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Mikael Cho

Co-Founder of Crew

Interview by Spencer Fry on September 27, 2013

Mikael Cho is a US citizen living in Montreal, where he founded Crew. At the time of this interview, Crew was known as Ooomf. They went on to raise $2.1 million in April 2014. Six months before that, I sat down with Mikael at the Harvest office. Mikael explained how Crew built their first product with no more than a Mailchimp newsletter and a Wufoo form, how they build features, and how they acquire new customers.

# Photograph by Anonymous
Sweat the Product

Can you talk a little bit about yourself and your startup?

Mikael Cho

My name is Mikael Cho. I'm the founder of Ooomf and we're based out of Montreal. We started the company a year and a half ago. I was an independent designer. I worked at a creative agency, and noticed all the problems in the creative space, in terms of sourcing good work, potentially getting screwed over, and trying to fix that whole process. So after that, we started Ooomf to basically be the spot for quality work, whether you want to get quality work done or you want to do quality work. That was a year and a half ago, and we went into an accelerator program after that. It was called Founder Fuel, and they're sort of a Techstars affiliate based out of Montreal. Raised 500K after that, and now it's growing, and it's really, really exciting.

Sweat the Product

Can you tell us about the first time you made something and what that was like?

It was really interesting to learn about how complex something is that looks so easy to do.
Mikael Cho

Actually, the first thing I made was when I was an independent designer. I had to make a portfolio site and I had no idea what I was doing. So, I was working at an agency, there's a whole bunch of designers there, and basically, I just kept asking them after I'd left, like, I don't know how to do simple things. Like, how to make a drop shadow behind a box or how to make a button with fonts. So I started learning that whole process. It took me about a week to do that first site. It was really interesting to learn about how complex something is that looks so easy to do. To really respect it when you'd potentially be working with these people as your customers or hiring designers in the future. So, I thought that was a really cool thing. That was actually the first thing I ever did.

Sweat the Product

Is that when you first started getting interested in product development?

Mikael Cho

Yeah, that was sort of the big thing. Once I started designing and looking for inspiration and figuring how to actually build and put together a cohesive thing -- and put it live -- that was a huge sort of moment for me. That product was something that I was really into.

Sweat the Product

You mentioned earlier at breakfast that you guys have an interesting origin story about how you shipped your first product. Can you tell us more about that?

Mikael Cho

So, when we started it was actually a completely different product. We were trying to do something in social media rewards and trying to use your online influence to push companies that you enjoy, that's where the name "Ooomf" came. You get behind companies and use your influence and help them do better. It wasn't working. It was really a dodgy product and dodgy vision of what we were going to with it. We just thought it was something cool, and we went into the accelerator with that. Changed directions, we moved to app discovery, and we were trying to build something that was like Kickstarter, but for apps. It was how do you prevent apps from getting to the App Store and then just falling and disappearing. So how could we prevent that?

What we saw is that we actually have fifteen thousand mobile developers sign up in just a couple months, but about fourteen thousand five hundred of those apps were poorly built. And we were like, no matter what sort of marketing you can wrap around an app if it's built bad, nothing is going to happen. It can't do well in the App Store. So we started to think about how can we actually help people make better quality products. And that's where the change came. That's where we said, “okay, we have all these mobile developers, we have all these people who want to make products, and sometimes they're asking us to do it,” but we're sort of behind the scenes. We'd rather create a platform for this. We weren't going into the service space. That's when we started doing the matching.

So we became this place of high quality talent to pair up with high quality projects. Everything was paid. And we used all the stuff that we knew in the past from working in an agency, from working as an independent designer, and all the issues that we could solve. That's where we saw this vision of being able to get people to be paid what they're worth, get quality results, and be proud of something that you release at the end.

Sweat the Product

Was that after you guys had gone through the incubator?

Mikael Cho

Yeah. So we went through the incubator. We raised $500,000 after that We worked on the app discovery product for about four or five months after that and that's when we saw the big issue with all the mobile apps that were signing up for us. The quality wasn't there enough to really put the marketing muscle behind it. So we took a step closer to what the actual problem was: the products weren't good enough. So let's fix that and that's where we are now.

Sweat the Product

How did you build the first version of Ooomf?

There was no code at all. We were just sort of hacking all these little things together to demonstrate that there was actual need.
Mikael Cho

So, we changed direction to this model about six months ago. So you're building a marketplace in six months and that's super challenging for anything that you're going to build, let alone a marketplace. So, we started with the basic, basic thing that we could do. There was no code even. We had a Mailchimp newsletter. A Wufoo form and a landing page that people could sign up to using Google Docs behind the scenes to manage everything.

