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I bootstrapped an encyclopedia on nutrition to 7-figure ARR — AMA!

I've been building businesses online since 1999. The big three notable for me were originally online gaming virtual currencies (eg EverQuest, DaoC, WoW, etc), then local search (right around when Yelp was created), and then Examine.com (which I founded as I lost weight and realized how much supplement companies were lying).

Pretty much everything I built was for myself. I wasn't specifically looking for a problem - just curiosity.

Examine analyzes and summarizes the latest scientific research to help you be healthier — no ads, no consulting, no supplement sales. If you in the health/nutrition space, you have likely come across us. We actually spawned the website out of reddit.com/r/fitness over a decade ago (when the sub was only a few tens of thousands of people!)

We're a 100% remote team of ~25 people. My various companies have generated millions (I hate it when people say made, because it sounds like that's what they netted) from advertising (ugh), information guides, and now subscriptions.

I talk about entrepreneurship over on Facebook and on SJO.com, but I specifically have no desire to monetize SJO - to me it's more of a fulfilling endeavor (which is on pause as I focus on Examine).

Entrepreneurship has always been about freedom to do things that I can - eg I've also done fun stuff like merge my love of cookies and meeting interesting humans to get people to send me cookies in the mail and raise hundreds of thousands for local non-profits, helping Arnold Schwarzenegger with his online stuff, and more.

I actually did an interview here back in 2017 (and my bad, did not realize there were comments I had never replied to), so when I was asked to do an AMA, gladly jumped on board :) You can also find out a bit more about me on my about page or Wikipedia.

And so here we are — AMA :)

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    Very glad to see you here and to read your story Sol!
    Examine is truly an inspiration to me as I am building a repository of scientific studies for specific diseases/ailments, quite similar to examine but niched down a little bit, and with less information available, obviously.

    I remember reading once that you lost 90% of your traffic after a penalty/change in algorithm from Google. It was apparently the case for several health-related websites.
    How is it going now?

    A practical question if I may, do you use any API for the database powering examine.com, or did you build it from scratch with no information retrieved whatsoever?

    Thank you for the AMA !

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      Glad to hear you're building your own - feel free to DM me what it is.

      And I should note we are massively overhauling the site in a way that makes it much easier to surface evidence on what the topics you are looking for :)

      How is it going now?

      Not so well. We are maybe double our nadir, but we are down ~85% from our peak. I have an informal "support group" with a few other sites like us that have also been bombed where we kvetch - sites like PeoplesPharmacy (have their own podcast with NPR), MedShadow (well regarded), Painscience (at it for almost 2 decades), ConsumerLab (well known supplement testing company), and more.

      Alas, just the reality of the situation.

      Do you use any API

      I actually built the original version myself from custom code. It's a horrible mess, and we are currently recoding the site from scratch using Laravel / nextJS.

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    Hello Sir. Sol! Just wanna say that, as somewhat of a health nut, I have used Examine a lot of times before when looking up ingredients on vitamins and supplements. It's very cool to find the creator of it here!

    I just wanted to ask how did you start building online businesses? What was your background like? Were you initially a software developer? Lastly, what advice would you give to newbies like me who want to start learning to code to potentially build software people would like? Thank you, Sol!

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      I have used Examine a lot of times before when looking up ingredients on vitamins and supplements

      Always good to meet a user!

      I just wanted to ask how did you start building online businesses? What was your background like?

      Hah - it was just an extension of my own desire to build things. Tinkering if you wish.

      My original site was actually on QBasic way back in 1997. That lead to me creating a "top sites list" (remember those sites??) which is how I first started making money.

      It's also what forced me to learn how to code - first perl (good ol cgi-bin), and then PHP3.

      Were you initially a software developer?

      All of what I said above was before I went to university. I DID go to uni for comp engineering, but the degree was honestly useless.

      Lastly, what advice would you give to newbies like me who want to start learning to code to potentially build software people would like? Thank you, Sol!

      I said this in a comment below, but tinkering around and having fun is key. The ecosystem for web development has gotten vastly more complex in just the past 5-10 years, so find what you like and play with it.

      The other thing I would add is - no need to re-invent the wheel. There are a gajillion libraries and frameworks and what not out there, so use them! Plus you can see their code (it's not like stuff like C where stdio.h where the code is "wtf") and learn from how others structure their work.

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        Thank you for the reply Sol!

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    Super cool you were working with in-game currencies - were you farming in-game currency then selling it for $$ the way people do with WoW gold? I feel like today this market has gone away since I've noticed that game developers are more open to selling add-ons/upgrades to players then they were ~10 years ago.

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      More like middlemen - we owned some of the largest websites and sent them targeted traffic.

