14 Minutes of SaaS

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14 Minutes of SaaS

Listen to 14 Minutes of SaaS  Spotify Apple podcasts / Google Podcasts / TuneIn Stitcher

E76 – Sean Percival, CMO at Whereby, Ex 500 Startups. 1 of 5. Inventing the Social Graph at Myspace.

Episode 76 of 14 Minutes is the first of a 5-part mini-series. Stephen Cummins chats with Sean Percival, CMO at Whereby, formerly of 500 Startups and Myspace. Myspace was 120 million active users at a time when the internet was nowhere near as big as it is today. It was a top 5 internet site at its peak and it invented the social graph. Sean worked across a host of roles in IT and software, but it’s wasn’t until he found marketing and content that he found something he was great at. And you don’t have to take his word on that, the likes of Dave McClure sing his praises in this regard.
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Tip: Sean gives a great description of how to approach people you’d like to work for. He describes how he got Jason Calacanis to hire him.
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Stephen Cummins

Transcript

                               Sean Percival

My space was 120M users … monthly active users … at a time not that many people were online. This is 2006 to 2009. Basically it’s kind of the heyday. So for today, I mean depending on what a month or was, it would be a top three or top four on the entire internet. The only ones that were bigger were like the Googles and the yahoos and so forth. It was a cultural phenomenon. It was on the news every night. It was everyone’s top. We were the first to kind of build the social graph – which everything is built on now. You know, Facebook, Linked, everything has a social graph. And we really started around that too. So, I mean it was everywhere. It was unavoidable. And even when it was … before it was even declining …. people were getting a little bit sick of it because it was just everywhere. Everything was about Myspace. So you need to think about … yeah … Facebook’s in a lot of discussions today … it wasn’t even close. Yeah, I was doing a lot around trying to better understand the data and the users. This is a big reason that Facebook really won. They were big data smart. And we were data dumb. We just didn’t know really what was going on there

 Stephen Cummins

I’m Stephen Cummins and this is episode 76 of 14 minutes of SaaS, the first of the 5 part mini-series chatting with Sean Percival, CMO at Whereby, formerly of 500 Startups and Myspace. Myspace was 120M active users at a time when the internet was nowhere near as big as it is today. It was a top 5 internet site at its peak and it invented the social graph. Sean worked across a host of roles in IT and software, but it’s wasn’t until he found marketing and content that he found something he was really great at. When I interviewed Sean a few months ago, the name Whereby was appear.in. We don’t actually reference the old name too much anyway, but Whereby has more than 10M users and hosts more than 50M meetings annually.

Welcome to 14 minutes of SaaS, the show where you can listen to the stories and opinions of founders of the world’s most remarkable SaaS ScaleUps.

Today, we’re in 37 Dawson street. Probably the coolest club in Dublin. So if you hear a little bit of music in the background that explains it. We’re upstairs in the back room there. It’s the day after the Dublin Tech Summit (DTS) and I have Sean Percival CMO at Whereby with us. And I’m delighted to have you here Sean.

                                                Sean Percival

Thanks for having me.

          Stephen Cummins

So start off by telling us a little bit about your background who you are and… and what’s happened in your life up to the point where you entered into the working world.

                                                Sean Percival

Okay. So even going way back .. yeah. Yeah, I’ll try not to do the whole life story. My Dad will tell you I was always a nerd. I was the one that was programming the VCR when I was 5. Remember when we had to program VCRS. You know …  doing that kind of thing. And I was always very curious, always into computers and technical. And when I was about 11 or 12, my Dad bought me my first computer. And that really started this journey. So I was really into a bulletin board systems, kind of all the pre-internet stuff as well. And that’s where I got kinda curious. And then I went through the typical teenager stuff, getting in trouble and doing bad stuff .. and all these other things. And during that time of course the dotcom boom just takes off … goes crazy. I was a little distracted. And then I came back to it and thankfully computers didn’t go away altogether. And that’s how I kinda got started as I realised ‘Oh, that’s right … I’m technical and I know computers in a world where very few people do’. Started my first job in the technical space, doing tech support. So basically, you have an issue with your computer, you call me and I was on the phone. I was the one helping out.

Stephen Cummins

And it’s amazing how many entrepreneurs that I’ve interviewed actually started in tech support – one of the keys is how quickly you can work your way out of that of course … that’s an interesting process in itself. It does give you that interface with the customer … that appreciation of their needs I suppose from the start. So there’s something to be learned from every role, right?                                                

    Sean Percival

It was really good for me. It gave me a lot of patience as soon as you take a 65 year old grandma through editing her windows registry ..  which is a rather complex thing to do …. you have infinite patience. And so you’re right. It was a really good experience into how does one take … quote unquote … normal person start using a computer in the year 1999 when nobody knew how these things worked … and can you, over the phone, walk them through the whole process? It was a great challenge.

