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4x founder, 3 exits — currently building Podia, an OG in the creator economy since 2014, AMA!

Hey everyone 👋

Excited to talk about all things startups and creator economy, and anything else.

A brief bit of bio:

  • I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, since my early teens. At 37 years old, I’ve never earned a paycheck from anyone other than myself. This is one of my proudest accomplishments.
  • Co-founded and exited 3 bootstrapped business between 2003 and 2014. Most notably Carbonmade, which was the first online portfolio company on the Internet. TypeFrag — he first VOIP product for video game players — is the other well-known one. Early Counter-Strike and World of Warcraft players will have heard of us.
  • Founded Podia in 2014. This was the first business I ever raised VC for. 7 years later, we’re a 28 person team, profitable since 2019, and the best all-in-one platform for creators today.
  • I’m a bootstrapper-turned-fundraiser. I hadn’t anticipated raising any money for Podia, but something very Silicon Valley happened to me: I met a VC for beers at a beer garden in Brooklyn just to say hi. He wrote me a check a couple days later. 🍻
  • At the start of this year, I wrote 10 bold predictions for the next 10 years for the creator economy. These are already playing out in the market today. Happy to discuss where this market is heading.
  • Just some random things: I love cooking and living by the ocean. My signature dish is an all-day bolognese with fresh pasta. 🍝
  • I moved to NYC right after graduating college over 15 yers ago. I grew up in the NYC tech community, having attended the very first NY Tech Meetup with under 20 people there. Been amazing to see NYC flourish over the past 15 years.
  • My number one predictor for a company’s success: persistence. Don’t give up too early!
  • I’m a solo founder at Podia after previously working with co-founders for my previous startups. Bad co-founder relationships kill more startups than anything else. Find early employees who are awesome instead. Happy to discuss the pros and cons.

I’ll be answering questions throughout the day.

Ask me some tough ones! 💪

  1. 2

    Hey Spencer. You've had businesses in a few different markets. How did you research and gain an understanding of the community and customers in each business?

    1. 2

      Hey!

      • TypeFrag: I was a pretty serious gamer in my high school/college days (1998-2006) and during that time I was playing a lot of Counter Strike and Team Fortress Classic. I joined a team and we had trouble communicating so I looked into options. I found a company called Ventrilo and noticed there was an option to lease their software and provide hosting so I jumped at the chance in 2002. We went from $0 MRR to $150k MRR in less than 6 months! So the market research for me was just being a gamer. 😄
      • Carbonmade: My co-founder was a designer and built the initial prototype of Carbonmade for himself because he couldn't find ANY online portfolio product back in 2003. The need really clicked for us as we started to share his online portfolio with designers and they ALL wanted one. That's a classic story of build what you want to see the in the world.
      • Podia: This has a fun origin story. My dad is a Yale professor and had one of the first ever online courses on the Internet back in 2009. It has since received millions and millions of plays on YouTube and he continues to get emails every single day from people all over the world. This inspired me to dig more into the online course market in 2014. I knew there was a market as his course began to blow up in ~2014 as Yale began to promote it more.

      TLDR: I build in markets that interest me and mostly focus on products for individuals rather than businesses because they're more fun.

      Hope that helps. 😄

  2. 1

    Hey Spencer, thanks a lot for this AMA and your answers in comments. It’s totally cool! 💪

    Can you share some Podia’s numbers?🙂

    1. How many MRR and ARR does Podia generate?
    2. How is your growth-rate?
    3. What is your growth channel and CAC/LTV?

    Tnx! 🙏

    1. 1

      Thanks for participating!

      We're a private company, so we don't publicly share these numbers.

      Got any other questions? 😆

  3. 1

    "persistence. Don’t give up too early!" - My question is, when's too early? I created https://www.fixmybikeathome.com/ last May. What are the signs to keep pushing vs signs to shift focus?

    1. 1

      I wrote about it in this 2016 blog post: Perseverance pays off

      Let me know if any questions. 😄

  4. 1

    Congrats for your immense achievements and also an insightful predictions for creator economy.

    What's your take on SubStack and GumRoad kind of platforms? Even ConvertKit is also catching up as a platform to sell digital products.

