Baird Hall's (@BairdHall) first attempt at starting up didn't go so well. When all was said and done, he'd burned through his savings without finding a working business model, and he and his co-founder were forced to sell the business for parts. In other words: they were ready for round 2. In this episode, Baird explains why he can't stop bootstrapping businesses, why it's important to work together with a great team, and how listening to users helped him grow Wavve and Zubtitle to over $100,000/month in total recurring revenue.
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hacker's 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?
The goal here, as always, is so the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses. Today, I am talking to Baird Hall, the founder of a company called Wavve. Baird, welcome to the show.
Hey, Courtland. Thanks for having me. I’m a long-time listener, so this is fun to be on the other side of it.
It’s fun to have you. I think one of my favorite things about the podcast, now-a-days, is that Indie Hackers has been around for long enough that it can bring on guests like you, who were on the forum making posts and comments about getting started with your business and, apparently, you’ve been listening to the podcast.
Now, you get to be on the podcast, and we can talk about how far you’ve come and how successful you’ve been. You started Wavve way back in December 2016. How much revenue is Wavve doing today?
We just passed the $76k MRR mark recently and still have a pretty big growth. We really launched it in January 2017 and I think that’s about when I started showing up on the Indie Hackers forums.
That was about seven months after I started Indie Hackers. Since then, you’ve also somehow found the time to start another business called Zubtitle. How much revenue is that one doing?
I think we’re at $34,000 a month. It seemed like a great idea at the time to start another boot-strapped SaaS business and now, it’s great, but that first year was pretty tough, but we’ll get into that later.
It sounds like it’s going well. I mean, 76 and 34—that’s $100,000 a month in revenue that you’ve basically added, starting at $0, three years ago. Of course, that’s not all going to your pocket. You have expenses, you have co-founders, but I have to imagine that your life has changed quite a bit.
It’s not a ton different. I think the biggest difference is the pressure’s off a little bit. That first year, too, when we were getting started, at that point, I was in the hole, too, from a failed start-up that we can talk about. Now, the bills are getting paid, there’s definitely less pressure, but aside from that, not much has changed.
My original goal was to create a business that would let me work part-time and make full-time, so my wife and I could travel. We really love to do that, but then we wind up having a baby--I got a four-month-old at home. It’s funny that I’ve traded that freedom in for daddy day care a couple days a week.
Were you a founder before Wavve and before this failed business or was this your first foray into starting companies?
No, this was the first. 2016, that first failed start-up that we tried was my first go at it. Before that, in 2010, out of college I worked for a big cell phone company here in Charleston, South Carolina, where I live. It’s a big publicly traded company and I was entry level call-center, tier one support, basically.
I did that for a year and a half, then I moved to a start-up in town and I was a sales engineer for four years and that was a great experience. I think I was the ninth employee and I was there for a little over four years and they hit 50 employees about the time that I left and decided to work on my own thing. I was lucky to be able to build sales and support skills before jumping into taking a shot at it.
That’s quite a journey from call-center employee to sales to $100,000 a month in revenue as a tech founder. How did you make that transition from being an employee to being a founder?
At the time, I didn’t know why I wanted to do it. I just had this gut feeling that I wanted to, at some point, try my own thing. My wife and I just got married in 2015, January 2, 2015. Then mid-February, I told her I wanted to leave my job and start a company and this was the first time she had heard anything of that.
She gets a lot of thanks for sticking with me, especially through that first year, too. She likes to joke that she’s going to put “angel investor” on her LinkedIn profile one day because she really helped me get through that first year and a half.
Anyway, I didn’t know exactly why I wanted to do it, but looking back, I know that throughout my whole life, I’ve always been searching for some type of creative outlet, never been good at arts or music or anything like that. I was looking for a way to create things and it turns out that building companies is my outlet for that and I don’t think I’d really want to do anything else now.
Most people who aren’t software engineers may think about building companies, or like, “I’m going to open a grocery store or a restaurant,” or something in the physical world. What convinced you that tech companies were the way to go, especially considering that you couldn’t code yourself?
I’d been working in tech for five years, so that’s where my head space was, and I had just been with start-up as they grew pretty fast over those four years, I got to see a lot of the check points that they hit very different. It was a B2B enterprise business for non-profits. I guess my head was just in tech and I’ve always really enjoyed it.
The original idea was I wanted to build an app. I’m a big sports radio fan and now, sports podcasts, of course, but back then, I was listening to a lot of sports radio. I was driving around in my sales job and I was so frustrated that I couldn’t use my phone to talk to other listeners of the show, debate sports with them, so the original idea was to create an app that allowed callers, or listeners of radio shows, to virtually call in with their one or two minute take and talk to other listeners.
I convinced my co-founder, Nick, who is still my partner today, to help build it and it was a rough go from a business standpoint. Great idea, we got a lot of users and it was a lot of fun and we learned a lot by making all the mistakes. That was the original starting point for me.
You’re making all the mistakes. Tell us about a few of them.
The biggest one was we thought a feature was cool, so we would build it and we always thought that next feature was going to be the thing that got us on the right track. We would say, “Ah, man. If we could build this integration,” or “If we could get social media integrate so it’s easier for people to sign-up, that will set us on the right path.”
