Eugene Woo, CEO and Founder of Venngage
How Eugene Woo is Building an Infographics Powerhouse
Sometimes all you need is the right opportunity to catapult that idea that has been rolling around in the back of your mind into a real-life business. For Eugene Woo, that catapult was Toronto’s first Hackathon Startup Weekend in 2011.
Eugene Woo didn’t start-out as an entrepreneur. Instead, he had a more traditional professional life, working as software developer and analyst for a corporate giant -which was smooth, if not a little boring. That is, until 2008 when he was laid-off as result of the global recession. But it wasn’t all bad; he had a severance package and thanks to Canada’s Employment Insurance Benefit, he had full-year of a modest income coming from the government.
What to do next? Find a job? Take a year off. Nope. Build something!
Looking back, Woo realizes that a starting a new company in the midst of a global recession was probably not the smartest move. But he was eager to use this temporary opportunity to try-out his entrepreneurial chops. After nearly nine months of developing a patient management system, Woo realized that he had built a business that was going to fail for all of the classic reasons that startups fail and it was back to find a J-O-B.
“It was the worst feeling in the world…like someone had punched me in the gut” Woo recalls. But after sliding back into the work world, he realized that it wasn’t the job that was creating the feeling of dread. It was the feeling of failure. “Once I dealt with [the failure] internally, I realized that no one else cared.” The lessons he learned from that experience would prove to be seriously valuable in the years to come.
Building from a Side Hustle
Even though Woo’s financial worries were abated, the entrepreneurial bug wouldn’t let him go; so he worked part-time as a freelancer, building mobile apps on the side. But his marketing chops needed some work. “I knew there was this thing called blogging” Woo says; which means that he didn’t really know how to promote himself as a freelancer.
That’s when he ran across the infographic that changed his life. Christopher Spurlock, a recent graduate, wanted a job at Huffington Post. To stand-out from the crowd he turned his resume into an infographic and it went viral – getting picked-up by TechCrunch and ultimately securing him a coveted position at the Huffington Post.
Woo was impressed and hired a designer to do the same for him. That’s when it hit him: “everyone can do this…not just designers.” His idea was to automate the process of creating a graphical resume using LinkedIn’s API. “I parked the idea in my brain” Woo says.
From Parked to Peaking
Then the perfect opportunity arrived. Woo learned that Toronto was hosting its first Hackathon Startup Weekend. He gathered-up a small team and pitched his idea – and it won! “It was just good luck and good timing. Infographics were just starting to peak” Woo recalls.
Within a few months, Woo quit his day job and was working on vizualize.me full-time with a huge team of co-founders he assembled during the Hackathon. But he still had to learn a few lessons the hard way – like not starting a company with people you just met. “It was like marrying someone on the first date. I got married after a weekend fling” Woo says of the experience.
Without any investors or a solid foundation, the team of five co-founders quickly started to fall apart. By the time Woo decided to seek out funding through Y Combinator, he was one of only three co-founders left – and only one his teammates agreed to go to Y Combinator with him. Vizualize.me made it to the interview round and then bombed. Hard. “They could tell that we had a very weak team. They were like, ‘wait, where’s your other founder?’” Ouch.
When he returned home, he lost another co-founder and visualize.me was down to two. “After the YC thing, I got really depressed. It was sort of my last hope” Woo says.
Power of a Great Product
Even though the team was falling apart, visualize.me was growing in-spite of itself. The landing page had 200,000 sign-ups – more than any other page created by LaunchRock at the time. Tech journalists loved the product so the marketing was organic. “TechCrunch came to me. Mashable came to me.” It seemed that this inbound marketing thing was not so hard after all. Vizualize.me was featured in snippets on CNBC, BBC, Apple Today and in print magazines like Men’s Health.
Woo again attributes this to great timing. “Back then [visualizing data with infographics] was new; now everyone is visualizing everything.” As a free-service, it was tough to see how the product would monetize so Woo got to work on another startup, Venngage. Eventually, visualize.me sold to Parchment and Woo went to work for the company where he learned a lot from its successful CEO, Matthew Pittinksy.
Applying All of Those Hard-Learned Lessons
After a year at Parchment, Woo returned to Venngage – or what was left of it. “It really dwindled while it was out of my hands” Woo recalls. The company was essentially Woo and one developer –who worked full-time maintaining the site. There were very few paid users and the functionality of the tool was only mediocre. Customer service was non-existent.
Drawing on the experience he had with marketing visualize.me, Woo believed that he could quickly leverage the press to drum-up some new business and feed the revenue back into the tool to make improvements. But he found the landscape had changed. “When I pitched Venngage, no one cared. It is much harder to pitch a SaaS tool. I was very frustrated because this was a product that could actually make money and be sustainable but no one cared.”
Needing an influx of cash, Woo went to Jolt, an incubator/seed-fund in Ontario. He managed to get $50,000 and used the funds to hire one developer – right out of school. Then he applied for a government loan and used the $250,000 to hire three more developers.
Get Going. Get Growing.
Within the first three months after the cash infusion, Venngage made huge strides. The development team fixed all of the bugs and updated the designs of both the product and the landing page. Woo made two key hires – one in marketing and one in design. His goal was to double-down on SEO and content marketing by earning mentions and backlinks in the press.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about content marketing is the belief that if you put out good content, Google will magically reward you; that they will recognize the merit of your writing.” According to Woo, the real value is in high-quality backlinks.
In an effort to up his game, Woo hired a well-known SEO firm for a hefty sum. But the result was less than favorable. “All they did was get me links from content farms. They did things like putting links in comments –really amateurish stuff.” In the end, Woo told them that he would only pay them if they undid everything they had done. “I was so paranoid” that what they had done would hurt more than it helped – “it was all so spammy.”
Keeping It In-House
After that experience, Woo decided to keep his growth efforts in-house. He and his team began pumping out two to three blog articles a week – all to no avail. The blog had no readers, no followers, no shares; “eventually I had to ask, ‘why are we doing this?’ because we read some guide somewhere?”
In the Fall of 2016, Venngage’s marketing strategy took a dramatic turn. Instead of an endless stream of unread content, the team focused on creating one “original research” article per a month.
The Venngage team finds an interesting niche topic and then conducts all of their own research and data collection. That content is used to create an article and an infographic and presented to the press for distribution. Instead of producing a lot of content that no one cares about, they are doing a little bit of writing that a lot of people care about.
