I'm excited to be back and writing One Year Wiser after taking some time off for the arrival of my second baby. We are slowly but surely finding our new routine and have been reminded of just how important it is to take time for ourselves, and for our family. It's been a wonderful and hectic few months, and I'm looking forward to getting back to a more regular interview and writing schedule in 2023.
Today, I’m here to share my final interview of 2022!
Josh Little is an experienced entrepreneur based in Utah who has started and exited several successful companies. His most recent venture is Volley, which is an async video messaging platform that helps creators, coaches, and consultants monetize their expertise. An example of one of their customers that really made it click for me is a former veterinarian technician and dog trainer who has used Volley to scale a virtual dog training and coaching business.
Though Volley did not start with the focus on creators and experts. Instead, Josh and the team were taking on Slack and Zoom. They wanted to make remote team communication “suck less by addressing the two main problems – lack of communication and loneliness – head-on.” They started building Volley in May 2020, introduced their closed beta 12 weeks later, raised a seed round, and kept building. Their public launch on Product Hunt wasn’t until October 2021, a little more than a year ago.
It wasn’t until this year that they realized they weren’t going to break through and change how teams used Slack and Zoom. But Josh and the team did what good founders and product leaders do, which is remain agile and pivot their product offering when the current product was not meeting the needs of the target audience. They saw that the retention rates weren’t there and recognized the need to make big adjustments. Now the product is tailored specifically for consultants, experts, and coaches to monetize their expertise.
They’ve made a lot of great strides over the past year to improve the product. A big part of that was adding in a monetization component, which they launched a couple of weeks ago on Product Hunt.
Get ready to be inspired by my interview with Josh. In our conversation, Josh talks about:
My questions are in bold; this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
I came across Volley when I was looking through the top launches on Product Hunt from October 2021. In the comments sections you mentioned that one of the reasons Volley came to be was due to a frustration with communication tools during the pandemic. I’d like to start there. Can you give me a quick overview of the founding story and how the idea for Volley came about?
Josh Little: The founding story of Volley starts from my background. I'm a teacher turned serial entrepreneur, and I did that by way of jumping into the corporate world and working my way through a number of sales, sales training, and marketing roles until I built my first company. My last three companies have been all about education and training – how to get the right information to the right people at the right time at work.
Bloomfire, my second company that we launched in 2009, was very much trying to solve the problem of educating people in the workplace. We had focused on content that educated people, but the “aha moment” was realizing education is about the conversation. That’s when I started to pay more attention to the importance of great conversations.
In 2016, I left my last company, I thought I was done and really was on a search for my magnum opus. I spent four years looking around for the right opportunity, validating ideas. When the pandemic hit, that’s when I thought, “I know what the world needs: a better way to communicate.”
I knew that the pandemic was going to fundamentally change the world in the way that we work and the way that we educate. The future of the world needs a flexible way to communicate face to face. I don't see my kids typing messages with their thumbs and or scheduling time to meet. Technology has largely only brought us digital versions of typing and talking. I started to think more about the possibilities. What if typing and talking had a baby? Wouldn't that be cool? So imagine something like Marco Polo with the functionality of something like Discord or Slack, the organization of those, and then add in things like Loom in there and then some monetization feature. Oh my goodness, we could have a killer platform for communication. And that's why I got the team together and started building Volley in May of 2020.
Super interesting. When you first began building the product, who were you picturing would be your target customer? Who were you building it for? Was it for coworkers to communicate or distant family members or someone else?
JL: In the beginning, we were thinking pretty broadly. And then very quickly through some usability tests and some surveys, we happened upon this meetings use case and people started giving us feedback that it would be really helpful to people who ran remote teams. So when we launched Volley, we came out of the gate with the message: “It's the end of meetings as we know it.”
That was the story. Cancel your meetings. Meetings are a waste of time and meetings are a great villain. So I'm happy to play against meetings and it's easy to write against the pain of meetings. Meetings were a great villain to play against. We also said, cancel your slack or cancel your Zoom subscription use Volley, it's the end of all of your problems. It's a better way to flexibly communicate face to face. Instead of having endless meetings you can just sync up, unblocked, check-in on the fly. A beautiful thing.
So that's really where we started and that was the launch of the product and that was our go-to-market hypothesis. We raised our seed round of $5.5 million on the thesis that Volley will end meetings as we know it and usher in the future of work.
So you started building in May 2020, the public Product Hunt launch I saw was October 2021 and I think on the Product Hunt post you mentioned you had done a closed beta. Can you walk me through that progression and where in that timeline the seed round happened?
JL: Yeah, so we started building in May 2020. After about six weeks, we had a dog food prototype that we were using as a team. Funny enough, we were all sitting in the same room thinking that we could build this product, sitting in the same room. Then we realized quickly, “Oh, we don't use Volley while we're sitting in the same room, so we have to be remote.” It's silly that that didn't occur to us.
By 12 weeks (August 2020) we had something that we went into private beta with. We had about 700 teams that were on the waitlist for the beta and we started bringing them in. At that point, we only had an iOS app because we didn't want to build on a number of platforms. After the private beta started , we began building a version for Android, web and a desktop app. Once we had those platforms in February of 2021 we opened up the beta so anyone could sign up. A month or so after that we raised the seed round.
