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Adam: Welcome to Episode 63 of The Crowd. I’m talking to Byron White, CEO of writeraccess.com.
Welcome to Near-Me’s podcast, The Crowd, bringing you interviews from thought leaders in the collaborative economy who’ll be sharing their knowledge, diverse real world experiences and stuff you need to know to help build a successful marketplace. I’m your host, Adam Broadway. Thanks for joining us.
Byron White’s content marketing roots go back 16 years ago with his business ideaLaunch and then onto LifeTips, expert articles on life which he started in 2001 eventually amassing 120,000 tips, 50 printed books and over 300 podcasts aimed at making your life better. Between 2005 and 2007, Byron started Content 6, a groundbreaking content marketing agency serving over 100 clients including Walmart, Salesforce and Iron Mountain. To stand out from all the other marketing agencies, he then launched WordVision in 2007, a next gen content marketing software company helping customers measure ROI and justifying more investment in content marketing.
And now with WriterAccess, Byron bundled all their experience with publishing, agency services and software development launching WriterAccess in 2010 and quickly growing from 100 to 20,000 customers. Byron shares with us some of his journey and advice building a marketplace.
Well, everybody, I have the great pleasure of talking with Byron White who is the CEO of WriterAccess at writeraccess.com. Welcome to The Crowd, Byron.
Byron: Adam, thanks for having me here today.
Adam: Well, we go back many, many years. Back in 2012, we made a connection. But your content marketing roots stretch back even further to year 2000 when you, I think that’s when you founded ideaLaunch. And then as you built that business and hit some scaling challenges, you bundled all your experience with publishing, agency services and software development and then launched WriterAccess in 2010 which quickly grew from 100 to 20,000 customers. But before we talk about all those challenges and rewards of building a marketplace like WriterAccess, where did it all start for you before the internet? Were you a BMX kid, an Atari 2600 player, a bookworm or all of the above?
Byron: None of the above. I’m going to opt with none of the above I think in this case if that’s okay with you.
Adam: That’s fine.
Byron: But no, I’ve been starting businesses back in 1992. And prior to that, I was floundering around trying to figure out what to do with myself. But I’ve worked in the advertising industry for about seven or eight years before I started my first business. But I’ve since started four businesses. They’ve all been successful. Knock on wood. And who knows how many more I have left in me. Let me tell you that. It’s very hard to start businesses and particularly marketplaces. So I’m excited to talk with you today about any and all of that.
Adam: Awesome. Yeah, well, I think once you understand what are the key components to building a successful business and actually reading some of the mission statement on your website, you certainly have got a great approach and ethos. No wonder you’ve been successful. But before again we get into some of those details, I’m itching to ask you another personal question. Have you got a novel that you’ve been working on? And if so, what genre?
Byron: I’ve published three books so far and I’m working on a fourth book which is really a tumultuous task. And it’s focused on content strategy. And I’m actually turning it into an online course which will be free of charge for anybody to take advantage of learning a little bit about the content strategy world. But I also – I don’t just want a more traditional workbook, a traditional course if you will that you have to struggle through six or eight hours of course where you then take tests afterwards. I want to turn it into a book that you can browse and read on your own. And so it’s a very unusual format. I’m calling it more of a workbook. So yeah, my writing is mostly geared towards trying to help people understand the content marketing revolution. I have a 101 book called The Content Marketing Roadmap.
And then another book that people might be interested in is called The Professional Writing Skill and Price Guide which tries to answer the difficult question, what should you expect when you pay more for content? And then I wrote a fun book in connection with a conference that I host every year called Content Marketing Conference which has been held in the last two years in Vegas but we’ll actually just be announcing in the next couple of weeks that we’re moving it to Boston which I’m very excited about because I’m from Boston here in the states. But anyway, I wrote a book related to content marketing tools which is kind of interesting. And I sort of assembled the top 100 or so content marketing tools that people can use. So yeah, writing is fun. I love writing. I love publishing. But yeah, I have some other juicy books perhaps in me that have nothing to do with business maybe but we will see what happens.
