Sabba Keynejad (@sab8a) is the founder of one of the fastest-growing companies that I've ever featured on the show. In this episode we get into exactly how he used YouTube, side project marketing, Reddit and even getting banned from Qoura to grow Veed.io.
• Edit videos using Veed: https://www.veed.io/
• Follow Sabba on Twitter: https://twitter.com/sab8a
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from indiehackers.com and you're listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. More people than ever are building cool stuff online and making a lot of money in the process. On this show, I sit down with these indie hackers to discuss the ideas, the opportunities, and the strategies they're taking advantage of so the rest of us can do the same.
I'm here with Saba Keynejad, the founder of VEED, which is one of the fastest growing companies that I've ever featured on the show. So, what's your revenue Saba today versus what it was last year at the beginning of 2020?
Today we're at $3.3 million ARR. December last year, it was about $150K ARR.
There’s this concept of the boiling, you put a frog in the pot and you turn up the water and he's just going to sit there and let you boil them alive. And the whole idea is we don't really notice when things are changing slowly, but your revenue has changed incredibly quickly.
That’s one year from we're kind of ramen profitable, maybe we can quit our jobs to oh shit, we're rich. We can do whatever we want. We can hire whoever we want. We can build whatever we want. We're on top of the world. What's the biggest thing that's changed in your life having gone from such a small company to such a large and growing company and that short a time span?
Nothing has really changed in my life personally day-to-day. I actually think I'd probably work a bit less than I did maybe a year ago. We've got more great people helping us. It has in hindsight grown incredibly quickly, but day-to-day, it doesn't feel like that much changes.
Instead, it kind of feels a bit more like every three months I have to fire myself from my old job and kind of get more people to help and take up different responsibilities. That's been quite hard to get used to, but it's been a fun journey though.
An old interview with Elon Musk that I watched the other day, where he had just sold his first company and made $100 million dollars or something crazy. He bought a McLaren F1 and he was just sitting in front of his house with his girlfriend, like I got one of the rarest cars in the world and I'm going to drive it around and go super-fast. I'm just the cool, I'm the shit, I'm rich now. He just cared so much about having this car.
Obviously today, if you look at that guy, he's trying to put people on Mars and he's trying to change everybody to driving electric cars. He's only focused on weirdly ambitious, world changing things. I think that's one thing I've seen pretty consistently with everybody I know who's gone from starting small to making it big, is your ambitions kind of ramp up.
I wonder if that's the case with you. If Elon didn't start off with these world changing ambitions, I'm sure almost no one does, did you think a year ago that VEED was going to become this huge thing and also have your ambitions changed? Have your goals changed since back then?
Completely. There's also an interesting, I heard an interesting conversation with Elon Musk and going straight to making spaceships or whatever is super, super challenging and pretty much unattainable for anyone unless you've had a few successes before. I think one of the examples that he used was oh, just make a nice photo sharing app. That was a funny analogy.
No, my ambitions have completely changed me and my co-founder. Early days, the idea was wouldn't it be really great if we didn't have to work for anyone else and without consultancies. That was step one.
Once we got there, it was like, oh, wouldn't it be really cool if we got to like $1 million ARR. Wouldn't that just be insane? We'd be able to take home quite a lot of cash and just, maybe we could sell the company and we'd be fine. Then after we kind of got there, we were just like, no, that ambition is gone now. What’s the next thing?
Now we're at this stage where we've got this really fast-growing company and we work with such amazing people. We're just like, how can we create a really nice environment for all of us to do really good work or have good work-life balance and be able to travel to see loved ones and stuff like that.
Our impressions have changed and they probably will change again in the next, you know, six, six to 12 months.
Then maybe start with what VEED is cause we haven't even gotten into that yet.
That's a really good. VEED is a simple online video editing platform. The problem that we're solving is video editing software like iMovie and Premiere is all browser, not browser-based sorry, desktop-based and normally really hard to use. We just make it super easy to edit videos in the browser. Our tooling is more optimized for making content for social media or editing webinars or making podcasts, videos and stuff like that.
Okay. So not, YouTubers aren't using it?
Yeah. They do, but not, your high-production YouTube content, if that makes any sense. Very casual kind of users. Or it could be a recording that we've made here and we want to subtitle it, put a frame on it add an Indie Hackers logo to the top. That kind of stuff, light editing in the browser.
We'd like to make it and we will be making it way more powerful as we go. But I think, due to the resource constraints that we have we're not going to sit in beta for four years building this thing. We just have to get it out. Early days it was just add text to a video or trim the video and over time it's got a lot more powerful.
How did you come up with the idea for this? Cause I'm friends with a mutual friend of yours, his name’s James, he's part of the Weekend Club.
I love James, yeah.
He's also part of the Indie Hackers podcast network. It's funny, cause we were talking about VEED the other day and he's like, yeah, I remember sitting down with Saba and he told me he wanted to make a browser-based video editing company. I just laughed at him. It's a cool story, bro, but people just edit in editing software. Why did you think this idea was ever going to work?
Oh, I think I remember that conversation.
I went to an art school and I studied graphic design. I worked in branding and advertising for a few years in London. I was just really interested in what was happening on YouTube basically and how creators were building really, really big audiences. I got inspired, so I started making my own videos.
The bottleneck that I found was just the complexity to get into the software. As someone who's very technical, even for me, it was tough. So, I thought it must be really hard for people who haven't maybe got an arts degree and worked in advertising. That was kind of the initial idea.
I really liked GIPHY’s GIF editor. You could just create a GIF from the browser really, really light and super simple. I was like, okay, can we do that but for video? That was kind of like the initial genesis of the idea.