News publications jump at the chance to run an originally-researched piece without doing all of the work themselves and as a bonus – it comes with a great graphic.
Managing a team, Running a business, Building a product – in 500 sq ft or less
Woo hasn’t forgotten the dangers of a large management team and now prefers to keep his organization flat. “I just decided that everyone would report to me and that I would manage everyone – including customer escalations.” However, with the size of the team doubling in just six months, Woo found that everything was hectic all of the time. “I am just running around, reacting to everything” Woo says.
Then Woo heard about Coach.me on a super-cool podcast (eh-hem, it was ours ☺). Since connecting with a coach, Woo has hired more staff, organized his schedule and is focusing his management efforts on this design team.
In addition to the re-org, the team stays productive by cutting meetings to just two hours a week. On Mondays, Woo meets with the entire group and then the individual disciplines meet in groups for one hour. That’s it. They work out of a small house (less than 500 square-feet) so the coziness supports their collaborative approach to problem solving.
Virtual Reality and Venngage
Venngage is going to continue to grow and is trialing new wizards to promote their simple goal of making “infographics creation easier – even for non-designers.” Initially, Woo believed that infographics were too niche to ever have his company break-out of the single-digit millions.
But all of that has changed. “I’m very optimistic now” Woo says as he discusses his belief that there is the potential for his company to reach profits in the hundreds of millions if not billions in the years to come. “Information and data are only going to grow. We will never be at a stage where we have less information or less data.”
To top it off, Woo sees virtual reality as the perfect platform for infographics. “People will not be reading text on their VRs – it will be video, voice and infographics!”
SEO Outreach, Woo-Style
“It feels like you will never get anywhere but if you earn one a week, after six months, that’s a lot of links.”- Eugene Woo
Before Venngage was funneling original-research articles to the press, they built traffic by creating a win/win with other bloggers in their space. “Too many people just ask bloggers to link back to their product without offering anything” Woo says.
Venngage started out gaining one, relevant, non-spammy mention at a time by reverse-engineering the process. To get five mentions a week the team needed to contact twenty bloggers – maybe ten would respond and out of that ten, five would take him up on the offer.
What was the offer? An infographic ,of course! Venngage offered bloggers a free infographic to support their blog article in exchange for a mention and backlink – winner winner, traffic dinner!
Woo’s List of Classic Start-Up Mistakes
Failing to build a sales process before jumping into product development. In his first venture, Woo didn’t give any thought to his customer-base before spending nearly a year building a product he couldn’t sell.
Letting failure get you down. After closing-up shop on his patient management software, Woo had a hard time seeing what the experience had taught him. Now he knows that the bad feelings associated with failure are internal –while the lessons you learn are eternal.
Jumping in with the wrong team. After a whirl-wind romance at a hackathon, Woo jumped into visualize.me with a team that didn’t know each other – let alone what each of the members needed to stay in the business.
- How to know when to give up or keep on going with your startup
- Why so many startups are doing content marketing wrong
- The secret to getting your company to start ranking high in SEO as soon as possible
- How and why you should do blogger outreach
- What the most important metrics are for growing your brand’s exposure and visibility
Full Transcript of the Podcast with Eugene Woo
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Foundr Podcast. My name is Nathan Chan. I am the CEO and publisher of “Foundr Magazine,” and I am your host, coming to you live from Melbourne, hometown, Australia. So let’s talk about today’s guest. His name is Eugene Woo, and he’s the Foundr of a company called Venngage. He previously founded a company called Visualize.me, which was an infographic tool that allows you to turn your LinkedIn profile into a resume infographic. He actually ended up selling that company and he ended up also building Venngage at the same time. And then now, he’s still building Venngage, and it’s growing really, really fast.
Now, what’s really cool about this interview is Eugene’s actually become a great friend of mine of late, and I met him through another mutual friend when I spoke at a conference in San Diego. And, you know, we’ve really hit it off. He’s an amazing guy, incredible entrepreneur, and he really tells the story of what it means to never give up. I’m just gonna leave it at that. I’m not gonna give you too much. But, you know, he’s received a lot of adversity and a lot of twists and turns as an entrepreneur. He’s been doing it for a while, and it’s really, really interesting to see, you know, how he’s building his latest company, but also at the same time, you know, the way he thinks about building growing startups. And yeah, he’s absolutely crushing it with Venngage.
These guys generate, you know, 50,000, 60,000 leads a month, which is absolutely incredible. And, you know, Eugene, a great guy, doesn’t hold back, someone that I feel privileged to call a friend. And you guys are gonna love this. All right, that’s it from me, guys. If you are enjoying these episodes, please, please, please, please, please, please do leave us a review. It helps more than you can imagine. Check out the magazine. It is the fruits of our labor. You know, if you just search “Foundr” in the app store, Google Play Store, and it’s F-O-U-N-D-R, you won’t be able to miss it. And that’s it from me. Now let’s jump into the show.
Nathan: Thank you so much for taking the time to join us, Eugene.
Eugene: Oh, thanks for having me, man.
Nathan: It’s my pleasure, dude. So we connected through one of your colleagues at Social Media Examiner, and I’ve been really, really impressed with what you guys are up to across marketing, across product, across everything that you guys are doing. So yeah, I’m really, really pumped to have you on. So the first question I ask everyone that comes on is how did you get your job?
Eugene: How did I get my job? I actually won a startup competition. That’s how I got my job that eventually led to this job. So back in, like, 2011, there was this, like, hack-a-thon called Startup Weekend, and it was the first Startup Weekend in Toronto. And I actually went there, you know, I didn’t really think much about it, pitched this idea that I had that’s always sort of, like, sitting on the back on the back of my mind. It’s a simple idea of just, like, basically turning your resume into an infographic with one click. Essentially, it took your LinkedIn profile, and then it just visualized your LinkedIn profile into this beautiful infographic.
So I pitched the idea, you know, got a couple of guys to work on it over the weekend, and that kinda blew up. Like, you know, it was mainly luck, I have to say. It was luck and good timing. So at that point, like, infographics had just begun to kinda peak. A lot of people were interested in it, and at the same time, like, you know, resumes haven’t changed. They still haven’t changed now, to be honest. They haven’t changed in a long, long time. And so we got a lot of attention and one thing led to the other, and I ended up quitting my job, you know, starting Visualize.me, which was that infographic company. And then later on, created another infographic company called Venngage, which is the one that I am now leading.
