IAmA founder of a reddit-launched website that was just named one of Time's 50 Best Websites AMA
With zero web development experience other than a bunch of Codecademy courses, I launched Outgrow.me on Reddit about a year ago. The exposure and feedback I received was HUGE. Since then, I've been featured on Wired, Lifehacker, Cnet and even named one of Time's 50 Best Websites! This is now my full time job, and I have a handful of incredible employees.
AMA about bootstrapping a business, crowdfunding, being a magnificently bearded religious Jewish entrepreneur, or anything else on your mind!
It was honestly terrifying. I had spent so much time working on the site (some days sitting 8AM - 3AM on my laptop!), and I was really scared it would just flop.. It was like jumping into a swimming pool after months of training and not knowing if it was full of clear blue water or concrete.
At the time, I was using a shared hosting plan with InMotion Hosting for about $8.00 a month. It was even called the "Power Plan." As you probably can imagine, the server melted within the first 5 minutes of being on reddit.. That was a nightmare.
Overall, it was a really incredible learning experience that gave me a complete crash course on web servers, caching, CDNs, load balancers and a lot more techy terms I had never heard of.
I think the scariest part was that I knew how amazing of an opportunity reddit was giving me, but I was scared I wasn't capitalizing to the fullest extent. In the end, the reddit community was really supportive and I received a tremendous amount of useful feedback and insight. The exposure even snowballed into a ton of tech news PR!
EDIT: Had another thought.. :)
Thanks thats one of my main worries, I think i have a unique service and i fear either the site will melt (I'm using weebly) or ill get down-voted into oblivion.Thanks for the inspiration its time for me too man up grow a beard and get on with it.
You'll never know until you try. Every person who visits your service is a tremendous resource for feedback and insight. Just make sure to have a direct way to collect thoughts from visitors. I've found that using Olark to chat with visitors is extremely useful in that regard.
who did you end up hosting with? We are looking into Pagoda Box or just using Amazon's EC2
I started with InMotion Hosting and had a really bad experience. We're now with Rackspace, and they've been excellent.
You definitely can! Feel free to send me a PM.
How much of the web development and technical stuff did you do yourself and how much was done by experienced programmers that you brought in? I'm planning on launching a site but I'm a bit nervous because even though I have a decent amount of programming experience my web development skills are still in their infancy (especially since I'm a back end guy and know almost nothing about frontend development). Also, what sort of technical stack are you using? Thanks for the AMA!
I pretty much did everything myself from development to design to UI. At the start, I tried hiring developers on sites like Odesk to help me fix bugs. Looking back, I ended up paying ridiculous amounts of money to incompetent developers to try and fix things I can now fix within a few minutes..
I personally think that the right way to go is to launch and then bring on help if you need it. Once you can prove the concept, you should have a much easier time bringing on a second developer.
If you do need front-end help with design, try /r/Design_Critiques. That sub is very supportive, and I received a lot of incredible feedback there.
While it doesn't look like it at first glance, the site's written in PHP with WordPress. I'm in the process of switching over to a Rails platform pretty soon though (hopefully).
Wordpress? Wow, I've worked with Wordpress a fair bit and never would've guessed. I'm actually using Ruby on Rails for my site as well (I'm a Java developer but Rails seems much better for launching quickly). I'm also curious about tue business perspective. Is the site profitable? How many users do you have and how long did it take to get? What advice do you have about acquiring users and publicity? Thanks for the subreddit, I'll definitely check it out.
The site is profitable, and I've even been able to take on a handful of employees. I think an effective way of gaining publicity is to be on the lookout for articles relevant to what you're working on. Then email the writers about what you're working on and why you think their readers would appreciate hearing about it. I've found that to work pretty well.
why are you planning to switch to Rails
Rails offers a lot more flexibility to build out custom features. A platform like WordPress requires never-ending plugins that make the site really bulky and sluggish.
What percentage of your success do you attribute to your beard?
A much larger percentage than you'd think! I usually interact with people via email or on the phone, but when I meet people in person I always see the look of surprise on their face. They do not expect to see a bearded Jewish guy in a tailored suit working in something as hight tech as crowdfunding.. Once we start talking though, the response I get is always positive, and I think people respect me even more for shattering their expectations.
TL;DR I try to capitalize on people's prejudices.
I don't have any questions for you, just wanted to say this is the first time in a gazillion ages that I've spent this much time on any website just browsing and clicking and browsing and clicking. Nice work. Now where's my wallet, I have a ton of shit to buy .... curse you
Haha thank you! :)
As a reminder, if you sign up to our newsletter on top of the site, you get 10% off your first purchase. Hopefully that helps a bit!
how do you make money?
