079 - Lessons From Travel And SAAS Business Startups With David Schneider

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About David

Graduate from Harvard with a degree in Applied Math, in 2012 Dave quit his corporate job to travel the world with his wife, and over 5+ years they visited over 60 countries together. During that time he launched and exited from his first SaaS, NinjaOutreach, an influencer marketing platform.

Nowadays he runs Shortlist.io, a digital marketing "un-agency". His team is 20 people strong and they work on cool problems.

He has been on dozens of podcasts and they're always a great time and valuable for audiences. His style is to be direct, transparent, and share both sides of the story.

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Show Notes

Josh: What's up everybody. Josh, Tapp here again, and welcome back to the lucky Titan podcast. So today we have David Schneider with us here on the mic. And David is here to talk with us about the lessons he learned from travel and from starting a startup in the SAS space. So, if you aren't familiar with the SAS space, that software as a service, it can actually be a very difficult space to start in. So, I'm really excited to have David here with us to talk about what we're talking about today. So, David, give us a little bit of background on ourselves, say what's up and let us know one thing about yourself that most people don't know?

David: Awesome. Yeah. Thanks a lot for having me, Josh. A little bit of background about myself. So, I used to kind of work a more standard nine to five office job. I quit that job with my wife to go traveling. We traveled to about 60 countries in Europe and Asia, South America, Africa. That's my one fact, by the way. I ran a software business, as you mentioned called Ninja Outrage. For about four years, bootstrapped it sold it. I now run an agency; a marketing agency called Shortlist Style.

Josh: And, and I love that because you really, I mean, you left the corporate sector and then you traveled for five years, you know, and the number one question that's going to come into everybody's mind is how did you pay to travel the 60 countries, right. If you didn't have a job. So, let's delve into that a little bit?

David: Yeah. It's, it's complicated and simple at the same time. We had saved up money to travel probably a year. So, we had a buffer. We couldn't save up for five years of travel, but we could save up for about a year. And then I started blogging, started a travel blog with my wife and that turned into a business surprisingly. We learned that companies were interested in buying links on our site in exchange for money as a way to essentially generate, you know, SEO kind of juice for them. In that, you know, that became a sustainable enough business for a while to fund travel in, you know, another thing to mention is that travel is not usually as expensive as we associated with because we think about like, I don't know, taking three kids to Paris or something and we're, Oh, wow, like how would you ever afford that? And it's like $5,000 a week or something like that. But a lot of countries are a lot cheaper than the US and when you're not paying for a home or apartment back home, like you don't have a mortgage, it really kind of got rid of all your stuff and your belongings and you just dedicated travel for, you know, a thousand dollars a month per person. You can travel to a lot of places. It may not be luxurious travel. It may not always be, you know, Paris, like I mentioned but very nice places and totally acceptable. So that was largely how we kind of did it for five years. Eventually we, you know, in Ninja Outrage that became a business that supplied me with a proper income and things like that, but that's kind of what comes going.

Josh: Yeah, that's really awesome. We actually have a company in the travel space called seek spot and it's you know, we've, been finding that more and more as we've been in that space. There's a lot of people think that it costs so much travel. And so, I was curious how you guys did it because like you're saying, even if you're making $2,000 a month, if it's just one or two of you, you can pretty much travel anywhere.

David: Yeah, pretty much. Yeah.

Josh: I mean, you couldn't rent a flat in a New York city by any means, but you can go back the world that's for sure. Well, so let's talk a little bit about what you guys are doing right now with Shortlist and really, you know, what's working for you right now?

David: Yeah. There's, I mean, there's two things that are working that I like to hit on. The first thing, honestly, the thing that has worked in all of my businesses is just hiring the right people and giving them a responsibility and autonomy. That is really by and large, the biggest thing that has really ever worked for me. I run shortlist in the same way that I ran Ninja Outrage it's to promote teams about 20 people or so variety of different roles and just kind of providing them with the means to work together, to collaborate, communicate and then trusting them to kind of get the job done has worked well for me in my own mental sanity and also just of getting results to the clients. That's kind of the biggest thing, honestly, but outside of that some of that is also quite important is been the customer relationships and engagement. I think that now more than ever, it's very much businesses about trust and relationships and making sure that, you know, you're with the right provider. There aren't that many services or that anybody offers that only they do; people have many options to choose from with any type of product or service or software. So, the reason for them to go with you is, is often about the connection that they feel with like the people, the customer support that they receive, feeling that they're in good hands. So, I think that as an agency, that's really what we pride ourselves on.

