Andy Deemer: [00:00:10] Hi, my name is Andy Deemer and you are listening to the Fail Better Podcast. Today I’m talking to Ethan Lance. He’s an old buddy of mine from our days building and launching MP3.com, TV.com, and even Dr. Dre’s Beats Music. But he’s done so much more. He’s co-founded or sometimes even founded some of the most fantastic communities out there, including ComicVine, Giant Bomb, Tested.com, and AnimeVice. If you don’t know these, you’re not part of the communities, but these are sites that he’s sold to CBS Interactive and Whale Rock Entertainment. They’re great. But let’s pause for a second. You know, as I know, that behind every great community there’s always a bomb. Ethan, hi, thank you for joining me on the Fail Better Podcast!
Ethan Lance: Well thanks, Andy. Good to talk to you!
Andy: Good to talk to you too. So you’ve been running product for Dwell.com, the website and mobile app about architecture and design of modern homes, for pretty much the last year. Tell me about that.
Ethan: [00:01:19] Yeah. It’s been about a year and a half now. Before we got there the Dwell.com was sort of like a blog platform which was great. It had all the content from the magazine. So what we were doing was, we were going to build an iOS app, which we built, and a brand new web site. And what we want to do is build all the community features inside with all the UGC, so people could upload their own photos and get advice and inspiration from other architectural lovers.
Andy: [00:01:43] Nice. And how did the launch go?
Ethan: [00:01:45] It went great. We learned a lot. We learned, one, it’s hard to launch iOS and a web platform at the same time, and to make them independently interesting on their own, and not just try to make them feature-for-feature parity, which is what we kind of did. And so around January we took a step back from iOS and we’re probably going to revisit it next year. And we decided to really spend our time on the web and really figure out what our business angle is.
Andy: [00:02:08] Why was it difficult to focus on two platforms at the same time? Just the team wasn’t big enough? Or it really takes looking at each product separately as a unique standalone product?
Ethan: [00:02:19] I think that’s what it is. What you just said. I mean, you could do with a small team, as long as you have a unique vision for each device. And, if you remember, we did that at Beats, too. We launched a web site along with it, and then we basically buried it.
Andy: [00:02:31] Yeah, we didn’t promote that at all. Almost no traffic went there.
Ethan: But it was fully functional!
Andy: Yeah, you know, we tried to go for full feature parity, but even with all the developers and product managers that we had, that was a struggle. There was just so much to build and so much to focus on for Android and iOS.
Ethan: [00:02:48] I thought it would have been cool to take the Beats Music website and then make that into more of a community site, maybe even discussion boards for music, and then leave the app for pure playing of music.
Andy: [00:02:59] That’s a really interesting idea. It seems like so many companies just go out of their way to strive for identical mobile and web products.
Ethan: [00:03:07] Yeah! It doesn’t really need to be though, right? It probably doesn’t even work out great that way.
Andy: [00:03:11] You sort of need them for different times and different purposes. It’s like you know, your watch. You don’t want parity of features on your watch — you want something unique.
Andy: So now that you guys are entirely or mostly focused on the website, what are you doing with it?
Ethan: [00:03:28] We built a message board, which, you know, it sounds boring but it’s going to evolve into the way people talk about architecture, and the way people talk to their architects or their general contractors. The message boards are just a starting point for basically a messaging platform around architecture and design. More of a way for me to communicate with my architect or my designer on a project that I’m working on them with, and sending in photos back and forth, and collecting photos.
Andy: [00:03:54] Why would you use the Dwell app, rather than just email or SMS?
Ethan : [00:03:59] You know that interesting question. It kind of actually frustrates me now, because I’m going through a small remodel, and my wife and I are looking at photos on Dwell.com, we’re going through all the photos, and then we take it and we Slack each other, or we instant message each other. And I thought, I mean, we kind of have some of the capability in Dwell.com already to— I could @ mention my wife on a photo, and say “Hey Alex, take a look at this,” and she’ll then reply, “Oh yeah, that is a great kitchen cabinet. We should add that to our collection.” But it’s not private. It’s all public, so everyone can read our messages. Which is why we want to go the next step into private messaging. Like hidden messages on Dwell. She and I can just save that, all of that information, all that conversation, right there.
