Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighter. I’m Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs on how to build their businesses for an audience of entrepreneurs. I have to tell you, when I search for guests, one of the things I’m looking for is the way they write their company name. You may have noticed that HostGator contains one or two words, for example. Is it uppercase H and lowercase G for Gator or is it uppercase H, uppercase G? Like all that stuff. And when I write to a founder to invite him to an interview with me, I want to do it right because that’s important.
This is a minor problem. How about larger topics that really reflect the way you want to speak to your audience? Are you a company that says “hey guys” or are guys in your company viewed as a sexist term, and maybe in the file you said “boys are a sexist term.” We will use them all. “Or are you a company that never uses you because you are not the right language for your audience? Who knows? It may be in a style guide somewhere but it is not used. That is the problem.
May Habib set up a company to solve this. She says people are not. . . First, companies don’t write style guides. We will make it easier for you to write these style guides. Number two: People in a company don’t use the style guide. It is too chunky. It’s too much work. This one, right? What if we create software that automatically creates a business style guide, but most of all, automatically compares everyone’s writing to the style guide so that everyone, the legal team, the person who writes an email when you want to use it , the person who writes the blog post Even a brand new person who starts can write how you want to communicate as a company. After all, she did. She started doing something else. The company that founded it is called Qordoba. It creates software that companies can use to write content.
And when I say someday, I mean because she had another idea. She got along well with this idea, and then gave up serious income because she said, “No. No, we have to change. “And I’m excited to see how she got this idea, how she got the previous idea, and what made her do it. . . even though she finally had revenue, even though she finally had customers, which made her say, “No. We will not do it. We will give up this income. We will give up these customers. We’re going to give up this new thing that we created and that people like. “
All right, and we’ll do everything thanks to two phenomenal sponsors. The first is HostGator for hosting websites. The second is Toptal for hiring developers. And I should say that I discovered you in May because someone on your team bought ads from us months ago and I said, “Wait, I want to get to know the company. This seems like a really impressive company. “So we prepared this interview and I’m glad you are here. Thanks for being there.
Can: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me, Andrew.
Andrew: What is the income at the moment?
Can: So we’re approaching a mil in ARR, and we did that in about six months. This is the fastest time I have had on a mil. It took us about 18 months to get there in the previous business, and we’ll do as much in a quarter. So it’s accelerating very quickly, which is fantastic to confirm the really difficult end of 2018, early 2019, that we had when we did a lot of very interested soul searches based on the market data that came back to us.
Andrew: Can you repeat that? How much money did you make before you decided, “No, we’ll give it up and start over.”
Can: We have an ARR of nearly $ 4 million.
Andrew: Four million dollars and you gave up everything?
Can: We’re turning it around and I’ve given up most of it. Yes.
Andrew: You previously worked at Lehman Brothers. Can you give me an example of what you did there?
Can: I started my career as an investment banking analyst. My big dream was to become a professor and I had applied to a number of doctoral students. Programs. And then I had no money to pay it, so I counted on a scholarship and I was a Rhodes finalist and didn’t get it and was fed up with the whole process and really took this job at the last minute at Lehman Brothers and loved it. I really loved it. I met . . .
Andrew: What have you done there?
Can: I was an investment banking analyst and M&A for technology.
Andrew: Analyze what. . .
Can: In New York.
Andrew:. . . Tech company? In New York, tech companies analyze for?
Can: I mean for S1s, for large debt increases that help put companies on the stock exchange.
Andrew: I have it.
Can: So Verifone was kind of a big customer I worked on and helped them do a big capital increase after they went public and looked around confidentially. . . Well, there’s no editing here, so I’m not going to tell you anything that we’ve made confidential, but I’ve looked at some pretty interesting, very strategic M&A deals on behalf of our customers, you know, things on the order of Billion dollars the financial services.
Andrew: Did you tell our producer that at some point you will transfer how much money to the shareholders in Singapore?
Can: That was the next job. So I went from Lehman Brothers to Barclays. So I was there during the financial crisis. And then one of our clients was the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund throughout this ordeal. I speak Arabic, I am Lebanese, was also the top analyst in my group and the fund needed someone. So I packed up and moved to Abu Dhabi on a whim. I do a lot of things out of whim, Andrew, start businesses, leave jobs, leave the country, but it was an incredible opportunity. And yes, one of the crazy things I did was to help the team buy a company in Singapore, and in the end I was the person who actually did the money transfer and the instructions to transfer the money from ours Treasury was responsible to their treasury.
Andrew: How much money are we talking about?
Can: It was $ 4 billion in local currency.
Andrew: Billion. Wowee. You say on a whim, but you are an analytical person. I’m a little curious about how entrepreneurs make decisions that seem quick and arbitrary, but in reality there is a gut instinct that is determined by analysis and experienced analysis. How you do that?
Can: So I have to be very aware of that. . . and it’s a fact, I believe that my gut is stronger than my intellect. And access, you can call it good, you can call it voice, you can call it intuition, have the kind of mind-gut connection as an entrepreneur, have this way clean, be able to hear yourself thinking, is just the most powerful tool and. . .
Andrew: Give me an example of something? Is it too much to get to the point of saying do you remember a time when you made a gut feeling decision that was informed?
Can: I mean your entire mental model is affected by everything you take in, and your gut can help you make decisions based on this information, which you may not even be able to consciously process. The way the gut tells you what to do is make you feel bad when it’s not right and you know when you’re scared of where you feel it in your body. I have read so much about the somatic understanding of what is happening to you and the ability to bring emotions into your body and to be conscious and in tune with them can really help you make better decisions or understand where you are There are no decisions about where you should be.
Andrew: So the first version of Qordoba was about localization. Do you have an example of where you saw the meaning of it? Was that at Lehman Brothers?
