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Adii Pienaar

WooThemes & Receiptful

Interview by Spencer Fry on September 4, 2014

Adii Pienaar is a serial entrepreneur best known for founding the successful and multi-million dollar company WooThemes in 2008. That's a huge achievement in itself, but he also built WooThemes from South Africa — about as far away from Silicon Valley as you can get. Not only is Adii a successful entrepreneur, he's a great speaker, writer, and person. It's been four years, but I still fondly remember meeting Adii for German food and beers in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Since WooThemes, Adii has started a few new businesses, most recently Receiptful, a SaaS business for better email receipts.

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Sweat the Product

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started as an entrepreneur?

Adii Pienaar

Yes, I'm Adii Pienaar. I'm born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa. I think in terms of entrepreneurship, my first kind of role model or inspiration has always been my dad. He used to have loads of his own businesses in I.T., accounting, network systems and that kind of thing from a really young age. What he used to do even when I was very, very young was he would teach me the accounting principles and that's how I got exposure to business. I can remember doing holiday work for him for free as a 13-14 year-old just capturing data, invoices and stuff. What's always great about that is if I had any questions, he actually indulged me and explained the kind of business principles behind these transactions that I was capturing.

Throughout my late high school years, I was working on, I wouldn't necessarily call them businesses, but projects and stuff that made money, from trying to put up an alternative music record label to doing a "girl next door" or "girls on campus" kind of modeling agency at varsity to eventually getting into websites and WordPress towards the end of university.

Sweat the Product

What's your earliest memory of the first time you made something for the Web and what was that like?

Adii Pienaar

The first thing I made for the Web was the modeling agency thing I did. By that stage, I could do a little bit of HTML and CSS and I was always fiddling around but I literally bought this content managing system; text files that would basically dynamically add new photo galleries or photo shoots we did with girls on campus. It was exhilarating. I said it was text files. It was pure basic stuff, a little bit of PHP, but it was exhilarating having to put something together from complete scratch with no framework, no underlying platform, just pure code that I just kind of hacked together.

I think I still have a bit of that in me and the way I approach the stuff that I want to build these days in a sense that even in a business, I put things together. If I say I hack things together, I put things together. It's literally pieced together and it's never perfect but it's exhilarating and just rewarding nonetheless.

I could do a little bit of HTML and CSS and I was always fiddling around.
Sweat the Product

When you were starting with WooThemes, what was the first version you built? Was it a hack or how did that get started?

Adii Pienaar

Yeah. Basically it's the context of what led up to building the first product that eventually led to the creation of WooThemes. I was doing two things at the time. I was doing free WordPress themes on my site that was gathering or generating a lot of traffic and I was also doing client work. I had this idea to build something that was in-between that where I could basically productize the stuff that I was doing for clients within WordPress. I can remember the first version; this is way back when I had no idea about product management in general and prioritizing features. What I literally tried to do was put everything and the kitchen sink into this first product, which meant that it was completely over-the-top.

It had just loads of junk in it. That was exactly the same experience back in the day building the modeling agency site. It was putting all these different things together in my very limited technical capacity and it was hacked together. It just worked. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't beautiful, but it actually worked. The great thing about that and a part of that that appeals to me as an entrepreneur is the fact that even though that first version was very much imperfect, the first day I released it, I had five sales. Within the first week, there was about $700 to $800 in revenue. From there, WooThemes kind of got started and the rest is history. I love the fact that the start was so brutally imperfect and limited to what I could do at least technically at that stage.

Sweat the Product

Can you remember back to how you got those initial sales?

Adii Pienaar

Yeah. I think I was generally kind of lucky back then. I mentioned the free WordPress themes that I had released probably the year prior. That along with my writing and my blog at the time just generated a lot of traffic, so I just had this kind of captive audience. When I started building the first theme of WordPress, I kept teasing a little bit to that audience. I think I probably wrote two or three blog posts specifically about the progress that I was making on this and people just seemed to like it. So, the first version of the first product, I just kind of announced it. I had no e-mail list, by the way. I didn't know about e-mail lists and such things. I released the product. It had a separate site but all of the traffic was generated from my blog and that is where those initial sales came from before it had any kind of viral effect the weeks after in terms of reaching slightly beyond the audience I already had.

I think I was generally kind of lucky back then.
Sweat the Product

As sales grew with WooThemes over the first few months and year; how did you go about building a product?

Adii Pienaar

I think initially there was no exact science to it. We didn't really have any kind of data and initially our aim, because we were kind of productizing design to an extent, was literally just to build the same stuff but change the design. I can remember the vast majority; all of the probably initial six, seven, eight themes were kind of close matches except for the fact that they looked very, very different.

