Puri is the former Senior Director of Product, Mobile Gaming & Emerging Markets at Twitch and has gone on to start his own company, Stealth Co, a VC and Healthcare Provider-backed MedTech start-up that aims to solve the healthcare system’s most critical gaps in data management and productivity.
Shaan tells us about how Bebo is actually bankrolled by a little known app, and he helps us understand when we should kill our projects and when we should persevere.
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bronson Taylor and today I have Shawn Period with us. Shawn, thanks for coming on the program.
Shaan: Good to be here.
Bronson: Yeah, absolutely. So, Shawn, you are the CEO of Monkey Inferno, which is an awesome name for a company. But your company actually has an incredibly interesting business model and it’s the company behind the relaunch of Bebo Qcom. So first, tell us the kind of a high level what is Monkey Inferno?
Shaan: So Monkey Inferno is the brainchild of Michael Birch after he sold Bebo to AOL for basically retirement money. And then so he had the opportunity to do one of many things. He could do nothing. In fact, when I interviewed with, he typically asked, you know, do you have any questions for us as the company that you’re interviewing for? And I said, Yeah, you could be on a boat looking at an island. You can sip in a margarita, but instead you created a job for yourself. He was CEO at the time. And I said, Why? And that’s when he sort of told me the vision. And that’s what I’ll tell you guys today, which is he couldn’t imagine himself not building stuff. And he knew there are many people out there who are wired the same way. They love to build stuff. And because of the financial outcome that he had with Bebo, he had the luxury of doing it his way, which to him meant not being not having to cater to any investors. So it was self-funded and it was an idea of, hey, let’s bet on the people. So like we put together a really small core for people who are, you know, insanely talented and give them a lot of freedom. So he thought that was the recipe bet on people and let the ideas flow through. Whereas a typical investment incubator or accelerator, they bet on ideas, they take applications, which is teams with ideas going at certain markets and it’s lots of different variables. But we simplified the equation, which was a bet on people, give them freedom, give them funding, give them the complementary pieces. So in-house here we have a lawyer, h.r. Finance, we have a chef, we have designers, developers, ops, everything you would need to build a startup tech company. It’s pretty here and the idea is take multiple bets at once. So there’s about 22 of us here. We work on a four projects at one time, all in parallel. And so when you fail, you immediately apply those learnings to the next project because you all stay there. And so that was kind of the idea was go fast. If you’re going to fail, that’s fine. But use those learnings to succeed, succeed in the next run. And it’s it’s a lot of fun, to be honest with you.
Bronson: Yeah, it sounds so unique compared to other kind of scenarios because like you said, there’s the typical incubator and you hear VCs all the time say they bet on people and they look for the entrepreneur, but then their actions don’t quite line up with that statement where you guys are actually doing it that way. You’re actually hiring people and we’ll figure out the idea as we go and the ideas will change as we go. Is that right?
Shaan: And that’s exactly the premise is like, first, you know, you got to put your money where your mouth is. If you say your team is the most important part, people will figure it out. Then just bet on the people and really hold that as your only criteria. Because you’re right, ideas morph over time. They have to. So once we realized that, we said it’s not a very good idea to make our judgments based on the starting point of an idea. You know, we still do try to have great ideas and attract interesting markets, but it starts the whole focus I’m looking for. And I started with betting on really talented people.
Bronson: Yeah. Now the people watching this, obviously, they don’t run an incubator or whatever it is you call Monkey Inferno or whatever kind of thing it is. They don’t have 20 people working for them with multiple projects going on, but they do have a core team and maybe they have to shift ideas even though the team stays the same. Do you think they should apply that philosophy on a smaller scale and be open to ideas changing? Keep the team if they’re talented as the core and work off of that is kind of the base.
Shaan: Yeah, I mean, I know I was this way before I came here where there’s a handful of people, three or four people who I’m like, no matter what venture I do, they’re going to be, yeah, they’re going crazy. And if they have something going, I’m going to be in because we have that level of, you know, synergy where one plus one equals three with those people. So if you find that that’s very, very valuable, if you don’t have that, you know, you got to start somewhere, start with an idea and hope to pick up those people over time. And even if you’re not an incubator, I think that there are merit to to being able to let ideas flow in and out or being able to change or pivot. You know, the lean startup has really promoted this where doing a startup is no longer about pitching an idea, raising a bunch of money, doing it for three years, and then seeing what happens, it it’s a lot more of an iterative process with check points along the way. And sometimes you got to be stubborn and your team has to plow through. But other times you do want to shift and you do want to change ideas. But knowing that line, that’s the secret sauce.
Bronson: That is the secret. Absolutely. Let me ask you this. What products is Monkey Inferno currently working on? So you said you had about 20 people. How many projects can can they handle right now?