Can: So when I was performing in Dubai, I was traveling the world and saw specifically Asia, but also Europe and then doing things in California and was based in the Middle East, and that was 2010, 2011, 2012 and everyone used different types of each day Apps. I mean, at that point WhatsApp hadn’t really taken control of everything, and you know, the kind of famous chat apps in Asia. And I just felt that it was too difficult for content and software to be in other languages when I started talking to people about why things weren’t in other languages, why it was. . .
Andrew: Because you spoke to software developers and. . . No?
Can: I just spoke to people who were in companies?
Andrew: And your apps didn’t work well? They were in business and then what was the problem they had?
Can: So it was difficult to take a product in Chinese and bring it well in English.
Andrew: Was it difficult for your company, like going to the office, to take your product to another country?
Can: Yes. Software localization is a delicate problem.
Andrew: Why is it such a difficult problem? There was no time there in which Facebook said, “We will allow all of our users to translate our website into any language. If you are interested in participating, click this link and translate..?” If a group of strangers who don’t know Facebook well, can translate it, why is it so difficult for app makers?
Can: You know, a kind of crowd-based localization was a fad and was largely abandoned, almost no one does it anymore. There are some really interesting peculiarities of this market, but I decided that it would be difficult to develop a pure game software product with a turnover of several hundred million in this industry without a really large branch of services. And so our first type of micro. . .
Andrew: Before we go into that, I want to understand the problem that software manufacturers and software company employees had. Why was it not so easy to say: “Okay, if crowdsourcing …” I think for many things that we imagine there at a time that crowdsourcing would solve everything. I know that podcasters always said: “Here is an empty box, only everyone writes a sentence from the interview. In the end we got the transcript. “.” It never worked.
Can: It never works. Yes.
Andrew: What I discovered was behind the scenes that the people who made it work paid for translation services. They put it aside and then let people edit it to improve it, and even that we all had to get rid of it because people just wrote random things in and promoted things. Couldn’t these companies just hire a translator? How much does a translator cost? If they write software, can’t they pay to hire a translator?
Can: So the service piece is about continuity. A one-time, one-off and done thing is really not that difficult, but if you integrate continuous localization into a continuous software product, you get all sorts of timing and quality assurance issues. So what is difficult is the fact that engineers basically have this tax, this localization tax, and then the organization to keep apps up to date in every language they are in. This is actually a really difficult problem.
The first iteration of the product was to solve it, and we actually did it pretty well. However, without the service part, this was difficult because people don’t know translators and, as you know, need help to connect to the services.
Andrew: So you’ve seen this over and over again, especially someone who has worked internationally, and you said, “I think I could start a company that takes care of it.” You stopped, you went out and collected money. Is that the first step you have taken?
Can: No. The first step was to find a co-founder.
Andrew: How do you find your co-founder?
Can: I asked for intros from people I trusted. I wasn’t in technology at all, so I went out there. And that’s like when Google Reader existed. . . I love this product, which basically subscribed to every RSS feed related to technology and business start-up somewhere, and NLP and localization, and found what appeared to be a recommendation and then looked it up on GitHub on twitter. And I liked what he was working on and what his own side projects were, ML and NLP related, and those were early days. And so I reached him coldly on Twitter because I knew his name, but we weren’t introduced via email. And we met for breakfast about three days later. And what I didn’t know is that he got things like that all the time, people who wanted to be like, “You would be CTO, I would be CEO.”
Andrew: I bet . . .
Andrew: I bet. Yes. Developers get that all the time.
Can: Yes. I agree.
Andrew: “I have a great idea. You do all the work.”
Can: Yes. Total. And then I showed up and talked to him a little about it, but not too much, and then I sent him an NDA that I don’t really remember, but he sent me the email evidence I did did that. You know, you like tons of steps after the first one who decides to start a business, and you kind of forget about the early crazy shit you did. But in the end we worked together, you know. . .
Andrew: How did you convince him? How did you convince him to say: “Yes. I do this with you “
Can: So it was not an isolated case, that’s for sure. You know, it took me a couple of years. . . I mean, that was 2012 to actually leave my job and really commit to doing it full-time. And it really wasn’t until we said, “We have to move to America.” . . We were still in Dubai that things were going really well.
Andrew: I have it. And so the two of you just talked to each other: “I have this idea. Would you be interested?” “Yes, maybe, but I have other people who keep asking about it. I don’t know if you’re weird or not…”
Can: And we built things on the side.
Andrew: And you had both things on your side.
Can: Yes. I mean, we worked together on the side.
Andrew: On what?
Can: We met after work, after our kind of day jobs and looked at wire mesh, worked on wire mesh.
Andrew: I have it. I just imagine what these things can be.
Can: Prototyping, yes.
Andrew: And then did you collect money or did you start building the first version?
Can: Then I used some of my savings for the first development and my co-founder coded a little bit, but we actually paid someone he supervised to do the first bit. And yes, and that was my own money. And then I had a friend who offered to fundamentally invest. I met him two or three times for advice. And, you know, at the last meeting, so to speak, he said, “Well, I want to invest, and I’m going to praise an angel round for you too.” So that helps, because then I had a term sheet for a round of angels and then I could talk to other people about it. So that was our first money in.
Andrew: How much money was this first sowing?
Can: I think the first seed was like a 550K.
Andrew: And by then did you create the first version or did you do it? . . ?
Can: Until then we had the first version and I had an Alpha customer.
Andrew: So what did the first version do?
Can: Oh my god, you’re taking me back, Andrew.
Andrew: That’s what it’s about here.
Can: So with the first version you could easily get a group of translators to translate your stuff. Just as you talked about it, you know, “You take this sentence. I take this sentence. “It’s like one [inaudible 00:16:59].
Andrew: So I would upload something to your service, you would dissolve it and send it to translators, each of them would treat one sentence at a time, what?
Can: Whatever you wanted.
Andrew: Whatever the amount, and then I would have to find my own translator.
Andrew: I have it. And then you found an Alpha customer, how?