Nathan: Awesome. And so when you started Visualize.me at the hack-a-thon, were you working in your day job, or what was happening there?
Eugene: Yeah, so I had a day job. I was also sort of freelancing a little bit on the side, building some mobile apps. But yeah, you know, I was a software architect slash, you know, software engineer.
Nathan: Gotcha. And then when you won the startup competition for Visualize.me, that’s when you went full-time?
Eugene: That’s when I…I mean, it took a while. Like, I think I waited, you know, a few months to the point where I kinda just felt like, “You know what? You know, I’ve…” As in my first startup, I actually tried starting something about two years prior to that and failed. And so I had, like, a taste of failure. But I still went ahead anyways and did it again. So I was like, “All right, you know, I’ll give it another try.” And I think maybe two or three months in, I kinda felt like I needed to do this full-time. I talked to all the people who were involved. Not all of us from the hack-a-thon, you know, went full-time, but a few of us did. And I sorta just kinda pulled the trigger and did it.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. I see. So can you tell us about your other startup before we keep moving along the journey?
Eugene: Oh, the first one?
Eugene: Yeah, so the first startup I did was 2008. It was during the financial crisis. Essentially, I got laid off. So again, I was, like, a software engineer for a healthcare company. I got laid off, and so I decided, “Hey,” you know, probably not a good idea, but I’ll start my own business.” You know, even though, like, everything was just kinda going crazy, like, everyone was losing their jobs. The economy was really bad, and I just, you know, whatever, foolishly, I guess, decided…because I’ve always wanted to start my own business, and I thought, “You know what? I got some severance.” So, you know, I got some severance pay. I forgot what it was, but it was maybe, like, three months or something like that.
And then, because I live in Canada, like, the government also pays you some sort of what we call a minimum…it’s called EI, unemployment insurance, or something like that. And it paid you this minimum for up to a year. So I thought, “Hey, you know, I got laid off. I got some severance. I got, like, a year if I just, like, you know, just kinda do it really cheap, if I just live really cheaply,” which I could back then. I mean, I was very good at, like, not spending money. And so I said, “I’ll start my own business. I was in the healthcare field, so I started this healthcare…it’s sort of like a patient, healthcare patient management system, you know, sort of intelligently tells you when you need to do your checkups. If you had a disease, you know, if you had, like, diabetes, for example, when you need to do certain exams, and sort of automates all that whole process for you.
That was my first startup, essentially, I wrote. But I made all the classical mistakes a first-time startup person makes. Like, I had one doctor friend, and mainly, he was my, you know, sort of my “client.” And I was, like, mainly building it for him. But in actuality, like, he wasn’t really my client, right? Because, like, a single doctor don’t buy your product. It’s either a hospital or, like, a clinic system buys it. So I didn’t have the sales process sort of well-thought-out, but I was building it. So I spent, like, you know, six months, nine months building it, you know, like, doing exactly what you’re not supposed to do. Instead of validating the sales process and all of that, I basically just built the whole thing and then, like, decided to sell it one day after I finished building it. Which turned out to be very, very difficult, trying to sell healthcare software, you know, as, like, a one-person entrepreneur.
Nathan: Yeah, okay. So what happened? Like, you were cold-calling. Like, tell me about that process.
Eugene: Yeah. So wow, wow. I did cold-calling, so I first started, I literally did cold-calling. I actually did door-to-door as well. I basically went to all these clinics door-to-door. And that’s when I learned how difficult selling to doctors was. I was competing with these pharma reps, like, these people selling drugs. And they were often big pharma, right? And basically, I wasn’t competing as, and I wasn’t selling pharma products, but I was competing for their time, right? For the doctors’ time. So, you know, in the waiting room, there would be, like, this, you know, two really good-looking pharma…and all pharma reps are really good-looking, for whatever reason. Whether they’re men or women, they’re always very good-looking. They have money. And then here’s, like, this young, you know, software guy trying to sell my patient care software.
You know, looking back, it was kind of funny. But I didn’t know, and so I just did whatever I could. I cold-called, I actually went door-to-door. I remember going to this one…like, I Googled, like, this medical building. It had, like, 30 or 40 offices. The whole building was just offices. And I was like, “Great, I’ll just start from, you know, the top floor and just go down and hit, you know, 100 medical clinics and see what happens.” And I did. I mean, I did make some…so don’t get me wrong, I did sell some of it, but it was very little. I think I probably sold, you know, in, like, the few months that I was out, you know, hitting the road and calling, I probably sold, like, 10 subscriptions. It was a SAS, where obviously, I’d probably sold, like, 10 subscriptions. And the product was in this, like, very beta stage too, so.
Eugene: So eventually, I kind of figured…I did the math here, and I figured out, “Probably, this is not gonna work.” So I quit, yeah.
Nathan: I see. And what happened to the people that were using it?
Eugene: I mean, I basically told them the truth. I was like, “Hey, you know what? I can’t…” You know, I basically told them the truth, like, “This is not successful.” Like, they knew I was a small business. They knew I was just starting out. It wasn’t like they thought, oh, they were buying from a big company, it was stable, and all that. They were sort of, like, just trying it out as well. They were sort of, like, beta trying…you know. All of them were sort of, like, beta testing, trying it out. And so yeah, and so I told all of them, like, “We’re not gonna continue with it, because, you know, it’s not feasible for me.” And I actually quit, and I did the one thing that a lot of people, you know, think it’s the worst thing, you know, after you have a startup. I went back and got a job, right? And I always thought, you know, “Oh my god, it’s gonna be like the…” And at that point, it was the worst feeling in the world, basically just quitting.
And then I remember I interviewed for some…I, you know, put my resume out, interviewed for some jobs. I got a job fairly quickly, to be honest. Like, you know, the good thing is there’s always demand of software engineers. So very quickly after I quit, you know, I think maybe like two, three weeks…I don’t remember, but very shortly, less than a month, I was, you know, interviewing, and I had, like, one or two offers, and I took one offer. And I remember just feeling like crap. I remember, like, “Oh, I got a job.” You know, like, financial pressure. You know, so mind you, I’d, like, spent a lot of money, because it was more than a year in, and I had, like, basically no income. And so financially, I was like, “Great, I’m gonna get some money again.” But then it was also, like, the worst feeling ever, because I felt like I’d failed. You know that feeling in your gut when you feel like someone had punched you? Like, I felt that for, you know…after accepting a job, that’s what I felt. I felt terrible.