Many of the products on the site are ones we hold in inventory and allow you to purchase directly. You can see them here. You'll notice they all have a little W logo in the corner to show that we have them in stock and sell direct.
I noticed reading through your FAQs that you offer the ability to preorder successfully funded projects (keeping the makers with more revenue during the development process which i'm sure can help some of them).
My question is have you ever ran into a project that hasn't ended up being in a releaseable state? IE, they crowdfunded a board game with a release date of December 2013 and that came and went and still no product. What happens on your end? Do you refund preorders and pursue action against them? I'm honestly curious as have always seen this as a potential issue in the crowdfunding area (scams).
Crowdfunding definitely gets a lot of slack for projects not delivering rewards on schedule. I think the problem is that people think they're pre-ordering a product, instead of backing a creative and innovative endeavor. Like any startup, there's always going to be hiccups, delays, and mistakes. Backing a project means that you're ready to go on the journey.
I think the biggest reason for the backlash is that project creators sometimes don't communicate properly with backers. As a backer of the Pen Type-A project, I saw firsthand just how crazy manufacturing a new product can get. Despite waiting over a year to receive my reward, I was completely understanding of the the designers CW&T because they kept me in the loop throughout the entire process. There wasn't months of silence only to hear about another screwup. They kept their backers informed throughout all the craziness. In the end, they delivered a beautifully designed product, and I'd back them again.
I always mention a study that showed the rude doctors get sued more often (source after a quick google search). In the same way, project creators need to treat their backers properly.
To answer your question more particularly about Outgrow.me, at the moment, we generally don't process pre-orders directly through the site. Instead we direct customers to where they can place the pre-order. We're working on getting a pre-order system set up where your credit card isn't charged until the order ships. I hope to have that up sometime next month.
In terms of scams, beyond one or two stories I recall, we haven't had any issue with that at all.
EDIT: As an aside, people seem to spend a lot of time on our FAQ page. If anyone has any thoughts on what seems unclear, please drop us a message!
As someone with almost zero web dev experience other than modifying a bunch of Twitter Bootstrap templates, what do you suggest is the best way to learn web dev and launch a site for an absolute beginner?
I've found Codecademy to be an incredible resource. Unlike many sites with tutorial videos, it offers a really interactive, hands-on learning experience. I think the best way to learn (and how I did it myself) is to use Codecademy while simultaneously working on a project. That way, while you're learning, you can actually see how it can be applied. At the same time, online communities like stackoverflow and reddit (/r/learnprogramming /r/HTML /r/csshelp ) are extremely supportive and can give you guidance when you get stuck.
Oh, and you can even read my Codecademy interview :)
To add on to his question a bit what programming languages do you think are most important to know?
I was thrilled to find and use your site but somewhere in the jQuery tutorials, there were errors with the code analyzer (trust me, I tried different browsers, different syntax, space/no space between, etc. to no avail). Even code that I verified to work on my own server when directly copied and pasted told me I failed to specify the time (just the digit "1") which I very clearly did in a couple of different ways, just to be sure. Basically, now I can't progress past that exercise (2.5 or 2.6, I believe) which has sapped all the fun and effectiveness out of the site. I haven't been back for a few weeks now but if you can get those exercised fixed, I'd love to jump back in.
Generally, you can find answers in the Q&A Forum of each tutorial. Don't let one bad experience get in the way of succeeding! Give it another shot.
How many of these kickstarter projects have you tried? Follow up: which were your favorites?
I've tried a couple hundred. Best part of my job! :)
Some favorites are the MaKey MaKey, Ostrich Pillow, Mason Shaker, Griz Coat and if you haven't played Zombicide or Cards Against Humanity you're really missing out..
Cards against humanity got its start from your website?
Cards Against Humanity didn't start on my site but on Kickstarter.
Great stuff and thanks for the AMA! Can you tell us what shopping cart software/plugin you use or used with Wordpress when you first started, and would you still recommend it?
Finding a shopping cart that would integrate well with WordPress was a huge hassle. After trying dozens of plugins that didn't work very well, I tried to integrate Balanced Payments which turned out to be far too difficult for a complete novice. I then gave PayPal embedded buttons a try and that worked OK for a little while. The trouble was that it forced customers to checkout on a separate site..
At the moment, we're using WePay for our checkout and I highly recommend it. It's easy to setup and super convenient.
How did you come up with the name?