I don’t know if we’ve coined the term, I don’t think we have, but it’s basically like the “feature fallacy,” and we kept chasing that. Nick, my co-founder, he really put the work in to make that product the best he could, but the problem wasn’t the product. There was no business behind it.
We could never raise money and we tried so many different types of business models: sponsorships, subscriptions, ads, everything. We could model that on paper, but we could never actually get any positive traction for any of the revenue model.
We worked on that product from 2015, towards the end of 2016, and spent my savings on it. I probably put $30,000, most of my savings into it. Nick put all that time into it and we wound up selling it for parts and, definitely, was in the hole from all that. It was a good experience of what not to do and I was just stressed out all the time.
There was so much weight on my shoulders because it was such a swing for the fences. It felt like we were either going to either hit a home run or strike out and we learned, during that time, that we don’t ever want to run a ventured back business where you’re waiting on somebody to invest in your company the next milestone or next checkpoint that you have to hit. It’s just really stressful.
A lot of people start things at fail. I’ve been there about half a dozen times. What do you think was the hardest part of that stress and going through that failure and seeing your idea not work out the way that you planned?
There were a lot of things, signs, indicating that it was working. We had a lot of users that loved using it and we had a lot of big ESPN and FOX Sports radio shows using the product, but we could never get anyone to pay for it. On one hand, it was definitely a success, just to build something and have somebody use it.
How many people don’t even make it that far? We try to be positive about it, but it was more tough running out of cash and looking back at all that time and effort that we put into it. It really stung towards the tail end of that the most.
The lesson learned is we should have realized a lot earlier that there wasn’t a business to be had and we should have kept it on the side as a fun side project.
There’s always got to be some story you tell yourself, looking back, as to why this was worth it, why did you invest all that time, what did you get out of it?
Some of the things I’ve started in the past that have not worked out, I can at least look back and say, “I learned a ton. I learned a lot about how to code, I became a better front-end and back-end developer, a better designer, and better at sales.” What do you think you took out of this failed experiment?
I think the biggest lesson we learned was, we need to stop coming up with our own ideas and listen to the market and listen to what people want. That company was more B2C focused. We felt like all the pressure lied on us to come up with the ideas and try to manufacture growth on our own.
We weren’t doing a lot of listening, even from our users or from the partners that were using the product. The big lesson was once we made that shift of, “Maybe our ideas aren’t that great, but we can start an idea and then start listening to what people think about it and follow down that road, rather than feel like we’re pushing something up a hill.”
That was definitely the biggest lesson. Marketing to consumers is really tough, definitely not for us, but I learned a lot as far as how to promote things on social media and how to get in front of consumers, which we don’t do a lot of now because a lot of those principles still carry over to marketing in any respect.
At this point, you’ve got one failed start-up under your belt, you’re officially an entrepreneur. A lot of people quit at this point in time. They’re just like, “I just blew through my savings, that wasn’t pleasant. I worked so hard, put all this time into it, maybe I learned some lessons, but I don’t really want to go through that again. It was nice and stable having a job.”
Why didn’t you guys quit and go get jobs?
The answer was right in front of our faces, so towards the end of that failed start-up, we were working on a marketing tactic of sharing audio content submitted by these users and putting it on social media.
The thought was if we could share what these people are talking about on our platform, on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, other people will hear it, they’ll click the link, they’ll download the app and come join in on the conversation.
We learned that really quickly that you can’t actually put audio on social media. You can’t upload an mp3 file to Facebook, you have to turn it into a video file and then share it. Nick, my co-founder, over weekend, built this really quick internal tool.
He cobbled some existing tools together and built me a quick interface so that I could create these mp4 videos—you know, turning audio into mp4 videos—and we were using them internally and sharing these videos on social media.
As we were realizing that we needed to sell that failing company, we started getting emails from podcasters and other people that were saying, “Hey, your app is not interesting, but how are you creating these little videos?” and the lightbulb just went off. We were like, “We are working on the wrong thing. This little tool that we built is actually more interesting to other people than the whole app platform.”
I don’t know what I would have done if we didn’t have that realization those last few months. I guess I might have gone and got a job, but at the same time, we sold the IP, the code base, and all the functionality.
We sold that and that took about two, three months to actually get that sale completed and while that was happening, we were spinning out that internal tool as its own product.
Did the sale help you finance working this other product? Because you had blown through your savings at this point. How do you find the time and the money to work on, yet another start-up when you’ve already been going for so long and things haven’t worked out?
We sold the previous – we didn’t sell the company, we sold all the IP for it, for about $27,000 and after two years of two people working full-time on something that was nothing.
We did take that money and we started the new LLC and funded it. I think we both put $1,000 into the new LLC and we both instantly said, “Let’s work on this new thing,” but we both had to go get freelance contracts. There’s a group here in Charleston, a group of freelancers that we worked with and worked on a variety of projects half the time to pay bills and spent the other half working on Wavve.
I spend a lot of time freelancing in my twenties and I was making a considerable amount of money as a developer doing this remote contract work. I always had these profitable side projects that I was trying to get off the ground, I was trying to make them work, but I never had the right level of motivation.
I couldn’t get enough momentum going to take them that seriously because when I compared how little money those are making to how much my hourly rate was as a freelancer, the math didn’t add up and I couldn’t take it seriously until I eventually quit freelancing. How did you maintain the motivation to keep working on Wavve when you were freelancing?
