On July 26, 2019, Marty Bell tweeted, “Did we just drop the hottest website on the interweb?” The thumbnail showed the edge of a palm tree. And a vintage car. It was pink. It was pixelated. The URL was enticing: Poolside.FM.
“It was the most clickable thing ever,” Bell says with a laugh. In minutes, it took off.
“That got picked up by all the big names in tech,” Bell says. “I had Tweetdeck open with a search for Poolside.FM and mentions were non-stop, all day. It was wild.”
Poolside.FM is an online radio station. It’s also a one-way ticket to 1987. Summery pop music curated from Soundcloud and YouTube streams over video clips from 80s infomercials. Every pixel is designed to invoke the analog joys of a pre-iPhone era: There is a text only chat room. Windows within Poolside are closed by clicking a tiny martini glass. There are no pre-roll ads.
Bell first created the website in 2014, dreaming of a Baywatch-style beach vacation from his drizzly home in Scotland. It gained traction quickly then too, but Bell had his hands full with other businesses. Bell is also the co-founder of Tens, which sells sunglasses, and Nude, which offers an app for first-time homebuyers.
“As those things got chaotic and hectic, Poolside always got put on the back burner,” Bell says. But in 2019, when the relaunch went viral, Bell began devoting more time to the project, collecting a team of enthusiastic contributors, designers, and developers.
Everyone works on Poolside.FM for free. The cost of the project is as low as $100 a month.
“It just all goes back into growing the thing and having more fun with it,” Bell says. “It’s my job to make it such a fun thing to be a part of and to make sure there is no stress, because everyone is devoting their time for free. They are so skilled, and they’re devoting time to my project. That’s so cool.”
With the team’s effort, new features keep coming. Since last year’s relaunch, Poolside.FM has updated its web player — which has now seen “1.5 million listening sessions from more than 900,000 individuals,” according to TechCrunch — rolled out an app for Mac, and released an iOS app that already has 50,000 users.
“The amount of developers I have DM’ing me asking if they can work on it for free is insane,” Bell says. “They want to have it on their Twitter bio. They want to have it on their resume. They just want to be part of something that is clearly so fun to work on.”
So what strategies does Bell use to keep his project so exciting? His answers have been lightly edited and condensed.
How do you think about growing Poolside.FM as a business?
I would put “business” in quotations because it’s not really a business yet. I think it will be, but it’s very much still a side project right now for everyone involved, despite getting quite big and having a lot of users and people involved. None of us really see it as a business. The beauty of that is that we’re not moving towards any KPIs. We’re barely tracking metrics.
We listen to what people want, to some degree, and then we decide what we think is going to make it more fun or more exciting. If we come up with an idea and we’re laughing about it a ton in Slack, that’s the thing we’re going to do because the team is hyped about it. Anything we work on as a team that way generally goes well.
You can do that if you don’t have any serious business objectives. You can’t do that if you need to think seriously about conversion rate optimization and sell throughs. What’s cool is I think it’s working better than if we were tracking all of that stuff.
The final thing I’m going to tell you is we are launching a consumer product out of Poolside.FM. No more clues than that, but we’re really excited about it.
It’s hard to stand out among brands in 2020. What strategies do you use to build an authentic brand at Poolside.FM?
I think the best brands in the world are personifications of their founders. Poolside has all of my favorite music, the Instagram account is pictures of stuff that I think is cool. It’s a niche I’m so deep in that it’s impossible not to be authentic because I love everything about the 80s. I love all these types of cars, I know all these DJs, I know all the design styles, I know the right fonts to use.
Our lead designer, Niek Dekker, is so incredibly talented at retro style design. He made the website basically pixel by pixel. He’s an absolute perfectionist at getting things to feel authentic. It’s not some Red Antler style agency that has done this, it’s someone obsessed with retro UI.
The person putting together the brand and the tone of voice isn’t some smart, witty, social media manager, it is literally me talking shit about things that I think are funny. Putting all of that together, it’s very difficult for it not to come across as authentic.
Can you share other examples of this personification technique?
Outdoor Voices did a really good job of this. Their founder, Tyler Haney, personified the Outdoor Voices brand as “the friend who brings snacks on a hike.” That’s the brand as a person. I love that because you can build so much character and tone of voice around that. I can see that person in my head, and how perfectly it fits the Outdoor Voices brand.
At Nude, the fintech company we’re building, it’s about saving for your first home. So our personification at Nude is the smart, cool friend that totally has their life together. You go into their house and they have nice, conceptual art on the wall. They’re effortlessly cool and you know you can ask them for advice and they’re not going to judge you — they’ll look through your bank transactions and not look down on you about anything, unlike a typical bank manager.
So asking, for our brand, what would it be like as a person? Can we improve design queues and tone of voice from that? I think that’s a pretty good way of thinking about it.
What impact have you seen from quarantine over the summer?
We’ve definitely seen an uplift. Traffic has increased significantly in terms of daily listeners. You see people with Twitter threads mentioning Poolside.FM saying “these are the things I’m using to stay sane.” People say it lifts their spirits, and that when they put it on in the morning it makes the world feel less like it’s all doom and gloom.
That makes me so happy because it’s exactly why I started putting the site together, as this virtual vacation, this place of happiness, a getaway. And when we can’t actually go on holiday, for people to be able to go on just a website and just feel happier — job done for me. Even if it makes someone just 5 percent happier, that’s a win for me.
Are there lessons from leading Poolside.FM that apply elsewhere?
Keeping things fun, for sure. If there’s something stressful going on, try and not bring that to the whole team and just keep them involved in the fun stuff. Especially if they’re not that well paid or not paid at all, try to make it an extremely fun thing to be a part of, and make sure they’re having a good time.