Yeah, but the good thing is, like, after I, you know, went back to work, very quickly I was like, “You know what? This is not that bad.” It didn’t feel that bad. It was just a psychological thing, right? Because failure is just, like, so…I don’t know.
Eugene: Like, I thought failure was, like, so bad and everyone would just be like, “Oh, I…” Yeah, shameful, exactly. It was more like an internal thing. I think no one else really cared. And once I’d dealt with it internally, it was fine. Like, I was fine after that. I was like, “Oh, great,” you know? Like, it’s good experience, and I, you know, went back to the workforce.
Nathan: But you didn’t give up. So you started working on Visualize.me. You won that competition. So I’m curious, because Venngage is an infographic startup too. Where does this love and passion for data and infographics come from?
Eugene: Okay, so it actually started…so remember I said I had this idea at the back of my head a while ago. So I was doing some freelance work while I had this, like, job. And one of the things is, you know, obviously when you’re a freelancer, you kinda need to, you know, kinda advertise, get your profile or your resume out to people, show them. And also, you know, do some internet marketing. And I wasn’t very good at internet marketing back then. I didn’t really know much. Like, I knew how to buy ad words. So, you know, I knew that there was this thing called blogging, but I never did it. I mean, I did some of it, but I wasn’t very good at it.
And so one day, I actually saw this infographic that changed my life. And it was this infographic by this guy called Chris Spurlock. He had created an infographic resume, and it went viral. Like, it was in Huffington Post. It was in, like, TechCrunch, like, it was insane. Like, it was this thing that went viral. Yeah, and his whole thing was, like, he was trying to get…I think he was just graduating from university, and he was trying to get a job at Huffington Post. And he had, like, some design background, so he was very good. So he took this out, he went viral, and then he got a job. He actually got a job with Huffington Post. And I remember the TechCrunch headline was, like, you know, “The Viral Infographic Resume Actually Lands His Dream Job,” or something like that, right?
And I got really inspired by that. I was like, “Man, this guy…” like, you know, “I need one. I need to get one of these infographic resumes.” So I’m not a designer, right? So I knew I couldn’t do it myself. So I hired a designer, had him design one of these for me, one of these infographic resumes for me. So I had one by myself, and I realized, “Man, I can make software to do this.” You know, because I’m a software engineer, I was like, “Everyone can have this, not just someone who’s a designer or someone who had to hire a designer.” And by the way, back then, hiring a designer to do one of these things was not cheap. I think I spent, like, I don’t know, like $1,000 or maybe $1500 on it. And I knew, like, I could automate this, because LinkedIn has an API, and it’s all just visualizing data and visualizing some text. And I was like, “I can totally do this.” So I had this idea, I popped it in my brain.
You know, obviously I got busy, and I didn’t really have an excuse to do it until Startup Weekend, that hack-a-thon I told you about. That’s when I kind of went, “All right, I’ll just pitch this, see what happens.” And, you know, long story short, that was how Visualize.me started.
Nathan: Gotcha. So you went full-time a few months later on Visualize.me. And I know that, unfortunately, you had some run-ins around the team, ownership, leadership. Are you able to share some stories there?
Eugene: Yeah, sure, sure. So again, with Visualize.me again made a lot of the classic mistakes. One of the main ones was, you know, I had started that company with people I didn’t know very well. Basically, we met for one weekend, and we started a company, right? It’s like basically marrying someone on a first date, essentially, which is what I did. So I started the company…I mean, yeah, I laugh now. But really, I was, like, crying back then. But it really was. I mean, people say, like, a startup is like a marriage, and I basically got married after, like, a weekend fling, essentially, right? That’s what I did. So I did that. So I had, like…I forgot. I didn’t forget. Maybe like four or five co-founders, a fairly big team.
Nathan: Oh, wow.
Eugene: I think, like, maybe a couple months in, you know, one of the co-founders…yeah, one of them left. Essentially, you know, we weren’t making money and we had no funding. Everyone was just sort of living off, you know, their savings. And not everyone can live off their savings. And I understood that. You know, and so there were arguments about, “Oh, how are we gonna be sustainable?” You know, I couldn’t get money. So, you know, we tried raising money and failed. In fact, we applied to YC, Y Combinator, and we got into the interview rounds and then we bombed the interview, essentially. I’m not good at on-spot interviews. And not to mention, like, the YC people sort of saw that our team was really weak, which it was, and rejected us.
Nathan: So you and your whole, you guys flew to San Fran?
Eugene: Oh, just, like, two of us, I think. Just two of us went. So by then, it was only three of us. And then when I said I wanted to do YC, one of them didn’t wanna go. So only two of us went, and the first question they asked us in the YC interview was, like, “Where’s your third co-founder?” And I was like, “Oh, he didn’t come.” So it didn’t start out good at all. Like, in fact, in retrospect, like, people was like, “Why did you even go, like, if one of your co-founders didn’t wanna go?” And it turns out, like, he was about to quit, right? So when we came back, he then told us, “Hey, I’m gonna quit.” And I was like, “All right, you know, sure.”
By then, I was really low by then, because, you know, it was, like, another hit in the stomach. And was kinda depressed, actually. After the YC thing, I got really depressed, because, you know, that was, like, sorta my last hope. Kind of like, “Okay, this is, like, we didn’t raise any money. Like, we’re kinda going.” But then maybe, like, we would get into an incubator and that would save us. And then we didn’t get in, and then one of the co-founders left. And so it was just me and Hannah, this other girl who was my co-founder, the only co-founder that stuck with us…that stuck with me. And, like, I was really down.
I remember, like, it was the end of the year. Like, we had some shared office space that we had won from the…I didn’t even go into the office for, like, weeks, okay? I was just, like, at home, kinda, like, do busy work, you know, sort of try and maintaining, you know, the site. And yeah, so that was the major, I would say, mistake that I made with Visualize.me. And then with Venngage, you know, then I became, like, a lot more cautious with co-founders.
Nathan: I’m curious, because with Visualize.me, you did have a lot of market traction, from what you told me. Like, I believe that even I saw Visualize.me, you know, obviously long before I met you. So how did that happen?