It was you and a co-founder. What are sort of the first things you did and, and how did you end up growing into what it is today?
It probably goes back three years, actually. My co-founder Tim had his final major project at university and he was like, oh, what should I do for it? I was like, oh, I've got this great video idea. Why don't you do that? Then after you finished doing that for university, we can start the company. He was like, great idea. So that's kinda how it started really.
We kind of had an MVP. We went through his university accelerator. Then got really off-track, went way off course and started kind of optimizing the idea of the company for winning competitions to get basically free money.
Massive lesson there was don't build a company to win a competition. Build it to make a user happy. That kind of put us a good eight months off course.
I did the exact same thing out of college. I built a startup with a couple of grad students. We won MIT's $50K business plan competition. We tied for first, so we got $25K. It's actually the worst thing that could happen because it just meant that I spent a year living off $25K and wasting my time on something that nobody really cared about. But we did want a competition and that felt good.
It feels like validation in a way. You're always kind of looking for some sort of validation that you're doing the right thing. If you've got a few judges that are just like, yes, you guys are really onto something. You're like, you know what, I think we could be.
That put us massively off course. Once we kind of, the good news is we won a few of the competitions, we got some money in and then we burst basically burnt through it really quickly. Kind of when we had a couple of months left, we were like, okay, let's bring this back to where we started, which was that simple online video editing platform.
The initial product went up with, it was like add text, trim, crop. I think we had some basic color correction and that was it. That product went live when we got it live. We put it on Product Hunt, too.
My co-founder got a job offer and he was like, well, we've run out of money. Why don't I get a job? I'll give you half my salary and you keep working. I was like, okay, that's great. Testament to Tim, that was, they were really hard times, cause we felt like absolute failures.
There's probably a million people out there at the time who also had online video editors that could do color correction and trimming videos. What you released, how unique was it at the time?
No, it wasn't super unique, basically.
All right. Tim gets a job because you need money to survive and eat. What about you? How are you paying your bills?
Tim's basically given me half his salary every month, so I can keep building the products. That’s massive commitment and that's one of the times where I think, in hindsight, we did the right thing obviously, but a really hard decision to make. We are actually going to keep doing this, we going to really try and keep this alive.
Then not long after that, I got a random call. I remember I was on London South Bank. I was eating a hot dog and I got a call from a recruiter saying like, hey, are you looking for a contract job? And I was like, yeah, I think I am.
I went contract as well. But the good news was the product was live. People were using it. Very small traffic, but we're like, okay, well we've got money coming in. Let's save up some more runway so we can go again.
The early days of your growth it wasn't exactly obvious that you're going to be a rocket ship. I think a lot of people struggle with this because it's like, well, do I keep doing this thing that's not working that well? What was going through your head?
Yeah, I think about that quite a lot. Especially when I'm chatting with friends who are in similar situations then maybe where we were. It wasn't obvious at all. However, we did see stable growth kind of month on month, nothing crazy, but people were using it. I remember at that time we were like trying to reach out to users, ask them what they liked. Absolutely nothing came back and we were just like, do people really care about this?
The thought at the time was maybe we need to raise money. I remember speaking to investors and they were just like, maybe check back in a few months. And I was like, well, that's not going to work. Oh, maybe YC, they give free money. We applied to YC, got on the application.
The other thing, we were just like we're based in London, we were getting good contracts day rates. Why don't we hire a couple of developers to help build the products part-time while we're bringing the money and we're doing evenings and weekends.
The next eight months we brought Matty and Veljko on, who’s still with us today and we would just do evenings and weekends and we just kept pushing. The feeling at the time was just like, we've kind of got to make this work.
I've never been in that situation before where I'm just like, this is going to work. It's going to happen. This time it's gonna happen. That was kind of the attitude. We were just very brute force about it.
I mentioned it earlier, part of this group called the Weekend Club. It's kind of badass. It operates out of London. It's run by this guy, Charlie Ward. In pre-COVID time we used to have Indie Hackers meetups all over the world. Charlie was one of the guys, he was a meetup founder. He was always hosting events.
I flew out to London to go to one of them. I just like these groups of people who are all friends with each other and close with each other who just decided we're going to come together and we're just going to run shit. We're going to hold each other accountable. We're going to pump each other up.
In your case, it's like, we're all going to be indie founders. We're gonna build great businesses together. There's a lot of these, maybe the most famous one is probably the PayPal mafia. Everybody knows Peter Thiel came out of that. David Sacks, who founded Yammer worked at PayPal, he sold that for like a billion dollars. Both the founders of Yelp came out of the PayPal mafia. All three YouTube co-founders were at PayPal. Big investors like Keith Rabois, Dave McClure, Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn. I can keep going. Elon Musk, obviously.
I don't know what they're doing there. They're putting something in the water or just hiring the best people. They all came together and they incubated an incredible group of people who basically just run tech today.
I'm part of a small group of, it's funny, it's a group it's called the 100K club. It's just a group of people who are in an iMessage group who all just want to get their Twitter accounts to a hundred thousand followers, not for any particular reason. They just want to.
I don't know how I even got into this group, cause I couldn't care less. I'm going to be the only person in the group who doesn't get there, but it's kind of fun to see what they're talking about and kind of feed off their energy. A lot of them are doing it.
This is you, too. You're part of the Weekend Club. You're part of this group of people in London who are all working together and pushing each other forward. How did that play into your sort of early struggles and successes?