So, basically, we would just send out all the high quality projects by a newsletter, and then when you wanted to sign up for them, it was just through Gmail accounts that we were setting up. We would just introduce you to the project owner, and then you guys would start working. So, there was no code at all. We were just sort of hacking all these little things together to demonstrate that there was actual need to connect these two people at the beginning. People who needed development or design, and people who were looking for good projects. So, the first week we did $25,000 in projects, and since then, in the last six months, we've done over a million in projects. The last five months, it's been a 30% increase every single month.

Sweat the Product

How did you get those initial users?

Mikael Cho

The initial ones, a lot of them came from the first version of Ooomf, because we had people who wanted to make apps. The development and designers. We reached out to a lot of people in the community who were good and we didn't make them do anything. It was just sort of, “Hey, this Saturday, we're going to send you really good projects that have an average project budget of five thousand dollars, and if you don't like it for whatever reason, you can unsubscribe.” So, nothing for them to do, we'll just send you good projects. And we've really stuck to that. We want to make sure that project values are always good and it's a big challenge sourcing high quality work, but that's the value that we provide.

Sweat the Product

When you guys are thinking about building a new feature, what goes through your minds? How do you execute the process?

It all comes from being really, really close to our customers. We're on Skype with them all the time, email, and Twitter.
Mikael Cho

For us, we've really stuck to manual, then moved to automation. So, every week, we have a product meeting, usually at the beginning. We're a team of four, so we have two on product and two that are doing a lot with the customers. So the two of us that deal with customers will come in on Monday and say, “here are the two big flaws or here's the big flaw in the system right now, let's hammer that out this week.” So, we usually work on a per week basis, building out the simplest version of fixing that problem.

It's really built on what we were doing right at the beginning. We were using the Wufoo forms, and then we realized people wanted to run payments through the system, so we built that first version. Then we realized people wanted to talk through our system, so we built communication in. People wanted legal documents, so we had that built into the system as well. It all comes from being really, really close to our customers. We're on Skype with them all the time, email, and Twitter. We use all of that to gauge what the actual problems are for the customers.

Sweat the Product

You guys are obviously very customer driven, are you ever worried that you're losing the bigger picture by building a lot of the features that the customers are asking for?

Mikael Cho

We don't just, you know, if ten people say they want this thing, we don't just go out and build it. It's part of the decision making process. We have a roadmap that we know and our intuition says is the thing to do. But customer input is just something that's part of making that decision. It just makes it easier to validate, usually, “like, oh yeah, we're on that thing anyway, we're going to be doing that next month, cool.” It's about priority and it just fits into it rather than being the key driver.

Sweat the Product

Have you guys made any mistakes in building the wrong things since launching or have you found that everything works?

The simplest thing was just leaving it open and letting them just do it. So that's what we did. We backed off on it. We removed that feature completely.
Mikael Cho

We've made a couple. One for instance was with payments. We wanted to keep it very, very simple, so we said the only option you could do is split a project in half. You can do 50% and 50% and we're just going to stick to that. Problem was that there were so many people who wanted more options or needed something more flexible, so they weren't putting payments through our system because ours wasn't flexible enough.

We want to keep it simple, but by forcing this thing on them, even though we thought it was simple, was actually making it harder. The simplest thing was just leaving it open and letting them just do it. So that's what we did. We backed off on it. We removed that feature completely, and now you can flow with the payment process however you want to do it. So that was an interesting thing to see.

Sweat the Product

If you guys could go back and do anything differently over the past six months, would you have done so? Is there any kind of specific stuff that you wish you had done earlier in the process?

I also think one of the big advantages when you're small, and if you don't have a lot of money or whatever it is, is that you can move super fast.
Mikael Cho

Yeah, I think, intuition is that when you're starting something new and you're already behind, you sort of have this rushing type feeling, that, “oh, I need to get all these people signing up and I need to get all these projects.” It's hard because you don't want to compromise on your values, you want to make sure your projects are good, you want to make sure your talent is always good, but you also want to make sure everything matches, so there's all these things that you're trying to juggle in terms of values at the beginning.

So some things that I wish we would have done earlier: Right now we're invite only, but at the beginning we were kind of accepting a lot of different types of talent and the scale was hard to figure out what we meant by quality, because we didn't have any processes in place. The speed that you're trying to do it at means that you don't have that stuff ready. I would have thought that through a little more, but we've done a good job of fixing it moving forward.