I thought of crowdfunded projects as having outgrown their funding and now in need of a long-term home. When I picked it, I never thought the site would take off to the extent it did. I still randomly have better names pop into mind, but it's definitely too late now!
How much has competition been a factor? I see on the site that it says "first marketplace". Has there been another sites trying to do what you do? If so, how has been reacting to the competition? I ask, because I plan on starting my own web service that currently has an up-and-coming competitor.
Initially I was scared people with real development experience would come along and build superior sites, but that never happened. Don't get me wrong, there are at least a half a dozen sites that are trying to work in the same space as Outgrow.me, but none have been successful. I think the reason why I've managed to stand apart is that I focus completely on providing a great customer experience and a product of value to my partners. I focus first on trying to build something awesome and second on how to pay the bills. That's why Outgrow.me has close to 500 projects while the other sites trying to compete have closer to 50.
No matter what you do, you'll always have competition. I try not to look at what others are doing but to focus on what I believe needs to be done. While it is important to know what's going on in your space, it's sometimes more important not to let what others are doing turn you away from your core values.
Thank you so much for your response! Your advice really did help. I'd love to stay in contact and get your advice/mentoring in the future through the start-up process if that would be something you'd be willing to do :).
It would be my pleasure. Just shoot me a PM anytime.
I'm a electrical engineer interested in learning web development. What specific resources would you recommend in addition to Codeacademy to help get me started in learning how to build a dynamic webpage?
I'd recommend taking a look at edx, and Kahn Academy. I've also found that browsing tutorials on sites like Codrops is really useful.
thank you for the ama. can you talk about how you went about getting recognition? did you email editors? I have a startup that's launching at the end of summer and we're nervous about just getting our name out there.
A reddit post can work wonders. In our case, a bunch of editors picked up the story on their own after seeing it on reddit.
Another method I've found to be effective is to look out for articles relevant to what you're building and then drop the writers a message about what you're building and why you think it would interest them.
Best of luck!
How did you go about the actual reddit intro? (Link to your original intro post?)
Would you have done the intro any different?
Also, did you concurrently introduce yourself via email/Twitter/FaceBook/etc... to other channels? (online mags, professional bloggers, ???) and if so what was or was not efective for you and why?
It seems like once one has a site up and running you want to get the word out about yourself as explosively as possible, and I'm wondering if you explored other channels besides reddit.
Here's the original reddit post.
Something I regret is not initially having a way to capture the initial waves of visitors I received. At the time, I was so overwhelmed with getting the site up and running that I didn't have any social media setup or even an email newsletter. That was definitely a mistake.
At the same time, while we have now have a number of Facebook and Twitter followers, not much of our revenue is generated through social media.
I definitely think it's important to be explosive about getting exposure before a competitor launches and steals your thunder. In my case, the exposure definitely snowballed from article to article. At the same time, reaching out to writers offered little return on time. It seems like you really need an "in" to get any attention with them.
Thanks for the info!
Having read the original post, do you still feel that Twitter Bootstrap would have been your development tool of choice?
Second, they say that one should start off an enterprise assuming that you will become big/successful and structure accordingly. That said, would RackSpace have still been an affordable/appropriate hosting solution for you at the start? (I notice earlier comments in your original post about using Amazon)
And lastly I gotta ask - your comments about "not much $$$ from social media" (I assume you mean from AdSense of the like). What is your primary business model? Do you add a percentage/fee on transactions for providing a one-stop-shop for people so they don't have to scour around for the project developer's website?
Thanks again, and great AMA!
I definitely think it's worth taking advantage of any resources that allow you to get up and running quickly. My only hesitation with Twitter Bootstrap is that you often end up with a very template-looking site. If you're looking to get started with Bootstrap, take a look at wrapbootstrap.
Rackspace would definitely have been well outside of my budget to start. I don't believe in throwing down big money on hosting at the start. That really pulls resources away from where you may need it more. Instead, I'd recommend to start small and scale. Although, I imagine it really depends on the project!
The primary business model is that we warehouse many of our most popular products and sell them directly to customers. You can check them out here. You'll notice all of these products have a little W in the corner, representing that we have them in stock.
Thanks for visiting!
Was it difficult to get a business license or tax ID? Do you recommend getting a PO box address to use? Also, are you drop-shipping or stocking inventory and shipping on your own?
Great site by the way, made me wish I thought of this!
Not at all. It's super easy to get a tax ID online, and I used Clerky to register my corporation. I'm currently renting an office and warehouse in Brooklyn, as we stock most of the items we well.
Thank you :)
Which Codecademy courses did you take, and which ones were the most useful?
