Mikael Cho is the founder of Ooomf, which is an online marketplace that connects awesome projects with world-class designers and developers. In this interview he talks about creating successful side projects, and caring about the problem your company is trying to solve.
Mikael, why don’t you tell us a bit about who you are.
Our company, Ooomf, is based in Montreal, Canada. I am from Wisconsin. I graduated from University there. Five years ago I met a girl who was from Montreal, and that is what brought me up to Canada.
To get a job in Quebec you either have to speak French, or start a company—I chose the start a company path. I got into digital marketing in 2008 when Twitter was starting to take off. I worked at a startup, and learned how to market with no budget. I did that for a long time, and went to go work for a digital agency after that. Later, I got really into product, and ended up meeting some extremely talented designers and developers. And about that time I started noticing some issues in the freelance space.
I became an independent designer, teamed up with an independent developer, and that is where we started Ooomf. This was about a year and a half ago.
As I mentioned earlier, Ooomf is a marketplace where people that have ideas about how to build projects can find designers and developers.
You guys also have also put together a few side projects. Will you tell us about those side projects, and how they have worked out?
We’ve done three projects in the last year, and they have all done really well.
The first one was in January, and it was called Launch This Year. We realized that people were asking a lot of questions about how to release an app—how do you market it, how do you price it, what is the process? We scoured the web, found all the best links from everything, and filtered everything into nine different skills. You could go all the way from idea to launch and it would send one of the skills out every week.
We released this campaign on January 1. It was picked up by Lifehacker, and other major media outlets. It ended up crashing our site. We had over 20,000 subscribers in two days.
A side project by Ooomf, Unsplash has had more than 600,000 photos downloaded in the last 6 months including some of the images above.
That project started how we think about marketing. We try to not even use the term marketing—almost. For us it is about solving problems. Rarely do we send marketing emails, all of our emails are geared towards problems in the space.
I used to be an independent designer. There are a lot of little micro-problems that are actually somewhat big. When you solve those problems in a simple way, I think that can become marketing. You don’t need to be hammering a marketing message down people’s throats all the time.
We followed that side project up with Unsplash, which is a photoblog. We do ten beautiful, super high-resolution, do whatever you want with photos every ten days. It is fully run by the community right now. That site has more than 600,000 downloads in the last six months.
This has been huge, and something we didn’t really expect. We actually started with a photo shoot for our website. We realized that it was expensive for us, we had some extra photos, and that other designers and developers would find it really useful. So we put those photos up and gave them away for free.
Since then it has become something magical, and the community around it is amazing.
To get a job in Quebec you either have to speak French, or start a company—I chose the start a company path.
The third one, How Much to Make an App, came out last month. We’ve been experimenting a lot with how to estimate projects, and it is super challenging. Sometimes estimating a project can take 30 percent of the whole project. So we took all the data from past projects we’ve seen and built it into this site. It is very simple to use. It takes about five clicks, and we give you an estimate based on features. The first day that project had over 50,000 unique visits. It is now the fourth result when you search How Much Does an App Cost on Google.
We look at these products as something we would have used. I think back to when I was an independent designer—What would I want, and how would I want to use it? That intuition from our past experience has been huge.
You guys obviously put a lot of time and thought into these side projects and the numbers show it. I’m curious how something like that starts. How do you get these side projects off the ground?
We will usually write something about it, and talk about the reasons why we built it. We sent out something about How Much to Make an App to our members on Ooomf. They ended up posting it on Designer News, reddit and Hacker News. That is enough to fuel it at the beginning, and if it is well done it continues to drive itself.
If it takes off on one of those sites, it is also a good measure for us. Sometimes they provide feedback, which is great because we want to improve these things. We don’t want these things to just sit there. There is so much that we are going to be adding to How Much to Make an App.
Could you share any of those features or tweaks that you guys are making?
Yeah, we’ll be pulling in styles. So somebody may want flat design, or another type of design. It helps if the designer better knows design, what type of features the client is after. That is what we are working towards. Whatever we can do to make the process more transparent. You know the challenges in the space. You have to communicate how much quality design and development cost. It is hard when it is an industry is foreign to someone.
The big thing is giving the power of trust, and make working with anyone, anywhere on the planet easier.
What is the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?