We did what we called kind of "news" or "magazine" like themes. It was the stuff that the CNN or the BCC or any kind of big publisher would use. All throughout that first phase, we realized that people, our users, were trying to use the themes for their businesses, small, medium businesses that wanted to do some kind of content marketing. That's I think towards the end of the first year where we started to make a shift away from creating products to enable publishing to support businesses in whatever they wanted to do.

Sweat the Product

Would you say WooThemes' features were driven by the product demand of your customers over the years?

Adii Pienaar

Yeah, totally. I want to say it's always kind of been a push from our customers in terms of what they want. That was the easiest part of it. But there's definitely a part of where I don't think that we ever had the data suggest that the successful stuff we did was going to be obvious. There was always just kind of little sparks of inspiration and these little kind of prompts from our customers that this is something they might want. I actually think it goes back to the very first product in that there was a big part of just relying on intuition and building stuff using little bits of feedback from our customers and then mostly relying on our intuition. The interesting thing is that WooThemes two and a half years ago, we struggled just maintaining our big product range. I think we had more than a hundred themes and it just became very scattered.

We struggled to be very focused. The reason for that was that we never had consistent data from big enough sources within our customers. We never got to the point where 90% of our customers told us if you give us X, Y, and Z, we'll be happy. The needs were always very, very scattered which is why we had to rely on our intuition to kind of guide us through that mess. As context, we probably had about a quarter of a million users at the very least, paying users. I don't know, there is definitely a fine balance between the signal and the noise we got from customers. As I said, that is why intuition played such a big part in how we kind of shaped the product roadmap over the years, how we kind of augmented the product range over the years.

We struggled to be very focused. The reason for that was that we never had consistent data from big enough sources within our customers.
Sweat the Product

So, speaking of intuition, you started a new venture called PublicBeta in June 2013 only to shut it down around ten months later. How did you know that it was over? What went wrong? What was your intuition there?

Adii Pienaar

My experience there was 100% down to me in the sense that I had kind of personally burne out completely. I realized this in conversation with my team about just prioritizing features at the time and what we should be building. I realized that I was just so tired physically, emotionally, and mentally.

I tried to really, really destill what our users and our customers wanted. Something that I did with PublicBeta that we never did with WooThemes was actually do proper customer development interviews. I spent hours on the phone and on Skype with customers trying to really distill down to the root and to the core what it is that they wanted us to build. That got tiring very, very quickly because I didn't think there is an exact science at least in terms of taking their feedback. So towards the end of 2013, I just got to the point where I was personally kind of burnt out and I knew that as a leader and visionary to use a cliché kind of word, I just didn't have the energy to take all these outside inputs and distill them along with the team and then lead the team forward in terms of building a product and business.

Sweat the Product

You've been mentioning that writing has played a huge role in your life from the initial sales with WooThemes to PublicBeta and so on. How do you think that writing plays into building products for you?

Adii Pienaar

I think the biggest advantage in terms of products and stuff that my writing has had has actually been learning to communicate. Especially just that moment when you have that idea, that clarity and being able to communicate and package that in a way that it makes sense to the person that you are communicating this to. Over the years, I can definitely see how in terms of putting products together, the reasoning, the consideration that goes into products has definitely changed. At one point, I realized that it's fine to put X, Y and Z feature into a product, but that I am going to have to sell this. I'm going to have to figure out how to market it. I am going to have to write that copy. Almost starting with the writing at the very, very beginning and using that kind of thinking, what would I write and then putting that back into how that influences what we should be building.

At one point, I realized that it's fine to put X, Y and Z feature into a product, but that I am going to have to sell this.
Sweat the Product

Your writing has also led you to writing a book on branding; how does branding play into the products you build?

Adii Pienaar

For me, I love to work on stuff that is ultimately an extension of me as a person and an extension of the team that I am working with. Brand is the just the word that packages all of that. I love to see the personality of the people behind the products within the products. This was almost accidental and very much a hindsight thing with WooThemes, but that was always the case. Especially with the first product. Later on at bigger scale, we had to be more disciplined and stuff. The first product was very much a kind of authentic extension of what we could do as initial kind of cofounders and as early hires.

There is a part of being an observer where you get that sense that someone has built this with great love and with great passion, great vision and great understanding. That's what the brand is about. I feel that's how I get to perceive and get to learn about the company, the team, and the individuals within that team.

Sweat the Product

Your latest venture is Receiptful; how did that come about and how did you build the first prototype for it?

