Spencer Fry, a 15-year startup veteran, takes us behind the scenes of how he built his latest product, Coach.
More so than ever before, we have the opportunity to build independent businesses and create a living for ourselves online.
No group highlights this more than soloprenuers and creators who make and sell digital products. Over the past few years, designers, writers, and entrepreneurs have begun to sell their knowledge and help others pick up new skills, turning their passions into revenue.
For creators, though, the problem has always been how to effectively market, sell and deliver products to their audience.
Once you have an idea; a book, a course, a newsletter. How do you effectively, efficiently and affordably deliver your content to your audience?
This is where Spencer Fry, and his new startup, Coach, come in.
"At its core Coach is a platform for selling digital products," Spencer explained to me. "The way we look at it, digital products are made up of two different types of categories. One is digital downloads, which is e-books, worksheets, templates, and then the other one is online courses. Those can be full video courses, or they can be a mix of video, text, audio, but at its core Coach helps you market, manage, and sell your digital products."
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Taking the long road to launch
Before unveiling Coach to the world, Spencer had been working on the project, and it's many iterations, for over two years. And in total, he has a long, 15-year history in building products on the web - Coach is actually his fourth startup, following uncover (in 2012), Carbonmade (in 2007) and typefrag (in 2003).
Today, Coach looks and feels like a highly polished, beautiful product. But it wasn't always this way. Spencer took the long road to reach this point.
Throughout his 15-year startup career, Spencer has developed a passion for helping individuals and recalled his time building Carbonmade - the first online portfolio for artists and designers to display their work - a project he spent four years on, as "the happiest time I've ever had in my career."
Reflecting on those four years, Spencer realized that the main reason for his happiness was that he was helping individuals show off their work and get jobs. After Carbonmade, when he was looking at what he wanted to do next, he knew that it had to be something that helped entrepreneurs, and creators and other types of individuals make a living online.
"I wasn't interested in building a product for small to large businesses," he explained.
Coach started out as a test product for one specific person - a tutor, and friend of Spencer's, in New York City. "He was looking for a platform where he could manage his clients, and send invoices, and sell products, and different courses, and worksheets, and stuff that he had created," explained Spencer.
"I used him as a test customer and built the beginning, initial platform for him."
Since those first days, Coach has been through many iterations before Spencer settled on a product for creators, entrepreneurs, and people that are selling products online.
"Honestly, I think iteration is the only lifeblood of a startup, he said. "If you fail to continue to iterate, you're never going to figure it out. I always tell people 'Just keep building.'"
Since Coach's launch, they've been growing steadily and business has really picked up over the past six months - since Summer 2016. It's now backed by investors at Notation Capital and Designer Fund and Spencer also has a has a team of five team mates working with him on the project.
Though it's ostensibly aimed at online entrepreneurs, it’s already being used by a broader range of customers, including personal trainers, therapists and developers. Some of which have already started seeing great success with the platform.
Love and dating coach, Nancy Slotnick, explains:
"They [Coach] helped me overcome my fears of doing all that marketing stuff that isn’t really my area of expertise. They gave me the confidence to launch the product I wanted to create."
Growing an early userbase: The 3 pillars of Coach's success
1. Cold outreach
"We tried a tonne of things," Spencer recalled as we spoke about how Coach attracted it's earliest users.
"The first year and a half was a lot of cold outreach. We'd stumble upon people's websites, and send them emails, in a pleasant way, not in an automated way, where we'd try to learn a little bit more about them and who they were and see if we could be helpful."
"Originally, when I was really early on and just starting the platform, I was reaching out and seeing if I could just talk to the person. I was like 'Hey. I'm working on this thing, and I'd love to just pick your brain for 10 minutes about how you sell your products, or how you do your job.' I actually got a really good response rate from that, at least 50% open rate if not higher. I did a lot of A/B tests in the subject lines, too. Then I'd get maybe 20 out of 100 people would respond, and I'd jump on the phone with them. I think in the first three months I talked to almost 200 people on the phone."
"It was part product development, but it was also part 'Let me hear about your workflow, and if we build something that interests you, can I follow up with an email later?' Then I had this pretty massive email list that I was able to reach out to and be like 'Hey, from our conversation you said you wanted these things. We built it. Come take a look at Coach.'"
2. Word of mouth
Another avenue that has helped Coach grow so far is word of mouth.
Because of Spencer's startup history, and having some past success, he knew some people in the soloprenuers and creator cicles like Justin Jackson.
"I knew Justin [Jackson]. Justin took a leap of faith with our product because we went back, and I was actually one of his first guests on his original podcast. He really liked what we were doing, so he started sharing it with some of his friends as well. We started to get some organic support."
Another early supporter, and now team member, Mackenzie Child, also discovered Coach via word of mouth.
"One of the advantages of being around for the last two years is that your links are somewhat spread out over the internet. Also because we have, I think, pretty good design, we show up in a lot of design directories and things like that. People just find us. I think influencers, especially, appreciate nicely designed products with good copy, and they're always willing to try new things. As long as the product can back up the marketing site, they'll sign up, and start to use it, and share it."
"Getting influencers up on the platform, people like Justin, Mackenzie, and so on, who bring their own audience. It's more authentic that way. We don't pay them, but if we can convince them to sign up, they can spread the word through their tribes and so on."
3. Content marketing
The third pillar of Coach's growth so far has been content marketing.
"We've been really focused on trying to release one really, really high-quality article a week," Spencer explained. "And not your typical content marketing style, we really try to focus on something that's not click bait-y at all."
Authenticity has been key for Coach when it comes to content marketing, with most of the team having digital products for sale on the platform themselves.
"As they're building out their products, they think a lot about how they do it, and what's difficult, what's easy, and process. We write a lot of content marketing pieces that support the process of building a digital product, but because we're actually doing it ourselves, we're not just taking a bunch of snippets from previously used written articles and recycling it. They're just a lot more authentic, and then we put a personal twist on it. For example, one person that writes blog posts for Coach, she just put up her e-book for the first time. She's selling this e-book, 'From Full-Time to Freelancer'. She was able to write a bunch of posts based on her own personal experience, and those have resonated a lot more with people."
"If you just write 'Ten best headlines for your blog article,' you'll probably get some shares, but if you actually write "Hey, this is what I did, and these are the article headlines I used, and this is the stuff I learned," they're just a lot more effective."
"I think because everyone at Coach, practically everyone who works at Coach uses Coach, there is more of a personal connexion from the articles we write. Also, our customers are also using Coach, so I think it just kind of compounds itself. You see better results from that for sure."
Spencer's #1 lesson from 15 years of startups: Never stop iterating
"I think the biggest thing that a lot of new entrepreneurs fail at is they don't persevere long enough. They create something that they've come up with as maybe a challenge for them or some sort of problem they want to solve. They build a product. They put up the marketing site. Then they just kind of sit there. Maybe they write some blog posts. Maybe they don't. [What] they don't realize that it can take months, if not years, to grow into a reasonable business, so a lot of them just stop after they only got a handful of customers. I think the piece of advice that I always give entrepreneurs is just to keep going and keep iterating."
"There is a point when you're going to have what is known as product-market fit. At that point, you're going to stop iterating on the idea itself, and you're going to start more iterating on individual features, or marketing, or design, those types of things. I think you know once you've hit that point when, say, you've got maybe 100 or 100 plus paying customers, and those people stop churning and start referring other people. I think once your paying customers are referring other people, you know that you have something."