Yeah, the London Indie Hackers community is absolutely amazing. Indie Beers. That was it. So, it would be, I think it was the first Wednesday of every month we’d go for beers. That's how I met Charlie and James. Also, Harry is kind of part of the mafia from Weekend Club, our front-end mentor. There's a lot of people hustling and William from Simple Poll, going to these sort of meetups and events was just like, I'm not the only one doing this. That's really cool.
I remember when I first met William from Simple Poll, he told me what his revenue was. I was like, oh my God. That's ridiculous. It kind of made it feel a bit more obtainable and a bit more achievable, but also a nice way to kind of unwind, have a few beers and kind of just complain about stuff.
At some point things turned around for you, there is a before and an after. Is that true? Would you describe it like that?
So true. Yeah.
So, what was that point? Give me the skinny.
The point where it turned around was when we went fulltime on the product again. We're working the contract jobs and user numbers are going up. We get to that 30,000 monthly users, which is pretty, we were really happy with it. Pretty decent. Everyone was free on the app.
We got a YC interview. We go to YC, do the interview, and we got rejected and they were like, yeah, you kind of got rejected cause you're not making any revenue. That was a massive bummer cause we were just like, this is it. This is the future. This is we kind of betted the house, all that sort of thing. We were just like, we’re going to YC.
We both quit our jobs again for that interview. When that happened, we were just really down for about 12 hours. We woke up the next day. We're just like, I've got a great idea. Why don't we try and get revenue this weekend, message them on Monday and then they’ll definitely let us in. Of course, they will. It shows hustle, show, grind, grit, and all that.
We did it and they were just like, yeah, no, sorry, can't. We were just, again, really down, but the thing that changed was we got 10 users. Paid users over that weekend. We were like, oh, hang on a minute, something's going on here.
Those original investors that were really, not standoffish, but they were just like, yeah, it's not the right time were like, we'd like you to meet the partners, they'd love to meet you. I was like, I'm really sorry, but I just need to see this a bit longer because the trajectory kind of looks all right.
That's when it turned around. We went fulltime on the product, me and Tim, and Matty and Veljko as well, came full-time as well. We just started grinding really, really hard. User numbers were looking good. We kind of worked out how to grow the product. We kind of worked out how to build a lot of the product and scale it. That's when things kind of clicked.
It takes a certain type of personality to deal with rejection that way. A lot of people, when they get rejected, they're like, well, that sucked. I'm not doing this anymore. That's a good sign that I should quit. These people are maybe more successful and smarter than me, if they don't think I have a chance, I don't think I have a chance.
Whereas your response was the exact opposite. These people don't want us, screw them. We're going to go make money on our own. You actually, it was the best thing that ever happened to you, that they rejected you. It seemed like it lit a fire under your ass to go do the things you probably should have already been doing.
Yeah. I remember at the time thinking, I was planning out how we were going to monetize and in hindsight, if I actually executed that plan, maybe we've never executed it. Or we could have executed it six months later. The time was right. So, massive favor.
It’s super interesting just thinking about the different personality traits of the people I have on the show, because a lot of people just have this weird quirky things that make them different.
I interviewed Danielle Baskin, maybe a year and a half ago, two years ago. She's got this crazy creative personality where she just always inventing these weird quirky things. As a result, she's just, she's got like 20, 30 different inventions and 20, 30 different projects and companies she's running at the same time. But because she does that, she's just one of the most fascinating people ever to talk to you. Everyone wants to get to know her and she's got some cool stuff that's really taken off.
You've got people like Daniel Vassallo, this guy who was making $500 grand a year at Amazon. Then he quit to become an indie hacker, which seems incredibly risky. But if you actually talk to him and you see what he's tweeting and saying, he's one of the most risk averse people ever. Everything he does is a hundred percent to add redundancy to his life to make sure that he's disconnected from any sort of system where he's putting all his eggs in one basket. That's kind of what motivates him to do everything. He also has a bunch of different projects that all could independently succeed even if the others fail.
Maybe the most common trait is contrarianism. People like Pieter Levels, Tobias van Schneider, Sahil from Gumroad. These are all contrarians. They'll just do things just because no one else is doing it. That's kind of how they're oriented, they just get really upset when people are doing the same thing so they just do something else.
Sahil was in a Clubhouse chat with my brother the other day, and he's like, we're moving Gumroad to build in public and we're going to always, our zoom meetings we’re moving over to Clubhouse. They'll be in public.
Then my brother was kinda talking to him about the different trade-offs. Sahil’s like, well, I haven't really even considered that point. That's a really good point. I'm just doing it because no one else is doing it. He's just motivated to do things that no one else is doing, which can kind of work because it ends up uncovering these opportunities.
I'm guessing yours is, from what I know about you, is this sort of relentlessness. You're very polite and kind and mild-mannered on podcasts, but I've heard some behind the scenes stories of you trying every single thing under the sun, working super late, staring at your Stripe dashboard, like I need to make this MRR go up, whatever it takes.
Investors sort of rejecting you, you saying, screw them, we're going to do it without them. Now I know you could probably raise a ton of money if you wanted to, but you still haven't, which kind of seems like it's a fuck you to the man, we're doing it on our own.
Maybe I do come across quite well-mannered on the front. Yeah. I definitely have a bit of fire and kind of when I'm on a mission, I need to get something done. The initial like, oh, we've run out of money. We need to go back to contract jobs. That was an argument I had with myself.
I was like, Sabba, are you really not going to do this thing that you wanted to do? You're 28 or whatever at the time 27, what else are you going to do it? Now's the time, get on with it. That was what I was saying to myself. Then with the YC thing and the investors, it was just a bit like you know what, fuck you. I'm doing this. I'm just going to get on with it.