Eugene: Yeah, so the good thing…so I’m telling you, like, internally, like all the bad things that happened with the co-founding and the team. But the good thing was that the site actually did really well. Like, you know, we had had a landing page even before the product was being built, and we had, like, 200,000 signups. Like, it was insane. Back then, you know, 2011, it was very high. It was very, very high. I remember we used LaunchRock, and the LaunchRock people told us, “Hey, your site, your launch page is the biggest, has the highest, signups of ever, of any other launch sites.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s really good.”
Nathan: Yeah, how did you get that many signups?
Eugene: Yeah, so I would like to say, like, we marketed really well, but it wasn’t. To be honest, it was good timing, and it was partly luck, because what happened was people, you know, the journalists…and back then, the tech journalists were really looking for something, and they liked the idea of Visualize.me. They liked it a lot. And it was all inbound. So these days, I had to go out and I had to outreach to people to get press. But with Visualize.me, the press came to me. Like, TechCrunch came to me. You know, Mashable came to me. And it was organic, right? So once it got on the big sites, then I remember, like, we even had, you know, like, snippets on CBC, on BBC. Like, it was on the news once, like, someone told me, “Hey, I heard someone was app of the day and your site, Visualize.me was on the news.” I was like, “Really?”
It was in, like, printed magazines. I remember, like, reading…someone, like, told me, “Hey, there’s a little snippet on you in, like, ‘Men’s Health,'” or something like that.” So all of that happened organically. I mean, we did some outreach at the start, but once the ball got rolling, like, I didn’t really do anything else. You know, people just really liked that idea of visualizing your life or visualizing your career, because it was new back then. Now, it’s not new anymore, like, everyone’s visualizing everything now, right? But back then, it was fairly new. So we got a lot of natural press. You know, and all the signups came through these referrals.
And in LaunchRock, there was a referral group. So it said that if you, you know, share this, like, you would basically get, like, early access to it. And a lot of people actually shared it on their Facebook, on their LinkedIn, on their Twitter. So that kinda made it a little bit viral as well.
Nathan: Ah, that’s really smart, okay.
Eugene: So the sad thing with that story was, then I kinda thought that, “Oh, press was really easy,” because I had a really good time, an easy time with it. And then when Venngage came around and I started pitching people, nobody cared. Even people that had written about us didn’t really care about us. You know, because it was now an infographic tool. It was like a tool now. So it’s so much harder to pitch, like, a SAS tool than it is to pitch, like, this consumer, you know, personal visualization…like, this infographic product. And I remember with Venngage, being very frustrated, going, “Oh, my god,” you know, like, “No one’s answering any of our emails to pitch this product.” And this is the product that actually would make money, right? This is the product that actually has a subscription, it would make money, it would be sustainable. And the press, you know, no one really cared, initially, yeah. It was very difficult, I remember. When we launched, it was very, very difficult to get anyone to care.
Nathan: I see. So what happened next? How long were you working on Visualize.me before you sold it?
Eugene: So Visualize.me, you know, it was on maintenance mode. Like, we had some features planned. But essentially, you know, a lot of my time was now focused on Venngage. And then, I would say…how long was it? Like a year and a half in, I got really lucky. You know, someone, Matthew Pittinsky who was the CEO of Parchment really liked the site, and he acquired us. So for a while, the Venngage team, it was me and three other Venngage/Visualize.me team, you know…so I went to work too, with the three engineers that I had, we went to work with Parchment. So I was there until middle of last year. So essentially, I was there for a little bit more than a year.
Nathan: Gotcha. And you had to hand over.
Eugene: Yeah, so I handed over Venngage to another team, to my co-founder, and then we hired a GM as well. And then basically, they took over Venngage. And I went to work for Parchment. And I actually learned a lot from Parchment. So Parchment is this company that’s in the education space. They were doing transcripts and credential visualization and transfers. So I know it sounds, like, very technical, but it’s actually a pretty good product. And they sold to, like, all across from high schools to, you know, universities, to other institutions. And Matthew Pittinsky, you know, is a very well-accomplished CEO. His previous company was Blackboard, which is, like, one of the biggest education tech companies around. I think he’d had, like, a $1.8 billion exit. So he was very well-known.
So the good thing there was, like, I got to learn first-hand what it was like running, like, sort of a medium-sized company. So Parchment is sorta, like, a 150 to 200-person company. And I had access to him. I had access to him, like, you know, I would talk to him, I would say, you know, at least once a week. So it was good learning experience for me. I learned a lot from him. And after a year, I felt like, you know, it was time for me to sort of go back to doing my own thing. So I left and went back to Venngage.
Nathan: Gotcha. Now, you said that you had some investors for Visualize.me. And do you have investors for Venngage too?
Eugene: So for Visualize.me, no, we didn’t have any investors. So like I said, I wasn’t able to raise any money. It was just, you know, my own money, essentially. For Venngage, we have one investor. So after the YC debacle, once I composed myself, I decided, “Hey, why don’t we go to an incubator here locally in Toronto?” And so I started looking around, and we ended up with a new incubator called Jolt. It was run by an organization called MaRS, which is fairly well-known in Ontario. So we got, like, $50,000, not, like, a lot of money, from that one, from Jolt. Which is like an incubator/seed fund. And then a little bit later, I applied for this government grant/loan called the CMF and got some money, got a couple hundred thousand dollars from them as well. So we did have money. So, to be honest, I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten that government loan.
Nathan: Yeah, for Venngage.
Eugene: For Venngage, exactly. So the $50,000 allowed us to hire, like, one developer. And, like, I was not getting paid, obviously. Hired, like, you know, a fairly fresh out-of-school developer. And then we got…I think the first trench of a loan was, like, $250,000 or something like that, and then that allowed us to hire another three developers, actually. We were up to three developers. And then we could pay ourselves, like, a small salary.
Nathan: Gotcha, gotcha, gotcha. So what’s really interesting is, with your story, you sold one startup, but you had one kind of running in the background. But it wasn’t really doing that well, and now, in this past year, since you’ve come back, you’ve literally blown it up, man. And you guys are growing very fast now. So can you tell me about that experience? And let’s talk about some of the technical things that you’re doing, because I’m very impressed with your marketing skills right now.