We felt the same way. Valuing your time was very difficult at that point. What we did was our sites with Wavve, we have absolutely never thought that it would get to anywhere to the size that it has as far as recurring revenue goes.
Our initial goal with Wavve was, we thought it would be really cool if we could get this business generating enough income for both of us to pay our mortgage, which was about $1,800, $1,700. That was our goal and we were working to get it to that point and it just kept growing each month, little bit by little bit and we’ve always had very linear month over month growth.
It started at 40%, dropped down to 30% and then stayed at 20% for a really long time and every month, we were like, “We can’t stop working on it because it keeps growing and that possibility is still there.”
When we first started, something else that was really important, Nick has much more of a finance mind than I do, and he created a lot of different models, even before we decided to get into it. We really took our time much more seriously this go around.
We said, “Look, if we’re going to put time into this, we need to understand what it could potentially be.” We would model it out based on what we thought the price could be, based on how many users we could get, and a pretty simple financial model.
We created three different ones. We created the minimum, viable model, as in if we made less than this, we’re not even going to work on it anymore. There’s kind of that, “Hey, let’s pay our mortgages and here’s the model of what that looks like.”
Then, we created a better case scenario and then the best-case scenario, which we kept in mind, too. We at least had an idea that, “Okay, this thing is going to fall somewhere on this spectrum, between these two endpoints, and anywhere in that, we’re going to be happy with the result and at least try it and see what happens.”
That’s so smart because so many founders get stuck in this weird no-man’s land. The zone where, “My company’s not doing that great, maybe I should quit, but it’s got potential. I’ve got a few more things I can try and I can add. Maybe I should stick with it.” It’s really hard to make that decision.
You could spend years of your life working on something that has no chance of working just because you haven’t set any defined cut-off point. You don’t have any criteria for evaluating whether or not it’s worth continuing to work on, where it sounds like the two of you made that decision up front and you knew, “Maybe if it goes this long without hitting this amount of revenue, we quit and move on to something else.”
For us, quitting was never really a thought because we started making money really quickly with Wavve. From month two on, we were at least paying our AWS bills, so we knew right away that this thing has some type of legs.
We didn’t know exactly what, so it was less about quitting and more about, “Is this a side gig or is this a full-time project?” Our goal has always been to build our own company that can support us full-time.
We’re not interested in side-gigs, but if the worst case scenario is this thing kind of lives on its own and, who knows, does whatever, then anything in that mindset is a positive result. I think that’s where our head was. We never really thought about quitting.
We were like, “If this doesn’t work, maybe it will generate a couple hundred bucks a month and we’ll try another one.” It felt, very much, low-pressure and get to work on it and see what happens, really revisit every quarter, just about and do a health check on the business, see how it’s doing, and make a decision whether or not to push forward or how much time to spend on it.
Let’s talk about these early days. When I think about starting a project, or even just building a feature, what’s going through my mind is how important it is to focus on the problem that I’m trying to solve.
What is the problem I’m solving, who are the people who have this problem, how frequently do they have this problem, how much they care about it, how much time, money and energy are they already investing in solving this problem, because all this stuff is going to completely dictate what your business looks like and how well it works.
I think this way because I’m, largely, very theoretical. I literally talk to founders, interview founders for a living and the reality on the ground is usually a little more practical, a little bit messier.
How were you wrapping your mind around the idea behind Wavve in the early days and what made you confident that it was going to succeed before you started getting revenue in the door?
It was pretty clear early on because there were podcasters that we saw on social media and we were doing research and looking around. We saw podcasters already creating this style of videos, you’ve probably seen them on social media, where it’s a picture with an animated waveform and some text and some captions.
A lot of the more prominent podcasters would have a video coordinator of some type, somebody actually creating these videos in Adobe After Effects. So we were seeing podcasters were already doing this thing, but they were just doing it very manually and for every one podcaster that has the resources to do that, there’s 100 more that want to get to that point.
We knew that there was at least some appetite for it in the market. We didn’t exactly know how much, so just seeing those patterns is really important as an entrepreneur, is making sure that you’re actually looking out in the market and actually seeing something happening because most of us boot-strappers are not creating some new category.
Most of us are improving an existing one or hooking into an existing market, something like that. So that was really important for us to make sure that people are doing this and that there’s other people that want to do it as well.
Early on, for me, it was just a lot of direct email and social media direct messages. Back then, you could message just about anybody and we would reach out to podcasters. We also tried musicians, audio book authors, journalists, we tested some other markets because, it seems obvious now, but back then, podcasting was not what it is today.
We knew it was growing, but we didn’t know it was going to turn into this booming industry. We actually did some validation early on. I was like, “What different types of audio creators could use this?”
We would use direct outreach to reach out to 50 podcasters, 50 musicians, 50 journalists and see what happens and the podcasters, right away, the reaction we would get through our emails and social media messages were far and beyond more positive than any other group that we tested.
I love that you said that you were looking out in the market, you were looking in what people were doing, you’re sending these emails. A lot of Indie Hackers are solo-founders and they’re developers.
I think it’s easy for them to spend all their time just coding and building the product and maybe they have this vague sense, like, “Hey, I should probably be doing other things, too, but I’m not really sure what those other things are, how to do them well, so I’m just going to keep coding and, hopefully, everything will just work out.”