Andy: [00:04:44] I love that you and your wife Slack each other.
Ethan: Don’t you?
Andy: No. No. So Dwell.com is moving ahead, you’re building up a great community of fans of modern architecture. But this is the Fail Better Podcast. So let’s talk about when you left CNET. So you were working on GameSpot and TV.com and MP3.com, but you left all this to start a community for car fanatics, or car fans. You were the CEO or the Head of Product?
Ethan: [00:05:20] We didn’t have any titles. So the lead product person would have been Dave. Crazy smart product guy, great designer, learned how to program. He and I quit CNET, and I was the head of engineering just by proxy being the only engineer. He was the head of design and product by being the only designer and product person. We both quit together and then rented a little office out of Berkeley and then started building sites. I remember Dave saying to me, “What do you want to build, Ethan? You know, we’re quitting, let’s go build something really cool.” And you know, for me, I’m really into cars. I’m sitting here in my workshop right now, I’m looking at a car that’s taken apart, from 1967. I really want to build a car site, and I thought, “You know what? We could build a really cool car community.” And so we signed on to this idea that we could build and launch a car site in 30 days. So we did it. We designed it in like a week, built it and launched it in 30 days.
Andy: [00:06:11] That’s how you build a new product!
Ethan: [00:06:13] Yeah! We built this car site and we expected everyone to show up and upload their cars and talk about their cars. We thought that Camaro guys and Mustang guys would just use the site to talk to Camaro guys and Mustang guys. You know, car guys are like, “I’m a Mustang guy.” “I’m a Camaro guy!” or “I’m a Porsche guy!” “No, I’m a Ferrari guy.” The way I grew up was just, I love cars, so it doesn’t really matter what make or model it is. I’m into it.
Andy: [00:06:33] So you built it. You had this make and model agnostic vision. You launched it. And what happened?
Ethan: [00:06:39] In one way, it was successful, because we launched it very, very fast. We hired a PR team and we actually got in the Chicago Tribune, in this big page. It was Dave and my photo, and then right under that was the founders of YouTube, right under that was Mark Zuckerberg, and we were like, “Whoa, these guys are like seriously building huge social networks.” We’re this small underdog building this little car network. And then within a month of that PR, we had someone from another company, another massive car company, come and ask us if we would sell the whole thing and come work for their company. We almost sold Boompa, the first thing we ever built, to this company. Which sounds like a success, but the site itself was a failure because it never did take off, even when we eventually said no to that company. We let it roll for another year, and it really didn’t do anything.
Andy: The 21st century history of startups is already a long list of huge grand failures and you’ve surprisingly had almost nothing but hits. So what are the reasons Boompa didn’t take off?
Ethan: [00:07:46] One was we named it wrong. My grandfather’s nickname, growing up, was Boompa, and he loved cars. He’s the guy that got it all into it. The whole family. Rebuilding cars, racing them. So we named the website Boompa.com because I thought it would be cool to, as an homage to him, to call this website Boompa. But that only meant something to me and not anything to anyone else, and they all thought it was a dumb name! So that was the first thing, and the second thing was that we didn’t have a voice for this car site. It was just, “Come on, upload your cars, everything will be great, and you can talk in the message boards and all this.” And what we realized is that you either need to make a site about a specific make and model, like a Nissan messageboard or a BMW message board and community, or you need to solve the problem of different personalities and different cultures coming together by having a voice on the site. Certain subject matters won’t work with a giant community without any sort of direction. It was too broad. It didn’t have their people, their tribe wasn’t there. There’s other sites that have since come by that I’ve loved that have solved the problem. Like Bring a Trailer. Bring a Trailer is a blog, but it’s all about vintage cars, so they stuck to one thing, and then they add their own editorial flavor. And we didn’t do that for our car site.
Andy: [00:08:53] And people stopped coming, there wasn’t any retention.
Andy: So did you shut down Boompa?