    In short, how you want to position and differentiate "Podia" in the near future?

    1. 3

      Thanks for the question!

      Always tricky to talk about competitors as I never like to badmouth anyone. 🤣

      Substack, Gumroad, and ConvertKit are mostly single point solutions whereas with Podia, we're an all-in-one platform (all digital products, email, affiliate marketing, live chat, CRM, memberships and community).

      Both Gumroad and ConvertKit are adding additional features, but not with the same breadth as Podia.

      Our view is that all-in-one wins given enough time in the market as the product continues to grow and improve.

  5. 1

    Congrats on always having earned a paycheck from yourself - that is quite the accomplishment!

    Interesting you decided to solo found after having some bad co-founder relationships and to instead seek out great employees. YC always mentions funding only teams with co-founders vs single founders so it was always ingrained in me to seek out co-founders. Being a solo founder is hard and lonely :)

    How long on average did it take before you hit enough revenue to hire employees to help?

    How did you decide on pursing your ideas for your companies. Did you follow the traditional suggestion of interviewing/talking to customers/building an audience first or did you leap in and build the product then later find customers?

    1. 3

      Congrats on always having earned a paycheck from yourself - that is quite the accomplishment!

      Thank you!

      Interesting you decided to solo found after having some bad co-founder relationships and to instead seek out great employees. YC always mentions funding only teams with co-founders vs single founders so it was always ingrained in me to seek out co-founders. Being a solo founder is hard and lonely :)

      Little known fact, but I actually applied to YC back in 2015(?), got an interview, but was ultimately rejected. Not because of not having a co-founder, but because they didn't think we could scale the product. 🤷‍♂️

      How long on average did it take before you hit enough revenue to hire employees to help?

      I raised a small pre-seed round of $750k in the Fall of 2015. I was able to use that to hire the 1 contractor I was working with at the time. He's still an employee today. 😄

      We didn't make any revenue in our first ~9-12 months.

      How did you decide on pursing your ideas for your companies. Did you follow the traditional suggestion of interviewing/talking to customers/building an audience first or did you leap in and build the product then later find customers?

      Answered this below, but TLDR: I build in markets that interest me and mostly focus on products for individuals rather than businesses because they're more fun. Every company I founded was because I was actively engaged in the market.

      Thanks for asking your questions!

  6. 1

    Really enjoyed your predictions article for the creator economy, thanks for sharing your perspective -- really enlightening and I think you're bang on.

    ---

    An issue I have with your predictions is that I would segment online course takers as those who are doing it as a main priority (i.e. lambda school, udacity) and those doing it as a hobby/not necessarily as a main priority (udemy, podia, masterclass).

    When I take online courses, even ones for professional development -- they are never my #1 or #2 priority.. they might be 6th, or 7th, or 10th.

    So it's almost better for me not to have the live components, or to have minimal live components. Cohorts are important, but when it's not a main priority I will fall behind or go ahead at my leisure, so it can be more asynchronous.

    [1] Is that the main way you would segment online course students? Or is there a more significant way to segment them?

    When it's not a main priority, I think something like masterclass, that bundles together courses for a monthly subscription cost, is the best option for the end user.

    [2] How do you view that type of option, and how will podia, and individual course creators, compete with this type of subscription service long term? Do you see that as a main competitor long term for "piecemeal" courses?

    In your blog, you mention more high touch-point courses, and an interesting thing I hadn't considered about how creators "go from “stop selling your time” to “sell your time in a way that’s profitable, inspiring, and gratifying for you”."

    However, those courses will likely need to be more and more expensive with less users, further making the subscription service even more enticing to more users, creating a flywheel of sorts.

    If I look for a movie I want to watch on Netflix, and it's not there, I just watch something else. I've never paid to rent a movie online. Why wouldn't online courses follow that model?

    [3] Have you considered offering a masterclass-like subscription option? (Maybe for more introductory classes from the same people already using Podia to teach courses) Is there anyone in the space offering that type of monthly subscription, or who has tried and failed?

    ---

    [4] Who are some of your favorite creators that we should check out / what is your favorite online course you've taken?