Sometimes we like to ship really fast. We shipped How Much to Make an App really fast, and initially we had an issue with the mechanism that determined price—It ended up being about three times too low.
When we shipped it initially, we didn’t think it would get picked up. Suddenly it took off. Many people were saying that it was a joke, because the price was too low. We immediately fixed it.
It is interesting, because you do want to launch fast. But now that people know about our past projects we need to be a little bit more careful.
Let’s go back and talk a bit more about Ooomf. You guys have worked on a lot of cool projects, but what is the long term goal? What is the vision?
The big thing is giving the power of trust, and make working with anyone, anywhere on the planet easier. There are sites and platforms that exists now that have ushered in the area of online work.
Now that everyone is online, people are getting comfortable doing work online. We want to be the future of that. It is not just about price, it is about the quality of the product delivered, and people being proud of the result.
Before we started the interview we were talking about your interest in psychology. What role does psychology play at Ooomf?
I went to University of Wisconsin, and majored in psychology and pre-medicine there. I used to conduct FMRIs so we could watch people’s brains for studies.
We actually had a study with Tibetan monks at our research facility, so we would have the Dalai Lama come every year, and we would get to study his brain while he was meditating. There is some insane stuff that we got to do.
Mikael has a strong interest in social psychology.
What really interested me was social psychology—the way people act in certain situations. It is often different from the way that we expect. There are some interesting studies down that route. When you get into building a web company from scratch, you are making assumptions at 1,000 miles per hour, and are guessing on tons of hypothesis all the time. It is very similar to a psychological study.
There is so much cross-over. Email campaigns—when I see statistics from our MailChimp newsletter I see psychology. There are all these tests, and tweaks that can be made. It is a psychologists dream.
You guys actually have two audiences. One audience is quality designers, developers and app creatives. On the other hand you guys are looking for others that need these people. I’m curious how you cater to each audience differently, or do you?
I’ll give you an example with our email campaigns—we have a very large subscriber list. Everything is hyper-segmented, we break it down, and only send people things that we think are relevant to them.
If we’re writing on a topic that is geared towards people who would post a project, we only send it to them. We won’t send it to the talent side. I don’t want to annoy people. I want people to feel like we care about them, and their inbox.
How many segments do you guys have, and how do you determine who gets what email?
We have six different subscriber lists. Each of those six is segmented based on open rates, and things that they have clicked before.
The main segment is newsletter subscribers. But we also have talent, which is segmented by design and development, and further segmented by mobile and web. Finally we have customers, which are the people that post projects and subscribe to updates.
How Much to Make an App is a side project by Ooomf that helps people estimate the cost of creating an app.
Tell me a bit about the team at Ooomf.
We’ve been doing a lot of this with a team of four. We have two focused on product, and two focused on biz dev and marketing.
One of the benefits of being small is that it allows us to move very fast. If you don’t move fast you lose the core benefit of having a small team. I think that is why we have been able to do a lot in the last six months.
What are advice would you give young entrepreneurs?
I think there are two big things. If you are going to start something, you better care so much about the problem that you are solving. When you are working for 12 or 15 hours, and you are dealing with every customer issue yourself, coding, designing and marketing, you need to be all about solving that problem. If you don’t care, you will give up.
There is a lot of ways to solve problems. I’ve learned that it is best to solve a problem that is a problem for you, because it will resonate. The other advantage is that you will also already have ideas on how to solve it.
One of the benefits of being small is that it allows us to move very fast. If you don’t move fast you lose the core benefit of having a small team.
The second piece is the people. I can give very concrete examples of how important people are. You can be set back by months. Companies can even fall apart just by hiring the wrong person.
It is hard, because there are so many facets of a person. It is very, very challenging to find someone that fits with your culture specifically. We take a ton of measures when hiring people. We don’t hire people that often. When we do, they come in for a few weeks and work with us before we give them a full-time offer.
We do a test. If you are at home on Sunday, and your partner was in the office, would you go to the office? Do you want to be around your team that much?
We are reaching the end of the interview. Do you have any last comments?
Those last two bits are super important. If you care about your problem it is also something that will drive you forward.
You aren’t going to know how to do everything. I wrote my first blog post more than a year ago and now I write regularly. It is one of the biggest drivers of growth of our company—and you learn to do these things because you care.
What a great end to an interview. Mikael, where can people follow you? How can they give you money?