Most of 2021 was iterating on the product, building some of the screen sharing features and the robustness of channels. In October 2021 we did the big launch, but it wasn’t until October that we started to realize that team collaboration may not be our winning use case.
Tell me more about that. How did you recognize that team collaboration wasn’t the best use case? It can be hard to spot that sometimes when top-line growth is still growing. Was there a better use case that had emerged or did you have to go looking?
JL: I've built several companies now, so I've been able to see and know false growth when I see it. In the beginning you have to pay attention to two things: activation and retention. Don’t forget about retention.
At Volley, we had false positives because there was no shortage of people who wanted to try Volley with their teams. There's no shortage of future thinkers who are like, “they've done it. This is the future. Cancel the Slack subscription”. People literally told us they just downloaded Volley, dropped the link in Slack and then canceled meetings to start using Volley.
But the stack of situations and conditions that had to be right in order to get a team to adopt Volley consistently was really, really tall. Meaning, to replace Slack, Volley has to be your daily driver. So number one, everyone on the team has to be down with recording videos of themselves to communicate, rather than type messages into Slack. That's a big hurdle because most of the world has never, ever recorded a video of themselves. Especially to communicate in a high risk environment at work. Your company culture has to be right. It's got to be okay to put yourself out there. It's got to be okay to say things that are unsafe. It's got to be okay to mumble your words. When there's a camera on suddenly people put pressure on themselves.
So we had thousands of teams adopt Volley, but only hundreds stuck. Knowing from my past with Qzzr and with Bloomfire, those aren't good numbers. Those unit economics will not work. You need much higher reproducibility than, let's say 10%. So while we were iterating with teams and we saw all these shark fins of adoption we kept iterating on the product to improve retention. We tried better onboarding, we tried integrations, we tried a number of things and we began to realize, there's no amount of features that will solve our retention problem. We can’t feature our way out of this one.
We realized there's some cultural or foundational issues and expectations in the workplace about how we communicate that we're not going to be able to change with our amount of funding and influence at this point.
Around that time, though, we started to see creators and coaches and consultants and thought leaders and trainers picking up Volley and launching it for their masterminds, their coaching groups, their boot camps, their accelerator, their fitness challenge there. It was like not 100%, but way more reproducible than the team use case. And it was so clear that we couldn't ignore it. They quickly became the top spaces. All of our top ten lists got crowded out by people you've never heard of, and then you look them up and, oh, I guess this is a dog trainer out of Tulsa. Whoa. Who knew she had such a following.
Then we started to get to know our users. And some of the top thought leaders and creators in the world now are using Volley to build their group programs, their coaching programs, as well as do their individual group, individual consulting and individual coaching. And so that's the end of last year. We started to see that trend. And then at the beginning of this year, we really started to lean in that direction and build what these folks were needing or wanting or looking for, because there's really an opportunity here because nothing really does this.
Interesting, so it was both realizing that your retention rate was poor and seeing a new use case emerge naturally. What happened as you adjusted your product focus to this new use case?
That's great. There’s definitely a trend of people becoming creators and monetizing their expertise. Going back to the high switching cost of teams that you mentioned. When you first introduced Volley did you know it was going to be hard to get people to switch from Slack to Volley or did you not realize how hard that would be?
JL: I knew from the beginning that people had an aversion to being on camera recording a video of themselves. I grew up with a video camera in my hand and I’ve made lots of videos of myself. So I'm super comfortable recording a video of myself, but most people aren't. And most people, I'd say 90% of our users, when they come into the app, there’s a practice or welcome conversation started from our team called Hello Volley. It prompts the user to record their first Volley and for many of them it’s the first video they’ve ever recorded of themselves in their life and it freaks them out. That was something that we kind of knew about early, but didn’t really realize the extent of.
What I didn't know is how hard it would be to unseat Slack as a daily driver. Most people would adopt Volley and they would say, okay, we're going to still use Slack and then we're going to use Volley when we want to. Almost like it was this hobby car that you set in the garage that you got out once a month and you drove around the block. But then every time you get in the car, you're like, why don't we use this more often? But we realized for a team to really adopt Volley, for Volley to solve the problems that you want it to solve (lack of communication, loneliness, meeting fatigue, the top three problems of remote work), it has to be your daily driver. There's no other way.
We tried to lead that charge and built Meetless.org. We talked about how you have to burn the ships and you've got to go all in on Volley. But only a few teams were able to go there, especially established teams. We were able to get startups and side hustles to go all in on Volley. But, to break through into the mainstream of the workforce that was already established. It was just really hard.
Yeah. That makes sense. Now that you’re focused on creators/coaches, what have you found to be the most effective acquisition strategy to drive growth?
JL: Well, that's a beauty. They already have the audience. And so really all we need to do is acquire creators and coaches. And the other beauty is there's a really high referral rate of creators and coaches. They're all trying to figure out how to do this thing. That's still a new thing, how to build a business out of, you know, your thoughts and ideas and your mind and your voice, right? And they're all watching each other and what each other is doing. And so it's really hard to be using Volley for your group program or for your consulting offers and not let that be seen. So because of the high referral rate and because the built in audience, Volley seemed to spread well within those spaces organically.
