Tue, 30 July 2019
Against the Odds
How Raegan Moya-Jones built a $100 million business from the ground up—no fancy MBA required.
Raegan Moya-Jones was an Aussie in New York City, pregnant with her first daughter, and she couldn’t find the right baby blanket.
Every Australian mother from time immemorial had swaddled her baby in a cotton muslin blanket, and Moya-Jones wanted to do the same. But no matter where she looked, she couldn’t find one.
Rather than simply becoming frustrated by the futile search, she had an idea.
“I figured that all Aussie parents couldn’t have it wrong, and if I introduced it to American parents, they’d feel the same way,” she says. “Luckily for me, my hunch was right!”
Moya-Jones went on to found the successful baby product company aden + anais (partly named for her first daughter), publish a book about her journey, and launch a second business all while raising four daughters.
Even when success turned sour, as it so often can in the entrepreneurial world, she didn’t let that stop her. Moya-Jones has weathered the heartbreaking end of a partnership and gut-wrenching business betrayals, becoming stronger, wiser, and more successful for it.
A Rocky Start
In 1997, Moya-Jones moved from Australia to New York, after her Chilean boyfriend landed a new job. She was partway through an MBA, but put it on hold to be with the man who is now her husband.
Without a visa, she struggled to find work, but eventually managed to land a position at the Australian consulate. Through connections she built there, she moved into a job at a conference company and then into a position as a sales executive with The Economist, where she worked for over a decade.
It was when she learned she was expecting her first child in 2003 that she began that fateful search for the perfect swaddle.
For three years, she toyed with the idea of starting that business. As a first-time entrepreneur, she had to learn everything from product design to manufacturing, but in 2006, she set out to launch her brand.
While she may not have had a completed MBA under her belt, she had years of experience in sales, a degree of common sense she felt she could truly rely on and, above all else, the drive to work as hard as it took.
“I really am a huge believer that common sense and work ethic are the two keys to building a successful business. They’re the two most important things,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s how much work you’re prepared to put in to be successful. I could never, ever have estimated how much work had to go into building a business from scratch.”
For the next three years, Moya-Jones would work her day job, then return home to spend quality time with her family (which now included three daughters). But once the bedtime rituals were complete, she burned the midnight oil building her business, from 8:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m.
“It was pretty brutal,” she says.
But the odd hours she kept weren't the only tough part from the early stages of aden + anais.
Moya-Jones launched her business with her friend Claudia Schwartz, and for the first few years, they worked together flawlessly. They initially invested $15,000 each into the company to build a basic Yahoo website, design a logo, and make their first manufacturing order. They anticipated the investment would last them six to 12 months.
The money ran out after eight weeks.
They each invested another $30,000, but at this point, Moya-Jones had run through her savings. Timing is everything, and it wasn’t on their side.
“We were starting out during the worst recession since the Great Depression, so it wasn’t really good timing in terms of having access to capital and people wanting to loan us money,” she says.
So Claudia made an additional investment that Moya-Jones was unable to match, and once they asked Claudia’s father-in-law to grant them a $200,000 loan, Moya-Jones says she noticed a bubble of resentment growing.
“I think the disparity in what I could contribute financially to what Claudia could was one of the biggest catalysts for the partnership dissolving,” she says.
Moya-Jones says she found three other women to buy out Claudia’s 49% share in the business, and in 2008, the partnership ended.
Off Like a Rocket
Although Moya-Jones was struggling through the personal blow of saying goodbye to a friend, aden + anais was steadily growing into a healthy, flourishing business.
“It was a rocketship in the early stages, for sure,” she says.
The muslin blankets were an instant hit, and thanks to 20 years of sales experience, she was well equipped to get the products to those who wanted them most. Moya-Jones loaded up taxis with samples of her product and went door to door sharing it with every store that might be interested.
“That’s where definitely my sales experience came in handy because I was extremely comfortable with that part of the business,” she says.
In the early 2000s, brick-and-mortar stores still reigned supreme, so she wasn't yet focused on the ecommerce side of the business. She also chose to build relationships with existing retailers, rather than launching into fraught competition with them.
“We didn’t want to piss off the retailers by competing against them with our own website and sales and everything,” she says. “Then, Amazon entered the picture, and of course, all bets were off at that point.”
Meanwhile, Moya-Jones was still balancing her company with her day job. She didn’t want to cause financial strain on her family, which would eventually grow to four daughters, and she didn’t want to put added pressure on her business to perform.
“It was my conscious decision to choose sleep deprivation over any kind of financial pressure on my family and on the business in the early stages,” she says. But the years of toil took their toll.
“There were definitely times when my hair was falling out,” she admits.
She still believed in her business, though, so she powered through the strain, set a goal for when she would leave her day job, and waited for the right moment to arrive.
“Statistically, only 2% of all women-owned businesses ever break a million dollars in revenue,” she says. “I knew it was a pretty stretch goal, and so I sort of said, ‘Well, if I can get to a million in revenue, then I’m prepared to dive fully into aden + anais and quit my day job and give it a really good go,’ which is what I did.”
In 2009, Moya-Jones went full time with the company.
But even though her business was a success, she still needed additional investments to keep the business alive. She borrowed money from just about anyone who would lend it to her for nearly a year and a half after the dissolution of her partnership.
“Initially, it was friends and family, and then it was friends of friends, and then once we got to the point where it was just obvious that we were never going to be able to scale doing it that way, that’s when I went out and looked for investment money,” she says.