Can: So it was someone I met when I was thinking about starting a business. And he had a news site where they wrote articles in English, and one of them translated them into a number of different languages. Arabic is the first.
Andrew: All right, let me take a moment to talk about my first sponsor. The first sponsor is a company called HostGator for hosting websites. Let me ask you, you got out of the translation business. Do you think this would make sense for someone to go to HostGator, create a simple WordPress account that says, “I will translate your blog posts into another language”. You choose a language and then find a translator online. Look for customers and they will see if this idea works: “I translate your blog posts personally or translate your articles of any kind.” What do you think about it, May?
Can: I think that would work.
Andrew: Well, whether you have this idea or any other idea, really folks, I urge you to go to hostgator.com/mixergy because it is not only reliable but not only exists forever but is also inexpensive, because it’s hosted, especially on WordPress, it’s a solved problem. Don’t spend a lot of time, don’t spend a lot of money, just go and let it go. If you don’t like it, delete it and continue. You have a 45-day money back guarantee. So if everything I’ve told you about how great HostGator is is not true, you can cancel.
But I tell you, I always open up to my audience to tell me what they think of my sponsors. If you don’t like them, I’ll cancel them. If so, we will increase it further. And every time I give you my email address and my personal email address, my wife uses this email address: [email protected] If you don’t love HostGator, don’t just quit, just tell me about it. And if you do, like so many other people who signed up, tell me about it. Go to hostgator.com/mixergy. I literally guarantee that you will love it. HostGator, thank you for the sponsorship.
How about the first alpha sponsor? With the first alpha sponsor. How about the first Alpha customer?
Can: It went great. You know, we spent a couple of years on it. then we moved into the valley. And we found that it was difficult to get the software-only business without actually connecting people with the translators. So the first micro-pivot was to take what we had built. So after this kind of alpha, the product developed a lot. And what we’re really good at is solving the technical part of the problem that helped connect to the code and actually make the localization continuous. So the first shift in the business came when we moved away from localization and tried. . . and that was it. . . I mean, some of our customers in the US used Qordoba to write English and what we did. . .
Andrew: What do you mean? It was American English speakers who used Qordoba to write English because?
Can: Because Qordoba was the only place for software to have all of the repository content in one place. So when you look at a software screen, you may get an error message, a series of user interfaces, and possibly some kind of onboarding tutorial, and all of the content is in different places. So you don’t necessarily know which engineer is responsible for which part of the service, except that these strings actually live in Qordoba because you use them for localization.
Andrew: So you created something that was so good that people only used it as the main writing platform. And with people, I mean, engineers did that.
Can: So the product people who had to communicate with engineers.
Andrew: I have it.
Can: The first realization was: “Oh, wow, we don’t have a content management system for software products, for product UX”, and so we collected the big money and built a big business that we built called strings management. If we hadn’t started localization, we wouldn’t have gotten this insight at all. And the traction then when we reached the 4 mil ARR number that really did the traction there by the value of “I shouldn’t have to submit a Jira ticket to add a comma or change the spelling of my name. ”And there’s a fundamental separation between a PM, a product manager, or a marketer who takes care of the words and branding of the copy included in the app. And then it’s a pretty disjointed process when the engineer actually has to write it down and write it down from copying the model or looking at a sketch file [inaudible 00:22:06].
Andrew: Let me ask you that, let me find a real-world example that might help me explain what happened before and after your software. At the moment you and I are connecting via Zoom. When I click this end meeting button in the lower right corner of my zoom screen, I get an error message. I think it says, “Do you really leave this meeting, yes or no?” When someone looked at it, a product person said, “Wait, why do we say, ‘Really? Leave this meeting? “It’s just too distracting. Can we just get rid of the middle question mark?” Before you came along, would such a situation have been handled by the product person?
Can: And that person would have submitted a ticket to find out which backend technician was responsible for the error service on the Mac desktop client. I’m assuming you’re working on a Mac and assign it to that person. This person looks at a copy change compared to all these other cool things in the sprint and tries to put it somewhere. And then that person has to go and chase the files where that could be. You know, Ctrl + F when everything is in a single application file, but in reality we are all based on micro services. And so they actually look at a number of [inaudible 00:23:23].
Andrew: So it is as if the person who realizes that it is their job to make things read better has to create a job for someone who says: “I have all these other jobs and I don’t even know where This is. And chase it. How would that look after your previous version?
Can: So this person went to Qordoba, where all of their strings were sitting, and they literally started typing the words they saw in the error message, and this line was displayed in Qordoba because they basically take all of the content indexed make a change, complete it and then at the next integration point so it can be real time if you connected Qordoba via the API. It can be a pull request to GitHub if they have connected via GitHub I decided to integrate into Qordoba. You could push ahead with this change and the engineer didn’t have to do anything.
Andrew: All of the language that was displayed on the screen and visible to users was drawn into one place in Qordoba and this product person did not need to know how to find out. . . The product person would have to do nothing other than write it himself.
Can: Yes. I agree.
Andrew: I have it. And that was one thing. And so the “Really Leave Meeting” could be a button that says, “Invited,” I don’t know, and they could say, “Well, invited is over.” We want you to use this invite button. I want to get rid of the D “You just go back to Qordoba and make that change. I have it. You created that, although you wanted to use it as the basis for translation into other languages. It made sense for product people to use it only to interact with the software that their users received. And how big was the company at that time?
Can: At this point, we may have a few million dollars in sales of the localization piece. And the realities of this kind of launch. . . You know we learned a lot of lessons about launch. It’s funny. It’s like you need a failure curriculum, you get your statutes, and then, as stated above, you read: “Here are all the mistakes you will absolutely make, no matter how much you do. Read everything what you need to do when building a business. “You know, one of the mistakes we made was probably that we didn’t talk to people enough before we decided to make it our launch.
