Dr. Rita Baranwal served as the Assistant Secretary for the Office of Nuclear Energy in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).
Dr. Baranwal led the office’s efforts to promote research and development on existing and advanced nuclear technologies that sustain the existing U.S. fleet of nuclear reactors, enable the deployment of advanced nuclear energy systems, and enhance the U.S.A.'s global commercial nuclear energy competitiveness.
Dr. Baranwal previously directed the Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) initiative at Idaho National Laboratory and served as Chief Nuclear Officer at ESRI. She is currently the CTO at Westinghouse.
In this episode, Aaron and Rita discuss how a nuclear reactor works, how nuclear energy is part of an energy solution, and why she dedicated her life to this technology.
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Watson: We need to start at the really kind of ground floor level and work our way up so we can get into some interesting conversations here but the starting point is the basics of how a nuclear power plant works. I think that, you know, people turn their lights on, and it's often not necessarily powered by nuclear energy, but they take for granted whether it's coal or natural gas or solar or renewables or whatever. The thing may be powering that if a nuclear power plant is behind that what's going on. What's happening.
Baranwal: Okay. So the way a nuclear power plant works in a nutshell is you have uranium fuel that fissions and creates heat. That heat is used to create steam. So the way a nuclear power plant works is in a nutshell, you have uranium fuel and it creates a fission reaction. And that vision reaction creates heat. That heat in turn is used to heat up water. That water is heated to steam and that steam in turn turns, turbine blades, and that turbine blade activity then is converted to electricity. So really nuclear power is a heat source. That's used to create steam. That's used to create electricity
Watson: And in general power across the board is that idea that we need to heat something up so that a turbine can be turned. And that's where the power is generated the differences. Where is that heat coming from and what are the costs that we pay for that heat? So very conventionally you know, you're consuming media in some way, shape or form you think about burning coal. You think about some of these other ways we do it. There's this carbon that's emitted into the atmosphere and we've all sorts of expectations about the potential ramifications of that. No carbon basically whatsoever when nuclear is being burned.
Baranwal: Exactly. Nuclear energy has always been a clean energy source. It has not been a carbon emitting source and really it's very important as states in the us and countries around the world. Move forward to. Achieving their decarbonisation targets and their clean energy targets to include nuclear energy as one of those facets in that portfolio, because it's always been a clean energy source
Watson: And the basic, you know, the other side, the risk factor that people perceive it. And there's one of the elements is people, you know, from an environmentalist standpoint, they see something like Chernobyl and they say, wow, there's like a whole part of the environment that's somewhat unlivable or has like lasting damage to it. There seems to be this gap between we don't want to emit carbon in the environment. So therefore solar, so therefore wind and nuclear sometimes doesn't necessarily get allocated into that same realm. Is it really attributable to its kind of history being used as a weapon that, that causes that? Or what's your perception as someone who's been in the field of nuclear for such a long time?
Baranwal: I think that that perception is changing. So, so that's a good thing, but I think some of the perhaps preconceived notions are based on what folks are familiar with. So I'm really appreciative to have this chance to chat with you and talk about what the benefits are. And we can go into more detail on what those are, but. Since those accidents. Let's talk about Chernobyl. Let's talk about Fukushima and three mile island. Yep. Many, many lessons have been learned. Technology has been substantially improved and regulations have been strengthened and tightened. So. In today's technology, today's commercial operating power plants. Some of those accidents could never even occur. So while yes, those, those accidents were tragic. Some were due to technology. Others were due to human error and. Those lessons have been learned internalized and technology has been,
Watson: Can you give some examples of that? Cause one of the things is I was doing my research was the concept of a nuclear reactor being walkaway safe, which means everyone walks off the job tomorrow. headed down this dangerous route of catastrophe, but basically for lack of a better analogy in my mind, it's like a very small campfire on the ground with a few embers and more likely than not. It's just going to kind of fizzle out because there's no ready fuel to kind of continue to perpetuate
Baranwal: So technology that is walk away safe is designed with passive safety features in mind. In the very unlikely event that something like that happens, you, you can walk away. And some of these designs are, for example, they have a 72 hour window where within 72 hours, everything will be shut down. In PR per the design, right? No human interaction, no human intervention and intervention is needed. No operator intervention is needed. And so those are some of the lessons that have been applied. The technology advances that have been applied to existing power plants and new reactor designs.
Watson: Got it. Can you just talk about where the current state of things is like, like w you know, in the us or internationally, wherever your kind of purview is.You talked about it being something here in Western Pennsylvania, where people getting it, where people know where close to getting it. And what are the trajectories in terms of more reactors are coming online versus summer being shut down and taken offline.
Baranwal: Ok, let's talk about the U S in the United States, nuclear power is responsible for 55% of this country is clean energy. But it's only responsible for generating 20% of its electricity. So you're getting a lot of clean energy bang for the buck, right? We are holding steady in the U S at about 20% of our electricity coming from nuclear. We have two new plants that are being constructed, almost ready to come online. Those are Vogel 3 and 4 in the state of Georgia. Around the world, the construction of new power plants, it has experienced such an uptick that the US frankly is probably falling behind with respect to construction of new power. The interest from countries around the world in a constructing new nuclear is that they do appreciate that it's a clean energy source that they do need to decarbonize their electricity portfolio.And many of them are looking to the other benefits that can be offered from nuclear power plants, such as generating clean hydrogen, such as desalinating water, such as providing high that. To the transportation sector to help decarbonize that very, very currently pretty carbon, carbon heavy industry that should also be department.
Watson: And in terms of the business model of a nuclear plant, my understanding is that it's very expensive to build relative to other power plants of other kind of energy types, but on the back end, the long tail of a nuclear power facility. It doesn't need to have the same types of costs because of just a different input ratio. So can you kind of talk through that, maybe contextualize that versus other types of plants?
Baranwal: Sure. So let's kind of frame it as we're talking about larger 1000 megawatt size plants, right? That's that's generally the average size of an existing power plant these days. They are expensive to build, but they last, some are licensed for 40 years, but they can easily get there license extended for 20 years and an additional 20 years. So in the United States, there are some plants that are going for a second license extension to allow their plants to safely operate for 80 total years. That's a pretty good investment when you, when you look at what needs to be put in upfront, and then you have this, this power generation source for, for 80 years. So there's that piece of it. The cheapest way to decarbonize any society is to keep existing power plants online. Those are already sunk costs. They're already generating clean electricity, clean energy, and. W we'll probably get to it, but you will see some plants around the world. And even in the U S shutting down in the U S the Mo most of the recent shutdowns have been for economic and political reasons, not technological reasons.
Watson: So there are some of those political reasons that maybe this is like a, just very cynical, jaded take, if I'm in say oil and gas or I'm in some of the other renewables, I would love to have more of the grid be my energy source that I'm economically tired. Versus another, is it, is it that reductive or are there other factors at play when it comes to the political headwinds against nuclear?
Baranwal: There’s a little bit of that just as you described. And then, there's this also push from certain pockets of constituencies, right? They want more renewables and, and our decision-makers will certainly listen to their constituents. And so that's why it is important for us to have these types of conversations to say nuclear doesn't have to, it's not, I'm not saying it has to be a hundred percent of the solution, but it needs to be. A sliver of that solution. And the reason is that there have been studies after studies that have shown, even if we were to take fossil off the table, which I don't think is realistic in the short term. Or you have carbon capture, for example, let's leave all of that on the table. You set up. The rest of that with as much renewables as you can, there's still about a 20% slice that's left. That needs to be fulfilled, that can be filled with nuclear and it should be
Watson: And even in that world of ex exclusive renewables, you need a lot of batteries in order. Happened just to store it through, you know, with sunlight, sunlight's only up for a portion of the day. Wind is intermittent. And if you're going to be able to continue to power things and you batteries, which are not exactly the most carbon neutral.
Baranwal: Commodity out there, they're definitely not carbon neutral. They're definitely not inexpensive. And we can. A bit more about you know, what it takes to develop those batteries, how expensive it is. The mining operations that go into the critical minerals that are going to be needed to fabricate those, those said batteries, but let's also talk about the footprint, right? The physical. Print that is needed for a nuclear power plant is much smaller than that. That's required for a wind farm or for solar. So for example, wind farm requires 360 times the landmass, the land area, sorry, the land area to produce the same amount of electricity as a nuclear power plant and solar photo take plants require 75 times more space. Land is at a premium in most parts of the world. So that also needs to be considered while, while. The hearts and minds of folks might be, yes, we want to push renewables. You also have to consider the value of the real estate that's going to be needed in the impact of the communities around, around the solar farms and wind farms, et cetera. Gotcha.
Watson: So we've talked a little bit about these kind of like big almost like regional powering type of plants, but another thing that. 99% over my head, but I've heard the buzzword for it. These mini nuclear reactors, can you talk about the differences, like what, what that entails and then what that could potentially unlock that other forms of energy generation wouldn't necessarily be able to do?
Baranwal: Sure. So let me categorize it first. So we've got the micro reactors, which are generally speaking about 20 megawatts or something. Okay, then you have small modular reactors, which are 300 megawatts or smaller. And then we have the traditional larger 1000 megawatts or so sized reactors. So the micro reactors are the smallest of the ones that we're talking about right now. The niche markets that these smaller reactors, the micro reactors can serve, include portability. So then you start to think about, oh, well, can the military use them in terms of helping support operating basis?
Watson: And they have with nuclear submarines for decades too, right?
Baranwal: Absolutely. So I started my career at Bettis atomic power laboratory here in Pittsburgh and nuclear power has been used in our U S Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines for decades
Watson: Without like any sort of major knock on wood here, but like any sort of major issue in any
Baranwal: way, shape or form, correct. Safely powering tens of thousands of miles of. US Navy activity.
Watson: Got it. But there's other forms of transportation. So what are just some of the implications of, okay. You know, we could think of large ships medium sized ships, cruise ships, I guess, in different forms. What are some of the other applications of something like that for Micro?
Baranwal: So for micro reactors the, the, some of the. More near-term applications include helping power island and communities or remote communities. So in the U S let's think about Alaska. Diesel is very expensive to truck in and out, right? If you have a micro reactor, that's powering the community costs costs for for the fuel that's needed for electricity generation goes down. Let's talk about Puerto Rico, where you you want a reliable energy source that can withstand. Climate events and nuclear can do that. Nuclear power is resilient. It's reliable. It's always on, it can be tapered back. If you want to supplement you know, your portfolio with solar with wind, with hydro. It plays well with others as a kind of reductive framework
Watson:. So once again, I'm like coming at it from this kind of very newbie mind, but I think a lot about allocations of a portfolio in a, in a finance context. So, you know, you want some bonds, you want some equities I'd argue on some crypto. You want some real estate, you want some other entities in there. And to me, the notion of we've got this one specific play that like you said, has. Hi, upfront cost, very low long-term costs and very basically no kind of carbon release seems like an absolute no-brainer in the context of a larger portfolio, but that's a very kind of reductive view. You have literally dedicated your life to this technology. And just like in past conversations, when I, when I meet someone who's in those shoes, I'm really curious about the origin stories of that one. When did the light bulb come on? When, when did you decide, man, this is really something that you know, years and years of work would be worthy of setting a goal for.
Baranwal: Okay. So it starts back when I was looking for my first job out of graduate school. All of my degrees are in material science and engineering. I am not a nuclear engineer by degree. But my first. Opportunity was at Bedus Tomich power laboratory. And what really enamored me was the high-tech laboratory equipment that I would be able to use if I went to work there. So it was really the innovation aspect of the field. And once I was there really got to work on exciting work and develop new technology for the U S Navy's aircraft carriers and submarines. But what sort of was my aha moment, if you will, was when I got to take a van full of summer interns down to Newport news shipyard to watch ships being built, aircraft carriers, being built, separate submarines, being built. And that year we had the opportunity to stand inside the Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, as it was being constructed. And I stood inside where the nuclear reactor was going to go. So the reactor compartment area, and I looked up several floors and I realized that thing that I'm working on back in this little lab in Pittsburgh, the little thing that I'm working on, the fuel powers, this behemoth of to help defend our country. Yeah. So the energy density of uranium that is leveraged to create nuclear power was, was turning point. number one for me,
Watson: Can you, could just contextualize that real quick, just like, you know, I don't know if it's cubic feed or how you would quantify that versus say like the tank of a, you know, an oil rig or something like that.
Baranwal: Oh my goodness. Fuel in commercial reactors is the size of a like a pencil eraser on a pencil, right? So it stacked up into, into rods. And then those rods are put into an assembly and you have several assemblies, a few hundred assemblies in a nuclear power plant. So every about 18, one-third of the fuel assemblies are removed re repositioned to optimize the heat output and eventually taken out and considered as, as useful.
And we can go down that road in a moment. So, so turning point number one was, was when I visited the, the shipyard. What has kept me in this field is the fact that nuclear power is a clean energy source. I'm a mother of two teenagers, and I sincerely want them to inherit a world that is cleaner than what we have today. And I know that my work and my career in the nuclear industry will help them inherit a world that is cleaner than it is.
Watson: And so contextualize that from a global view, we talked about the U S here a bit are there specific, you know, countries, geographies that do nuclear relatively well, because like you said, we could fix this all. I know that there's these international kind of climate agreements, but we could fix this all say in one country, but then if on the other side of the country of the globe, they're just spouting out coal that's. Not even canceled itself out, that's still going to be a huge problem. So, so what does that look like? Like an international field.
Baranwal: Yeah. Internationally, there are countries that have existing nuclear that are continuing to build out and increase their nuclear portfolio. Unfortunately we also have countries like Germany that have. Decided that they, they want no nuclear in their portfolio and they're shutting down plants. So at the end of last month new Germany shut down three of their nuclear power plants.
Watson: Prematurely, is that all political from your constituency is saying that that's not something that we're interested
Baranwal: In Germany I believe it was. Wow. Yeah. Yeah. So
Watson: I know. So, so unfortunately one of the other things that's in the news is that kind of a political unrest in Kazakhstan, and that is a major location for uranium mining. Is there a kind of a connection there where, you know, I would imagine not that the Kazaks have a particularly out-sized role in terms of effecting international kind of energy policies, but I have to. In areas where uranium would be mined, there would be a kind of connection to optimism or kind of the proliferation of nuclear power as a specific source. Is there, is that, is that seeing the board correctly or not so much?
Baranwal: It's there, there's definitely a uranium source, so well done on doing your homework. And there is some tension right now in terms of what's going on there and what's going to happen with the uranium market, but the beauty of nuclear power in terms of the commercial aspects of it is that you can store your fuel. And you can have that supply at the ready. And so we are not at the whims of the immediate turn of tides of, of politics or, you know, unrest in countries. So that's one aspect of it. The other, is that just because you have a. Country in this case, that is a critical, crucial source in the nuclear supply chain does not necessarily mean that they are also a user of said critic critical or crucial resource. Russia and China are both. Big players in the nuclear power plant arena. They are the two countries that are developing and constructing new plants as well. Certainly leaving the U S in their, in their dust. India is another player. There are many countries around the world that are, like I said, continuing to expand their nuclear portfolio. But to me what's really, really exciting is the countries that are now exploring, deploying new nuclear. They're new to nuclear. They've never had it, but they realize the benefits of it. And they want to have nuclear power as part of their electricity portfolio. And then you've you expand to. Yeah, desalinating water. And possibly even de-carbonizing the transportation sector to helping those areas as well.
Watson: So one of the other points there is if you build up a nuclear power industry and you're able to provide not just cleaner power to the grid, but potentially more at an effective cost, what we're really talking about is more energy per person being able to be used. And that's kind of an underrated part of the just macro. Energy store, I'm sorry. The macro economic story of emerging from poverty, it takes power to cook your food. It takes power to heat your home. It takes power for all these things that, you know, when people in a developed world probably take for granted. But that's really part of the appeal, as you're saying in, in these places that are maybe new to nuclear, but even just the proliferation of like you're saying remote areas, whether that be in a desert or some of these other areas that would struggle to have. A consistent connection to the grid in some way, shape or form.
Baranwal: Right. You may not have the ability to even extend the power out to a remote area or to develop a robust grid in a certain area. So what you're touching on is a little bit of what energy justice starts to talk about and address it. It is very, very, I think, important to our industry to make sure that we consider elevating communities to a quality of life that we all deserved. And you're right. That us in a developed country can very much take that for granted. And we will bemoan if our lights went out for even 30 minutes, right. There are. Communities and, and parts of countries that go four days without power on a regular basis. And so nuclear power is just one reliable source that could be deployed. And especially if we went back to that micro reactor conversation or an SMR where you can start to positively impact a community that may not have that access to reliable 24 7
Watson: So an example like this interview, I would say is like me doing a very, very, very small part to contribute to that type of move and in a general way, but getting back to you and your kind of career arc and the commitment to this technology. One of the expressions of that was working as the assistant secretary in the office of nuclear energy at the U S department of energy. That is a mouthful. I did practice that before the interview. But from, from sitting at. Position in particular, so that in one seat, you're the engineer actually, you know, constructing and iterating upon the design for its implementation. And then I have to imagine something there it's much more playing political games, understanding, you know, regulatory policy, making decisions that enable this to be unlocked. What did you learn from sitting in that position about what the. Roadblocks are to this being implemented more widely.