Shaan: So we are doing more projects at once right now and they sort of fall into two buckets. One is sort of the Legacy Project, which is being modernized today, and that’s particular. So this was Michael Burgess first successful startup. It’s actually the startup that funded Bebo and allowed him to have such a big exit, self-funded it. So you have Bert Delhomme, which has been around since, I don’t know, 2000. So now it’s, you know, 13, 14 years old. And we are, you know, for a long time it operated with no employees during the Bebo phase. You know, it was just printing money on the side. And, you know, last year we revisited it. We said, hey, wait a minute, we’ve got all these products. We’re trying to start from scratch. This product has 50 million members and it makes, you know, the cash cow of this business. We should probably work on revitalizing it because it is in decline. So one team is is basically taking the alarm and has modernized it and is working through the challenges of taking a existing business and disrupting itself, essentially. And then the other arm of Monkey Inferno now has become Bebo. And Bebo is not just one project, but a series of small mobile apps and sort of single purpose apps that all are under the Bebo across, all made by Bebo.
Shaan: Now, that’s also kind of how the projects break down.
Bronson: Yeah. And now tell tell me about how the employment actually works because it’s interesting, right? They actually have shares in projects they’re not working on, is that right?
Shaan: Yeah. So it’s kind of like startup communism that you’ve got 22 people right and full time. So they get paid by Nokia and then they have a slice of the action. So you’ll be given a certain amount of shares when you join and based on performance increases, bets that goes across the board. So even if your day to day focus is on one project and 99% of your time is on that project, you still have a portfolio of projects going in your favor. So it’s a just a different model where we wanted, you know, many accelerators and incubators thrive on competition and money being the forcing function. Ours is collaboration and craft. So we wanted people to be invested in the teammates success so that you’re not just a co-working space, you actually are using your skills. Sometimes you hop on to those projects or you advise or you ask critical questions that force them to find the answers. So the idea was, like I said to startup communism, have it have everybody sort of aligned.
Bronson: Yeah. No, I mean, it sounds like an incredible concept. And I want to talk more about the other arm of it, Bebo, in a minute. But first, I want to talk about birthday alarm for a minute. This is so fascinating to me when.
Shaan: I learn first person to ask me about birth alarm first, which I didn’t know or people should.
Bronson: They should because when you tell me that an app that I don’t know about, I’ve never heard a birthday, I’m right. I mean, you have a lot of users. I’m not one of them. But when you tell me that it first bankrolled Bebo while it was being built, allowed it to be sold for almost $1,000,000,000. And then now birthday alarm is still bankrolling this new style incubator. I mean, how can we not talk about Berkeley, LA. So here’s my question. Birthday alarm, I’m assuming, and I actually don’t know this, I’m assuming it gives you alarms when it’s somebody is birthday. Is that the basic idea?
Shaan: It started as a small feature of a much bigger project Michael was working on where the project was failing, clearly, but users would email him and when he was a one man show, he’s doing customer support, he’s coding and he’s coming up with the product design, which is why it looked the way it looked. But he realized that people were saying, Hey, thanks for that reminder. I totally forgot my friend’s birthday. And remember, this is back in 2000, 2001 where Facebook didn’t exist. You didn’t have reminders like that. There was no Google calendar. You know, there’s no mobile phones that are giving you startup. It’s all the time. So this was a very valuable service. People want to remember the birthdays and holidays of people that they care about. Mm hmm. So the need is really there. And it started is just a reminder to this. And it was a viral reminder service. So we asked you and you want to know your friends, families, birthday, you say yes. You asked them, hey, when’s your birthday? When they put in their birthday, we ask them, do you want to remember? And it grows accordingly. So that grew explosive and it made just a little bit money on advertisement back in the day. Mm hmm. And one day, Michael turned on sort of the e-card functionality, so being able to send cards through the annual premium membership and all of a sudden it sort of taxed in value, right? It started, like I said, printing money. Yeah. There was a joke. Somebody tried to, you know, it was looking to acquire arm a couple of years ago and a guy doing the due diligence, he actually just asked. He’s like, Why are you guys selling this thing? Yeah, you guys meant like, the world could end. Armageddon is here and birthday online would still be printing money, things like that. But and if you look at it over time, it turned out to be a much more sustainable business than be ironic.
Bronson: So here’s my question was something like that and you can tell me if this is the wrong lesson to walk away with. But in my mind, it makes me think entrepreneurs we love. Chase these moon shots. And we have to. Somebody has to. Somebody is going to build Facebook. Somebody is getting us to Mars. I mean, moonshots are great, right? But in the like the dark corners of the Internet, there’s so many things like a birthday alarm that you don’t know about, you don’t care about, you don’t hear about. And they’re printing money like there’s no tomorrow. Should entrepreneurs, like, get clued in that that kind of app exist and they can be built and there’s not as much competition and you go do one of them.
Shaan: Well, I would say this, I think they’re entrepreneurs and I’m one of them where we read all the same stuff. We’re all reading Hacker News, we’re all reading TechCrunch articles, we’re all reading all the forums, all the going to the same meetups, going to the same conferences. And thus we’re in this echo chamber where we’re hearing the same thing over and over again. And you’re hearing about really successful startups raising a ton of money that actually don’t have a business model, don’t have a bunch of you, don’t have engagements, or they have one of the three and they’re still going to search for the next to over time. And I guess what I would say is that we call it the rolling up the Internet. We’ve run into these companies where we say there’s a lot of need and desire for these products that people are willing to pay and the companies are doing really well, and they don’t need to make a big fuss about how well it’s doing because they don’t need the hype. They’re all they have the real stuff below it. So I would say like first I don’t I wouldn’t say it’s about chasing moonshots. I would say don’t get too caught up in the news cycle and think that that’s all there is. There’s a lot of us out there and I would say like ultimately, like it’s not really about moonshots necessarily. It’s about feeling meets. Some needs are much harder to build than others. And furthermore, to this day, you know, the reason I continue to operate without employees, even for a few years, was the need to strong, and it was still adding value to customers every single day. So it’s like ultimately you can build you know I think near I’ll has this term painkillers are vitamins right and and birth I learned was a painkiller and you know as as you start to find those painkillers if you can be if you can find a good customer acquisition strategy, you’re going to be tremendously successful more so than anyone really believes.
