Pop Inc. is bringing color to your conversations

Featuring Alex Kehr and Connor Smith, Hosted by Laz

The following is a conversation I had with one of our very own companies here at Science, Pop! They are building a fun and engaging stickers marketplace to make your iMessage conversations more personal and expressive. Their marketplace also helps creators distribute and monetize their designs.

Here are some of my favorite things we talked about:

  • Building the biggest 3rd party filter app for Snapchat.
  • Adopting trends from Asian markets.
  • Giving everyone at the company access to data dashboards.
  • Practical applications of company culture.

What’s the story of how you joined Science?

I wonder if you find better quality people that way ’cause it’s more natural. It’s not overly-professional. Because if you’re applying to an accelerator or something, you’re very serious and you’re not really being you.

Laz: Right, it’s a different model too because science doesn’t have a term length. So it’s kind of always going, and there’s always opportunity, which also kind of breeds this spirit of anything can happen, any intro can be made, any connection can be made…

Connor, you were working at Science at that time. How did you end up here?

Connor: So, it surprisingly was not through Peter Pham. Mine was a bit more traditional I guess, in that it was me looking for a job, and looking pretty much a year out of college … looking to figure out my way in the startup world and tech, and knowing that’s the world that I wanted to dive into.

Why? Why did you want to dive into that world?

Connor: So, summers after college, I was in media and production and entertainment. I worked on the set of a couple independent films, worked as a page at the Late Show with Dave Letterman, and that’s what I did immediately after college. And, decided that I liked media, but that it kind of as an industry moved slow, and that tech and startup was just totally the opposite. So much opportunity, right from the get go, and opportunity to learn, and learn fast by doing.

I reached out to Science through a connection that I had out in LA, and this is after moving from the East Coast. And so, really within a month of getting here, I met one of the former partners at Science, Dave Fink. He was looking to bring in somebody to help, basically as kind of a utility player on all the companies he was working on. And so, learn quick, work in a bunch of different roles, mainly Biz-Dev Operations on ideas and very early stage companies. So, we kind of hit it off, and started from there.

This is very early on. I think Science in general was kind of still figuring everything out. But, it was also a really exciting time. It was when Dollar Shave and Dog Vacay were in their infancy.

It was probably about nine months into Science’s lifetime. Science itself was a startup, essentially. So, it was an exciting time for me in particular; pretty young, pretty new to the scene … seeing a company like Dollar Shave Club where they grow from maybe three people in the first week I started to 25 people in a span of three to six months, and then go out the door..

I remember back then they were playing “Kung Fu Fighting” or something every time they got a sale, and it was just like constantly going in the office. But then, through my own journey, just getting kind of thrown into different things, and having to figure it out … that was kind of the foray into startup life, working on a food startup, initially that didn’t end up panning out. But, just all the learnings there.

Is there anything you saw in the early days that gave you confidence those companies would be successful?

I think with those companies, you could really see that the founders were incredibly passionate. The people that they brought in around them were incredibly strong, and those were definitely in my opinion, the key things is really the people behind them.

What did you see in Pop that made you join Pop?

It’s this guy… Alex and I met in Science. I was working for Science. I had been for five years. I was actively talking with Mike about what my next role was gonna be. At the time, I was managing Science Growth Labs, so the marketing arm, and really wanted to get more product-focused, and just more focused in general, work on a startup, try and scale a startup, and had the opportunity of meeting Alex while here.

We were sitting two desks away from each other and just for one, seeing his work ethic, understood that he puts everything into the company and leaves everything on the table, and then, understanding how smart he is. Mike was actually the person who gave us the idea. When I was looking around for what’s gonna be next, he said, “Hey, Alex is single-handedly showing a lot of traction, and doing very well.”

Was it just you at that time, Alex? What was that like?

Alex: Oh yeah. I was manually filling Snapchat filter orders. It was the worst process … I think I was doing 60 to 80,000 a month in filter orders manually. It was like this really terrible website at first. So, people would fill in a form and tell me what to write on the filter. I would manually edit the graphic, and I would email it back to them, and made it look like an automated email.