Eugene: Sure. So, you know, when I left Venngage to join Parchment, you know, Venngage was sorta out of my hands. And it dwindled, basically. So, you know, it was supposed to go on autopilot, but it didn’t. Like, it went down, like, there was attrition. And then I remember, you know, in the summer of last year when I went back, and I was like, “Wow, there’s only, like, two people left in the company.” And very shortly after that, one of them left. So last year around, you know, this time, actually, there was only two people in Venngage, which is hard to believe. It was just me, and I was just sorta like, didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, “Oh, should I just continue Venngage, like, write some blogs?” And then there was Stephen, our developer. So he was just sorta maintaining the site, maintaining Venngage so that, you know, it wouldn’t crash or anything.
We didn’t really have that many, you know, users. Didn’t really have that many paid users. Like, the tool worked, but not really well. And there was, like, no customer support. It was nothing, basically. But the tool worked, but the core of the product worked. Like, whenever people came, you know, a certain percentage would upgrade. And so I knew, “Look, you know, we need to fix the stuff that’s not working.” And then, you know, a lot of insurance…because it wouldn’t work very well, and so slowly, like, I had two key hires, including Nadia, who you know, summer of last year. And then we made huge leaps in the product.
So within, like, two to three months, we basically fixed all the bugs, like, had a new design. The design was very old. I updated the design of the landing page, updated the design of the tool itself, sort of modernized it, and then started marketing. So we started marketing, and so we decided to focus on SEO, because SEO was one of the main acquisition channels as it was, right? Like, you know, I looked at Google Analytics, I’d see where is traffic coming from. There was some referral traffic from one or two sites. But then there was also some organic traffic. And I was like, “Hey, you know what? Let’s kinda double down on this content marketing thing, this SEO thing, and let’s see where it goes.” And it worked really well. You know, we did a lot of outreach work, we earned a lot of our mentions and our press.
And then what we did in the early days was we would go to these blogs and say, “Hey, you know, we’re an infographic site. Would you like an infographic? We’ll do it for you for free.” And essentially, we were giving people free design. And I said, “And the only catch is, if you can attribute and say something like, ‘Hey, you know what? Our friends at Venngage, this infographic tool company or, you know, something like that, like, write a one-sentence attribution back to us.'” I was like, “That’s all you have to do.” Which is, you know, what you would do if you took a picture somewhere, is you would attribute the writer or the creator, right? You always do that…the photographers.
So it wasn’t, like, an outrageous ask. It was like a very, you know…it was a good win-win. So a lot of bloggers said, “Sure, we’ll do it.” And, you know, we would design…so one of the other hires was a designer, so I had a full-time designer now. Every day, he would draw a few…and he was very good at infographics, obviously. Because at that point, you know, I knew a lot of infographics, I knew how to, you know, like, create them from templates and to do it really, really quickly. Like, we could churn out those infographics literally, like, a couple a day, you know, no problems.
So we did that. Early days, it was all about earning press mentions or blog mentions, not even, like, press. So I’d do all these small to medium-sized blogs, earning them one infographic at a time. And they didn’t scale. You know, people talk about doing things that didn’t scale. We definitely did things that didn’t scale. We did that one at a time, and then we had a target. We’d track everything. I think I’ve shown you my spreadsheet. We were like, “Okay, we need to get, you know, five mentions a week, and then…” And so we did a funnel, right? Because then we know if we contact 100, you know, bloggers, maybe like 20 would reply. And out of the 20, maybe like 10 would actually say they wanna do it. And then at the end of the day, maybe we get only five, you know, links or five mentions out of it.
And so that was the process, and you know, we kept at it, and we got better and better at it to the point where now we, you know, we still do a little bit of it, but we don’t have to work as hard anymore. Like, people is gonna know us. We don’t have to, like, create an infographic anymore for most people. We still do it, you know, for press or for people who are, like, our friends. We still do infographics for them, but not so much anymore.
Nathan: I see. So between now and this time last year, can you share, if you feel comfortable with some numbers, around the growth? Because I know that you generate, you guys told me, I think it’s like 50,000 to 70,000 monthly new leads or users a month now?
Eugene: Yeah, yeah. So back then, we were probably doing…so we grew about 3x, in general. So right now, our leads are about 1,000 to 2,000, depending on the month, a day.
Eugene: Yeah. And traffic-wise, we’ve grown 5x. So back then, it was a lot less, right? So now, we’re definitely more than half a million. So we’re between half a million and a million users on our site a month. And then the people who sign up, like you said, like, I don’t know, 50,000 to 80,000 a month. And so yeah, so a majority of them are free users. So we have a freemium model so people can use our tool for free. And then we have some premium features that they can upgrade. And very recently, we created another tier called the business plan, and that’s specifically for business users. So we’re targeting, you know, basically, like, sort of higher value…we’re trying to go up the value chain and wanna target higher value users who can afford more.
And mind you, the tool is fairly cheap, you know. Like, it’s only $19 for premium and, like, $49 for the business plan. But the business plan allows you to do things in teams so you can collaborate in the team. It allows you to do your own templates, to create your own brand kits. So it’s stuff that, like, if you’re working for a bigger organization or a business that you would need.
Nathan: Gotcha, I see. So talk about SEO to us and inbound, how you guys have just crushed it in this past year. What are some things that people can do, some quick actionable things that you would recommend if it would come down to it? Because this is something that both you and Nadia are really helping us at Foundr with.
Eugene: Sure. So I think one of the things in SEO that works for getting links is kinda what we did at the early days, right? We did outreach. So outreach is very important. Outreach means contacting bloggers who are blogging about your space or who would blog about your product, and then offer them something. So a lot of people do outreach without offering them anything. They’ll be like, “Hey, I wrote this article about, you know, VR. Can you, like, link back to it?” And I’m always like, “But why should I do that?” You know. And we get articles like that all the time, people asking us to link to their infographics.” They’ll go, “Hey, I know your infographics site. I create all these infographics. Can you please link to them?” And I’m always like, “You know what? They’re really great, I may consider.” But 99% of the time, I don’t even…you know, like, our support staff just handles those emails and they just kind of just delete them.
And the difference that we did was, like, we just didn’t, like, ask people, right? We offered something. So I’d say the first thing is, especially if you’re really small, you know, you’re not a brand name, you’re not famous, you know, why would someone want to mention you unless it’s a win-win, right? So you offer them something. Like, there’s something you can offer them. I don’t know what it is, but for us, it was, like, we knew how to do infographics, so we could offer them an infographic. And you earn those mentions of links one at a time, right, initially. And it feels like you would never get anywhere. But, you know, if you can get one a week after six months, man, that’s a lot of links, you know?