We've tried some paid acquisition strategies, some content, some email outreach. They just can't outrun what we're doing organically. We're growing anywhere from 2 to 5% a week organically at this point. It's a runaway train. We couldn't even stop and we're just leaning in behind that, and building more and more of the things that those creators need.
We really feel that enabling monetization within the app is a huge game changer because previously they had to cobble together like five or six tools. With our new Consult feature they can easily monetize their expertise because we’ve combined sales, billing, and fulfillment all in one platform. All they have to do is connect a Stripe account, set their price, customize their sales page, and they've got a “group program” or “membership program” in a box.
[editor’s note: To see this Consult feature in action, take a look at Josh’s Consult with Me page.]
That's really cool. Let's talk more about the future now. Where do you expect Volley to be a year from now?
JL: Yeah. I expect Volley to be the fastest way to monetize your expertise. Build your expertise business on Volley. Catering to thought leaders, speakers, consultants, trainers and to position that against the existing alternatives because what do these folks have? A creator or a coach or consultant can create content or courses but they don't pay. You can coach or consult, but that doesn't scale. So what do you do? We have an interesting alternative that allows you to not spend three months building a course, but to create a mastermind, to create a coaching group, create an accelerator, to create a group program that you can charge a lot more from a course because people are willing to pay for transformation.
Transformation requires a guide, but that's been really hard to do synchronously, to get everyone together on a zoom and to cater to their needs. And what we're finding is our creators and our consultants, they're only able to help or coach 20, 30, 40 people at a time because there's only so much time you can divide in a Zoom meeting to help everyone get what they need. There's only so much you can chat it up in a discord without having to explain. So Volley breaks that open where you can scale this group coaching.
One of our top users, Tim Schmoyer, he’s the number one YouTube strategist, a big thought leader in the YouTube space. We've published some case studies where he's been able to 5x his group coaching revenue, which means he's serving five times the number of people. He told me last week that he's been able to move that to 10x now. Each of his strategists are currently working with 200 clients and that there's some pretty good ROI in there for something like that. That’s the type of thing we see - ushering in the future of education because largely online education right now is just content. And content is not education. We're bringing the conversation piece to that. The entire feedback loop of discussing, demonstrating, and receiving feedback on the things that we're learning. Content has to be part of the mix, but it's not the end.
That's impressive growth for Tim. I like how you are focused on helping these experts scale the meaningful connections they can have with their audience or customers.
What has been the most challenging part of the past year since your public launch on Product Hunt?
JL: I would say the most challenging part was actually just the tech bubble bursting. All of a sudden what we're doing, running the free messaging app playbook (that Discord and WhatsApp and all the others have run), became very uninteresting to prospective investors. We’ve had to quickly figure out a monetization strategy.
Our path to revenue was challenging because we were really focused on acquisition and adoption and we really hadn’t planned to focus on monetization for a couple more years. But because of the changing market conditions for fundraising we had to quickly shift our focus to be on monetization. But, now that we have, I think we found a maybe even more exciting path for us. So it was challenging and we've gotten through it and I see brighter skies ahead.
It sounds like your product will become even more valuable for the creators as it helps them earn money. That's a great place to be.
Let's jump into the rapid fire questions. Short, less than a minute answers.
What do you know now that you wish you'd known a year ago?
JL: Sell the Bitcoin.
Haha, fair enough. What do you know about Volley that you wish you'd known a year ago?
JL: That you can't expect consumers to be creators. It's not going to happen. We just did a whole UI refactor and changed the entire experience from a horizontal timeline to kind of a vertical and more of a scroll feel. And our week one retention jumped 33% the day that we launched it because it was kind of built for creator to creator and it was like taking the creator out and introducing a consumption experience. It's now more of an Instagram real sort of feel to it, but people know what to do with that. There's not a camera in their face pressuring them to hit the record button at the bottom of the screen.
What book do you recommend the most and why?
JL: Given your audience, The Cold Start Problem by Andrew Chen is what I have recommended the most over the last year. Also Hacking Growth.
What are you most proud of from the past year?
JL: This team! The amount of product that we're putting through the hoop on a weekly basis. I've never seen another team be as productive as we are. Pound for pound. Like we only have seven engineers building on three platforms and we are flying. So this team for sure, is what I’m most proud of.
That's great. Final question for you. What advice do you have to an entrepreneur who's thinking about starting a company in 2022 now in this new challenging climate?
JL: Focus on revenue, baby. If you've got an idea for a free marketplace thing, that's cool. But I don't know that the next 12 months is the time to build that or to get that funded. But if you can figure out a quick path for revenue, that should be your top priority.
That’s great advice. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Josh!
JL: Thanks for having me. You are fighting the good fight and helping everyone learn and share knowledge, which is what I'm all about.
I hope you enjoyed my interview with Josh and learned a few things. If you did forward it to a friend or share on Twitter. This helps more people discover my newsletter 😊