Baranwal: There is a lot of policy decision-making that goes on. I would say limited voices in the room. So it is really important to make our voices heard. So not only as a policy maker, but more importantly, I would say, as a constituent the squeaky wheel really does get the grease. And so if there is a group of folks that go and talk to their Congressman or Congresswoman wanting X, Y, or Z, Sometimes that's what it takes for a change to come to fruition. And really, what was most surprising to me was oftentimes when a nuclear energy decision was being made, I was the only. Voice in the room with that technical depth to contribute to that conversation. So being present, being represented is really, really important. And so, you know, my challenge to the audience would be make your voices known, make your opinions known now more than ever today, more than ever. It is so easy to do so you don't have to go and walk into a staffer's office on Capitol hill. You can tweet it. You, you can text it whatever way you would like, but interacting with those folks with your representatives really, really does make a difference. In my role, I was able to, to interact with representatives and Senate and senators that were on the decision-making committee. And tell them what our priorities were for my office, for the office of nuclear energy. But then there, I also had to help represent all of the, for example, the technology developers in the United States or the commercial entities in the United States that work in the nuclear industry. And we, we did achieve a lot of really good things during my time there.
Watson: What are some of the ones you're most?
Baranwal: So the one I'll focus on one, the one that I'm most excited about is the launching of what's called the advanced reactor development program. It's a very large funding program where in we, we challenged developers to apply for funding, using a concept that they could deploy in five to seven years, a new reactor concept that they could deploy in five to seven years. And. So pleasantly surprising to me was we had numerous applications from numerous different technology sizes. We talked about the different sizes, but also technology classes. So we have, I talked about how the fission reaction heats water. Steam to generate the turbine. There are other technologies where the fission reaction actually heats liquid sodium liquid led it can heat molten salt, or can heat a gas. So there's different technologies. Each of them has their own benefit. Some of them, for example, are that you don't have a pressurized system, like you might in, in many of today's existing technologies. So it makes it even safer than today's technologies. And today's technology is today's technology is very safe. So to be able to launch that advanced reactor development program. To challenge our community, our nuclear industry community, to act with a sense of urgency, to be able to deploy new nuclear in variety of sizes for RD of technology classes, to help suit a community, a state, a country's needs is, is one of my most exciting achievements, five to seven years.
Watson: Just to contextualize that versus what was because like you're saying that like, man, that's really fast, but for many outsiders, they don't necessarily know. It was in terms of shortening the window for these types of approvals and implementations.
Baranwal: Right. It's it can be decades long. Yeah. So we are really challenging, not only the developers, but arm-in-arm were, we are also asking the regulatory authority. So in this case, in the U S it's the nuclear regulatory commission, we're also putting the challenge out to them saying you will be. Accepting you'll or you'll be seeing new designs that are going to be at requesting you and RC to review and hopefully approve these designs in a much shorter timeframe because their deployment plan is also much shorter. Now I want to be clear the NRCS first and foremost mission is to ensure the safety of the public. So they will never. Accelerate anything just for the sake of accelerating.
Watson: It’s an inherently conservative organization, because it's all about risk mitigation, risk management, just any organization, whether you're an insurance company or a regulatory body, when you're about risk reduction, you're always gonna have. Move in that type of way, right?
Baranwal: It is a very, it's a, I say we're a stodgy industry, but yes, we a very conservative industry and the regulatory bodies first and foremost objective, their mission is to protect the safety of the public that said we have in the U S the regulatory authority that is also looking to modernize. They understand that everything has to evolve. And what worked for the NRC 30 years. It's different than what would work today. Yeah.
Watson: Back to the context of the United States, you referenced two nuclear power plants that were coming online in Georgia. We talked about one, that's located here in Pennsylvania. I've got an uncle in upstate New York who works in a nuclear power facility. And. One of the kind of premises of the Federalist system is that you have state by state experimentation. We've covered that in the past here in the context of autonomous vehicles and the streets of Pittsburgh, you know, hosting Uber and Argo, AI and Aurora and all them. What is, so where's the delineation there? Cause you're talking a lot about federal kind of policy and regulatory bodies, but also like, are there states that have kind of. Tried to tend them the direction of being those zones for nuclear friendly regulatory subsidy type of bodies,
Baranwal: With respect to, to nuclear the regulatory Framework is federal. Okay. And so what applies to a plant in Illinois applies to a plant in Pennsylvania and they actually have site inspectors that are considered resident site inspectors. So they reside at each of the power plants in the United States. So you really can't the rules, the same rules apply to all of the plants in the United States. Let's put it that way. Where things differ has to do with how the markets are handled. So there's a deregulated market and there's a regulated market. The regulated markets, the, the rate payers will take on the burden of the costs, whatever they might be, they're distributed and I'm not privy and, or well-versed on how that works, but it's. It's a less taxing environment for the utilities in a, in a regulated environment, in a deregulated environment, it is very much a capitalistic. And those are the markets where we're seeing some plants shut down prematurely or, or claim to be. Beyond the bubble tip for premature shutdown, just because of financial considerations. One of the cost of natural gas was so low. It, it, on paper, it looked like nuclear was not cost competitive.
Watson: Got it. And maybe this is me kind of being too pie in the sky, but from a geopolitical standpoint, you've referenced Russia and you've referenced China, which are in the great global game competitors with the United States. And so I have to imagine that in the. Spectrum of what you would want a competitor to either be doing or not doing to me, like my view is it would behoove a competitor for us to fall behind in something like nuclear. When they're saying we have this capacity for. Highly portable. Very low carbon, maybe carbons, not so much in like the competitive sense, but you know, very long-term cost efficient sources of capital to all sorts of remote applications. Does that track with you, like in terms of the, that the nuclear competition game at a geopolitical level?
Baranwal: It does and, and part of why we're seeing. So when I'm talking about, when I was at DIA, we, we would see interest from other countries in us. Technology was because they understood the geopolitical. Ties that might come with non U S technology. Let's put it that way. I'm not going to call anyone out. Right. But they appreciated the trustworthiness, the transparency and the technology that these us technology developers could provide to them. And that's why they were being considered. And we have the technology here.
Watson: That's also part of the gap that. Is w you know, we're falling behind some of these other entities in terms of the implementation of nuclear, but in terms of like, what's coming out of an academic institution I'm going to butcher these, but like you mentioned, like liquid led, led, you know, molten, salt, some of these other entities that could be heat up to spin the turbine. Like we're at the cutting edge in terms of developing those things. It's about actually getting it from the research paper, from the kind of concept into practical.
Baranwal: Right. The technologies, those, those advanced, what we're calling advanced technologies are not advanced. They were invented decades ago. The reason why the time is right to deploy them now in new nuclear technology and new nuclear plants is. All the ancillary ancillary advances that have come about. So you've got remote sensing, you've got modeling and simulation tools. You have advances in materials that are now not going to corrode. Like they might have 30, 40 years ago. You have all of the wireless technology that can be implemented in a plant. You have. Digital digitization that can be implemented in a plant as well. So all of those ancillary advances, which I don't want to minimize because they are very, very important are really, what's helping propel the heart of these advanced reactor technologies and is, is making it right for them to be deployed in this time.
Watson: Got it. So as we aim towards wrapping up the conversation here, Rita, I want to kind of come back to that kind of career arc story. And just as you're thinking about applying leverage to this problem, there's a, there's a nice kind of reality that as you establish yourself, your options and your kind of choices become less about like, what is like the, you know, the job that gets me my foot in the door, but now you have a reputation. You have a standing within the field of nuclear and I can go. Maximize that impact. How are you thinking about the high leverage places to push similar to the policies that you rolled out when you at DOE
Baranwal: My focus is on moving with the sense of urgency. We are, you, you touched on it. We're conservative industry. We are slow to embrace change. And we are a very risk averse industry. All of that can still be true. But when you look at what is happening worldwide, you look at all of the devastating climate events that have happened just in the past year, right? Past 12 months, you look at what decarbonization targets are out there for, for countries that are, are whose populations are suffering. We as an industry need to move with a sense of urgency. And that's where my focus is, is to push this community, which the, the nuclear industry really isn't that big. So it pushed this small community to move faster and to do so certainly in a conservative manner, but also to take calculated risks. And all along the way, every step of the way where we're the only sector of the energy industry, that's fully regulated from cradle to grave. And so it's no corners will be cut in this push, but it's to get folks out of their comfort zone a bit and just say, well, just because it took you five years last time doesn't mean it can't take you. Let's let's shoot for two and a half years this time. And that was the goal behind the advanced reactor development program. And that's really where my focus is going forward to beautiful.
Watson: I want to aim towards wrapping up before I ask the standard last questions. Anything else that you were hoping to share today that I just didn't give you a chance to?
Baranwal: We, we talked a little bit about use fuel. One thing I wanted to share was that fuel in a commercial. Come in a commercial power plant once it's considered used has actually only been used 5%. Wow. And so it still has 95% of its utility left in it essentially. And so, you know, I want folks to, to appreciate that we're really talking about. Almost new and box kind of fuel when it is actually considered used and is put into storage in the U S at the moment, it's put into dry storage casks for storage on site at the moment. And it's safely stored and has been for many, many years and can continue to be stored onsite safely for the entire life of the plant. Even if that life of plant goes out to 80 years.
Watson: Gotcha. Is there the potential for this rod with 95% of its capacity left in it? Is that the potential in like some sort of reduced capacity to also be reutilized or is that not necessarily optimal?
Baranwal: Oh, it absolutely could be reutilized it could be recycled. And in other parts of the world fuel like that is recycled and in the United States at the moment, it's just not a position or, or a policy to, to recycle.
Watson: Interesting. Well, that sounds like it needs to change. Awesome. Well, this has been fantastic. I want to make sure that people can follow along with your career and the stuff that you're up to. What digital coordinates can we provide people if they want to. LinkedIn, sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't prep you on this. Usually, usually this is usually, this is where we like promote the like company websites, stuff like that, but we're not gonna do that. So I would just say, if you want to share your LinkedIn, if you want to share any other kind of like relevant, just digital links where someone could
Baranwal: Just like my Twitter handle.
Watson: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly it. Okay. All right. What digital coordinates can we provide for people that want to learn more?
Baranwal: My Twitter handle is @RitaB66, and I I'm also on LinkedIn. So you can connect with me there.
Watson: Awesome. We're gonna link that in the show notes, going deeper there and.com/podcast is the place to find it for every single episode of the show or in the app. We are probably listening to this right now, but before I let you go, Rita, I would like you to, it sounds like reiterate your personal challenge for the audience.
Baranwal: So a challenge would be to. Make sure that you are talking with your representatives in the United States and your I guess, political leaders around the world to ensure that they understand that you want nuclear power to be part of your energy portfolio. The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Watson: I love it. Something from all my understanding that I am certainly in favor of. I have not done the requisite research to, to match yours, but it does seem like a, it holds an immense amount of promise in both the energy independence conversation and in the decarbonization conversation as well, which, you know, from the political spectrum, it really feels like those are like different ends of the spectrum in terms of people's kind of talking points and positions. The fact that you can thread a needle between those two is always something that kind of perks my ears. Rita, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast.
Baranwal: Thanks for having me, Aaron.
Watson: We just went deep with Rita Barnwell over there has a fantastic day.
Jason Yanowitz is the cofounder of Blockworks, a digital media company launched in 2018 focused on the intersection of cryptocurrency and finance.
They have experienced explosive growth as they have scaled to eight figures in annual revenue, dozens of podcasts, and a rapidly growing audience hungry to make sense of crypto.
Jason and the Blockworks team have scaled while bootstrapping (not raising any venture capital) and stair stepped from events to podcasts to a full news site and email newsletter platform.
In this episode, Jason and Aaron discuss the origins of Blockworks, the best strategy for bootstrapping a media business, and what 2022 holds for crypto.
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Jason Yanowitz (1)
Yanowitz:] Crypto is now big enough that there is something for everyone, right? If you're an artist or a creator, go launch your own NFT, go launch. If you're a musician, go create a music NFT. Uh, if you are a trader jump into one of the trading firms, if you are a builder or an engineer, come build something.
Watson: Hey, you're going to love this interview with Jason Yanowitz. The co-founder of block works in this interview, we talk about bootstrapping your way to an eight figure annual revenue, media business, the challenge of recruiting podcasting talent. And we wrap up with Jason's perspective on the 2022 crypto market. Enjoy.
Alrighty, Jason, welcome to the podcast, man. I'm excited to be talking with ya.
Yanowitz: Thanks, sir. Excited to be here.
Watson: Sometimes I try to grab the reins and explain the guests business on their behalf as a kind of jumping off point. But I know that there's kind of been some redefinition of the business over the last couple of years as is kind of par for the course for bootstrapped media businesses.
So I actually thought it'd make more sense to start with kind of in chapters, how you and your business partner and Mike have had to redefine the business as you were getting it off the ground.
Yanowitz: Yeah, I think that's a good place. I mean, I think it might be helpful. We can start right now. So right now block works is the go-to financial media brand, uh, for investors.
To understand digital assets and crypto, right? So we have the largest network of investors traditionally from the, like the kind of traditional capital markets world who are under, uh, trying to kind of either dip their toes into crypto, or they've already started allocating to crypto and they're looking to stay up to date with. Uh, with the industry, right? So we have a large news team. We have the largest podcast network in the entire industry with 15 different shows. We have one of the largest newsletters. We have a big webinar business, uh, we own and operate some of the largest conferences in crypto. So that's today. Right today we have nearly 40 employees, we've, you know, eight figures in revenue really kind of booming crypto media business. But yeah, I mean kind of like you mentioned, it was not always that way. So I I'm, I'm happy to get into the early days, the early story stories, the several pivots, the revenue falling during COVID but you, you got me here.
Watson: Yeah. So I just think it's helpful to kind of visualize what the stair-step is because one of the toughest things for outsiders to really comprehend with any business, whether it's, you know, a wholesaler or a technology company, whatever it is, you know, there's the concept of the minimum viable product.
And there's the concept of, wow, this established, like you're saying Eight figure business here. And what it's kind of full formation is. So my comprehension is that this started as the idea of potentially a consultancy, but in reality and events business, that was your initial on-ramp of revenue, then the podcast, and then this kind of like fully fledged news platform with video and some of these other elements.
And I don't know if we need to necessarily like go overly deep on each of those kinds of Lily pads. But really is, is that the optimal way to bootstrap a media company in this day and age is one of the few people that's actually done it.
Yanowitz: Yeah. I mean, I think though, so the early story is, um, I, you know, it was 2017.
I was fall, and I'd kind of gone down the crypto rabbit hole. And, um, I was living with a couple of guys that at that time in New York city, I became convinced that the business that we needed, uh, that we needed to start was a consultancy to help enterprises understand crypto. By the way, wildly wrong, horrible business for a, like, wrong on both fronts.
A, enterprise blockchain, not that real of a thing, and B consulting businesses are really, really tough businesses. It's just a grind. Um, but we got one thing, right, Which was the industry. And so linked up with. Uh, now co-founder Mike. Um, and we said, you know, let's go start this consulting firm. Mike said, great, I'm a consultant.
Now here's the one problem nobody's going to trust us? Why would anyone ever hire us? I said, okay, valid point. What should we do then? He said, let's go host an event. Um, and so that's what we did. Uh, we. I think it was like Walmart or something, or so we bought the white board for 11 bucks and basically we had one goal, which was to just bring the institutional crowd to an event right.
At that time, all of the information and crypto was very retail focused. You had like crypto Bobby on Twitter. You had like crypto Panda on Reddit. And like, I dunno, I, I was at the time working at this venture capital firm or. Uh, that I was working at a venture capital firm. And like, you tried to get these old, older, gray haired fund managers to talk about crypto and you kind of got laughed off, honestly, because you'd send them Twitter threads and Reddit links.
And so our goal was basically to just build the best place for the institutional crowd to understand crypto. We did that in one way. So the only way we knew how to do it, which was just by hosting events. Um, so yeah, I mean, block works started as an events business. Once we got that off the ground. Uh, we launched the podcast network with this guy, Anthony Papaliano. in August, 2018. Um, that really took off for those who probably know Papa on Twitter. That was a big success. Um, and since then we've launched probably 25 different shows about 15 of the 25 have worked. Um, and we did that for like two years. Honestly, it was good business. We had a big podcast network and big events business.
And it wasn't until COVID when things really took a turn. So flashback to March of 2020 business was booming. We had just had our biggest two months ever. Revenue skyrocketing team growing COVID hits. And to summarize a long story, revenue fell 80% month over month. Right Things were tough, right. It was like really, really a grind.
A lot of our revenue came from events at that point. Um, but we kind of did what anyone does during a tough time is we just went back to our customers and to our audience, I think we set up I want to say dozens, but I think it was really over a hundred calls with our customers to figure out what they needed. So we spoke with financial advisors, family offices, family offices, high net worth individuals, hedge funds, RAs venture firms, professional traders, and kind of just learned one thing, which is there still, wasn't a great source of information for investors looking at digital assets rght.
And so we looked at every piece of content in the industry. We looked at, uh, you know, podcast, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, uh, research firms, other crypto media sites, mainstream media. And yeah, we really just couldn't find one single source of information that spoke directly to the investment community about crypto.
And so, uh, I dunno, maybe eight months to figure this out. We designed a completely new website. We built a completely new website, uh, and on January 12th of 2021 last year, we launched it to the world and it's been a big success since.
Watson: And so, as you think about like just on a, on a per unit cost. I'm sure that website build was, um, uh, you, you were going as, as kinda down to the bone as possible, but it was still a consequential cost for the business to get that built out.
As you kind of look at, you know, something like, uh, like an event there's maybe. Uh, there's a, there's a rental fee potentially. Or if you, you know, can shake the right hands and make the right deal, you can get people in there at a relatively low cost. Someone who is trying to get it off the ground outside of the concept of you were dead, right.