And you could be good at selling, you could be good at selling and selling everything. I mean, we also had incredible customers for this product. But what happened when we really got this string management value proposition to market didn’t shorten business cycles. There was still a fundamental mismatch between the champion, who are the happy people, and the gatekeepers, who are the engineers. Even if the value proposition is to remove the engineers, you still have to commit to the roadmap for this initial integration.
Andrew: So you would get the person who wrote the words to say, “Yes, I want this”. You should get that. . . First of all, it would take a while to buy, and then they would have to get the developers to say, “Use this, integrate this for us,” and the developers had a number of other things.
Can: It was even another stuff, like, yes, that’s exactly it.
Andrew: What’s this?
Can: UX authors want to use it, then they have to convince the product people who got the budget because UX authors don’t have a budget, and then they have to convince the engineers. And so there is a lot of convincing.
Andrew: I have it. And so one of them has to say, “Yes, finally” and you thought you were on the right track, but all the other things that had to happen after a purchase were a struggle.
Can: Once people got there, the product was pretty easy to roll out. But you know, I’ve learned that there is a big difference between people who are stakeholders and people who have a nice buy-in. And a stakeholder can block your business and block everything that he has just done. And I know . . . I mean, we run a product organization. You have to do the few things that will really move the needle. And invite versus invite make a big difference in the success of zoom versus latency compared to all the other shit these engineers had to work on. And so it was nice to have it. The burning need was not there. And I think we could have built a good deal there. It would have been an excellent deal. You know, I felt that we had the team at the table, from engineering to product to executives, to really build a great business.
Das andere, was wir gesehen haben, war, wissen Sie, die Produktleute und die UX-Autoren, wie sie wissen, sie wissen nichts über Lokalisierung und was sie tun wollten, war über die Art des Kernprodukts. Die technische Führung wusste, dass sie später Integrationen wie die von uns vorgeschlagene durchführen mussten, sobald sie lokalisiert werden mussten. Und so traten sie die Dose die Straße hinunter. Und so hatten wir Sachen blockiert oder kamen nächstes Jahr wieder zu Gesprächen. Und so, ja, aus vielen Gründen, tolles Produkt, Markt nicht bereit.
Andrew: Wie haben Sie so viele Verkäufe erzielt? Was hat für dich gearbeitet?
Can: Wir waren also gut darin, Leute dazu zu bringen, über ihre Probleme zu sprechen. Und das Problem. . .
Andrew: Sie waren gut, wie Sie persönlich, oder haben Sie jemanden eingestellt, der besonders gut darin war?
Can: Wir hatten in dieser Zeit ein paar Wiederholungen, eine wirklich herausragende. Und wir hatten einen sehr kommerziellen Mitbegründer. Mein CTO ist also unsere geheime Verkaufswaffe, weil Kunden ihn lieben. Weißt du, wir haben viel Scheiße für die Leute gebaut und wir waren gut darin. Wir waren schnell.
Andrew: Wenn sie nach etwas fragen würden und Waseem sicherstellen würde, dass sie es bekommen würden.
Andrew: Und das ist ein langer Weg für Kunden, weil sie eine ständige Verbesserung sehen, sehen, dass ihre Bedürfnisse berücksichtigt werden, und dann haben Sie auch etwas gesagt, das ich aufgeschrieben habe. Sie sind gut darin, Menschen dazu zu bringen, über ihre Probleme zu sprechen. Sie kommen also in ein Gespräch mit einem potenziellen Kunden und sagen: „Erzählen Sie mir von diesem Problem.“ Sie würden es in erheblichem Maße spüren, und sie würden diejenigen sein, die irgendwann das Ja bekommen würden, aber es war immer noch schmerzhaft für die anderen Personen in der Organisation.
Can: Ich denke, es ist für Unternehmer schwierig zu wissen, wann Ihre Early Adopters wirklich nur Early Adopters sind. Wissen Sie, wenn Sie über die Technologieeinführungskurve nachdenken, wird dies für alle sein und wie lange wird es dauern, bis es für alle sein wird? Und ich hatte das Gefühl, dass es lange dauern würde, bis Early Adopters mehr Mainstream wurden.
Andrew: Ich möchte dann die Entscheidung treffen, zu schwenken, aber bevor wir es tun, sind Sie jemand, der nicht aus enormen Reichtümern stammt und so viel Umsatz zu haben und aufzugeben, ist eine schwierige Entscheidung. Ich wollte Ihren Hintergrund ein wenig kennenlernen und dann gehen wir zurück auf das, was nach dem Pivot passiert ist. Wie denkst du, geht dieses Interview für dich so weit?
Can: Oh, es macht Spaß. Weißt du, ich habe Angst, über einige der Dinge nachzudenken, die wir durchgemacht haben, aber. . .
Can: Einiges davon wieder zu erleben hat dich ängstlich gemacht. Soweit wir reden, habe ich das Gefühl, dass Sie einer der komponiertesten Menschen sind, mit denen ich je gesprochen habe, noch bevor wir angefangen haben. Sie sagten: „Ich mache mir Sorgen, dass ich dieses Interview richtig mache“, aber Ich sehe dich an und du scheinst super gefasst zu sein. Wann war der Punkt, an dem Sie sich so ängstlich fühlten, dass Sie nicht so komponiert waren? Ich sehe es nicht in dir.
Can: Ich meine, weißt du, als Gründer eines Startups denke ich, dass es eine Karriere für viele Menschen ist und dass es eines der Dinge ist, die man gerade lernt, gelassen zu bleiben und den Kopf im Spiel zu behalten.
Andrew: Und als es bei dir nicht funktionierte, wie warst du? Ich weiß für mich, wie ich bin. . . Ich habe das schon einmal gesagt, ich wache mitten in der Nacht auf und gehe: „Wie habe ich das gesagt? How did I allow it?” The other place where it hurts me is on my runs where I’m going for 6, 12, 15 miles, there’s nothing to do. Yes, you can listen to podcasts, but eventually you’re listening to your head. And if I regret something that I said or did, that goes over and over in my head. Like my Fred Wilson interview, the VC, I, for years, lived it saying, “I could have done so much better. Why did I do that?” And that’s the way that I express my pain. For you, where does that come out?
