My Stories Startups

Short-form podcasts are the future, just not mine

Long story short, after coronavirus made me come back from the Los Angeles part of my March business trip early and importing was out of the question, I decided to start a podcasting company.

By myself, with my $150 Blue Yeti mic. Not much, but certainly enough to get started – or so I thought.

During the first recording session, I realized there’s one big problem: I sound terrible. Proper intonation and voice acting were more difficult than I expected.

I’ve spent 3 weeks trying to get it to an acceptable level – speaking faster, slower, louder, quieter, with more pauses, with fewer pauses… it just wasn’t there. Not being a native English speaker didn’t help, either.

So eventually there was no podcasting company.

But when figuring things out, I came to something that can be a big trend in the coming years: short-form podcasts.

When writing a script for the first episode that was meant to be about 20 minutes long, I found it pretty time-consuming.

Considering I wanted to start multiple podcasts, releasing at least 1 episode a week for each of them, it wasn’t possible to spend that much time just writing.

The solution proved to be very simple: why not just make the episodes shorter?

Instead of producing 1 20-minute episode, I’d produce 3 7-minute episodes. That meant 3 weeks’ worth of content instead of 1 week’s worth of content.

I needed some rationale to potentially explain why the heck are all podcasts so short. After some research, it started to make even more sense than I expected.

First, Edison Research found out in 2018 that 50% of people not listening to podcasts don’t listen because they’re too long.

Second, the video & audio analytics platform Pex tweeted the average length of a podcast episode fell from 45:44 in 2015 to 35:27 in 2020. The trend of shrinking episode length is there.

Third, the idea of short-form content is already getting a lot of attention, although in a different field – it’s Quibi with $1.75 billion raised to produce short-form mobile-only TV series.

UPDATE: Quibi is shutting down, but I think everybody knows it’s not because the TV shows were too short – it’s probably their mobile-only approach and vertical video (all content had to be shot in a certain way to fit the screen in portrait mode = a lot of limitations & higher production cost) that killed them. Launch during the Covid-19 pandemic also didn’t help (you don’t really need short-form content when you’re sitting home the entire day) but I think they would’ve survived this if not for the mobile-only & screen stuff mentioned above.

Fourth, there already are some successful short-form podcasts like Six Minutes, so it isn’t completely uncharted territory.

The decision was made: I’m going to start the first short-form podcasting company. All podcasts will be 10 minutes or less.

I was aware my podcasts won’t be anywhere near the best ones quality-wise, and I wanted to build the company to sell it, just like Gimlet did.

So I needed something more.

I needed to create and represent the short-form podcasting movement.

One of the reasons companies are acquired is that they provide the acquirer access to a new (sub-) industry. If I started a regular podcasting company, I would have to be too freaking good to stand out among tons of others.

By being a short-form podcasting company, I wanted to create a league of my own. 

Sometimes the positions of brands are so strong not necessarily because their product or service is the best, but because they were the first, good, and fast enough to make their brand represent their niche.

That means I’d focus almost as much on promoting and associating my company with short-form podcasts as on the podcasts themselves.

Who knows, maybe it would have worked.

My Stories

How I’ve almost become an importer

In November a former co-worker from one of the startups I was involved in reached out to me that he wants to start importing & establish Czech and Slovak food and beverage brands in the US and Canada.

There was a lot to work with – he got quite a few companies that were interested in expanding overseas.

After I left the Kaktus App couple of weeks ago I was free to start something new and I liked the idea, so I was in.

The first stage was about trying to get something done remotely (I’m from Slovakia, he’s from the Czech Rep).

It doesn’t sound very fancy – it was all about searching, emailing, and calling hundreds of US & Can distributors and retailers.

Initially, I wasn’t very big on calling but it turned out that it’s more effective to call instead of just sending an email. It also turned out that getting to the decision makers in Canada over the phone is much easier than in the US. I felt like the US secretaries were very clearly instructed about what to do with calls like mine.

Even though there was a little success, it definitely wasn’t the right way to go about it. We’ve sent out a few samples & were in touch with a couple of distributors that were kind of interested, but it still looked like a long shot.

A decision was made to go to the US & Canada and get the stuff done in person. The plan was that my business partner would be in Toronto for 3 weeks, I’d join him there during the 1st week and then I was meant to go to Los Angeles for the remaining 2 weeks.