Bronson: Yeah, you just put two pieces there together. They’re so important. The first part painkiller, the second part customer acquisition strategy. I mean, you put those two together, it’s hard to imagine failure. I mean, that’s exactly the birthday alarm has the virality built in. And it’s a pain that right now, after knowing about it, I’m probably going to sign up on it and pay you some money every month or whatever it is, because I don’t want to forget important things and I want to go to send them quick. Hey, here’s the card, you know.
Shaan: Exactly. And I mean, and there are there are others in this space trying to do the same thing. But if you are not great at executing, you will never be able to do it. For example, I could go to Reason Worth Alarm exists right next to Hallmark. Who does the same? Who has the same exact offering? It’s does they’re not a tech company. They don’t have a customer acquisition strategy. They don’t have a viral loop like a ghost etch diagram on their company wall and say, this is how we do it. And they still wouldn’t be able to do it because it really takes getting in the weeds. It’s not just the idea of, Oh, you ask your friends and ask their friends. There’s a thousand subtleties below that. Tip it for me. They’re being viral or not viral. Yeah. And it’s very important to do that. So I would say that like, you know, you start with filling a need and then you have to do the rest of the work.
Bronson: So the need is the price of entry.
Shaan: To make it.
Bronson: You know, the need is the price of entry, right? That gets you in the game. And then the thousand subtleties is going to make you win.
Bronson: Now. That’s awesome. And let me ask you about something else before we get to Bebo. I was reading your blog and you have a new blogging strategy because you basically, I think, come to the conclusion that you wanted to be a blogger because you have thoughts that you want to get out into the world. But there’s a dilemma. You don’t have the time to do it. So that means you either have to not blog or just I mean, you had like three things that were the options. Do you remember? They were where the three options were.
Shaan: I mean, I honestly don’t remember what I wrote, but it’s it’s pretty I think it’s a pretty relatable thing. A lot of people have idea that Twitter solved this need, which was you have something to say, but you don’t really need to say it. You don’t need to flesh it out. You don’t want to flesh out the time fleshed out, and it just works that way. And so I thought, Hey, what if we did this a little bit differently where I said, Man, we’re doing so much cool stuff here. I want to share those learnings, insights, questions with the world, but I honestly just do not have the time to blog. And I said, You know what? It would be cool. And a lot of our product ideas come from this is like, it would be cool if I could just shake my phone, say my idea to the phone, and then someone writes the blog. Who would that be? And I said, I could probably do this. So there’s a lot of people who are challenging it, writing that actually struggled to make money. If I could give them a little bit of money, they probably write my blog. And the hard part is not about the hard part for most people would be like Airbnb, you know, are you comfortable with someone staying in your house? It’s like, are you comfortable with someone else writing your thoughts? Actually, yeah. Like I want to let those thoughts stay in my head. Or just or. We waste a lot of my time trying to blog without any clear return on that blogging investment. I just thought it was a good idea, and so I’m trying it right now. It’s really an experiment called Ghost Blogger, and I’m looking for more ghost bloggers because half my friends want to do it, too, and I won’t let them talk to my guy’s blogger because she’s busy. But the idea is, yeah, I just whenever I have an idea, I just explain it in the rawest terms. Like, I’ll give you an example. Yesterday I did one that was based on ghost blogging. I said, Hey, there’s something called lopsided markets where there’s, you know, you think of a two sided marketplace and everyone said, how are you going to solve the chicken and egg problem? But in a lopsided marketplace like ghost blogging, there’s on one side this huge pent up demand and that can actually fill in the rest over time. Or those are lot target, and that doesn’t make sense to most people. And the Ghost Blog comes back and says, okay, what did you mean about this? And again, I just kind of explain one more time. And then she writes a first pass at it and then I might revise it or I might just post right away. It doesn’t really matter to me at that point. I just want to kick off the discussion because for me, blogging is not about really crafting beautiful essays. For me, it’s about putting interesting thought out there and letting the community respond back to your Twitter in person. However, maybe along those lines like, Hey, I disagree or Hey, I agree, we’ve seen this. So that’s Ghost Blogger experience.
Bronson: No, it’s great. And I read one of the blogs that the ghost blogger wrote in the top of it. You said something like, The words are not mine, but the thoughts are. And I thought, okay, like I actually am reading something from Shawn, but I’m not reading something from Shawn and you’re upfront about it. So it wasn’t like I was, you know, it was a bait and switch. It was. These are his thoughts in words that he didn’t write.