When I introduced the creative tool for Geofilter Place, I thought that would kill the business. I think I just spun up some Google Ads. I didn’t know how to do it, but it worked. I remember when I was spending my own money, I was worried, like, “Alright, if I lose $50 a day, I’m gonna just quit this.” At first I did, but then it started working. So, I think I made money within a couple hours of going live. I went to sleep, and woke up, and there were already orders.

I remember the order was really nearby. It was at a Malibu vineyard or something. I should go find the very first filter. But then, what happened after that? So, I took a break when I thought Snapchat’s own tool was just gonna kill it, but all it did was raise awareness. So, in the middle of that, I was trying to build an agency that was focused on Snapchat. Then, somebody with a huge Pinterest following posted a bunch of the wedding filters on Pinterest, and it drove an insane amount of traffic to the Geofilter Place site. So, I was like, “I have to figure out how to automate this a little bit.”

So, it became a drag and drop builder, so I no longer had to make filters. People designed it themselves, and it automatically compressed the images and stuff like that. That’s when it became FilterPop, and I felt like a cool way to grow it would be to make it a marketplace where any artist could sell graphics. Any artist could start selling filters off of the Pop and make money.

Connor: That’s around the time when I joined. May-June is when we basically started the transition to a marketplace, and at that point actually was moreso when Alex got it in the point of automation, and we were actually just starting the app at that point.

We mainly started thinking about the app when Snapchat gave us API access. So, we got that pretty early on. I think that was in April 2017

How do you work with a big company like Snap?

Alex: I guess it never really crossed my mind that they would clone us or … I guess I knew they already did. We just built a better tool than they had… or not a better, just different.

I think we just have more creative tools. I mean, there’s even really subtle things in our app that you can’t do on their app, or maybe you can now, like making text have like a glitter effect or drop shadows. They wouldn’t let you add photos or illustrations and we let you do stuff from camera roll. And I think a lot of it came down to us doing user acquisition on Facebook and Instagram which they would obviously never do.

Laz: Right. And also, I think it’s kind of this theme of doing a bunch of things that don’t scale that they’re not gonna go and do all of those different kind of paths of UA. Also, you were building the filters yourself at the beginning, so you knew what were the features that would be cool and how to build different features that Snapchat didn’t have.

Alex: Someone that worked there said that I probably knew filters better than anybody else because I placed like 5000 filter orders or something manually.

Connor: I think the reality too is that you kind of can use your smallness to an advantage because you can move faster and so a company the size of Snapchat just has more moving pieces. It can’t necessarily iterate as quickly as we can because there’s more red tape.

Alex: Yeah. That’s a great point. Some employees there gave us ideas that they thought wouldn’t get implemented there just ’cause they wanted to see what would happened. So that was kind of interesting.

I think the reality too is that you kind of can use your smallness to an advantage because you can move faster and so a company the size of Snapchat just has more moving pieces.

So tell me about the transition from having one app to two. Maybe start that with what is your second app.

Connor: Yeah so the second app is StickerPop. StickerPop is a spin out of a feature from FilterPop. So we put stickers inside of FilterPop and we saw that a lot of people started subscribing so they could also use the stickers on iMessage, and that was done so that we could make our business not solely dependent on Snapchat. So there were two ways to use our app, and that worked pretty well. We realized we should spin it out in its own app. That’s the whole story of it. That’s why we decided to do one.

Why stickers? Why did you initially put stickers into filter pop other than platform risk of Snapchat?

Alex: It just seemed like a really easy addition. It was pretty easy. Also, I had seen how well it does in Asia. I just thought that was really interesting that it hasn’t really been done here.

Yeah, LINE I think makes $300 million a year just selling stickers. That doesn’t even include that they have movies, TV shows, all these things coming out. I mean they have stores everywhere. I think they have a coffee shop chain based off of characters.

I think for us initially too, it’s just a really natural fit because we already had free stickers. It’s easy to just put this basically premium sticker marketplace into the app and people were already using them on filters. So just a natural fit for the product at the time.

LINE I think makes $300 million a year just selling stickers.

Are there any other trends that you’re seeing in Asia that are interesting just in general, in the app space?