Although the business had traction, Moya-Jones says that she struggled to find investors. But in 2010, her first investor came aboard. That investment led to aden + anais’ first year of $10 million in revenue.
A Dark Day and a New Dawn
With the acquisition of another business in 2016, aden + anais pushed past the $100 million mark. But even as Moya-Jones’ success continued to blossom, disaster loomed on the horizon.
In 2013, the first investors in the business departed, and their parting piece of advice to Moya-Jones was to bring in another private equity firm to share the load. They could never have known what this would mean for the company’s future. The new firm bought the majority share of aden + anais, which would lead to an internal struggle for the future of the business.
“That’s when the whole thing started to go downhill for me,” she says. “We did not agree on the way forward. I don’t think they really understood me. This is the whole Stanford, Harvard, Yale backgrounds coming up against the crazy, opinionated Australian girl who has no education on a piece of paper to show. We just didn’t see eye-to-eye on very much at all. It was sort of the beginning of the end to tell you the truth.”
Outspoken about her disagreements as she saw her beloved company moving in a direction she didn’t support, Moya-Jones was informed in 2016 that she was being moved from the position of CEO.
“My story is actually way more common than I think people realize,” she says.
After a string of failed replacements, a new CEO finally stuck, and in 2018, Moya-Jones was fired from her own company.
“It was a pretty awful time,” she says.
But the new firm had the controlling interest in the company, so they were well within their rights to show her the door. And it wasn’t as though Moya-Jones had planned to run the company forever. The luster of serving as CEO of a massive business had already started to fade for her, and she missed the rush of innovation.
“Once you get up to the $60, $70, $80 million dollar mark, you just become the person that all you’re dealing with is shit every day,” she says. “The fun stuff everybody else is handling. The only time you’re really needed is when it’s too hard for somebody else or they don’t want to make the decision and deal with it.”
But she still wishes she would never have sold the majority share, at least until she was prepared to exit on her own terms instead of being forced out as CEO.
“I’m grateful in that I ended up making a very nice amount of money from aden + anais, but it’s definitely bittersweet. If I could do it all over again, I would do it differently.”
To this day, she is still the single largest individual shareowner in aden + anais.
But her story wasn’t over. In fact, a publisher soon approached Moya-Jones and asked her to share, well, what it takes.
While she was initially hesitant because, as she says, until the business reached about $50 million in revenue, she was operating largely on common sense, she decided to move forward with the book when the publisher said they didn’t want a conventional outline of what it took to become successful. They just wanted her story.
“To say I’m the antithesis of the MBA-educated business mind is an understatement,” she says.
And in her book, What It Takes: How I Built a $100 Million Business Against the Odds, she shares just how she did it and hopes she inspires others to do the same. She believes that anyone could follow in her footsteps without any kind of training or prior experience, as long as they are willing to put in the work.
And being asked to leave aden + anais didn’t keep the tenacious Moya-Jones down for long. Today, she is elbow-deep in a brand new business that has taken her “from babies to booze.” In June 2018, she co-founded the moonshine company Saint Luna Spirits.
“We wanted to create a high-end moonshine that was served in five-star restaurants and the best cocktail bars out there,” she says.
The business has already won gold and silver medals at spirit competitions, and after only a few weeks on the market, the label already appears in renowned establishments across New York, such as Jean-Georges and Employees Only.
“It’s super fun to be back in the trenches building something and creating,” Moya-Jones says.
And no matter what she does or where she goes next, by weathering the storms of her first business, Moya-Jones has proven unequivocally that she has what it takes.
Raegan Moya-Jones Tips for Entrepreneurs
Through successes and trials, Raegan Moya-Jones has build up an extensive bank of knowledge when it comes to launching and shepherding businesses, and these are some of the tips she shares with every entrepreneur she meets.
“Not all people have common sense, but what I’m trying to say is you don’t need to be an expert in really anything, I believe, to start and build a successful business.”
“Never, ever sell the controlling interest of your company if you’re still passionately involved in it and dedicated to it.” Unless you are looking to exit a company for good, Moya-Jones recommends that founders think twice before relinquishing control, even for a nice payout.
“Everyone’s going to have an opinion. There will always be the people who want to come in once you’re successful to change the way you do things.” Moya-Jones reminds founders to trust their instincts and remain true to the things that help them launch and grow their business, even if others disagree.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo
Tue, 23 July 2019
Back in the Game
How Nimble’s Jon Ferrara returned to the startup world to revolutionize customer relationships for a second time, all while maintaining a life he loves.
Jon Ferrara was frustrated.
As a young computer software salesman and son of an entrepreneur, he firmly believed that one of the most vital aspects of business was relationship building. But in the 1980s, managing those relationships was a giant pain. He was stuck fumbling with paper leads, appointment calendars, spreadsheet forecasts, and no great way to keep or share records. He wanted to fix the problem, and thought he might just be able to.
Of course, he could have stayed content where he was and raked in a sweet $200,000 a year, while waiting for someone else to solve the problem. But surrounded by aging coworkers who regularly lamented the shots they didn’t take, Ferrara didn’t want to be just another guy with a good idea who didn’t chase his dream.
So at 28, he quit his job to see what he could create.
Three decades and two successful companies later, Ferrara changed the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) game—and then changed it again! Through his work in founding GoldMine and Nimble, Ferrara strives to boost the R in CRM by improving the way salespeople relate to each other and to their customers, first by integrating email, contacts, and calendar, and then by drawing in social media.
“As I went into my career and struggled to sell in the technology arena, I found it hard to scale connections and relationships and pipeline and marketing, and I looked for a tool to do it,” he says. “I couldn’t find it, so I built it. And it turned into a gold mine for me.”
