How’re you doing, Spencer? To start off, a little intro would be nice.
Spencer: Happy to. I’ve been an entrepreneur my entire life, since my teens. I’m now 33 years old, and currently working on my 4th startup, Coach, which is an online course builder, so you could say that I’ve been doing this for a while now.
Fun fact: I’ve never received a paycheque from anyone other than myself.
Other than working most of my waking hours on Coach, I spend the rest of my time cooking, playing squash, biking and traveling, whenever I can.
Your current product – Coach is just amazing. Right from its very launch, you’ve made great progress. Could you tell us about its origin story and your vision for the same?
Spencer: It’s hard to believe, but Coach will be 3 this September (2017). Coach is an idea I had been kicking around my head for years, as it combines these 3 things:
- It’s a throwback to my favorite time as an entrepreneur
- The mission of Coach is my life’s mission
- I love helping people
I actually wrote about this very question recently on my blog – Why I started Coach
The shorter version: I spent the first year of building Coach just talking to potential customers and figuring out what the product would be then, and into the future. I must have spoken to over 300 people on the phone, video chat, or in-person.
For me, it’s really important to get my ideas into as many people’s hands as possible. The more feedback I can get – whether I agree or disagree – the better the outcome of the product. The feedback from our 6,000+ customers have really shaped the product we’ve built to date.
Coach isn’t your first product, you’re a serial Maker. TypeFrag, Carbonmade, Uncover and now Coach. What drives you to make such neat products?
Spencer: I just love building something out of nothing. If the internet didn’t exist, I’d be inventing electronics. My great grandfather, my grandfather, and others in my family were all very successful entrepreneurs who started their businesses out of nothing.
There’s something beautiful about seeing a product grow from an idea, to a sketch, to a prototype, to a product with customers, and on and on… This is especially amazing with web applications, as you can always continue to make the product better. All that’s required is smart people who are great at design, development, and talking to customers.
If you’re working with great people, there’s no limit to how far you can go.
Specially, with the products that I like to work on, I prefer to work on products that help individuals have better lives. That’s why before Coach, my favorite product I worked on was Carbonmade.
You’ve always kept your companies relatively small, and yet, delivered great value. Any secret sauce there?
Spencer: I really value company culture and every medium-to-large company I’ve heard of has crummy company culture. Things really breakdown after 20+ people. It’s not to say that I’d be opposed to growing Coach to dozens or hundreds of employees, but I would never grow our headcount for any reason other than we desperately needing more people.
“How many employees do you have?” is 1 question that always gives me pause. In my head I respond, “Why does it matter?” A company I admire is like Instagram who sold for $1 billion when they only had a dozen employees.
A lot of Founders miss out on the importance of ‘Support’, but you seem to have instilled it in all your products and peers. Could you expand on the importance of support in digital products for our readers?
Spencer: Recently, I wrote on my blog about how we deliver customer support at Coach. To me, great support is as important as design, code, or marketing. Support is often the first thing your customers see, and can always be a significant differentiator between you and your competitors.
It’s also something that becomes harder to deliver as you grow, so if you don’t begin with great support, you’ll never have it later as well.
Circling back to Coach, how has been the response so far? Some memorable user stories to share?
Spencer: The response has been absolutely amazing from our customers. It’s very humbling, but everyone who starts with Coach or switches to Coach is so happy to have found us. Some stories come to mind,
• People tearing up in video chats as I demo Coach to them, and how it can help make their lives easier. They were so lost and confused before they found us.
• People switching to us and so relieved and happy that we don’t just treat them like a number, but that we treat all of our customers equally.
• Customers earning $100k+ on our platform. Here’s a story about how Groove did it.
I appreciate your productiveness. I really look up to people like you and Ahmet from Panda Network, who just keep making great products with minimum fuss. How would you recommend for one to be a great Maker?
Spencer: It’s really tough. I think experience is really important, because you need to know what is (and isn’t) important to focus on, which only comes with the experience.
The other advice I give to entrepreneurs is not to give up. Persistence is the most important trait of an entrepreneur.
If you were to hire someone or collaborate with them on some product, what are the key factors that you take into consideration?
Spencer: I really look for good company culture fit over anything else. That’s not to say that I’d hire a good fit who wasn’t also an amazing designer, developer, marketer, customer support person, etc., but if you don’t mesh perfectly with the other members of our team, then everything else is just mute to me.
That means finding people who are different, and that’s probably another reason why I always grow my teams so slowly.
What are your thoughts on the future of remote culture and individuals working independently (which is the majority of Coach’s users)?
Spencer: Given enough time, remote culture will become what more than 50% of people do. Not having to schedule your day around an office is such a freeing feeling that I almost can’t put into words.
Slack, Trello, Zoom, GitHub, and other web applications have made it super easy to communicate, so the days of that being an issue are gone as well, so there’s really no excuse to not go at least partially remote. There are certainly arguments for having face-time with your teammates, but being a remote team shouldn’t stop you from that.
You can go on a retreat, meet at conferences, vacation together, or really anything. The money you’ll save on an office will more than enough compensate for allowing you to do these things.
Any piece of advice for the budding product makers?
As I mentioned before, I think persistence is the most important piece of advice I can give. Other than sticking with whatever you’re building, make sure you talk to customers. I spend more of my week talking to customers than I do anything else. Sometimes it feels as if you’re not getting any “real work” done, but in fact, that’s exactly what you’re doing.
Rapid Fire Round
If making a product is _____ then providing customer support is _____.
If making a product is your goal then providing customer support is a big part of it.
Bootstrapping a business is like ______.
Having complete freedom, but with that freedom comes limited resources.
Raising money for a business is like _____.
Having options, but shouldn’t be abused.
Culture is as important to a company as _____ to _____.
Ketchup is to cheeseburgers.
Blogs that you often read?
A VC, Daring Fireball, Signal v. Noise, TechCrunch, swissmiss, Eater NY, Grub street New York, Spencer Fry 😉
What’s the key difference between a freelancer and a full-timer when it comes to taking ownership of the work?
Level of care.
Favorite places to work remotely?
Darshan is _____.
Always producing great work on Dribbble. I love following along for the ride.
I first discovered Spencer via Coach. I felt that desperate urge to find out the folks behind Coach when I first saw the product website – it was that neat. I was taken by even more awe when I came to realise that it had been built and run by only a handful of folks, all of which worked remotely.
Since then, I’ve been a genuine admirer of Coach and a regular reader of Spencer’s blog. One of my many favorite pieces that Spencer has written came very recently, where Spencer talked about his work week at Coach. It’s so damn inspiring to see how he gets so much of work done with minimal efforts and zero fuss.
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