Laz: That’s almost like an inverted Instagram… Because Instagram started off with the focus around filters and personal use and then created social and the rest is history. That sounds like the opposite. So they took social out sending and made it just an editing app. Is there any editing in your apps?

Alex: Yeah, there’s a little bit. We have a selfie feature where you can use your camera to take pictures or make gifs. And then it creates a sticker out of that.

What’s your process for adding features?

Alex: We just try it. I feel like it’s important for early stage companies not to have a roadmap and just, every week, see what works. Because I’ve seen some companies where they have roadmaps for maybe three to six months out, but they don’t have any users yet. That doesn’t really make any sense to me. You don’t know what people want yet. You shouldn’t be planning for six months away. Just keep checking your data and see what’s working.

I’ve seen some companies where they have roadmaps for maybe three to six months out, but they don’t have any users yet. That doesn’t really make any sense to me.

What data do you look at?

Alex: I guess the thing I look at most is retention on one of the first days or first three days. Day one I think is the most important. That’s pretty much the majority of things I look at.

Laz: I know you guys do a lot of testing. The spirit of Science, and company growth being down to a science, you guys embody that really well. You test a lot of stuff, you look at the data all day. I feel like I never walk by the Pop office and not see somebody’s screen with the dashboard open. Can you think of some examples of tests you’ve run based off data and ways that you’ve improved your numbers?

We’re running a pretty interesting test right now. We took our subscription at paywall off of our onboarding flow to see if that was a blocker for retention. So do we want people to browse the app more before they commit? Will that improve retention in general? So app retention and also retention once you become a subscriber. That’s only been running for two days though. No results yet. TBD.

I think at first we’ll see a drop on in-app purchases. We’ll just have to be patient because we don’t know if they’re gonna have multiple sessions and also be in the app longer and just be better users.

I feel like I never walk by the Pop office and not see somebody’s screen with the dashboard open.

How do you find creators?

I found people in a lot of ways I think one of the best ways is answering questions on Quora. I just go answer people asking, “How do I sell stickers online or whatever app?” I just tell them about our marketplace. I’ll do a lot of cold outreach on Dribble and sites like that, too. It hasn’t been too difficult and we have a pretty cool partnership with Tumblr where they’re gonna start referring us artists in the next week or so.

You have some values that I saw on your website and elsewhere: COLOR. The first one, C, is Creatives first. So what advice would give for startups that want to put creatives first.

Connor: Just don’t be too greedy. I think that’s it.

Laz: So that’s… money. For lack of a better term it’s like giving them what they financially need to support themselves.

Connor: It’s money and then also supporting them and making sure that we’re very quick to answer any questions that they have. Giving them any tools that they need to succeed, making it an easy process on their side and just a streamlined fun process for them.

Alex: Also, when I design a product I always think how does this product help our creators? So go back to that. So if I can’t think of a reason why it helps them then it’s probably not a good use of time.

So the second value is Over serve. How do you over serve?

Alex: I think that goes back to customers and creators. So that’s just anybody we’re working with and that really is just how you should do business. You should always aim to over serve and do the best you can. It’s kind of that mentality and so that extends from product to customer support to everything we’re doing in our business.

Learn fast. We kind of talked about this a little bit but how do you learn? also how do you execute on what you learn?

Connor: I mean it’s exactly what you said. So it’s being data-driven. Learning from your mistakes, iterating as quickly as you can on what’s working and leaning into that and so learning from the data, from user feedback and actually optimizing to those learnings.

Alex: I think you have to remember to remove features when you’re learning fast, too. A lot of companies will just keep features that don’t work and then add more. I think you get too attached to what you built. Part of learning fast is not just adding new stuff, but also removing.

Connor: I think in a start-up too, it also is part of our team environment. We all are learning on the job and learning as we go.

A lot of companies will just keep features that don’t work and then add more. I think you get too attached to what you built. Part of learning fast is not just adding new stuff, but also removing.

What’s something you guys have learned recently?

Connor: Oh, man. So much. This year, I’ve learned an insane amount.