Where on reddit did you post it? In tech categories only? What do you think helped you the most at the beginning?
I originally posted in /r/gadgets. Here's the post. Someone also posted in /r/shutupandtakemymoney before I was even ready to launch and that definitely gave me a huge needed push.
So how do you manage to not work on shabbat? teach us all how to disconnect for 24 hours please in the restless world of tech/entrepreneurship
I have to say that I'm never more at peace than on Friday night when I turn off my computer and cell phone. It's a complete sense of calm and tranquility. It's my one day to recharge my batteries and get ready for a new week. Jewish or not, I think it's extremely important to take some time off from the work grind and enjoy yourself and your family. You'd be amazed at the wonders it can do.
Great idea, and smart tactic to launch on reddit. I have a few questions for you:
How many hours per week do you work on this idea?
How much profit have you made in the past 12 months?
For products that have already launched, do you hold inventory?
I see some products refer directly to your merchant's website, how do you monetize on these items?
Best of luck in the future, and thanks for the AMA!
I probably work somewhere around 55 - 60 hours a week. I don't keep to much of a schedule.
We don't hold inventory of every product, but you can see the ones we have here.
We don't monetize every item. Most of the outbound links have no affiliate setup. Our goal is to provide a great customer experience by showcasing as many projects as possible, instead of just the ones we can monetize. In the end, customers appreciate the wide selection, and that lets us take into inventory more and more products. Plus, it's nice to hear the sound of surprise when designers hear we'll showcase their project for free! :)
Its very cool to be able to put on the "orderable" filter and see what kickstarter has actually accomplished. Not much software yet, but lots of little gadgets I'd otherwise never hear about.
Thank you! The site is definitely product oriented, although we do try to include video games and other kinds of software. We're partially reliant on visitors submitting projects to be added, so feel free to send over your favorites!
How did you manage your time with the startup, wife, kids and work ? It seems to be hard to split the attention to a personal project when you have lots of responsibilities, at least for me
In the beginning, I definitely spent incredible amounts of time working. I'd be at my laptop until the wee hours of the morning, and that was definitely stressful to my family. It took time before I was able to adjust and learn how to manage my time efficiently. These days, I still spend a few days a week working as much as possible, but I also spend a few days a week coming home early to watch The Voice with my wife..
Did you email Lifehacker, Wired, and those other websites? I email about 40 sites about my iPad app The Photo Journal, but hardly heard anything back. Any trick to get featured?
I didn't have any luck randomly emailing news sites. What I have had luck with is finding articles relevant to my startup and emailing those particular writers directly. Best of luck!
What are your thoughts on equity crowdfunding? In terms of potential, problems, etc.
I think there's a tremendous amount of potential there. The trouble is that the SEC doesn't seem to be committed to moving forward on it. They still haven't even provided a timetable. It's hard to say what problems equity crowdfunding may run into before the SEC introduces the rules and regulations that the crowdfunding platforms will have to abide by. I'm optimistic though!
I know this is two days old, but how long did it take for you to go from your first Codeacademy track to the launch of your website?
I'm overwhelmed about where to start, from Udacity, to Codeacademy, to computerscienceforeveryone.com, and so on. I want to get to where I want to be as fast as I can. I know I should probably just do something, anything, and then another thing, and then another until I have enough knowledge to begin a task where I'll learn even more and create something at the same time.
I honestly launched a site within a few weeks of starting on Codecademy. The site was completely terrible, but it was a start!
I think it's definitely worth focusing on learning, while at the same time working on something on the side. Even if you drop the first project, it's much easier to learn something new when you're applying it to a real world project, IMHO.
I am trying to get a site off the ground at the moment. What do you think are the best moves I could make to get traffic to my site? What marketing did you do apart from reddit?
I think it really depends on what kind of project it is. It's worth giving Hacker News a try. Otherwise, I think it's important to reach out to writers that feature companies in the same space as your site. Let them know what you're up to and why you think they should care.
Congratulations on your success! The idea behind your site is fantastic.
I'd like to know more about the process by which you introduced your idea to Reddit. Where did you originally post it? How did the feedback you received from Redditors shape it? In my experience, most Redditors frown on self-promoted websites, so I'm glad yours found an audience here.
EDIT: I saw the link to your original thread in another comment. Thanks!
Thank you! :)
Luckily, I wasn't downvoted to oblivion, or I would have been extremely disappointed! I think if what you're working on is different and interesting, people will appreciate it. The trick is to find the subreddit that's interested in what you're offering. I was even able to get in touch with an awesome mod of /r/kickstarter who was able to add Outgrow.me to the sidebar!