May: So I learned a few years ago to try not to recycle emotion. So when I am feeling anxiety, or feeling regret, or feeling fear, and I really just try to sit with it and, like, literally just try to feel, like, where in your body it hurts and really let it pass through you. When we try to stop the emotion before it’s really passed through, the body keeps the score. And, you know, so many entrepreneurs have back pain. I’ve got like the tightest shoulders any masseuse has ever seen. Like, this comes from us not allowing things to really pass through. And when you are replaying things, it means you haven’t . . . for me, anyway, it means I haven’t allowed myself to really sit and absorb the emotion and because of that, I’m recycling it because I’m happy to sort of stay on the surface.
Andrew: Can you give an example of that, or do you want . . . why don’t you take a moment, think about it. I’d love to hear an example of it. I want to tell you about my second sponsor, while you’re thinking about the time where you are in deep pain. My second sponsor is a company called Toptal for hiring developers. I’ve said this before, as I was walking here at Regus to get coffee, there was a guy who was sitting in a Toptal t-shirt, and I said, “Hey, do you work for Toptal?’ He said, “No.” He said, “I got a company called Quantum Collective. What we do is we do artificial intelligence.” I said, “What does that mean? Everyone’s throwing that term around.” He said, “You notice that there’s some scooters here that sometimes they’re just left, like, in random places?” Like, “Oh, yeah.” Are you in San Francisco, May?
Andrew: You are. I don’t know if you remember, there was one scooter company, I won’t put them down here, it was . . . I forget actually, it was either Skip or Scoot, I will put them down apparently, they had all the scooters on the Embarcadero all the time. Now meanwhile, in the Embarcadero at 9:00 in the morning, at 8:00 in the morning, nobody’s going for a scooter ride. There’s nobody up over there. That’s where tourists come later in the day and on the weekends. Where you want the scooter is in Noe Valley, in the Mission where people live and then they want to ride the scooters. Anyway, they were terrible at predicting and as a result, they suffered for it. He goes, “We have scooter companies, for example, working for us and what we do is we use artificial intelligence to predict where people are going to need the scooter so they could put the scooters in their van, move it over where it needs to go,” and so on.
I go, “Okay, great. Why are you using Toptal?” “Because you know how hard it is to find engineers, you know how hard it is to find people who know artificial intelligence, not just because it’s a cute thing to say but because it really matters, data analysts, scientists. We’ve searched ten different places to find people who can do this well. We’re getting hired . . . ” He’s a bootstrap company. He’s getting hired to do this for companies. He doesn’t have enough people on staff. He goes, “I went to Toptal, they not only found people for me,” he says, “Now, when a client of ours needs us to transition the work over to them so they have artificial intelligence capabilities, we hire from Toptal, we transition over to them.” And that’s what this guy Michael does. So many other people here in San Francisco use Toptal.
I urge you, if you’re listening to me and you’re hiring, you need to go check out toptal.com/mixergy. The companies that you know well use Toptal. Sometimes they’re not as open about it because they want you to think that they have internal capabilities that are just magnificent because Toptal people are just, like, every other person in your company. But I’m telling you, companies you know and admire have used Toptal and continue to. You should at least check them out.
If you go to top toptal.com/mixergy, they’ll give you 80 hours of Toptal developer credit when you pay for your first 80 hours, in addition, to really get this no-risk trial period. So all you have to do is go to top as in top of your head, tal as in talent, T-O-P-T-A-L.com/M-I-X-E-R-G-Y. When you do, the first thing you’ll do is schedule a call with a matcher, just have a conversation. If it’s a good fit, go for it. If it’s not, no problem, no harm, toptal.com/mixergy.
Do you have a moment when you had to let that feeling go through you?
May: So I was listening to what you’re saying about Toptal. That was really compelling. But, yeah, absolutely. Striking the balance of holding people accountable and really making sure people are bringing, you know, their best efforts to a problem and trying to make sure that, you know, you’re doing this in a super respectful way that allows them to feel trusted and respected, making sure that you’re creating an environment where people can take risks and absolutely can fail and get it wrong, where people feel empowered to challenge you, like, these are all things that are running through your moment in your head when you’re trying to figure out what to actually say to somebody in a one-on-one or in a team meeting.
And so, you know, I am frequently angry, and anger is the way that your body says, “You know, shit is just not going right.” And how do you respond but not react to that, and that is really around just allowing yourself to be okay, feeling angry. You don’t have to make the other person angry. You can’t and should not be transferring your anger to them. You react within yourself, and then should be able to respond in a way that gets you the outcome that you actually want without you needing them to feel your anger.
Andrew: So if someone’s done something to let you down at the company, instead of saying, “Just stop it, let it go, let it go,” you won’t let it go. You’ll allow yourself to be angry, not angry at them, not screaming at them, but you’ll say, “I am kind of pissed that this person didn’t adjust the way that I wanted them to. I hired them to be better than me at this, and now I have to keep telling them what to do.” And you’ll allow that feeling to go over you and then to wash out so you can experience it and then come back to being yourself.
May: And I don’t not say that. I don’t not say it to them. But when I can speak without the emotion, it’s so much more powerful. Especially in the early days, I think it was hard for people to hear what you’re saying when all they hear is the emotion. We’re wired to hear emotion versus the content of what you’re saying. So if you can kind of feel the emotion separately from communicating what you need to get communicated, that’s, like, arsenal, like, CEO things you got to learn.
Andrew: I find that the best way for me to do that is through journaling. If I say, “I’m angry at this person,” and I journal it out, I feel so much better because now I’ve forced myself to think through what I’m angry about. And sometimes, it turns out I was wrong. I was just, like, in my head making it bigger than it really was. Your background, where did you grow up?