Josh: That's awesome. Well, and you found a pretty amazing team through, I mean, you outsource everything, but you have a team of 20 people. And I know, you know, coming from the marketing space, these are genuine questions for me because we, you know, we ran into that problem of, you know, the commerce children don't have any shoes. Right. So, it was like, we could, you know, make results for other people, help them hire great people do drive leads for them or what have you. But then when we try to do that for ourselves, it wasn't working as well. And that's when you're like, dang it. I don't think I'm as good at this as I think I am. Right.

David: That’s, sorry, go ahead.

Josh: No, so, I mean, what's, kind of been your tactic to keep people around first off with employees. That's I know it's a two-phase question, but you know, how are you keeping these people around? Because one of the biggest problems in the marketing realm is, you know, you hire somebody on and then they you know, you basically train them and they leave and become your competition.

David: Yeah. That's, always a possibility, it's something that you, kind of, I think have to accept us, you know, that the people are going to kind of make their own decisions. They're going to go elsewhere. I mean, I also left a job that you know, they treated me well, you know, but it just sort of want to do other things and that's life. I think that, you know, in our case, and this is, you know, with Ninja Outrage, for Shortlist, we've had very low turnover and in a few times that it happened. I mean, it just really, wasn't a fit usually from the beginning, it wasn't somebody with us for a long time. And the ways that we're able to do that is number one. One of our hiring mechanisms is often, person to person referrals. So, somebody has a friend or a relative or something like that and they bring that person in. And when you're working with your friends, that's fun. You know, you, you want to stay in that business.
So yes, there's a potential that maybe four people at once maybe would leave. You know, that's a risk but it's less likely that any individual one person would leave. So now you just have to think about how can we keep the group kind of intact and, you know, my philosophy is really just trying to tie people to the business, like in an incentive a way. And I don't mean necessarily monetarily, although that is definitely part of it because people need to be paid well. But for them to feel that if the business is doing well, that it's somehow trickling back down to them in a way that if we hit certain milestones, that they're going to be rewarded in a way. So, for example, we have different tiers based on the business's money in the bank. Okay. That's for me, the biggest marker of profitability is like how much money do we have in the bank at any one time? And so, if we hit different tiers, these result in an added vacation day at a sick day, it's basically added up benefits for the employees, things like that, stipends, whatever. So, it's this idea that, you know, the business as well. It's going to come down to you and I think that that is still a rarity nowadays, that you know, that people got an executive level and a management level or thinking about how can we make sure that rewards pass through the business to the actual employees really appreciate that and they're going to be inclined to stick around because I know that's hard to get elsewhere. So that's probably the biggest thing. I will also say that we work almost strictly with, inaudible 08:00] labor in Eastern Europe. And they honestly don't have as many opportunities as people maybe in America do and they're not used to being paid as well. So that is a little bit of an advantage that not that we're like the best ship in town or something like that. That's not what I'm trying to say, but I think that the competition of people leaving to go elsewhere is less in America. It's like, there's so many companies you can kind of work for and stuff that people are always looking for the next best thing.

Josh: Right. How were you able to find, I know this random question, but how were you able to find people in Eastern Europe? Yeah.

David: You know, so I'm used to doing that from, from way back and Ninja Outreach. You know, it started with Upwork. Upwork was just a marketplace for finding freelancers. Eventually he kind of got comfortable using that platform and interviewing people and feeling comfortable that I didn't know them personally, I hadn't physically met them, but I was comfortable working with them and trusting them with, you know sort of sensitive information. And then once you get the hang of it you become more comfortable adding more people to that. Or like I said, you ask a person that you're already working with, who they might know who they like the brand of the team, and it just kind of grows from there.

Josh: That's awesome. I love that when you're bringing me back. So the first book I read when I was doing my MBA was winning by Jack Welch and he talked a lot about what you're applying there, you know, as you said, it's all about the incentives and it doesn't always have to be monetary, but and I think, you know, that trickles down into your customer interaction. You know, your customers seem to really latch onto your brand when your team is happy. It's really interesting. It's infectious.