Adam: Yeah. When you get a quiet moment, I’m sure you’ll start pinning those chapters together. It’s awesome that you are giving away that content because it’s absolutely critical for our business to succeed especially in the internet where it needs to have a solid content marketing strategy. And so getting back to building WriterAccess and you mentioned some of the scaling challenges earlier on but going from 100 to 20,000 customers is no mean feat? What sort of time frame did that occur over? And was that something that happened fairly quickly or was it months or years?
Byron: Well, for starters, we achieved that goal with no funding, zero funding.
Adam: Love it.
Byron: We self-financed everything that we’ve accomplished to date. So we’re very proud of that. But now of course, the question becomes how did we do it, right? And that has been exciting and fun and at the same time nerve-racking and packed with lots of adventure along the way. We were talking about content marketing and it really helped to have a lot of knowledge about content marketing going into the launch of WriterAccess. We had been a full service content marketing agency for five years servicing customers like Walmart, The Company Store, Brookstone, FTD, Salesforce, Iron Mountain, some incredible companies. And we built some technology. So we got a taste for the power of software that we combined with our services we offer in an agency.
We launched a piece of software called WordVision which is still around, wordvision.com and you can check that out. I think it’s still like a half-baked site that was designed like a gazillion years ago. But we learned something interesting, something simple, Adam and that is if you’re going to be in any marketplace or be in any industry, you’ve got to know it inside and out. So we started publishing really good content. And I started hosting webinars and podcasts and leveraging the people that I knew and the experiences that I had in my own life with selling stories and creating content and creating books and making them available online to download for free.
But we decided to start this marketplace to try to scale faster and scale bigger. It was too hard to scale fast as a traditional agency. We needed sales reps and editorial teams and SEO departments. And every customer we brought in may be a 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 dollar contract up to half a million dollar contract. It required a one-year contract and a lot of work to win those jobs. And we were outselling content marketing agency services before anybody knew what a content marketing agency was between 2005 and 2010. So it was a hard road to journey on and we just thought there was a better way.
You win a big contract but one year later you were up for review and may or may not win it. Sometimes, we would create so much content for our customer. It would take them another half a year or a year just to get back to us to buy more content. So those concerns and challenges led us to give it a go to try a marketplace that connected customers directly with freelancers. And this is a really long answer and I apologize for that but that’s really how we started. We just wanted to scale bigger and scale faster.
Adam: I totally endorse and love the fact that you were self-financed and bootstrapped the business. It just proves that you’ve got a fundamentally sound business model and obviously the team behind you to execute on that is awesome. How did you get the supply of the writers then? Because coming in as a customer, like us, we have our customer, we need to be able to connect with those writers first, so the supply-demand issue and conundrum that marketplaces have.
Byron: So we talked about the fourth business, WriterAccess and the third business, ideaLaunch. The second business was a business called LifeTips. LifeTips was a marketplace that I started in 2000 that currently offers 120,000 tips on how to make your life better. Yeah, go figure. And also
Adam: They’re all from you right?
Byron: No, no. That’s exactly the point.
Byron: The answer to your question is no. We learned to find freelance writers around the world actually that had passion and interest and knowledge and expertise around particular topic areas. So we brought in one guru, we called them, for each topic, tennis, green travel, low-carb diets. We launched hundreds of websites and found experts and gurus in each of those sites to help create content. And we motivated them by publishing books for some of them that reached certain goals. And we also of course paid them on a per tip basis for their contributions. And we built lots of tools and technology for them to communicate with their audience. So we learned how to attract and manage freelancers bottom line.
And for further answer is my first business was called FreelanceAccess and that was a graphic arts placement agency. So I knew a lot about the staffing industry. I knew how to place people on freelance and temporary jobs and companies. So I’ve sort of been in this marketplace/staffing world and matching people up with needs with people with talent for like a gazillion years.
Adam: And then you understand the power of verticalizing because of all of those life tips whether it’s psychological help or fitness tips, all these different verticals. It just was a perfect SEO play as well. So you’re getting the demand side met which is what I was going to ask. How did you increase demand? People are looking for the answers to the questions that they have and you’ve got great content written by experts in a particular vertical. Burn. One plus one equals ten.
