Sol Orwell is the co-founder of Examine.com, an independent encyclopedia for supplement and nutrition information. A bootstrapped company, Examine went from $10,000 in revenue in it’s first two years to $700,000 last year. In this interview we talk about success without Google, why they didn’t take funding and how to be great at one thing.
Sol, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you?
Well, I tell most people that I’m living the immigrant dream.
I came to North America when I was 14-years-old, and started dabbling with websites. By the time I finished university, I had incorporated my company, and it was doing pretty well.
After that I kind of retired. I took a five-year sabbatical, I went around the world, lived in South America and the States for a while. Eventually, I came back.
When I came back I was a quite soft around the edges. In Argentina I’d order ice cream online. Everyday I’d order a liter of dulce de leche con brownie ice cream. In Manhattan I lived directly above a cafe that baked cookies. I’d wake up and smell those cookies—it would have been a little illegal not to go down and get a few. By the time I came back to Toronto there was a lot more of me than when I had left.
We’re a research-heavy company. That is our bread and butter, and it drives everything else.
I have an engineering background and am fairly analytical. I looked into why certain weight loss mechanisms did or didn’t work. I realized there was a huge amount of scientific evidence, but nobody was trying to make sense of it. Most people in weight loss are trying to sell you supplements, or a diet plan, or how to get ripped in six weeks. That is why I started Examine.
At the time my co-founder was finishing up dietetics, and was looking into his PhD. I told him that he could get his PhD whenever he wanted. “Let’s try and build something cool,” I said.
Here we are a couple of years later, and I believe we’ve built something cool.
You briefly touched on how Examine.com started—that was two years ago. What did it look like in the early days?
Well, we actually started about three and a half years ago.
I was in Panama and was talking to a friend about weight loss. We were asking questions about it, and trying to find answers. That is when I had the idea.
When I talked with my co-founder, Kurtis, I said ,“You can do the research part.” That is what he loves doing. He loves reading scientific papers and trying to make sense of them. I told him that he could do that all day long, and that I would take care of anything else—web design, programming, emailing people, business stuff.
There was a problem. We didn’t know how to make money. At the time we were linking to Amazon search result pages. That wasn’t a good long-term plan, but we knew that if we did a good enough job we could become an information repository, and that we could sell it at some point in the future.
There’s this thing, the Picasso Principle—there is this woman in a store and she sees Picasso. She goes up to him and hands him a napkin. Then the woman asks him to draw something. Picasso takes five minutes and draws. He hands it back to the woman and says that will be $30,000. She looks at him and says, “How can five minutes of work cost $30,000?” He tells her that it took him 30 years to learn how to do that in five minutes.
My viewpoint from the beginning was to spend energy and effort upfront to become the source of information on scientifically-backed, evidence-based supplementation and nutrition information. We’d then have a valuable base of knowledge that we could sell.
The first few years we put together a fairly basic site, put it out there and gauged the response. We grew from a hundred visitors a day to a thousand visitors a day. Soon we had 5,000, 10,000 visitors each day. That’s when we knew that we were onto something, because people were really responding to it.
Building Examine was a very iterative process.
And when you say that you linked to Amazon, you had Amazon referral links coming from Examine?
Correct. We were in about the second highest bracket, and would get about 8 percent of sales made from those referrals.
How did you make the decision to sell guides?
I’m fanatical about reading what people are saying about us, but I don’t get into flame wars. People are going to say dumb things about you. There isn’t a need to get defensive, but it is important to see what people are saying when they don’t know you’re watching. That’s how you get the honest truth.
People would say that they liked the site, but wished there was a quicker way to get the information. Our initial product was a reference geared more toward researchers. The last time I looked it had 1,187 pages compiled from 3,000 plus studies. It’s a bomb of knowledge.
Programmers exist to make the job of the researchers, editors and everybody else easy.
It never detracted anything from our website. We wanted to keep that as open and free as possible. We were getting feedback from people that purchased this reference, and many people liked it, but found it overwhelming. If it was my mom trying to read this reference she’d tell me that it makes no sense and throw it at me.
The next product, which we launched a few months ago, were our Stack Guides. We picked out 16 goals that we thought people would be interested in—muscle building, fat loss, insulin sensitivity for people that are diabetic. We decided to remove all the science speak, and not make it overwhelming. The guides have about 25 pages of actionable information. They simply tell you what to do.