You decided to make this investment in the real winter for crypto post 2017, kind of spike. You you, you planted the seed in the right field, but in terms of a strategy for bootstrapping, that thing off the ground is in hindsight, you say, well, I guess it worked so it was valid or there really is, you know, on a, on a per cost basis or a minimum viable, viable product basis, the right entree versus potentially starting with the website first and then eventually getting to events.
Yanowitz: I mean, I think there's two conversations there, right? And we can, we can get into both of them. One is bootstrapping, right. Should I bootstrap or should I not bootstrap? Um, and we can talk about that. And then the second one is what is the right way to build a media company in 2022.
Right. And even though we launched this a couple of years ago, we can talk about today. I think there's still a massive opportunity to go build a bunch of, uh, media businesses. Uh, as specifically niche media businesses, B2B media businesses, that will be quite successful. So just touching on the first one first, I think the, uh, the VC verse bootstrapping argument has gotten way too caught up in like good versus evil.
Right. Good versus bad to bootstrap. Um, it really just comes down to two things, right? Like what are the business goals and what am I optimizing for? Uh, and, and what should we optimizing? Uh, what should we optimize for? Right. And once you answer those, you can determine what you should do. So like, let's, let's take media, for example, when you look at media companies that have raised venture capital more often than not, they fail because media is just a collection of communities who are interested in one specific topic and like to engage with your, with that topic in a variety of ways.
And the media company is the thing, the brand that provides the, the places for the community to engage. So. When you take media, when you take venture as a media company, if you just think about the way that a venture capital firm works, where they have, let's say 10 portfolio companies, eight of the 10 are going to fail.
One might break even, and one is going to return the fund. That's a shit business model for the media company that takes venture because now the venture firm is pushing you to, uh, to get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger beyond what you probably should do. And. The most successful media companies stay niche for as long as possible.
But when you raise venture money, you get pushed to again, go bigger and bigger, which means you have to, you're forced to expand outside of your niche pretty early on. So with block works, if we had ever raised venture money, uh, we would have, you know, I'm sure our VCs would have pushed us to go into FinTech.
Right. And then they would have pushed us to go into traditional equities. And then when like GameStop and Robin hood stuff was happening, they would have pushed us to go cover that and getting, get into meme stocks. That's not- And that would have, that would have destroyed the business. Right. Because then we're competing against CNBC and Wall street journal and things like that.
So if we were building a software company, go raise a hundred million bucks right out of the gate. Right. But that's a software business for us. We, as a media company, like our goal was to get to profitability within 90 days. And so that's what we did. Right. We started selling ads and sponsorships and tickets to our events.
So. That, that was kind of the media conversation. I don't know if you want to pause there and talk about that.
Watson: Well, to kind of build off of that, one of my favorite books is called Hitmakers by Derek Thompson and he has this really good framework of what makes for a hit. And you could say. late, late 2017, early 2018 to now the success to get all the way to an eight figure business bootstrapped would qualify you guys as a hit, um, uh, amongst another, uh, a number of reasons. And my interpretation of that is he says, you know, you to be a hit, you have to have this blending of the novel and the convention. When you even hear that, that with like pop music, where, where they'll sample some past hit, that's familiar.
So there's this element of familiarity blended with the new face, the new voice, the new take, whatever the new, the new beat is tied to that. And so with you guys, um, I don't know if this is intentional, but the branding isn't drastically different from Bloomberg. Um, just in, you know, seeing the ticker, the aesthetic, the big B, not to say that you guys are exactly the same, but there's an element of familiarity there to a financial audience.
But then it's so locked in on the crypto niche in a way that, you know, maybe some, a CNBC or some of these characters at most could dip a toe in at most could kind of a partial off a little corner of their enterprise. You get to sit in that community, sit in that very specific arena and craft this very kind of effective counter positioning to the other forces out there while being easy to digest for people that come from the outside world.
That's my interpretation. Let me, let me see what you think of that.
Yanowitz: Yeah, I think that's a good interpretation. I mean, you mentioned that. Oh, you mentioned the book, right? Uh, hit makers. I think there's this concept in there called Maya, right? It's like the most, uh, the most advanced yet acceptable. And like, basically what that means is you have to kind of hit the bulls-eye between familiarity and, and futuristic where, and so for us, it was like, we're talking about these for us design was a way to feel comfortable.
So you mentioned our website, like our website. Uh, we, we got a lot of inspiration from the Wall street journal and from Bloomberg. And the reason is like, when you think about our target audience, we are talking about some, some weird stuff, right? Like sushi swap versus a unit swap and liquidity provider like automated market-makers.
And now we're talking about NFTs and let's metaverse stuff. And like, Um, it goes over most people's head, right. And that's our job to break that down and make sure it doesn't the easiest way to make it feel comfortable for folks is not pushing the boundaries on everything. Right? So we push the boundaries on content with the industry that we cover.
So that means we need to make sure that the design language and like how things feel is very, very comfortable, right. If we were covering traditional equities, It would be the, it would be flipped right? Because we'd be covering something that's very, very comfortable for folks. Uh, there's a lot of people who cover equities, we would really have to push the boundaries on what block works was and what it looked like.
And we'd go launch it down and all this futuristic stuff so that it could differentiate itself. So I think you have to pick, pick one or the other when it comes to yeah. To what you do there.
Watson: Yeah, you exactly hit the nail on the head. Cause I was thinking, you know, there's plenty of people that would want to cover crypto, but then they'd also want to structure the company as a Dow and have, you know, a community token and all these other things.
And it just becomes inaccessible with, with not enough familiarity for people to latch onto it.
Yanowitz: Yeah. I mean, I think one thing for us that helped us be successful is like we, we picked one target. Um, and we, and we picked really one thing to focus on kind of one thing to focus on every, like, I'd call it six to 12 months.
Right. So, whereas a lot of people, there were a lot of media companies that were launched in 2017. I think we're only, we're one of the only ones still left, uh, from, from our industry, at least. And everybody tried to do a lot of things, right. They launched a daily newsletter. They launched a media site with, you know, with, with a news team.
Uh, they launched an events, businesses, a business, they launched two different podcasts and they ended up failing because they stretched themselves too thin for us. It was like right out of the gate, build the best events. And you know, I've never really publicly shared this, but like we had one target, right.
It was, it was CoinDesk consensus about. When we launched the business, we officially launched may of 2018 May 10th, We hosted our event. It was like 150 person happy. A day later, CoinDesk hosted their 7,000 person consensus event. So we said target on their back. Let's build a better event than consensus.
It's taken us a couple of years, but now it's, I mean, I don't, I'm not even sure anyone attends consensus anymore. Right. And we taken a couple of years and now we have the best events in crypto. Uh, and, and then we did that again with podcasts, right? There's a bunch of different crypto podcasts out there.
Now we have the biggest crypto podcast network. And I think for us, How do you just stay as focused as humanly possible while you're in an industry that's moving. So, so, so quickly. And so for us, it was like focused on events, focused on podcasts. Don't try to cover too much. Just don't try to talk to too many people.
Don't talk to the developers at the start. Don't talk to the retail audience, just talk to capital markets. And so that, yeah, I think that was a big key.
Watson: So let's talk about bootstrapping, uh, uh, podcast network. Obviously Pompe was a really big early get for you guys, and he's just had an explosive on of success as a podcaster.
Um, but really, you know, you, you fall in this similar category or genre, at least in my mind of these modern digital brands that really lean into the individual voices that make up their ecosystem. So if I think about shows like, you know, the journal, which is the podcast that a wall street journal puts out.
I would struggle despite listening regularly to tell you who the host's name is. And yet every single bar stool show, every single, you know, character from the morning brew, every single one of these kinds of digitally native brands has the muscle built to put a ton of trust into the voice that there is that they're highlighting and attaching the kind of macro banner brand to that.
Um, and that allows for all sorts of things, whether you're launching new characters or signing new talent, uh, but just take me through how you've thought about that and what your recruit, how that recruitment has happened in order to bring all that talent under the block works banner.
Yanowitz: Yeah. I mean, so I think first off, everyone's really excited about the creator side of things, and everyone's really excited about the creator economy and things like that.
Uh, and I think people oftentimes in media, I always hear people point to the Barstool model where everyone always points to the Barstool model. It's like Barstool is the first desk. Barstool is not the first to do this right there. This goes back since the beginning of media, since there were three different channels on your television right. And like, if you look at, um, so we just look at how media works. Um, and you look at, I don't know if your audience is like a CNN or a Fox credible, like CNN it's like Wolf Blitzer and like Jake Tapper. And then on the Fox side, you've got like Gretchen Carlson and like all these big Sean Hannity. Right. These are, these are creators, right? It means-
Watson: going back and still O'Reilly was like the guy.
Yanowitz:Yeah, exactly, exactly. And so I think what we just said is like, how can we give them a platform? Uh, if you are, so we've done. Uh, you know, we did, we worked with, with Pompe for a couple of years. We're not working with Pompe anymore on the podcast.
Um, but we're working, you know, there's a bunch of different, big podcast hosts out there. They want to create content. They're really good at marketing and creating content, what they don't want to do, they don't want to send invoices. They don't want to get on sponsorship and advertising sales calls. They don't want to go create a media kit.
They don't want to go transcribe their podcasts. They don't want to go find guests. So we take care of all of that. At the beginning of block works, you know, we kind of called it a podcast in a box. Right. And we worked with folks like Ryan soukous melt them to mirrors, Joe Carlson, Scott milker, Charlie Shrem, and built podcasts with and around all of these people.
And for them, it was amazing because they could sit in front of a mic and make a half a million a year. For us. It was also amazing because it allowed us to never take venture capital money, the podcast business spit off this cashflow that allowed us to bootstrap the business. The counter to everything I'm saying is it's not an amazing business model.
It's not an amazing business model because sometimes you don't own the IP and you don't actually own the content. So the biggest focus for us moving forward, uh, we launched three shows last year. In-house podcasts. Our first in-house podcasts that are owned 100% by block works. They're operated by block works employees, uh, and they are, and that's the big focus over the next couple of years is, is bringing talent In-house continuing to provide a platform for these, uh, creators and influencers, uh, but, but kind of aligning incentives better for block works and the creators.
Watson: and really, you know, that, that brings me to two examples to mind. Um, the first is, is more abstract, which is Danny Meyer and the union square group, and all the way down to owning shake shack.
And there's this beautiful blog post about how he's created this massive vertical ladder for someone that wants to be in food, but maybe starts off as a fry cook in shake shack and can literally work their way up. Not quickly, but all the way up to working in a Michelin star restaurant as an executive chef, if they're willing to kind of put in the hours because he's stratified from, you know, the, the kind of broadest low end solution, all the way up to the kind of high-end creme de la creme and, uh, giving real legibility into your ability to climb through that ladder.
And then the media space, you've got the ringer where they have the ringer NFL show, the ringer NBA show, but if a talent and individual talent. Builds enough kind of credibility within that ecosystem. Then they get to spin out something where they probably have more economic upside and because the ringer as a platform is what was involved in the launch.
There's still that kind of upwards trajectory. Whereas in the early days, you guys need to kind of draft off of these other brands to get some momentum, but now you have the platform to be able to deliver that.
Yanowitz: Exactly. I mean, you're you hit the nail on the head. Like we leveraged other people's platforms to build our brand when nobody knew block works.
Right. When we got into crypto is like, uh, there were two media companies, it was CoinDesk and Coin Telegraph. Uh, you had like two scrappy, young twenties people who were like telling other people that there's this third media brand block works that they should care about. Who were they to listen to right. But now that we leverage, when you leverage other influencers, it really helps.
I think one of the keys though, with working with outside, like creators and influencers, if you're a media company kind of doing this is, um, what we've learned is that there's not one model, right? And so you have to, it's, it's kind of tough to scale, but I think you, when you hear on Twitter, it's like you have to give the creator 100% of the power you give the influencer a hundred percent of the power.
And oftentimes what we've learned is they don’t actually want that right. They don't want to sometimes run their own business. They don't want to run their finances and their operations. And so as a media company, there's a lot of room to run if you actually just give them a platform and you're quite flexible there.
And so we have, we've had shows that have been running for two, three years because of just our flexibility there.
Watson: Right on. So I want to switch it up here. Um, one of my favorite recent threads that you've posted, um, was how to find a job in crypto. And as many as there's, you know, we have listeners who are entrepreneurial and thinking of the next thing that they're going to start.
There's a whole lot of people that want to be in startups. They want to be in the kind of macro upward trend. Um, and maybe don't necessarily know how to do that. I actually have a couple of people close to me that are literally in the middle. I've sent them the thread because they're in the middle of some sort of career change trying to strategize that.
So what are some of the big themes that you're seeing as someone who has connections to all sorts of companies across the crypto ecosystem, um, that would make someone, you know, more appealing or just help them get their foot in the door?
Yanowitz: Yeah. I, I think I'd preface this by saying. Uh, the big thing to understand is every, every crypto company is doing phenomenally well right now, right?
The amount of capital that's been raised in, in this industry over the last 12 months is completely bonkers. It's like upwards of 20, 30 billion, I think is the. Uh, and because of this, every single company is hiring. So you, if you ask any founder, like what is your main challenge? Go ask 10 founders in crypto. What's your main challenge, including block works a 10 out of 10, again, including myself will tell you that it's finding talented people to join us. I think one of the problems with crypto is there are a lot of people who care about it, uh, because. I have like a thousand bucks in Bitcoin that doesn't necessarily mean they're talented.
So one of our problems we get, we get literally hundreds of inbounds every single day. The problem for us becomes how do you filter the noise from the signal? And so I think if you aren't getting. When everyone is hiring, like here, here are a couple of kind of tangible reasons. One is, uh, like sloppy outreach.
I'm honestly surprised Aaron, how many people just like spell her name wrong, or have typos in their emails. And that I think we can discredit like 50% of the people just from that. So you have to make your first impression sharp. Uh, the second one is kind of like rambling outreach, right? Again, we receive hundreds of inbounds for every role, write five sentences total on your background.
Why you'd be perfect for the role, experience with crypto, that's it like we get so many, seven paragraph emails. Nobody's reading that. Uh, the third is lack of crypto experience and I think people kind of misunderstand what this means. You don't need to have worked in crypto. You do need to demonstrate your crypto knowledge, right?
You don't need to have worked in crypto, but if you don't, if you haven't worked in crypto, you probably should have used unit swap or like I don't know, staked on Lido or deposited assets on all their compound right. Just to demonstrate your crypto knowledge. Um, and then I think the fourth is just like a lack of tactical experience.
Um, I think there are a lot of people who want to work in crypto. Maybe they're coming from like a non Like SAS or software or tech job, maybe they're a college grad or they're a chef or a sports coach or a teacher. Um, and for that, I'd really recommend two things. Like one is just get involved in a Dow, like any Dow, just start contributing and building a brand.
And the second is like, get on Twitter. Uh, there's this great post. I don't know if by another podcast host Patrick O'Shaughnessy. He said there's still a need for more great writing and podcasts. Right. He said, I never run out of TV to watch. Uh, because we've reached saturation there, but I always run out of great detailed writing and worthwhile podcasts.
If you're early in your career, uh, it's smart to outlearn and then out teach everyone in a niche. And right now, hands down, the number one way to get a job in crypto is by learning and teaching people in public. So that's, I don't that's take, take it for what it is, but like, I think that's a little bit of a feedback for folks who are looking to get a job in this place.
Watson: So literally last episode, we interviewed Wes Kao of Maven and, uh, of the top 10 cohort-based courses that they ran on their platform last year. I think three of them were like crypto or Web3, um, adjacent. So I think that that's also like, there's plenty of people listening, who right now, even when you said joining a Dow or, or some of those other like strategy.
That just seemed daunting and I know that there's Googling and Reddit threads to go down, but some people kind of want the kind of more curated tour. I think that, you know, being willing to make an investment like that, and I know that's not possible for a hundred percent of people is one of the gateways to do that.
Um, what do you think of that? What do think about the, about those online courses?
Yanowitz: I mean, I liked them. I just think, um, I'm trying to think of the like least, uh, prohibitive methods. And so here, here's the number one way that I would get if I was 22 or maybe later in my career, but like doing a big career transition, I wanted to work in crypto.
Here's the, here's what I do. I would go, I'd pick a hyper niche thing within crypto. Like I would pick gaming guilds. I picked gaming guilds. For example, within gaming guilds, I would find that top 50 people who write about gaming guilds, right? I'd go look at like yield Guild games and wide GG, And I'd go look at Axie Infinity, and there's all these different gaming Guilds.
The content is really, really all over the place. So it's on media, it's on Twitter. Uh, it's in like, uh, like newsletters and things like that become an aggregator of that information. So every single day, post one tweet that highlights the best or a thread that highlights the best information about gaming guilds.
Do this for 30 days in a row, right. As you're doing this, start reaching out to people who run or work in Gaming Guilds. Start meeting them, start getting acquainted with them, use their info, and then use their info in your, in your threads or on your Twitter posts. And again, I think Twitter is the best way because the entire industry lives on Twitter.
Then start writing your own, right? You've now worked on gaming guilds for 30 days in a row, aggregating all this information, write your own media posts, go write it on mirror, right? Like a crypto native medium. Uh, and honestly, I think that's the best way. So we, I mean, there are dozens of people like that who we've hired and our competitors have hired.
They have no resume. They're not on LinkedIn. They just have some, a couple of solid Twitter threads and that's they're in for an interview. And then they interview well,
Watson: Yeah, check out a Nat Eliason and crypto Raiders. If you're trying to source the, that first initial 50 lists too. He's the man.
Yanowitz: Nat was great.