Adam: Was that part of a grand plan? Or did some of this happen by wow, look at what we’ve built kind of just organically? Or was this a master plan that you’ve had?
Byron: I wouldn’t say it’s a master plan but when you’re self-financing, you learn to be nimble. You learn to listen to the needs of your customers. That’s the number one priority as you journey throughout literally every day. You make it or break it based upon generating demand and of course having high quality supply. So everything else in between is a guessing game as to what will work and what doesn’t work. But as long as you maintain your focus on those key elements, you figure out how to make it work.
Adam: Spot on. How many words do you think have been written on WriterAccess?
Byron: Oh wow. Well, I know that we’ve hit the 800,000 projects completed mark. And average product size is probably 400 or 500 words so a lot.
Adam: That’s a lot of words.
Adam: That’s a lot of words. I did read something on your site too and I love this quote from you where employees are immersed in our strategic plan and core values from the get go and each employee has individual and departmental goals with quarterly, annually bonuses for all. The ethos that you have instilled within your business and the culture that you’ve built, where does that come from? Is it something again learnt or a part of your own just life experience that you know, do unto others, treat people how you want to be treated? Where does that come from for you?
Byron: That was a discovery to be truthful. We had experienced tremendous growth at the company in 2015. And in the fourth quarter of 2015, I decided to sit back and hire a consultant to come in and analyze our business and try to figure out what are we doing right, what are we doing wrong, how can we make our business better? And when we left the agency business, we brought some very important core – with all of the businesses that I’ve been blessed to be a part of with incredible team members around me by the way that have made things, magic happen, we’ve always had a real belief philosophically in having core values, creating something meaningful, something that would make a difference, something that was unique and different. So those have been the catalyst frankly for all the success I’ve been blessed with, with all of these businesses.
But it was time to take a timeout. It was time to say let’s just sit back and really look at the structure. So we immersed ourselves deeply into a wonderful book I highly recommend called Traction and hired a consultant centered on this great new philosophy of making people well aware and motivating employees in strange and mysterious ways to get excited, more excited about the business than they ever had. And so we did just that and we came out of an interesting exercise. We revamped our core values and we looked at what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong and decided that we should compensate people a little bit differently based upon those three principles you mentioned namely individual, department and overall company performance. So, we implemented that in 2016. In the first quarter of 2016, our sales had increased 70% over the first year.
Byron: So we got some incredible value out of it. Our employees are really excited about this transformation that we’ve made. And it’s had an impact not just on our business but the service we’re offering, the experience that the employees have in doing new things that we call wows which is part of our core value in wowing customers with surprise and delight. It’s the core philosophy in doing things that are unusual and different and surprise them. So that’s been some of what we’ve been doing, some of our secret sauce.
Adam: Great feedback and advice for other entrepreneurs who are taking that leap to cross the chasm as it were into the early majority within their marketplace. And how do you maintain and keep a culture? Because the team is what delivers it and keeping them a part of the success not just the commission for the sales team. But where do the bonuses for everybody in the business go to? And is there a program for that? I think it’s an excellent piece of feedback and advice.
Now, one of the questions that I get a lot from our clients who are building on Near Me their marketplaces is how do we keep the projects on the platform or the gigs on the platform or the purchases on the platform? The marketplace owner – and in fact, this is a blog post that we recently published with very much thanks to WriterAccess. We had one of your writers, Lindsey, involved in this particular piece and we’re thankful of the great work she does. But it was around on how do you add value and how do you make sure that participants don’t go around the marketplace? How do you ensure that the value is there, that the buyer and the seller or the guest and the host or the consultants and the client stay connected on the marketplace? Have you got some advice around that?
Byron: I would say constant focus on betterment. Making the product and the software better every day is the key and the catalyst. The minute you sit back and think that your technology has advantages over your competitors, you’re probably going to be out of business in six months to a year. You constantly have to learn customer’s needs, listen to where they’re going and how their patterns are changing. You’ve got to improve. You’ve got to innovate all the time.
