An insightful interview with Dmitry Dragilev
Paul Kemp: Welcome to another episode of The App Guy Podcast. I am your host, it’s Paul Kemp. As you know, I go around and I get all nationalities, everyone from around the world that can help us with our app journeys. Today I love my guest. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve met, wonderful at building up relationships with influencers and he’ definitely got something to talk to us about.
This founder is responsible for building up — get this — 40 million pageviews for his startup, which actually ended up being sold to Google. It’s a dream come true for many of the founders and the startup entrepreneurs that listen to this show.
Dmitry Dragilev: Thanks, good to be here!
Paul Kemp: Dmitry, you do a lot of stuff in the web space but it’s very applicable to apps because you have this product called JustReachOut, which I want to uncover with you going forward… But first, we must touch on Polar — your experience of building up this 40-million view site and selling it to Google. Would you be able to give us a run through of actually the story behind Polar?
Dmitry Dragilev: Well, actually it used to be an app when we started. It was primarily a mobile-first app, because the founder of Polar, Luke Wroblewski was the guy behind mobile-first development, the idea, and all the books, and he’s kind of a thought leader in the space (@lukew is his Twitter name). When he founded the company he said,
“Hey Dmitry, come work with me and this couple other people that I wanna recruit.”
It was primarily just a mobile app and it was a very simple app; it was just a beautiful way to create a poll on any given topic or question you have, and ask your friends to participate in your poll. It could be anything — Starbucks vs. Dunkin’ Donuts or Xbox vs PS4…
When we first launched to the app store, we really didn’t have a lot of time to try to find customers. We were funded by Jerry Yang of Yahoo!, so we had some money to play with, and we tried a lot of different things. We tried App Store optimization, we also tried a lot of different tactics such as partnerships, we also did ads, and all that did drive a good amount of users to our app to download and use it, but it was just not having impact of millions. We were burning through some of the cash and we were just not seeing huge hockey stick growth.
We tried a lot of things and a lot of them worked, but there wasn’t that sporadic, huge growth that was sustainable. We had to spend more money to get more users, and this app was free. We couldn’t keep spending more money on acquiring users and just hoping we’ll turn into the next Twitter. We needed to make this a business where we were not spending more money to get new customers.
What I was looking at at the time was breaking tech news, and one of my experiments — I like to call them PR experiments or SEO experiments — was just to find a way to gain a whole big influx of users with a cool little experiment or a trick, and see how sustainable that is, and if we can keep repeating it.
iOS 7 was coming out, so what we did is Luke being a design mind, with a design thinking, mobile-first, and really well-known in the design community, having a lot of connections, basically we compared 1-to-1 all the icons and all the functionality of iOS 7 with iOS 6. And at the time there was a little bit of uproar; people were not that excited about the new iOS 7. They were actually comparing that to the Windows phone operating system and saying that it might not look great and that there’s inspiration from Windows that came over to it… So we did a poll, Luke promoted it, and we got a thousand votes on each icon. It was icon-to-icon: iOS 6 versus iOS 7.
We ended up running that over our poll, and again, some votes on it. This was all on the iOS app. And what we did is we took that and pitched the results of it to press and media, to who was talking about this topic a lot — because the iOS 7 update was coming up — saying that people actually prefer iOS 7.
People loved it. They cited our name, they said
“This cool new app called Polar that allows you to poll did this study and this is what they found….”
…except there was nowhere to link to because it was an iOS app, so they just linked to our homepage, which was okay. People came to our homepage, some of them downloaded the app, some of the didn’t, but there was no immediate action or engagement on it. So we did a few other ones like that that were very newsworthy at the time: Xbox vs. PS4… Game consoles, games, all the different aspects of those, and compared them against each other.
Little by little, we just started going to Techmeme.com, TechCrunch… Just trying to figure out what are the hottest topics that are happening right now and what polls should we create.
We understood that journalists love these free studies, these free data that we’re giving them, and it was time to ask them to create these polls on their own, but also embed them in their own articles. That is where we pivoted away from the iOS app, which was kind of funny, because of Luke Wroblewski — his whole thing was mobile-first, and mobile-first became such a huge idea… It’s a worldwide phenomenon, everybody was talking about it; all he did is he flew around, giving talks about mobile-first development. So for us to pivot away from it and go to a web version was kind of a big deal, but we had to, because journalists would create these polls only on the web and add them to their sites through the web.
We built a whole web version, and that really kicked things into overdrive after we launched the web version. NPR, MLB, NBA, NHL, Gizmondo, all the sites out there, everybody started using it, and we would help them keep people on site longer by embedding these polls. Instead of just leaving a comment, a person might vote on ten polls, and then all sorts of ads would improve, ad performance would improve and so forth. That’s how we really grew.