Nathan: So it’s all about the backlinks.
Eugene: I would say SEO, number one, yes. The number one thing that correlates with ranking is backlinks. But quality backlinks, right? You know, not spammy backlinks, not stuff that’s not relevant. So everyone who wrote an article about us was writing something about infographics, because they were showing that infographic. So it was a relevant link, right? Backlinks that are relevant is the key, not just any backlink. Because I’ll tell you a story, I hired an SEO firm. So before we did this, I actually hired an SEO firm, and I didn’t hire “any” SEO firm, I hired an SEO firm based on a referral from a very famous marketer that you and I know. I don’t wanna mention that person’s name. And if you Google SEO, they were, like, one of the top five or top three firms that are in the U.S. I hired that firm, paid them a lot of money, and they were just getting me these, like, links from content farms. They were putting links in comments. They were doing things that were so amateurish.
I actually said, “Hey, you know what? I’ll pay you the money, but can you please remove…” I actually asked them to undo everything, because I was so paranoid that, like, instead of actually helping me, it would…because it would be really weird. It would be, like, this article that would be something else, and then there’ll be, like, a sentence there, “Oh, check out Venngage’s templates.” And there’ll be a link. And I would just be shocked. And then they would leave comments on other infographic articles, “Hey, check out Venngage…” It’s so obvious, so spammy, like, so spammy that I was shocked how bad they were. So we had kinda gone through that pain of, like, “Wow, like, if that’s how SEO firms do it, like, this is not how I wanna do it. I wanna earn them, like, correctly. I wanna get, like, a real link that actually, you know, makes sense, that isn’t spammy.”
So back to what you said, like, it’s definitely, you know, trying to get mentions or links. We use the term “mentions” because it doesn’t sound as technical as just trying to get backlinks. Because, you know, you are trying to get on mention, right? And yes, with the mention of link as well. So that was it. And the key thing there is outreach. A lot of people think that, “Oh, I’m just gonna write this incredible article and then Google is just gonna reward me.” So I wanna say that’s one of the misconception of a lot of content marketing is that, “Oh, you just have to blog,” you know, blog and blog and blog and blog and put content and Google will magically, like, reward you, right? Like, Google or whoever else is in charge of the algorithms will reward you, because they will recognize the merit of your writing. You know, like, somehow, it will know, “Oh wow, this is, like, the best article,” and just push you up. And we did that too, so don’t get me wrong. We also kinda thought, “Wow, we should do that.”
So for a while, we were blogging, we were following all these rules like, “Oh yes, you should blog prolifically.” So we were pumping out, like, three to five articles a week, like, a lot of articles, but doing no outreach. And then, basically, you know what happens when you write and you’re not a brand name, no one cares about you, you don’t have a following. Basically, nothing happens, right? Nothing happens. Like, no one’s coming, no one’s sharing. And so one day I was like, “Why are we doing this? Because we read some guide somewhere? Like, no. Why don’t we focus on quality, and why don’t we do some outreach and write about things that people care about?”
I would say fall of last year, we had a change in strategy, in our content strategy, where we said, “Let’s just do one article a month.” So we went from, like, a couple a week, extreme, to one article a month. And it would be what I call original research articles. So we would conduct our own research, collect our own data, and then create an infographic from it, and then we would then do outreach to people, to press, to say, “Hey, look at this interesting article or interesting infographic.” And then see if they would mention us or not. And it worked. Like, so we went from, like, writing a lot of content and no one cares to writing very few content that people cared. And that worked. So that was the other part of our SEO strategy was we experimented with what we call pop culture content.
So if you go to our site, you’ll see there’s, like, Star Wars in design. There’s, like, “Game of Thrones.” There’s one on Creepy Pasta, which is, like, horror viral stories. And recently, there’s one we did on the Olympics. But we don’t just do, like, “Oh, here’s an infographic on the Olympics,” right? We did one where we analyzed the age of winning gold medalists in Olympics, and we kind of saw this insight that people are getting older. So the whole infographic and article was about in the Olympics, is the 30s are the new 20s. And it kinda is. Like, you know, medal winners are getting older now than they were, like, 10, 20, 30 years ago.
So we do very interesting niche topics that require original research. And that’s the kinda stuff that publications and news articles are very interested in, because they haven’t done the research, right? They’re always looking for interesting stories. And here we are doing the research ourselves and, you know, not only that, creating interesting graphics or, like, infographics, so that they can then kind of put in on their site and get their viewers on it. So we’ve been doing, you know, a lot of that. So this is like an advanced SEO, obviously, you know, once you’re into that stage. And we’re now sort of doubling down on this technique now where we write one article and then have many people link to it as opposed to the, you know, one infographic per link strategy that we were using, you know, last year.
Nathan: And that seems to be working well.
Eugene: Yes, it is working well, yeah.
Nathan: I see. And how big is your team right now?
Eugene: So we’re about 15 now. So yeah, it’s grown quite a bit. Yeah, we’re about 15 people. There’s 12 in Toronto…sorry, there’s 11 in Toronto and 1…so in North America, there’s just 12. There’s one in the U.S., and then we have another three or four overseas.
Nathan: Gotcha. And how do you manage that team? What does that look that? Because you are a solo founder, you’re a CEO. You don’t have COO. What does that look like? What does the week look like? How do you structure it?
Eugene: So I would say before last month, it was very disorganized. So mind you, it had grown really, really fast, right? This is, like, in the last six months, I’ve, like, doubled the team, right? And then before that, it was even smaller. You know, we were, like, 4, and then we were 8, and then we were, like, 12, and then we were 15, all in the span of 1 year, pretty much. So all this has happened very, very quickly. And, you know, I like flat organizations, so I decided, you know, maybe mistakenly, that everybody would just report to me and I would just manage everybody, including escalations. So everything escalated to me. So up to today, I still handle customer support escalations, which is insane, because I do get a few tickets a day that are escalated to me.
And so it’s just a very hectic…I’m just kinda running it around, I’m not focused, I’m always reactive, until about a month ago, then I decided…you know, I got coaching, actually, thanks to you. I listened to the Coach.me episode, and then I realized, you know…and I kinda knew my life was out of control. I knew my management style was out of control, because I had no time to do anything. And so I got a coach. I got a coach called Kendra from Coach.me. She’s great. So she’s helped me organize my schedule. And it’s also made me realize I need some managers, so now I’m getting a few key people. It isn’t official, that’s why I don’t wanna mention it.