Ethan: [00:08:59] Yeah, we shut it down. We actually eventually gave the domain to a record label up in Canada that was going by Boompa dot canada. So if you go to Boompa.com now, I believe it’s a Canadian record label.
Andy: [00:09:12] That’s nice. So it still exists, it’s just not at all the same, and not part of your life.
Ethan: [00:09:20] Yeah. Not at all the same. Not part of my life.
Andy: [00:09:21] So you guys shut down Boompa, you failed with Boompa. I’ve seen so many other startup founders fail at their first startup, and then run back to their corporate job. You and Dave didn’t run back to CNET and ask for your own jobs back. You guys kept going-
Andy: -trying again.
Ethan: [00:09:39] What we would do is we would go to like bookstores and look at magazines, and you kind of pick a magazine that probably doesn’t have a website, or doesn’t have a lot of web sites with community around them. But people are reading these magazines and magazines are basically just editorial for communities. Right? So once we decided to build a second site, we kind of went, you know, again, “What does he and I have passion for but also has a need for a community?” And we looked around and we didn’t see any comic book sites that were doing it for us. And we both grew up reading comics. I was in my 30s. I think he was just under 30. We weren’t still reading comics at that age, but we knew we loved them, you know, as a kid, and we knew there’s plenty of people who really needed this outlet.
Andy: And that outlet was…?
Ethan: Comic Vine, which took off.
Andy: [00:10:19] I mean, it definitely took off. You sold it to CBS and it’s still going strong. But how did you get the audience and the community to show up in the first place?
Ethan: [00:10:29] It’s word of mouth, and what we would do a lot would be, we used the site ourselves, and we did a lot of— well, for Comic Vine for example, Dave and I did some silly stuff in the beginning, before we even had the bigger engineering team, where we went to the Target kids section and bought super goofy, bright, spandex clothes, and we dressed up as the lamest superheroes we can come up with. His character was called Captain Cascader, becuase he was doing cascading stylesheets as a coder. And my character was Red Lamp, because I was Linux Apache. You know, LAMP? PHP?
Andy: (Laughing) That’s just awful.
Ethan: I had this wig, and my neighbor, he was a photographer and took these crazy photos of us in mock battle scenes. Later on we actually did a video running around in basically our underwear, in these spandex underwear, making mock battle scenes and just being goofy.
Andy: And did that work?
Ethan: I don’t know how well that worked. That’s kind of how we started, just being really silly and showing people that you know we were just here to have fun, and then people start passing those videos around. But it really wasn’t about growing super fast back then. It was really about building something super interesting, which is so different because right now at Dwell we spent a lot of time talking about growth, and acquisition, and retention. You know we did that at Beats as well. Our purpose was a little different. It was really just to build these little communities and let them grow slowly.
Andy: But how did you grow slowly? I mean it must have been more than viral videos and word of mouth.
Ethan: [00:11:53] A lot of things that we worked on would have been SEO, which I hate saying SEO, it sounds so boring. But the idea was to make it very easy for people to search you know for some subject matter within the comic book world and find us. And so our web sites, except for Tested, were wiki based. We had our users filling out pages you know on every character, every videogame, every comic book. And they were writing these long wiki pages and uploading tons of photos. Once you get that core user base interested, and they feel like you’ve built this honest community for them, they basically spread the word to all their friends. That was our goal for growing: to really be honest, and build a really good place to be, and have people bring their friends. And I think that’s what happened. So back then, I mean, we were really slow growing but we had high editorial values, you know. The sites were different than some of the bigger sites that would cover pretty much any subject matter in video games or any subject matter in comics where we were a little bit more, I would say, curated.
Andy: [00:12:48] Yeah, and that editorial voice was what helped you guys stand out with the communities.
Ethan: [00:12:54] Yeah! It’s like a home for them. They can come there, and they can have someone else curate and talk about what they’re interested in, which really worked on GiantBomb.com, and really worked on ComicVine.com, because what we did was we set up these editorial teams that talked to users, basically presented the users with how we think about video games, or how we think about comic books, or how we think about technology, and then empowered the users almost to do their own sort of mini version of what the professional editors were doing. So editors could write reviews. So could users. Editors could make videos and we were allowing users to make their own videos and upload them as well onto the site, or into YouTube. And like inspiring these younger guys coming up to do what we were doing professionally. But everything that we built and what we’re still building today is, you know, these community sites around a niche. And I think that was really a big part of why those sites worked.