Bronson: And, you know, it was it was a good blog post. I thought, okay, this is something that he thought about. And I’m learning from something inside his mind and I’m glad he as a ghost blogger, because now I get to learn from Shawn, even though Shawn’s a busy man. So I think that’s a really cool concept. And here’s my question. You said there’s so much demand for it, and as soon as I heard about it, I’m thinking, all right, do I want to go blog like that? Sounds awesome. You know, do you think this is maybe the future of thought leadership of inbound marketing? Because the guys that are actually thought leaders are really busy and the girls that are actually trying to email marketing, they’re really busy. Is this a way to maybe crack that open a little bit?
Shaan: Yeah, I think so. I always think it’s interesting. Whenever you can take something that was in the spectrum of creators and consumers, and it’s usually 1% creators, Max, 10% creators. And I always ask the question, how would you make it 80% creators? How could you make it so that more of the base users are creating as well as consuming? This is what Tumblr did really, really well with the blog content. Hey, it’s not about creating original content all the time. It’s about curating and curating turned into a form of creation. So I thought, you know, like what they did sort of for image and visual centric blogging, this actually open up to a lot of minds who don’t have time to blog like the most successful people, the most interesting people I go to dinner with, they don’t blog and they don’t blog because they’re not bloggers. They don’t have time. They don’t really they can’t commit to a pretty much schedule, all that stuff and this rid of that. So I don’t know if this is going to work again, it’s an experiment. That’s what I’m trying to do is this, you know, get 20 of 20 of each and and see see if that experiment works. And if it does, you know, we’ll see where that goes. But at the very least, ultimately right now, which is I want to put my thoughts down on paper.
Bronson: Yeah. And to give people that idea of economics, I think you posted the numbers of how much you pay per blog post, and I was really shocked by how low it was. They’re willing to write these blog posts, I think are for $10, right?
Shaan: Yeah. There’s people willing or willing to write it for $10 and and they’re happy to do. And then I said, well, if you’re writing for $10, I can give you more volume. It’s it’s a win win. And let’s you know, this is the point not to be a content for I’m I’m not doing a stretch here. I’m doing this with a more pure purpose. So I don’t know what will happen. But but yeah, the saying lopsided market, this happened this happened not too long ago. Let me give you a quick, quick anecdote. I became CEO of Monkey in Fresno. I decided, hey, I was 24, I’m now 25. And I said, okay, I should probably stop looking like a college kid. You know, my my peers here are much older than me in many cases. And and I and I want to present myself a little more professionally than when I was just, you know, product manager guy coming in. I’m taking things around. So I went on Craigslist one night and I just typed in, Be my stylist. I will. I, I said, I want a whole new wardrobe, come to my house, throw everything that sucks away. I will give you $3,000 to shop for me. I don’t need suits. I just need this kind of wear. And I will give you 10% of the of the big. So I would pay you $300 to shop for me. And I didn’t know anything about those economics. I just made it up. I go to sleep and I wake up in the morning and I have 85 requests in my inbox. My first power of crisis. The second pent up demand. Again, where I was getting. For starters, I was giving our first retail workers models. I was getting like all kinds of people who were either who were saying, I would love to do this. You don’t even need to spend 3000 bucks. I can do it for 2000, whatever it was. I said there’s some pennies here. They’re working in my favor. They’re not trying to sell me extra stuff and make me pay more. Yeah. Regardless, they’re my ally. I mean, holy shit. There’s a lot of mostly females out there who would love to shop for guys and are never given the opportunity for of guys who hate shopping. Hey, is this an idea? And so I did the service. I loved it. I had a few of my friends do it as well, and then we vetted it as Is this a product that we want to work on? Ultimately, we didn’t want to do it, but because we didn’t think the other side of the marketplace was quite there, that it’s sort of the men instrument. But I said, you know, it’s very interesting when you tap into some of these things with extra capacity or latent latent energy, I call it. So all the sharing economy stuff does this with extra space or actual car space. I think it’s going to happen with if anyone has an idea that taps into stay at home moms, finding a way to make some money working from home, please contact me. You know, there’s a few of these things where there is an infinite supply of people willing to do something for a little bit of cash if you can. And is there a buyer on the other side? It’s really the question. Yeah.
Bronson: And this is great because I was asking about ghostwriting because I was thinking some of the stars watching this might use it as a way to get email content, not to be a content farm, but to get SEO value and to get high quality content. That really did come from their mind because they get all their people telling the ghost blogger what to write and they get these great blog posts come out every couple of days. But then the inside, the really brilliant out is way better than that, which is if you’re looking to attack something, look for a lopsided market because two sided markets we know can be very valuable. You can make a lot of money on a two sided market, but if you find a lopsided one, it’s like a two sided market that’s already like primed and ready to go and just waiting for you to unleash, like you said, the latent energy there.
Shaan: Right. And only one out of five might have the other side come in, but that’s still great odds for what would be a better.
Bronson: Than normal two sided market odds.
Bronson: Now. That’s a great insight. I really like that. All right. Let’s talk about baseball a little bit. So Bebo sold AOL back in 2008. Believe tell me if I’m wrong. $850 million, is that right? That’s right. Yeah. That’s what the website say, at least. Okay. What did you guys buy it back for? Is that public?