Stephen Cummins

And, you know …  you went through a few companies with different technical roles that went beyond support … before you went into the content strategy side of things with Mahalo. Can you talk to me a little bit about those companies that preceded that changing in your career? And, you know, how formative that was for you?

    Sean Percival

Yeah. For me, I was kinda just finding my way. And I thought I was going to be a programmer. Turns out I wasn’t a really good programmer. I thought I was gonna be a designer. Turns out I wasn’t a great designer. I did a lot of the IT jobs, you know …  literally running wires and being the IT manager. And sort of setting up Outlook and all the other things you had to do. So I had to really kinda try everything. And that gave me a nice diverse skill set. And it wasn’t until I really found marketing and content that I realised this is what I should do. This is where I’m great at something. Not just good. And so I leaned into that.

Stephen Cummins

You actually have a tremendous reference on your Linkedin profile from the guy who, at least when he gave it in 2016, was the CEO of Mahalo. And I think he might have been junior to you when you were there actually …  but he said you were kind have a rising star at the time before you got there. What was it that Mahalo saw in you, given your previous roles, that made them think … ‘Yeah, let’s bring this guy in to do content.’ What had you done or how did that happen?

Sean Percival

I guess we’re talking about Jason Calacanis?

Stephen Cummins

I am Indeed.

Sean Percival

Okay. So I was still in my … like IT webmaster kinds of jobs. I’d never really worked for a startup … and somehow I caught wind of what he was doing. And I was making okay money … not amazing … but okay. And I wrote to him and I said …. I love what you’re doing. Here’s three ways you could do it better. And I think that challenged him. This was kind of using a little bit of the programming and the design. I actually did mock ups of how his startup could … sort of … better present the information, and how his content could be more SEO friendly. And so I sent him like, which is kind of a bold thing to do, because he had good stature. He was well known. And I was like ‘this is what you should do’. And I literally photo-shopped a sort of revision of the site. And he called me in… and actually sat there and said ‘you know, if you wanna work here, we’re gonna pay half of what you make right now’. You’re gonna have to work hard and earn it. But to me, I was just like ‘Absolutely! I want to be there. I want to learn. I mean he was a bit of an authority. He had created the modern blog ecosystem, you know … with weblogs and gadget and all these sites. So I kinda wanted just be in his orbit – and that’s how it started.

And a lot of people ask me that … ‘I want to work for company X, Y, Z’ …  and it’s like … well step 1 is to outreach. And step two is to show them how you can help. And I’ve seen it work many times. It’s personally work for me as well.

Stephen Cummins

I guess it’s a mark have a good entrepreneur. Isn’t it the ability be channel to embrace being challenged…? …

Sean Percival

Yep! Challenge yourself and others. I mean, I think that’s part of it. And I was able to do that working at Mahalo. You know, yeah, it crashed and burned. But still like .. it was an amazing experience. I learned so much from working for Jason Calacanis. So I have been lucky to work for people like Jason and many, many great bosses. Really propelled and allow me in one years’ time to get a five or ten-year skill set built by having the best bosses. I had to seek them out. I had to find them and show them why I was worthy of some time. And worthy of having a chance.

Stephen Cummins

Absolutely and, you know, tell us a little bit more about what you did in mahalo … and what you were doing for them. And… and how that felt. The first six months, 12 months … where you were doing somebody you loved, but was probably different than anything you’ve done before.

Sean Percival

Yeah, much larger scale, you know. We were in the press, you know, people knew who we were. Anything I’d done before … it was so small scale … and so really I early in my career. People ask me too … ‘What books did you read? What school did you go to?’ And I say ‘I read zero books and I dropped out of college twice.’ I learned from trial and error and experimentation. And I did a lot of experimentation around SEO, search engine optimisation. That was a pretty big deal back in the day. A lot of businesses we’re built on it. Less so nowadays. But that’s what I was doing was, I was really trying to like … we had a lot of people power, we had a lot of smart stuff, we had good technology. And I was just really trying to further the message. How do we get better search traffic? How do we improve the results? How do we sort of get more traffic … and Jason was addicted to traffic? I was addicted to traffic. So it was a very good collaboration of like the power and the resources he had …. and just trying to propel that further and… and get more audience. That’s really what I was focused on.

Stephen Cummins

You pushed on from Mahalo. And really went into content strategy and management over the next kind of two or three companies. Were there only formative experiences in those two or three companies that bridged your way to Myspace.

