This week, we’re returning to our March 2016 interview with David Schneider, co-founder of NinjaOutreach. If you’re into outreach marketing and what to see what David’s advice was back in 2016, have a gander. You’re sure to spot where the industry has changed since, and if you’re a fan of NinjaOutreach, how it’s developed in the last two years.
March 2016 – WHAT THE F**K MAKES YOU TICK? WITH DAVID SCHNEIDER
This week, my interview features the co-founder of NinjaOutreach, David Schneider.
Like so many digital marketers, I discovered that Schneider’s story is peppered with interesting twists and turns, once again proving that the road to online marketing is definitely not the straight and narrow path.
I wanted to interview Schneider because I wanted to talk to him about numerous issues in the online world of marketing, but also about the future of his service and how he thinks NinjaOutreach can be best utilised by people like you and me.
Nothing short of an interesting man, read about his break from the corporate world, globe-trotting to over forty countries, plunge into the online world, and how he teamed up with all the awesome guys at NinjaOutreach to create one of the best outreach marketing tools on the market.
John: Hi Dave. Thanks for taking part.
David S: Yeah, no problem. It’s a pleasure.
J: That’s great! So, while it only takes a quick search for people to learn about your educational background at Harvard studying Applied Mathematics, could you tell us a little bit about your transition between the world of academia, your job in D.C., and eventually to the online marketing field?
DS: Yeah, no problem. So, let’s see. I did go to Harvard to study Applied Math. I graduated in 2010, so I’m about five years out, right now. I ended up going into finance, and sort of more economics, then became a business analyst in D.C. at a financial services company. For me, I was looking to basically get a taste of the real world, understand what it was like to have a real corporate job. Leave academia behind for a little bit, and pretty much, kind of, see what all the fuss was about.
Within about two years of working in D.C., my girlfriend and I, we were both living and working together, decided we wanted to quit our jobs and go travel. So, we saved up as much money as we could, which I think between the two of us was around 50 grand or so, and we were planning on basically doing a two-year backpacking trip around the world and blowing it all, and then figuring out what to do later.
We quit our jobs in September of 2012, after we had saved up the money and booked a one-way ticket to Japan, and then started backpacking and blogging. Because we didn’t really know what else to do, how to keep ourselves occupied outside of the travel, we started blogging about travel. Basically, where we were going, what we were doing, tips, pretty standard stuff. We ended up starting to make some money on the travel blog. Advertisers started approaching us. They were interested in buying links on the blog, things like that. For us, travelling, backpacking on a budget, it was great money.
So we kind of started working online, essentially. What started as 50 bucks here, a hundred bucks here, grew to be a four, and then five figure a month business that supported the travel, and basically kept our savings in while we were out there. I think it was right around when we started to really get momentum with that business, that we had the confidence to essentially do what we thought was online entrepreneurship full time, and say we’re not interested in going back and getting jobs, once we’re finished with this travel. We want to continue to grow our online assets. We like the digital nomad lifestyle, so essentially, we did that for about two or so years.
Then, in 2014, I started thinking more seriously about starting a software business for a variety of reasons. I was interested in getting into that space. I connected with a couple other online entrepreneurs for a podcast, and the three of us basically came up with NinjaOutreach, which is now almost a year and a half old if you judge it based on idea inception. Pretty much, that’s my full time work right now.
J: Wow. It sounds like you have, in a very short amount of time, really gone through a lot of the steps that a lot of people try to achieve in their entire life. From graduating college, going into what I can only imagine would have been a pretty well paid position in a financial institution, and then saying, “I’m done with this,” and living the nomad lifestyle, getting paid while traveling.
I’ve done something very similar in my career, where I’ve sort of started off by working for a large company, and then just became really frustrated, and then leaving that job to build something up of my own, although my first business wasn’t something online. My first business (for whatever reason) was a physical security company. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think that that frustration when you’re working in a large corporate environment, and you feel that it doesn’t suit you, can spark an unprecedented and incomprehensible ambition and drive in a person to go and do something else.
DS: Yeah, I 100% agree with that. Like you said, things did move pretty fast for us, now that I think about it. Obviously, when we graduated college, we worked in corporate for two years; many people work for 20 years before they decide to finally leave it behind. Then, we did the travel. We went to 40 countries, started working online. Many people were working online for years and years and years, and then all of the sudden we transitioned to this. So, all of that within five years, I guess, we’re just not easily satisfied, and always, kind of, thinking about the next thing and what we want to be doing.