Each of these products are on two opposite ends of the spectrum, but we were only able to get there because we were very diligent about gathering feedback. We’re always trying to figure out what people are looking for, and what we are missing.
Google Giveth and Google Taketh Away
s the site got more popular, where was most of your traffic coming from?
Examine.com was founded on reddit. I’ve been a member of reddit for about eight years now. My co-founder was up for moderator of the year. He came in second behind a bunch of moderators that work as a team. So, as far as I’m concerned he still is moderator of the year.
So, when we started Examine.com there was a nice groundswell of support from reddit. That’s where our initial surge in traffic came from.
After that it has really been bit-by-bit. When people talk about supplements we want them to link to us instead of Wikipedia or another website. It wasn’t long before that started happening.
For example, one of Dr. Oz’s favorite supplements is green coffee—more specifically, green coffee beans. If you search for green coffee beans on Google, we aren’t in the top results. However, two or three of those articles link to us as a source of information. Because of links like that we’re not as reliant on Google as most.
Also, our content is shared on Facebook a lot. We usually get a couple thousand visitors from Facebook each day. Occasionally we’ll see a spike. We released an article about marijuana a few days ago, and saw about 50,000 visitors.
So other authoritative sites link to you as a reference, which doesn’t make you as reliant on Google.
Exactly. Google makes up maybe 35 percent of our traffic, which is a decent chunk, but not as big as many other major websites.
It’s nice that we’re big enough that we don’t have to rely on search results. So what if we aren’t number 3 for creatine on Google anymore? Traffic doesn’t suddenly nosedive. We’re almost independent of Google. Even if they were to ban us tomorrow, we’d still be a profitable and growing organization.
That’s interesting, because traditionally content-heavy websites are dependent on search results.
I’m very paranoid about Google. Google giveth and Google taketh away. Of course I won’t say no to any traffic they send our way. It’s a great bonus, but I do not trust them.
I’ve seen businesses disappear over night. Some of these are massive websites. Metafilter did a post a few months ago about how Google was removing them from search results. They were big enough to get Matt Cutts attention. Now he’s lifted their restriction, and now they are getting five times the amount of traffic as they were previously. That’s not the kind of thing you can build a sustainable organization on.
Right, Google also scrapes content from site’s schema and puts them directly into search results. I was going to ask how you felt about that, but I think I already know the answer.
I started off with SEO back in 2000. Aaron Wall of SEO Book has constantly railed against Google’s abuses.
Again, the traffic is a bonus, but I would never rely on Google for my livelihood.
Sol doing some rock climbing.
You mentioned that you partner with other blogs. How did those partnerships come to be? What were those first emails or calls like?
I’ve worked online for a long time. You know, I’ve received the most ludicrous emails blaming me for things I have no control over.
Whenever I read something interesting, it’s always been my practice to send the author an email or a tweet. This is true for things beyond fitness, and for things I’d never be interested in getting involved in. If someone presents an interesting viewpoint that I haven’t heard before, I’ll send them an email.
When I first started trying to get healthy, I wasn’t thinking about Examine.com or building anything. I have a genetic disorder called Ehlers–Danlos, which means the collagen in my ligaments don’t settle properly. I’ve had my shoulder pop out, I’ve torn both ACLs, and my wrists pop out on occasion.
As I tried to get fit, my shoulders would usually flare up. I’d be reading about flexibility and mobility, and come across an interesting article. I’d email the author, and let them know that I thought their article was interesting and thank them.
Another big thing was people building websites out of the tech industry—they don’t know what they are doing. You will find glaring and idiotic mistakes that could be fixed if people spent five minutes auditing their own website.
For example, there was a guy that was a trainer in Boston. He was trying to be stylistic with his address and had dots between each space. I told him that he might be confusing Google and should remove those dots.
A Look at Examine.com
What is the team like at Examine?
Kamal is the director at Examine, and is the one replacing me. Kamal makes sure everything gets done. It’s his job to make sure our stack and supplement guides are doing well.
He has an MBA and an MPH, which is a Masters in Public Health, from John Hopkins. He was also working on his PhD in nutrition.