Adii Pienaar

About three or four months ago, I read an article that basically talked about the missed marketing opportunity of email receipts and I literally just had an aha moment. I think for two reasons, one being that the premise of the article was so darn obvious. I immediately understood the opportunity and the second thing was that I immediately connected it back to WooThemes and WooCommerce, which is the kind of fastest growing product category when I left WooThemes last year. I just had this intense passion to execute that opportunity.

With the first version, I was still going down a route where I was going to try and validate things. This basically meant doing research on competitors and similar products, what was out that but then just sitting down and writing a brief for the MVP of the product which would almost respect what the article was talking about and the idea I had about how to use that marketing opportunity within e-mail receipts. There was some technical due diligence in terms of what was and what wasn't going to be possible especially given the almost restraints of an MVP or first version, but very much intuition led in terms of deciding what that first version would look like and how that first version could already drive value for our first users.

Very much intuition led in terms of deciding what that first version would look like and how that first version could already drive value for our first users.
Sweat the Product

What in your mind is the bare minimum a product needs to be a successful prototype?

Adii Pienaar

I think it comes down to kind of the phrase "minimum viable interaction." That's what it actually came down to for me. Trying to figure out at the very root level what kind of interactions would the user need to have with the product to kind of figure out whether it could drive value for them. Just whether there was something there. I think that's the most important thing with the first version. It doesn't necessarily need to drive all the value that they expect, but it needs to install enough faith and kind of intrigue with the user that they're willing to stick around whilst you continue to build the product. For me that came down to figuring out what those one, two, or three, however many interactions that the product needed to facilitate with the user to make them stick around in those early stages.

Sweat the Product

After you built that prototype, how do you judge whether it is a failure or a success?

Adii Pienaar

So I can tell you what we basically saw. The first version of Receiptful was I think a failure in terms of getting to revenue and building a business around it, but it was a success in terms of kind of learning how we needed to figure it out. I think in saying that, success and failure in that sense for me as a bootstrapper, someone who is focused on getting to revenue as quickly as possible, with the first version we didn't get enough usage to move as close as possible to profit. So that is I think probably what it comes down to. I can see now whilst I don't necessarily have a drilldown list of what those interactions and metrics were around those kind of core interactions that I just mentioned for the product, but there were definitely things that didn't happen. At certain points within the products, the users who were using it weren't interacting with the product as I would have hoped, which meant that the momentum towards revenue just kind of stagnated.

The first version of Receiptful was I think a failure in terms of getting to revenue and building a business around it.
Sweat the Product

Do you have a specific example that you could tell us about?

Adii Pienaar

So something interesting that I found and this is kind of prevalent for a couple of Receiptful users was literally getting potential users excited, getting them to agree with the value proposition, and getting them to believe that the value proposition applies to them. In terms of looking at it as kind of a funnel, the next step is I need to switch on the product and something just went kind of pear shaped. There was just no urgency whilst the initial conversations were good. There was a quick back and forth between myself and the user at the point where they needed to integrate and use the product, it didn't work. The curious thing about that was that kind of integration required no code and probably only 10 or 15 minutes of time but that's a good example of how one of those interactions just didn't work out. There was obviously a disconnect between the product and the user in that sense that kind of didn't move, the product or the company forward. That was a very prevalent example in the last couple of weeks.

Sweat the Product

Lastly, to wrap everything up, what kind of advice would you give entrepreneurs and product people that may just be starting out for the first time?

Adii Pienaar

I'm a big believer in intuition. I think that there's "lies, lies, and statistics". I understand how the web has kind of almost become risk-averse in terms of how we are supposed to use stuff like lean methodologies before we build to tell us what we are supposed to build. I think ultimately it is hard to take all of those signals and still package that. I think there is just as much risk involved going down that road as it is to just rely on your gut. I've learned about myself at least that if I don't trust my gut then that is the most risky thing I can do. There is a disconnect around all these pre-validate methods because those aren't paying customers.

My advice in all this would just to be a visionary, build what you would like to build. Be clever about that. Please do not spend twelve months building a product within a vacuum. Do try and get some feedback as quickly as possible but actually have a proper first version. It still needs to be minimum viable. Not just for you but also in terms of what the users' needs are, for them to kind of meet their goals. Beyond that: just do it. I think the greatest gift that people that are builders and makers have is that ability to put a first version together and get it out there in the wild and you get people using it.

Build what you would like to build.
Sweat the Product

Thanks very much.

Adii Pienaar

You're very welcome sir.

The End