October 12th, 2021
Today, I’m going on a podcast interview with a podcast that interviews media company founders.
To be honest, I don’t think I do that well on podcasts. I get nervous, and I worry that my story is not that interesting.
Part of that is because I don’t do a great job preparing. So I’m writing this as preparation, and something I will send to Simon before we start the interview :)
This is mainly rambling, but it’s helpful for me as the days that I started Starter Story seem like forever ago…
Building a great business is the product of following the money and pivoting
What is funny about Starter Story is that it was not the business I intended on building. I guess that is kind of embarrassing because you could imply that I’ve built a business I don’t like.
But I think that is business. There are a couple key lessons here that I think you can only learn by going through the process:
I think this is true for most if not all businesses. The problem is that we only see the final product in other businesses. We see Airbnb and are in awe of the thing they built. But we don’t see the years of toiling, changing business models, etc.
I read a book a while back that talked about this. There was a small side character on Seinfeld. The character was a bit of a joke, but was a meme hit with fans.
Most actors would hate this - to be known as one character for the rest of their life - but this actor embraced it, and used his 15 mins of fame for further endorsements and made millions off this character.
In other words, they gave him an inch and he took a mile. Most actors would have too much ego here. But this actor ran with it. And he had a very successful career after that, even in other roles!
This is something I’ve learned as a founder. Follow the money, even if it hurts your ego. Because the money is usually right. The money is actually what the customer wants, and what your product business should be. Great entrepreneurs follow the money.
So this is what I think about when I look back at the business I’ve built. It’s not necessarily what I envisioned 4 years ago, but it’s the result of a series of changes and decisions that followed the money.
But of course there is a balance. As founders, we have a vision too. Sometimes that vision does not involve following the money. And you can’t always follow the money. There is a balance.
Usually founders have selfish motives
Anyways, what I think is interesting is that Starter Story started as a business I wanted to build, not as something that was really “needed” in this world.
That is not something that I love to admit, but it’s true. I also think this is the case for many founders, especially on their first startups.
They build things because they want to build things. Or they hated their boss(es). Or they build something because it sounds cool. Or they build something to impress others (status, family, women, etc).,
But often, when they retell their story, they revise history and make it seem like there was a big hole in the market, or that they built this product because of some selfless urge to help people.
But that is mostly a lie. Because there really are no “new” businesses. Even when Airbnb started, there were other options. Vrbo started in 1995.
But Airbnb wanted to build it differently, or their way. And I think that is similar to how I felt with Starter Story. There were other sites that interviewed founders, but I wanted to do it differently. I wanted our interviews to be way more in depth. I wanted to focus on the specifics. I wanted it to be a publication that “real” founders would read.
I also started it because I wanted to build something. And put something “real” into the world. That was exciting enough for me to put all my passion behind it.
And the minimal traction I had was enough to keep me motivated. I remember having 25 people on my email list. That was exciting. I remember having 1,000 people visit the site in one month. To me, that was so cool.
Everything kind of built off of that. I realized I was helping people. I got emails from people telling me that I inspired them to start a business, even successful ones.
So I just kept going.
Admittedly, my goal back then was to just stop working for “the man”. I was building a business on nights and weekends and enjoying it. And in the back of my mind, I had an inkling that this business could help me quit my full time job.
At the time, I was in no position to do that. I was in a decent amount of credit card debt and student loan debt. I didn’t have more than a few thousand dollars to my name.
Sidenote: I think that things have changed a lot now. Seems like money is everywhere and people feel like they can quit their jobs and be fine. Back then, people weren’t starting side hustles and YouTube channels like they are now. Back then, making money online was quite unheard of in mainstream circles.
But, like I said before, I created Starter Story with the hopes that it would help me find the “right” business idea, ideally a SaaS business that I could start. I was a software engineer, so I felt that building software was my advantage.
Once I got Starter Story off the ground, I actually started dabbling in new businesses. But, to make a long story short, I always came back to Starter Story, as it was the bread winner.
Looking back, what made Starter Story work was actually my own consistency. I always showed up. There were always emails to answer, interviews to publish, and newsletters to send out.
And I never wanted to let anyone down. I didn’t want to let down my sponsors, who were paying a fixed amount per month. I wanted to make sure they got the eyeballs and clicks they paid for.
I didn’t want to let down the founders we interviewed. They spent time answering our questions and I wanted them to get something out of it.
And I didn’t want to let down the readers. I always wanted the site to feel like it had new content.
So, maybe Starter Story’s success is partly due to my own need to be liked. Or my fear of letting people down. It’s funny when I angle it that way.
But what I love about this is: this is the story of most media companies (and most companies in general). A company is built over years, and there is usually not some breakthrough moment like we all dream of.
Just showing up every day, and showing up 100% (not splitting your time across multiple companies)
It took me over 2 years to go full time into Starter Story, and it’s not because it wasn’t making enough money. Starter Story was making $5-6K/month and I had already quit my full time job.
I wasn’t full-time on Starter Story because I was already building a new business, and I was putting in 80% of my time into that new business… Even got a YC interview.
But my hubris got the best of me. I thought I could build another business easily off the backs of my Starter Story success. I thought I had some magical execution formula that I could parlay into a SaaS business. After a year of work, I only got that business to ~$1k/month.
It all came to a head after that, early last year, when I finally realized:
For my SaaS business, I was putting in 90% of my time and making 10% of my total revenue. For Starter Story, I was putting in 10% of my time, and making 90% of the revenue.
That is the exact opposite of following the money, as referenced above. And this when I learned that lesson!
And that’s when I realized I needed to go full time on Starter Story. Because I actually had more competitive advantages as a founder with Starter Story than I did for the SaaS business.
In the first month of going full time, I think we almost doubled revenue. Just the increased focus was enough. And looking at the 90/10 formula that makes sense. A simple shift in focus can make a huge difference.