The app was still kicking around, people were using it; it’s just the main growth kind of pivoted away from the app world into the desktop world a little bit, helping each other. The process was very similar to YouTube — you’d embed a poll, people would take it, they would click on the logo to come to our site, our site would show them this poll, it would all show them to sign up and create their own poll, and improve time on the site for themselves. It was like a circle… People would always go back and create more polls for their website.
Paul Kemp: Dmitry, I love this because… You know I’ve done 500 episode of this show, and you’ve just hit on two of the massive themes that come out of all of my chats with all these different successful founders. The first is the theme of solving a real problem, and it sounds to me like your journey was about solving a real problem especially for the journalists. The second one is pivot when you need to and follow the success, even if it’s against what you initially thought. You must have listened to all the other episodes to figure that out.
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah, I mean, I listened to quite a bit of your episodes. But I wanted to make sure people get some takeaways from this kind of stuff. It’s always hard to talk about success; everybody talks about success, and then people kind of get sad listening to it a lot of times, but…
Paul Kemp: Let’s talk about how we can help the appster tribe listening to this, because you have obviously had a huge amount of success. You were eventually bought up by Google, but what you learned throughout that whole process you are now giving back through JustReachOut. What is JustReachOut? Tell us about how you’re helping others pitch to the press.
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah, through that process I learned that all the people in my spot where I was were struggling exactly the same way. They wanted publicity and exposure for their apps and they couldn’t get it through traditional means. They had to either the big PR firm or hire this huge agency to represent them and pay them $5,000, $10,000. We only raised a million, a million and a half, so it wasn’t that much to keep a team going for a year, a year and a half and also afford a PR agency. We just couldn’t afford one. I found that a lot of people were in that same boat, they just needed to figure out how to talk to the press and get some exposure for their apps.
JustReachOut was born out of that need for the smaller entrepreneurs, app developers who are just on their own, one or two-person teams, to be able to e-mail a journalist and pitch them something relevant to what they liked to write about. We built sort of a matching algorithm that looks at journalists and their needs. Say, a journalist is writing about Bitcoin, and they’ve been writing about Bitcoin for the last five years and they’re probably the best expert in the Bitcoin field, and there’s somebody out there developing a Bitcoin app. Well, they probably should talk to each other at some point and they will have a lot of mutual interest. That mutual interest is a great conversation starter.
Our software just kind of makes that easy to find, finding that match. It will try and find the best journalist best on what they’ve written, or what they’re writing about right now. There are journalists out there that actually put out queries, believe it or not, saying
“I’m writing an article on Bitcoins and I need a quote from a Bitcoin expert. Or it could be an entrepreneur, an app developer. I need to interview them for this next issue.”
They’re just looking for somebody to talk to in their space. We aggregate that data and we also help you match with them, and then you can contact them through our platform. We make sure that your page gets to them, gets open, we correct any kind of e-mail addresses that are not correct, so we guarantee 100% deliverability.
It’s a SaaS product; I realize that people sometimes can’t afford 50–60 dollars a month. Literally, they’re looking at every dollar they spend every month, so it’s designed for the smaller guys to good at or become better at reaching out to press and journalists and be able to talk to them and gain some publicity.
Paul Kemp: I know how great it is when a journalist reaches out to you and asks for a comment or a quote (I just happened to be today); it’s so much easier. That’s the right way of doing it.
I’d love to know first — because I’m sure everyone’s I guess doing it wrong in some way — what is the wrong way of doing it? What is the wrong way of reaching out to influencers in the tech press?
Dmitry Dragilev: The wrong way — and I see this all the time — we have over 3,500 paying customers of the service right now, and I do the support for all of them, which is crazy, but I wanna talk to my customers… And the number one way that our app developers or small business are trying to pitch press is
“Hello John, I launched this new app. This new app does this, this and this, it helps families spend less time on their iPhones by rewarding them”
“It helps the teenagers not to text and drive. We just launched. Here’s the info about our team, here’s the link to our page, here’s the link to our app. Can you check it out? We’d love to hear from you”
..and that’s all they write.