Andy: Do you feel that now that we’re in 2017, almost every niche audience has been catered to, or are there communities that are still not satisfied?
Ethan: I think about that all the time. I think there’s a ton of niche communities still, and new ones that’ll come up that we don’t even know about, through technologies that are being created now, where there’s going to be communities around artificial intelligence or autonomous cars or all the new stuff that could come out with augmented reality where we’re going to be doing media in a different way. But I do spend a lot of time as I’m falling asleep, thinking about, “What do I build next? What’s a community that needs to be built?” It’s crazy, like how much time we think about those things, at least I do. Because I’m always wanting to build something. And if you think about Beats, it was going to eventually go that way with all the editorial that we created on Beats, all the playlists at Beats were created by an editorial team of about, I guess, what? 10, probably, or five internal editors, and then tons of freelance editors that we would farm out playlist ideas, and then they would create these amazing playlists — that was the editorial voice for Beats. It was all about curation.
Andy: [00:14:52] And did you try and introduce curation to Boompa?
Ethan: [00:14:56] No, we never did. By that time we’d moved on to building other web sites, it was kind of too late for that site. So if we were going to do it we would probably have to start over completely. We were just so busy at that point with the sites that were working, which turned out to be entertainment-based – you know, the comic site, the video game site – we just let it go. But I always thought maybe I would return to it someday.
Andy: You should! Boompa would like that! But since this is Fail Better, and although the site did not by any means fail, elements of it did. Anime Vice!
Ethan: That one was a complete nightmare as far as I’m concerned, because if you’ve ever launched an anime site before, and you don’t have serious moderation… what you’ll find is within a year, your whole database will be full of hentai. Which was terrifying when I found out how much hentai was uploaded.
Andy: [00:15:45] Can you explain what hentai is for anyone doesn’t know?
Ethan: Oh, I don’t want to. Um, hentai is basically adult content in anime cartoon form. When we launched our other community sites, we wanted to be sort of like a Wikipedia, almost the way a museum is. Yes, you can go to the Louvre and see naked penises and whatnot, you know. So we thought we would be highbrow like that, you know, like not scurry away from that. What we didn’t realize was how much hentai is — it was like tentacle porn, and all this stuff, and then we started realizing, “Wait a second! Most of my audience are kids, and this one percent of these users were uploading all this really dirty stuff, but it was sort of hidden under a layer of curation, where we curated on top all the good, you know, anime that would be for kids and young adults, and then deep as you get down into the web site, as you started searching around, you’d start seeing all this hentai.
Andy: Oh god, so what did you guys do?
Ethan: So one summer, we just had to build a whole, almost our own Mechanical Turk system, and then get basically 10 or 20 interns to help just crank through and identify every photo and delete anything that was hentai. It was a big pain in the ass. It was terrible.
Andy: That’s just awful.
Ethan: Can you imagine having to look at those photos for like a three week period trying to get rid of them all? After a while, it’s just soul crushing. Just seeing all that, and doing it at work, too! So it’s flashing up on your screen, just going through all these photos like, “Oh, that’s fine. That’s fine. Oh no! No! No! No! Get rid of that. Get rid of that.” That’s another huge product fail right there, was not putting enough moderation in front of our image uploading.
Andy: [00:17:13] What was the audience response?
Ethan: [00:17:15] Almost everyone was helpful, actually! They helped us take it out. There was a few people, that you didn’t really want to have on your web site anyways, who didn’t want us to do that. But in the end, you know, we had to. It wasn’t the type of content we could even legally have up there, probably, the age of the audience that we had. So we made sure that we got it out of there.
Andy: [00:17:33] Yeah, and that was something that we were always concerned about when we were building out Stormglass. You know, how to have user generated content or any sort of interactions in an online space targeting kids. It’s something that we never quite succeeded at. But what advice do you wish you could go back and give yourself for all of these sites, but especially for when you were creating Boompa, the first one?
