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Jesse Farmer on founding Everlane and building an ethical business.


Indie Hacker: Jesse Farmer
Founder of: Everlane, DevBootcamp (Acquired), Adonomics (Acquired)
Everlane Revenue: $40 million USD

Jesse Farmer founded his first business, a computer repair shop, while still in high school. The year was 1998. Jesse hasn't stopped indie hacking since.

After graduating from high school in 2002, he studied Math at University of Chicago. It was there he met his future co-founders. Together they built Beehive, a book exchange app for University of Chicago college students. The project was successful, being used by 2/3rd of the campus, but was never monetized or managed like a commercial project.

Jesse has since gone on to found several profitable businesses such as Dev Bootcamp, a software engineering bootcamp that was acquired by Kaplan, as well as Everlane, an ethical clothing brand.

Everlane is currently valued at $250M.

The Salad Days

Jesse: Wayne's world flashback sounds. I grew up in a tiny village, 1200 people, Northern Michigan, literally a one stoplight town. My father had a small business there, so it never seemed weird to me that someone might work for themselves or start something up. It was always in my field of view, so to speak.

But I didn't get my first computer until I was 15, maybe, and among the folks I grew up with, I was one of the last people to have a computer.

Alexa For Facebook Apps

Jesse: The first notable thing I did was build a website called Adonomics. I used to say it was like Alexa for Facebook apps. But now when I say Alexa, everyone thinks of the Amazon project - not the old website where you used to type in two websites and it gives you a chart comparing them. It was like that, but for Facebook applications.

It took off. I mean, for a long time that was my calling card. I was the guy who did Adonomics. And that's what got me connected to this nascent growth hacking community. Anyways, several years went by, I spent four or five years doing growth hacking and I got burnt out on it.

The Growth Hacking World

Jesse: How many kids are you going to trick into buying ringtones on their parents' cell phone plan? When you look at where the money was coming from with growth hacking, it was nonsense like that. You're making good money, but is this what you want to build and is the audience who you want to build it for? Maybe it is, but it's really easy if you're just chasing growth to trap yourself in a situation where you just feed the beast forever and ever.

It's like being a day trader. You get that little edge and take advantage of it. "Oh, Facebook updated their terms of service where they added some new features to the API. I wonder if there's some way we could use it to add a feature that'll choose our growth in some way." For some people, there's a real rush to it. And I think that was what a lot of people building stuff in that environment were really operating by, chasing the next high.

I wasn't motivated by any desire to build, to see something realized in the world.

Founding Everlane

Jesse: Going into Everlane, the phrase I had in my head was “just because it'll work, isn't a good enough reason to do something anymore.” I don't begrudge someone for doing a third-party drop shipping thing on Amazon, because it's their first business. But especially the Facebook platform, when you actually looked at where the money was in the apps, it was just a complete nightmare. All the offer were, "Sign up for Dr. Phil" Nope.

Constraints For Everlane's Success

Jesse: The test for ethicality is really easy. The test fails if you explained to someone all the consequences of them taking a particular action and they were to go, "No, I don't want to do that," but you still design the page so that they do it anyway.

The funny thing is even if you ignore the ethical aspect of business, there's a good chance you wind up in a situation where suddenly you have all these customers, and they aren't the customers you want.

"Congratulations! You built a business selling school supplies to middle schoolers," and it's working. But is that what you wanted? I've wound up in so many situations where it's like, "Great. The application's taking off Indonesia." That’s not what we wanted to build, though.

Starting DevBootcamp

Jesse: I started a thread on Hacker News. It was basically, "Spend nine weeks in San Francisco and we'll help you get a job. If you don't get a job within three months, we'll give you a full refund." And that post was enough. It took off. We had enough people in our first cohort, 10 people or so. One thing led to another. It's the only thing I've ever worked on that really worked immediately. It was very much a sensation of tossing a match somewhere and you don't realize there's a puddle of gas. It just took off right away.

The demand was just so high. We could not service all the students. Within two months, we were booked out for the entire year of 2012. So you either take advantage of that or competitors move in basically.

Mistakes Along The Way

Jesse: One of the mistakes I made, specifically me because this was my call, was to go to press too soon. That cued a lot of people to the fact that, "Hey, do you want to do a bootcamp in Boston? Well, look at these results Dev Bootcamp is seeing." Again, I mean, there were lots of people who came to us, especially for those first few years, looking to franchise, but we wanted to be in the business of teaching people, not administering franchise arrangements. If that was the right call or not, I don't know. It worked in a way. Before we sold to Kaplan, we had around 400 students a year.

  1. 1

    Lots of great take aways from this interview.
    Love the simplicity of the ethicality test - "The test fails if you explained to someone all the consequences of them taking a particular action and they were to go, "No, I don't want to do that," but you still design the page so that they do it anyway."

    Something to consider and consistently re-evaluate as one keeps building the product.

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