Sean Percival

Yeah, I learned a lot about the Google. How an algorithm embraces newness, how topical content just has this massive rocket of traffic. And that may die the next day. But I really leaned a lot into that in the next few jobs. I worked at Docstock as well, which is essentially like online documents … and they went on to do well and ended up selling. Didn’t raise a lot of venture capital, but ended up building a site that you know, we took it from maybe half a million visitors a month to millions of visitors in a very short period of time. So I started to understand more of like trends. Buzzfeed was emerging at the time. It was a tiny blog back then. And just starting to see this like interesting sort of what you could do with topical content … and the insatiable need that people have when something happens …when an event happens. And they immediately go online and they search. And they look on social and they try and find this. So I learned a lot about that… that initial rushed. And we did that in Mahalo. We did that in Docstock. And even eventually went into Myspace as well. And even though it was getting a little bit harder at that point in Myspace, we knew that like people that had a desire for something … events and music and entertainment … could generate a lot of value … both for us and the user.

Stephen Cummins

Now. Myspace infamously accidentally deleted every member’s content that’s been produced any time before the last three years. It’s a bit of a tragedy.

Sean Percival

It really is

Stephen Cummins

An ongoing tragedy. Remind us of how big the forgotten Myspace once was in our world and, you know … how was the experience for you?

Sean Percival

My space was 120M users … monthly active users … at a time not that many people were online. This is 2006 to 2009. Basically it’s kind of the heyday. So it didn’t have the kind of economies of scale you have today with billions and billions of people online, emerging markets online today. I mean depending on what a month or was, it would be a top three or top four on the entire internet. The only ones that were bigger were like the Googles and the yahoos and so forth. But I think what’s more interesting if you weren’t around then, it was a cultural phenomenon. It was on the news every night. It was everyone’s top. We were the first to kind of build the social graph – which everything is built on now. You know, Facebook, Linked, everything has a social graph. And we really started around that too. So, I mean it was everywhere. It was unavoidable. And even when it was … before it was even declining …. people were getting a little bit sick of it because it was just everywhere. Everything was about Myspace. So you need to think about … yeah … Facebook’s in a lot of discussions today … it wasn’t even close.  Every news story just wanted to talk about. Your your friends became a new metric. Online friends. This was never a metric before. You know … a measure of your authority or someone’s signal or whatever you want to call it. It was a big deal. And really what happened was that it slowly eroded. But it took a long time. Facebook didn’t surpass us until I think it was about May 2009. This is even years after the heyday, years after the acquisition as well. So it managed to stay around. We had 100 to 200 thousand signups per day. When you think about that, we had a small city signing up every day.

Stephen Cummins

That’s insane.

Sean Percival

So it’s a big reason I joined. I was more of a startup guy. I was more [happy] working with the Mahalos and the Docstocks. These kind of tiny 10 to 20 person companies. Myspace was 1400 employees .. I think at the peak. But to me it was an amazing challenge coz I had done all these like grassroots efforts of like ‘how do we go from zero to one? … and here I’m like ‘Ok how do I go from like 9 to 11?’… or I don’t know the Spinal Tap reference. You know, how do I go bigger? So it was… it was really fascinating, but it was so much harder. It’s a big ship. Yeah.

Stephen Cummins

Now, when you joined, it was obviously something cool to you at that point. And I know that you were later in that tenure …  to want to try and convince them to change their name as things started to get a bit more uncool. Or maybe as your realisation of what was going on once you when you were inside … kind of matured. But in that early first year when you would have been very excited by the brand … What were you doing?

Sean Percival

Yeah .. I was doing a lot around trying to better understand the data and the users. This is a big reason that Facebook really won. They were big data smart. And we were data dumb. We just didn’t know really what was going on there. And the data team was 20 people, our infrastructure or the architecture … it didn’t allow us to extract the information of ‘Why are things happening? Where are the users spending their time? Where are they getting stuck? [In order to] do these optimizations. So I was a lot of like … head pounding!

Stephen Cummins

In the next episode, the 2nd of this 5-part mini-series, Sean describes what it was like having to fire an icon after joining one of the most famous companies in the world. And he explains why Facebook won, and Myspace didn’t.

Stephen Cummins

You’ve been listening to 14 minutes of SaaS. Thanks to Mike Quill for his creativity and problem solving skills and to Ketsu for the music. This episode was brought to you by me, Stephen Cummins. If you enjoy the podcast, please don’t forget to share it with your network, subscribe to the series and give the show a rating.

Listen to 14 Minutes of SaaS on Spotify Apple podcasts / Google podcasts / TuneIn Stitcher