I kind of believed in myself, my co-founder Tim, as well. I was like, you know, we are doing this. We are very, very high risk. I mean, both times we just put all our money into it and we're just like, okay, let's just get on with it. What's the worst that's going to happen? I mean, I say that…
You’re not going to die.
I’m not going to die. I was like, I can fall back on a contract job if I really need to. Hopefully the market's right for it. But yeah, we were just all in.
In hindsight, do you think the investors were right to reject you? Do you think YC made a mistake and VEED could be a billion-dollar company or do you think that their judgment was accurate?
This is obviously my opinion and there's not an opinion that's gonna to be against mine, so I'm just going to steal the limelight here. Yes. I think they made a massive mistake.
I do think it could be a really big company. One of the reservations that I remember from the interview was we were kind of not pushed, but they were like, it needs to be more like YouTube or Instagram. Those companies make a lot of money, but tool companies don't and I was like, I dunno, Adobe has got a $200 billion market cap. They're like, no, no, no. The big one’s Instagram. Make the next Instagram. I was like, no, no, no, no, no.
In terms of the private investors that we were speaking to at the time, they're in the businesses like de-risking themselves so they can make better bets. Sometimes if you're running low on money, they want to see as much as they can before they're willing to really commit.
I don't blame them at all. I'd probably do the same. It’s a strategic decision really on the company. I do have a bit of a chip on my shoulder from the whole experience, though. I probably always have a bit.
I mean, you should. It kind of dumb. There's a tweet ironically from Sam Altman, who runs OpenAI nowadays, but probably when you applied to YC, he was running Y Combinator. His tweet is, “Bad investors ask about market size. Good investors ask about market growth rates. Great investors believe new markets will get created.”
He's talking about investors in Silicon Valley, high growth startups. How do you make the money? You're making money by investing in people, create new markets and do new things. The idea that you have to look exactly like an Instagram or Snapchat or something in order to be successful is pretty silly.
You sort of have some good counter examples. There are really massive tool companies like Adobe that are just crushing it. They started small, but they were relentless and they executed well. It turns out people like tools and people will pay a lot of money for tools.
It's kind of silly, that people would think that there's no way you could possibly make it, unless you completely pivot it to be a social media application.
Right. They're asking about defensibility, just like, what stops someone else just building this. I think all of these are kind of really valid questions and it's really good to be challenged on that sort of stuff.
But I think that's when it really resonated the whole does it really matter, wouldn't it be really great if we could just work fulltime on it? That's when that sort of first initial that would make me really happy feeling came. I don't want to raise a load of money. I don't need this to be really big. If we can just work on this fulltime, that'd be awesome. That was the idea.
I asked on Twitter what I should ask you. I told everybody how fast you were growing, what I should ask you. One guy had the funniest question. He said, ask Sabba about his biggest fear and his dumbest mistakes. The reason I think it's funny because he didn't ask because he wants to know and learn from that. He said I want to feel better about myself. I'm not making $3 million a year, so I want to hear him say something bad.
I'm going to ask you about that, but first let's talk about the good stuff. Let's talk about how it is that you were able to sort of actually grow so quickly once things turned around. I've got my theories, obviously I want to hear yours as well. You and I both know a lot of impressive people, a lot of great founders in the Weekend Club and outside of it. You know a lot of people with good ideas who are hustlers and they try lots of stuff and they might even have good markets. They haven't grown nearly as fast as you. What do you think you're doing that, that they're not doing?
One thing is, again, it's not for everyone, being really high risk. I was, it was all guns blazing from the start. It wasn't like, oh, let's just do this on the side of my job. There's loads of people who've done that incredibly successfully, but that would take us two years to get to the point where we could quit our jobs.
I think that was one thing that really helped. It just kind of really, that pushed us quite a lot. I was really unintentional when I started this. I wasn't like video editing is a huge market. Adobe has a $200 billion market cap. I had no idea about any of that stuff. I was like, I really like video editing and I really liked that space, so that's kind of where I wanna put my time.
Honestly, Courtland, I have no idea. No, I do have an idea of why we grew fast, but it wasn't intentional. We didn't set ourselves up to grow this fast. One analogy that I do like to think about a lot, the way that we've grown is I kind of feel like it's you're putting a rocket into orbit. To get into orbit, you need to get through the atmosphere and that's the bit that's really, really tough. You have to burn really hard to get through.
Market size is the thing that's really hard to ignore here. From research that I've done, I can see that there's an app in the Play Store called Inshot. It's had a hundred million downloads. That tops out on the cap of what the place is we would actually track. It's really big.
When you have a lot of people looking for stuff, then there's a lot of market to go around. I don't think you can grow super, super fast if you're going to cap out with a few thousand users.
I'm checking it out right now, by the way. Inshot video editor and video maker, 9 million ratings, five-star rating, four-point start rating.
Absolutely huge, right?
When you look at this, do you think, damn, we should be doing this?
No. I mean, one day we will move to apps, but you know, the, the web was super underserved. The other thing is if you crack open App Store on your Mac, the most downloaded software on Mac is iMovie as well. So, they’re super, super clear signs that there's a lot of people using and searching for this stuff. That's really encouraging.
But as I said, this is in hindsight. I was so unintentional when I started this, I was like, I like video. We're going to build a video editor. I mean, now with all the stuff that I've learned, I would approach idea generation incredibly differently and kind of do some of this stuff that we're talking about, like look at what apps people are downloading regularly. How well served are they? What are the power laws with usage within these applications? You know, stuff like that.