J: Now that I’ve heard you tell the timeline of it, I can understand a lot better how you may have come to wanting to create something like NinjaOutreach. You were just saying that NinjaOutreach has been around now for about three years, but when we talk about the timeline of NinjaOutreach, how long did it take you to develop it until you were actually ready to roll out of beta?
DS: Sure, so the actual timeline would be about a year and a half, technically, if you’re thinking about idea inception to now. June 2014 we basically come up with the idea. At this point, we have a basic prototype from some legacy technology that my partners had built, so in that sense, it’s kind of cheating a bit. However, I will say that, having that basic prototype did much more harm to business than good, because it set us on a track that really we never should have gone on.
What I mean specifically is the legacy technology was a desktop software for Windows only, and it did some things (like it could find bloggers and stuff based on keywords and got you some metrics and stuff) so if you think about what NinjaOutreach is now, where you’ve got this prospecting outreach CRM, you can kind of see how it would evolve from that. However, because we had that existing technology, it made natural sense for us to essentially continue with it, and what we did was, we added on to that technology and created this desktop application that we finally launched into a beta in October.
We were in beta for two and a half months, and then we finally launched in January of 2015. Now, one of the many big follies that we made was, we went with a desktop application because it was what the initial prototype was. And that was a huge mistake, because 50% of the users used Mac, so we were essentially excluding half of the market. We didn’t know this at the time. We thought Mac users were much less prominent than they are, you know. If you look on a typical OS breakdown, only 10% of people use an app, but in our space, it’s like 50%. So basically, a lot of the early ‘head start’ actually really hurt us. So, beta was about two and a half months. Development was about three or four months, and then finally launching commercial in January, to have been live for 11 months.
J: Wow, and those 11 months, you guys have come phenomenally far. I think that I actually discovered you guys, what must have been quite short after you guys going live and I’ve been following the blog. What I wonder is once you guys launched, I’m sure that you had to wear many hats doing the marketing yourself (I presume). Did you market NinjaOutreach with NinjaOutreach?
DS: Yep, definitely. One of the things that helped us maybe get a bit of a head start was that we started marketing right away, before the product was even commercial. This is something you certainly read about as it is encouraged, but many people, unfortunately, don’t do. They’ve got their head down in product development too much. The minute we knew NinjaOutreach was something we were going to do, we started the blog.
We started content marketing, and anybody that’s done content marketing knows that, even if you know what you’re doing, it easily could take six months to build up anything. So, that six months from June to January gave us something to work with when we launched. It wasn’t really that much, and the traffic has grown a lot since then. But at least we had something. So, in January, basically, when we started to do more serious marketing having launched, we used NinjaOutreach to basically find bloggers to write about us.
We were looking to do guest posting. I’ve done probably over a hundred, I’m not even exaggerating, in the last year. We’ve had dozens of product reviews go live. We’ve reached out to bloggers who had resource pages, to ask if they would add us to that and maybe sign up for an affiliate program. All these things, which basically you could use NinjaOutreach for, we were using it to understand where our was product good, where it was bad, what were the problems with it, and building up case studies to basically share with trial sign ups and new visitors.
J: I wonder, do you think that today, you guys are a marketing business first and a software developing business second?
DS: It’s interesting because I always think of NinjaOutreach as a software company. It’s a software service, and we sell a software product. We do have a services component where we run done-for-you outreach campaigns for people. In that sense, it functions a bit like an agency, and then, additionally, just the fact that we need to know our space; which is blogger outreach and prospecting influence market, etc. That makes it a bit of a marketing business too, so there’s really shades of everything, and kind of to your point earlier, where you have to wear all the hats, I mean that’s exactly what’s going on, where you kind of wear all the hats of your business to understand the market.
J: Yeah. I totally understand. Coming back in that point is exactly that, in an interview with Ari Meisel, who discussed NinjaOutreach being a bootstrap start up and how you’re wearing many hats. I feel like that very often, in my own business. I was wondering, wearing multiple hats of ‘customer service guru’ to ‘conceptualising new products and features’ and ‘working with clients directly,’ how do you handle that responsibility, day-to-day?
DS: It’s definitely difficult. I mean, someone could be a product manager at Ninja Outreach, there’s plenty that needs to be done. There’s somebody that could be a customer service full time representative, there’s plenty of that that needs to be done. Somebody could be the head marketer and growth hacker at the business, there’s plenty of that that needs to be done.