To be honest, I didn’t think it was really necessary to go there in person, we have emails and phones and after all, we live in the 21st century. I thought that whatever there is to be done, it can be done over the phone/email.

The first week in Toronto went pretty well, but the other 2 in Los Angeles had to be cut short right at the beginning – the whole world started to freak out about the coronavirus, the flights were being canceled and airports (in Europe) and borders closed or restricted. I got nothing done in LA & went home ASAP.

Unfortunately, the EU-US-CAN borders are still closed and it’s very hard to say how long it will take until things get back to normal. And even when they do, who knows how the new normal will look like. The importing is probably done.

It’s pretty unfortunate because it looked like it could actually work. There was a lot of money to be made even if we only got to the few containers per year stage.

The huge advantage of this business is that once you get it going and establish the distribution there’s not that much you have to do & it’s just about how many other products you want to bring there.

It also doesn’t take very long to understand how the distributors think and what they are looking for or which products are and aren’t suited for import (we’ve learned that one by trial and error).

Few lessons from the trip:

1. From what I’ve experienced nobody in the US & Canada really cares about the sales numbers of the product in Europe.

2. Obviously, it’s much better to come to present the product in person as opposed to just sending a sample. To be able to come in person, you have to be in the city. Being in the city also proved pretty useful when trying to get appointments. “We’re in Toronto right now, what’s the best time for us to stop by?” sounds much better than “We’ll be in Toronto in 5 weeks, can we schedule a quick visit?”.

It has to be noted though that one of the reasons of the bad conversion rates of my calls from home was probably the way I was doing them. The live feedback from the business partner I was there with (he was managing a call center at the beginning of his career) certainly contributed to the success rate in Toronto.

3. I’ve incredibly underestimated the importance of personal meetings. As I mentioned above, I was skeptical about the face to face meetings. Sure, it’s the 21st century, but it looks like the in-person contact and relationships are crucial in this business.

Couple things about the personal meetings vs phone/email:

The first thing you can’t get over the phone or email is the local market intelligence – you know, those little details of how stuff works there. This often small information that gets mentioned as you talk to people can make a huge impact if acted upon properly. It’s the stuff you wouldn’t think of/had no way to know about unless you’re a local.

Next, there are recommendations from the people we’ve visited. At half the places where we went, we got recommendations to see someone else who may be interested in what we have. This is invaluable, but it doesn’t always come without asking, so don’t be afraid to do so.

Sometimes a person not only recommended a contact but called them right there or told us to say that they’ve sent us.

It almost looked like all you need to do wherever you’re going is to get a few appointments and then you can just ride on the wave of recommendations. Before we went to Toronto I was freaking out that we have only 3 or 4 meetings scheduled.

When meeting someone, you can actually see how the person reacts to your product and what you say. If you’re at least a little receptive there’s a great deal that can be learned about how the person feels about what you have. We could always tell whether there’s some potential business to be done or not.

Small talk – this is just another thing that’s pretty difficult to do over the phone or email. One distributor we’ve met with was literally more interested in the history of Czechoslovakia (Czech Rep and Slovakia were united until 1993) than our products. Of course, we didn’t mind – it’s a great way to build a relationship and establish some trust between us. People like this will sometimes do business with you just because they like you.

4. It also pays off to be a little creative and go for the long shot – I got us a meeting with a managing partner of the Toronto takeout franchise with 9 branches over Instagram. One of the branches just replied to my DM with a time & date when to come. I thought we’ll be meeting with the branch manager but to our surprise, the boss showed up.

5. The last point is about how fast it became clear which products have the potential to succeed and which are total busts. There’s just no better way to learn about a product potential in a particular market than going there and talking to people.


Content Marketing Lessons from Expedia and Wix

I believe content marketing is a single best way to promote an app, SaaS or any online service or product.

The most fundamental thing is to know what is your target group interested in reading or watching and where & how they find this content. It’s also important to figure out which type of content is the best one to reach them.

When you start posting, after the first few pieces created out of excitement you will probably see that it takes a lot of time to produce it. That’s why establishing a certain content structure that can be followed can be a huge time saver – this applies to articles, tweets, photos, images and videos alike. 