I got another one for you that is sort of a common trope. It's just this statement that goes around, which is that ideas don't matter, execution does. You could have a great idea, but you execute like shit and your company’s worth $0. I got my own opinions on this. What do you think, having obviously come up with an idea that wasn't super well-considered in the beginning, but also executed like mad and found success?
I was thinking about this the other day. My mum used to let out a holiday cottage. She used to put it in a magazine called “Country cottages for you”. It would turn up and you could see all the places that you could stay. Then, 10 years later, there's this new innovative company called Airbnb who are letting out holiday houses online.
It's technically the same idea. It's 10% different. They've modernized it. They've branded it really nicely. They've told a really, really good story, but that's just execution incredibly well.
It's interesting. It’s almost, the trick to the question is what even counts as the idea? Is it only the product or the service that you’re making that’s the idea, or if you have a special plan for how you're going to brand it and who you're going to distribute it to? Does that count as part of your business idea?
Because if that does count as part of your idea, then your idea is clearly extremely important. It's the difference between being a footnote in a magazine and being the next Airbnb. But if you’re only talking about the product, then there's a lot of other parts of your business that matter a lot.
The way that I would define a business idea is that it's all inclusive. It's all of these things. It makes it slightly different than just a product idea. I do think if you're talking about a product idea, that doesn't matter that much because there's so many other things to worry about. But I think if you're talking about a business idea, which is all this research that you didn't do upfront, but in hindsight you kind of wish you did and in the future you will.
I think that matters an incredible amount. If you do the research to figure out what market you're targeting, how fast that market is growing, can you reach these people? Will they switch? How much will they pay, et cetera? If that's all part of your idea, then I think that is, honestly, the difference between starting the mom-and-pop pizza shop where it doesn't matter how well you execute, it's just never going to go that big, and starting something like VEED where in a year you go from ramen profitable to 3 million in revenue.
You don't have to have all the cards in your hand at the start. You can kind of pick them up on the way.
I remember learning about acquisition channels, marketing, something that I never did before. I remember just crash coursing it, massive, just reading as much as I could, consume as much as I could try on as many ideas as I could. Okay, we've got that. We've got that under our belt. What's the next thing that we would need to learn?
So that's the execution there. The relentless, you started, you had your idea, but now you've got to execute and that might mean changing directions, learning new things. Obviously, it's a huge part of like why VEED has been successful. Let's get into that.
I want to actually spend a decent amount of this episode just going through some of these channels you've succeeded on. Are you familiar with the term called the Lollapalooza Effect? You ever heard of that? It comes from Charlie Munger. I've talked about him on the show a few times before.
He's Warren Buffett's business partner, one of the most inspiring people in my life since I was about 20. I just kind of attribute this guy with teaching me how to be a systems thinker. He's like 97 years old. He's still investing. He was on a podcast a couple of months ago. That guy’s just going to keep going until he dies. I think one of his biggest contributions is really nothing to do with his investing.
It's just to do with how we think through things, these ideas called mental models. One of them is called the Lollapalooza Effect. The idea is that we're all simplifying machines. We want to take the complex world and make it as simple as possible because otherwise it's really hard to understand.
When we see something happen, we just kind of want to find one explanation, like, oh, here's why Sabba was successful. He just got lucky and then we walk away satisfied that we understand it. Or here's why this thing works.
The Lollapalooza Effect is basically like no, generally things have multiple causes. Whenever you see something that is an outlier, whenever you see something extreme, it almost certainly got that way because there's multiple forces that are all pushing in the same direction and adding together. If you want to analyze extreme results, you should try to figure out what forces are pushing together.
A good example would be, I think he talks a lot about auctions. You've got a guy on stage yelling out prices, selling goods that end up going for people, buy a piece of art for like a hundred million dollars, you know? It's like, why did you spend that much on this art?
You’ve got three or four factors pushing in the same direction. You've got social proof, where you're surrounded by other people who are also buying at the same time as you and it makes you kind of feel accepted and this is the right thing to do.
You've got this commitment principle where if you say a number, you’ve kind of verbally committed to everybody that you want to buy this thing. If someone bids higher than you, you kind of want to stick with the image you put out that you want this thing.
You’ve got loss aversion, where people tend to care more about not losing, kind of FOMO, missing out on things and then winning things, actually. If someone outbids you, you don't want to lose, so you bid back. You got this and a bunch of other factors pushing in the same direction. Next thing you know, you've spent $50 million on a painting.
VEED is the same way. You're a total outlier. You have gone from $100K a year to $3 million a year in the last 12 months or something. It's probably not just one reason for that; it's probably more than one reason for that.
I'm going to guess that you have a lot of different marketing channels that are working really well for you. It's not just all coming from word of mouth. It's not just all coming from SEO. There might be one or two that stand out, but probably a lot of them are pushing in the same direction. What's your take? Do you think that's accurate?
That's extremely accurate. Yeah. A hundred percent. There's so many things. I mean, the global pandemic as well has definitely contributed towards growth. I mean, not loads, but it's another little thing that's pushed us.
I remember speaking with one user who was a personal trainer from Ireland telling me that now he can't work out in the gym and work with his clients. He would just make videos. Obviously there's loads of people doing that using our platform.
YouTube has been a really big channel for us. We make, Alec has been making YouTube videos every single day since he started about nine months ago. I think our videos get like 40,000 views every 48 hours. That's a lot of people, that's a lot of levels on video and it's growing incredibly well as well.
Let's talk about these one at a time. So, YouTube. Alec, I presume that someone that you hired nine months ago?
What was your thought? How did you decide we should hire someone to do YouTube for us? What was your thinking about how that was going to work and what this person would do?