Unfortunately, as a bootstrap, self-funded start up, we don’t have the resources to put individuals in those positions, and say, ‘Here own this.’ Instead, what happens, is the cofounders essentially need to occupy those roles themselves. On a day-to-day basis, mostly, I’m just working on what I believe is the highest priority of the day, which is a combination of – what are my key performance indicators (or my KPIs), and what am I trying to do right now? So, we kind of differ on a day to day on what needs to be done.
Earlier, between the cofounders and who did what, and it was kind of like everyone had their hand in everything. I think that that’s very typical of early stage start-ups, where you feel like every founder kind of needs to be in the loop on everything.
But as we’ve grown a bit more, we’ve started to basically form stronger lines between who does what where. Product has fallen much more so under my hat, for example, and what I’ll do in a monthly update, or something like that, I’ll talk to my co-founder. We’ll set priorities of what we want to get done for the month, but I’m the one day-to-day managing it. Whereas my other cofounders, say Mark, is doing more business development, so he’s working with the affiliates; he’s working on partnerships; he’s getting on the phone more; and he really owns that space. So, as the business grows, it becomes a bit clearer who is in charge of what, and then eventually, I guess it makes your life a little bit easier.
J: Yeah. I experienced the exact same thing, and I understand that when you first start out, it is exactly how you said, that everybody tries to always pitch in. But you start realising that if individuals start taking ownership of certain roles, it becomes a lot easier because it’s less chasing your own tail and trying to be on top of everything.
You were saying that you do a lot of marketing for NinjaOutreach yourself using NinjaOutreach. I was really interested to find out what you’ve learned in 2015 (marketing your own service) that is going to be influencing next year’s campaigns that you maybe wouldn’t have thought of before.
DS: I found that it’s very specific to the business that you’re marketing. It’s relatively easy enough to get guest posts in the marketing niche, and we’re comfortable as content writers. But, would I necessarily recommend that everybody who’s in a business try to do guest posting and content marketing and stuff like that? No. It just isn’t really for some people and some businesses. Or at least certainly less so. So, that’s definitely always one thing to consider.
I think, in general, one of the shifts that I’ve noticed from the earlier year to the now later year is that it was more about getting out there and trying to get product reviews and guest posts and things like that back then. Whereas now, in the later year, I’m thinking more about how we can grow our own assets (which is our own, say blog or website) and basically bring more people to us. For example, can we recruit our own guest writers to write on our blog, now that maybe we’ve built up a little bit of an asset where people would actually find it valuable to post on our blog? Or inviting influencers to take part in content via some sort of expert round up or link round up, and then promoting, and basically directing stuff more inbound, more directly, so that the actual final production produced asset, whether it’s an article or something like that, is actually on your blog.
I don’t know if that’s really revolutionary insight, in that that wasn’t true a year ago, it was more just the evolution of the website where, now that we actually have more value in doing stuff on our own website because we have a newsletter because we have inbound traffic. That anything produced on our website is generally better off where it is than somewhere else. So, we’re just changing the focus a little bit. That’s one thing, but I think that is going to be changing for us in 2016.
J: We’ve been starting to do some outreach marketing, or influencer marketing, and I’m starting to understand a lot more how planning and structuring of your campaigns and of your outreach seems to be really the vital step to not wasting time and resources. I think that a lot of people are also (especially agency owners and staff) are afraid of doing outreach marketing because they fear it’s time consuming or expensive versus black hat SEO, or just buying links.
Obviously with NinjaOutreach, having that tool that makes a lot of the processes easier. Do you think that a vital part of doing outreach marketing, with or without a tool to help you, is to really structure your campaign and really plan it ahead of time?
DS: Yeah, 100%. The thing is (first of all with outreach marketing) it just really takes a while. Even with NinjaOutreach, it still takes time. I think the tools can definitely save you a lot of time, make it more efficient. But that’s not to say it’s just a one button click or anything like that.
By the way, we are kind of working on adding more automation to the tool, like automated email sending and stuff like that. That said, in terms of the plane that’s required, it kind of reminds me of a conversation that I had recently with a freelance SEO who was asking me about doing some of the client work that they were doing, and they weren’t really getting a ton of success with their content promotion and things like that. And I said, “Okay, tell me what your process is like.”
The first thing she said was, “Well, first I come up with an idea for a blog post, then I write it. I think it’s pretty good quality, and then I go out and find people to promote it to.”
And I go, “Well how did you come up with the idea?”