I also think one of the big advantages when you're small, and if you don't have a lot of money or whatever it is, is that you can move super fast. Any time you compromise speed, you're just kind of leveling back with a company who might be more funded than you, but is moving really slow. You need to be moving faster, and you're going to make a lot of mistakes, so I'd rather be making some of those mistakes and fixing them later, and moving fast then moving slow and making sure we don't make any mistakes.

Sweat the Product

Can you walk us through the entire build process for a new a feature? For example, you said you started with a manual process. Do you put that into a spec sheet and then pass it to a designer then to a developer?

Mikael Cho

So, let's say we identify something manually. Let's talk about payments. We'll talk about the main two or three things that need to be there and I'll talk with our CTO. From there we go directly into code. So we don't -- at this stage, anyway -- do any wire framing. It's just talk and execute. We're lucky in the sense that our technical developer can also do some of the designs so it doesn't look really bad. It still looks kinda dodgy , but again, it's the speed thing. We want to make sure we're going super fast and that's why our designer also knows how to code.

So we look for that a lot. Somebody who can do everything and sort of ship a whole feature if we needed to and then bring it back to the team. mAybe there's a couple holes before we release it, but we do test for a couple days before putting it live. But we look to push right away. Sometimes it's scary, “like, this is going to be used by everybody, and what if it doesn't work?” But, we've got four of us testing on it, and two of us, because we're so close to the customers, are basically like customers testing themselves. So, when we test it, we have a very good idea of what the whole sort of group of customers is looking for, and we know all the issues they've already had. So when we see a new feature released, we can kind of say, here are the two major things we need to do before we put this out.

Sweat the Product

From there, how do you inform your customers of new feature and changes?

After we release anything, we think about how we can fit this into a story of how we went from here to here or is this useful in itself?
Mikael Cho

Things that we think they would find super useful, we'll tell them. If it's something like payments and escrow, we'll tell people about that. If it's something smaller, that we feel is smaller for them like when we did the redesign on the site, we didn't really say, “hey, here's our new redesign, check it out.” But we did write a post about how we went from this design to this design, something more useful where people could maybe get something out of it. So that's what we look to do. After we release anything, we think about how we can fit this into a story of how we went from here to here or is this useful in itself?

We did How Much to Make an App. We started off with the problem of how it's really hard estimating how much the thing should cost. You can spend a large amount of time just estimating before we even started working, because we want to make that easier, here's the thing we did. So, we look to do a lot of that rather than just saying, here's the thing. Here's the feature, go check it out.

Sweat the Product

How do you think about sales and marketing? Is that an important part of your business or are you more product focused right now? How are you dividing your time?

Mikael Cho

I think sales and marketing for the type of product that we’re building is really big. From what I've seen from a lot of marketplace type businesses is that sales and marketing is a huge piece of your business. You need to build utility; you need to give people useful things that they can use for your product. Because, most marketplaces -- at least one side -- the buyers or the sellers don't need you all the time. They need you at this one moment. So you need to be in their head at that moment. So what can you do to continually be there without just sort of pushing your sales message on them all the time. We look at that as writing high quality content, creating things like How Much to Make an App or Unsplash, which is a photo blog that we made to help designers and developers use really high quality photography for free. So, creating things like that, and knowing it relates back to Ooomf, is a really useful way to look at sales and marketing.

We spend, I would say, about half and half. Half on the product, half on sales and marketing. But our product team also writes, which I consider part of marketing. Just to build transparency and really feel a connection to the brand. That’s what we try to do.

Sweat the Product

What kind of advice would you give to a young entrepreneur just starting out? What do you think they should focus on?

I would say do what you can to start even if you don't think you have the expertise.
Mikael Cho

We actually get this question a lot, because people come to us and they want to build a product. Sometimes it's an entrepreneur looking for tech talent. I would say -- I think you've written an article on this too -- do what you can to start even if you don't think you have the expertise. You can probably figure out a way to put something together at least and get some people signing up at the beginning. A lot of people come to us and say that they've had trouble trying to find a technical person. I think you need to prove yourself that you can do something, whatever that is.

Maybe you can just write. That to me is a product. It's like shipping something. Go and ship something. Write and go and get people signing up to a landing page, or go sketch out the prototype on a napkin. You can make a quick little prototype at least. Anyone can draw with their little finger and have buttons put through and people can kind of see the prototype that you're building. Then you can go and show that to someone you might want to recruit to be your partner or something like that. So I think just start shipping something would be the main advice that I would give. Rather than trying and going to find to somebody to do it for you. That's what I would say. Or rather than going to find money. Figure out how to do something of the product you want to create.

Sweat the Product

Awesome advice. Thanks for talking with us.

Mikael Cho

You’re welcome.

The End