May: So I was born in a village in Lebanon. My family moved to Canada when I was little. And we move to Windsor, Ontario . . .
Andrew: Wait, before we go to Windsor, what was it like to grow up in Lebanon?
May: So this was the ’80s to late ’80s . . .
Andrew: What was Lebanon like back then?
May: I mean, I was born at home, we didn’t have electricity, there wasn’t a phone. I think our village got phones in, like, ’96 or ’97. It was wonderful. I had two brothers. I’m Irish twins with my next brother. So my mom had three kids in three years basically. So we’re all just really, really close. And it really did take a village and, you know, I just remember being outside all day for years, house to house, you know. I mean, there are maybe 20 houses in our village and just surrounded by farmland. So it was a beautiful place to have my first memories.
Andrew: What did your dad do?
May: So my dad drove a truck. When we were there, that’s what he was doing. So my family were farmers, and so he would drive kind of produce into the big city to sell it. And then when the war happened, his him and his brothers were smuggling appliances into Syria because we were on the border and there really wasn’t anyone paying attention, so. I probably shouldn’t be saying that, but dad was a smuggler for a little while.
Andrew: And then you got to Canada.
May: Then we got to Canada and then . . .
Andrew: And . . . Go ahead, what was that like?
May: And then we had my sister. That was good. I’m the oldest of eight now so we have . . .
Andrew: Wow. By the way, you know, last night, because I knew that I was coming to do this interview with you, I looked up Lebanon on the map just to get a sense of . . . it’s much smaller than I imagined. For some reason. I thought Lebanon was huge.
May: Oh, thank you. Yes, because you’ve probably met so many Lebanese people.
Andrew: What has so many Lebanese people?
May: I said maybe you’ve met so many Lebanese people.
Andrew: I have. Ja, absolut. I want to engage them in conversation about what’s going on. Like, there was a friend who just went back to Lebanon a couple of years ago. And, for some reason, they feel like they’re not invited to talk about it, and I’d like for them to talk about it more. What was it like for the transition into Canada?
May: I loved it. You know, school had water table, like, it was, like, going to heaven.
Andrew: What’s a water table?
May: You know, like when you . . . do you have kids?
Andrew: I do. You mean like a table where there’s water and the kids can splash . . . ?
May: Yeah. That’s first memory of being, like, “Holy shit.”
Andrew: You know what, that is kind of a thing, holy shit. We’ve given our kids a table so that they could splash around instead of a puddle.
May: Yeah. Es ist wunderbar.
Andrew: And so you notice that your parents ended up doing what here in Canada, anyway?
May: So my mom worked at a bakery, she made pita bread, and it was a Lebanese-owned bakery that she could walk to. It’s called Francis’ Bakery. All of, like, my mom, my aunts, everybody, it was sort of, like, the rite of passage when you immigrated to go work . . .
Andrew: At this bakery?
May: At this bakery. Actually, it’s a really nice story. So that man, his son ended up being mayor of our city, and our city is, like, 400,000 people now. So he like ran for . . . he was not that much older than me, maybe 10 years older than me, Eddie Francis, and, yeah, he ran for city council in his 20s. He’s, like, the youngest city councilman in Windsor, Ontario, ever. I think in Ontario history even. Anyway, he ended up being mayor, really lovely man. But his dad, you know, helped my mom and my aunts kind of make a bunch of money when they first moved.
Andrew: And your dad was in a die shop. Is that right?
May: Yeah. So he started in . . . so he works at a tool and die shop and . . .
Andrew: The reason that I’m bringing it up is one of the surprising things that you said to our producer when you had that conversation was it was chaotic, and it influenced you somehow that it was so chaotic. What do you mean?
May: Yeah. It’s interesting. You know, I think on the one hand, it made me calm when things were chaotic. So that’s kind of a skill that I have today. You know, a bunch of kids in the house with my aunt and uncle. You know, everybody had two or three jobs and was trying to learn English. Like, it was chaotic from a kind of home sense. And then, work, my dad ended up starting his own business and, you know, cash flow was always a struggle. And I went to work with him on the weekends and after school. So I kind of watched him build his own business. But, yeah, I mean, I didn’t feel like he had good controls. And, you know, I’m kind of, OKR driven now, and I’ve got this like crazy spreadsheet and literally watched every dollar row by row move, you know, very detailed, daily updated 13-week rolling cash flow. And I think, you know, that is a reaction to kind of watching how he ran his business.
Andrew: You don’t want that kind of chaos in your world.
Andrew: So now that I get a sense of your background, it’s just even more impressive that you were able to give up $4 million in recurring revenue, in annual recurring revenue to transition to this new thing. How did you discover this new thing?
May: So, remember, I mean, we like we’re elbow greasing our way there and that never feels good. Not that I expected anything to come easy. Nothing does come easy, and the challenges actually are perpetual, just the problems are changing. You know, when I looked at kind of our big vision, like literally from years ago, the big vision is optimize the way people write. Writing is our best technology. It was our first technology. It was how we went one to one, to one to many. And it still hasn’t changed. It is your brain and a blank cursor on the screen, and kind of the big hairy audacious goal for years has been, “Let’s make writing better.”
And I felt like what I had been doing for the past few years was rather than going to climb the mountain, I was sort of, like, finding this hill and going to the hill and, like, taking a deep breath, take my backpack off, making sure nobody was chasing me and then, like, setting my eyes on the next hill. And I was like, “Look, I mean, let’s not forget why we’re in product UX. We’re in product UX because we think helping optimize and make this content good allows us to then help do it in marketing and help doing it in customer success, etc. So let’s just go fucking do that.” And that’s what we did.
Andrew: So did you go back and talk to customers to make sure that you were right about the problem, that you were . . . ?
Andrew: How did you do it differently this time?