Alex: I’ve learned a lot about finance. I thought I knew a lot about venture finance before… Even though we’ve gone through it, it still seems a little bit mysterious.

Laz: Yeah. The process of raising money, that’s definitely not something that people come to the table having known. And, the process is kinda constantly evolving within the world of VC. So, it’s definitely not something that people come to the table knowing.

Alex: One thing I’ve thought about recently is it’s important not to be too frugal. I think early on, maybe I was a bit frugal. Our whole point is to take risks. Well, calculated risks…

Connor: Don’t blow all of our money.

Alex: Yeah, calculated.

Alex: I’ve seen a lot of companies where they don’t buy the right equipment for their employees to be successful or things like that. Making sure everybody has the software, the computer, everything they need is in order… We never really did that.

Connor: I think learning the hiring process just because we own every part of it. Really with every hire, we learn, you learn so much about like oh, I maybe shouldn’t have done that. Even though I think we’ve made some amazing hires and I couldn’t be happier with the team around us. You learn so much through every hire for every key role because every role is so key.

One thing I’ve thought about recently is it’s important not to be too frugal. I think early on, maybe I was a bit frugal. Our whole point is to take risks. Well, calculated risks…

O for open communication. I think that one kind of is self-explanatory, like keep lines of communication open.

Alex: Well the obvious thing is just Slack but there’s more than that. I think giving everybody access to Mixpanel… All of the data, yeah. I think that’s really important especially on the engineering front, because I think often engineers build stuff and they don’t understand the impact that they’re having on the company, or how what they do drives the company forward. I think they’ll be happier and more excited.

I think it’s interesting if I go to an engineer at another company, I’m like, “How many users do you have?”, and they’re like, “I don’t know.” They’re like, “I don’t know that’s the data guys’ job.”

R respect time, what does that mean?

Connor: That’s respecting each other’s time, and making sure you’re being efficient and effective as a team member in how you’re working with one another. I think it’s again kind of self explanatory; respect each other’s times but just make sure that you’re taking initiative and not wasting time.

Alex: I always think about unnecessary meetings too. Cause this kind of stemmed from the last place I worked. There were just so many unnecessary meetings, and I was like, “That’s not efficient.” If you’re having 3 hours of meetings a day that you don’t need to have that’s like 3 hours of lost work. So you’re not really progressing that much as a company while you’re sitting in a room talking.

So what’s next for you guys?

Alex: The biggest thing is not having any reliance on user acquisition like paid user acquisition. I think organic growth is the only thing that matters. If you can’t figure out how to get people to organically talk about your product, you probably don’t have a good product. So you need a product worth talking about.

How do you make that transition though? Because you guys are doing such a good job with paid acquisition. It seems like when you spend it works, and as you were saying earlier, you don’t want to be too frugal. How and why do you make that transition to focusing on organic growth?

Connor: I don’t necessarily think it’s a transition, and I think that the thing about paid growth is it’s great and it can be predictable, but it is at the same time kind of linear growth. To get that rapid, accelerated growth that everybody wants at a start-up, you have to get some level of organic and viral lift. So it’s not necessarily a transition it’s more about, right now we’re doing both and we’re actively really focused on driving that organic growth and getting to that point. Then we as a team can feel us getting there and getting and trending in the right direction and it’s cool to see.

Alex: I feel like we almost, purposely don’t go crazy scaling right now too. I think we really have to nail the viral aspect down, cause you only have one shot to get a user. I think we have to make sure we have really, really strong retention and a decent amount of viral lift too, before we go crazy spending.

You only have one shot to get a user.

What’s your favorite sticker pack on the app?

Connor: People love the polar bear.

Alex: I think the number 1 pack are these little unicorn poop emojis.

Connor: The pins do really well, or sorry, buttons, pins. Buttons? Yeah, they are little button people.

Alex: That was an idea from me, just cause I was walking up this street in New York and I saw graffiti that said, “Cute as a button,” and I was like, “That’s such a good concept for some IP or little button people that are cute.” And that’s how the little button people pack came to life.

This transcript is from an episode of the Startup Gym Podcast. Find this and other episodes at startupgym.io

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