And usually, if you’re thinking like that, things don’t work out. Because you had a co-founder, Nick could focus on the code, the product, and the financial modeling, or whatever else he was doing. What kinds of things were you doing in those early days while he was coding the product? Were you just sending tons of emails to customers?
Yes, lots and lots of out-bound communication. Emails and social media messages, mainly, and I was also doing some blogging, getting the content marketing engine going, but that takes time to generate results and we knew we needed to get in front of people as quickly as possible.
It was tough doing that. Our product started—the original package was $7 a month, so sitting there all day sending out 50 emails to podcasters, hoping to get a $7 sale is pretty brutal, but that was really the only way we could have done it. We didn’t have an audience and we didn’t have any money.
The only thing we had was some time and so, that left direct marketing. I guess we could have done social media, but that’s not a direct result, either. It was kind of the only option. It was a great way to get in front of podcasters and learn what resonates with them and what type of copy should we use. Direct sales is a great way to test pricing as well because you can email ten different people ten different prices and see what comes back. It was definitely beneficial. That’s really what I spent most of my time doing and then support, as well.
We had Drift installed on our website, initially, and anytime somebody came to the website and had a question, I was ready to answer as soon as possible. Somebody landing on our website and sending us a message was gold to me. I spent a lot of time chatting with people.
I actually looked at our Intercom—we put in Intercom in early 2018—and I was looking at our stats the other day and we’ve had over 10,000 conversations in the last 24 months. I think it averages out to be 14 a day, or something like that.
Back then, of course, we weren’t getting that many, but we spent a lot of time emailing and messaging people and then chatting with them when they came to the website and learning on the fly.
I talked to Rob Fitzpatrick a few weeks ago. He also has a background in sales and he wrote a book called The Mom Test. It’s all about how to talk to your customers as a founder and really get the truth out of them.
Are there any truths that you learned from having all these customer conversations and interacting with people that you never would have guessed without having those conversations?
We learned a lot about podcasters. I didn’t know anything about them. I’ve never podcasted in my life, aside from being a guest like this, as of late. Early on, it was just learning so much about podcasters, what their goals are, what their process is, how much time they have, all of them have some other business or other thing going on.
Really early on, it was just learning so much about podcasters and what they do. I’d done sales before, so I kind of knew that process, I knew why people buy things, how to get people’s attention. I’ve approached that already, so it was really more learning about the market through that those early days.
I’m on Indie Hackers right now. I’m looking at some of your old comments from three years ago, 2017, and you have one that’s explicitly about cold emailing people. I was talking about cold emailing; I did the same thing with Indie Hackers to find my first interviewees.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t making any money from them. I was just doing free interviews. In your comment, you actually gave some tips for how to make cold emails work. You said that instead of scraping large lists for sending out email blasts, you would, instead, spend your time researching prospects that fit into a specific persona that you were were targeting and then you would personalize each email and you make sure to not come across as salesy.
You said you sent 10-30 cold emails a day until you had your first dozen or so customers, which took two weeks. I think a lot of people try this cold email strategy and they don’t have that kind of success. What additional tips would you give to people who are struggling with this?
The first step is researching. A good salesperson spends time researching who they’re going to reach out to. That’s why we hate salespeople so much and, especially, that’s why we hate cold email salespeople because they just buy a list that you happen to be on and you get this very boilerplate email that is very salesy, because they pitch their company, they say something that tries to be personable and then they try to actually sell you all in one big email.
That is not the way to do it. If you’re worried about doing direct sales because you don’t want to feel slimy and sleezy, don’t worry because you don’t have to do it that way and it’s not the right way to do it. The first thing is, even if you’re selling a $7 product like we did, take the time to do research and have a reason to reach out to somebody and they’re going to appreciate it.
Your life is going to be a lot easier if you take that extra time and do it and you’re going to have a better response rate, as well. The big piece of advice I would give to people that are nervous about doing sales is you have to understand that, yes, people hate being sold to. We all do, even salespeople hate being sold to.
At the same time, people love being attended to and cared for and there’s nothing better than somebody else solving problems for you authentically. That’s what we all want. We all want to interact with people, and we love that idea of being helped.
If you can approach sales authentically like that, it’s much less intimidating because you’re not coming as that sleezy salesman that gets a bad rap because the bad rap comes from lazy salespeople. They don’t want to do the research, they want to send out 1,000 emails, get a couple sales and move on.
That’s the other big advice I would give and the thing that kills me with cold emails is the length of them. They should be one or two sentences long. You really shouldn’t be sending a cold sales email. What you should be doing is sending an email to somebody and all you’re trying to do is get permission to have a conversation.
If I was going to try and sell you with Wavve, I’m not emailing you about our pricing tier and our features and how they work, I’m just sending you an email that says, “Hey Courtland, I love the podcast, I love what you’re doing for the Indie Hacker community. What are you doing to promote your podcast on social media?” and keep it really short.
If you don’t get a response, that means Courtland doesn’t care about social media. Fine, then I can’t help you. If you do get a response, you’re getting permission to start a conversation. I don’t know, that just seems a lot more friendly and easy rather than trying to sell someone in one email.
I love that and I would definitely respond to that email if you would send it to me because at that point, we’re just talking about podcasting and why wouldn’t I want to do that?