      WoW actually signaled the beginning of the end -

      1. It got too big - EQ was the previous champ (~500k) users, but with WoW peaking at > 10 million, the amount of farmers getting in caused the prices to crash.
      2. The publishers got in on it themselves.

      If you remember WoW, I was the one who acquired thottbot way back when - took me a few days to find him on IRC and convince him :)

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    Hi Sol, thank you for sharing your story!

    My question are:

    What were the biggest "pains" of working on the startup (For example marketing, management, etc.)?

    If you solved them, how did you do it?

    If you could modify something about how you set up your startup, what would that be?

    Thank you!

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      Honestly I think the question is way too broad of a question. It really depends on the founder(s), the target audience, the product itself, and what not.

      For us, it's a fine balance in offering copious amounts of free content (nearly 5 million) AND entice people enough to subscribe (another 5 million words).

      I don't think we "solved" it - it's more of a sensing thing where we keep a very close eye on what people are saying about us, and can notice when it drifts/veers into one area.

      Sorry - not the best answer, but over a decade, it's tough to picked a singular event.

      If you could modify something about how you set up your startup, what would that be?

      Less of a setup issue, but I'm very longterm, and thus willing to invest now for tomorrow... but to a level that becomes to your detriment.

      I do wish we had focused harder on profitability and understanding our customers sooner - 2017-2019 in particular were brutal for the company.

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        Sol, thank you for your answer!

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    Yo Sol! I've been a fan ever since I oversaw that 2017 interview!

    Entrepreneurship has always been about freedom to do things that I can - eg I've also done fun stuff like merge my love of cookies and meeting interesting humans to get people to send me cookies in the mail and raise hundreds of thousands for local non-profits, helping Arnold Schwarzenegger with his online stuff, and more.

    This is dope. Here's something I'm curious about: do you have "systems" or any set structures around how you decide what projects to work on with your entrepreneurial freedom?

    I talk to a lot of financially successful founders — including a few friends who've each recently sold their respective businesses for over $20M — who actually feel somewhat aimless without a meaningful mountain to climb.

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      Hah - making me feel old :)

      I think that too many entrepeneurs are overly goal-driven, which means they often forget to slow down and see what the opportunities are.

      Eg the Cookie Off - it literally just began with playful banter. That was it. And it was ridiculous, which sucked people in.

      I partially stopped doing the Cookie Offs because people kept calling me the Cookie Guy and I was like wait a minute - I like cookies, but this isn't some branding thing!

      To me there's opportunity everywhere to have fun and fuck around. I was talking to Rob Walling the other day and he was asking me about my honeypot pages - eg google "who is the most handsome man in Toronto" or "Sol Orwell net worth" and he asked me why?

      And my answer was simple: why not? It was funny and dumb and I enjoyed myself.

      Here's another random example: https://torontolife.com/food/toronto-man-made-freakishly-large-ferrero-rocher/

      So going back to what I said - goal-driven people sometimes really struggle without an explicit goal, whereas (and in no way am I calling myself this) most innovators love just tinkering... lets see what happens if I do this, or if I poke that, or if I look into there!

      So my projects where I'm dicking around? Zero structure. It's always just curiosity and that's enough to get me going.

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    This is awesome.

    How did I not know Examine.com before now? It seems familiar, but it was not in my bookmarks (it now is!).

    My first thought as I was looking through the membership page was "man, people like Jeff Nippard would love this". Did a search and found this oldie.

    I'd be surprised if Jeff and many of the people he interviews weren't Examine members!

    So, a somewhat related question here: have you done much with the Jeff Nippards of this world to drive sign-ups? Sponsorships and the like. Appreciate your audience is far broader than fitness just curious from a business standpoint and less so from a fitness/weight training standpoint.

    Now for a bit of a story here...

    A few months back I went seeking some truth after paying a 40% protein for a whey protein marketed as “next-generation” stuff. When I looked into it, there was sweet f**k all difference in the macronutrient profile compared with the same brand’s standard protein (which in itself wasn’t cheap). Now, the micronutrient profile was probably a little different, but I figured it would make a negligible difference to the outcomes I was after. It did taste better I’ll give them that, but 40% seemed crazy.

    So, I was sceptical. And from what I could see the company wasn’t able to substantiate their claims beyond some choice product marketing copy. It was so annoying not being able to substantiate things for myself. And I really wasn’t in a position to read scientific papers, plus I’m not sure if there’s much on specific brands or companies. But really it’s all about the ingredients (isn’t it?)

    Whatsmore, I’d noticed a lot of the supplement companies were gaming their website reviews. I didn’t think it was credible that every customer was giving all their products 5 stars (98% ratings), though they had the odd 4-star (2 innocuous 4-star reviews out of 100+ 5 stars in this case) for good measure. As it turned out they were only choosing to show reviews which showed their company and their products in a good light.