We’re almost like a peer review organization. Kurtis does the research, and then sends it to our editors. The editors take a look at it and make sure the citations make sense.
Our internal policy is that for every researcher we have two editors. Whenever someone researches something, two editors must check it. Then it goes to our reviewers. Again, this is like peer review. Our reviewers are contractors that have a very specialized set of knowledge.
For example, a few months ago we did a post on Kombucha and toxicity. So we had a PhD in toxicology look over our work.
On the tech side we have Andre, who is in charge of technology. He helps develop the website.
You know, I love history. I just finished reading about Sega’s history and now I’m learning about Marvel comics. Many companies lose focus on what made them good—and this is a common theme in both comics and video games.
We’re a research-heavy company. That is our bread and butter, and it drives everything else. We’re not concerned with having a marketing person or a business development person. We’re not going to be an organization where the tail wags—the rest of the dog.
Well, I totally blew that phrase.
Anyways, you get it, research dictates everything we do.
I’m very paranoid about Google. Google giveth and Google taketh away.
Does the team work remotely?
We all work remotely.
I’m in Toronto. Kurtis is in Ottawa. Kamal is in San Francisco. There are a few in the Midwest U.S. and elsewhere.
It is a good thing because researchers tend to be excentric. We all have our own particularities. Kurtis is up at 4am, while Kamal usually doesn’t start working until noon.
Being remote has made us better. We have a linear process. There is back and fourth between researchers and editors, but they don’t need to be in the same room at the same time.
Internally what tools do you use to facilitate remote work?
We use Google Docs and Asana, which is a task management software. We have a master list of all the supplements we’d like to cover. It includes major supplements, which include things like Vitamin E or Marijuana. We have food products, and then these exotic, esoteric ones where there may only be five studies.
Spreadsheets contain all of the wholesale information, then items are task assigned. That’s what Kamal does. He makes sure things are running smoothly and that everyone hits their due dates.
I was looking through Examine.com and trying to figure out what CMS it was running on. I’m curious what the backend of the site looks like, because you guys go through several iterations of a post.
I wrote the CMS myself in PHP. It uses a MySQL database. It is very revision history-based. Similar to Wikipedia, where all revisions are stored. For example, if someone is editing the Vitamin D page, it will save the previous version and show the edit. If we make a mistake or suppress a study we can go back into the history and show that we’ve got absolutely nothing to hide.
There are a lot of benefits to a custom build. There is a lot less overhead. We have our own wiki code. If you put any supplement name in brackets within the text area, it automatically links to that supplement’s page.
We are currently rewriting the site from the ground up. I threw it together. Initially it was just me and Kurtis, now there is a copywriter and others involved. We are rewriting it so the process is built into the system. Now when Kurtis has a new article ready to be edited, he presses a button and it notifies the editors.
I’m a fan of making life as easy as possible. A programmers job is not easy, but it is their job to make the talent’s life easy. We’re not a tech company. Programmers exist to make the job of the researchers, editors and everybody else easy.
You guys have been pretty successful. I’m sure at some point in time you’ve thought about raising funding, but you didn’t. You’re bootstrapped.
I don’t know if it is my immigrant mindset, but I’ve always been very independent minded. Actually, I wasn’t even born Sol Orwell.
Back in the day—I think it was 2004—I launched a local search service in Toronto. We were like Yelp and Foursquare before the existed. We had badges, user rankings and things like that.
We had more than a dozen venture capitalists that wanted to invest in what we built, but I had no desire for it. I have no desire for money. I like to travel, but I don’t have a fancy car. I like walking and taking the subway. I’m much more of a lifestyle business guy.
For Examine.com, I bootstrapped it out of my own pocket. It did cost a couple hundred grand—by no means a cheap investment.
Now we’re back. Unfortunately, my internet cut out, and I had to run to work to finish this interview. I believe we were talking about how Examine was a lifestyle business, and that you didn’t want to take on investors.
Yes. I didn’t want anybody telling me what to do or how to run a business. It goes back to what I said earlier about comic books and video games.
We have no plans or desire to take additional funding. We are quire profitable. I did a blog post a few weeks ago that said we did $700,000 in revenue last year. Based on how things are going, that will be an outdated number very soon.