A perfect example would be Expedia’s Travel Guide videos. They all have a similar length, similar structure, and a similar atmosphere. They can create a video like this about every interesting city or place on Earth. It’s much easier to create 50 videos with the same structure than 50 fundamentally different videos.

In case it crossed someone’s mind, it has to be noted that just because the videos follow the same pattern it doesn’t mean their quality or the number of views will be lower compared to an equal number of completely original videos.

The views of Expedia’s travel guide videos are very decent. The relatively big differences (1.8M views of Cuba’s video vs 379k views of video about Jakarta) are merely caused by the difference in popularity of (and demand for information about) various locations.

A huge advantage of content marketing is that the content you produce is here to stay and will be relevant for years to come (unless it’s about something that changes a lot or evolves rapidly).

Consistency in posting is also very important.

If you have 15 videos ready to be published, don’t post them all in 1 week. It’d look like publishing the videos was just a one-off thing or that your company isn’t operating anymore (there’s no activity) to anyone visiting your channel.

What you should do instead is to publish videos gradually – every week, every 2 weeks, whatever – it just has to look like you’re active, even if not that often.

Not all products or services are lucky to operate in an industry like travel where the possibilities for content creation are almost infinite and the demand for that type of content so high. Nevertheless, it should be your goal to create and post as much quality content as possible.

Wix, a do-it-yourself web development platform is very good at writing articles targeting people that want a new website. Just try to type anything related to this topic on Google and it’s almost certain a Wix article will be somewhere among the results.

They also have a YouTube channel, but when you look at the nature of the videos, they are either mainly used for ad purposes or they are tutorials that are only relevant to people already using the service.

What’s interesting about Wix is their Instagram. When you think about it, the first thought will probably be that there’s basically nothing interesting or useful for them to post there – it’s not suitable for neither tutorial videos nor articles about creating websites.

(One may argue that this is not content marketing, but I think the lines between the terms social media presence and content marketing are pretty blurred and the two are strongly tied)

They figured that if they don’t have anything interesting to post, their customers certainly will. See for yourself – there is very little about creating websites or Wix itself – most of the posts are images of their customers.

There are very few posts about what they do – they focus on communicating the creativity instead. This is also demonstrated by the #wixexhibitions hashtag in their profile bio which they encourage people to use when posting artistic photos or illustrations.

To this day it was used only 206 times, but it still underscores Wix’s goal to establish “creative work = Wix” idea in people’s minds. It’s a great way to target freelancers and independent artists who they apparently consider to be their main target group.

The lesson here is that if some platform isn’t suitable for sharing content that’s directly tied to what you’re doing, you can try to look for alternative content (like Wix did) that reinforces the emotions you want to reinforce and shapes the perception of your brand.


Dealing with software developers

Some of my observations and experiences I’ve gathered while working with multiple different developers on multiple startups:

Hiring a developer you haven’t worked with yet

Don’t hire a developer you haven’t worked with yet unless he comes with bulletproof testimonials. If possible, try to assign him some small side project where you can see him in action. 

Most red flags usually appear very soon, so working with him even for a short time will help you to better evaluate his suitability to work with you permanently.

If it’s not possible, make it at least clear that you’re hiring him for a test period.

It may be surprising to learn how many bad traits or habits a developer can have which will make working with him very complicated, no matter how good he is from the tech perspective.

Experienced vs Inexperienced

An experienced developer has already done projects (or at least features) similar to what you want him to do. This means that he will spend most of the time coding, not figuring out how to go about it. The code will be easy to navigate and build on. 

An inexperienced developer will encounter a lot of new stuff when working on your project. He will have to learn it first, and learning takes time. Part of learning is making mistakes, which will significantly delay development. He doesn’t know what the best practices are & how to properly structure the code – the software may work, but it could be a nightmare (or even impossible) to edit and develop further.

If a developer makes just one fundamental mistake and realizes it only after a few weeks, it’s likely the code will have to be rewritten from the ground up.

Motivation and Honesty

When a developer is motivated, he can do incredible things. If he isn’t, he can do incredibly little.

The tricky thing about working with a developer is that it’s difficult for you to tell whether the next 7 days that he requested to get something done are really needed – you have no way to know whether he wasn’t done by the day 2 and then just waiting until the 7-day deadline runs out.