May: Really good question. So this time, it was about . . . first of all, I didn’t do it myself because I’m biased, and I’m good at selling, and we hired our first head of product. And really being able to actually have somebody else direct to the line of questioning helped a lot because sometimes you create your own . . . I mean, you’re a CEO or you’re a founder of your company because you are really good at a reality distortion field, and it’s very easy to believe your own stuff. I’m not saying that, like, I discount my own product intuition or any of that, but I thought at that point, you know, I had let the market take me on this journey. And I really wanted somebody to talk to customers about the pain that we had this instinct about, and we did that.
And you know, we hired somebody from the B2C world . . . actually, not the B2B world because in the Qordoba of today, our customer, you know, the champion is the champion, and the budget holder is the budget holder, but our user is that writer. So the end user of Qordoba is the person who needs to want to interact with the suggestions, who is the person who needs to be excited every time they get a little red squiggly because they know that’s going to improve their writing and make it more on brand, make it more compliant with what the company wants.
Andrew: You hired somebody to go and talk to, not just the people who are buying, but the people who are going to be using your software.
May: Yeah. Absolutely.
Andrew: And what did you learn from those conversations?
May: I mean, they’re absolutely ongoing. I mean, what we did was kind of customer research became a practice, as part of our product in a way that it wasn’t. I mean, my customers are on WhatsApp, like, it’s not that we are far away from customers, and actually it was too close, like, the commercial relationship and then how that translates into roadmap and vision, like, sometimes that can actually hinder you, not help you.
Andrew: What do you mean? So you’re saying that when you’re too close to your customer, it can make it harder to understand them?
May: Yes. I guess that’s what I said. But what I’m really saying is just because someone will pay you for something doesn’t mean there is a big business there. Those are actually two different questions.
Andrew: So then, what’s the question that leads you to know that there is a big business there?
May: Are there use cases that are broadly applicable to other segments, and is it validated by people who don’t know you and don’t know the product?
Andrew: And so you would go to the end-user, who doesn’t know you, who has no . . . like you hadn’t persuaded them to buy so they’re not bought into your magnetism, into your sales process. And you go to them and you ask them, “Here’s what I think I’m creating, would you use it?”
May: Yeah. And even more specific, like, you know, “Here’s what we’ve got. I’m going to give it to you for free, and I’m actually going to watch you use it. And you don’t actually use it as much as I thought, what prevented you from doing that?” We gave away the product for the first time. I had never done that before.
Andrew: So you created first a minimum viable product, which did what?
May: So it was a really clean content editor online. And when you put content in there, whether you’re pasting it in or writing it from scratch, it gave you suggestions on how to make it better, so clarity, conciseness, readability, grammar, spelling, and then tied to what was very basic, really just a terminology manager, and now since we built out a whole writing style guide.
Andrew: What was the terminology editor?
May: Literally, like, you know, things like, “We say customer. We don’t say client.”
Andrew: Got it. So you look for the word customer and you tell them, “Actually here we don’t use that. We use client.”
May: Yes. We just replace them.
Andrew: I never understood that that was an issue. It was an issue. I don’t know why, but it does make a difference for people. And I remember my first real job, my boss said to the person who’s closest to, he said, “We never call our people customer. We call them clients.” There’s a sense of, I don’t know . . .
Andrew: . . . concierge and prestige in the relationship. And so you did nothing but that and then you said, “Would they even use it? We’re giving it to your people. Go in and use it?”
May: Yeah. Absolutely.
Andrew: What did you learn about that, beyond the fact that they would use it?
May: I mean, and we’re absolutely still learning. Our go-to-market is still in its early days. We are just hitting kind of our first benchmark here. What we learned is professional writers are our constituents, people who write all day. And those power users have different sorts of needs than the people who are buying the product. The people who are buying the product want the end-users to be super happy. They also want to know that everything that is being published is being reviewed for all of these things.
I’ll give you an example. We’ve got an insurance company, a Fortune 500 insurance company, who’s a great customer. And for them, promissory intent is this big thing that they used to have lawyers review content for. Like, they can’t mislead consciously or subconsciously through their language, a user to think, a potential customer to think that they’re going to get stuff for free, or that, you know, certain conditions are definitely going to be covered. And so, certainly, if you use the word free, Qordoba’s going to underline it for you, but there is more subtle phraseology that they turn into patterns in Qordoba.
Andrew: And that’s the person who’s buying it.
May: A person who’s buying it.
Andrew: They as a business can’t be seen promising something that they can’t deliver or promising anything for any reason. The end-user though, the person who’s sitting and writing needs what?
May: That person needs an unobtrusive writing assistant. It’s as if, let’s say, Andrew, you were the person who was kind of the copy Nazi in the company, you’re kind of standing over their shoulder saying, “Okay, five minutes before you are finished, I want you to change this, this, and that,” and then they’re done. They don’t have to send it to anybody. And so they want to know that they’ve checked off all of the boxes, but they want to do it at the end, not while they’re writing, and they want to do it in the least obtrusive way as possible.
Andrew: I wouldn’t have thought that after the writing. I would have thought that they’d want it while they’re writing. But it makes sense. When I’m writing, I often will even turn off spell check and grammar check. I don’t want the distraction. I need to get the words out. Got it. And so they want an easy way to produce something that the person who needs it is going to pat him on the back and say, “This is great.”
May: Yeah. It’s not going to be this like constant back and forth that’s so annoying.
Andrew: I get that. So then, now that you found the product, you found customers, why turn your back on other revenue? Tell me if this is right, did you say to your team, “Even if you bring me a customer who pays us a million dollars for our old product, I don’t want them. I’m going to say no”?
May: Yeah. I did say that. Yes.
Andrew: You did. You said it?
May: I did. I said it I think, like, a week after giving birth, so, like, there’s nothing like having a baby to make you not give a shit. So there was, you know, a lot of resolve and a lot of clarity of thinking that if we’re going to go where we’re going, we just can’t do anything else. And the reason I had that clarity, not I was some genius, because I did it the other way and it didn’t work. Like, we had a couple of quarters we were sort of trying to do both and we didn’t have any customers. The product didn’t get good enough. You have to bet the farm.