Search in general was just a really good channel for us. YouTube is the second biggest search engine in the world. The great thing about YouTube as well being the second biggest search, it's not just like you click a link and you go to the product. The video is a vehicle for you to explain how to use the product as well as market the product. It's education as well as marketing, which is incredibly powerful.
We were so, so lucky to find Alec. The story goes, he was looking for a job in social media and he Googled social media job London. We were the first link on Google jobs. He clicks it, he clicks apply. He's already got a YouTube channel talking about social media, which was incredibly impressive.
I remember interviewing him and this is early days, a non-professional interview. I was like, so if you want a job, let me know. It was super casual. He was like, yeah, I'm actually looking for a job. I was like, all right, should we work together? And he's like, yeah. That was pretty much it. He came in one day and made a video and then made another one. That's pretty much how it went.
What was your strategy? Were you just like, hey, you do whatever you want, we trust you? Or were you like here's the playbook we think is going to work on YouTube. Ultimately, what has ended up working? I'm checking out YouTube right now. You're at 13,000 subscribers. You've got a ridiculous number of videos. What's going on here?
It's similar to how investors work, right? You put 10 bets on 10 companies and one of them is going to work really well. It's the same with YouTube videos we think, we don't know. What we try to do is answer the Internet's questions, basically.
When I was working in video editing, if I wanted to do something, if I wanted to make an audio wave on in after effects, I put after effects audio wave generation, and I'd watch the video. Maybe there'd be a plugin that I'd have to get or something like that. It was just from past experience. I was like, Alec, take some of the things that you can do with VEED, write them out as questions and show people how to do them. He was like, all right, sweet. Let's get on with it.
There are varying degrees of success on each of the videos. We're kind of working out what works for the algorithms. We're trying to work out what works for the users. We worked out that if we say like, how to subtitle the video in iMovie. We showed them how to do it in iMovie. But at the start of the video, Alec’s like there's the quick way or the fast way. Let me show you that iMovie slow way first and then we'll show you the fast way with VEED.
We've worked out how to lean on other tools. We’ve had a lot of people asking about Zoom videos. I think the Zoom user doesn't really know that much about video editing. We'd get a lot of questions like can I edit a Zoom video with you guys, or is it just social media videos? We’re like, no, no, no, all videos. Alec made a video how to subtitle or how to edit a Zoom video. Then that in the first six months got a hundred thousand views because it's really topical.
Google Analytics, around Christmas, I saw a massive spike in how to make Christmas videos on our website. So, also taking current topics, things that people are talking about and addressing that is really helpful to catch waves and ride them.
Okay, so that's YouTube one part of your growth. Let's talk about hiring. How many people work at VEED today?
I'm not too sure. The reason why I'm not too sure is because there's a few friends in the Slack as well. If people leave, they stay in the Slack as well, so we can still chat to them cause we like them. But I think there's about 35 of us, about 25 people are on product marketing, development, design sort of stuff.
I’m imagining you did not have 35 people a year ago, so obviously hiring a lot. How does that contribute to your growth? What's your strategy for hiring?
I hire founders basically. That was the original strategy. So, Diana, for example, who does our social, she was a freelancer working social media and had her own agency. I knew hiring her would be great because she could do everything.
The first few hires like Alec, Diana, they were very able to handle everything, which meant there was no management needed. They could just get on with it. I trust that they do a really, really good job, and both of them have done exceptionally well.
This kind of comes back to us not expecting to get to where we were. We weren't like, oh, we need organizational structure and all of this stuff. But the problem that we have now, when it comes to engineering especially, it was just like, let's add one more engineer to help us.
Then we get to the point where we've got 10 engineers, we're just like, this doesn't work anymore. We need to kind of structure that and maybe get a product manager in. I'm trying to learn actually, Courtland, how to do this myself. I don't know any of the answers.
It’s one of those double-edged swords where, obviously if you have more people in the door, you can do more things. There's a reason why the biggest companies in the world have like a hundred thousand employees. But at the same time, it's kinda chaos.
If you don't hire carefully, you've hired the wrong people, it can be a huge distraction. It's not particularly fun for someone like you who can code and design and do some hands-on stuff. What are some of the hidden costs of growing so quickly? Are there other risks to hiring and downsides that you've sort of encountered?
Yeah. I mean, massively, I don't do anything that I originally did. There's no coding for me. There's no design for me. I have conversations that I'm very much part of that world in the company, which is great but has massive costs.
Right now, we're probably going through, I'd like to think the hardest part of my hiring journey in the company, which kind of is going to initiate a lot of the key people in the organization. That's what I'm doing right now. Hopefully after that, they will be responsible for hiring the next people.
It just takes a long time, basically, to hire good people. It’s expensive and it's really tiring. It's not something that I particularly enjoy.
Have you made any mistakes and what do you think about the advice to hire slow, fire fast?
I mean, in the early days, we found Veljko, who was our second engineer on a Discord chat and he joined like two days later. It was super, super lucky. We made a lot of, we were basically, we got super lucky in the early days to find Matty and Veljko.
Now we take a lot longer to hire and we do fire relatively fast as well if it doesn't work out, but we also don't like firing people. It means we're super diligent on that initial process. Hiring people is literally the worst thing in the world. All it is is that it's basically just demonstrating that you're doing your job wrong.
So, if I'm firing someone a week after they started, that means I just haven't done the due diligence. I've persuaded myself that they're a great fit when actually they're probably not. I hold myself accountable for it.