The path Ferrara has traveled has not been a straight line. But thanks to a willingness to pivot, seek partnerships with high-profile businesses, and put relationships before profit, he has built businesses, and a life, he is very proud of.
With no Windows, Outlook, or Salesforce, the life of a salesperson in the 1980s was an endless wilderness of loose scraps of paper.
The salesperson was handed a lead that they would cold call, making notes on the piece of paper and scheduling further meetings in a separate-but-also-paper appointment calendar.
If the paper was lost, so were the notes. Forget about other team members sharing information to build well-rounded relationships with a client. And the bigger the company got, so grew the problem.
This was the root of Ferrara’s frustration.
“What I wanted was a tool that integrated contacts and email and calendar with sales and marketing automation, not just for me, but for the whole team,” he says.
No matter how hard he looked, he could only find pieces of the tool he sought. A marketing tool here. A calendar there. A pipeline tool way over there. But nothing that brought it all together. So, he set out to create it himself.
Ferrara sketched out the idea for GoldMine, and Elan Susser, a friend from college, made it into a reality. Using the money in their savings accounts, Ferrara and Susser created a CRM that integrated every tool a sales team would need and designed it to be accessible across a network.
They had created something revolutionary, and that filled a prevalent need, but they had no money to advertise and no real connections to reach out to.
“There we were, two kids in an apartment with $5,000 in the bank with basically Outlook and Salesforce before either existed,” he says. “So, how do you sell that?”
They say our struggles become our greatest strengths. And it’s in his past sales struggles that Ferrara found the key to GoldMine’s success. During his two-year stint as a software salesman with Banyan, Ferrara was often beaten to the punch by the local resellers of a competing company, Novell.
“The Novell resellers used to kick my butt as the enterprise Banyan sales rep because I had to sell at the top level, the enterprise, all the way down to everybody in the company, and that took months if not years,” he says. “Whereas the Novell guys sold into work groups.”
Rather than focusing on the top dogs at well established companies, Ferrara’s competitors got to know the small groups in coffee shops that would one day form successful startups and eventually large corporations.
With their bottom-up approach, Novell representatives were becoming the trusted go-to software salespeople of small workgroups, allowing them to spread more quickly and eventually become the corporate standard in a fraction of the time it took for top-level executives to make decisions.
So when Ferrara wanted to spread the word about GoldMine, he sought out his former competition. He called top Novell sellers and showed them what a difference GoldMine would make in their own businesses.
As they fell in love with the software, the trusted, local reps recommended it to their customers. Ferrara says that this proto-influencer marketing tactic was the secret sauce that allowed them to reach their first $100,000 in sales.
But as the business grew, so did the needs of the GoldMine customers. While Ferrara’s company initially targeted solopreneurs and small teams, they were rapidly being asked to cater to the needs of organizations with as many as 5,500 people. They needed a more scalable model.
So, when Microsoft approached Ferrara with a deal, he knew it would be mutually beneficial.
“They said, ‘Well, we just built NT Server, SQL Server and Exchange Server, and we want an independent software vendor to help us drive adoption because nobody’s going to buy SQL Server without a business application that calls for it and makes it sticky,’” he says.
As Microsoft created new servers, the company needed to find a way to sell them to business owners who were reluctant to leave the comfortable. By partnering with up and coming business applications that would run only using their newest servers, they drove sales of both products.
Ferrara decided to create a new version of GoldMine that supported the needs of larger corporations by relying on the tools provided by the Microsoft servers. In turn, Microsoft pushed GoldMine to its customers.
“We became corporate standard at 50 of the Fortune 500 companies, and that’s what propelled us to $100 million a year in revenue,” Ferrara says.
But as he stood on the mountaintop of success and looked down at what he had built, he began to question whether he wanted to keep climbing or if it might be time to take another path.
The life of an entrepreneur can be tough. Building a company, particularly a large one, requires high levels of dedication, brainpower, and time.
“Ten years of scaling a company to $100 million in revenue took everything I had,” Ferrara says, “and it cost me time and moments with everyone around me.”
He started searching for his exit.
It was 2000, the stock market was soaring, and Ferrara suspected it wouldn’t last, so when he was offered $125 million in cash to sell GoldMine, he took the deal.
Four months later, Ferrara says, the dotcom bubble burst, sending stocks plummeting. But even as he sighed with the relief of a bullet dodged and settled into the stay-at-home husband and father life, another much more insidious threat was already growing. One year after Ferrara sold GoldMine, doctors found a tumor in his brain.
“Life is going to hand you blessings, and it’s also going to smack you, and you can’t control that,” he says. “The only thing you can control is how you react to it.”
Ferrara chose to react in the way he knew best: through research and relationships. He visited a variety of doctors while also learning about Eastern medicine, and through a combination of these treatments, he says he healed his body while also taking a deeper look at his soul.
“I came to a simple conclusion about my purpose in life,” he says. “I think we are on this planet to grow our souls by helping other people grow theirs. Rinse and repeat. That’s it.”
Even though he had only planned to be away from the business world for a short period, his brush with mortality caused him to reevaluate where he invested his limited time.
“They don’t write on your grave, ‘kickass entrepreneur,’” Ferrara says with a laugh. “They say, 'beloved father, friend, husband.' So I decided to dedicate time to being a present father, husband, and contributor to my community…and to be able to do that at 40 years old was priceless. It was precious.”