That type of pitch is all about them and themselves and what they’re doing, and they’re presuming that that person will find it interesting. Now, usually journalists will receive anywhere from 80 to 100 e-mails every day, exactly the same format:
“Hey, this is what we’re doing. Can you write about us?”
and there’s no actual conversation starter there. I always say, a conversation starter is where you give something to them, you give value to them upfront, to start a relationship or a conversation. I always say
“If you saw them at a conference and you sat down with them or you started talking to them randomly, cold — they don’t know you, you don’t know them — what would you say?” and chances are you would not walk up to them and say “Hey” and start talking exactly about your app and what you’re doing. You’d probably refer to something they’ve written, something they’ve tweeted or something they’ve done, and start the conversation there and see if there’s any overlap between that and what you’re doing day-to-day with your app.
It’s a little bit of a bridge to
“Hey, this is what we’re doing. Can you write about us?”
and that’s where a lot of people tend to fall down.
“Well, I can’t figure out what that transition should be, because a typical app developer might not be an extrovert”
I’m an engineer by background, I know what that is like exactly. I came here as a Soviet immigrant in ’93 and I was not an extrovert in any way. I was that guy who sat coding on my computer. But I pushed myself to get a little better at just starting a conversation where there’s some common interest between you and the other person, and that person at least finds something you say is interesting.
It’s kind of mundane or too shallow I guess for a journalist to hear,
“Hey, we’re doing a new app. We have this new product. Can you look at it?”
Everybody says that to them, so how can you stand out? You have to offer some value, some insight, some data, some opinion, some comment on their article. Maybe you found a spelling mistake in the article, but something besides “Hey, here’s what we’re doing, here’s our brand new app.”
Paul Kemp: Dmitry, I have to confess… In my first ten episodes, I had a chat with the author of Pitch Perfect — this was when I was just staring the show out — and we were talking about exactly the same thing. That was four years ago. I feel that even though we know that it’s sensible advice, because you’re so excited about the app you just can’t help but start throwing e-mails around and saying,
“Hey world, I’ve built the app! Are you ready for it?”
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah, it’s so hard, and I still do it, too. I mean, I preach that stuff, I have a whole course on it, I coach over 200 startups every year, and I still once in a while go
“Hey, have you seen this?”
and I’m like
“Oh, I really shouldn’t be…”
So I started the practice of actually reading my e-mails out loud if I’m reaching out to somebody who I’m doing this on a first-time basis. And when you read it out loud, you kind of stop, because you usually wouldn’t say that to a person live, but somehow e-mail makes it fine to do. So yeah, I catch myself all the time with it, and I’m still struggling, but I’m getting better at building that first relationship, first value upfront, and then seeing how I can improve.
That’s why I started the course, for basically teaching people how to do it. I saw 3,500 people on there, and a lot of them are writing these huge e-mails all about their apps and what they do.
Paul Kemp: It’s crazy… It sort of reminds me of when I was at university; you start with the essays and you end up writing these really long essays and getting poor results, and then you realize if you start thinking of it as the marker and what they’re looking for, you start to write differently.
I guess if we put ourselves in the shoes of the journalists, they don’t wanna read this huge, long e-mail with pitches and PDFs. I’m guessing they just need a one-sentence pitch if you are pitching to them, or certainly something where you’re adding value.
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah. There’s an agency called Fractal, and they put out pretty interesting studies usually. They concentrate on content that goes viral, I guess; they create content that goes viral. It’s a marketing agency. They put out this study that was really interesting; they surveyed 500 journalists and they asked them what do they prefer to see in a pitch, and they compiled all the study into this slide deck which was shared on growthhackers.com, which is this platform to share interesting marketing articles and materials.
If you google ‘500 journalists survey’ you’ll probably find it, and I can send you a link to it. It’s funny, because they told you specifically:
“We want something that’s less than 200 words; subject line less than 65 characters. No PR releases, no attached stuff to it. We wanna receive it in the morning, something like 8 AM”
and something like 70–80% of them prefer e-mail pitches versus all other mediums.
That kind of gave people I guess the status quo when it comes to pitching press. From there, you can kind of improve on the actual conversation starter. But mostly e-mails… They should be kind of short, to the point and just to start a conversation with them, provoke them in some ways. I go through many different examples on it. Asking to interview them on your blog might be one way. Asking them to answer a Quora question, or a Reddit question or LinkedIn. Telling them,
“Hey, I tried to answer this question myself; I don’t think I did it justice, I’m not an expert. But you are — would you happen to share a few words of wisdom around this question?”
You’re not asking for PR, you’re not even asking them to cover yourself, you’re just engaging in a conversation with them about a topic that both of you share a common interest in. If you’re interested in something and they’re interested in something you both contribute to the same discussion, that’s one place you can push off of in the next section of the relationship, and just keep going that way.
Paul Kemp: Dmitry, clearly for everyone interested, just go to JustReachOut. There will be links on the show notes as well. You have a wonderful teaching style as well, having gone through now a majority of the courses; just a wonderful course.