And she’s like, “Well, I just write about whatever I think could be good.” And that right there already tells me there’s a bit of a lack of planning in her approach. Where now, what you’re seeing some of the expert content marketers doing is that the ideation phase is almost as important as the creation and promotion part; where you’re basically coming up with an idea, already inherently thinking about the marketing campaign in mind.
So, you’re thinking about why this article going to be a good fit for this niche. Who to promote it to when it’s written. Thinking about who the people are who maybe have promoted similar types of articles, or linked to similar types of articles. Looking at the most shared content on the web to kind of understand, is this something that is a share worthy topic?
And all of that stuff comes together, where before you’ve even written the article, you have your hundred people that you’re going to be getting in touch with to say, “hey, I’ve just written this new article. Would you be interested in promoting it, sharing it, commenting on it, giving advice or feedback, anything like that?”
You’ve already got that in hand, instead of the “I’m gonna come up with an idea. I’m gonna write something. Oh, and then on top of it, I’m going to basically try to find people to promote it to.” What usually happens is, by the time you’ve already exhausted your mental resources and mental energy in coming up with it and writing it, the idea of doing content promotion, coming up with people to send it to, just seems like such additional work added on to the whole process that a lot of people, I think, just kind of forgo it altogether. Where, if when you’ve already got that stockpiled of energy and you’re, kind of, excited about the idea, you start doing some of that initial prospecting ahead of time, then it only becomes natural that you’ve already got this list in hand, and that you’re going to do an outreach campaign, and you’ll be better off for it.
J: Exactly. So, what do you think is the main issue with people signing up for NinjaOutreach? Are they overwhelmed? Do they think it will take up too much of their time? What do you find to be the biggest inhibitor for new users?
DS: One of the biggest things that we find where users kind of get stuck in the tools that they don’t do the outreach part. They’ll do some prospecting. They’ll find some people. They’ll create a list, maybe, and stuff like that.
But, of the people that don’t seem to get full benefit of the tool, it’s the people that don’t integrate their email address, write a template, and basically send out some emails to do some outreach marketing. Naturally, without that piece of the process, the whole thing kind of falls apart. It doesn?t really help you that much to just have a list of people out there.
So, what we’re doing is trying to make it more seamless to execute a campaign where we’ve already got existing templates to use to reach out. That covers the types of common outreach goals that people have, so stuff that Brain Dean might write when he talks about doing his skyscraper technique, or the Content Roadshow, or any of types of scripts that he uses and other influencers in his space. Just having all that stuff around, ready to go, so that it is very easy to finally send out a couple of emails, and let people know about a post that you just wrote. See how it goes.
J: Yeah. I can agree with that. I think it’s really exciting. I think it’s definitely a tool that people should be using, especially if they’re promoting brands and they’re trying to build a brand. Is there a method or a tip that you would give someone who is just starting out with NinjaOutreach in this coming year?
DS: Yeah, one of the pitfalls I think is that people come in and they get overwhelmed with the number of different things that you could potentially do. Because when they talk about outreach marketing, that’s a very general, high-level way of saying that I may be getting in touch with some people to mention something, right? So, what kind of campaign are you doing, and what are the goals of those campaigns?
So, in that sense, what we usually tell people to do is just focus on one goal. Are you trying to do an expert roundup on your blog? Are you trying to promote content that you’ve written? Are you trying to do some guest posting? And really, just kind of dive deep into that campaign, and let it run its course, and when you feel comfortable transitioning, or adding additional types of outreach campaigns, do so.
But, don’t do, “I’m looking for guest posts,” or “I’m looking for product reviews,” or “I’m looking to get some links on resource pages,” or “I’m doing a little bit of everything now,” – because what happens is the Jack of all trades, masters none. You end up not getting deep enough in any campaigns to get results, because with a lot of marketing, not just outreach marketing, the actual ROI comes from that long tail, the experimentation, the optimisation. All that type of stuff.
So, if you’re just scratching the surface with each type of campaign, you’ll end up probably finding that they don’t get you any good results, and then you just kind of ditch the whole thing and write it off. And you do that on every type of marketing campaign and channel that you’re doing. Then, all of the sudden, you feel like you’re left with no marketing things whatsoever, then all the sudden the business is gone. It’s just a slippery slope.
So, my advice is really to narrow down the focus of the outreach that you’re looking to do, then let it run its course.
J: Wow. Okay. Well, that’s what we’re going to do! Well, thanks. That’s all my questions. I think that was a really good interview.
DS: Oh thanks. Yeah, I appreciate it.