Ethan: [00:17:55] Oh man. I think some of the advice I would think about is to even go slower and not try to build things so fast. Saying that, at the same time right now we do daily code pushes, and we are writing so much code, it’s incredible.
Andy: [00:18:09] Yeah, everyone’s focus now is definitely on deploying that lean MVP leaner and faster than ever before. But I feel like we did that on every project it at GameSpot and TV.com and MP3.com. Fail faster!
Ethan: [00:18:25] Or fail forward. I still believe in that. Because what happens is, you can put so much time into thinking and trying to analyze every little detail, or doing an immense amount of QA for a product that doesn’t even have any implications where you can lose somebody money, or anything like that. You don’t necessarily need to do QA on every type of product. Sometimes you just launch it, you let your users QA it for you, you create a dialogue with the user saying, “Hey, like we’re a small team. Thank you for QA’s. Anything you submit to us through this email will get fixed.
Andy: [00:18:56] Do you ever regret doing that? At GameSpot, I remember once we launched a new, not-properly-vetted or tested, navigational system and saw our traffic drop, I think like 20 percent–
Ethan: Yeah, but the nice thing is that—
Ethan: The nice thing is you can roll it back. I mean now it’s much easier to just A/B test that. You could just launch that out to a much smaller user base. Which even, honestly, right now we don’t even really A:B test at Dwell. AND we never even AB tested at Beats. How many engineers did we have, like 70?
Andy: Yeah that’s probably right.
Ethan: And our product team was probably 10 guys, men and women, by time we launched. We had access to all those things, but we didn’t even do it.
Andy: We had too much to do.
Ethan: It would be interesting to work with a team that does do a lot of AB testing, and a lot of data crunching, from a startup perspective, because I’d be interested to see how teams launch new products and follow those rigorous methodologies. With Beats, everyone was just cranking, trying to get this thing launched. I feel like everything that I’ve ever built has always been that way. I’ve never been on a site where you’re at a larger company, maybe that’s launching slower or had a massive timeline. The companies I’ve worked at or for are always just cranking, like pushing out new features, new ideas, talking to the users constantly, and tweaking.
Andy: [00:20:17] But now it’s so easy to do A/B testing with Optimizely or… there are just so many low cost options for implementing it.
Ethan: [00:20:26] It is, but it’s not as low cost as it sounds. Optimizely, and all of them, they still cost a lot of money. Especially for a small company. Or, think about like an Amplitude, like taking all of your events and firing them off to Amplitude and having this event system where you can go through and look at all the data. Which is great! Even that cost a bunch of money. So for small companies I don’t know that there’s really- Google Analytics is free. I think almost everyone still uses that. And then at the same time, how do you have time to either go back – with small teams – and do AB testing? So that’s something that we struggle with right now with Dwell, trying to really just crank everything out, everything that we think that we need to have in place for feature complete. Even though you’re never feature complete. Saying all that, it will be nice to see at the end of this year where we are now at Dwell.com. If we will have that time to step back and go through everything we built and improve them through testing and growth. But like I said that’s not the world I’m in right now. I mean I think what I would tell my younger self is, just to keep going and always be creating. It’s just so fun and it’s so easy for anyone to just get into tech and just build something. Something interesting. I mean, you know that.
Andy: What’s a book that you’d recommend to someone who wants to get into tech and start creating?
Ethan: I would recommend Dune right now. The whole series.
Ethan: No, seriously. If you want to get into tech and start creating, I would look to science fiction for inspiration. A lot of the stuff we’re building nowadays, that you’re hearing about that is being built, it’s just straight up science fiction. Everything out of Magic Leap, and virtual and augmented reality. Flying cars are coming! I mean who’d have thought? There’s multiple flying-car companies right now. Autonomous cars, all of it. Straight up science fiction!
Andy: [00:22:09] What’s a specific example of something from Dune that you’ve seen, or that has inspired you to create something? Or that someone else is creating?