Nathan: You just won’t come out for a while.
Eugene: Yeah. Oh, okay. So by the time this comes up, it probably will be official. And so I have, you know, my CTO and my head of marketing, you know, Q and Nadia. I’m basically having them get all the…to do direct reports now so that I don’t have to handle everyone. And then I hired a new customer success manager, and she’s starting, actually, tomorrow. So then I’m also gonna hand off all the customer success support staff and escalations to her. So theoretically speaking, like, the only people that will report to me are the designers, and then, you know, the three managers. And my time would be, you know, much better. You know, it will be much more organized going, you know, like, next week onwards, hopefully.
Nathan: Yeah. No, that’s awesome. And how do you guys check in and keep in touch of, like, so everyone knows what everyone is doing?
Eugene: So thankfully, almost the entire core team is in Toronto. And, you know, we work out of a house now. We have this small house, which I’ve mentioned to you. We have this very small house that we rented on the west side of the city. And, you know, the working area is maybe, like, I wanna say 500 square feet. It’s very small, maybe even less. So there’s a lot of organic adhoc bumping arounds. But we do have meetings on Mondays. So we have only one day’s worth of meetings, because I generally don’t like meetings.
Nathan: Me too.
Eugene: Yeah. So for one day, we have a team meeting at noon. And then each team, like, the design team, the product team, the marketing team, will have their own breakout and meet for another hour. And basically, we go through, you know, similar to, like, a Agile or Scrum, we go through what we’ve done last week and we go through what we’re gonna do this week, basically set the priorities right for the whole week. And then it’s go, their key priorities. And we use Trello. We use Trello to sort of organize everything. Like, each team has their own board, and then I have, you know, like, a roadmap board as well so that I kinda know, at a higher level, the direction that we need to go in general.
And so, yeah, so far this has worked really well. Like, you know, so far it’s worked really well. And then with the remotes, because we do have some remote, is chat, right? So we use Hangouts, because we’re on Google Apps, so everything, you know, instead of opening another app, we just use Hangouts so everything is in there.
Nathan: Gotcha, I see. I was going to say…so we have to work towards wrapping up. That’s really great insight which I think people will find really valuable around your leadership style and how you manage your team, especially from a fast growth perspective. And it’s great to hear that your coach is teaching you, because I have a great coach at CoachMeToo, so it’s awesome. So in regards to Venngage, it’s an amazing infographic tool. We use it here at Foundr. We’re pumping out a lot of the infographics now with it in a lot of our articles that you will see. And I’m just curious, what’s next for Venngage?
Eugene: So for Venngage, you know, the goal of Venngage or the vision of Venngage is always to make infographics creation easier. I mean, that’s been the goal from the start. And it’s to make it so easy that a non-designer…so most of our users are non-designers. Like people who won’t use, you know, Photoshop or Illustrator, not because they can’t, but because it’s too complicated. It’s not their, like, day job to do that stuff.
So the next step for Venngage is really, you know, we’re sort of experimenting with some new wizards to make the process even easier. And we’re experimenting with sort of a layout wizard that would, you know, with a few clicks, you could have a very customized infographic, you know, very easily. And then, you know, with another few clicks sort of put in a color scheme and your data. And so we’re kinda calling that, like, the smart generator. And that’s something that we have been looking at and working on for the last few months. And hopefully, it’ll come out, like, before October.
Nathan: Awesome. And in terms of growth, how far do you see it going?
Eugene: Oh. So wow, so I’m very optimistic with the market in general. So if you had asked me this question a year ago, you know, I would have said, “You know, infographics is a niche field. You know, maybe if you’re lucky, it’ll be in the single-digit millions. Maybe if you’re very lucky, if you take the whole market, maybe it’ll be a $10 million company. But I have since changed my opinion. To me, the market, like, is in the hundreds if not in the millions, if not in the billions now. And that’s simply because if you think about it, like, you know, information and data is only gonna grow, right? We’re never gonna be in a stage where, you know, they will have less information or less data. So that’s the number one driving force.
The second driving force is that we’re constantly being inundated with this noisy stuff from social media, from the press, from your phones. So people will always need an easier way to digest data, an easy way to visualize data information, an easier way to tell the story, right? That need will always be there, and not only that, that need will be 100 times bigger. So, you know, even if you think of something like VR, like, virtual, you know, reality, people are not gonna be reading…when VR becomes a reality. They’re not gonna be reading text on their goggles, right? They’re gonna be looking at visualizations. So VR will be video, it will be voice, and it will be infographics. So the future is gonna be, like, 10x, 20x, 100x infographics. And so I’m really bullish on this whole thing, and I think we can become a very, very big company.
And I think I told you this, like, one of the sort of parallel companies I see is SurveyMonkey. Like, SurveyMonkey does one thing. It does, you know, surveys. And you would think, you know, maybe, like, 15 years ago when they started, that’s a very niche product. You know, only a few people needed surveys. Now, everybody needs surveys. And I have the same feeling with infographics. Like, five years ago, very few people needed infographics. Now, like, everybody’s doing infographics. They teach it in school now, like, grade school students are using infographics. You know, government users are using infographics. Like, a sales manager uses infographics. You know, like, a consultant uses infographics. So everyone is gonna use infographics, and I think we can growth this into, like, a $100 million company.
Nathan: Yeah, wow. Well, that’s amazing, man. Well look, I have no doubt that you will, and I look forward to following your journey. So dude, where’s the best place people can find you?
Eugene: So the best place you can find me is you can email me directly. Like, I answer my emails. It’s [email protected] And obviously, you can also just go to venngage.com, and then, you know, there’s a “Contact Us” link there, you can also contact us and, you know, say you wanna email Eugene, and it will get to me, because we’re still a very small company.
Nathan: Okay, awesome. Well, that was very kind of you to offer out your email. So it’s Venngage, V-E-N-N-G-A-G-G-E?
Eugene: V-E-N-N-G-A-G-E. So, like, a Venn diagram and, like, a gage, gage. So it was basically two words, Venngage, “Venn” and “gage” together.
Nathan: Boom, done. Awesome. Well look, thank you so much for taking the time. This was awesome chatting with you, dude.
Eugene: Oh, thanks a lot, Nathan. It’s great.
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