I’ve seen this firsthand and also heard stories from programmers themselves. They were able to waste an unbelievable amount of time by lying about what they are (or are not) doing.

Try to find a developer with an intrinsic motivation to build things. For some developers it’s only a job, nothing more. For others, it’s their life mission to solve complex challenges and build great things, even if they’re often not going to be first in the line when the payday comes.

Having skin in the game helps, too. When a developer is a part of your early-stage startup and knows that he’s not going to get paid until you get the thing going, his motivation cannot be even compared with a motivation of a developer who’s paid by the hour and your success or failure would affect him only a little.

On the other hand, I’ve met a developer who was paid by the hour and worked like it’s his own project.

Try to find a developer with the right mix of honesty, motivation, and skin in the game. Some just need a reason to work hard, others won’t work hard anyway.


Try to find a developer who can make things that actually work. It’s natural if you stumble upon some hidden bugs, but when a developer tells you that the new feature is done and it doesn’t work AT ALL, it’s a problem.

There are multiple types of developers here:

  1. A developer that only sends you software for review that always works perfectly
  2. A developer that sends you software where all main features work and you will only find a few hidden bugs that need fixing
  3. A developer that sends you software that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t
  4. A developer that sends you software that fails right at the first opportunity, even if he said that everything works

#1 is very rare, #2 is what you should be aiming for, #3 and #4 are bad – it means that the developer is lazy to spend a little time testing the software.

Ask your developer to always test the software before sending it to you for a review. This used to drive me crazy: I was told new version works, but it crashed right after hitting the first button.

It’s not just about driving you crazy though. A developer constantly delivering software that doesn’t work has negative time implications too:

You assign a developer a task and he says it’s going to take 2 weeks. After 2 weeks he delivers it and almost nothing works. So he says he needs another 10 days to fix it. After 10 days he fixes it and it works, but you find some little bugs that again need fixing – another 5 days. 

When you sum it up, you went from 14 to 29 days.

If you allow a developer to do this, he’ll see that the deadline for everything is always double of what you originally said. “I need another week” situations are a very, very slippery slope.

Little changes

Sometimes a developer changes a detail without consulting it with you because he considered the change insignificant and it was easier to code it that way.

This can’t happen. If a developer thinks there’s a better or faster way to do something, he has to consult it with you first – make sure he’s aware of it.

If you know what you want, every single detail in the assignment is there for a reason. Changing a few of them, even a little, can result in a real mess in the final product.

When something isn’t clear

Sometimes you forget to specify some small details about the feature. 

There are 4 types of developers in this situation:

  1. A developer that will instantly get in touch with you to ask how to proceed
  2. A developer that will not get in touch and wait until you do (inquiring how it’s going or whether it’s done) just to tell you that he doesn’t know how to proceed
  3. A developer that will solve it himself, but badly
  4. A developer that will solve it himself, mostly well

You want to work with either #1 or #4. #2 may indicate that he has no motivation to get it done ASAP and #3 will probably just need to be told to do #1.

Be ruthless

When you finally hire a developer and you see that it doesn’t work how you expected, find another one. I can’t stress this enough.

You can try to “talk to him” but from my experience, it rarely works – things may improve for some time, but it eventually gets back to the old ways.

I’ve seen months wasted by delaying the decisions to replace a developer. When we finally did that, in one case a new developer had done more work in the first 2 weeks than the old one did in the last 3 months. 

Sometimes it’s difficult to realize how big the difference in productivity between a bad and good developer can be.

If you find yourself in the “it’s going to be done soon” mode for too long, you shouldn’t hesitate to make the change.

Final point

You’re not going to get anywhere without good developers. Try to find the best you can. Having a great developer makes everything so much easier. It gives you confidence that you don’t have to worry about your software because it’s in good hands. You know that if there’s a problem in a published version of the software, he will be able to quickly fix it.


Challenges of new sharing economy platforms

My rather short stint with Kaktus App (check my bio) allowed me to dig deeper into the world of sharing economy. Here are the major problems that I’ve encountered and that every new sharing economy platform will face.