Watson: So, uh, let's kinda transition here towards the back half your view. So, you, you sit at a really interesting intersection of information, being able to digest lots of news about the industry, generally access to a whole lot of thinkers. And I would actually actually, before we get into that, just a fun one.
How do you manage listening to podcasts? If you have that big of a podcast network that you're responsible for, how do you actually manage your attention and not offend the people in the network that you have listen to their show, right?
Yanowitz: I actually did really offend someone, uh, about six months ago.
Cause like I told you, I had tossed into their show in a, in a couple of months and they weren't too happy about it, but, um, I actually don't listen to as many podcasts as I should. Um, I got kind of burned out from listening to some podcasts from, I used to listen to like three podcasts a day, uh, on like 1.8 X speed.
And like, you know, I'd go on these walks and I'd do it. Listen to podcasts while I was doing other things, while cooking dinner, I got really burned out from podcasts. I've actually been listening to a lot of audio books. I will say though, that there are just podcasts. Um, I've been, instead of doing like, uh, subscribing to specific shows, I've been subscribing to different guests.
So, what I mean by this is like, there were a couple of different guests who I just, I want to listen to every single piece of content that they ever put out. Right. So like one, so like, I don't know. Um, if you're trying to like launch a fund or something, you're trying to launch a fund and like build a billion dollar fund, like instead of going and listening to a show about building funds, you should go listen to all 10 podcasts that, uh, Like, I dunno, Henry Kravis from a, from KKR has been on, right.
Or, uh, that like a fund manager that you love has been on. So I'm, I'm trying to right now to subscribe to different guests instead of subscribing to podcasts, that being said, Aaron, can I give a shout out to the empire podcast and tell people to go subscribe
Watson: 110% It is a good show. I was just listening to, uh, the recent episode that you had with multi-coin about that kind of prediction for the year, which leads into really how I kind of wanted to wrap this, uh, interview, which is just you sitting at the intersection of so much information, these podcast hosts, and it's still, you know, I think that there's a couple things out there that you can maybe pick up or kind of disagree with. One of them is that, you know, it's just a four year cycle. Every Bitcoin having that happens every four years, it's going to just kind of follow more or less the same arc and don't overthink it.
Um, you've got all these characters saying, you know, this L1, uh, I guess listeners might not necessarily know what L1 is. Ethereum's dead go to Solana. Uh, you know, Bitcoin's dead go to etehrium. Um, these type of very tribal arguments. Um, what are some of the things that you're seeing from your vantage point?
Yanowitz: Um, I think there were a couple of like narratives and trends to look at first. Like one is. Uh, just a multi chain future. There's a lot of talk about, uh, so actually I think to kind of zoom out a little bit, like what happened last year is, or what happened in 2020 is DeFi took off, right? Defi took off with compound and unit swap and defy summer.
And there were some days that this decentralized exchange called unit swap with 20 employees had more volume than Coinbase with 2000 employees. Uh, and so 2020 was the year of DeFI, 2020, 2021. A lot of the attention shifted. Uh, and then narrative shifted from DeFi to NFTs and metaverse and gaming.
Right? You had things like Facebook rebranding to meta. You had things like, um, you know, an NFT artists, people sold his art for 69 billion, a million dollars. Excuse me. Uh, and just all of these, you know, and NFT art, an open seat just raised at a $13.3 billion valuation. It just went completely crazy. I think behind the scenes, what was actually happening in crypto is a lot of the builders and kind of investors are understanding that we're moving to a multi-channel world, thanks to kind of innovations in UI UX and bridging technology.
And so there are a lot of these like. For folks, not in crypto, you can think of them like ehterium of competitors that are now starting to, uh, have entire ecosystems pop up around them. So for those who are around in 2017, you had etherium competitors. You'd like Cordato and other eith competitors not even worth mentioning what never happened is they, they never built ecosystems.
So there's never like Game's built on top of the ecosystems. There was never Defi built on top of the ecosystems. And now you have all these other ecosystems like Solana and Terra and Avalanche and Near in Cosmos and Phantom that have big DeFi ecosystems around them. Once you get a defined ecosystem, it opens up a lot of the NFTs and gaming and things like that.
So that's one big thing I'm looking at is like L1, staying hot. Dow infrastructure is a really interesting thing. Uh, like Dow tool. Dow's had a really massive year last year, but there are still a lot of core problems that need to be addressed before they go mainstream. So I think Dow infrastructure, Dow infrastructure is a big area for investment.
I think the financialization of NFTs will be interesting. Um, I think gaming's going to get quite big, uh, this year as well. And then I think the last thing is just that a lot of like the smart money investors are talking about that hasn't reached. Uh, the public narrative yet is just how important composability is.
So let's take, um, let's take like gambling, for example. Um, if you want to, uh, if you're, if you're in slack or something, or let's say you're in discord or telegram, or like a text message with a bunch of your friends, and you're talking about betting on the Patriots game, you can't do it within the app because they kind of run on different rails.
Like the app might run on. It's just like th they're very siloed applications, right? So like you're, you're texting with your friends about betting on the Patriots game. You want to bet on it. You then have to leave and go to. I don't know, I'm not a big, better, but like DraftKings or something, you go to a different app with when everything's built on crypto rails, the composability becomes seamless.
So now you have the ability to let's, let's say you had like a discord channel and you want to bet on the Patriots game with your friends, you can, that betting application can be completely embedded inside of the inside. Uh, the discord channel or like I use notion a lot to take notes and keep things organized.
I let's say I wanted to vote on, on chain governance for, for a Dow instead of leaving notion to, or the slack channel to go vote on snapshot, which is how people vote in the, on chain stuff. Uh, on governance, you could actually vote inside of the slack channel for an on chain thing because slack and notion are getting rebuilt on, on, uh, on chain.
So, I dunno, I could blabber on for a while about what I think is coming this year, but that's kind of a highlight.
Watson: So what about the effects of centralization? Because if you are one of the crypto OGs, the whole argument, particularly with Bitcoin is the notion of decentralization. We don't have some central authority that's going to, um, for political reasons or what have you make Uh, monetary policy decisions that are not behaving that the general public and the users of that money and what I see, whether it be something like Solana that just doesn't have the same kind of fundamental de-centralized nature is making that trade off for speed, or just the fact that most users are interfacing with this technology via OpenSea via Coinbase base via some of these centralizing forces.
Um, what is your perception of that?
Yanowitz: There is a long conversation we had around that, or there's a really, there's a two-sentence thing. And I I'll give you the two sentence thing. Um, right now we're at a, a middle ground, right? Where there's a lot of decentralized things that are getting almost traded on centralized things.
And this is like this is called like CFI, right? There's like define then there C5. And then there's a, these are like terminology in the, in the, in the industry. It's like DeFy is like all the JP Morgan's of the world. There's defy, which is these like completely decentralized applications. And what's ended up happening is that CFI, centralized finance is getting built out and booming, right?
Like open sea and Coinbase. And these kinds of. There's one reason for it and it's block space. Uh, so in, and you can kind of think of a, you can make the comparison to Netflix because I feel like this is a story that a lot of people know, in order to make everything decentralized and have all of these things run on DC, like on decentralized protocols, you need to open up the block space a lot.
You need, you almost need, like, you can think of it like bandwidth, right? And so the comparison to Netflix is in 2000 Netflix, Was a DVD business. Uh, their CEO Reed Hastings knew that streaming was the future. There's a really well-known story here. He knew that streaming was the future in the late nineties.
Uh, but he also just knew that bandwidth was limited. So every year he would kind of wait, wait, wait. And then finally he pulled the trigger and said, okay, bandwidth is here. Let's move to streaming and get rid of the DVD business in, you know, 20 years later, a lot of these web 3 entities. I like partially centralized I'd call it.
They're partially decentralized and partially centralized. Everybody knows in crypto knows that decentralization is the future. Everybody's working towards that goal. But the block space is limited in the same way that in 1998, uh, the bandwidth was limited. So, I mean, I think it's the goal of a lot of these founders, but at a certain point you need the technology to improve in the same way that you needed bandwidth to improve.
Watson: Got it. Yeah. It was just an interesting, interesting theme. And I think it makes sense that, uh, you can't jump all the way across the cavern in one go, you got to build a bridge to be able to get to the other side. Um, Jason, this has been fantastic. I want to aim towards asking my standard last questions.
Uh, but before I do that, anything you were hoping to share today that I didn't give you a chance.
Yanowitz: Uh, I think the main thing is just like tying it back to that, that hiring thread, like there is something in crypto. Crypto is now big enough that there is something for everyone, right? If you're an artist or a creator, go launch your own NFT gold launch.
If you're a musician, go create a music NFT. Uh, if you are a trader jump into one of the trading firms, if you are a builder or an engineer, come build something. Uh, there, the space is really big enough that A, everyone can find a path. Whether it's NFTs or metaverse or gaming or trading or finance or entrepreneurship or building companies.
Uh, and then B uh, there's a job for everyone. So whether you're a sales guy or I'm a marketer or an engineer, or a designer or a video producer, right. There's really something for everyone. So I think that's, that's my last thought tutors to. We definitely need some good recruiters to come in.
Watson: Yeah. Um, awesome. So if folks want to learn more about block works and everything that you're up to Jason, where can we point people in the digital world to learn more.
Yanowitz: Um, if, I mean, if people want to get in touch with me, I'm pretty open. My DMS are open on Twitter at Jason Janowitz. Um, our website is block works, dot co.
We have a newsletter. Um, if you subscribe to the newsletter and reply to it, I will see it and I will respond to you as well. So subscribe to the newsletter block works dot C O a and I'm on Twitter too. So hit me up.
Watson: Beautiful. We're going to link that into a podcast
Yanowitz: I also have a podcast that I want to plug, which is empire podcast.Sorry for coming on and plugging.
Watson: No, you're all good. That is literally the whole point of that question is to plug away and allow people to find other cool stuff. Empire is a good one. I am subscribed. Uh, we're going to link all that in the show notes it's available in the app. We're probably listening to this right now, or it's going deep within and.com/podcast for every single episode of the show.
But before I let you go, Jason, I would like to give you the mic one final time to issue an actionable personal challenge to the audience.
Yanowitz: Uh, my thought here as the world moves too quickly by to learn by through reading Right. The world moves far too quickly to learn by reading the key is to play the game. So go trade on unit swap, take a loan out on eBay.
Buy an NFT. Hell it doesn't even have to be crypto. Right. Go play a game on Roblox. Uh, go attend to Fortnite concert, make a video on Tik TOK. Um, I think just for the, the pessimists out there, right? The trend is your friend, your friend. Stop fighting it.
Watson: Getting in the game. I love it. Uh, this was awesome, man. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
Yanowitz: Thank you, Aaron. Enjoyed it.
Watson:We just went deep with Jason Janowitz. Hope it out. There has a fantastic day.
Hey, thanks for watching to the end of my conversation with Jason. If you enjoyed it and are looking for more crypto blockchain centric content, check out our interview with the co-founder of Odyssey slash library, Jeremy coffin. We talked about the future of decentralized media, his business model, and a whole lot more.
Wes Kao is the cofounder of Maven, the world’s first digital platform for cohort-based courses. In just one year, the Maven team launched over 100 cohorts, saw dozens of instructors make $10K, multiple made $250K+, and raised a $20m Series A from Andreesen Horowitz.
Their course creators include Anthony Pompliano, Li Jin, Sahil Lavingia, Shaan Puri, and Sahil Bloom.
Prior to starting Maven she was the co-founder of the altMBA, which launched the modern cohort-based education movement with Seth Godin. She’s led over 150 launches for Fortune 500 brands and startups, and is recognized as a leading expert in B2C marketing.
In this episode, Wes and Aaron discuss how to go from being and outside to an insider, why MOOCs fail, and how Wes got a job with Seth Godin.
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If you liked this interview, check out episode 422 with Pomp.
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Watson: All right. So, Wes, thanks for coming on the podcast. I'm excited to be talking with you.
Kao: Yeah. Really excited to be here Aaron.
Watson: So, this is pretty exciting because your, um, your business model with Maven is both something new and really something very old, very well-established, which is usually a pretty powerful Venn diagram when in all things, but particularly business models where there's, something very familiar and timeless about the offering that you guys have in your approach to education while simultaneously injecting some kind of new modern tools.
Can you explain the concept of cohort-based courses and contextualize that within the recent history of online education and education generally?
Kao: Yeah. When you think back about the past 10 years, the dominant form of online learning was Evergreen and On-Demand. So these are video courses that are basically a series of recordings and you watch these videos by yourself. There's no community, there's no interaction. Um, and presumably there's more flexibility because you can access all this amazing rich content anytime, anywhere. But what really ends up happening is there's no accountability to actually continue learning. And so you see these really low completion rates, anywhere between 6 to 10% completion for people who sign up for, for these massive open online courses, MOOCs, um, and a tiny percentage of people who actually finish.
So cohort-based courses are the opposite. Seth Godin and I created this format in 2014, 2015, when we launched the alt MBA. And, what's key about the cohort-based format is that it is entirely interaction driven. It's community driven. It's live, not everything has to be live, but it's very much about learning while doing.
So, a cohort-based course might be, you know, three days a week, three weeks, six weeks, eight weeks. But there's a set period of time when you're learning with a cohort of other professionals. So let's say you're taking, um, a UX design course. If you were taking this course on Udmey, LinkedIn Learning, Teachable or any other static course format, you know, you're, going through a bunch of five minute videos learning about concepts, like contrast, balanced composition, um, you know, typography, but you're really trying to put it into practice by yourself without any interaction with the outside world.
And then on the flip side, though, if you're taking a cohort-based course on UX Design, you might be designing a flyer and everyone then shares the flyers that they designed and the instructor critiques a couple student's live and points out. Alright. Here's what you did well. Here's what, you know, what you could fix. Here's, what's a little bit muddy. And then everyone adjusts based on feedback, and does it again. And then you might go into small groups where, it's groups of four to five people in zoom, and you're talking about a certain piece of design. It might be an Instagram photo or a landing page or a website, and everyone's kind of chiming in, and you might redesign it as a group as a project. So it's much more interactive and it's much more about learning while doing, and we've found that with cohort-based courses, the completion rate is 75% and up. With the Alt MBA, our completion rate was 96% completion. And it's because it's much more fun to learn with other people and you have skin in the game, and the accountability leaves community to all come together to create learning outcomes that are much stronger.
Watson: And I can speak personally to buying the classic MOOC style course and being one of the, I guess, 94% that don't complete it. Cause I'm guilty, guilty as charged. Um, so it makes a ton of sense in that regard. And the other part of it is just the style of learning when something is live in some way, shape or form, like if I over the course of the next 30 minutes or so, put my foot in my mouth and misattribute some element of the Maven story, of the cohort-based coursee story, of your backstory, you can very quickly identify where I have a misunderstanding and nip it in the bud, right there. Versus the completely a hundred percent passive experience of exclusively consuming the content and not necessarily engaging with it or engaging with other people on the topic doesn't really allow for that kind of tuned sense of correction. And it's going to be perfect because it's digital and we’re all, you know, not being able to fully read people's body language and tone to the same degree as being in person, but that's still also part of the value prop for why these courses are not only getting better completion and better efficacy, but also potentially making more.
Kao: For sure. I mean, how many times have you been in class and someone raised their hand and asked a question and you're like, oh yeah, I totally don't get that either. I'm so glad that that person asked. Like, that's definitely happened to me. And the beauty of cohort-based courses is that because it is live and it's real time, you can ask those questions. You benefit from seeing other students asking their questions, too.
And from the creator side, the instructor side, you get a lot more information about what are your students struggling with,? What do they find easy? And you can go through that material faster and spend more time on certain areas. You can stay a lot more attuned to what your students need and stay flexible to almost the organic nature that some of the best, most rigorous, of conversations, discussions, debates tend to have.
Watson: And so you cited, your help with Seth Godin in the mid 2010s, getting the Alt MBA off the ground, which is this cohort based course model. Uh, I'm going to draw a parallel between Ben Thompson's newsletter, Stratechery, and the now really large platform of Sub Stack that enables all of these different writers to do a paid newsletter subscription service.
And my interpretation is very similar, when you listen to Ben trying to get that paid newsletter off the ground before a tool like Sub Stack, he's lassoing together, different tools trying to make it happen. And Maven’s business model is basically okay I'm sure and I would love to hear stories about you lassoing the tools together to make it work back in 2015, versus what Maven’s kind of offering and figured out on behalf of users in the presentt.
Kao: A big part of my inspiration for starting Maven was all the late nights I had lassoing together, all of these different tools. And it wasn't just in 2015, it was 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020. It was actually kind of insane. Like I thought, you know, okay, 2015, 2016, of course we're new to this. This is an entirely new format that we're creating. So of course there's no tools to make this easier. Right. We're cobbling together, a bunch of disparate platforms. Um, but as the years went on and I left the ultimatum and started working directly with other creators, professor Scott Galloway at Section Four, the co-founders Morning Brew to build their eight week course, David Perell for Write of Passage and sort of working with all these other creators.
I thought surely there must be a platform that could make all of this slog a lot easier. And, and there wasn't. So, you know, I've spent way too many hours trying to adjust the column width of something, trying to make a link, look a certain way, or be a different color, or make a landing page look a certain way or debug and troubleshoot why a zap stopped working in Zapier for no particular reason. And the technical piece is really so frustrating. You know, for me as a business side person, I think a lot of creators, um, resonate with that. A lot of creators are not technical per se. You know, they didn't get into writing their subject newsletter, uh, or teaching a course or doing YouTube because they love messing with the technology.