So for nearly a decade, Ferrara was almost entirely absent from the world of technology. Then in 2009, as his 50th birthday approached, the rise of a new technological power caught his attention: social media.
Still with an eye for relationship building, Ferrara recognized that social media was about to reshape the way people related to one another and also how consumers related to businesses. He also knew that the current CRM options weren’t built to integrate with social media.
With contacts spread across CRM software, company software, and every kind of social media platform imaginable, salespeople were once again as overwhelmed trying to manage contacts as they were in the days of pen and paper.
“So I said to myself, ‘Imagine if you could build a CRM that worked for you by building itself from the disparate data you already have in your business—the email, contacts, and calendars that you have in GSuite, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn,’ and I built it,” he says.
In 2010, Ferrara built an exploratory team. In 2011, he launched a beta test. In 2013, the paywall went up, and so Ferrara returned to the entrepreneurial world with the creation of the social CRM, Nimble.
Back in the Game
It was like déjà vu. Once again, Ferrara felt he had a valuable piece of software, and once again, he had no easy avenue to market it.
“I’d been out of technology for 10 years,” he says. “Most people in technology have only been in technology for 10 years, let alone out of it.”
No one remembered who he was, or even what GoldMine had done. But while he may have lost name recognition and connections during his absence, there is one thing that had only continued to flourish in his time away: his ability to build relationships.
So, Ferrara dove into social media, sharing and commenting on the posts of thought leaders in the entrepreneurial space.
“Rather than me having to go out and write my own content, I shared content that resonated with me in and around the value that my product provided, which generated eyeballs to my brand,” he says.
Over time, this led to moments of interaction with the influencers whose content he shared. But he avoided diving right into a pitch for Nimble. Instead, he would hop on a call with them and ask them questions based on research about their lives and businesses.
“If you let somebody talk, you’ll learn what you need to learn to add value, and they’ll love you because people love to be heard,” he says.
As the connections grew, he would offer them meaningful introductions or even business ideas. Only when he was asked would he share his current venture, Nimble. And as he shared, some of those he spoke with decided to give it a try. Then those happy customers shared their experiences with their followings.
And while this approach to marketing took time, Ferrara believes you can’t put a price on authenticity.
“Real, solid relationships are one to one,” he says. “They’re heart to heart. They’re relevant and authentic. And when you blast, people feel it.”
His patient methodology led to over 100,000 Nimble subscribers and such high-profile investors as Mark Cuban and Google Ventures, all without a single cent spent on marketing. And, after partnering with Microsoft once again, Ferrara sees explosive growth in Nimble’s future.
With the rise of cloud computing, he has his eye on which businesses are finding the most success in that arena. And Ferrara points out that, according to the numbers, it’s undoubtedly Microsoft. He says that while G Suite has about 7 million users, Office 365 has 175 million.
“Essentially it’s really game over in the cloud productivity wars, and Microsoft dominates and will grow from here. “Most businesses that use Microsoft products rely on their local reseller to facilitate their adoption and implementation. Microsoft has hundreds of thousands of them around the world, and nobody has that.”
With Nimble’s status as the simple CRM for Office 365, Ferrara says they’ve signed up 30 of the 50 top Microsoft distributors and over 1,000 Microsoft resellers in just the last six months. And it’s only onward and upward from there.
But even though lightning has struck not once but twice in Ferrara’s journey as a tech entrepreneur, he feels that his greatest achievements are those he has made as a husband, father, and member of his community.
“Life isn’t about money,” he says. “It’s really more about the moments that create the memories. All you leave are the moments you’ve been truly present with the universe around you—with other human beings—and the ripples that you leave behind.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo
Thu, 18 July 2019
Taking on Google
Gabriel Weinberg has made it his mission to protect internet privacy, and his scrappy Google competitor DuckDuckGo is leading the charge.
Everything we do online is tracked. Searching, browsing, shopping, even navigating.
Most of us have grown accustomed to this. Although we may acknowledge now and then that it makes us uncomfortable, we haven’t changed our habits. Maybe we’ve become too reliant on our preferred online services for basic day-to-day tasks. Or maybe we don’t even know how we’d change our ways in the first place.
This is a problem that Gabriel Weinberg has been helping people solve since 2008, when he first created privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo. While the company has been charging ahead ever since, Weinberg’s mission is on everyone’s mind these days. Concerns about internet privacy and data protection are at an all time high, following recurring scandals around tech companies leaving their users vulnerable.
While still far smaller than industry leader you-know-who, DuckDuckGo’s popularity is surging, thanks to its commitments to never collecting personal information or tracking your activity to sell to advertisers. The search engine offers other services like informing the user of what tracking is being blocked, and now has a mobile privacy browser and desktop plugins. Since incorporating in 2008, DuckDuckGo has grown to a global company of 63 employees.
As internet privacy has taken the spotlight, Weinberg’s been busy, writing and advocating for federal “do not track” legislation, and speaking up in the New York Times opinion page and other platforms. He’s also got a new book out that explores the power of mental models he’s relied upon during his career.
But Weinberg’s core mission remains: to make it a lot easier for you to use the internet without being creeped on.
The Start of DuckDuckGo
DuckDuckGo is a search engine, but it’s also an internet privacy company that’s out to help you protect yourself online.
“We like to say the internet shouldn't feel so creepy, and protecting your information should be as easy as closing the blinds,” Weinberg says.
DuckDuckGo offers a variety of tools to help consumers achieve this privacy—and feel confident about it. The company started as a search engine and has since expanded to offer a browser for iOS and Android, along with extensions for desktop browsers.