Considering we’re just a bunch of researchers, a copy editor, one tech guy and me, our overhead isn’t terribly high. I don’t want to be a $50 million company, I just want us to focus on what we do best.
People often ask me if we’re planning to get into exercise or other specialties. Sure, it might be awesome, but we would lose what made us special in the first place.
I’m militant about maintaining focus. We will not lose our focus.
One of the things I find interesting—and you talked about it a bit earlier—I’m strongly tied to Signal Tower, while you’ve tried to remove yourself from your company. Examine is larger than you are. I’m curious how you’ve removed your personal brand from Examine?
It helps that I have no desire for internet fame.
We’re doing this interview, because I am the business man at this time. If it were six months in the future, it would probably be Kamal.
I like my simple, anonymous life style. The only thing I won’t give up is my Schwarzenegger advisory board position. That’s the only one I’m going to hold on to no matter what.
I am not the nutritional supplement wizard. That’s not who I am. I can’t tell you how this enzyme works with that enzyme. On the other hand Kurtis likes the research. He’s known in research circles, but has no desire to be mainstream.
My focus from day one was build a brand, and one that people can trust.
Being remote has made us better.
As Examine grows and you finally replace yourself, what happens next? Where is your focus?
Examine.com will always be my baby.
I’m not sure to be honest.
I had a deal to run marijuana.ca, but I decided against it. It would have required too much effort.
I just read a book on dog psychology. I can’t remember the name, but it was about what the dog is processing. We associate our own physical manifestations and apply it to dogs. The dog yawns, and we think it must be bored. However, it isn’t always the same.
I’d love to do something like Examine, where we take a look at pet research. It wouldn’t be nearly as exhausting as Examine, because there is only a fraction of the same research in scope, breadth and depth.
One thing I’ve always wanted to do is index all of Toronto’s businesses. There’s a company that does it in the UK, a local data company, and they’ve been around for about a decade. I knew them from my local SEO days.
I always wanted to do that. I own torontonian.com. I think I need a budget of half a million dollars. I’m not sure I’m ready to set aside that much money to avoid taking funding.
I guess the quick answer is I don’t know.
If I do anything in 2015, it will be small. You know when that itch hits you again, and you want to do something grand? When that hits me, we’ll see what interests me at that time.
I think that is natural. Obviously you can’t be going all the time.
I was reading a book called Small Giants, which talks about how running a business is a bit like being an artist.
It’s by a writer from Inc. Magazine. He talks with a dozen companies that are not focused on growth, but focused on being an awesome business.
I agree that running a business has a certain level of art—managing people, managing expectations. Eventually that creativity does come out and you want to run something again.
A little off topic, but you mentioned earlier that you changed your name. You weren’t born Sol Orwell. What sparked that decision?
Well, I’m very independent.
I never got to choose my name. As it happens, my father’s first name is my last name. My father’s last name is his father’s first name. There was no family heritage to preserve anyways—I don’t come from 19 generations of of Orwell’s.
I decided that a new name was in play. So, for six months I’d go to parties and introduce myself with a new name. I’d say “Hi, I’m whatever!” I’d get a reaction from that name.
Inevitably, I’d tell them that I was looking to change my name. Of course people always had suggestions. It was a fun experience.
My friends make fun of me for how much I say “Hi, my name is Sol.” I just like the way it sounds.
I’d go to bars and meet people. I’d bet people to see who had the most memorable name. Sol always seemed to win—there’s a song, a beer, it’s the currency of Peru, there is a salutation. I just fit really well.
Number two on my list was Logan.
Logan is Wolverine, he’s hairy like me, short like me, handy like me, strives to be the best at what he does like me.
In the end, Sol won out.
That’s interesting. So you were split testing your name, going out and introducing yourself differently.
I never thought of it that way.
But you were. You were going out and A/B testing your name.
Yeah, I was going out and trying to find the one I was most comfortable with. In the end Sol came out ahead.
I like that. I’m going to tell people I A/B tested my name.
Speaking of split testing, what types of tests are you running on Examine?
Our tech guy Andre is well versed in conversion rate optimization. He’s done Conversion XL’s certification and all that kind of stuff.
We are baking Mixpanel, Optimizely, Quarloo and surveys into the new system. Those are the four testing tools we use. Every time someone buys from us, we ask them what their motivation was and what their background is.