They got into it because they love connecting with their audience. They love telling stories. They love sharing what they know. They love sharing their best ideas and the best frameworks. So for me, creating Maven was about solving a problem that I had felt and all the creators I worked with felt. Um, and I think Maven now coming in as a platform layer to make it a lot easier to create a course is so important because it removes all of the logistical and administrative and technical pieces that instructors would otherwise have to spend time on. And now, you know, with all that off your plate, you can actually focus on making your content better, connecting your community, engaging with your students, you know, and that's really what creators are best at….
Oh I think you’re muted
Watson: Geez. I hate when that happens. Sorry.
So let's talk about launching in general. Um, in the first year for Maven, you guys launched a hundred, cohorts, and you also launched your own company.
So what have you learned? And you like, literally the list that you just gave us, Seth Goden Morning Brew, David Perell, Scott Galloway. That's basically like a Mount Rushmore of digital marketers. So you've seen behind the curtain at some real legit brand building and media building and taken part in it too.
I don't want to cast you as a solely a passive observer. So how have you thought about launching Maven and then in conjunction with that maybe we can build into what have the best cohorts or the best instructors done to successfully launch a course of their own, a cohort-based course of their own.
Kao: Now I’m muted, all right. Um ok, so the question is… what advice do I have for first-time course creators based on what I have seen from others.Yeah, absolutely. My advice for first-time course creators is to think about course market fit first and form. I see a lot of people get excited about courses and want to start diving into building curriculum and putting together lessons and starting to record content. Um, but what ends up happening is, you know, weeks or months later, when they finished building their course, they launch it, release it to the public and they expect hoards of students to come banging down their digital doors.
And what really ends up happening is usually crickets and tumbleweed. So, radio silence. You know, very little activity and commotion, and it's very jarring for the course creatoer who just spent so much time and love and, you know, blood, sweat, and tears into creating this course. So, thinking about course market fit upfront, prevents you from launching something that no one actually wants.
So, when I say course market fit, I mean this as an extension of product market fit, because your course is really a product. So, of course market fit is making sure that you are the right person teaching the right course to the right target audience at the right price point to your students.
So, you know, making sure all of these different elements come together is going to save you a lot of effort down the line. So positioning your course, thinking about, you know, what are some juicy problems that my target student has, that my course can help solve. That's going to make sure that there's actually willingness to pay for your particular topic.
Right? So answering some of these hard questions earlier, rather than later, make sure that there's actually student demand for the topic that you're going to teach. And we've seen, even really experienced traders, like Pomp. Anthony Pompliano. He has a crypto course on Maven. He was one of our first instructors and, you know, early on when Pomp was building his course, he was building it for crypto beginners.
And before we released it, we thought, okay, let's check in to make sure that we're vetting this hypothesis, that this is your target student. So he did a survey and, uh, talked about his course on Twitter, asked people to sign up for his wait list and answer a few questions. And, to our surprise, the people who were most interested in taking this course from the survey were crypto intermediate and advanced practitioners. These are people who had self-diagnosed as you know, I already know the basics, and I want something that's a bit more advanced. And because of that, Pomp then adjusted his entire curriculum. Scrapped half of it, rebuilt the other half to make it more aligned with his target student.
So even for someone like Pomp, who has been creating content for a really long time, he has literally a million followers on Twitter, and has a pretty big audience, he still benefited from, validating his course concept, from validating his target student, validating whether there was demand for his course.
So that's definitely something that I've seen across all the creators that I've worked with both before starting Maven, and since starting Maven, that's something that's super important to do.
Watson: And I have a very good friend who sold a MOOC very successfully, and it has at least above the average numbers that you've shared for completion. And one of the things that's still interesting though, just kind of understanding what he has access to from a dashboard standpoint and his considerations for potentially continuing to build that course out and increase its value, is there aren't a ton of insights into where the gaps in knowledge are of the student that's coming to you.
So you're talking about pre kind of determining and serving an audience, but even as someone's going through that educational experience, brcause, you're not, like I said, live there and taking stuff in or hearing the questions that come up consistently, at least in that format, it's a little bit more challenging to tailor the content.
Whereas I believe it was Sean Perry, another one of your top course launchers, I heard him talking on a podcast about how, you know, he does his power writing course once, and then the next time he more or less scraps, V1 and launches V2 with kind of tighter lessons and a more relevant trajectory and just gets that chance to fully iterate because it's a live experience each time versus something that's kind of static in what was produced at that point in time.
Kao: Yeah. If you just spent, you know, weeks or months putting together a video-based course and spending a ton of time editing it, doing animations, you know, putting in a talking head versus slides of graphics, there's huge sunk costs with needing to rerecord something. And so it's much easier to just say, alright I'm just going to leave it as is even if I'm getting emails from students saying, hey, can you explain more on this? Or I didn't really understand that. So with the cohort-based course, because it is live, there is so much more opportunity to iterate. And on the greater side, it's much easier to think about alright, what worked with my first cohort?
What do I want to do differently for my second cohort? For my third cohort? And the way that we teach course building with Maven is to build in a modular way. So you have these couple different components, but it's all very modular. It's like an Ikea, um, shelf. You know, I have one of these Ikea Elvarli Closets where you can add an attachment. You can remove one based on the size of your shelf, the height of your closet, whether you want more drawers versus open shelves, right? So that the basic components are there and we teach you what those basic components are. But you, as a creator, get to think about as you evolve and as your interests evolve, and as you get more insight into what your students want. It's super flexible to move these different modules and these different modular components around.
Watson: So let's talk about launching Maven itself. You talked about finding the fit with the instructor and their respective audience, what that audience is looking for, but you know, just candidly, there's not a lot of startups and I'm just going to cite some, some stats here from one of your co-founders tweets, that in their first year, have multiple instructors making a quarter of a million dollars worth of revenue, dozens of instructors, making five figures of revenue growing from three to 20 employees and achieving all your year one product milestones. That not only speaks to a really competent founding team, but also product market fit and a probably very well thought through or path of least resistance type of strategy for going to market and finding who it is that should be selling these courses, at least initially. Because you cite Pomp, you cite some of these other characters with enormous audiences, like just take us through how that worked and what insights or what kind of strategies you employed to get this thing off the ground so quickly.
Kao: One of my principles for making career decisions and figuring out what to build is making sure that I have an unfair advantage with whatever it is that I'm doing. So, you know, I talked to a lot of founders or a lot of course creators and you know, a big question is, well, what should I teach? Or what should I build? You know, what company should I start? And, my thinking is, if there was someone random on the street who, with the same amount of effort, working really hard, could do the thing that you want to do, then that's probably not a good fit. I don't think you have enough of a competitive advantage if any random person with effort is going to be able to accomplish the same thing.
So when I think about unfair advantages, I mean, what is it about your track record background, network, personality, interests, that make you uniquely suited to solving a particular problem? And I think one of the reasons why Maven has been such a rewarding journey pretty much from the beginning is because both Goggin and my backgrounds were really suited for starting this company.
So speaking for myself before starting Maven, for five to six years before that I was obsessed with cohort-based courses. I created one of the first ones and designed the format that eventually led to this category of cohort-based courses. That's one. And then working with a bunch of creators with, you know, professor Scott Galloway from Section Four, I worked with him and his founding team to design their proprietary sprint format and named it the Sprint.
Right? So like this two week sprint format that they've since grown into a bunch of different sprints, um, being there from the ground, uh, from day one, growing it from zero doing the same with a lot of different other creators that gave me so much insight into course creation. The process, the struggles, the challenges that creators have the parts that they're most excited about.
Um, the problems that were juiciest, that if we were able to solve that would add so much value for creators. So that kind of insight, um is really, really valuable. You know, we didn't have to do customer development and customer interviews in the way that most founders do because five years before starting Maven, that was all customer development. You know, it was living that customer development directly being embedded behind the scenes in all of these different teams. So I think that had a lot to do with coming in and having a strong instinct and strong data points, and strong hypotheses about what could we build that could be really valuable.
So that's one. Um, I think the other big piece of our go-to market strategy was thinking about, what could we start doing to hit the ground running and start adding value to creators before our software was ready? Good software takes time to build. It's not something that can just happen overnight. So when Gog and I started the business in October, 2020, we found Shreyans, our technical co-founder Shreyans Bhansal, in December.
And he started in January, January, 2020. And we needed to buy Shreyans to build up an engineering team, to build up a product team, to build up a design team, to actually get the software product going. Um, and in the meantime we thought, okay, how can we add value? So Gog and I had an idea of, you know, what if we basically productized Wes’ consulting practice from before Maven.
And so that's what we did. So the first few courses were me and our first hire working directly with Pomp with Lenny Rachitsky, who was an early product manager with Airbnb, who has a subset newsletter now and has a Maven course on project management. We also worked with Legion who was a former VC at Andreessen Horwitz and coined the term passionate economy. She has a course on Maven, um, Sahil Levenia CEO of Gumroad founder of Gumroad, who also has a course on Maven called “Minimalist Entrepreneur.” So it was me and our first hire working directly with these creators building their courses. And then once we got those off the ground, it was then saying, how can we do this in a more scalable way?
So I created the Maven course accelerator, which is a three week cohort-based course where we teach you everything you need to know nuts to bolts about building a cohort-based course. How to put together a curriculum, how to think about course market fit, how to position yourself, how to do course marketing, how to think about your funnel, what to put on your landing page, how to create projects, how to hire coaches and TAs, if you want that.
So everything that I'd learned from creating courses condensed into this really meaty, um, intensive, condensed experience. And with the Maven course accelerator, we've been able to work with hundreds of instructors, helping them come onto the platform, learn the basics of how to create a course and launch their pilot courses.
So we were really thinking about adding value right from the beginning. Um, and you know, and since then, our software has been getting stronger and stronger by the week. So now someone joining Maven, it's totally different than someone who joined, you know, at this time last year or even six months ago, because our software has continued to improve and will continue to improve.
Um, and meanwhile, we're continuing to educate creators and help get them on board and onboarded and up to speed with how to download all their ideas and put it onto paper and turn it into a course.
Watson: Epic. So I have a kind of odd question that I wasn't expecting to necessarily ask, but I'm listening to kind of the trajectory that Maven's been on, and your personal trajectory as well.
And I mean this in a very, way of admiration, the list that you've articulated of past clients and users of Maven are like candidly, the who's who of the, the very online in the business intellectual space, like literally. Seth Godin and Scott Galloway as like, arguably like almost the old guard.
And then the Morning Brew, David Perell, Sahil Lavingia, CEO of Gumroad, Pomp Sean like I could keep going down the list and the perspective of mine is that that is an insider’s position, like to just have, and I'm sure that this fed on itself to some degree. Like where once you can say, hey, you know, we helped Pomp with his course that opens doors with people that otherwise, maybe wouldn't have considered you or would have been a more difficult sale.
Can you talk about either when you felt like an outsider before kind of becoming that insider, maybe reject the whole premise of that question or what strategies you've employed to earn that type of position, because I think that there's a lot of folks, whether or not they're creating content, it might not even necessarily be in that space specifically.
Maybe they want to get into the who's who of supply chain or the who's who of the art world or whatever the thing may be. You've crossed, whatever that barrier is. At least from my vantage point. Can you talk about specifically that challenge, that many people early in their career face.
Kao: I love this question.
I'm so glad that you asked it because for most of my career, I felt like an outsider. So I would love to share, you know, what that felt like and what the transition was to getting in front of the people that I wanted to get in front of. I think that that is so valuable of a skill for anyone, whether you're a marketer or a designer, founder, freelancer, consultant, right.
We're always trying to get in front of certain people and it can sometimes feel really impossible to be seen, right? It's like, you know, how much value you bring, you know how good you are, but to even get your foot in the door and get someone to even consider you is a huge battle in and of itself.
So I think one principle that I've internalized deep into myself is adding value to other people. Adding value and not asking for something in return and not, not taxing people. I see and get a lot of pitches from people, you know, Twitter, DMS emails, cold outreach. And I can tell that the person thinks that they're offering something.
But what they're really asking for is a lot, because they'll ask for something like, hey, can we hop on a call. Can you try my product or can you review this or can you do that? And that is, is a really hard ask for people that you're trying to get in front of who are, you know, might be really busy and they might have a lot of other people pitching them.
And I remember back in the day doing stuff like that too. And I'm like, oh yeah, like, I know why that, why I did that. But now being on the other side, I can empathize with both sides that, you know, the people receiving those pitches have to say no, just to protect their head space or time to be able to even do their work.
But then on the other side, the up and comers are writing these notes, writing these pitches, are also trying so hard, you know? So, you know, rewinding a little bit, a lot of people ask, how did you start working with Seth Goden? So I'll tell that story, because I think that that's a little bit serendipitous and could be interesting and insightful for, for some listeners.
That happened entirely, randomly. So, I was at a Sequoia-backed tech company at the time in SF and was looking for a new opportunity. I wanted to move to New York. SoIt was kind of looking at some roles there. And a friend of mine, sent me a blog post that said, saying that he was looking for a six-month special project lead to help him figure out what he wanted to do next.
At that point, you just sold off his last company, which he had worked on for almost a decade, and was looking for what is the next big area that I want to invest in. So I saw this post and I thought, all right, this sounds super exciting. I mean, Seth is a marketing legend. And the chances of me getting this role are pretty slim, right?
I'd applied to a bunch of things before and like not gotten it, and I didn't want to spend too many cycles making it perfect and then feeling bad that I didn’t get it. So I submit the application. It was a Google form, plus a video. You need to do a video. I think it was like two to three minutes talking about what you wanted to build, what you wanted to contribute and what you wanted to learn.
And I did this video in one take. I didn't even redo it. Didn't edit it. Did one take. I was like, this is pretty good. This is good enough. I'm just going to submit it. Cause again, I don't want to overthink it. And a couple of days later, I see Seth in my inbox saying, hey, I loved your application. Your video is great.
Let's let's hop on a call for an interview. I was completely shocked. Super shocked that, you know, wow. Like I can't believe that this actually worked and, you know, jumping up and down in my living room, before, you know, calmly writing a professional email, like, yes, I would love to do an interview. Let's figure out a time. Right. So, I think, you know, first, when I look back on that, my first, piece of advices is always toss your hat in the ring. I think that's the first thing I think I almost didn't toss my hat in the ring because I thought I'd been rejected so many times before for other things in my life.
I mean, even at that point from the outside, if someone had looked in, they'd be like, wow, like you've worked at some interesting companies you were at Gap doing an amazing rotational program went through Old Navy, Banana Republic. I worked at Lorielle, in New York, I worked at Bare Essentials, which is a beauty company owned by Shiseido.
I was at this, this cool tech company That was funded by Square Capital, one of the best VCs in the valley. So, you know, even at that point, people would say, oh wow, you seem like you've, quote-unquote “made it.” Or like, you know, you've had a good trajectory, but even then the truth was behind the scenes.
I'd applied to a bunch of stuff all throughout the years and didn't get accepted. Right. So those are my highlights. The things I ended up doing were the things that worked. People didn't see all the other things that I didn't get paid for. So I think that's one thing. So throwing your hat in the ring, I think is super important.
Don't write yourself out of the race before the race has even started. So that's one. Um, I think the second thing is stay open to serendipitous opportunities. I think that the reason that I was able to work with that was because for seven years before that I had worked really hard in my career, starting from when I was in college at UC Berkeley.
I was, and actually before that in high school, I was weird in that I was already thinking about my career, you know, in high school. So I had been planning my career and thinking thoughtfully about it and looking for challenging opportunities with every step that I was doing so that when I applied, I think that that came through.
Right. It won't always come through. People won't always have a chance to see you, but if you've been working on your craft behind the scenes, every step of the way, you will be ready for opportunities when they come. So if you just look for opportunities, but you are not working on your craft, on becoming a more rigorous thinker, on making better decisions, on thinking about second order effects, positive, negative externalities, thinking about upside versus trade-offs, getting better at whatever your craft might be, getting better at writing, at communication, at leadership at shipping, at building, right. If you're not doing all those things, then when an opportunity comes and you are lucky enough to get it, you won't be able to execute. And that opportunity won't last long.
So I think the other big part of it is, work on your craft and get better at what you do so that when you, when lightning strikes and you get in front of the right person, that you are able to shine. And then I think lastly, thinking about pitches in terms of what you can do for the other person. What you can bring to the table that solves an expensive, juicy problem that they have. Thinking about that and making the note entirely about them will differentiate you from 99% of other people. So usually what ends up happening is is people describe what benefits them. So they'll say, you know, Hey, I, really want to work with you Pomp, let's say, or Seth or Wes. I really want to work with you. Here's my background. Here's what I want to learn. Here's what I want to accomplish. And it's me, me, me, me, me. Really.
I actually have an exercise that I have people do, which is highlight your note in yellow for all the parts that are about you. You talking about your background, even if you think that it's giving context to why you're a good fit, it's still about you. So highlight that yellow, and then anything about the other person, about your recipient highlight that green. And I've seen notes that are, that are almost all yellow, like two lines of green. Really. And if, if we're honest with ourselves about our pitches, most of them start out that way. And that's totally normal because we are ourselves and we're in our own heads. So we're writing from our own perspective, but you need to really actively fight that urge and edit the notes so that you flip it. You invert it. 90% of it should be green and a couple lines can be about you. When I write notes, pitch notes, even now... Right? You think like, oh, we're already in the in-crowd.
