This is the first interview for a new series here at DevGrow aimed at learning from multi-talented developers, designers and entrepreneurs on the road to success.
I first came across Jon's work a few years ago, when he made a big splash in the design community with the release of SweetCron, an open source life-streaming platform. Since then, he's successfully sold his first startup and is now working on two new products - a Twitter marketing app (Peashoot) and a simple survey tool (Seashell).
Prior to your current ventures, you were able to create a startup that was featured in TIME Magazine's Top 50 Websites of 2008 and was eventually acquired. Can you briefly tell us about how you got to that level and what the eventual acquisition meant for you?
Like most startup successes (large or small) I think you need a combination of skill, determination and... luck! :)
I started Open Source Food (now known as Nibbledish) as a hobby project because I love to cook. That was important, as it kept me motivated and it also meant I had a community around me who were interested in the project. Having people around you who can help you spread the word in a genuine way is invaluable. For sites like that, word of mouth marketing is key - it's just not cost-effective to acquire users by traditional means e.g. SEM, advertising etc.
It grew organically to tens of thousands of members and was comfortably doing around 5-figures in AdSense per year. The site appeared all over Google since people google recipes all the time. It was by no means a massive success, but it was certainly satisfying to see for a 1-man hobby project, and it was a solid enough base for a larger company / team to take and improve upon. That's what happened in January 2009. The deal was a multiple of revenue (i.e. not a billion dollar deal!) and gave me some peace of mind, allowing me to spend time figuring out where I wanted to take my life next! :)
From what I remember, the parent company of Open Source Food was Egg & Co. - what led you to start your current company, Curious Forest?
I moved the administrative base of the company to Singapore (as opposed to Japan) and used that as an opportunity to start something "different". In early 2009 I started to want to experiment with the idea of earning revenue directly from customers (like 37signals has always done), as opposed to earning ad revenue from advertisers. So in other words, building premium web apps. It's a model that has now matured to the point where it's almost synonymous with "startup", in 2010. Nowadays charging users is the norm! :)
Curious Forest currently offers two very different products, Peashoot and Seashell - can you tell us a little about them?
Actually I like to think they are related! :) They both have a marketing theme, as that's what I'm most interested in these days. Peashoot is a marketing kit for Twitter and Seashell is a poll and surveys app.
Your first startup had a revenue model based on advertising - what made you switch to the subscription models found on Peashoot and Seashell?
I saw it as a new challenge with a whole new set of skills to learn. Demonstrating value, extracting actionable metrics, upselling, getting people to open their wallets - it's a different world with a different approach to the consumer internet world where everything is free and all you really care about is eyeballs, such as recipe sharing websites!
Can you give us some insight into your work flow and developmental process? What roles do you usually take on when building a product?
I take on all roles to prototype and get the first version of the product out of the door. Launching early and iterating constantly is how I like to work. I don't wait until everything is perfect and I don't do the "big public launch" anymore. After this, I let other people take on certain responsibilities such as with illustration, marketing etc. But the core of the software is always built by me and the base interface is always designed by me.
I also very rarely "design" in Photoshop. I design directly into HTML and CSS, only opening Photoshop to create graphic elements such as gradients, logos, backgrounds etc. I find this is the quickest way for me to work and produces the best results. You need to be able to interact with your app or site as you prototype it, not let it sit in a photoshop file until it's time to HTML-ify it, at which point you might realise that half of it just doesn't "feel" right when you start clicking around.
What made you choose CodeIgniter for your startups over the many other frameworks (both for PHP and other languages) and have you been happy with that decision?
Probably like many people who are thinking of diving into using a framework, before I started using CodeIgniter I didn't really understand the MVC format. Thanks to CodeIgniter's excellent and beautiful documentation, I was able to understand it and soon I was building my first app. I think it was that ability to get started so quickly that really gave me an affinity for the framework.
As my knowledge of PHP and the infrastructure side of web development grew, I then realised that CodeIgniter was also really efficient and fast, too. I've been using it ever since.
What do you do to market your products and build your initial userbase? Do you have any tips for marketing web-based services like Peashoot?
- A small amount of CPC-based advertising. This will help you validate your market, test out landing pages and pricing etc.
- Mailing list opt-ins. Offering a freebie (such as an ebook) in exchange for an email address and then marketing to that list has proven quite effective.
- Blog reviews. I have never paid for a review and don't think I would - but the most effective marketing I have experienced was a review on a well-respected blog. It converted customers like crazy. That's was pure luck though - I could definitely work harder on cultivating relationships with good bloggers. But on a higher level the main objective here would be to create an awesome product - so awesome that lots of people write about it. That's what I hope to aim for!
- Banner advertising. I've used FusionAds before and whilst it didn't work out for me in terms of immediate ROI, it had some indirect effects in terms of awareness. Your mileage may vary.
I haven't tried affiliate plans yet, but would like to in the future.
What is the startup scene like in Tokyo? Do you think living in Tokyo has impacted the way you work and the success of your products?
I think Tokyo keeps me grounded - the startup scene here is quite "scrappy" and I think that's a good thing. Lots of people doing high quality work with not much in the way of funding. It definitely helps you stay realistic and keeps you motivated.
Do you have any final words of advice for new entrepreneurs who want to create a profitable, web-based business?
Here's something I wish someone had told me a year ago: don't think too hard about trying to create a new market. There's nothing wrong with taking an idea and improving upon it in your own way, and aiming to have a slice of an existing market.
I think one of my mistakes with Peashoot was that I tried to create something too "new" that I wasn't sure whether people really needed or not. It currently has a few hundred customers, but I feel that because this is a category of app that didn't really exist before (Twitter sales tracking), there is too much of a customer education hurdle and ultimately, the size of the market is limited. I don't think it's something that I could grow to say, 10,000 customers. However, it is profitable and I will continue to improve and support it!
Learning from the above, I recently launched Seashell, which I feel has bigger market potential. It's an existing category of web service (polls & surveys) but I have the opportunity to offer my own twist and improve on the product that other companies have. One of the leading companies, SurveyMonkey, has grown to $45 million in annual revenue. If I can even tap 1% of the overall market, I'll be very happy :)
Big Thanks to Jon Yongfook Cockle!
Thanks again to Jon for participating in this interview and helping shed some light into your inspirational work! I wish you the best of luck with your apps and look forward to watching them grow even more.
This is the first time I've interviewed someone for a blog - I would appreciate any feedback on how it was, if it was useful and what you'd like to see differently. Were the questions appropriate? What else would you like to see asked? Please leave a comment if you can. Thanks!