Yeah, and something else that gives salespeople a bad rep is a lot of them are stressed to hit their next number. They’re forcing it, they’re pushing. If you approach sales as, “I’m not forcing anything.”
The great thing about being an entrepreneur is you’re usually selling something new that’s novel and if somebody needs it, they’re going to tell you pretty quickly. If they don’t need it, you’ve got a huge, massive market to move on to.
There’s a lot of prospects out there, so you don’t have to force it with people. If they don’t seem interested, then move on to the next one, learn from each conversation. I know why people are intimidated by direct sales in general, but hopefully, those things can help lessen the intimidation factor there.
I want to add one thing that I think is cool about your story that a lot of people struggle with, which is that you kind of knew who your customer was. You were talking to people, you honed in on the fact that podcasters really liked this as opposed to other people doing audio.
Because you can describe who they are, these are podcasters, you know where to find them. So many people start a company where they don’t have a clearly defined customer, they don’t know who they’re selling to and so they can’t even do this because they have no idea who to email.
I think the old adage goes, “If you’re selling or marketing to everybody, then you’re not selling to anybody.” It just doesn’t work that way. You have to really know who your customer is and we actually niched down a lot farther than just that. Podcasting was a pretty big space in itself.
We said, “We’re not just going to blast any podcaster, let’s start with podcasters that are using their podcast to promote their business. That way, we’re at least getting a little bit of a B2B element.”
When we started doing that, we found that consultants, business coaches, people with a personal brand, bloggers and influencers that are using a podcast to sell products through their website, those people really were incentivized to promote their podcast because it helped their whole process of their whole business.
We found initially that was our group to start with and I would say that those people made up the majority of our first 100 customers. Those first 10 are brutal to get. Then, when we found out that that niche really was receptive to new marketing strategies and would use a product like ours, that made the next 50 customers or so a little bit easier.
What did your life look like in terms of the hours you were working at this point? Because you were freelancing, you were sending all these emails, you were discovering all these insights about customers. How did you find the time for all this stuff?
I was freelancing maybe three to four hours a day, I think, two to three hours. I think I made $30,000 freelancing that first year, so it wasn’t much. I wasn’t working a ton, but my wife and I were living in an apartment and she would leave for work.
She worked for a tech company downtown and I just sit at the kitchen table and send out emails and take support calls all day. That was pretty much it, take a break to go workout and hang with my wife for a little bit and then she goes to bed early and I usually stay up late and night is when we would think about, “What do we need to work on product wise?”
That’s when Nick is in his creative engineering mode. Those days were very, very monotonous and it definitely felt like—it’s not too much of a grind because you’re just sitting there at your laptop all day, but mentally, it was definitely tough to stay disciplined and constant with that.
Especially if you’re selling that’s $5-$7 a month. Not making that much money.
We were selling a $7 product and having to discount it every now and then.
Aw, man. How long did it take you to actually get to the point where you could start making real money and eventually quit your job and stop freelancing?
It wasn’t until the next year. We started in 2017, I freelanced all of 2017 and then 2018, I can’t remember exactly what MRR number we were at, but it was still growing and that’s when it started clicking, like, “Oh, wait a second, we might be able to push this thing a little bit farther and work on it more full-time.” I took on a big free-lancing contract the first quarter of 2018.
That was a really heavy contract, that was tough, because it was actually starting to take off a little bit and then I was working, pretty much, full-time, but that was just for a quarter and then at the end of that, I had saved up enough and Wavve was starting to pay us a little bit.
I guess it was probably 15 months after we launched Wavve that I actually started focusing on it full-time.
Was that 15 months of just nothing but sending cold emails or did you find a different strategy that was a little bit less monotonous at some point?
No, I’d say the first six months was really heavy outbound and then through that process, we really started understanding who our customers were, what got their attention and then we moved to content marketing. We started blogging. For us, it took about eight months for blogging to start seeing good results and start getting some traffic from SEO.
We had been doing social media, too. It was definitely, very much a snowball effect. I’ve written a blog post every week—not every week, but that was the goal, pretty much consistently—one a week since we launched. We got up enough content library to where it all started coming inbound and we stopped doing outbound probably after eight months.
If you could go back in time to yourself as a fledgling blogger who was just getting started, what would you tell him to help him skip a few steps ahead and blog effectively?
That’s a good question. I don’t think I’m the best blogger out there. I just keep it really simple. I just try to put myself in the shoes of my target customer and ask what are the things throughout the day that they’re googling for?
For podcasters, it was, “How do I grow my show? How do I promote my show on Facebook?” There’s a lot of how-to articles early on. Those are the easiest ways to get started. Then, when we exhausted all of those how-tos across all of the different social platforms and things like that, we gravitated towards more podcasts.
I don’t want to call it “thought leadership,” but just podcasting strategies. How to interview people, how to make sure that you’re editing properly, what tools do you use, things like that. Content marketing is kind of a black hole, where you can go as deep as you want with key word strategies and making sure your content is formed in all these perfect ways.
But I would say keep it simple, write short articles and try to think about how you can help educate your audience. It takes a lot of time, so one article, generally, isn’t going to make or break your blogging success, so you just have to stay consistent. I don’t know if six months is a typical advice that people would give, but that’s what is was for us. That’s how long it took.