Andrew: Because you were too dependent on the last stuff, people weren’t invested enough in building the new thing.
May: You know, we know that we need this feature, we need distraction free writing, for example, to give you an idea of a feature, but your engineering team, like, got some, like, little request from a customer on the old thing, and the person who’s going to work on this new thing is now dependent, is now busy and needs to do that. I mean, like, your classic engineering team needs to really be focused on one direction because the switching costs are so much more painful than you think. And it’s not just about building this little thing here or a little thing there, it really adds up and you have to be so clear, and so convincing, and so repetitive so that the team really believes you.
Andrew: That makes sense. And now I understand why you also told our producer, “Look, you can read a million blog posts, maybe . . . ” I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like you could read infinite blog posts about how you need to focus, need to focus until you’re an entrepreneur actually suffering from lack of focus, you don’t fully get it, and that’s where you were. Even though, you’re fully focused, it makes sense, more . . . ?
May: And I was trying to be even more focused.
Andrew: What do you mean?
May: We’ve got a really wide ACV distribution, we’ve got customers who pay us 18K a year, and we’ve got customers who pay us 120K a year. Those are two really different types of customers, two really different types of sales motions. So we’re narrowing even further. We’ve got customers in health care, in financial services, in professional services, and tech. We’re narrowing even further. So it was fantastic for us to get all of this learning in the market the past couple of quarters. That’s what allowed us to get, you know, to where we are in the last six months. But we scale and we go from initial traction to initial scale by focusing even further from a go-to-market perspective.
Andrew: And so you’re going to focus on who now?
May: Well, I’m going to keep that my little secret for now, Andrew, in case I have competitors listening.
Andrew: All right. Let’s close it out with pet peeves. One of my pet peeves from writers is I hate “click the link.” You see me, the whole time I’ve been taking notes as well writing on an iPad, there’s no click a link on an iPad. There’s no mouse on it. There probably will be. There isn’t? On my phone is where I check email. If you’re writing an email, we’re all checking on the phone. What’s click? It feels so antiquated. But honestly, in the grand scheme of things, not that big a deal but it bothers me. What’s one of yours?
May: Oh, I hate lack of parallelism in bullets or lists.
Andrew: Oh yeah.
May: I just want to die when I don’t see, like, parallel constructions.
Andrew: So you mean it would be something like, “Here five things that I love. I love rainy days and sunny days.” Like it’s not . . .
May: You know, in, like, a value prop and I’m thinking like B2B world, where you’re reading people’s websites and it’s like, “Okay, the first thing you can do with the product, get everyone on your team to be on the same page. Second thing you can do with your product, like, beautiful interface.” Was?
Andrew: You started with get everything. Got it. I’m with you on that. One of the things that I liked about Qordoba was the AP style guide. You can actually have all these things that you’re supposed to learn in school that people learn, but yet forget to use, or you remember five things and you think you’ve mastered it, the whole thing could be in the software if the company decides, “We write using AP style guide.”
May: Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, things like date formats, things like currency formats, you know, do we use decimals, do we not use decimals, like, especially for teams of multiple writers, especially at larger companies, this stuff is a lot of copy editors spending a lot of time on it that really, their time could be used elsewhere because there’s a level of professionalism that content conveys when it’s internally consistent like that. And those are just the tiny things, like, we can turn a 400-page style guide from AWS into the super easy to understand and to consume interface. And we did that because we read thousands of these style guides and kind of took the best of those elements and organized them. And so it’s nice. It’s taking chaos and turning it into organization, and the best products turned chaos into order. You know, that’s what we can do.
Andrew: I feel like the young May watching her dad’s chaotic work environment would be very proud that you’re doing this. And I’m also feeling, like, the person who I talked to the other day who is hiring writers and has an Excel spreadsheet with all the things that he wants, he’s hiring him through agencies, and he wants all of them to write in a similar way so that he can publish on his site. I feel like he’s someone who’s going to especially get excited about what you built here.
May: Awesome. Thank you very much.
Andrew: All right, the website is . . . Here’s my big problem with it, Qordoba is hard to spell. I’m going to say Qordoba, people are going to spell it with random letters. It’s Q-O, which already is an issue, Q-O-R-D-O-B-A, what’s the name mean?
May: So it’s named after the city in Spain, Cordoba, [inaudible 01:00:24] and Q because that’s kind of webby. And in college, I read a lot of poetry from kind of pre-Medieval Ages, [Andalucía 01:00:33], and just really loved it and loved how multicultural it was. I love poetry even today. I mean, there’s a poet named David Whyte who gets me through some really hard days at work. If you are an entrepreneur and haven’t read David Whyte’s work, please read it.
Andrew: David Whyte. What’s a poem or a book of his that we should [inaudible 01:01:01]?
May: W-H-Y-T-E, just the latest stuff. I mean, he’s on a lot of “The On Being” podcasts on Spotify. Just look up David Whyte on Spotify.
Andrew: David Whyte on your favorite podcast app.
Andrew: All right, and everyone else, go check out Qordoba, or everyone also check out Qordoba, and I want to thank my two sponsors who made this interview happen. The first, if you’re building a website of any kind, translation site or anything else, go to hostgator.com/mixergy. People who’ve signed up with different hosting companies have been switching and telling me that they like it. By the way, they don’t say, “I love it. Es ist wunderbar. You changed my life.” It’s not supposed to change your life. It’s just supposed to let you run your business without focusing on hosting and be proud that you’re saving money, hostgator.com/mixergy. And the place where people do get enthusiastically in love with me for recommending that they sign up for, it’s Toptal. Toptal is where people are like, “I didn’t even know this thing existed,” T-O-P-T-A-L.com/mixergy. I’m grateful to them for sponsoring and to you, May, for being here.
May: Thanks, Andrew.
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