Like no way. There is not, I don't feel like we are even close to the point where we can do throwaway copy that is just about ourselves and just like fluff and throw away, and like selfish copy. Right? Like any piece of copy that we send is still focused on the instructor, about whoever it is that I want to get in front of, I am making it about them. I'm making it personal. I’m making it customized. I'm sharing the upside of what, why they win or why they benefit or what they get out of it. Not what I get out of it. Right? Like a lot of pitches will, you know, even internally we'll start off, like, you know, we Maven do this. Our mission is to blah, blah, blah.
Like no one cares about our mission. No one cares about what we want to accomplish and yada, yada, yada, right? They want to know that, you know, I've looked at their side, right? I've been following them on Twitter for a while, and I think they could do an amazing course on X. And here are examples of a few other people who are on the platform who have made X amount of money doing this, and I think that they could do a course that could be a week long for X number of students. I think we could get this up in the next couple of months. I think that we can build off of a lot of your existing content and I'll cite a couple examples of, you know, your blog post on that or your evergreen course on this, you know. So I make it sound exciting for them.
I make it sound like, hey, this is not going to be a lot of work for you. And it's going to be a lot of upside. So really thinking in this way, regardless of whether you're starting out or you're advanced or anywhere in between, this idea of making it entirely about the other person is so, so important. And I feel like if you nailed this one thing, you are going to open more doors than you imagine. And I'll give you some examples. There are people that we work with now at Maven, contractors, freelancers who stood out from the pack. From hundreds of, of DNS at Gaga. How do they get picked?
Because they offered value and showed the upside of what it would be like to work with them without asking for very much in return. And because of that, we were able and willing to take the bet on them. So, this works because I have worked with people who have no track record whatsoever. So kind of, you know, I said earlier on develop your track record, but you know, now with this piece of advice, even if you don't have a track record, but you focus entirely on how the other person benefits, you can get people's attention.
Watson: That was absolutely fire. Like I'm going to, we're going to clip that and just make that its own piece of content for people that are trying to figure out how to go from outsider to insider, because there was so much there.
I want to just kind of e-emphasize a couple of points that you made really quickly. Number one, momentum is a very real. So if it's a little stuff in the beginning, it feeds on itself. And whether that's the accumulation of skills or the expansion of a network, once you start to feel momentum, which you don't feel at the beginning of your career, then it's like, wow, this is way better. The same way wobbling on a bike is nowhere near as fun as just kind of zooming somewhere on it.
The second thing is when you talked about like developing the skills, no one gets a seat at the table if they don't bring something to it. So that is the way to actually get access is if you have something tangible to bring. Whether that be hyper-specific and niche, or broad. That is the thing that cracks the door open for you to some degree. And then I actually just thought of this as you were saying it because I've given the same advice. I get pitched all the time to have guests on pods. And I also have to pitch people to try and get them onto the pod. And I just, this came to mind, maybe I'm stealing this from someone, but all the personal stuff, save it for the autobiography. Save it for the end. You know who can write about themselves? Bob Iger. You know, who can write about themselves? The Obama's. You know who can write about themselves? The people that have done it.
And if you're not at the end, if you're not the person with like the whole litany of things, yes, you want to build yourself up, but save it for the autobiography.
Kao: I love that. I think that is kind of real advice that we all need to remind ourselves of, really. I loved what you said about bringing something to the table. That's how you get a seat at the table. I think, you know, the next question that someone might have is, well, what do I know what I should bring? Right? You know, Aaron, Wes, you just said I should bring value. Welll, how do I know what kind of value to bring? And so, I see a lot of pitches say, what do you need? Like, I'll do anything. Right? Whatever you need, I'm willing to do it. I'm scrappy, I'm hardworking, et cetera. And that's great, but if you think about it, that also is putting a lot of work on your recipient to think about how you could fit in, to think about what your skills are, what your weaknesses are, how that aligns with the business, how you might be able to plug in. That is that's a lot of work. That actually is the hard part.
Right. Once you figure that out, then you can hire pretty much anyone to fill in gaps. Right? The hard part is thinking, what do I need? You know what, I, as the recipient, right, what do I need done? And how to do it, blah, blah, blah. So someone emailing you and saying, hey, I'm willing to do anything, is actually not as helpful as you think.
It sounds like a generous offer, but it's actually not. Especially for someone who's super busy, who, you know, is getting pitched all the time. And I think, what you can do if you're in the position of pitching someone and you're the one saying like, hey, I'm willing to do anything, is to make some assertions about what you think that person needs. Make some hypotheses about what you think that person or company needs.
That activity alone shows that you are actively thinking, that you are a critical thinker, a rigorous thinker, that you are thinking about how you can plug in and how you can make your recipient's life easier. So if someone, pitches me and says, “Hey, Wes, I noticed on your site that you have a lot of creators in these spaces. I think that there are a bunch of creators in this other vertical that would be amazing. I have a deep network in this vertical and I'm obsessed with cohort-based courses. I've taken a few. And you know, I've maybe tried working on one. I would love to bring these creators onto Maven.” I'm listening. If someone's saying that, I'm listening.
I don't care about your background, about where you went to school, where you worked before your, your mission or inspiration, blah, blah, blah. The fact that you are solving a problem that is keeping me up at night, that is catching my attention. And the reason that that catches my attention, is because that person went through the hard work of thinking about what might I need.
So, you asserting what the other person might need, you're not going to be right a hundred percent of the time, and you're going to get data points about what works and what doesn't. So part of it is a guessing game, right? Because you can't ask that person what they.
So part of your skill and your resourcefulness shows up here, is how, how well can you assess what someone needs and then tailor the pitch to that. But if you can do that, you can come from a completely irrelevant background and still get in front of the people that you want to get in front of if you are saying, hey, here's the problem that I'm seeing that you might have, and here's how I'm going to solve it with very little input needed from you. I think that's the last part. If you're going to solve it, but it takes a bunch of resources from that person or a bunch of time from that person, that becomes a lot less attractive.
But if you're saying I can pretty much independently with a little bit of guidance or a little bit of input from you, start doing this thing, and bring you a ton of upside, that will perk up anyone’s ears.
Watson: Wes this has been absolute fire, and I can't believe how much of the hour we've already chewed up here. So I got to aim towards asking the standard last two questions that we usually wrap up these interviews with. I do, I'm just going to put in right now, we have to, at some point in the future do a round two of this, because I feel like if we can build off of this momentum people are going to continue to get a lot of value from it.
Um, but before I ask those standard last two questions. Is there anything else you were hoping to share today that I just didn't give you a chance?
Kao: No, I think we covered a lot of good stuff.
Watson: Beautiful. Well, I want to make sure that people can check out Maven, you, all the crazy stuff that you guys are up to. What digital coordinates can we provide for people that would want to learn more?
Kao: You can go to Maven.com. M-A-V-E-N.com to learn more about what Maven is up to and the way we're working with creators, including the free cohort-based course that I talked about. Maven Course Accelerator. And, we're also at MavenHQ on Twitter, and I'm at Wes underscore Kao and weskao.com.
I write a lot about the stuff that we talked about here with how to get people to say yes, how to pitch yourself. A lot more on that on my blog.
Watson: Right on. We're going to link all of that in the show notes for this episode. You can find it in the app where you're probably listening to this or at goingdeepwithaaron/podcast for every single episode of the show.
But before I let you go Wes, I would like to give you the mic one final time to issue an actionable personal challenge to the audience.
Kao: My personal challenge for you is to think about how you can turn bugs into features. Whether it's a bug about your product, about your business, about yourself. How can you turn that into a feature?
And when I say bug, I mean, I'm referring to an old engineering software development joke where, if there's an error on a computer program or in a website, engineers will say, oh, that's not a bug, that's a feature. Right. So I'm kind of playing on that here. You know, it's hard to claim that bugs in software are actually features.
But with marketers, with creators, entrepreneurs, that is totally possible. So if you think a bug about your personality is that you're an introvert and you spend a lot of time wishing that you were more extroverted, it would make sales so much easier, and make it easier to promote yourself, what if you thought about that as a feature instead. That the fact that you got to where you are today and what makes you so good at what you do is informed at least in part, by the fact that you are an introvert. And what, if you leaned into that and leaned into the things that only you could do, that other people couldn't?
So this reframe, this mental shift has been, has been so helpful for me. If I catch myself complaining about something about myself or complaining about a product that I have to market, or some situation that I'm in. Thinking, how can I turn this from a negative, into a positive? From a bug into a feature.
Watson: I love it.
And it's usually your capacity to do something like that, that actually achieves that differentiation. You were talking about anyone coming off the street, being able to do what it is that you're doing and unfair advantages. One of those unfair advantages can just be the specific bugs that you're overcoming that other people might not necessarily be.
Wes. This has been fantastic. I really, really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for sharing some time with us.
Kao: Same. This was a lot of fun.
Watson: We just went deep with west Kao. Hope everyone out there has a fantastic day.
Aye Moah is the co-founder and CEO of Boomerang, the most popular extension for Gmail and Outlook which enables millions of people to email more effectively with artificial intelligence.
Aye has over a decade of experience in bringing category-creating products to market. She is an innovator with multiple patents and has scaled revenue with a consumer freemium model and a bottoms-up B2B SaaS motion.
In her experience as a Chief Product Officer, Moah has grown her product lines’ revenue from 0 to $8M profitably, on $400k total investment.
In this episode, Moah and Aaron discuss how she helps her team improve productivity, the product development challenges of a Gmail extension, and how they have defended their patents.
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Aye Moah’s Challenge; Evaluate how much of your day is “I have to” vs “I get to”.
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Jesse Pujji currently serves as Founder & CEO of Gateway X and as Executive Chairman of Ampush and MySubscriptionAddiction.com.
Prior to GX, Jesse co-founded and was CEO of Ampush. He grew Ampush to over 100 Ampushers, managed over $1BN of digital media spend, and partnered with brands such as Dollar Shave Club, Uber, Birchbox and Hulu.
Prior to Ampush, Jesse started his career with short stints at both Goldman Sachs and McKinsey.
Gateway X is a holding company that builds, buys and invests in market-leading direct to consumer companies.
In this podcast, Jesse and Aaron discuss experimenting with TikTok ads, lessons from joining the Red Ventures portfolio, and the DTC companies Jesse has launched.
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Jesse Pujji’s Challenge; Remove the bottom 5 things on your to do list.
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If you liked this interview, check out our interview with Marshall Haas about building a holding company of a profitable businesses.
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Watson: Jessie, It's nice to be talking to you. Thanks for coming on the podcast.
Pujji: Thanks for having me on air and I appreciate it.
Watson: So I thought an interesting place to start would be the fact that you got your start by being one of the early users, your early folks running Facebook ads. And that was really one of the things that kind of broke your business and push today.
Maybe you can quit say you don't buy this premise. Tik Tok ads might potentially represent a similar type of opportunity and that it's a nascent platform not taken seriously by everyone, but there's a ton of users' attention on platform like that through the lens of how you first came to Facebook and learn how to do it efficaciously.
What advice would you give to someone in your shoes? Just getting started in marketing performance marketing to potentially approach a platform like Tiktok.
Pujji: Yeah, it's a great question. And a funny one, because at Gateway X right now, we have a huge effort going to figure out Tik Tok. So it, you know, I actually do believe that it's very much the second coming or it's certainly up there, you know, it's, it's hard to know how big any of these things ever will get.
But yeah, I think the, the biggest, best piece of advice I can give someone similar to Twitter is just, just do it, get engaged into it. Stop worrying about whether you're doing it right. Stop asking people for, you know, the perfect advice that, that, you know, not to say you shouldn't ask for advice, get out and ask people. But a lot of people use that as a way to just not try it and do it, and like start making Tik Toks, start posting things on onto the page, and really get to know and get to understand the platform.
And, and I would light up a marketing campaign as fast as you possibly can for anything. It could be for your local, you know, your favorite local restaurant or a non-profit you like, like there's anything you can do to get, to start to trying it and doing it because like anything, every iteration you're going to get 10 X better, especially in the beginning.
And, and, you know, that would be kind of the approach. I think the other thing I would do is like, build a lot of relationships in and around the platform. That was a big thing for us, including with the platform itself. So people who work at Tik Tok, you know, Tik Tok, the employees and the culture is it's a pretty hungry culture and it's a much more commercial culture than Facebook was.
You know, when we work with Facebook channel 11 years ago, we used to joke that it was like a nonprofit. Like they really didn't in the early, early days pre pre going public. Facebook does not care about being about making money. It was just not a priority for them. That changed obviously, but so I would, I would get to know people in and around, you know, the ecosystem of, of a company like Tik Tok, and then obviously specific to Tik Tok, just more tactically, like the creative and the format of video is so different than anything else that's out there right now.
That part of just doing it as you're going to really learn what it takes to create and make something like that. And the scale required to do that, which is you know, I think there's going to be a whole ecosystem of companies built around Tik Tok. When we, Gateway X as a venture studios that we're incubating and thinking of ideas all the time and in the last month is getting to know Tik Tok.
We've had like five specific ideas. Like there should be a, a non Royal non-licensed not royalty free music marketplace. You know, I'm sure there is something like this, but like it's made for Tik Tok it's various, the sounds are very specific to Tik Tok sounds, but it's like super easy to use. And just makes it really easy to produce a bunch of these Tik Toks.
Like there's gonna be so many ideas ecosystem wise around just like that have been around Facebook in the last 10 years.
Watson: And one thing I've heard you talk about before is this opportunity with Gateway, which is kind of a new endeavor for you is really a chance to kind of get back to your roots.
Building new companies focused on the direct to consumer space, leveraging all of your past experiences in running this performance marketing campaigns. Can you just kinda give us a 360 view of the entity that you're building right now?
Pujji: Yeah yeah. Sure. So, you know, Gateway X is sort of a venture studio, a unique spin on a venture studio, you know, and there's kind of a few different, the threads of fabric that tie together, you know, one is the 10 years I spent building and scaling Ampush where I worked with, you know, tons of direct to consumer brands, tons of entrepreneurs, really helping them grow and scale customer acquisition.
And the other one is like really a ton of personal work. I've done inner work, I'd say around what I truly love and what sort of, you know, what my purpose is, what I want to build, where I get my, my energy from.
And kind of putting, bringing them together. You know, it's like, I love, I love coaching, teaching, helping other people learn and grow. And that's the thing where I can put my, when I put my energy towards that, I tend to be at my best. And it turns out entrepreneurship is like a great canvas for personal development and growth.
You know, you started a business, you know that, you know that the lessons you're learning, how much you're changing and evolving as a person. And so I was kind of like, we're going to, what kind of, what would a business look like? Where that's how I help people learn and grow by a building businesses.
You know, and I also got to do all the fun, strategic work of building and scaling businesses. Let me also leverage the knowledge I have from Ampush and customer acquisition. And that's kind of what the Genesis of Gateway X was or is, and, and what we're doing. That's, you know, it's, so it's a venture studio we're launching both, direct to consumer brands, which sort of leverages my knowledge of that and customer acquisition.
Then we're also launching. What I'll call broadly as like, direct to consumer enablement companies. So both SAS and services. So either software or services that sell to the brands themselves. So that's kind of a, the mandate. We're looking for ideas that are sort of between the mom and pop and that you know, the venture scale.
So part of what we believe is there's a ton of ideas and a ton of room to build. Profitable five, 10, $20 million EBITDA type businesses, but you can do that over a five or 10 year horizon. You don't have to be a billion dollar unicorn in three years, or you're a failure sort of mindset. And then over time we can kind of amass a portfolio of those that we build and, and those that we scale.
And so this year, you know, by the end of this year, we'll have launched four companies, two on the brand side and then two on the enablement side. So the brand, the two brands one's called “Poo Phoria”. And “Poo Phoria” is that fun feeling, you get after you take a number two. We built that tried to scale it. I can go into the details.
Ultimately it's sort of on maintenance mode now for like, a variety of reasons. And we're launching a V2, literally next week called Unbloat, which is a much better product, more of a pill, less of a powder. And it's really targeted towards a specific demo of like 40 to 60 year old women. And we found like a very underserved category there.
The word bloating is searched as often as the word hair loss. And yet there's like very few products on the market for bloating and a ton as we all know for related to hair loss. So we're really excited about that. It launches next week. It's the URLs unbloat.me. And then we have two other businesses.
One is called Growth Assistant and Growth Assistant is a really, you know, kind of a fun idea. It's, it's basically, a place where entrepreneurs can get a trained, you know, support type growth marketer. So someone who can you know, help you set up your campaigns or run the emails or look at you or your URL codes or format creative.
They're not a strategy person and they're in the Philippines and they're $2,500 a month. So it's kind of that entry-level junior marketing person, but offshore, and that business has been growing like gangbusters. And then the fourth one is a software business called Kahani and Kahani means story in Hindi.
And we're basically building a software where your e-commerce store will have its own stories, the way Instagram has stories, and you can tap on them and you can interact with them. And, and they're gonna, you know, they're driving up conversion and engagement, very meaningfully, for the swords we're testing on right now.
And we're, I'm like really, really excited, And like I think, starting an e-commerce, but I think every website could have our product on it and stories, you know, can be everywhere on the mobile experience.
Watson: Right on. So we've covered a couple entrepreneurs like yours, which is partially a story of having some success and having that compound, but really being in this space where you can not be completely like spread thin to the point that you can't really give the best of yourself to anything, but really travel a couple paths and kind of leverage the expertise and skill that you've developed to the max and Marshall Haas to, we, we just had on the show, like literally also has a company called Support Shepherd. That is a similar premise of leveraging international talent in order to, you know, be able to kind of fulfill some of these needs.