At some point during this whole journey, you decided that one business wasn’t enough. You weren’t just going to stick with Wavve, even though it was growing, things are working out, you decided to start a second business called Zubtitle. Why did you start that? What’s the story there?
Zubtitle is another example of a business spawning from another. With Wavve, we had always had customers asking us—a big feature request was always, “How do I add subtitles or captions to my videos?”
Every time that we evaluated that project from an engineering standpoint and the ongoing cost of it, we pushed it off and we kept punting on it because it was going to be a lot of work to integrate that and to get the UI working properly.
We kept punting it and it was definitely our number one feature request and that was painful, too, by the way, just saying “no” to a feature, because we didn’t think the ROI was there, even though that’s what people really wanted. People were still signing up and using our product without that feature, it was just something they wanted added on badly.
The idea was if we create this video captioning tool for our product, it could actually work with any video, not just audio turned into video that Wavve creates, so why don’t we create this as a separate product and integrate it into Wavve. That way, we can sell to people that are recording actual video footage, then integrate it with Wavve and upsell customers there.
That was the original though and I was naïve enough to think, “This will be so easy. We’re just going to launch it, I’ll do all the same marketing, we’ll do some direct outreach, we’ll do some content marketing, we’ll do the same pricing strategy, and this will be no problem.”
We launched that in 2018 and we just paid ourselves for the first time in January of 2020, so that took two years as well to make any money personally from it. That one was almost just as long of a road, but that was why we did it and it turned out to be the right call because it’s a totally separate market that Zubtitle serves and it integrates with Wavve and powers that for all the Wavve users.
I was going to ask where you got the confidence to switch into this new business and did you feel like you were giving up on your old business, but you have that naïve founder optimism, where you’re so sure things are going to work and you’re going to have this rosy picture of how it’s all going to work.
I think sometimes, you need that to propel yourself into what ends up being a pretty slow and painful process. It would be unrealistic to convince yourself to go through with it.
I was lucky at the time because I had been full-time with Wavve for six months or so and Wavve, it was starting to run itself to some degree. Obviously, we work on it every day, but we’ve really built it to be as automated as possible, so I had a little time opened up.
I was used to freelancing anyway with that other half of my day, so I was ready to take on a new project.
There’s this book called Traction written by Justin Mares, who’s been a guest on this podcast before and Gabriel Weinberg. It’s all about the different channels you can use to find customers, grow your business.
There’s sales, email, advertisement, blogging, and SEO. I think there’s something like 19 channels in there. What would you say were the most successful channels for you later on as Wavve continued to grow?
Was it always just SEO? I know you stopped doing those direct email outreach. What else worked?
I think the biggest benefit that we had with Wavve was that users were creating content that they would then share on social media. What we found out early on with Wavve customers is a lot of them were buying, originally, just because that first set of customers was buying just because there were already creating these videos very manually and they wanted a faster way to do it.
The more we talked to people that weren’t doing it, podcasters before buying Wavve would tell us, “I just want to look like GaryVee,” or, “I want to look like (insert very popular podcaster).” We learned that they really cared about the appearance of their podcasts on social media.
It’s definitely like they’re looking at their peers a lot and they want to stand out and separate themselves from the crowd. One thing that we’ve always done early on is really focused on sharp, good looking animations and making sure that the elements of the video are very pleasing to the eye, so that when they share it on social media, they’ll feel very proud of that.
It’s really tapping into that emotion of being proud of what you’re sharing and that’s why a lot of customers love Wavve. We brought a third partner on named Rob, who’s a really sharp engineer, and he was actually our specialist on the animation side and he created all of these custom animations from scratch.
People would see those on social media and ask the person that posted it, “Hey, how did you do that?” and they would share Wavve and that was really when things started taking off is when we created those really good looking animations and word of mouth marketing started to kick in.
That’s been the best advantage that we’ve had as far as our growth goes. Sure, content marketing is great, and we’ve launched an affiliate program, which is great. I don’t know if that’s a chapter in the Traction book, but I guess we would call that “engineering as marketing”. It was probably the biggest advantage that we had.
It’s like product driven growth, I’m not sure if it’s in Traction either, but it’s great because it’s free. Essentially, you’re building your product, it exists forever and now, you just get this free growth but you don’t have to write blog posts, you don’t have to advertise, you’re just getting people recommending your product or teaching others about it just by using it.
Listening to your story, it reminds me why I get so frustrated at people who launch something, and it doesn’t work in a couple of weeks and they quit. So much of what led to your overall success overtime were just these things that you learned on the job from selling and seeing what worked and talking to people.
You probably had no idea, in the very early days, that one of the problems that you were solving was just letting these fledgling podcasters look more professional, look like they’re heroes, look like GaryVee.
But once you realized that, you can start doing all sorts of specific stuff to help people get that feeling and solve that problem and you’re never going to uncover that unless you stick with your business and keep talking to people and keep trying things out.
I couldn’t imagine doing this and not being interested in other people. I think that’s really what’s driven us is we’re just curious. We want to know what makes podcasters tick. We talk to them, we chat with them, we ask them questions and we try to read between the lines and see what they really want.