What do think is the best thing? Let's say someone hasn't gone through this year of hiring and learning these lessons hard. What would you tell a new founder who really doesn't want to have to fire anyone and doesn't want to have to put themselves in the position? How do they prevent that and actually hire well?
Two things. One is, I feel like I've learned a lot about this stuff recently. One is do the due diligence. If it's an engineer, there's multiple interviews with coding tests and stuff like that. If it's a product manager, there might be a take home. If there's a design, we do an interactive thing with Miro.
The other thing that I've learned is job boards don't work that well at all. I think job boards are really good for jobs that lots of people apply for. But when you're looking for a very specific talent, especially in the early stages of a company growing, then it's probably better to find them yourself working at another company and be like, you work at that company, you do this kind of stuff, maybe there's something we could do here, you know
The biggest time-saver that I've, I was a bit against recruiters at the start. I was like, no, I want to find them myself. I want to save the money. But now it's just like, oh my God, I speak to a recruiter, they put 10 CVs in front of me and they're all really good and they're all ready to go. That has literally saved weeks. For us now, it's just so worth paying for that.
Let's talk about side project marketing. You're familiar with this term? I think it was created by Ali Mese. It's funny cause I don't, the term never really caught on. I remember he wrote a blog post about it on Indie Hackers, like two or three years ago where you get people to your app by basically building little side projects that build them in.
The term never took off, but like looking at some of the things that you've done to grow VEED, it seems like one of your primary acquisition channels. You built all sorts of cool apps that aren't VEED. They're not your video editor, but it looks like they're bringing a lot of people into your video editor. So, walk us through some of the things you've done there and why they work.
We tried everything, literally everything: side projects, tooling, blogging, YouTube, like we were throwing spaghetti at the wall massively.
Side project marketing in the early days was, there's a few things that we’d do. One is this just a static site that can easily be thrown up and it's kind of interesting. We can get it on product hunt and there's a bit more bars, a few more backlinks.
Then the way that we kind of think about it now, which is a bit more smart, it's what's a complimentary product that we can make for free that plugs into our application that is super nice. A good example is a screen recording tool that we have that gets between three to five thousand people using it every day. What portion of those people recording the screen are gonna want to now edit that video? Hopefully 10, 20%. That's a good portion of people into the application.
That's super smart. You're thinking one level up the stack. All right, we have a video editor. What do people do right before they need to edit a video? Oh, one of them is they make screen recordings. So, let's make a screen recorder and then put like an edit button in there. When they click that edit button, it'll take them to VEED after they record their video.
Not enough people think this way, but I think it's a super creative and interesting and kind of fun way to get people to your app, because then you get to, if you're the sort of developer type who always wants to build stuff, you get to justify building a whole new, really simple app and using that to grow rather than doing pure marketing. You know, we're just going to write blog posts, et cetera.
Yeah. It is way more fun. The cool thing is there can be a certain amount of virality or network effects baked into that.
Something we're asking ourselves now is, okay, people record the screen. We've got 2,000 to 5,000 people doing that a day. What if we had a share button and they could share it with someone else and that person could then come. Then so 10% of those people share it and 10% of those users become VEED users as well. We're trying to think a lot about that.
The other side project marketing that's been quite interesting is a video compressor. We emailed another video compressors site and said, why do people use this? They said, they’re just getting compressing their videos to use video editing software. We're like, ah, so we were just like, okay, video compressor, let's get that up. Once your video is compressed, just click edit and you're in the editor. We think a lot about that.
Let's go rapid fire through some of these cause I got a long list of things. We talked about YouTube. We've talked about hiring. We've talked about side project marketing. What about Quora? I've heard that you've done this. You did some work on Quora in the early days. It's a big Q & A site. Is that true? How did that help you grow?
Yeah, exactly. So Quora, I say was because I'm not sure if these things are still true. Again, we would search for things that we wanted to come up for. So, like how do I text a video and then I'd put Quora. Then I'd get the first link on Quora and then I'd just write a really good response to it.
When we were doing this three years ago, Quora was pretty chill. You could just basically spam Quora and just write 20, 30, 40 answers a day. Now it's just a numbers game. It's just like, okay, well, those 10 answers generate 20 clicks. Let's just do this every day. All of a sudden, 10 days later you've got 200 clicks a day coming from Quora.
In the early days, you just want to stack one click on top of another click on top of another click every day. You just want to make that marginal improvement of getting more people to your site. That was pretty much what we're doing. When I get banned from Quora or told to chill out for 48 hours, I’d go to reddit and just start doing it there instead. So yeah, we were just relentless. Absolutely relentless.
Did you use Reddit?
Yeah, of course we use Reddit. I'm banned from most of the subreddits on that, because too much self-promotion yeah.
Was it worth it? Do you think it…
Oh yeah, 100% worth it. Yeah. We'd also try and find different ways to share content as well. It's not that exciting posting a link, which is just like how to add text to a video. Very few people are going to click on it. So, what interesting content can we make that people will click on that gets that initial flow of traffic?
I feel a little bit like Google is a bit like a stream. You want to start just getting things flowing down the stream. Then after a while, a bit more of the bank breaks off and then the river starts coming through really, really fast. So, just whatever you can to just get something going, people eyeballs on the page.
Yeah. SEO is kind of the elephant in the room because I would guess this is where the majority of your traffic comes from. I'm not sure if that's true, but also even some of the things you're doing, like your side projects, probably benefit a lot from SEO. Somebody is like, oh, how do I record a video with my webcam and they get your webcam recorder. That is side-project marketing, but it's also through search engine optimizations. How much of a role does SEO play in VEED’s growth and how have you kind of thought about it over time?