I was thinking of changing gears slightly now… This is a show where we like to inspire those who are listening. They can be traveling in a car to a job they don’t like, stuck in traffic… And you are an entrepreneur, you’ve had a huge success with what you’ve done so far, you are living now almost I guess a life of freedom, free to do your own things; give us some idea of what it’s like to go through a day in your life, because I think it would inspire us.
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah, actually the first lecture in my course I talk a lot about trying to reach this point because I came here as a Soviet immigrant and half of my family believed it would be a better life here versus Russia, and when we arrived it was pretty tough, like it should be for any immigrant. I raised my sister on my own, my mom was working a lot, and the whole I was trying to think about this life that I have now. I didn’t wanna work for a large company or a big boss; I wanted to have a business where I control what I do day to day and I have the financial freedom to take vacations if I want… Sort of have control of my own destiny and I’m doing something that I’m truly excited about. I wanna wake up every day and be very excited about it day-to-day.
But it wasn’t like that so I was always on the search for what makes me click day-to-day and what makes me excited every day. I used to be a software engineer; I began working in software really early, in my teens, and then I got my formal education and I decided to become a full-time software engineer. I still wasn’t finding that excitement day-to-day. It was fun, it was interesting, but I was working at a large company at the time, so I quit my job, pre-MBA I think it was… Because I was reading magazines about Silicon Valley and all these news publications were talking about startups. This was 2005–2006.
So I drove cross-country in my Honda Civic to go to Silicon Valley. I arrived and I was trying to find a job, except I had no experience in marketing so nobody would hire me.
I lived in this cracky EconoLodge and I was trying to find a free gig
“I’ll work for free for anybody in the startup world. I just wanna figure out how to do startups.”
And nobody would hire me. They’d be like
“You’re a software engineer from BAE Systems; you worked on Department of Defense software development projects. You should just go back and do that.”
Little by little I proved myself to this one startup and they took me under their wing, and I learned a lot from their founder. We went through two years, we raised a lot of money, and we were acquired two years after that. So I learned a lot from that and then I kind of stuck around Silicon Valley for a while and bounced around different startups and met a lot of people, started my podcast series, met a lot more people by interviewing them, and then that’s where I thought
“Oh, when I interview them I can promote them, and I could help them fulfill whatever need they have.”
It was funny… Konstantine Guericke, co-founder of LinkedIn agreed to be on my live interview in front of other people. Usually, he charges money to do this thing and did it for free just because he’s looking to hire people. And just because I knew that I could get him to come, and get the right people to come to this event and make it worthwhile for him. So I started thinking how I can help people and also align those interests with my own as well. That was the beginning of the PR space or the SEO space.
Now I love it, all of what I’m doing. It took a while to get to this point because I was always trying different startups, I did different roles… I was a product manager for a while, I was a marketing manager for a while… I needed to find something that was sustainable, that was the first thing — how can it be sustainable month over month and year after year as a business? And then how can I wake up every day and just can’t wait to open my inbox and see what’s going on, hop on calls? What can I be doing…? Because if you’re not excited every day about it…
There are always down times. 90% of the stuff I do is always failing…
Paul Kemp: Like now? [laughs]
Dmitry Dragilev: [laughs] I failed at all this stuff, I could be like, “Oh…!” 90% of stuff is like,
“Oh, this didn’t work out. This is not working.”
But it’s still exciting. I find it very exciting to think about traffic, exposure… I just love working with companies that are trying to get exposure; when they get it right, they get exposure, or they meet a big celebrity or something.
Paul Kemp: Dmitry, let me jump in here because you’ve mentioned a lot which literally resonates to many of the past episodes that people will pick up on. What I’ve learned from you, a very inspiring chat — it’s important to understand yourself, work at a startup, because you learn more at a startup in those few years than you could do in lots of years doing an MBA or proper education; add value first, when you’re reaching out, I learned that. Work hard, and just have exciting work that has a purpose. All those things seem to come out of your inspiring journey, and I really appreciate you sharing that with us.
Dmitry, I want to make sure that people do get a chance to follow up, so where best can they reach out to you?
Dmitry Dragilev: Yeah, criminallyprolific.com is my site, which is independent of JustReachOut. That’s where I write my articles, I got my little bio… There’s a contact field there, so you can contact me through criminallyprolific.com. I guess that’s the best way.
Paul Kemp: Great. There’s also JustReachOut, which is the course I’m going through. It’s obviously very easy to google; otherwise, just go to the show notes. It’s episode #503 with Dmitry.