    [5] Favorite pasta dough recipe?

    [6] Favorite restaurant in NYC?

    1. 3

      Thanks so much for your questions.

      "So it's almost better for me not to have the live components, or to have minimal live components. Cohorts are important, but when it's not a main priority I will fall behind or go ahead at my leisure, so it can be more asynchronous."

      Courses with live components are definitely not for everyone. I totally agree with you there. That said, we are seeing more and more demand for it at Podia.

      It's great accountability for a lot of people.

      An issue I have with your predictions is that I would segment online course takers as those who are doing it as a main priority (i.e. lambda school, udacity) and those doing it as a hobby/not necessarily as a main priority (udemy, podia, masterclass).

      It's hard for us to measure whether our creator's customers are learning as a hobby or not. I think it really depends on the creator and the course's topic. Obviously if it's something that's hobby-like then that's an obvious way to split it up, but we have plenty of courses that aren't that.

      [2] How do you view that type of option, and how will podia, and individual course creators, compete with this type of subscription service long term? Do you see that as a main competitor long term for "piecemeal" courses?

      One of the main issues with marketplaces is that they take a large share of the revenue, price your course for you, and don't give you access to your customer list.

      While this might work well for the end-user, it doesn't work well for the creator and that's why they've been switching from marketplaces to platforms like Podia for several years now.

      Customers also tend to build a relationship with a creator before buying and that relationship is meaningful for them. They want to support the creator with 100% of the course sale proceeds.

      [3] Have you considered offering a masterclass-like subscription option? (Maybe for more introductory classes from the same people already using Podia to teach courses) Is there anyone in the space offering that type of monthly subscription, or who has tried and failed?

      It's not something that we plan to pursue any time soon or ever. One of the biggest issues for me is that it really 2x's the complexity of the product. Podia's customers would no longer be simply creators, but also having to serve buyers too. Every product decision on the marketplace side could hurt the individual creator from selling on their own.

      I look to Shopify sometimes for inspiration and I think that's their main reason for not having a marketplace on Shopify although they are starting to do some small experiments around it with their Shop app.

      [4] Who are some of your favorite creators that we should check out / what is your favorite online course you've taken?

      That's like asking me to choose a favorite child. 🤣

      That said, one of my favorite creators is John D. Saunders because of his story. He worked really hard over several years to build his course business and has now done over $200k in revenue. It wasn't always easy for him, but he stuck to it.

      As I mentioned in my intro, perseverance is a key entrepreneurial trait to me.

      One of the courses I really liked taking was Mackenzie's Design for Developers course.

      [5] Favorite pasta dough recipe?

      My wife and I took a cooking class in Italy about ~3 years ago and we made homemade pasta. The instructor gave us the recipe after the class and we use that now. Unfortunately, I can't paste it here as it's currently in storage as I'm moving apartments at the moment. 😄

      [6] Favorite restaurant in NYC?

      This is way too difficult as I LOVE food and eating out in NYC.

      Right now I'm really in love with Oxomoco.

      Thanks for taking the time to ask your questions!

      1. 1

        Thanks for taking the time to answer.

        Really interesting that you are sort of modelling around shopify. I do wonder long term if that creator-focus will win out, as the most scarce resource seems to me to be the viewer/viewer's time.

        I come from a more traditional retail background so I am used to this concept of Walmart or Costco getting the customer base and then using that to push hard on vendors and squeeze them (i.e. creators, in your case).

        I guess with the internet we are seeing that dynamic shift a little bit with more informed customers and also companies like shopify and podia that are really catering to the creators and helping them even the playing ground -- so kudos for that. I hope it works out!

        I'll be following closely to see what's next and hopefully have a chance to support you at some point :)

        1. 1

          You're welcome!

          I do wonder long term if that creator-focus will win out, as the most scarce resource seems to me to be the viewer/viewer's time.

          The good thing about the Podia model is that you don't need a lot of viewers to make money. Some of our most successful creators have small audiences.

          I'll be following closely to see what's next and hopefully have a chance to support you at some point :)

          You're too kind. Thank you so much.

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