Adam: Don’t become complacent once you’ve got a successful marketplace. Constant improvement and focus on betterment. I like that. So what progress would you like to see within the marketplace economy in the next five years outside of WriterAccess being a participant in the gig economy, the marketplace economy, the collaborative commerce, sharing economy? There are so many different words that people use. Where do you see that marketplace economy in the next five years?
Byron: I think they were going to think about marketplaces as not a place to get cheap resources but it’s a place to get high quality services and even products for that matter. And that’s the paradigm shift. It’s this concept that a marketplace can let the cream rise of the crop and really hold the ground on getting more when you pay more. And I think that’s what the obligation is to a marketplace. It’s to establish fair pricing, fair payment for the talent within because without the talent you really have nothing. And that’s the sad reality. It’s this concept of crowd sourcing in marketplaces. It has been the driver for all of these investments particularly the VCs have made but we view it the opposite. We view our marketplace, at WriterAccess for example as a place to allow talent to perform.
We track every order that goes through whether it met, below or exceed expectations. We look at things like the number of revision request that go back and forth and/or dropped orders. We have what we call rising star algorithms and falling star algorithms that are based on performance within the platform. And we raise star levels which means we raise the price per word that a customer needs to pay to work with a talent based upon that performance. So I think that my tight answer is we want to go up market with marketplaces not down into the trenches of cheap with crowd-sourced inexpensive solutions.
Adam: Yeah. The race to the bottom is a lose-lose game. There’s no doubt about it. And I think maybe that’s the standout also that your business model was built on bootstrapping and actually a business model that built fundamental traction because it wasn’t this pump and dump or spray and pray strategy that many VC-backed marketplaces are going after. Let’s just get user acquisition and it’s a very short-term vision that they have. And so it’s all about use the numbers for this quarter. The total addressable market might be huge. So hey, don’t worry about the quality. Don’t worry about pricing. In fact, don’t even worry about profitability. We just want users. And then when we go to round B, C, D, E, they’re looking at their exit that way.
I thoroughly love to hear these sorts of stories because it just endorses what ultimately is going to make for a better marketplace economy across the board. I think we’ll see the quality marketplaces be absolute standouts and they’re the ones that will also stand the test of time. One of the things that we, you may have found in working with marketplaces around the globe is the ability for legislation to keep up on tax and other regulatory complications. The 10.99 economy is what people are talking about in the USA but in other countries, it’s a different taxation model. Has that been something that you’ve been able to solve? And how does it impact in a global service offering that you have?
Byron: Exactly. So we’ve been faced with some good challenges with the launch of our translation service which happened about two or three months ago and learning how to deal with the complex legal system, tax and regulatory complications in multiple markets. The good news is we’re so small with translation services. It doesn’t really affect too much of our business or the workload that we have to bring on at the moment. And we have some restrictions that we have to place upon our talent working in foreign countries to validate that they’re paying the tax dollars, in reporting properly the tax dollars. So for example, if we’re working with somebody in Beijing, they have to declare, they have to send us an invoice and declare to us as a corporation that they have viewed us as a customer that’s paying them dollars. So there are terms and conditions that they need to apply to and certain things that they need to do for us.
Whereas, in the United States, when a writer completes a work, they don’t have to invoice us. They’re actually just being paid by us and we’re 10.99-ing them and reporting their taxes because we’re collecting their social security number and we’re just reporting the dollars. So if they screw up with their tax filings, it’s their bad not ours because we’re going to be reporting whatever we pay to them directly to our government. So yeah, it’s a mess out there to be honest with – and there possibly and probably needs to be some international governing body looking over all of this exchange of capital. And certainly, the big players like Upwork who we compete against have mastered that art and understand how to set up both their corporate structure to protect the liabilities as well as the payment vehicles to pay talent properly and timely. So yeah, big challenge is there for sure but we’re not shipping goods and we’re not managing returns. The digital currency with us is a little bit different. So it’s not – it’s something we can all work around.