Ethan: [00:22:18] Well, you know what’s funny about Dune… have you read the book?
Andy: I have not, no.
Ethan: Okay. The funny thing about Dune is, it’s set in a future where they can’t even really remember Earth anymore at this point. But they have all of the lore of Earth. It’s set 5,000, or something like that, years after a giant jihad where humans killed all artificial intelligence and all robots and made it illegal to make them. I don’t really know how that applies to anything, but I thought that was interesting. It’s almost like the exact opposite of what we’re all doing right now. We’re building this world now that’s about to be destroyed in four thousand years when we’ll have to kill all the robots.
Andy: [00:22:47] Okay. That sounds like an incredibly helpful book or series. Thank you, Ethan. I’ll slap up some links to Dune at FailBetterPodcast.com. Click on those links, Listener, to help support this podcast, and also to help avoid the robot apocalypse. Now, Ethan, I have one last question for you. Who would you want to hear talk about their worst product failure?
Ethan: [00:23:13] Oh man.
Andy: And what they learned from it.
Ethan: I would want to… is it too easy to say Elon Musk? Like, I would totally go listen to that guy, all day long. Like he’s so… He’s just coming up with crazy ideas all the time.
Andy: [00:23:26] What is his biggest fail, do you think?
Ethan: Jeez, I don’t even know what—
Andy: Has he failed?
Ethan: [00:23:32] I don’t even know if he’s failed. I mean, maybe a little bit during his PayPal days, where he was building… what was the name of the company that he merged with the PayPal guys?
Ethan: Maybe that was his failure? He made a lot of money on PayPal. Great. And he could have just gone away after that. He did put all that money pretty much on the line to build new products. And I love the fact that this guy has this idea that everything he’s going to do is to get us to Mars, because we can’t be a one-planet species. And maybe that’s why I like Dune so much, too. Like that whole concept of like, “Let’s do something big and really move forward.” I think another person that would be interesting would be the founder of Magic Leap, kind of seeing what are the fails they’re having right now. I think everyone would want to know, is that going to be vaporware, or is something really exciting going to come out of that, and are we going to be walking around with visuals in front of our face, nonstop? If you watch Black Mirror-
Ethan: There’s a lot of that kind of concept. Imagine just being able to answer phone calls- or like what Facebook was saying in their last Facebook conference, where you can like answer a text or a phone just by clicking a finger. You can be talking to someone face to face, you get some sort of vibration on your arm. It’s basically like a text with just asking you something where it’s a yes or no, and you feel the vibration you could answer with the vibration. Things like all these little muscle cues and visual cues that are going to happen in the near future that are going to make us almost kind of, like, almost like telepathic.
Andy: And they’re not that far away. Well, you know-
Ethan: [00:25:03] I don’t think it is!
Andy: No! Hopefully within our lifetimes, because I want to be part of that movement. You know, I’m excited that we got to live through the birth of the Internet.
Andy: I want to see the next the next step. But yeah, I will reach out to Elon Musk – who I haven’t spoken to in 23 years – and Rony Abovitz, and see if either of them will be willing to come on the podcast. Ethan Lance, thank you so much for taking the time to step away from your car repair and talk about the dangers in building communities. And good luck with the next steps on Dwell.com
Ethan: Well, thanks!
Andy: I can’t wait to see where you guys take it.
Ethan: [00:25:44] Thank you very much. I’m excited. And good luck to you. Because I know you’re always doing creative stuff too.
Andy: [00:25:50] Aw, you’re too sweet. Thanks Ethan. And thank you, Listener. Remember, before you build an online community, find your niche, find your voice, and make sure you moderate that hentai. That terrible, terrible hentai. On that note I’m Andy Deemer. Our theme music was composed by the wonderful Yuri Sazonoff. This podcast was edited for length, clarity, and fun. And you can find more episodes, more failed startups, and product learnings, and plenty of great books and links to those at FailBetterPodcast.com. I tweet at Andy Deemer, I LinkedIn at Andy Deemer, Facebook at Fail Better Podcast. And tell your friends about the show because you don’t want them to launch something terrible and filled with hentai. Do you?