I'm really curious] if you could articulate what you've learned, since launching Gateway, which is once again, a relatively new endeavor about managing energy, managing focus because despite your experience and the ability to, you know, hopefully leverages us against us as many business entities as possible, there's still, you know, skills of delegation, skills of just understanding your own mind so that your not just kind of jumping from thing to thing, but really putting all your weight behind that which you're focusing on.
Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. It's such a great question. I mean, you know, the context switching is hard. You know, and it's like, when I, you know, I remember as through the Ambush experience, helping people level up and someone who would go from a individual contributor to kind of a half manager to then a full-time executive over five, six years and the executive switch, everyone would go, wow, the context switching!
You know, and even within a company, an executive has to go from motivating their team one minute to fighting with a bill, maybe with a client the next minute to then selling the company in a recruiting meetings or even the normal job for a single company, CEO. My context switching is challenging and, and, you know, in the world I'm living in it's, it's hard.
So I don't want to make it sound easy nor do I want to make it sound like I don't, this might not work, right? Like, I, I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing for say, like, I don't have a master grand master plan, that I know exactly what's going to happen and what's going to work. But, but I think some of the things I try, that have helped me, you know, one is like really knowing where my strengths are and, and where I bring the, you know, bring the value and where I don’t.
And so, you know, I bring value in some of the like marketing ideas and creativity around that. I bring, bring value in problem solving in a resourceful fashion. So if we can't figure out how to get something done, helping think through how we may get that thing done, I bring value with my network and being able to help solve problems that way.
I bring value, by being, you know, helping make decisions when people are stuck. But I'm not like, you know, I'm not a great product manager. You know, I'm not good at inventory logistics. I'm not great at necessarily even keeping trains running on time, like, you know, in an operations context.
And so those are some of the, you know, hiring great people around me and being very conscious of those things as, as created a lot of made, it made a lot of value right? And, and, and so I try to only spend my time on the things that I think I'm going to add a lot of value and typically the things that are going to give me energy back that I enjoy doing.
Because those are kind of where I'm at my best. So that's one big one, you know, there's a ton of tactical stuff. Like I meditate every day or almost every day. I also, like when I when I go into meetings, I usually spend the first minute or two with the team getting present in some way. Okay. Let's just close our eyes guys.
And like, I'm sorry, like, you may not need this, but I need four breaths. Like, I need to kind of like, forget what I was just doing, and I need to come here and remember, okay, this is, was just talking about how we're going to run ads on Tik Toks for this brand. And now we're going to talk about this bug that's in our software that we're trying to ship and it's like, holy shit, these are, they couldn't be more different.
And even the tool belt I need to pull out. So getting present is a really big one for me. And I, sometimes it's breathing sometimes it's like, let's do some jumping jacks, like whatever it is just to kinda create some switch between the two things that I'm doing. You know, I'm really good at email, you know, it's like, it's, that sounds so stupid, but it's such a big thing.
Like my inbox ends at zero every single day and that's just like, it helps me triage everything, you know, what's going on, how's it going on? Where, what needs my attention, what doesn't need my attention and knowing kind of, you know, again, I don't think I'm great. I think I'm like probably C plus or B minus at it still, but better than a lot of people, which is like knowing when to get deep, and when to kind of pull back and let things kind of unfold a little bit and like, just getting good at that.
Watson: Are you superhuman, do you batch, like what, what's your strategy?
Pujji: I use superhuman. I love superhuman. But I was, I've been doing this many, many years prior to superhuman existing. Like there's a, if you Google, there's like some 2013 article that has, like, I had like seven softwares that were all doing pieces of what superhuman does today.
And I had like mixed them all up together.
Watson: So you were like squarely there early days target demo.
Pujji: You know, because I, I never wanted to be the bottleneck for someone to get something done. And I also didn't want to, like, you know, I always tell early again, new leaders, like, man, there's money in your inbox. You know, like it's so the idea that you haven't seen the email yet.
And I think part of the, part of my method and my approach is I want to see everything. Once I've seen everything, then I can triage and manage how I want to do it. It doesn't mean I do everything in that moment, but I want to see everything. So I, you know, probably two or three times a day, I triaged down to zero.
Watson: Well, there's a book called frenemies. That was about some of the like biggest agencies in the entire world. And I'm blanking on which specific character it was. But just an anecdote that always stuck with me was that the, the head of it was notorious for always replying. Like people would email him at eight and like, they'd hear back promptly, that you know, or whatever the thing may be.
And, you know, one, one interpretation of that, which is completely valid is I don't want to live like that, that ain't for me. But the other, you know, notion of like how plugged in someone who built one of the biggest agencies in the world had to be in order to reach that level. I'm sure he found all sorts of money in his inbox, super promptly before other people.
And you know, you kind of have that, that similar background and I also want to push back, you know, I appreciate the humility. I don't know if the, you know, this Gateway X thing is going to work yet. But the, you have a framework, or at least I would say probably some mentors and other kinds of models that you could pull from, which is, the, your past company Ampush that you built, sold to a company called Red Ventures, which is another kind of holding company that's figured out how to, you know, do the culture and the spin-out and the acquisition thing really effectively.
And, and there are company that, you know, most, most people have actually probably come into contact with without knowing it, right. Seeing that and the points guy and lonely planet and all these other entities that they own. So can you just talk a little bit about what you've taken from them, particularly as a holding company that can accomplish such growth and scale, kinda behind the scenes.
Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. I'm glad you asked about that. You know, they they bought a minority interest in Ampush actually. They didn't acquire the whole company. They're amazing partners. And part of the reason I think I've gotten more humble is meeting them. Like I, you know, I like when I was 30 years old and Ampush was all, I had only grown and scaled, I was like, yeah, I'm going to like eight out of 10, nine out of 10 entrepreneur.
And then I met these guys and Rick in particular, their founder and CEO is a dear friend and mentor to me. And I was like, holy shit. I'm like a 4 out of 10. Like this guy, this guy is playing six dimensional chess in, in five minutes. And it's only the two would take me a day, you know? Like, and so that's kind of important, right?
It's like constantly seeing that there's levels to it. Not, not just like yourself out or to make yourself feel less than, but to actually just like, keep, keep yourself humble and also keep learning. And so, yeah, like, man, there's so many things I could tell you about how amazing there is, but I think the,
Some of the things, you know, they have a very singular culture. And, and, you know, all the great companies do McKinsey, does Facebook does. And, and what that means is not, you know, it's not a certain type of person. There's all kinds of different people there, but there are certain things that really come to the top in their business right?
So, you know, in their case, they're, they're very action oriented. They're very focused on the bottom line, not the top line. They're really strong, like quantitatively rigorous and oriented around numbers. Everything's oriented around numbers and they're really nimble with how they move people around and and they move anything around.
Like they have, Rick has one of his, one of his many beliefs is everything's written in pencil, you know? And it's like, anything could be erased, anything can be changed. And, you know, there's one thing to say that he lives that. I mean, they, they would acquire businesses and, and re–, you know, restaff a hundred people from one project going on in their company overnight to another, to another business.
And, you know, if any, if you were me tried to do that, it would not work because, because you have to have people and a culture and an orientation that has that level of nimbleness in them. And so they've really just built that as a, as a, you know, very they're very decisive, at every level.
And you know, they, they also, they're really big on this. I think there's companies like Disney and others who were really big, like their executives do not manage people or like, you know, not to say that they're, they're very compassionate and about people and culture. And that sense, but they don't manage people.
They don't like, if you think about the traditional executive, it's like, I'm the VP of this group. I have my five directors and each director does X, Y, and Z. They're at, from top to bottom from Rick all the way to the most junior person. Everybody manages the business. And what I mean by that is the metrics, the numbers, what drives, outcome, what's going to make it grow and scale.
And so if you talk to a very senior executive at Red Ventures, they would know the click-through rates of their business. They would know how much the one click through rate needs to improve for, you know, their Facebook channel or something like that for X, Y, and Z to happen. They'd probably know the top creatives in a campaign and there, they might be running a nine figure EBITDA business, right?
So there's huge businesses and that's how dialed in from top to bottom. Everybody is in the business. And that's a really unique, so it's not that they, you know, they're not always operating there, but they can go down to the bone whenever they need to go to the bone and remind me of like, I can give you a specific anecdote, not unrelated.
I met the president of Disney plus a couple of years ago. No, its Michael Paul and, and you know, the guy who manages 1300 people, this huge operations a few years ago. And, and he liked had a very in-depth toe to toe conversation with me about Facebook attributes shit. And I was pretty blown away.
Right. Because here I am, I'm like, this is like, I spent a lot of time talking to you about this. This is like one tiny part of this huge business, but it was just showed the level of depth that he was able to operate at when he needed to.
Watson: That's awesome. So one of my things I always love with podcasts or I is a pet peeve that we're not going to fall for here is when someone says, oh, I could go on and on and on with that since you did a great job there, but I want to just push a little bit more on, on the lessons from red ventures and you watch the show succession.
So I think part of the reason people like a show like that is because they feel like they're getting a little bit of the taste of the quote-unquote six dimensional chess, that one plays at those high-level executive levels. You don't have to refer it to succession necessarily, but when you say that, you know, this executive completely gets it in five minutes, would take you a data.
Understand, like, can you, can you just make that a little bit more legible for people who might aspire to be able to process things that way, but don't necessarily have a, a tangible example outside of a show like that on HBL.
Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I don't know exactly how he does it because if he, if I did, I would do it too, and I'm not there yet.
I, you know, I'll give you an example of, of a common, I'll give you a really cool example, actually. So at red ventures, somewhat organically, there's this thing they they're, they're pretty famous for called business reviews and every company does business reviews, but theirs are a little bit different.
They're no longer than 15 minutes. There are less than three slides. So you bring in more than three slides. Someone's going to talk to you. And, and they will sit down for a day and they will have 16 business reviews or no, not even more than that 20 business reviews. So you walk in and it started by obviously just meeting with Rick and the management team, and then maybe a VP level or director level comment.
Hey, here's what I'm planning on doing. Here's what I think we can grow. And then Rick had this idea. He said, you know what, Like, why don't we show the whole company, how we make decisions. So then he just made this a completely public meeting. And so now it's like, it's like a 500 person meeting. It happens once every, you know, four to six months, depending on the cadence of their business.
And. You know, you, you, you come in and you basically in within 15 minutes, you'll bring your top problems. What's going to generate the most incremental dollars in terms of EBITDA profit. And you'll, you'll square off, you know, and to have a conversation with Rick about it and, and really Rick and the team.
And, and Hey, I don't think this is a good idea. Like, I think you're missing something. I think you need, like, give that CEO a call and really talk through these different issues with them or the pricing model that you're leveraging on Healthline.com. I think you're missing that we could be charging more based on lifetime value, not based on CPA.
And that's the, I mean, they're, they're really deep. And, but they're very fast and very decisive and they walk away with clear decision-making. So that's like an artifact. Now I saw that, you know, and I'm a young, eager CEO. This was maybe when they first invested four or five years ago. And I go, we're going to do business reviews also, of course right?
Like, and it turns out you can't microwave that kinda thing, like I tried it, I said, okay, three months, guys. I want you all to walk in and you have 15 minutes. And, and you know, my team gave an amazing effort, but you know, they didn't know what issues, matter. And I realized, I didn't know certain things about the, about their, their different client situations or different parts of the business that what was driving, what, and it ended up becoming kind of like a dog and pony sort of like, we didn't actually make any real decisions in the meeting because I like, I wasn't up to speed enough or they, they, they brought up three issues.
I go, this is just I'll you the important ones. What about the fact that the client, you know, the new CMO in, in place? And so it, you know, we, and we tried it probably for two years straight. And eventually we, you know, it still exists, but we pared it down pretty dramatically and we focused a little bit more on learning, but it just wasn't, this is a great example of something that man, you see that that's culture.
Like we tried to, we literally, I got to attend them at red ventures. I was there. Like so I got full access to them. I got to see what they were like. And I tried to replicate them my own organization and I wasn't successful. So that's like that's culture, right? That's something you can't just microwave from someone.
But it's a really cool example of, of the dynamicism that exists there.
Watson: Absolutely. And it seems like that would just be such a powerful tool for you know, Almost implicitly, like training up your team, because if they're watching all these different pitches and they're getting, like, I always think about it, my mental reps, right.
You know, when, when I'm on the field near, I used to play ultimate Frisbee when I'm on the field with like the very best throwers who just see the field differently. You start to see the field in a different way. And you know, maybe not every person in their 4,500 person organization can, you know, make every single decision, obviously not, but they start to at least kind of comprehend the bigger picture outside of their maybe small domain that they're working in.
Pujji: Yeah Totally. And, and like, Rick has a, you know, one of his, again, many beliefs, like, you know, he, he wants everything that he is going to underwrite or take on to be a three four. Right. And so it's like, and one of the, you know, the behind that is like a common business mistake is like “Well, we can either go for a profit or growth” and, and he's very wise and he goes, well, wait, why is it an either, or why don't I only, I only have a certain amount of time in the day.
So why don't I only do the things that are going to be both be profitable and help me grow, because I only have time for three initiatives at any given moment anyway, but then his three, four thing is a double is even more of that, which is anything that he takes on. He wants it to have like three, three sort of value adds, right?
So in this case, it's like he learns more about his own business units and what's going on. He gets like you know, to make decisions with those executives and a very fast, and then people get to learn and see how the whole group thinks about things and how they think about business. So that's like a, it's a cool example of a three for those businesses profusely.
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Watson: Well, you said earlier in that, that, you know, you, you were humbled, you were 30 years old or so thinking you're pretty hot stuff because of the success that you would accomplish.
And, when I was prepping for this interview, I was talking with my wife about how around 2015, 2016, you guys managed $350 million worth of ad spend, which I can understand why one would think that they were pretty hot stuff after, you know, building a business to that, to be a scale. And working with companies like Dollar shave club, Peloton, Uber, Hulu, Birchbox, what have you, Can you tell me, I think our actual exact words were I'm sweating.
Just thinking about that. So, so tell, tell me about the process of, you know, when you were sweating that stuff and then what it took to not necessarily be sweating when you saw that amount of number running through your business.
Pujji: Yeah. I mean, you know, honestly, that, that it's a good question. Like I was definitely, it was probably more than 350, by the way, but I was, I was, I was like definitely the frog in boiling water.
So I didn't, I don't ever remember waking. I do remember there was a couple of moments I remember with my co-founder Nick. We'd look at, we looked at when payroll and at one point payroll hit a million and a half dollars and we said, holy shit, that's a lot of money to be paying in payroll right? Like, so I do remember there were certain moments like that, that were the kind of sweaty moments, but in general, the spend, it never, you know, it started at zero.
Obviously we had two or three clients, those clients grew to 10 million in spend and, and then we added more and then, you know, I'll tell you like, I’ll tell you what I think, where I think we got lucky. And obviously I'll tell you like, I’ll tell you where I think what we did really well, you know, where, where we got lucky was like, Hey, well, what we did well was we put ourselves in the game and that's really important for every entrepreneur got to get in the game.
Right. Because I was working at Goldman Sachs and I remember very specifically telling my, my co-founders. We're never going to come up with the next great idea. Sitting, working on our desks here. We're just too far from what's happening. So let's go get in the game. So we got in the game, we were not doing Facebook marketing to start.
We were doing random affiliate search marketing stuff that we had no idea what we were doing. And we were in the right place. Therefore, because of that decision, what, where we got lucky was Facebook, it launched and we were like, they're ready to pounce on it. Right. And that was kind of a lucky stroke.
And then kind of the second or third lucky thing was. You know, we, the fact that Uber did business with us or dollar shave club did business or Supercell was not because we were anything special. It was because there was like four companies who knew how to do Facebook ads. We were one of them. And so they talked to us, right?
And, and we, you know, we sold them and all that stuff. What we did really well was we were really good at hiring bright people and investing in training. And, and so, so what happened was once we were, did start working with us to go, wow, these people. We would like to hire these people. They're really smart people and they're doing a great job at campaign management and communication.
And so we actually got just really good at scaling by hiring people who had no background in marketing or advertising and training them in how to do that. That was the thing that we did really well that allowed us to continue with these Mega companies and help them scale and grow their customer acquisition.
Watson: And, and from a decision-making framework from the standpoint of these clients, I think that something, someone who's in a kind of more novice position would say to themselves, well, Uber raised all that money or Peloton saw their, you know, market cap skyrocket. So they can, you know, issue all sorts of equity grants to potential people that they could bring in house.
What is it that as a, as a service provider, Keeps you relevant? Is it as simple as like, Hey, when they spend money with us, they end up making more money or like, are there other elements that you've learned from like, from being a client service provider that keeps you relevant to these companies as they go from, you know, seedling series A to some of the Goliath of our modern economy?
Pujji: Yeah. I mean, well, but some of it is, is honestly like Ampush has gotten really good at particularly supporting the S curve and then oftentimes. When they do exit or they're gonna to exit, they'll take it in house or they'll change the way they're approaching it. So it's not that, you know, I, I think we fought that for a long time and we did come up with a bunch of ways that have worked many of them to making us stickier and better.
But a lot of it was also just realizing that, you know, there are, there's a natural cadence of some of those things that, that you have to sort of be okay with and be prepared for. I think the biggest thing, you know, by far is performance. You know, and, and relate to that as growth, like good, good, good economics and growth.
And it's like, if you can keep delivering more and more results, like anything, no one’s gonna, no one's gonna press on that or push on that, right? I think the second one is, you know, relationships, which is like, if you know the right, like, Uber's a great example where, you know, we scaled all of Uber's driver acquisition in North America, and then they go, okay, you know, we've worked for you guys for three years.