Customer trust

One of the biggest challenges for every new sharing economy platform is to convince new users that it’s stable, serious, safe to use, and there to stay – in other words, that it can be trusted. After all, trust is one of the main pillars of the sharing economy.

When starting, it’s not easy to spot and fix all aspects of the service that may indicate to customers that there may be something risky about using it – put differently, it’s difficult to get them all right.

The trust problem new platforms face is slightly related to a certain standard that people nowadays got used to using Uber, Airbnb, and other established sharing economy platforms where the providers (and even customers) are screened very thoroughly to secure safety and integrity of both sides and customers are often insured or have other forms of guarantee if something goes wrong.

New platforms probably won’t be able to afford to have even the more fundamental things on such level, which brings me to the next point.

Chicken and egg problem

Who should new platforms try to acquire first? Providers or customers?

If providers, what are they going to tell them when there are no customers out there yet, and it can take weeks or even months to get first order? 

If customers, who will be they able to choose from and hire when there will be no providers?

This problem has another sub-problem: Since new platforms should obviously go for the providers first, what kind of providers should they focus on getting? Where are they going to set the bar?

If they decide to set it too low (anyone can register and start offering the service) they will end up with a lot of low-quality providers which will be an instant turn-off for the potential customers, will damage their image and can even get them in trouble if some provider does something illegal. Even if they manage to get a few solid providers along the way, they will be lost in the sea of low-quality ones.

If the bar is set too high (long registration process, waiting period to get approved, check of the government-issued ID) much fewer providers will register because a) they just won’t spend so much time registering on a platform that is just starting and has no customers and b) they won’t trust the new platform enough to send them copies of their IDs – after all, nobody knows how they are going to use them or how securely are they going to be stored.

It also depends on how exactly and at what terms is the new platform going to connect people – you don’t need a voiceover artist from Fiverr to have a verified government ID, but you’d expect that an Airbnb host will.

Payment processing

The sharing economy is considered a high-risk business model by virtually every payment gateway, which may be even compounded if a new platform is simultaneously in one of the high-risk industries for payment processors as well – for example, travel. 

This means:

a) Some will decline to work with new sharing economy platforms outright

b) Some will work with them only if they can demonstrate that they have a history of processing a significant amount of money (couple tens of thousands) in few consecutive months without a huge percentage of chargebacks or other problems

c) They may have to go with a payment gateway that is focusing on high-risk businesses and has much higher processing fees

d) They may have to go with a small or little well-known one that often has various technical or financial limitations (no/bad integration for mobile devices, limited analytics, long payout period combined with high and long-term rolling reserve, etc.) forcing them to make various workarounds in the payment process – every unnecessary or unusual step during the payment process will have “oh shoot what’s this” effect on some customers that will better leave because it won’t simply look right.

Long payout period and rolling reserve (payment gateway holding a certain percentage of the money for a certain time before releasing it to the platform) will also cause problems with sending money to providers – how can a platform pay them when they don’t have (all) the money available yet? 

It can either have a bunch of money set aside to pay providers faster or pay them with huge delays. And don’t forget there are various operating expenses the platform has to pay for, too.

If their chargebacks to transactions ratio gets above a certain percentage, the payment gateway will deactivate the payment processing (often with no heads-up), and the platform will suddenly have no way to process the payments. Getting a new payment gateway can take 1-2 weeks (assuming they can find one), so it’s not like they can just switch to another one unless they have it fully operational and ready to be used in reserve.

If the new sharing economy platform isn’t based in the US or another well-developed country where most payment gateways have chosen to operate, it is at a big disadvantage and potentially in big trouble – some countries are simply no-go zones for payment processors.

Uncertain future of contractors

The vast majority of providers on the sharing economy platforms are the platform’s independent contractors, which means that the company is not responsible for anything but paying them. People that “work” for a sharing economy company full-time have no employment benefits employees use to have (for example subsidized health insurance and retirement plans) and part of them want the government to take action to ensure the same or similar benefits for contractors, too.

We’ve seen this recently in California where they passed the AB5 law restricting contractor’s working hours, which is probably not really what contractors wished for since a lot of them outside the sharing economy industry were let go by the companies they were previously “working for” as contractors (the now-famous case of Vox letting go hundreds of freelance writers), even though the original idea was to “force” companies to hire them as regular employees.