The company is 10 years in the making, but it wasn’t Weinberg’s first internet startup. After graduating from MIT in 2003, he created educational software that supported student achievement by using the internet to connect parents and teachers. Unfortunately, the software was developed about 15 years too early, and it fell flat.
Next, Weinberg started a pre-Facebook social network that helped people find old friends and classmates. That fell apart in 2006, and DuckDuckGo followed soon after in 2007. The company incorporated in 2008 and officially launched at the end of that year.
So, how has DuckDuckGo competed with giants like Google for over 10 years and lived to tell the tale? It’s a modern day David and Goliath story, although in this case David is growing bigger and stronger every day.
Weinberg attributes a lot of DuckDuckGo’s success to his team. As he often tells other entrepreneurs, “If you're going to succeed, you're going to need an amazing team around you. Work on crafting the values and mission to attract a team... to reach your ambition.”
The Power of Mental Models
Weinberg also credits much of his success to years of dedicated research on mental models, which he’s recently turned into a book with his wife Lauren McCann, Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models.
“Mental models are concepts ... be a better strategic thinker,” Weinberg says.
He encourages people to think of mental models like this: When you first learn arithmetic, you learn addition, then multiplication based on addition. If you didn’t advance to multiplication, you could still combine quantities using addition, but it would take you much, much longer.
Mental models operate the same way. “Once you know something, you can think in a higher-order way really quickly,” Weinberg says. On the other hand, if you didn’t have a mental model, you’d have to start from scratch, every time. It’d be more difficult and time-consuming to make good decisions, repeatedly.
When he started training the DuckDuckGo executive team, Weinberg realized a significant knowledge gap: His team didn’t recognize more than half the mental models he’d instructed them to learn and use.
That’s how Weinberg and McCann, a statistician, came up with Super Thinking—when he realized his current training method was inefficient and no other resource would suffice. Through their research, they also realized that many of the mental models were related.
Almost all 300 mental models in the book are existing concepts. Super Thinking simply collects and organizes them into main themes—nine, to be exact. The last two themes are called “Unlocking People's Potential” and “Flex Your Market Power,” and the mental models in these chapters apply to leadership, management, and other business best practices.
“People are really different, and if you want to manage effectively, every person requires different characteristics,” he says. That’s why effective managers take the time to understand personality types and strengths, using questionnaires like Myers-Briggs and DiSC.
One notable mental model is called Joy’s Law, which tells us that all of the smartest people already work for someone else. “This means that you can’t corral smart people,” Weinberg says. “Instead, if you arrange people in just the right way and give them jobs that fit , they can reach extraordinary success both as teams and individuals.”
In their book, Weinberg and McCann explain that Joy’s Law also overlaps with mental models like 10x Teams and Resonant Frequency, the latter coming from physics. “A lot of mental models come from different disciplines,” Weinberg says. “The idea of mental models is to take a multidisciplinary approach—to take the best ideas from all different disciplines and combine them to use them for general strategic thinking.”
To understand Resonant Frequency at work, imagine an opera singer breaking a glass by hitting just the right note. “The same happens with people; hitting the right frequency and absorbing energy from the right role and jobs,” Weinberg says.
But just as a singer can’t break glass with every note they sing (it’s actually quite rare), a team can't operate at a resonant frequency at all times. So, how do you know when you’ve reached it with your team? You constantly shift around your team and test to see which combination produces the best output.
That’s what Weinberg does at DuckDuckGo, where he doesn’t have a traditional management hierarchy. Instead, they’ve divided management responsibilities between positions and operate based on objectives and projects, and the team doesn’t hesitate to shuffle around when needed.
”We are constantly moving people around to fit what they're most interested in and best suited for... to achieve these 10X Teams,” Weinberg said.
Gaining Traction for Growth
Weinberg previously authored Traction, which serves as a scientific experimentation approach to marketing. In it, he systematically lists 19 different channels that companies can use to gain traction with their audiences.
“My advice is to not leave anything out,” Weinberg says. “It’s often one of the unusual things might be the thing that actually works.”
Over the last 10 years, DuckDuckGo has found that different stages of growth have required different marketing channels. In the early stages of growth, the team used social media, content marketing, and PR, but these channels eventually saw diminishing returns. Since then, the team has transitioned to organic, viral growth and offline word-of-mouth marketing.
In the last nine months,DuckDuckGo has succeeded at brand marketing that has also raised market share. “I wrote some long-form articles on Quora on topics like why to use DuckDuckGo vs. Google, how tracking works, how to avoid it, and more,” Weinberg says. “These got such high engagement, more than anything else.”
Since publishing the posts, Weinberg and his team have been working to promote that content on platforms like Quora and Reddit. As one of the first native advertisers on Quora, their posts have been promoted to over 150 million people per month.
“It’s all about finding bigger audiences and putting content in front of them that's compelling and native to the platform,” Weinberg says. The team has made just seven Quora answers and has been promoting them to 100 million people. It’s not cheap, but it’s working, he says.
What is DuckDuckGo’s traction like at this point? Since the DuckDuckGo engine doesn’t track unique users, they can only report on total searches, which is currently at over 1 billion each month. For a company competing in a search engine space that’s dominated by one player, that’s pretty astounding.
A top 100 website, the engine is ranked #4 in most countries and #3 in Australia. “Some third party estimates say we’re at 50 million users per month, which would be about 40 million searches per day.”
What’s Next for DuckDuckGo?
How does a search engine that doesn’t track customer data make money?