David: Yeah. It really is. And, you know, obviously, yeah, money, I don't want to downplay that. Like somebody who's going to work for nothing, but I think more than that, people want to feel appreciated at work. They want to feel like a sense of purpose that the work they're doing is adding value. And if you're kind of checking those boxes you know; people are going to be pretty sticky. I don't think they're going to really always be looking for something else because they know they got something good here.

Josh: Yeah. And I love that because I know like even for us, we do a lot of our stuff outsource as well. And I've done that even when we try to find partners for companies that we start because it's, I mean, like you said, it's infectious and I love that. What, and I'd like to turn the conversation a little bit now towards the consumer side, you know, like. What's been working really well for you guys to get clients for yourself. I know a lot of yours is word of mouth traffic, but you know, what else have you been using to, to see results?

David: Yeah. A couple of channels that have sort of worked for us. Networking honestly, is what really got the business off the ground for Shortlist and that's obviously a hard thing to kind of replicate because you can't say, Hey, go network, you know, like it's something that you build up over the years, you build up relationships and. But it is worth mentioning that yes, it is maybe not like an active process always to kind of go in network but it is something to be cultivated to be having conversations and just to be listening. We're not kind of always trying to pitch everyone we know on our services but we are trying to talk with them, you know, understand what they're working on. And if we see an opportunity, then we say, Hey, you know what, I know a guy who does that work, or we do that work or something like that and then it makes a lot more sense than it feels like it's coming from the right place because people are so sensitive to being pitched in nowadays, especially in the marketing niche for good reason. So, you know, networking certainly and then obviously, you know, word of mouth can spring from that because you know, you build up some clients and stuff like that. But I would say, you know, in terms of just introducing new people into the pot, that we haven't ever really had a relationship with full before it has definitely been outreach, you know, for us direct outreach via email. But we are not, you know, spamming thousands of people a week or something like that with just some blanket pitch. We message a very small number. People who we really feel kind of fit our target market in each email has at least some element of real customization to it and I don't mean like, Hey, in their first name level of customization, I mean that like we've looked at their website, we've done a bit of an analysis. We have some examples of keywords that we think that they could rank higher for or we know a competitor in their niche that is doing well, that we want to kind of reference. You know, there's something in there that kind of says, yeah, we've actually taken a look at this person. And you know, that, it still has to timing has to be right. The person still has to be in the mindset of, oh yeah, I was looking for an SEO agency or something like that but that does separate you, I think, from, from the rest.

Josh: Yeah. And I love that and that's a method that we've used even. I mean, we haven't done email as much, but with LinkedIn, I mean, everybody's trying to create these automated processes, you know, and they'll spend time and money and trying to figure out how to make it. So, it just puts their name in and you can get appointments. But what we've even found is, you know, instead of spamming a thousand people and having customization they're doing what you're talking about, you're going to get the same results by reaching out to 25 people on your own and doing the research yourself. And if you don't do it yourself, I mean, you could pay somebody you know 10, $15 an hour to do that for you, you know.

David: Pretty much. Yeah and I think you know, having you know, we have a business development department it's just, it's just a couple of guys but it means that somebody just kind of, somebody owns that and somebody has to own acquisition, they have to own business development. It's not something that just is going to kind of always happen organically. People have to be kind of responsible for it. They have to have their own KPIs and they have to be able to kind of make adjustments when they see things. I don't think it's advisable always to outsource that, that type of work to another service or an agency, unless you've kind of figured out yourself the right way to go about it. And then maybe you can take that process or something and kind of give it to somebody else and you should understand yourself first.

Josh: Right, 100%. We've even found that, I mean, sales is one of the hardest pieces to outsource because most times they just want to talk to the owner. Right? And in an agency type model. And if you're trying to sell high ticket clients, I think a lot of people are trying to avoid that as much as possible. But like you said, you've got to have a rock-solid sales process that you've built first and then you can hire people. So, I do love that. And then, so your company is really intriguing to me. I mean, when we first got in contact, I was looking at short list and I mean, you're not really an agency. I mean, you've basically created a software as a service platform for people to get their marketing all done in one place. So, give us a little background on that?