I always have a friends and family asking me how they can implement their business ideas on the web and smartphones. I usually recommend they learn how to code first and send them to CodeAcademy. Do you think learning how to code (even knowing the basics) should be a prerequisite for anyone starting a tech business these days? Do you think you would have had the same success if you didn't learn how to code and just hire some programmers?
I definitely think it's critical to either have some web dev experience yourself or to have a co-founder that has experience. I never would have been able to succeed without it. When you hire a developer, especially off a site like Odesk or Freelancer, you're really at their mercy. You have no idea what they're talking about, how long things should take, what's possible, what isn't possible, and importantly what it should cost. That really limits what you're able to accomplish.
as a fellow chabadnick, Yasher Koach. Keep it up.
Haha, thanks! :)
I've never heard of your site before and, by coincidence, was thinking the other day that there needs to be a "successful" kickstarter site given that kickstarter themselves doesn't offer that simple filter function.
So your site is awesome. I especially like that you can filter "orderable" from "pre-orderable". The tile layout is great: a simple photo; description and price on hover!
I'd suggest the following sorts: "date of orderable launch"; popularity (voting directly on your site??); sort by units shipped.
I'm definitely working on the sorting feature. I'm thinking along the same lines as you, but to include sort by amount of money raised, number of backers, site popularity, and the like. I'll definitely keep your recommendations in mind, so thank you!
How is the site supporting itself, ads, affiliate links, the shopping cart?
The site has a shopping cart that lets customers checkout directly. You can see that here. If we don't have the product in stock, we direct you to where you can place an order.
I'd like to say congratulations to you for your success. I'm in a similar position with an idea I'm in love with and now I'm just trying to gain as much knowledge as I possibly can to properly develop it.
For my question, what was your target level of completion before launching? Did you try to launch already as fully equipped to handle everything as possible, or did you launch simple and then try to shift the site to the needs of the user base? How did you decide you were ready to go live?
My target level was as soon as the site functioned. As soon as someone could visit and find some use for the site, I launched. I didn't wait until everything was perfect but worked to perfect it along the way. Looking back, I definitely see the tremendous value in building out a site while taking feedback from users. It allows you to include features people want and not waste time building features no one cares about.
Yeah that would be my thinking as well. It clearly worked out for you. I guess the only catch to that thinking is you need to make sure your site is good enough at launch to leave a positive first impression.
I think that's why it's really great to take advantage of subreddits like /r/design_critques and /r/startups. That way you can get feedback before an official launch. Those communities are extremely supportive and offer excellent constructive criticism.
Thank you! :)
Are you looking into any new projects currently? Congratulations on your success!
I've actually started on a few over the last couple of months! I helped my wife launch BabyBakeShop, and I'm launching VisuallyFresh (sneak peek!) sometime next week.
I honestly love working on new projects and brainstorming ideas. The hardest part is sticking with each idea until it's really off the ground and not just dabbling in projects..
I find your site stylistically appealing, it has a very natural flow to it. Is the site's current form close to what you originally intended?
Thank you! I designed it myself with a lot of hard work, so I appreciate the occasional pat on the back :)
The design and layout have definitely come a very long way. Because I worked on the design while the site was live, I was able to take feedback I was receiving from visitors and implement it directly. I never rolled out huge changes but instead rolled out small updates every day. That let me pull back features people didn't like and double down on the features people appreciated. The site is really a product of the Outgrow.me community.
as a founder with no programming experience - what programming language and architexture did you choose for the website ,
how long did it take for you to learn and make the site running
has the websites code changed after launch or you are still using the same code
When I launched, I had no idea about the sheer number of different platforms options. I went with WordPress, because it was one I had heard about the most about, and I figured it couldn't be too difficult (I was really wrong).
The site is all PHP and is pretty much a fully custom theme with a lot of custom code in the backend. Choosing WordPress allowed me to be up and running quickly, but it's been a real nightmare when integrating new features and developing an API. We're in the process of migrating to a Rails platform, which I'm really excited about.
It's hard to peg down exactly when the site started running. At the launch, the site was definitely a nightmare. Nothing worked. When people clicked buttons or links, nothing would happen. For the life of me, I couldn't even figure out how to float an element..
Over time, I fixed bugs and worked on the design. I'd say it was 3-4 months before I was somewhat content with how the site was working.
How was your day?
My day has been fantastic. After all the support reddit has shown me, it's nice to give back a little.
I want to do the same but i keep holding myself back,How scary was the launch?
View HistoryShare Link