s been lingering in your head, you can’t stop thinking about it. That’s basically me. If I can’t stop thinking about it, I have to do something about it.
Then there really is just no limit of resources online to start figuring out, “What’s the next step?” There’s that famous, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” I gave a TEDx Talk like two years after I gave my main stage talk. I forgot what it was called. It was a local one near where I grew up. They just asked me to speak and I was like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll go blab for ten minutes.”
I gave a talk called, “The bike, the bike, the bike (ph).” I did not know how to ride a bike. I grew up ashamed that I did not know how to ride a bike. I didn’t tell anybody. Kept it a secret. If somebody was like, “Hey, let’s go out and use bikes.” I’d be like, “Oh, I can’t. My knee hurts.” I’d lie just because I was too embarrassed to say, “I don’t know how to ride a bike.” It was eating at me for a long time. Eventually I am like, “I’ve got to do something about this. I’m so jealous of all these people who commute around New York on bicycles.” This is like 2007. I thought, where do I start? Where do I start? I need a bike. So I googled folding bikes. I bought a folding bike through the internet, a really cheap one, that I could throw in the back of my car and I could drive to the middle of nowhere, out in the boonies, where no one could see me.
Just practice in private.
I would just fall and fall and fall, all on my own because I was too embarrassed to even ask someone to teach me how to ride a bike. I was just like, “I’m going to buy a folding bike I can put in the back of my car, I’m going to drive out to where no one can see me, a giant parking lot, an empty parking lot.
I did that like three nights until I was going in a straight line and I was like, “Oh, my god. I can’t believe it. This is amazing. Unbelievable.” And eventually I worked up to the courage to just pick a bike lane in New York and go in a straight line. Brakes, straight line. That’s it. Brakes, straight line. Eventually I made a turn. Eventually I made another turn.
Within a year I was that prick going through cars in New York, just going as fast as I can, going through red lights because I just became, I fell in love with biking and I couldn't stop doing it. The reason I say that story is it was a goal for me to bike around New York City and bike but I didn’t know what to do and I had to divide the problem until what was left was so easy I couldn't not do it.
And what I got left with was, “I have to buy a bike.” That’s easy. That’s not about riding a bicycle, that’s not about anything. I got to buy a bike. Once it got to that, all right. Now there was a bike sitting at my place. I was like, all right, what’s the next tiny little thing I need to do? All right, I need to throw it in the back of my car.
The next tiny little thing I need to do is drive to the middle of nowhere. I just needed to divide the steps until they are too tiny to not do them. That’s gotten me through a lot of big picture things that I didn’t know. I literally started by googling, “How do I make an app?”
I just didn’t know. I was like, “Where do I start? What’s the first thing I need to do? I need to google some answers.” Google. Then I need devs. What’s a tiny little thing I can do today to get the ball to move? All right, I’m going to email three dev shops and see if I can get a meet. Tiny, that’s a 15 minute thing. Three dev shops, three [email protected] that dev shop. That’s basically everything. Just divide, divide, divide until it’s too easy not to do it.
There’s almost no number of baby steps you can’t take to get to someplace meaningful.
Correct. You can always keep dividing until something is just too easy.
Listen, Cesar, that’s great advice. It’s inspirational. I need to remember that myself. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this monster episode with me. I, as I mentioned earlier, am already addicted to 1 Second Everyday. I love it. Hopefully some listeners will find some value in the app as well. Can you tell everybody where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to? How they can reach out to you if you’re open to that?
The website is 1se.co, 1 Second Everyday at everything. The app is called what it is. I’m Cesar Kuriyama at all the things. I’m pretty easy to poke and prod. If anyone every has anything they want to – I don’t necessarily reply right away but I do eventually get to it. I do try my best to be helpful. A lot of people help me get to this point. I’m always trying to pay it forward even if it takes me awhile to get to it. I just wrote someone on Instagram a bible based on a message of something they were working on that they didn’t know how to move forward. Perfect example, I’m just going to get started on this. I took a tiny baby step, “I’m just going to bullet point this.” And I spent 30 minutes writing the whole thing. I’m on this stream of thought now. That’s what happens most of the time. You divide, divide, divide into something so easy that once you get started you get excited and keep going. My full name, Cesar Kuriyama, 1 Second Everyday at all the things.
All right. Thanks again, Cesar.
Courtland, thank you so much.
Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode I would love it if you reached out to Cesar and let him know. He is @CesarKuriyama on Twitter. If you’re interested in hearing my thoughts on the episode, subscribe to the Indie Hackers podcast newsletter. You can find that at IndieHackers.com/podcast. Thanks for listening and I will see you next time.
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