“Search is unique because Google still makes money off search without having to track much ,” Weinberg says. Instead, Google conducts contextual advertising, which displays ads based on what a user is searching (versus behavioral advertising which uses customer data to display ads).
DuckDuckGo can do the same contextual advertising without having to track any data. Calculating customer lifetime value (LTV) isn’t as simple, though. “It’s is even more difficult because of the lack of tracking,” Weinberg says.
Instead of relying on customer data, the company measures factors like brand awareness and market share. Through national surveys, DuckDuckGo asks users if they're familiar with the brand, how they heard about it, and if they associate it with privacy.
Feedback is an important tool at DuckDuckGo. As they’ve expanded their product line, the team conducted primary research on privacy and people who are interested in privacy.
“We ran different methodologies, national surveys, user tests, and diary studies,” Weinberg says.
DuckDuckGo’s diary studies involved a small group of 12 to 15 people who adopted the product and kept a diary for a period of two weeks. The team would then check during those two weeks to see how the subjects were using, navigating, and feeling about the product.
“We found that would use DuckDuckGo but then click off to other websites that can track,” Weinberg says. “They felt unprotected, and we realized search was only part of the solution.”
This inspired the company’s latest release, DuckDuckGo Privacy Browser, including extensions for desktop that help block trackers and enforce greater encryption across the internet.
“It’s all about encryption and education,” Weinberg says. “We’re trying to simplify privacy.”
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Allie Decker
Wed, 10 July 2019
Selling Luggage and a Lifestyle
How Steph Korey and Jen Rubio co-founded a luggage company for the modern adventurer that is taking the world by storm.
Jen Rubio called her friend Steph Korey to vent about an irritating, expensive problem that just about any frequent flyer has endured at some point. She had a busted carry-on.
Rubio was suffering from suitcase-demolition blues, and Korey wasn’t sure what brands to recommend. So Rubio texted a dozen of their trendiest, travel-savvy friends—the kind of people who would know all the best hotels in Bangkok—but they had no clue where to direct her to buy the perfect suitcase. They were quick to tell her which brands to avoid—sharing similarly frustrating stories of failure—but no one had the answer she was searching for.
The search seemed hopeless.
A single, action-packed year later, Korey and Rubio shipped the very first piece of Away carry-on luggage.
Today, the luggage company that is so much more than a luggage company has sold over a million bags to customers across the world and captured the imagination of a generation known for its desire to chase down experiences instead of possessions.
“This business isn’t really about luggage or suitcases at all,” Korey says. “What we’re really creating is a travel brand, and travel has the ability to really impact someone’s life.”
With an eye on revolutionizing the luggage industry while leaving the world better than they’d found it, Korey and Rubio designed a bag that is durable, practical, and looks dang good in an Instagram photo.
And that was only the beginning.
Charting the Course
In the beginning, Korey wasn’t sure she even wanted to start a business. She just wanted to learn more about the way other people traveled.
She and Rubio had become friends while working together at Warby Parker, the online store that home delivers hip eyeglasses at affordable prices, so they knew firsthand the challenges that come with life at a startup.
Rather than cannonballing into the deep end, the pair chose to start small and simply follow their curiosity. They decided to create a survey and send it to 50 people in a vast array of demographics, including male and female students, young professionals, established professionals, and retirees, who lived both in the US and abroad.
After sharing information about how they traveled, how they packed, and what travel products they used, each person taking the survey was asked to forward it to five of their friends who also came from varied backgrounds.
When the survey finished making its rounds, Korey and Rubio had over 800 responses to sift through. The pair was quickly able to start noticing themes, particularly when it came to how the existing luggage industry wasn’t meeting travelers’ needs.
The survey results showed that travelers wanted a light piece of carry-on luggage that maximized packing space and still fit in the overhead compartments of airplanes. They also dreamed of a bag that could take a baggage handler’s beating if they decided to check it, including wheels and zippers that wouldn’t fail.
Respondents also expressed the need for a place to put dirty, sweaty laundry after trips to the gym, summer walking tours through cities, or perilous mountain climbs. Oh, and they hated traveling with dead cell phones.
With these results in mind, Korey and Rubio moved into the next stage of development.
Korey says they were still unsure whether they wanted to start a business when they sat down with a group of designers from the fashion, luggage, and industrial design industries. They weren’t even sure when they decided to partner with two industrial designers to transform their findings into a product design.
The team had plans for their new carry-on bag in one hand, and plane tickets to Asia—where they planned to meet with dozens of luggage manufacturers—in the other, but were still unsure where this journey would land them.
It was only when a family in the manufacturing business told them their radical design could be actualized that it all clicked together. And just like that, the family agreed to manufacture the first 3,000 Away carry-on bags.
Well, not quite.
“I’m glamorizing this story a little bit,” Korey says. “It’s, in reality, probably a little more along the lines of we begged them to work with us.”
Korey and Rubio spent days with the family, attempting to convince them to manufacture the bags. With every new pitch she used to convince the family—that they were about to revolutionize the luggage industry, and their business model was totally unique, and this was a chance to get in on day one with a company that was going to be huge one day—she felt herself becoming more convinced that this was it. It was finally time to start this business.
Their manufacturers came around, too.
“I’m entirely certain that they didn’t believe any of that,” she says. “Actually, they’ve told us that they didn’t believe any of that, but that we were so sincere and passionate about what we were doing that they just couldn’t turn us down.”
Now that the ball was officially rolling, and Away was on the verge of becoming a reality, they had to jump a final, daunting hurdle. They had to find the money.
