Matthew: From idea to product launch, how long did it take and when did you launch?
Eric: As I mentioned, the idea initially was how do you monetize Twitter? That is what I started with. Let’s build a business model first and figure out how to build a product around that that was going to support that. For two months, actually, the product was just a slide deck. I’m a former consultant. I think in PowerPoint. I create things in PowerPoint. I’m not a designer. But I created a whole mock-up in PowerPoint and a whole presentation and took it around to a bunch of people just to get their thoughts. Do you think this has legs? Do you think people would go for this?
After a few months, basically, I heard a lot of encouragement that was like, “Go for it! Just try it out. Build a basic product and see where it goes from there.” After a couple of months, I was just trying to decide whether I was going to start a business or not because I was actually interviewing for other positions and trying to find other interesting startups that I could find. I decided at that point that I was going to stop doing everything else and just focus on this, and I was going to put some of my own money in, too.
I’m not a developer, so I actually had to find a developer. I took some of my own money and hired on a contract developer that actually built out a product. So, in February, almost two years ago, we started just tooling around, analyzing tweets. Let’s look at these tweets. Let’s analyze them. And we had kind of an initial design which I had designed. I’m not a designer, so it looked like crap. Our alpha was kind of based off that design. When I look at it, I’m kind of embarrassed but, again, like I said, I’m no designer.
Basically, from the time we started tooling around to actually coming up with something that was user facing – I think it was about six to eight weeks or so – we had our alpha and we went live with our alpha. Our alpha product had a lot of principles that the current version of Twylah has, but it just was ugly and it was not very intuitive. And we were live with that for about six months and gathered a lot of user feedback and really understood what worked and what didn’t work.
So, we basically shuttered that after six months or so and started building the beta towards the end of 2010 or so. Basically, the beta was built over a period of three months and we went live April/May of last year. Again, taking a lot of the learnings from our initial iteration on the alpha, and then applying a layer of really great design. We’ve got a kick ass designer on the team who’s done just a fantastic job and who’s taken it to a whole different level.
Matthew: What advice would you like to share with our audience about building a startup? If you have to distill it, what are some key elements?
Eric: I initially set out to build a very large and profitable business, build a business model that was robust and that was going to be big. As I started working on that, and as an entrepreneur, you have lots of ups and downs. What I realized is that, if there’s not something, a driving force, that you have that motivates you at a fundamental level for what you’re doing, then it’s going to be much harder to make it through those down times. And, as an entrepreneur, you need to be constantly motivated and you need to be always going at it. And it might not be when you start an idea or when you start a business that you discover what it is. It may come as you actually start building it up and iterating.
I think it was Tony Hsieh from Zappos that I once saw talk about this. He said you can build great companies with a great business vision and great people, but to build an excellent company, you need a noble purpose, something that goes even above what a company is meant to be. What is it that this company does that is going to detain society or is going to improve society? I feel that, if you can find something in your business that allows you to connect with that and to have an understanding of how what you’re doing is going to really change mankind or change society in a positive way, then it will be a lot easier to make it through the ups and down.
Not only that, but it will give you a lot more focus and give you a constant reminder as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s important to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. For Twylah, I didn’t start out with a noble purpose. I started out with a business idea that I thought could actually be very successful. But slowly, as I started to get more and more into building the product and getting into what Twitter’s about and getting more and more into tweeting myself and being part of the Twitter community, what I discovered is that – and again, this is my perception and you may have a different point of view on this.
I think what Twitter did when they invented Twitter, maybe not by design, but as I mentioned earlier, they created a platform that made it very easy to express yourself. By limiting it to 140 characters, it makes it very easy to write something.
Writing a blog post is very difficult and I don’t blog because I’m not a good writer and it’s intimidating to have to write something that’s substantive and a lot of people are going to read. It’s very easy to post a tweet, it’s one thought. It’s very easy to post another tweet, which may be another thought. What Twitter has created is a platform that makes self-expression a lot easier and more accessible to a larger, pretentious society.
I think what still needs to be figured out is – as I mentioned earlier as well, only 10-12 percent of the U.S. population is actively on Twitter. How do you get more people on to Twitter? How do you make it more intuitive and even easier to actually express yourself? I feel like most of mankind, most of society lives out their whole life without really expressing themselves. There really isn’t a medium for doing so, and most people actually never talk about what’s on their mind.
I believe that self-expression is the initial creative act. Anything that gets created in the world actually happens because people have expressed what’s on their mind. If you can make it easier for people to express what’s on their mind, you’re going to enable whoever is expressing more to achieve more in the world. They’re more likely to act on what they’ve said. If you have a thought, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to act on it. If you express that thought, if you write it down in a journal or share it with somebody, it’s much more likely to happen. If you share it and broadcast it to the world, it’s even more likely that something is going to happen.
I feel that Twitter and what we’re doing on top of Twitter has a potential to allow more people to express themselves and allow more people to achieve a little more of the human potential. The thing that really excites me is, if you can get a larger part of society to express themselves more, even just one percent more, they’ll be able to achieve potentially one percent more of their human potential. And if you can achieve that across the broader swath of society, I think tremendous things can happen.
