Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation what have you learned about your business or your users that you didn’t realize?
John: I don’t think there was anything that I didn’t realize, you get reminded of things. You get reminded of the fact that people don’t read. They come to a webpage and, “Too long, don’t read.” So, you have to say, every webpage has to be its own context. If you come to a page on the site and you land on it, you have to know, “Why am I here? What is this telling me? What am I supposed to take away from this?” It’s just really old lessons. Don’t bury the lead. Don’t hide your line. Be very clear about what you’re doing. We’re still playing with messaging and trying to figure out what message resonates with people. But it’s a repeated lesson.
Then, there’s always the old startup one which is basically, you’ve got to know what you’re selling, who you’re selling it to and why they’re going to buy it from you. You really have to ask those fundamental questions, otherwise you shouldn’t be in business.
Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make starting companies look easy. We know it can be very difficult. We want to dispel some myths here, so my question to you, John, is what talents or skills come easily or intuitively for you? What’s been difficult, and how do you manage that?
John: Easily and intuitively is anything technical. I just do tech stuff; it just comes to me. I look at tech problems, I can solve them. I understand how things work. That’s just what I do. Difficult and pain points for me, finance administration. I’m not an administrator, I’m not a VC guy and so doing that side of things is the thing you put off, because you don’t like doing it. So, you hire people to do that. That’s what the trick is to figure out what you can’t do and hire people who do it well.
That’s where I find that the biggest tough thing is. OK with understanding [inaudible 02:23] good with tech stuff, admin not so much.
Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching Repost.Us?
John: Lessons learned since launching, that’s a good question. Again, it’s reminders. If you have somebody and they put a little Repost.Us button on their site that says, “Hey you can repost this article.” Nobody sees it. There’s so much noise on websites now, there are so many little buttons that do different things. If you don’t recognize the button and it doesn’t mean anything to you, nobody’s going to use it.
A publisher has to educate their users so that they can now legally republish articles on the site. Working with the publishers is the best way to educate their users that they have this tool on the site so that they can get success with it. So, it’s not just getting somebody to use the product, it’s actually getting somebody to use the product and then helping them be successful using it. Taking it to that next step, it’s that you can’t just sort of go throw the product over the wall and go, “It’s great. You should understand it.” It doesn’t work like that.
Matthew: What bit of advice do you wish you would’ve known before launching Repost.Us?
John: I don’t know about before launching Repost.Us but in general with startups, the stress level. I think people don’t quite understand when they do a startup how stressful it is to be worrying about: are you making payroll for all these other people? And being responsible for everybody else’s salary. I remember when Beyond.com’s payroll went through a million dollars a month, when it hit that number, and you’re like, whoa. It’s a moment when you stop and think, “I’ve got all these hundreds of people around me that depend on me not making stupid decisions” And that’s a stress.
Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your professional development?
John: I think the biggest mentor would be Bill McKiernan, who was my co-founder of Beyond.com and Cybersource, and CEO at Cybersource. Bill comes from a MBA, CPA business background, and I learned a lot from Bill.
The other place I’ve learned a lot is Burning Man. Which is totally, people go, “What? Burning Man?” After I retired, I tried retiring, but it didn’t stick, but after I retired one of the retirement jobs I had was I worked for Burning Man, and I helped run logistics for the Black Rock Rangers, which is Burning Man’s internal public safety organization.
Burning Man is pretty much a volunteer organization. There’s maybe a couple hundred staff in a 50,000 person city and another 10,000 volunteers in there. So, you get this question: how do you manage volunteers? And it’s a question that every manager should think about because all of the things that people have traditionally associated with management, carrot and stick type stuff, sort of goes out the window. You can’t fire your volunteers. Well, you can fire them but it’s not really useful, and you can’t give them a pay raise because you’re not paying them anything.
So, you start thinking about what motivates people to do things? It comes down to feeling appreciated, lots of little stuff like, are you feeding them? Giving meals to volunteers at Burning Man after they worked a shift was a big deal. We feed people in startup, we have breakfast, lunch, dinner if you’re here and it’s all sort of organic, freshly cooked food. It doesn’t come off a truck.
What tools do you give them? Give them the right tools to do the job. So, you’re talking about, in the case of engineers, it’s computers. What computer do you give an engineer? Pretty much any computer they ask for, within reason. Because, you’re paying them, however many thousands and thousands of dollars a year, the difference between a $2,000 computer and a $5,000 computer is immaterial for the company. And if it makes them more productive…you said a 30 inch monitor; you want a 30 inch monitor as an engineer? Get a 30 inch monitor. It’s what you need to do the job. Get them the tools they need to do the job. People who have the right tools, have the right challenges, work harder.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?
John: The fancy phrase for this these days is minimum viable product. I was doing this in the ’90s and I thought of it as John’s Law of Product Development which was you write down everything you want your product to do, everything you can conceive of as a feature, and you cross out everything that isn’t essential to version one. And you build version one, and you keep the other stuff in mind so you don’t box yourself into a corner. Then, you ship it and you see what people really want to do with it. Time to market is everything. Get the product out the door; see what people really want to do with it.
Most startups are solving problems that are either an old problem in a new way or you’re solving a new problem. You’re not really into that sort of incremental improvement on stuff with startup. It’s typically a new business model or a new solution. If you’re doing that, you really only have a thesis as to how a thing’s going to work. As a Prussian general once said, “No plan ever survives first contact with the enemy.”
So, you have this plan, go out, but you can never really have enough information to really know whether you’re doing it right. No amount of research can tell you that. So ship it. See what people really want.
Matthew: John, before we close, we’d love for you to give our audience your big vision for Repost.Us and how you hope it will change the world.
John: Well, we think all content should be portable. That is, you should be able to take an article and put it on a tablet, put it on another website, put it anywhere you want. And you should be able to do that in a way that still honors the original creator, attributes, has content integrity, stays up-to-date if it changes, monetize it.
Think of it like video. Ten years ago if you made videos, people would have been very concerned about the idea that you could copy it and put it on any website. Today, if you post videos on the web and they’re not embeddable on other websites, people look at your like you’re nuts. We think content should be embeddable. We think there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have an article that can go viral, that can be reposted on lots and lots of sites.
It’s just a collection of other objects, and they should all be portable between different environments. And learning from video, we’ve made monetization options from the get-go, multiple ones so that you could choose your business model. And we’ve made it incredibly easy to make content portable. We think that will change the way content is distributed.
Matthew: Excellent. Well, John it’s been a great pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at Repost.Us. For those in our audience who would like to learn more, visit their website, use their service and join the community, you can visit them at www.repost.us.
This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. Thanks so much, John.