Shaan: That is public. So we bought it back for a healthy sum of $1 million.
Bronson: Okay. So celebrity Evo in 2008, four years later, you buy that for $1 million?
Shaan: My guess, my follow over that.
Bronson: Exactly. My guess is if you bought it back for 1 million, it wasn’t doing too well. You probably had some you know, some users doing some stuff. There was some activity there for it to be worth a million, obviously. But it wasn’t nothing like it was worth over a 50, right?
Shaan: Yeah. I mean, the traffic was maybe 1/1000 of what it was at at its peak. It was still significant. I believe there is still about 200,000 people logging in every month trying to use it. And this was the site was completely broken. So there was you couldn’t upload a photo, you couldn’t become a member. You couldn’t do things on a social network. It’s still true. People were logging in and using it for very interesting use cases actually. But I would say that yeah, we did not buy it for the product and the usage, the current usage we bought it for again potential and the fact that it was a brand and that we weren’t we were already working on a really cool social stuff anyways and we needed a go to market strategy. And for us that was Bebo.
Bronson: Okay, so is Bebo kind of the name that you’re going to put on some things you already had in the works? Because earlier you mentioned that you’re going to release some multiple apps, so it would be those kind of multiple mobile apps, is that right? Is that would be both. Now.
Shaan: I think think about it a little bit. The relationship between Bebo and these apps will be a little bit like Twitter or Facebook and Instagram where there are standalone brands and there are simple, really simple products that do one thing really, really well and they’re like fresh concepts that are going to be hit or miss. But what we wanted to do was when we bought that Bebo, we said, Hey, we’re already building cool stuff anyways. But those weren’t the ideas that ended up becoming Bebo. That was just the thought process of How are we going to choose between these ideas as to which one we relaunch as Bebo? And we said, Actually, each one of these is interesting and they sort of fit into what we believe is the sort of mobile strategy, which is single purpose apps that do one thing really, really well rather than overly feature bloated, bloated apps that are full blown social networks. I didn’t think that was the future. Yeah. So I said, okay, I think we have some cool ideas for some social media products and I want to launch them and I can’t really kill any one of them because they’re all showing promise from idea, stage to prototype, stage to initial market testing. Who am I to say what it should be right now? So instead, what we realized was when we relaunched Bebo, we knew let me take a step back. So we relaunched B, we bought Bebo back pretty much knowing nothing about what the state of the brand, what we knew there was brand, but we knew it might only bad. You know, my partners and I personally I remember I was never a baby, so I was a MySpace user back in the day. And I remember when MySpace said it was coming back. And I just I thought, who the hell would go back to MySpace? It was not an option. But I was curious to see where they go with not with the intention of joining. And I thought that’s probably going to be the same thing with Bebo unless we do something pretty dramatic here. So we went to a Samovar Tea Lounge, you know, just around the corner here in San Francisco. And and we we had a long, long cup of tea and we basically said, how would I would this typically go? Right. Let’s imagine what a typical, you know, someone bought this company, high tech company here in San Francisco. What would they do? And we listed off the things they would do. So they would raise X amount of money. They would have, you know, a team of 12 people, you know, 15 people working on this. It would take them a year to 18 months to get to market, come up with one thing with a huge launch party and celebrities and they would, you know, throw a bunch of money at the problem. They would have an all star board of advisors of like, you know, crusty old guys who have done it before. We said each one of them, we’re going to do it completely different. So we’re like, we’re going to have three people working on the project. We’re going to have multiple concepts. We’re going to go to market within six months. We’re going to our board of advisors is going to be average users, not successful entrepreneurs. We want advice from our users. We said we’re not going to do a huge PR, heavy launch. We said, we’re not going to say that we’re cool. We’re not going to tell. You know, when MySpace came back, we looked at the campaign and it was Justin Timberlake. You know, they brought it back. They started running TV commercials. They did all kinds of things which were basically saying to the users, MySpace is cool and users are not dumb. Users are saying like, hold on, where were you for ten years? Right. Like, you’re not cool anymore. You can just come back today and say you’re cool, right? Like as if nothing ever happened. And so, you know, we know people are aware. So instead with Bebo, we put up a video, we put it we did a video over the weekend. And with some guys we knew in London called Rubber Republic.
Bronson: They had them on the show earlier.
Shaan: Oh, nice. Yeah. Yeah. So we worked with Rubber Republic and came up with a concept for a video shot and one weekend and it’s up on Bebo dot com right now and it’s basically a spoof corporate video. So it starts with Michael saying, hi, I’m Michael Birch, founder Bebo. You know, at its peak, we had millions of users and then he starts to share like, you know, they shared photos, but it’s like a guy with a, you know, drunken face. But it’s like we took inciteful quizzes and it’s like those silly online quizzes. You see him, he’s poking fun at, like what Bebo really was. It wasn’t saying people was the best and it’s going to be the best again or it is still the best. You know, he was poking fun at it, very self-deprecating. And that’s what we wanted to come back with, which is acknowledging you can’t move forward until you acknowledge the past. So we acknowledge the past. We actually killed the product, so we turned it off the old Bebo site and that video and landing page generated ad. I don’t really show that to too many people, but the generated over 700,000 signups. Yeah. On the waiting list and that’s in addition to all the people who are in the database, you know, the million that old members. So we said, wait a minute, we have a really powerful distribution mechanism here. Could we make Bebo the umbrella brand and let each product sort of be made by Bebo and have its own fresh legs, fresh and fresh start?