David: Yeah. I mean, the idea that we have is first of all, businesses don't need just one thing. They need kind of everything, right? So, they're looking for SEO and they're looking for design and dev and then need like a dedicated strategist to kind of run that. So, you know, our ideal customers, it's usually a small business that doesn't have a dedicated or CMO. They're not doing everything in house, but they have something going. They have obviously a product and a service and customers and things are sort of working but they just don't quite have it, have all the strategy together. So, what we'd like to do is we like to set them up with a marketer. They're from our team but that marketer effectively joins almost their organization they'll join their Slack channel. They'll get an email address for that company and they begin to start to know and understand the organization, what their values are. What's important to them. And by doing that, they can start to actually create that the marketing strategy, because until you really know the company, you really shouldn't be kind of creating a strategy for them. It would make much sense. And then once the strategy is created, then they look at us as an agency and they look for us to kind of fill those gaps. So, they might need to design or develop landing pages. They might need some SEO and they draw from those resources, so it's the idea of that. We gave you somebody dedicated to who is your direct point of contact in a very like no barrier type of way. But then we also supply you with kind of the pool of resources to draw from, to be able to get the work done. So, we can kind of be more full service.
Josh: Love that. So essentially, you're giving them a CMO. You're going to the CEO, who's probably being the CMO and saying, Hey, let's replace you in a sense. That's pretty awesome. One of the easiest ways to start. And so, you guys have been covering all sorts of different. I mean, you cover all sorts of different types of marketing, like their SEO, their do you do Facebook ads, that kind of stuff as well?
David: Yeah, we can do paid ads. We do the design and dev and you know, converging into optimization and also the production things. And then each niche is very different as well. We've worked with the B to C, B to B companies and, you know, Cannabis or Bitcoin, or just so many different industries. And it really, and, and that's why I feel strongly about the model that there has to be this dedicated marketer because they really have to understand the industry. Like, because it's just so different and you can't have a one size fits all approach to marketing strategy. So, they really kind of have to be able to be given the permission to work directly with a client. And the marketers are not juggling multiple clients they'll like only have the one to essentially kind of learn about it.

Josh: That's really awesome. Well you guys, you know, so having worked with so many different companies, like you said, there's no one size fits all, but where's kind of your starting point for most of these companies when it comes to marketing, like where's the first piece that you work on with them?

David: First thing is always to try to understand low hanging fruit by, you know, what's working today and maybe what could we try to kind of scale up? So, they may have some sort of affiliate program or referral program that's doing well, but they don't have all the processes kind of worked out. So that could be something. It could be that the website is getting a lot of traffic but it's not converting well. So, we're going to kind of look at their design you know, the design aspects of that. Maybe try to run some split tests. It does, you know, it does really depend with each company with marketing in general, starting from scratch, it's just kind of a painful process. And it also often doesn't align with client's expectations for results because it just takes a lot more time than they're kind of expecting. But if you can take something that's kind of already working in and get a 10 or 20% lift or something like that people are going to kind of respond to that. So that's, that's always where we look first.

Josh: That's awesome. I would say I was always curious about that because I know for us, we try to come in and just fix their Facebook ads right off the bat. And when I first started in the marketing space and honestly, for some companies, that's not the easiest way for them to get business. It's not even the most or the most cost effective, I guess you could say. So that's really cool, man. Well, so let our listeners know where they can reach out to you guys and how they can get in contact with you?
David: Absolutely. So, as you mentioned Shortlist.io is my on agency we call it in my email address is dave@shortlist.io. I'm not particularly active on social media. So, I'm really just an email guy.

Josh: I love that. Is that funny? Most of us marketers. I freaking hate social media that I love reaching out to people, the old school ways.

David: Old school way. If I could do pen and paper effectively, like are probably would but I can't. So, it's just all email.

Josh: I could be typing my notes here, but I always write it by hand. I know how it goes. That's awesome, Dave. Well, awesome. Before we leave though, give us one last parting piece of guidance?

David: Yeah. One last parting, piece of guidance wise. I suspect you know, if this episode goes live anytime soon probably people are thinking about COVID and then everything that's kind of going on. My own personal kind of opinion is I feel like you know, it's maybe not the best time or the easiest time right now but if we can kind of power through it and stay a little defensive. Again, on the other side, you'll actually end up better off because unfortunately, you know, not everybody will, there'll be less competition and stuff like that. So, stay positive, stay optimistic, just keep working on whatever you can kind of handle at the time. Be kind to yourself and good luck.

Josh: I love that Dave. Yeah, stay optimistic. That's honestly, probably the best advice you could get at this point is things are going to turn back up. So, Dave, thanks so much for coming on the show today, man.

David: Thank you Josh, for having me.

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