We're going to take that in house. Like that's a natural part of our evolution. And they said, but we're going to give you guys international, and international is three times of US, right? And it was like, well, we have relationships, right? Like, and, and we, like, that was a way we could actually scale the business because even though all literally North America was going in house, like we were getting international and that was plenty for us to eat and spend time building.
And I think the third one that that's probably the most interesting for a service provider is data and insights. You know, that's the one thing we do have that, that no individual client will ever have, which is we can share what's happening across the board. What are different areas that are popping up?
Why, why are we seeing closer to the problems than they are? Innovating new channels, like Tik Tok, just to because we have that market knowledge and Intel, that's a really powerful thing.
Watson: Right on. All right. I've got five relatively quick hits here. And then we'll aim towards asking our standard last questions.
These are probably the most selfish ones. I'm the whole thing selfish, because I get to talk to smart people. Same thing. Like you said, you like being around other people that are operating at a higher level. Poo-phoria and the pivot to unbloat. Can you just take us through. Cause you know, it's always, Hey, we accomplish this, we knocked this out of the park, whatever.
You were very candid already with one of the failures in terms of getting that, like 15 minute presentation thing implemented in your company, but the original idea wasn't quite landing. Can you just take us through like the, Hey, you know, you just need to stick it out versus we kinda need to pivot.
We can need to let you know, release that tight grip on the idea that we had so that we can go grab a better idea.
Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. It was a tough one. You know, it, the, what was, what went well about it? Was it, again, it got me in the game and it, I had never built a brand. So I wanted to do the things that I wanted to get a Shopify site up and I wanted to get inventory and I wanted to get a three PL obviously I know the growth part really well, but I didn't know all those other pieces of it.
And that, and that sense was super helpful. It sort of taught me the limits of performance marketing because I was literally like, man, With a good, you know, funny brand name and some click clicky ads, you know? We're going to charge a premium to these relatively commoditized supplements. And like, it didn't work.
Our conversion rate almost never got beyond one and a half percent. And so, you know, I think the decision was, was a few fold. You know, we learned a lot about our customers through the process of launching Poo-phoria and, and we realized that the brand name and the brand was not appealing to them. It was like me being silly and, and thinking that could be funny, but it turns out 75% of our customers were women and women were the most interested in things that help their digestive track.
Men were not all that interested. And so it was like, well, this name just didn't appeal to women, even though a lot of women would come to it. And that was kind of the customer thing. So that was a good learning. One of the skews we had was a fiber product and it was expensive to ship. It was like our margins were lower and retention and returns are horrendous.
Like 10% return rate retention would fall off after three or four months. And, and meanwhile, when people bought just our probiotic, which is like our afterthought product, pretension was amazing. Nobody ever complained about it and the economics were better. So we were like, oh, that's interesting. And then I think the third one was like, we got really specific about a customer and a pain point in a way that Poo-Phoria was just like everyone poops, everyone could do better.
Like, it just, it was very soft when it came to. Whereas what we heard this code word from women. Which is like, I don't like the word poop. Like I, well, how do I think about what bloated? I don't like being bloating. I don't like, you know, that's like not a happy feeling and that there's a lot of emotional and sort of physical things tied to that, that feeling.
And it was funny cause this really came bottom up from, from running in and then we validated top-down by going wait, tons of people are searching this term. That seems like a, you know, there's one third of women have it, like there's, there's something to this. And then we realized that there was an opportunity with our, you know, our, our manufacture.
To build a product that nobody else out on the market and, and our product specifically was like a probiotic, but it included special all the like special digestive enzymes. Like, you know, you have lactose intolerance, but you'll have other intolerances, a bunch of natural stuff, magnesium. So we were able to put together a product that wasn't there.
And so I think it was a bunch of it, it was the economics was the marketing, the brand name was who we went after specifically. And then it was like improving the product. And so I think it was all those things kind of. So I think when there was enough things wrong that let us quit versus keep going. Kind of answer your bottom line, your, your answer, right?
Like we, we push, we pushed for like four or five months. We tried a lot of different Hail Mary's a lot of big swings. We could not move the conversion rate despite everything I know. And I've seen, I've doubled in triple conversion rates for clients. I've seen a lot of that. And at some point you got to go, it's something very fundamental to this.
It's the brand, it's the product, some, you know, combination thereof. And if we're going to iterate the product, let's say the brand's not that hard to iterate. Let's just iterate the whole brand.
Watson: Well, that's, I'm sure it wasn't cheap, but that is a really helpful kind of framework for how to troubleshoot something like that.
The, the next thing I wanted to ask about was you've really, started hitting, hitting the Twitter threads hard. And I think it's, it's been working for you. So just in terms of what you've learned in terms of writing Twitter threads with consistency, getting them to be, you know, shared engagement, whatever.
I've seen the pomp Leon owes bro, blow up with him and you seem to be in a similar type of a trajectory.
Pujji: Yeah. I just copied what they did, honestly. No, yeah, I think, I think a couple learnings on Twitter, I'd say the first one is I would not start by writing threads. That's like one of the first things I tell people, it's a little bit of the tree falling in the forest thing.
You know, like if you have 200 followers or even a thousand followers and you start writing threads, It's just a, there's no one there to hear, you know, the tree falls sort of thing. And so I advise people, you know, really build up yourself to probably two to 3000 by. You know, engaging with the community, like you see a cool thread and you see someone saying something about something, you know, about like, this is how I started.
I was like, well, like here's a, here's an example of a data point. We found that it's contrary to what you're saying. Or here's something that we also learned that I would add to this, like open up DMS, start DM-ing people like really get to be part of that community. So that there's a bunch of people who, who,
Who are following you because they've, they seen, you seen, seen you say smart things and like what you're talking about, then I would try a couple of single tweet type things just to say, like my idea stick. And then I would probably start writing threads and I would obviously, you know, the way I did it was most of my threads to start were all just very personal.
Here's a story about Ampush almost failed in the beginning. Here's the story of an M and a situation we were in. And I, you know, I, I, in order to do that, I sort of followed. What I saw other people's formats and what they were doing. Like I didn't reinvent the wheel there. Obviously there some art to writing something that's kind of gets, gets people emotional and gets the curiosity.
And that's a, a real art.
Watson: But those principles of copywriting were probably also what you were using with some of these Facebook ads, right? Like it's not that in terms of stimulating actions, stimulating interest.
Pujji: Yeah. I get attention generate curiosity, you know, there's the influence principles, social proof feel that like, there, there there's some, and maybe it's so innate.
I don't even realize what it's like. Yeah. Why is the, one of the first threads I wrote was like. Setting up the situation for the beginning of Ampush and we almost fail or we had failed, we thought we were over it and everyone goes, oh my God, I want to read this. Right. And they want to get into it. Or like, you know, one of the other first ones was like the biggest mistake I see people make is X.
I'm going to unpack it now. And you're, you know, people are getting curious about it. So I think those things matter. And then, you know, the, the thing I do every week now is I write a bootstrap giant. And it's probably one of the more fun things, because I love learning about these stories. Like I love, You know, we've got one coming out tomorrow.
That's like such a cool story. It's so inspiring for me. It's so energizing for me. And, and then, you know, when I write it, people love them and, and it was, everyone goes, oh, that's such a good idea. And I was like, Did you like, where'd you come up with that? And it's so funny. Cause I'm like, I knew I liked those stories.
Like I love how I built this. I particularly love when it's bootstrap, because I feel like there's just, it's kind of a certain richness texture to it. But the first one I started, I was like, I love these stories. Let me just write one and see what happened. And the first one I wrote, it was insane. And I was like, oh, I'm gonna try another one.
Like, and that I did not have a master plan of like starting to write those. It just sort of, it came through me now.
Watson: Well that perfectly leads into my third of, of the last five here, which is in my opinion, the most intriguing of the threads that you've written, because I have a four month old daughter and I am not getting enough sleep.
So for the good people listening and selfishly for me, can you talk about teaching children to sleep when they're very young?
Pujji: Have you read the thread?
Watson: I have.
Pujji: Okay. I'm not think to tell you anything new. I mean, so, so I've had this conversation a lot, you know, when you talk to new parents and, and what I observed in the world when I talked to parents was how has being a parent and the degree to which they said most amazing thing in my life versus whoo.
You know, no parents says it sucks, but they’ll say this is really tough. Of course it's worth it, but it's tough. And I'm not really, you know, and I miss my old life and like, there's this big variance in people's response. And there were basically three variables. I, I noted that. I thought correlated strongly with that.
The first one was baby. Does your, does your kids sleep? Which means do you sleep is the most important one I think? The second one was, do you have some sense, some form of, of ample childcare, your parents live nearby. If a babysitter I'll pair, whatever. And the third one was like alignment with your spouse.
You know, what do you do when X happens? How in sync are you two working together? So I want to talk about number two, number three, but number one was like, everyone's like, well, no, there's two ways to make a baby sleep. One way is, is you wait until they're five or six months old or four months old. You leave them at all night to cry and they'll learn.
And I said, oh my gosh. I mean, people do that. I can never do that. You know, my wife could never do that. So that was not going to work for us. The other one I heard was you coddle them because eventually they'll grow up and you'll sleep on their own. And, you know, we were both like, ah, that's also like not cuddle, meaning they sleep in your bed.
If they need anything, you grab them so on and so forth. And so me being an entrepreneur and somewhat defiant, I thought that can't be true. Like I don't believe it. I just don't believe that's true. And so I went on this whole journey. Trying to disprove that those are the only two ways. Then it turns out there is a third way and I'm not the inventor of it.
Or like I just, I read a bunch of books and discovered in sort of synthesized what the, I think the major parts of it are. So what those parts are the first one that's the most non-intuitive is this concept of awake time. And so I'll have parents, like you have a form of goal to go, Jessie, my kid's not sleeping.
And my wife and I will immediately start asking them about their nap schedule. Why asked me what to ask you? How do you want me, baby? Don't see him and go, oh, the first thing you have to pay attention to is How long has your newborn awake, and in between their sleep periods and, and the reason that's important is, and, and the heuristic by the way, is 60 minutes of, of awake time when you're born and it grows by 15 minutes for every month they're alive.
So your baby shouldn't be awake for more than two hours. That's the bookends at any given moment. And the reason is because, you know, whenever you've done an all nightter. You've done all nighters. I assume I've done all nighters. Like, there's that like 2:00 AM second wind you got. And you're like, you were tired and all of a sudden you're like, nah, I'm ready.
Let's go another few hours. Right. And that's actually your body. Your body's like, oh my God, this person's still awake. They shouldn't be awake. They must be in a fight or flight situation. Let me give them adrenaline. So your body just releases adrenaline to your body. That happens to a newborn at like 65 minutes of awake.
And so a baby will be awake and they'll build, look sleepy for a second. And then they'll like, look, all giddy and happy. And it turns, it turns out, they're getting adrenaline in their body, which makes them harder to put to sleep, which means they sleep less. And that compounds in a really negative way. And so the best advice is like, it's like, like we would be super anal about it as like 45 minutes, put the kid back to sleep.
And I, my parents thought I was nuts until they were like, oh my God, you're six months old. You know, we went on a cross, cross worlds flight to Australia and my son slept through the whole flight and my parents were like, What kind of food do you know, are you guys doing, and so, that's a wait time is by far the number one, the second one is like all the five asses, which I'm sure, you know, just like there's this whole book called Happiest Baby on the Block.
The biggest of the 5s there. My kids are six and four. Now they're like a swing, stock, which is the pacifier, shush, which is the most important one. What's the blanket thing called. Swaddle, thank you. And then something else I can't remember, but the shushing, like it apparently in the womb, it's the sound of a vacuum cleaner.
That's how loud it is in the womb for the baby. So they're like any kind of like hairdryer noise or rain sound. The hairdryer noise is the best for a newborn really loud. And then there's a bunch of other things like routines getting them into like, it's funny by the way. Cause I have friends. Who didn't follow any of this.
And they have five-year-olds and they're still having trouble getting their five-year-olds to go to bed at night and to stay at about at night. And my wife, like, we look our kids even to this day at 8 to 8:30 they're in bed, and they're ready to go. That's just the routine that they're used to. So I could go on forever and ever, but there, there's a bunch of other pieces to the baby sleep stuff.
Watson: We'll link happiest baby on the block and that list there. But I can tell you that that has been shared between me and my wife and we are in the earliest stages of, of trying to implement that successfully, because you said in the first couple of months, there's not a ton you can do. It’s chaos.
Pujji: First couple of months or whatever, but I think once net, where you guys are at now is a good time to like, get the dream feed, maybe cut the night, feed out, see how the baby responds. If, if he or she is sleeping more than two or three hours stretches. The other thing I'll mention about that, just on that as like there's another like non-intuitive thing, which is nobody sleeps through the night.
So like even adults, we wake up every 90 minutes, babies wake up every 45 minutes. And so you're not actually teaching them to sleep all night. You're teaching them to go back to sleep once they've woken up. And once they prove they can do that, even for two hours, three hours, because they wake up every 45 minutes.
Then you can, if you remove some of the feeds and stuff, you can usually get them to sleep through the night.
Watson: One of the things that's interesting is that the REM cycle is different. The adults have like a four stage REM cycle. And when we're in like REM, which is when the hardcore stuff, that's when we're completely still, and for babies, it's the opposite.
They move during REM and they're kind of still during the other part. And so when we were Novices. We didn't know what we were doing. We'd see the baby move. It's like, oh, she must need us. And It's actually no, no, no, no. That is the time to like, let her kind of work it through. So, great, great thread.
Another question here.
I’m, I'm certain running out of time. So I'm just going to ask one more last and one then we'll, we'll aim our, our, our ask our final questions. I came across you by hearing you on the invest, like the best podcast with Patrick O'Shaughnessy, it is the only, and I've listened to every single episode of that show is the only episode that I've listened to more than twice, just because of the density of information there.
So we're going to link that as well for people that want even more insights from Jesse. But now that you guys are in business together, you're building a joint Colossus and doing these business breakdowns as another fantastic show, that I'm sure a lot of our listeners would enjoy. What have you learned from working with Patrick about he, how he approaches the world, his approach to business building and finance and investing and all that?
Pujji: Yeah. Yeah. I mean a ton of stuff. Patrick is a great guy. I mean, I think that's in and of itself an interesting learning. He's a, he's a very kind person. He's calm. He's thoughtful. He's just not. In my opinion, he's not the typical like bro tech entrepreneur who is like, oh, you know, in a pound three red bull, like that, he's the opposite of that.
And I, you know, I love that about him. You know, there's a few things like he, he's, he's really big on a very open calendar and open kind of exploration. And I think I tended to be, you know, I've gotten better at it by tended to be a pretty calendar person. And I'm not, I'm not a super organized person, but I like, I tend to just use my calendar and he's really good at like leaving day's open.
And I thought that's like a really, you know, interesting thing. He's really good at asking questions. And again, I, I'd say my default prior to that was being more of the, you know, I was like, nationals and debate and public Isiah. I'm used to talking and saying things and it was really cool to learn kind of the art of being a listener and asking questions.
And I still am really working on that. He is really, you know, I think, again, a person I look up to in terms of he's, he's figured out how to spread himself across a few things and do a great job of that. And show up for the things that he's able to show up for and bring a lot of value to. So that's really another thing I've learned from him. Yeah.
Watson: Right on. I mean, it's literally, it'd be always asked me what my favorite show is and invest like the best now business breakdowns has kind of joined that category, but it's just unfair that like that's now free and every other previous generation had like, I don't even know if you'd get that at an MBA.
It's like even surpass that in my opinion. Well, this has been fantastic, Jesse. I know that we've taken a lot of your time here. I want to ask the standard last two questions. Let's start off with where people can find you in the digital world. If they want to learn more about Gateway, follow you on Twitter, where can we point them?
Pujji: Yeah, sure. Yeah. Twitter J S Pucci P like Peter UJI, and then gateway.xyz as the website for Gateway X.
Watson: Perfect. We're gonna link that in the show notes. We're also going to link, all the other accounts that might be relevant and some of the books and stuff that we referenced in the show notes. For this episode, you can find it at goingdeepwithaaron.com slash podcast or in the app where you're probably listening to this right now.
But before I let you go, Jesse, I would like to give you the mic one final time to issue an actionable personal challenge to the audience.
Pujji: Yeah, sure. I could go a lot of different directions to this, but, I think, what I would challenge everyone to do is just remove the bottom five items on your to-do list. Like whatever's on your shoes right now, pull it out.
And just like, I'm not going to do these this week or next week. And instead I'm going to, I'm not going to guilt myself. I'm going to focus on these top three or five that I actually have to focus on, and I'm going to do a better job of that.
Watson: I, I am definitely guilty of failing to do that, but it's funny how, when you remove the kind of BS, like seven out of 10 tasks, you get a whole lot better at the top ones.
Pujji: Totally, Amen.
Watson: Awesome, Jesse, this has been fantastic. Thank you so much for taking the time to be on the show.
Pujji: Great job. Great having, great being here with you.
Watson: We just went deep with Jesse Pooja. Whoever out there has a fantastic day.
Thank you so much for listening to the end of my conversation with Jesse Pooja. Just two months ago, we interviewed Marshall Haas who is also developing his own holding company. I think that this is, pretty much the ideal of what most entrepreneurs are aspiring to all sorts of different outlets for their creativity, diversified revenue, income, and profits, and a ton of fun to continue building stuff.
So we're going to continue to look for entrepreneurs like these two gentlemen, if you haven't heard the Marshall interview, go check that out and hit subscribe because we'll be talking to more soon.
Thanks for listening. Connect with Aaron on Twitter and Instagram @Aaron Watson59.