Bronson: You know, it’s so smart what you guys do, because I remember somebody sent me the video, they sent me the landing page, and this was a few months back. I looked at it. I thought it was one of the funniest things that I ever seen. I instantly put my email in and from that day, because I wasn’t a Bebo user either. From that day though, I thought Bebo was cool and I don’t know what they’re going to do next, but I’m going to look very carefully when it’s ready because they already show that there’s just an authenticity to them. And it was really the first time I got to meet the creator of Bebo in that video. And he’s a likable guy and he’s funny, you know? So I think that video is just so great on so many levels.
Shaan: Yeah. I mean, the fact that Michael was game for it, I mean, we, we had this we I looked at Michael’s profile as where we got the idea for this sort of the idea that there was a Bebo feature called the white board is inappropriate for us. Of course, anytime you give someone a pen, it’s a doodle. There’s only one thing they actually doodle and so on. Michael’s profile, we saw a ton of those and not even the hurtful way. There were often like really cool comics of like in the shape of Bebo. That’s like wonderful, right? But the fact that Michael was game for it sort of showed why people might like Bebo, because he’s a likable guy and he’s a down to earth guy and is kind of able to make fun of himself. Like the kind of guy you do want to have a beer with. Yeah. And so we said our only chance is to let people know who we are and if they trust us, if they say, Hey, you guys are cool, I want to see what you guys come up with, because you’ve proven to me that you’re interesting people. That was really the brand. That’s the goal. So step one and later, I don’t know if you saw this. There was a pretty interesting situation that happened on Reddit. Did you see the numbers there? So on Reddit one morning on Reddit, they have up, which is today I learned it was today I learned the founder of Bebo sold it to AOL for a million, bought it back. For $1 million. People just thought, you know, a story just has a certain.
Bronson: Light does.
Shaan: To it. And so on Reddit, people are talking about it. And that morning I wake up and I’ve got my phone in my bed. I started reading Amazing Hang Out. The CEO of Bebo asked me if this thing took off, goes to number one on the Reddit front page for the day and, you know, generates so much, so much interest. And what I was doing was answering the questions 100% truthfully. So like PR rhetoric or whatever. And of course, that works on Reddit. Anybody on Reddit, you know, they’re they’re very cynical people on Reddit. I’m a Redditors, so I know what mistakes you could not make on Reddit. And what happened was is tremendous where a lot of people there were like, I never even heard of Bebo. I never would I don’t even care about social networking, but user for user, I will sign up for people you know, you buy back loyalty. One person at a time starts to tip where now if we talk something cool, I want it to feel to 100,000 people out there. Like your best friend just made this app and they’re going to promote it for us. Yeah, and that was the end of all the whole way along. That was the end goal.
Bronson: It definitely felt like there was a connection there with me personally, you know, kind of seeing the launch process and signing outside with that. It seems almost like you’ve taken the monkey and fertile model of let’s have a lot of seeds and see which ones bloom and you apply that to Bebo itself. Bebo is a, you know, a number of apps and you’re going to see which ones kind of work and which ones don’t. So in a sense, Bebo can’t fail because something in that, you know, family of apps is going to work and you got to double down on it and you’re going to kill some other stuff and they’re going to create new ideas are the Bebo name. So it’s kind of a fail proof strategy in that sense, right?
Shaan: Well, you said it, not me.
Bronson: Well, so let me ask you this, because this is the tough question, and you alluded to it earlier, knowing when to pivot, when to kill something, when to double down like that is the million dollar question. When do you look at one of these Bebo apps or one of the Monkey Infernal Products and say it’s just not working? Yeah, we’re making some money. Yeah, we got some eyeballs. Yeah, we could go sideways for another year on this thing, but we all know it’s not working. Like, how do you know that? Because that’s something that’s so hard to figure out. And you’re in a situation where you have to answer that question a lot more than a normal CEO.
Shaan: Yeah. No, I think that it is the hardest thing that’s the hardest part of being successful at entrepreneurship is making making the right decisions. And that is the most critical high level decisions you can make. Working works this right. So, you know, everything else is a series of good decisions after that. So, you know, both there’s examples on both sides, right? You can look at something like Pinterest or one of the persevering stories of, you know, everything’s flatlining for a year and then all of a sudden it becomes Pinterest. And you can look at examples on the other side. There are plenty of them, which is like, yes, I lied for many years and then it just stay flatlining, right?