It took a long time, a lot of conversations on Intercom to really distill down what people wanted because a lot of times, people don’t know what they want, but they’ll get pretty close to telling you. I think the best advice is you’ve got to have a certain level of empathy just to be able to put yourself in somebody’s shoes when you’re chatting with them and then say, “That sounds really tough. How would you improve that, how do you want it to be?”
And just chat with them. I think that’s been a big event. We’ve always put customer support as a massive priority for us. We try to have very fast response times and we try to help people as fast as possible.
It builds trust with them so that then they’ll tell you these things and you can get the real story after you’ve chatted with someone a couple times. They’ll tell you what their real dreams, their passions are. Having empathy and just being willing to take the time to listen to people.
Couldn’t agree more. There’s so much you learn from listening to what people say and it seems like it’s going to be unproductive. You’re like, “I’ve got code to write, I’ve got features to build, do I really just want to talk to people on the off-chance that they tell me something useful?”
A lot of the times, they won’t tell you that much useful stuff, but here’s the thing. If you authentically like the customers that you’re serving, then you’re going to want to talk to them anyway because it’s just fun to talk to people that you like. Then, every now and then, they’re going to say some stuff that changes your mindset.
With Indie Hackers, I first built a forum with this very utilitarian goal. I thought, “Hey, founders have problems. They need to ask questions, they need to get answers, so that’s what the forum is for.”
Whereas, I’ve talked to so many Indie Hackers since then and just learned how they are actually using it and a lot of people are just like, “I get tired when I’m working or I’m bored at the bus stop, so I open up Indie Hackers because I just want to learn something. If I’m going to be distracted, I don’t want to go on Instagram, I want to be distracted in a useful way.”
I would never know that if I didn’t talk to people and that changes how I build the forum and what I want it to do. Can’t agree more with what you’re saying. I think founders should really think, from the get-go, “Who do I actually like talking to?” and try to build a product for those kind of people.
I also don’t want to sound like, “You have to go out and talk to 100 people before you launch your product.” That’s definitely not the case. I think you just need to find a good balance.
You also don’t want to not launch your product for so long and just sit there and talk to people forever when you could have been getting actual feedback on your product. I think we did a good job of that early on, where we put something out there, we get a little feedback, we talk to people, we take a break and we build whatever we found and then we would launch it.
Then, we would get feedback on that and it was like a cycle. It was almost every three weeks, we feel like we shifted our priority back and forth from, “Let’s figure out what people think about this,” to, “Let’s build it, then launch it, and go through all that process and support it.” There has to be a balance on both sides, too. Make sure you’re not falling on one side or the other too heavily.
One of the cool things that I know about your business is that you’ve been working with contractors. I think your strategy is you’re finding contractors who are pretty entrepreneurial themselves.
A lot of them are Indie Hackers, would-be Indie Hackers and so you’re kind of giving them the opportunity to work part-time on something, finance their lifestyle, while they also start businesses on the side.
How does that work and how do you find these people? Because they seem like the ideal, generalist, early employees to help you out.
Early on, we realized that we wanted to try and avoid having employees just because of all the administrative headache that comes with that. Early on, we didn’t have enough money to pay employees anyways, so we had to use contractors and the first contractor that we had was Rob, who actually is now a partner in our business.
We actually found him off Upwork. He had just graduated and was traveling Europe at the time and was just picking up some hours while he was traveling. I think he was in Italy at the time and we started working with him after a couple of months. He was very entrepreneurial as well.
He had tried a start-up and had some other ideas and he just did such great work that we were like, “We need to get this guy on board before he comes up with some product and takes off on his own.” That’s when it clicked for us, it’s like, “We really like these contractors that have other interests and their other business that they’re working on but need the contract to pay the bills.”
We also, in that case, suits the hours that they’re working are really important. They want to make sure that they keep that job so that they have that security in their back pocket as they’re working on their own products. We’ve done it a lot of different ways. We found people from Upwork, we have found people just through LinkedIn searching around.
Also, the contractor that handles a lot of our Marketing, who I also then brought for Wavve and then brought him as a partner for Zubtitle, so we really tried to bring in good people when we find them.
He was just a local connection here in town, so I think it’s hard to find great engineers because they’re generally not out at happy hours or certain different events, but your sales or marketing people are generally pretty easy to find around town, if you live in a fairly decent sized city and Charleston is not a big city at all, but we have a little bit of a start-up community where you can go and make connections.
Also, people that you meet through freelancing and past jobs are great to reach out to. We’ve done all those different things and had some success, getting those right people in place.
I’ve had a similar story with Indie Hackers, where some of the people we work with, we found them off Upwork. Rosie Sherry, our excellent community manager, is a founder herself.
Yeah, she’s great.
Yeah, she was a guest on the podcast, she boot-strapped her community to $1 million in revenue and now she’s running the Indie Hackers community, so it’s super cool to be able to work with people who are founders themselves because they understand the breath of skills that you have to have and they’re willing to do any part of the job, not just one specific thing.
They’re just the perfect early people to work with. I’ve thought about building something in Indie Hackers itself to allow Indie Hackers to hire each other.
I would love that. I’ve actually posted on Indie Hackers. That would be a great way to find people because you know that somebody’s on Indie Hackers and they’re working on side projects. You know they’re motivated and you know they’re fairly generalist, which is really important, and that they’re willing to learn on their own.