The way that a company like Buzzfeed will grow is going to be completely different to how we grow. Maybe a social media app is going to grow through referrals and invites like Clubhouse is right now, but it's not going to grow through SEO.
I think understanding what the primary acquisition channels at work in the industry that you're in is super, super important. You can go to a website like SimilarWeb, put in a tool like Canva, and you can see that probably about 60% of their traffic's coming from SEO. That's a really good indicator to us that that's where we should be putting our time and energy. That's the way.
I might sound like I've got my shit together, but at the start, I didn't know any of this. We were plodding through trying to work it out, but yeah, SEO super, super powerful for us. When something starts working, you pour more resources into it and see if you can continue to scale it.
I think SEO is one of the hardest things for people to get into, because number one, it's extremely competitive. You might try getting into it and just like give up because nothing's working at first. Then, number two, even if you're doing it right, you're building all these pages, you're targeting the right keywords, it might take three, six, 12 months to see results.
The feedback loop is super slow and to some degree you kind of have to have faith that it's working and keep going. Whereas, if you put a link on Hacker News, you get the traffic immediately, it kind of feels good. How did you sort of decide to stick with SEO for so long? How long did it take it to start working for you? What were some of the first things you tried?
The way that I like to think about idea generation in general is not make something people want. It's make something people search for. I think that's massively key.
You talked about competition, SEO being really tough. Yes, if you were trying to market a marketing products or an SEO course, then that might be quite tough to go after, but you can also go for long tail keywords. What I mean by that is like SEO courses for butchers.
That’s completely random, but even from recent exploration that I've done is 33,000 people a month are searching for video hosting. That's a lot of people looking for video hosting and we know that video hosting is a proven market and people are willing to pay for it.
Yet the domain difficulty for ranking for that is actually relatively low. It's like 33. That's an obtainable search term to go after, I would say, even for an indie hacker. That's the first part, which is make something people search for.
The second part, when it comes to, how long it takes, ranking can take three, six, 12 months. The good news is that's probably how long it takes you to build your product to the point that people want to use it. So, if I was to start again, the SEO stuff goes up at the same time that the product goes up and you give it time.
I think it took us a good eight months for SEO to start kicking in and we didn't see the full fruits of it for probably a year, maybe longer. A good friend of mine who's makes a really cool tool called tiny host. I remember having a chat with him about eight, nine months ago. I was like, dude, just make like five landing pages and here, grab my AHREFs account and just try and find some key words.
Eight months later, he's now adding four paid users to his platform every single day. He's just, it's taken eight months, but he's just like it, I get it. And I'm like, yeah, you do. Yeah, you do.
So, what am I not asking you about? We've been through a few channels. I got like 10 more here. We don't have time to go through all of them. What would somebody who's on the outside looking at it, doesn't really understand what you've been through, not even know to ask about, what's been crucial for your success and finding more people for VEED.
I've dodged the question about the most, the big fuck up that I've had. I might just leave that one there.
The things that you've missed is luck. Being at the right place at the right time. This is not hard work this, I mean, there's a massive portion of hard work in here, but it's not all hard work at all. And as you said, like with the theory, it's just, it's not one thing.
It's not like, oh, we made this referral code and then every site, everyone just started sharing it and they'd get free Dropbox credits and stuff like that. It wasn't that. It's just multiple things, all pushing us in the right direction. So yeah, I completely resonate with that.
I'm not going to let you get out of this, this Twitter guy’s question for all the people out there who are feeling bad that you're making so much money so quickly, even though it's not easy. What is the most embarrassing thing, the dumbest mistakes, the dumbest mistakes that you've made in the process of running VEED?
I don’t know if I'm going to say this, but I might say it. Yeah. Okay, I'm going to say it. So, so if you, so we are, no I can't say, I can't say it.
Give me the second dumbest thing.
The reason why. Yeah. The reason why I wouldn't say it's because there might be legal implications on.
I don't want to get you arrested or fined.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the other thing is we ran out of money. That's like a pretty big deal. I might've brushed over it, but that was really pretty hard on us and pretty depressing as well. We were so close to giving up at that point. That was super hard, but there's the one big one.
Yeah. Okay. So maybe, maybe if you want to know the one big one, someone could message me, what was that really big one? I need to feel better about myself.
You know, it'd be funny is if you said it I'll bleep it out in the podcast episode, so no one will hear it. It'll just make for some funny audio, I think.
Should I say it?
Yeah. Yeah. I'll bleep it out.
Okay. We had (REDACTED).
Yeah. That sucks.
Yeah. I mean, that was super early. It was before we even had charged products as well. It was before there was even signup walls or anything.
Where were you mortified?
I literally thought the world was going to be over. I was like, the police are going to come. They're just going to come take me away. I remember calling up a lawyer. I'm going to stop talking.
All right. If anyone wants to know about this they can message you.
Sabba, you've been a great guest. Thanks a ton for coming on the podcast. I’ve got to ask you the traditional ending Indie Hacker question here, end on a positive note. You've been through a lot, obviously. You've had this rocket ship growth. You've been at rock bottom. You've run out of money. You've been rejected by investors. What's your one takeaway that you think other founders out there, whether they're just getting started or whether they're very experienced should take away from what you've learned?
Invest in SEO, probably if you're a tools company and don't give up, keep pushing and make something people search for.
All right. Make something people search for. Can you tell people about, where can people go to find out more about what's going on at VEED behind the scenes?
I'm on Twitter, @sab8a. Our site is veed.io You can email me [email protected] as well. And if you want to join the team at VEED, feel free to reach out and we'd love to have a chat with you.
All right. Thanks again, Saba.
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