Shaan: And so, you know, there’s an analogy for everything. If you wanted to justify doing some action, if you’re smart, you can justify it with ten Facebooks. So that doesn’t help you. How do you get. Okay, how are you gonna make this decision? Well, what? What? My, like, second week at Monkey Inferno. I was still blown away. I’m walking around this office, you know, everything is so interesting. I didn’t know places like this existed. If I had, I would have done this right away out of college. I would have skipped college. Would have come here right away. But I asked, I said, okay, so like everything seems so good, right? It’s kind of like what you’re saying. Everything seems a fool, foolproof, like what’s our biggest risk? How do we fail? And I asked within one of our our head of engineering here, he said, our biggest risk is mediocrity. And he was spot on, which is it’s okay to fail for us and it’s definitely okay to succeed. What’s not okay is in this lingering state of mediocrity, where it’s good enough to keep going, but not good enough to make it, you know, success. And it’s an opportunity lost for moving on to something else. So the question I have, the one I had with this, I like void mediocrity. And that’s kind of interesting way to live life in general is that, you know, you have a choice of something to do on the weekend, just avoid mediocrity and you’ll end up doing something really cool.
Bronson: That’s awesome.
Shaan: And so that’s kind of something that overwhelms me in my thinking. And so for us, we have a framework that we try to use where we go from idea to market in six weeks as the goal. And it’s a six week process and each week has a certain it’s a phase that you’re working in and certain things and you can drop out at any one phase. You know, after the first week of ideation, you realize that it’s not a good idea to kill it at the second week of, you know, talking to some users and they’re not saying what you thought they would say, kill it. And then ultimately you get to the end of six weeks, you have a prototype, you have data, you have qualitative feedback as well, and you got to make a cheaper kill decision. And we put a checkpoint in so that you at least have the discussion. And we say that the default is for a startup to die. So if you want to succeed, you’ve got to prove that you’re not. And that happens one of two ways, right? You either have traction or you have real obsession and stubbornness. Okay? Or you say in spite of everything, I know this is going to be successful. So we wait till someone puts it on the line in one of those two ways. You either show me the money, right? Show me the numbers, or you obsess over it to the point where you say, I need X amount of time because here’s what I’ve learned. Date and now we know what to do next. And then we chew off another chunk of time. But I think it’s just a mindset of avoiding mediocrity and understanding that a startup by default is meant to die. It’s not, you know, we’re not all meant to be successful with each venture. Yeah. When you accept that, you sort of approach things a little differently.
Bronson: You’re absolutely right. That’s the insight right there is that the default is death, not in a negative way, just in a realistic way. And if that’s the default, then make it not the default, somehow overcome that default to keep us moving forward. And, you know, if you’re willing to do that, you’re going to let go of so many bad things along the way and only hang on to the good ones.
Shaan: And there’s one other very important thing that happens. I have many friends who are out of this world. Well, understand what I mean when I say this, which is when you are not afraid of dying. So if you accept that, you know, death is the default and I like that and I still that. But when you accept that you don’t become a god, it’s actually the most likely outcome. It’s the inevitable, it becomes the default. So you don’t fear it, but what you need to do is steer away from it. And in order to do that, you have to address the elephant in the room. So with any startup you can use, whatever, any metric you want to make it look good or you know, choose selectively choose feedback to only hear the good things. And you do that because you’re actually afraid practicing the question of failing. But if you think that that is the only question you should be answering at all times, then you will be going out actively searching for okay, this should fail because of x. Well, let me go address that head on with that. I can probably solve the rest of these things. Yeah. And you sort of, you know, a lot of people are able to be very busy and do a lot of work without actually answering the elephant in the room, which is like kind of the looming threat of debt. And so when you’re not afraid of it, you actually take the right actions as well and do the right things. They ask the right questions. So I think it’s just a much better model.
Bronson: Yeah, it’s almost like you’ve worked time in a sense. It’s like, let’s just go to the future where we’ve already failed and work backwards into the present and just go and fix it.
Shaan: Yeah, I mean, I’m actually famous here for continuing to ask the question, you know, right, when we’re most excited about an idea and like the following is happening to Debbie Downer. I say this, I say the following line, like when I feel that we’re we’re all sort of patting ourselves on the back for this genius idea or genius. And I say, you know, when we’re sitting here in six months and somebody says, hey, what about, you know, what happened? What’s our answer going to be when it fails? I say when it fails, what’s our answer going to be? And then that becomes objective. Number one, solve that problem, because that’s actually the most likely reason for failure, almost like the risk, higher risk or whatever it is. So I think asking that question of, you know, in six months when I’m explaining something why this failed, what am I going to be saying? Well, start avoiding that conversation now.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, entrepreneurs like we have the ability to be the eternal optimist. I mean, we could just run through walls one after the other. And that can also be one of our greatest weaknesses if we don’t keep it in check and let our optimism, you know, be in the right areas at the right time for the right reasons, it can put us going sideways for a long time. Now, let me ask you this. I’ve heard you say before that you’re not with BMO, you’re not necessarily competing with Facebook, you’re not necessarily competing with Twitter. The way that you view it is you’re competing with the market. You’re competing with anything that’s taking their time because you’re trying to get a slice of the user’s time. What do you mean by that?
Shaan: I think what happens look at Facebook right now. For example, in the top right corner of your Facebook page, there’s now trending news section. Mm hmm. Okay. Where did that come from? That came from looking at Twitter and saying, how do I compete with these guys? These guys people are using Twitter for this use case. Let’s steal that feature and implement it on our site regardless of how it fits, where it fits, why? It’s just let’s do that.
Bronson: Something more on the right side.