That’s the other thing about employees is we don’t have the ability to on-ramp somebody into a job and train them. We need somebody that can jump in tomorrow and start working and learning. That’s something else that is great about that Indie Hacker mentality. I would really like that.
What are your personal goals with all of this? At this point, at least from the outside looking in, it feels like you’ve made it. It feels like you’ve accomplished a lot of your goals and, as you said, Wavve is way bigger than you ever thought it could be. Where do you want to be in a couple of years?
We’ve been spending a lot of time on this lately. We’ve been working on Wavve for three years and we have some ideas of different products that we could add on to Wavve or different big initiatives we could do to grow that business, but we are realizing there’s really four core partners through both products.
We’re just really realizing that we love that initial creative starting and launching process. We really like it. That’s what really motivates us. Of course, the money’s great, but the money really is more an indicator that it’s working and it’s worth working on.
Now, we’re already starting to get the itch and we’re working on a few different concepts of some new products that we want to launch. I think for the foreseeable future, we’ve got a few more in us that we want to try and a couple different products. We’ll see how those go.
Aside from that, long-term goals, I think I’m really inspired by a lot of these investment groups that have started popping up, like Tyler and Earnest Capital, and there’s some other groups like SureSwift, and SAS Group that are buying and investing in other boot-strap companies, but we got to get a couple more wins to get to that level.
Long-term, I think that would be a lot of fun, but short-term, we really want to try and do this one or two more times. We’re really motivated. For some reason, we just love putting things out there and try to make them work.
I remember being a kid and reading about the most successful entrepreneurs and how they would make a lot of money and they’d be successful with their companies and then they would just work more and keep doing it.
I never understood it as a kid until I got older and started working on stuff and realizing it’s actually really fun to do it, especially once you get better at it and it starts working. You realize how many different things you can build, you realize how much of an impact you can have on others and how much fun it is to be in control of your own life and building whatever you want.
You were able to do this almost your first time out of the game and this is kind of your first stint as an Indie Hacker and yet, you’ve already built several successful companies. A lot of people I talk to flounder for months or years without any success.
What do you think brand new Indie Hackers can take away from your approach to things and your story that would help them succeed?
First off, I feel like I’ve floundered for a long time, so don’t feel alone if you feel like you’re doing that. There was even a whole year before I left my job where I was working on stuff think about concepts and products.
There was this whole other period before even getting started that felt like part of the journey as well. I think the first piece of advice I would give is entrepreneurship is much more of a journey than it is making one company work because even if you can get that first one to work, if you really want to be an entrepreneur, you’re probably going to keep doing it.
That should take some pressure off. The first one doesn’t have to be perfect as long as you keep a runway in front of you and don’t quit your job and blow your saving like I did, then you can hopefully have a couple more shots.
Definitely try and keep the pressure low and just keep working. Everybody’s story is going to be a little bit different. The things that I think have really helped us is getting a team involved, getting a team in place.
You solo founders out there, I am so impressed when somebody is able to create and bootstrap a SaaS product, sell it, market it, support it and do all of that all by themselves. Our partners and I, we could never imagine doing that.
If you have been struggling for a while by yourself, one idea would be go find a co-founder. That’s another long process in itself is to find the right partner for long-term, but it can be really worth it. Given the right team in place is really important and then trying to move fast.
Our success has correlated with our ability to make decisions quickly. It’s something we’ve gotten a lot better at over the years. So moving fast, making decisions, and trying to make good, quick, reversible decisions is also good, too.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Keep things moving along. I’m kind of getting off track a little bit, but those would definitely be the big picture items that I would advise people to do.
Keep your expectations low, don’t blow through your savings and also, don’t feel bad if it’s hard because it’s hard for everybody and if at all possible, work with a team of people that you can move fast and iterate together on ideas with. Baird Hall, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing your story and your learnings.
Hopefully, we’ll have you back on the podcast again at some point to talk about all these new ideas that you’re excited to work on. Can you let listeners know where they can go to find out more about Wavve and Zubtitle and whatever else it is that you’re working on?
Yeah, if you want to check out the products, Wavve is W-A-V-V-E-DOT- C-O. Wavve.co. Then Zubtitle is like subtitle with a Z, zubtitle.com. We’ve created a new brand called LoFi Ventures, LoFi.ventures where we’re going to be launching some products under that brand and we’re doing some blogging there as well.
A lot of the things that we’ve talked about today, some of my partners are writing blog posts, as well, about building MVPs and financial modeling, some of that good stuff. Go find us at LoFi.ventures and then follow us on Twitter as well. Probably pretty easy to track down. Come talk to us.
We would love to interact with some other people. We all sit in our kitchens independently and work on these companies, so any time we get a break to talk to somebody about their business, it’d be a lot of fun, so definitely reach out to us.
All right, thanks so much, Baird.
Listeners, if you enjoy the show, you should subscribe to the Indie Hackers podcast newsletter. Every time there’s a new episode out, I try to send out my thoughts, my takeaways, my advice and it’s also your chance to reply to the email and tell me what you think about the show and the episode, in particular.
You can find the newsletter at indiehackers.com/podcast. As always, thank you so much for listening and I will see you next time.
Did you know the Indie Hackers podcast has a newsletter?
Sign up to get insights, takeaways, and exclusive content from each new episosde, directly from the host, Courtland Allen.