    I submitted a 2-star review for this so-called next-gen protein and they either never published it or they did, but they buried it deep on page whatever, only to remove it again—currently, it’s on my account, but not showing up in the product reviews at all. Deeply frustrating. It would be one thing if they provided empirical evidence to explain why they didn’t agree with my review but no they just ignored it.

    These are the same supplement companies stuck in a promotions vortex. There isn’t a week where they aren’t trying to create FOMO.

    Anyway, I came across Labdoor around that time but was a bit disappointed by the lack of coverage of what I’d considered sizeable supplement companies. I guess they are US-based. I was buying in the UK at the time. Now, looking at Examine, I think this is what I was looking for.

    So, why am I telling this story/rant on your AMA?

    Well, I appreciate Examine isn’t in the business of doing takedowns on brands, but I’m thinking I can try to self-serve here by taking the ingredient list of some products (like the one mentioned above) and run it through the platform.

    It would be cool to be able to do this automatically, somewhat akin to the MyFitnessPal barcode scanner—which incidentally, I’ve been thinking of seeking out a replacement for—know of any?

    Back to the business and on the automation front. Have you got any plans to utilize GPT-3? I saw this I saw this last year and got excited (even though it’s probably not as sophisticated as it looks). I’m also wary of any app that labels a food/supplement as good or bad. That’s morality territory:D but you get the idea.

    You know, after watching that old Jeff Nippard video, I was still thinking, how did I not know about this site before. "Surely they launched on Product Hunt at some point"....here we go....been 5 years @sol_orwell Do you have plans to launch Examine 2.0 on PH once you’ve completed the site overall? cause I would upvote that!!

    Anyway, great to have you here: I’ll be adding Examine to my stack alongside exrx.net and musclewiki.com.

    Right now, I’m getting back into a gym training and a nutrition routine after a Covid exodus from GYMs and thinking about tools that can help with my goals, otherwise, I’m going to experience a whole lot more cognitive dissonance.

    I did have a question about membership tiers or rather, the difference between being a member and using the search bar. Happy to pick that one up direct and leave this as a business-related AMA :)

    PS: I saw your comment on that old PH launch about the use of vitamins. Reminded me of a podcast I listened to the other week, thought you might enjoy this segment of that podcast.

    1. 1

      Whoops missed it!

      First of all, thanks for the kind words :)

      So, your questions:

      So, a somewhat related question here: have you done much with the Jeff Nippards of this world to drive sign-ups? Sponsorships and the like. Appreciate your audience is far broader than fitness just curious from a business standpoint and less so from a fitness/weight training standpoint.

      No. Influencers is something we have looked into, but the problem is many peddle supplements, which does not align with what we do. As we morph more into "health evidence" we will likely go after them again.

      Well, I appreciate Examine isn’t in the business of doing takedowns on brands, but I’m thinking I can try to self-serve here by taking the ingredient list of some products (like the one mentioned above) and run it through the platform.

      100000% :) We are currently re-coding the site from scratch (it's 10+ years of duct tape, and so re-doing on laravel), and we will then use the API we are building to do an app, and scanning barcodes for quick breakdowns is 100% on the list.

      I should note that we also do not touch brands for a good reason: https://examine.com/about/no-brands/

      It would be cool to be able to do this automatically, somewhat akin to the MyFitnessPal barcode scanner—which incidentally, I’ve been thinking of seeking out a replacement for—know of any?

      Alas no, but note that I loathe using my fone and have < 10 apps installed.

      Back to the business and on the automation front. Have you got any plans to utilize GPT-3?

      Not at this time because too many ingredients (obviously for supplements) are hidden, and the current attempts at ML/AI for health have been... bad. Like, really really bad!

      Right now, I’m getting back into a gym training and a nutrition routine after a Covid exodus from GYMs and thinking about tools that can help with my goals, otherwise, I’m going to experience a whole lot more cognitive dissonance.

      Good luck :)

      I did have a question about membership tiers or rather, the difference between being a member and using the search bar. Happy to pick that one up direct and leave this as a business-related AMA :)

      Ugh we have so many issues with the website (I am its #1 hater), so yeah - in process! But a quick overview of Membership: https://examine.com/subscription-info/?ref=topnav

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        @sol_orwell Directionally sounds great. I figured as much on the influencer's point but was curious all the same. The no brands page speaks volumes—speaks to the soul. Great job there.

        Appreciate your response to each point. Usually, when I leave long comments it's either because I love what the business is doing or I see someone I can help. More of a case of the former here.

        Still, if you need any recommendations on people that can help with the website, let me know.

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          Still, if you need any recommendations on people that can help with the website, let me know.

          We are about to take RFPs on the new design (coding itself is in-house). Or someone with information architecture design experience :)

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