Quarloo is the survey tool that goes in the bottom right of the screen. If you’re on a web page it will pop up and say “Hey, did you find what you were looking for?” I think those results have quite a bit of noise in them, but we get about 20,000 visits a day and it is the most effective way to get feedback quickly.
Right now our testing has been pretty limited. As I said before, we’re working on this new system. I’m focused on baking it into that.
I don’t like the word split testing. I’d rather use analytics. Split testing is very simplistic, but you need to know what to split test. We can split test colors. I know there is a famous Google example, where they split tested 50-something shades of blue, but they kept track of all of that testing.
There’s also an opportunity cost to testing. If we make 10 or 15 sales a day, we can’t be willy nilly throwing out tests, because we need 100 sales per test for it to be valid.
I’d like to talk about email and your new project. But first, I’m curious what role email marketing plays at Examine?
Right now email isn’t a big part of what we do. That is not a good thing, and I’ll be the first to admit it.
I do have a gripe. Everyone tells you that you need to be collecting emails, but there are few that tell you what to do once you have those emails. There is very little coverage on frequency and building trust through email.
We’ve been collecting emails for about two and a half years. We have 35,000 to 40,000 emails. It’s a pity compared to what we should have, but it was never a focus of ours.
We will likely do a beginners guide to supplementation. It will be useful, but not long.
We do send out a newsletter every three or four weeks. It’s not what most marketers recommend, but our open rates are astronomical compared to the average, so we’re OK with that.
I’m militant about maintaining focus. We will not lose our focus.
You sent me a link to a project called Audience Owl. What is Audience Owl?
I was looking at our followers and I noticed that there are some big wigs and athletes following us. I figured I’d reach out to them. They’re good people to know.
But what about our email list? Who is on our email list? People give us their email address and we have no idea who they are.
I started developing this tool years ago—again, my philosophy is to build tools for myself—my goal was to make sense of all these email addresses.
As for the tool—there are a ton of APIs out there—Full Contact, Rapportive, all these guys. They give you better information about your email list. Everyday it downloads all of our registrations and signups for our newsletter and analyzes those emails. Then it shoots me an email that tells me who are the most influential people and gives me their biographies.
Everyday I look at who has signed up for our email list, and who I should reach out to.
For example, let’s say you have a nutrition podcast. You signup on Examine.com. I’ll get an email with your bio, LinkedIn, location information and such. Because of your podcast, you’d be somebody good to know. So, it would behove me to reach out to you see if I can help you.
That’s what Audience Owl is.
It’s funny Signal Tower was recently featured on Product Hunt. I got a ton of new subscribers and was actually manually going through the emails to see who works at Facebook, MailChimp and other companies.
That also goes back to what you said at the beginning of the interview about reaching out to people.
For example, when you contacted me I looked at your website—shit two hours later I was still reading it.
Anyways, it is about building connections with people. Don’t be superficial. Copying and pasting emails is garbage. I don’t believe in that at all.
Everyone has interesting stories, a series of experience or events that made them who they are. When you reach out they aren’t just this anonymous person, but you’ve built a little bit of a connection.
We’re reaching the end of the interview. Even with all my internet connection issues. Do you have any last thought or advice to offer entrepreneurs?
From my viewpoint I think people try to do too much.
I’m a big fan of a book called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. The central thesis of the book is about passion being overrated, because it doesn’t make you excellent at something.
I think the title is equally important. From the start with Examine, we were so good that people had to use us. They couldn’t ignore us.
I think people try and do Facebook marketing, and be on Instagram. They try and blog and all of that. You can make money by just focusing one one thing and doing it well. There are people just focusing on Instagram and making hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Same for Facebook and Twitter—maybe not Twitter. Twitter is terrible for conversions.
You don’t need to be the master of everything. Focus on one thing, and carve out a niche for yourself. Once you’re good enough hire people that know what they are doing.
The other thing is that everyone thinks they are going to have an overnight hit. That is the equivalent of winning the lottery. Sure people win the lottery, but are you going to follow the outline of a lottery winner? No!
There is a lot of grit, grind, blood, sweat and tears. If you focus on one thing it is usually worthwhile.
Sol it has been a pleasure. Where can people find you?