Matthew: We know founders face new challenges when they decide to start and build a company. What was the hardest part about building Twylah, and how did you overcome the obstacle?
Eric: The hardest part was really finding the right people to help me, team up with me, and actually build out the product and to be part of the team. Not just somebody who puts in their time and executes, but somebody who’s really convinced as I am that we’re building something that’s big and substantial and has a lot of potential. Finding those people has been very tough. I feel we’re very fortunate. We have a very small team, but the people we have on that team, our designer and our engineer, are really dedicated and have the kind of attitude that you can only dream of in a team in terms of having a sense of ownership in what we’re doing and working on this as if it is their own because it is their own. They’re part owners of the company as well.
That’s been a challenge. I know it’s going to be an ongoing challenge, finding the right people. I’ve been part of a series of companies where, at the beginning, you have an idea of what you want to be and you hire only those types of people, and you have a very high standard for the types of people that you bring on. As those companies grew more and more and they grew to beyond 50 people or so, I saw a gradual degradation of the whole company culture and in the work ethic. I link it all back to a degradation or lowering of recruiting standards.
You need more people. This person is really good, we have doubts about him, but he’s good enough and let’s bring him on. Every single time that that’s happened in the past in my previous jobs, my gut has proven to be right. It hasn’t worked out. It wasn’t the right fit. And you end up investing a lot of time and effort bringing people on board and you end up wasting a lot of time and effort by not having the right people, who either don’t have the same sense of ownership and don’t have the same sense of urgency or priorities that you have.
My biggest job, moving forward, is going to be trying to find these people that are the right fit and to build out the team. Again, I don’t really have an aspiration to build a huge company in terms of hundreds and hundreds of employees. I really feel like there’s a sweet spot that’s somewhere below 50 in terms of the ideal size of a company where you know everybody. Everybody knows each other. Everyone’s kind of on the same wave length. Everyone has really strong shared culture and shared vision.
I really believe that large businesses can be built with smaller teams. There’s definitely something that happens once you hire your 51st person. There’s something even worse that happens when you hire your 101st or your 151st and then beyond that. It’s not like something that happens overnight, too. It’s like the whole analogy of the frog and the pot, where you turn up the heat and, before you know it, the water is boiling and you never noticed when it got to that point. And it’s kind of that cultural creep that happens. My goal is let’s keep the teams small and focused, and let’s bring on the right people.
Matthew: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize?
Eric: Our product is a product pretty much that’s there for anyone who is on Twitter. So, it could be a blogger, it could be a celebrity, it could be a brand or company. It could just be an individual. About six to nine months ago, we really focused on more of the celebrity angle. We thought, “Hey. If we get some of these headline names to use our product, it’s going to really help us get the word out.” I don’t know much about the role of celebrities and stars, but I’ve learned a lot.
And one of the things I’ve learned kind of the hard way is that, I think, Twylah is a good product and we’re offering it for free to people, and we’re offering to do whatever we can to make the product effective for them or to make them look good through the product. But what I found out is that, in the world of celebrities, it’s not even a notion of “Oh, great! I got a free product,” or “How much do I pay for this?” In the world of celebrities, there’s almost this notion of “How much are you going to pay me for me to use your product?” or “What do I get out of this?” in terms of compensation or revenue or whatever it is.
I learned the hard way that if we want to address that market, we’re going to have to have a different approach. The other thing I learned the hard way was that sales cycles, when you’re selling to brands and enterprises, are very long. And if you’re a startup building a product for the world of brands or larger companies, it’s something you definitely need to keep in mind, that sales cycles are going to be anywhere from the shortest, I think, 3-6 months, but 6-12 months. If you’re a start-up, three months can mean do or die.
So, if the sales cycle is longer than your iteration cycle of your product, you have to question yourself whether this is the right niche or the right market for you to address. For us, that was definitely a learning along the way. We shifted the focus away from specifically addressing those segments even though I feel, longer term, those are viable segments. Over the past 3-5 months, we’ve really focused on improving the value that the product delivers to all the users.
One of the aspects specifically we’ve worked on is to help get your content indexed on the search engines. I know it’s a hot topic right now because Google just rolled out their new personalized search where they’re showing up Google+ results. But our goal is, if you’re on Twitter and you’ve invested a lot of time and effort on Twitter to publish great content, which a lot of people have, how do you get more value out of that? How do you get a broader audience? How do you get more people to engage with that content? How do you make sure that your content isn’t just a one hour flash of content and then just expires?
So, those are the things that we’ve really focused on and making the product better and deliver more value. We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback from users, and our users have been our biggest advance [inaudible 14:55], so selling it to other people in terms of what they’ve been able to get out of it.
Matthew: Eric, it’s been an honor having you as a guest on FounderLY. We’re rooting for your continued success at Twylah. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and become a member of their community, you can visit their website at twylah.com.
This is Matthew Wise of FounderLY. Thanks so much, Eric.
Eric: Thank you.