“Raising any kind of capital is difficult, but raising seed capital is particularly difficult, because you can’t really tell the story of your business metrics at all, because they don’t exist,” Korey says. “You just have to tell the story of your vision and what you’re trying to create, and it really takes a leap of faith from investors.”
But she adds that the knowledge she had gathered from her time leading the supply chain at Warby Parker, and Rubio’s experience in the marketing team there, gave them a definite advantage.
“That is for sure the only reason that we were able to convince investors to take that leap of faith,” she says. “We knew what we were doing, and we would create something that resonated and that was successful.”
In fact, she recommends that all aspiring entrepreneurs invest some time working at a startup.
“I think it’s essential that you spend at least a couple years working at a startup first, for two reasons,” she says. “One, find out if you like it! Some people don’t like that chaos. … And then the second reason is it really gives you a sense of context of all the different pieces that go into creating something from nothing.”
In the summer of 2015, Korey and Rubio were ready to create something, so they met with more than 20 different investors across the United States over the course of a week.
After many failed pitches, and several uncomfortable red-eye flights, the pair met with Forerunner Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm that invests primarily in early-stage ecommerce brands.
While most of the firms they met with simply didn’t understand what they were trying to do with Away, Korey says that Forerunner was captivated by their vision.
“We’re really creating a broader brand and business around inspiring people to live a life of new experiences, and equipping them with all the products they need to make those travel experiences more seamless,” she recalls saying in her pitch.
Within the first meeting, Forerunner was on board as a partner. With over $2.5 million raised, it was finally time to make some suitcases.
Excited by the prospect of holiday sales, Korey says they set their launch date for November 2015. But as the date drew closer and the production of the first 3,000 suitcases was delayed until February of the following year, they had to get creative.
Instead of selling the suitcases during the holiday season, they published a coffee table book called, The Places We Return To and paired it with a gift card for the February release of the first round of suitcases.
“It was really one of the first moves we did as a brand really establishing ourselves as first and foremost about travel and not about travel products,” Korey says.
In the book, they featured stories and photos of successful chefs, writers, photographers, and other talented professionals. Each person was asked about their favorite place in the entire world, why they loved it, and what they did during their visits.
“We ended up with this collection of short stories that were very intimate because it was about people who were so knowledgeable about their favorite place in the world,” Korey says.
Those featured in the book helped spread the word about the exciting new travel company, its mission, and the revolutionary new suitcase that was on the way. And the word traveled like a millennial with a break between jobs.
Korey says they prepared 2,000 books and gift cards. By Christmas, every one had sold.
Embarking on the Journey
In February 2016, the first ever Away customer (his name is Adam) received his carry-on bag. Three years later, over a million bags in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes have made it across the world in shipping boxes, overhead bins, and car trunks.
The ribbed, hard-shelled luggage is becoming more recognizable by the day. By offering their luggage at direct-to-consumer prices, what was once reserved for only the chicest of travelers could now make it to the general public.
They take their social impact seriously, as well. Away works with manufacturing companies that have, as they say on their website, “exemplary and thoughtful work environments we would want for our own employees.” The company has also partnered with several charitable organizations, including Peace Direct, Charity: Water, and Kode with Klossy.
So what’s next for Away?
Korey says the company is currently working to expand across Europe, Asia, Australia and other parts of North America. Taking a page from Warby Parker and other disruptive ecommerce startups, they’ve also launched a brick-and-mortar component to their business with six American storefronts and one in London.
And as Away continues to expand, they’ll continue to release new products that support the modern traveler.
Korey is excited to see where the company goes next, not merely because she wants the business to flourish, but because she genuinely cares about the needs of Away customers. From the moment Korey and Rubio sent their first survey, they knew that the “why” behind their brand lay directly at the feet of their customers.
“You should never start a business because you want to start a business. It’s a terrible reason to do it. It’s going to be a long slog if you’re not really focused on a particular insight or a problem that you’re trying to solve,” she says. “Whether you’re just getting started and you don’t know where to start, or you’ve already gotten started, and you’re trying to figure out the next step, it really starts with deeply understanding the customer.”
It starts the way Away did: with a need, an idea, and a customer survey.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo
Wed, 3 July 2019
Hunting for the Next Big Thing:
How Ryan Hoover established an online home for tech geeks that changed the way makers get inspired, recruit, and launch their products.
When he wasn’t overseeing the gumball machines at his parents’ video game store as a kid or pushing carts at a home improvement store as a teen, Ryan Hoover was tinkering with tech.
As personal technology advanced, and new programs and applications exploded, Hoover and his friends were fairly obsessed with whatever was emerging from the Silicon Valley pipeline next. Over the years, however, he found that there was no single outlet that satisfied his cravings to learn about the very latest products and developments.
Sure, he avidly scrolled tech Twitter and Reddit threads. But what if, he wondered, there was some kind of a reliable destination where those in the tech field, or otherwise infatuated with its latest offerings, could show up regularly to talk shop—to share and learn about all the latest and greatest in tech?
“The initial inspiration was just the desire to explore new technology,” Hoover says.
So began a side project that, in just over five years, has become the wildly popular hub for the tech community, Product Hunt. In 2018, more than 1 million registered users and many more unregistered visitors stopped by Hoover’s creation, and over 20,000 products launched on the site. More than just a news site or message board, Product Hunt has evolved into the definitive place for makers to introduce their new projects and learn about what their peers are up to.
But this great, big community all began with a simple email list.