Even after what happened in California we can expect another efforts to push (not only) sharing economy companies to classify their contractors as regular employees, or at least provide them the same or at least similar benefits. If this happens, sharing economy companies will see a huge increase in costs. A regulation like this will destroy one of the biggest advantages sharing economy platforms have over traditional companies.

Additionally, it will probably cause the need to raise the bar to entry for new providers on sharing economy platforms because companies wouldn’t want to provide employee-like benefits to everybody who signs up. The original idea of a sharing economy was that people are going to be doing this part-time as a gig and nobody will complain about not having employment benefits because everybody has a full-time job that provides it. With the rise of sharing economy more and more people had seen that it’s already big enough to replace their full-time job – and that’s where the problem started.

My Stories

Looking back

I was recently looking at my work in all of the projects I was a part of and it’s crazy to see how stupid I was. Some of them were a year or even a few months ago and I just can’t understand what I was thinking back then.

Even though I very modestly (just kidding) admit I’ve done some, or even a lot of things right, there were some bad decisions made or things done poorly/not done at all.

I know it means I’ve moved forward since I see my actions in past this way, but it’s still pretty terrifying – especially when I consider that in a few months I will probably see my current self in this exact way, too.

It’d be beneficial to look back on our lives/work more often so we can realize our mistakes faster & make sure not to do them again. Unfortunately, some of them have to be seen from a perspective only more time can offer.

As we learn and grow we would gradually disagree with a lot that we’ve done in the past, but it takes this looking back to fully realize what those things are.


Blue-collar employee incentive problem

I’ve heard a great joke a few years ago: Do you like your boss’ new car? Then work harder, so he can buy an even better one.

My point here is about mostly blue-collar jobs where there’s little to no room for promotion, or it’s simply not worth it.

With an hourly salary, an employee is only motivated to do a job good enough to earn the salary. There are certain things an employee has to get done – when he does, he gets paid.

Employees in these jobs have absolutely no reason to suggest improvements like how to do something more effectively, faster or for less money. They have no reason to care whether something’s wrong as long as it doesn’t negatively impact them or their salary. 

Why would they? 

They won’t be the ones to benefit from it anyway, and if they were, their boss would benefit disproportionately more, which is a reason good enough to better stay quiet.

Consider this example: Employee gets an idea about a more effective way of doing some aspect of the business which will save the company $20.000 annually. If the employee came to a manager and told him about the improvement, what do you think he’ll get in return?

A pat on the back? A bottle of whiskey?

When we simplify it, the employee just handed the owner a luxury 2-week Bali vacation voucher for free.

The problem is that most companies don’t give their employees a reason to care. They somehow don’t realize that even if they split the money that was saved (or made) by the employee 50/50, they would still benefit from it big time.

I’m sure some companies would be willing to appropriately reward their employees for such ideas, they just don’t say it out loud, so nobody knows about this option.

There would be SO MANY improvements proposed if they were fairly rewarded.

It’s no secret that the management is often out of touch from what’s going on “down there”, so the room for improvement may be huge in a lot of companies.

It would also eliminate (or at least soften the bitterness of) the employees with “I could run the company better than these idiots” mindset.


Getting your product featured on Product Hunt

Before submitting our app I was looking for some tips on how to get a product featured on Product Hunt – the only thing I found was that it helps to have someone well-known in the PH community to hunt it.

It looked pretty clear to me that there won’t be any useful tricks available, so I just submitted the app and left. When I came back in a few hours, I’ve seen the notice that it’s going to be featured the next day.

I was shocked because it gained absolutely no traction before being chosen. It looks like PH people go through every submitted product that day and if you’ve made something really good, they’ll notice.

We even got a very nice comment – 

But as it turned out, being featured doesn’t help that much unless people LOVE (and upvote!) your product – we got only 45 upvotes and ended up almost last among featured products that day.

I don’t remember and don’t have access to the specific numbers PH helped to generate anymore, I just know that they were pretty disappointing – just a few tens of website visits, few tens of App Store views and few downloads.

The bottom line? Don’t look for ways to play the system, just create something great. And if you get featured, don’t get too excited yet because what really matters are the upvotes.

[Please note that I’m longer with Kaktus App – you can read more about this in my bio]