Shaan: Why not just write whatever it is? I think it’s extremely dangerous to to think of your competition as another company. My competition is like apathy, boredom, like, you know, the things that the user feels and does instead of, you know, thinking about me. So all I think about is what will make this user I’m going to compete against, you know, the market, anything else for this user’s time. And that means I have to appeal to the user. That means I have to think about which section of time I want in a user’s day and then think about their needs during that time. And I just think it’s a better way of thinking about it. Otherwise you get into this like feature race with what’s up with the company, and that’s probably the worst thing you can do is, is try to as an underdog, try to copy features or even as a talk dog, try to copy features in upstart. I mean, how often does that really work? Very rarely, I think.
Bronson: No, that’s absolutely true. Well, Sean, this has been just an incredible interview. And I have one more last question for you, and then I know you have a request for audience, so we’ll get into that. But the last question in every interview with is, what’s the best advice you have for any startup that’s trying to grow? Because you get to watch a lot of startups try to grow.
Shaan: Question, what’s the best advice? Okay, here we go. So John Prendergast, shout out to my original mentor. We came to him with our numbers when we were trying to grow. My very first startup was actually a sushi restaurant, so totally different. I was trying to grow it. And the question was, and I was actually pretty proud of the progress we had made. And, you know, we’ve got a 10% lift here. The 7% of people do this. And I said I said, what are you doing? He said, at the early stages, you know, you’ve really clear you are here and you need to be where here you’re like, answer that question and then realize that that takes a 300%, 3,000% lift. So you should be looking for really big swings. He’s like, it’s not necessarily look for one. One feature. I think that’s the silver bullet. But your target can be a very big swing upfront. He said, don’t optimize, don’t worry about efficiency, worry about impact or effectiveness. And I think that that’s like we make this mistake sometimes too, with our early stage prototype, we’re like, we try to do something on the landing page to improve conversion. And it’s like, that is the last thing we should be thinking about right now is like optimizing our landing page. We need to be thinking about what’s the most high impact thing we could do today. And I guess, like for for most growth teams, there’s a lot of there’s a lot of experience experiments. Everybody’s got a brilliant idea of how to fix the problem. So you’ve got to be incredibly good and disciplined at trying out the things that are high impact, low cost, and going through that exercise constantly revisiting what you know and what you don’t know to really look for bigger swings at the early stage and then over time look for smaller wins because you’ve already explored the big radical changes which are most likely to happen early on when it is not fixed. This is what my product is. This is how it works. That’s exactly what it does. That becomes a very limiting belief over time. So the early stages, when you look for the 300% swing, not 10%.
Bronson: Yeah, well, even what you did earlier in the interview as an example, this, you know, you didn’t, you know, let’s do some AB tests on the Bebo landing page but when Reddit was talking about you jumped on and didn’t ask me anything and probably had a ton of new people sign up because of that, one is a 3,000% lift. One is a little bit of conversion on the traffic that wasn’t there. I mean, I think that’s a different game.
Shaan: That Reddit AMA drove 220,000 people to the site that day. Right. It’s like, you know, what am I? I can change a button color because that’s not necessarily what I should be doing at that time. Right? Yeah. So I think the best people I know that growing companies are able are able to clearly hear a bunch of ideas and is still out, not necessarily the winners, but the area that they should be experimenting in or distill out. Yeah, you’re probably right. That will have an impact, but that’s not the impact I need to be. I need a much bigger impact today. So I’m going to but you know, I’m going to put that my stats now.
Bronson: Yeah, it’s kind of like the startups, which ones you put on deck and which ones you actually go forward with. Same thing with growth ideas, which ones are stacked into the top that are actually going to bring, you know, the big numbers in. All right. So you’re actually looking to hire so you’re looking to hire a growth hacker, right? So go ahead and tell the people listening why they should care.
Shaan: All right. You should care if you want to, to grow a company. So we are starting with a user base that’s substantial. So you’re not starting from scratch. This is key. And then from there, you’re going to be putting out cool products all the time and experiments across the board, because even the best people I know at growth have done it in one area. Maybe it’s games or maybe it’s a social network, and the experience and the skills that you want are actually should be across the board. That’s where you actually get a little bit more understanding of what it means to grow a business. This is where like you can sort of have experienced by like I’ve only been in tech for 18 months and I feel, you know, sort of egotistically that I know as much as I would have in ten years of doing startups if I was doing them in a series rather than in parallel here. So for people that are hungry and want to learn and want to start on something that has high potential, you should be looking at places like us and there are others out there that will give you a variety and have an actual strategy of taking fresh concepts to market with an eager audience in place. And then from what you can do from there, you know, that’s up to you. So I have a challenge. I throwing down the gantlet for someone I would like to get from from 1 million to 100 million users. And I’m looking for a person who’s going to take it from 1 million to 1 million. So if anyone out there wants to do that, just tweet at me. It’s at Sean VP. I don’t know if it’s listed on your on your site.
Bronson: But I love the video. Yeah.
Shaan: Below the videos right there and that and talk to me.
Bronson: That’s awesome. So somebody, you know, step to the plate, knock one out. Let’s see. You work for Bebo. Sean, thank you so much for coming on Growth Hacker TV. This has been awesome.
Shaan: Thank you.
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