Adam: Yeah, it is. It’s a problem that – we’ll see the shift. And I’m sure that given that it’s a 235 billion dollar industry, the gig economy as they’re saying over the next few years ahead, governments and the regulatory bodies, tax will probably adjust to keep up and ensure that the majority of marketplace economy succeeds. I got two final questions for you, Byron. And it’s been fantastic getting your time and I really appreciate it. First question in closing off, what’s one piece of advice that you would give to somebody starting a marketplace whether it’ll be a peer to peer or business to business? What’s the one most important piece of advice that you’d give?
Byron: Testing. Testing not by going out and building a bunch of code and technology. Testing by talking with people and finding out their interest in something that you’re trying to build and how you might build something different than what’s out there. And so many people make mistakes of getting so hyperfocused on how great their product is. If they even hear from a few people that it may be a good idea, they start putting their head to the grind and begging and borrowing and stealing money, maybe not stealing but putting way too much time and energy and effort without flushing an idea out. I’m convinced you can test the viability of ideas with a white board and some focus group testing with a number of different friends or crayon drawings or focus groups or descriptions in groups that you can test with on, say, LinkedIn. So test, test, test. And don’t go all in until you really feel good about getting the kind of feedback you need to endure the challenges that you will go through to start a marketplace.
Adam: Excellent. And for the introverts out there listening, you can do it too. There’s no doubt about it. And crayons, get yourself a packet of crayons. Now, last question is, what is the most compelling piece of advice that you were ever given that resonates with you even now? It could be unrelated to marketplaces. It could be unrelated to anything. Just that one piece of advice that resonates.
Byron: I’m going to give you two because they relate to one another. The first one is –my father was a professor of Philosophies. So believe me, I had a lot of advice when I was growing up.
Adam: You need counseling now, don’t you?
Byron: On the fly I might add. But he taught me something very interesting and that is that you should never be afraid of your ignorance but to try and hide your stupidity which I think resonated very well with me at various stages of my life and journey throughout my life. You need to – and then the followup to that is the question is the answer. Something that I’ve, I wouldn’t say invented myself but over time and in some different roles I’ve had in the professional world I learned the power of Socratic techniques, the power of asking questions basically. And the power of asking questions and learning to ask questions is truly remarkable in so many ways we don’t even have time to go into it right now.
But when you ask questions, you get knowledge back. And when you ask questions with other people, you find something magical happens and that is that people want to answer your questions and appreciate your curiosity and are fascinated by that and will therefore answer just about any question that you want to ask them. So when you’re building marketplaces and you’re building any business for that matter, you can’t be afraid to ask questions. Hence, the never be afraid of your ignorance. And you’ve got to literally practice that art of learning to ask questions and good questions.
And I think you’ll find strangely enough not only will your business be better by asking lots of questions but your personal life I would argue will be better because you’ll be more interesting to be around. And rather than just talking about yourself and your business particularly which many of us entrepreneurs want to do all day every day, you’ll be working on some even more important skills and that is to be caring about the people around you and what interests they have and what makes them tick and at the same time finding really good information that can help you shape your business.
Adam: And become such a good listener in that process. That’s perfect. In fact, that fits in beautifully also to your point about somebody who wants to start a marketplace and testing by talking to people, asking those questions. Fantastic! I’m glad I got the opportunity to ask these questions because I think everybody listening to the podcast has gotten something really valuable out of this time. So Byron, I’m very thankful again for having you on The Crowd. Where can people find you online, website, Twitter?
Byron: Twitter, ByronWhite and website, writeraccess.com. You’ll find me on LinkedIn connected with a gazillion people and I welcome any connection with LinkedIn. I’m always open to anybody that wants to connect in the social sphere. And you can reach me with email, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam: Thank you very much again, Byron. We’ll have all this transcribed as well. So there will be text version which everybody can read, download, print. We’ll turn it into an ebook. We thank you again. We look forward to catching up with you in the future, Byron.
Byron: Best of luck with everything you do as well, Adam. Thanks for having me as a guest and I enjoyed it very much.
Adam: Thanks for joining us for The Crowd, the podcast that keeps you connected. Join us next episode for more knowledge sharing and insights on the marketplace economy.
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