Building a Home for the Tech Community
Hoover had been working in a product management position at growing startup PlayHaven, where he was employee #10. He values his time spent at the company, especially lessons learned about management. But at the time, he had only been out of college a couple of years, and was eager to try hs hand at something new, so Hoover moved into a part-time role to explore new projects.
Going part-time gave him the space in his schedule that he needed to pursue something of his own. He’d been mulling over the idea of Product Hunt, and the time had finally come to make it a reality.
It began as a simple email newsletter between friends sharing the latest tech product releases and mind-blowing apps they stumbled across. But soon, friends of friends and friends twice removed were added to the list.
Before long, Hoover was managing an email list that included far more strangers than friends from all around the globe. He decided to bring his friend Nathan Bashaw on board to build a website, giving Product Hunt a home online, and the community continued to flourish.
“We sort of filled this hole I think, in the market that no one really observed or noticed,” he says. “We do have Twitter, and we have subreddits around technology, and we have blogs and publications talking about new tech, but there is really no home for the tech community to talk about the latest products.”
With a brand new website, Hoover planned to turn it into that home.
But in order to host meaningful conversation, he knew he had to engage users with something other social platforms weren’t offering. Hoover says he intentionally focused on positive community building from day one by sending personalized welcome emails to each new user who joined Product Hunt.
“As proud as I am of what we’ve built on the product and technical side, that’s not what’s going to make us successful or make us special and unique,” he says. “It’s really the people and the brand that we’ve built.”
But the site membership ballooned rapidly, not only exceeding his ability to email each new visitor, but also evolving into much more than just a side project or an email list.
Product Hunt grew to fill an important hole, helping entrepreneurs face a daunting task that so many in the tech space must take on at some point: product launch.
Reinventing Launch Day
Hoover noticed that traditional media outlets were the primary way that creators would get the word out about new products, but even tech publications weren’t particularly suited to support a launch. It’s also hard work to land coverage.
“Historically, to get your first users, to get the word out, a lot of people would go to the press to do so,” he says. “They would have to have a relationship in many ways or get lucky cold emailing reporters and hoping that they’d get somebody to write about their company.”
And when launch day is imminent, few creators even have the time to dedicate to those pitches.
On Product Hunt, tech creators can share their new products in detail, build a following before launch day, and advertise to groups of people who are most interested. Makers, founders, and startups soon flocked to the website, eager to share their newest releases, and the community responded with upvotes galore.
Even visitors to the site who had not yet built products of their own could find incredible value on Product Hunt, Hoover says. He points out that the site is full of inspiration for future makers, and is just a great way to pass an afternoon.
“I like to think that it’s like a productive procrastination,” he says. “Instead of looking at maybe cat photos or memes on the internet, at least you’re spending time exploring what people are building.”
And maybe gathering ideas for “the next big thing.”
Comparing it to an afternoon in a museum for an artist or a visit to a music venue for a songwriter, Hoover says that a scroll through Product Hunt can trigger fresh ideas and show up-and-comers new ways to approach tech.
“I think if you’re someone who’s excited to build a company in the future or if you’re a product manager, or whatever your role is, I think there’s a lot of value in searching for inspiration,” he says.
As traction grew, so did their reach, and before long, San Francisco-based Hoover noticed that over 50 percent of Product Hunt’s audience was international.
“It’s cool in that sense because it’s not just a reflection of Silicon Valley technology,” he says. “It’s a reflection of the world and the technology that’s being created all over the place.”
Hoover had a successful brand on his hands. All he had to do was figure out what’s next.
Planning for the Future
In 2016, three years after Product Hunt launched, Hoover and his team mulled over whether they should begin another round of funding or pursue acquisition. Unsure which way to go, they decide to take the first steps down both paths, and then go with the one that had a more natural fit.
Because community was such an important aspect of the business, both internally and externally, Hoover wanted to ensure that, if they did pursue acquisition, the companies would have complementary cultures.
“That’s where a lot of acquisitions can go sour,” he says. “There can be a wildly different culture or vision for the company, and if that’s not aligned then it’s probably not going to work out long term.”
During the company’s first two rounds of funding two years earlier, Naval Ravikant, the CEO and co-founder of AngelList, had invested in the company. He already understood what Product Hunt was all about and appreciated the work they were doing, so when he approached Hoover with an acquisition proposal, Hoover realized that this was the natural fit he had been waiting for.
While he acknowledges that the AngelList culture isn’t a clone of the culture that exists within Product Hunt, he feels that they weave together into a perfect fit.
“It’s sort of like when you hire a teammate,” he says. “You don’t want them to be just like you. Ideally, they have a similar belief and mission as yourself but also have different skills and different areas of focus. That’s kind of how I think of AngelList and Product Hunt.”
Both companies have similar passions for tech and supporting founders, while AngelList focuses on engineering and Product Hunt approaches those passions from the angle of community building, Hoover says.
Nearly three years have passed since the acquisition, and Hoover feels things are going well. Product Hunt continues to operate mostly independently, and has employees across 10 countries, all communicating via Slack. And the platform has continued to evolve.
Today, creators in the tech space can advertise jobs, promote events, and launch new products with ease. They can also promote an upcoming product launch through the tool Ship, a three-in-one toolkit where makers can create landing pages, build email lists, and send out surveys without bouncing between platforms.
As the world of tech continues to expand, Hoover sees a future of continued growth and ever-increasing user engagement for Product Hunt, particularly this year, as they direct their primary focus toward increasing users and community contributions.
No doubt, as technology continues to advance far beyond anything we can imagine, Product Hunt will be there, ever inviting users to discover their next favorite thing.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo