Today we announced our Series B funding at Breather. We have successfully raised a 20 million dollar round, and over the past two years raised close to 30 million. This round was lead by Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures with Participation by RRE, SOS Ventures and Slow Ventures.
It’s 7:45 am and I’m sitting in our HQ in Montreal watching the press roll in. I can’t help but feel a huge sense of gratitude towards our customers, the people who use our product every day to help grow their business, brainstorm or to just take some time out from a hectic world.
It’s been over two years since I joined Breather. My employee number is 000002. In the beginning, there was a shoebox office within a law firm, a crazy idea, a half baked app with barely any functionality, no locations and a sense of
“what did I get myself into?”
I had left a cushy job, stability and a near stressless life to help build Breather. It wasn’t for the money. I took a big pay-cut, lost all my benefits for a position in a company with 1 year worth of cash in the bank. I left because I believed in Julien, Cat and their idea. It was crazy, yet unbelievably obvious.
We spent the past two years building a world class team, product and most importantly culture. We could not have done this without the amazing team members and customers who believed just as much as the founders and first employees.
I’ve gotten comments such as “you’re rich!” or “You’ve made it!”.
It’s not true. In fact, this feels more like the beginning.
I don’t generally write a blog post surrounding articles about Breather, but this one is a little different.
Invision did an interview with the Product team at Breather. The lens they chose was Design.
Design is something we care deeply about, not just the product team and designers, but everyone from the engineers to customer service reps. We live and breathe design on a day to day basis at Breather. I am not a designer, my wife is, my coworkers are. What I need to be is someone who empathizes with designers.
Design and experience are the two elements that distinguish us from the competition. Whether that be direct competition, your office, a coffee shop or the library. Your mood can be directly affected by the environment you work in. How you feel will have an impact on your work. At Breather we try our best to ensure that whatever state you enter our rooms in; whether you’re upset, cranky, just plain burnt out; that we offer you the best experience possible.
People ask me quite a bit, how did you end up here, at such a cool company? Why is Breather successful? The answer is actually really simple. There’s no “top 10 ways to ensure you reach product market fit”, “learn to lead in 3 easy steps” or some mystical strategy shrouded in secrecy. These days people are looking for snackable advice or an easy way to succeed. The advice I can offer based on my experience is two fold.
Focus on two things to build a great product.
Find people who truly give a shit about what you are building.
Build it better than anyone else.
This is what we strive to do at Breather. I am never satisfied with our product. The day I am, is the day I leave. We strive for perfection and we use design as the medium.
I couldn’t be more proud of of my teammates. This isn’t a solo effort. This company, our design and our ethos is the culmination of a group of likeminded and somewhat crazy individuals who take great pride in what we do.
Here’s the original article if you’re interested.
Special thanks to Ricardo Cellere for the bad ass pic of the product team.
Elation, anxiety and panic; rinse repeat. This is the feeling of being in a startup or any new business. Paul Graham mentions this in what he calls the Startup Curve. Two years into Breather I still suffer from the these symptoms, they come and go.
Contrary to popular belief, raising funding and getting money in the bank can be equally as stressful as running out, but slightly different. Not only has someone trusted you, but they’ve trusted you on a level you’ve likely never experienced before. Realistically, how many ideas get funded? Then, how many ideas get millions of dollars? If you’re not worried, you should be. I believe that anxiety and stress are good for you…in proper doses. If you find yourself thinking:
There’s so many trees, where the fuck is the forest?
You need to calm down, and turn that anxiety into focus.
This is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, it takes practice. I got really good at this in university. I had a near meltdown my first year due to a stats and micro economics course. Looking back, it was just plain stupid how bottled up and stressed I was. After assessing the gravity of the situation, I was able to harness that anxiety and make a decision that I would never let anything else mess with me like that again. How?
Panic…yep, panic. Lose your shit, privately, or with someone you trust and love, but don’t take your anger out on them, it’s not their fault, (sorry mom and dad). Treat this panic as catharsis. You’d be surprised how good you feel after a venting session. Everyone has their way. Step back for a few days, take a weekend trip or do something you love. The most important thing to remember is:
Don’t make decisions in this state. It will likely be rash, potentially embarrassing and just plain stupid.
Start to think about solutions. Write them down. Seeing something on a piece of paper is sobering. After you’ve written your items down, get some input. If you’re the CEO or PM, ask your reports. You should have a relationship whereby you feel comfortable sharing with them. Those who work in product management or startups in general, know that you will field tons of request from users, your boss, other departments and investors; just to name a few. What’s important to note here, is know what sets you off. This takes discipline on your part, no matter what your role in the company is.
Time to execute. Sometimes your team will be on-board and sometimes they won’t, but asking the proper questions can help navigate these waters. Find out why they’re not onboard and try to address those issues directly. Make sure your plan for execution is digestible and measurable. You want to think about execution as
Small steps towards a big goal.
Does this aways work right away? No, but after some time you’ll to move towards clarity by learning how to assess anxiety inducing issues.
Sometimes you’re sitting across from someone asking yourself, “did they really just say that”?
“wow, these people really give a shit.”
Who’s on the team, what market are we trying to serve, what’s the history of the company, what’s our culture who are our competitors?
2. Use the Product: I can’t emphasize this enough.
You don’t have to be a habitual user, but try it, at least once. Tell me what you liked and what you didn’t like. Where and how did you get stuck? Don’t blow smoke up my ass. Be honest and thorough.
At Breather we don’t hire tyrants or lemmings. We hire independent, creative, intelligent and driven individuals. I’m willing to be proven wrong, are you? If not, best look elsewhere.
Building a product is about creating value and delivering consistency. If those two falter, you need to rectify the situation and this is done with killer customer service.
If you deliver value and consistency to your users and fix any issues with killer customer service, your brand can flourish.
Three weeks ago I received some awesome news, I was nominated for a Notable Award. First reaction, epic! There was one small problem, I had no idea what a Notable Award was. I did some research and it turns out it’s an award given to young Canadian professionals who exhibit a series of qualities ranging from team building, entrepreneurship and volunteerism.
Fast forward to two weeks ago, I received an email from the Notable team saying I was a finalist. Holy shit, a finalist! In a short amount of time I went from not knowing about Notable to being a finalist among hundreds of other nominees. It felt incredible to be recognized for my work, especially since it came from my peers. Last week I went to the ceremony, I sat with my wife Sarah, and I felt great! I had this thing on lockdown, I knew I was going to win…or so I thought.
I lost and I immediately felt my ego bruise.
Therein lies the issue that many of us struggle with; ego. We are all egocentric creatures whether we like to admit it or not. The sooner you admit it, the better you’ll be able to handle yourself in situations where bad news presents itself.
I try my best to not be an egotistic person, but, like most people, I slip up sometimes. When leading a team it’s important to ensure that you are acting on behalf of the best interests of the company you’re trying to build, not your own motives. Execs and leaders should always be acutely aware of their own ego. The best idea should always win, not the person with the loudest opinion or the most senior team member.
When something doesn’t go your way, or you mess up on what you think is an important life test; stop and take stock of what’s important. Focus on the present moment and analyze what’s making you feel this way. Steve Schlafman, Breather’s lead investor from RRE recommended a book to me right before I left on my honeymoon; The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. There was one quote that stood out, and it’s something I look back to when I’m stressed, anxious or aggravated.
“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.”
Accept what has happened, learn from it and move on. Failure is uncomfortable and it’s supposed to be. The ability to bounce back can only be done by being uncomfortably honest with yourself. Whether it’s getting a less than desirable score on the GMAT, and thinking your life is over (which I did btw) or not winning an award. Look at what went wrong, and figure out why. Ask yourself, “is this something I want to attempt again? Can I learn from this and apply the lessons to other aspects of my life?”
In the case of the GMAT, not going to business school was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Instead of learning about marketing and technology in a text book, I took the challenge of building a mobile department from scratch and ended up with a 5 million dollar a month product and 20 million visits a day. This was the job that launched my career, and a learning experience that could not have been provided by a school.
Sometimes opportunity can be born out of failure, but only if you’re willing to acknowledge what went wrong and learn from it.
Giving up, sulking, blaming others for your failure won’t work, it’s just a a band-aid for your ego.
Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at Startup Grind Ottawa. I’ve learnt quite a bit about Ottawa over the past few months. Up until February of this year I was ignorantly unaware of the awesome talent that lies around 200 KM outside of Montreal. I met the guys over at Tattoo Hero and fell in love with their product, we clicked, and now I advise them. Brandon from TH intro’d me to Jon Milne from Invest Ottawa who asked me to speak at Accelerate OTT. At Accelerate I met more people in the vibrant startup community. Don’t take it the wrong way, I’m not name dropping, rather I’m blown away at how nice and intelligent all of the people I’ve met are. A city generally known for parliament and government jobs has planted a new flag. Ottawa clearly has a killer tech scene with companies like Shopify, TattooHero and GymTrack.
That being said, our team at Breather knew we wanted to not only support the startup community in Ottawa, but be a part of it! We’ve just launched two Breather locations and a third is quickly on its way. You can check out our ByWard Market location on George Street and Metcalfe on Metcalfe Street.
If you’re interested, here’s my talk with Franco Varriano from Startup Grind Ottawa. I spoke about Breather, best practices for building product, the sharing economy and how to turn your data into revenue.
Many of the product managers I’ve met are restless characters who are always busy iterating, building product and keeping the team on track. This is the way it’s supposed to be done, small incremental change, pushing toward a goal of optimizing your funnel and driving more revenue. There’s a bit of a dark side though, and it often comes in the form of feature bloat. I’ve spoken about this issue quite a bit, and the purpose of this post is to give a few simple tips on the warning signs that you’re on the path to bloat. Feature bloat usually ends up rearing it’s ugly head because of ego, and most commonly can fall into the following three categories.
Politics: This is one of the areas management needs to be fully on top of and do everything to prevent. Office politics are not only distracting, but also cause emotional distress for employees.
Office politics are a slow debilitating cancer that can destroy a product.
A PM, CEO, CTO or CMO can request a feature just for the sake of having their finger prints on the product. “I made an impact!” Good for you, you just took a huge crap on the product, want a medal? I have personally fallen victim to this while working in the adult space. Upper management thought they had a good idea, they wanted full community integration into one of the sites. This took countless hours of planning, API and design work. In the end, only 1% of the user base used it! We could have been working on areas of the product that would have made the experience better for a larger subset of users and drove more revenue. Instead, we spent 6 months and countless man hours to implement something that was “cool”, but drove zero revenue, and had little product impact. Lesson learned.
Lack of testing:
Why the hell would you spend hours developing a complicated feature when it could be tested in a simplified form?
I’ve said it time and time again, don’t bake something into your product unless you are near certain it will work. You’ll never be 100% sure, but trying to prove your hypothesis with a few tests is a great way to prove your point. There’s no shame in testing, there’s only insight to be gained. We are huge proponents of this at Breather.
There is nothing worse than deploying a new feature and then having to remove it.
It’s completely unprofessional, disrupts user experience and can cause customers to quickly lose faith in your product. Here’s an example:
Suppose you want to know whether or not a new feature would be useful to your user base, how do you find out? The answer is quite simple, ASK THEM! You probably have a long email list and some data on how active those users are. Take your most active, least active and average users and email them. Use a service like Intercom to do so. Put together several questions on the feature you’re planning on building and ask whether or not it will help them. Also, offer them some form of reward for their opinion. In our case, we offered Amazon gift cards. Is this perfect? No, but it will give you some valuable insight into how your users think, and it’s low effort.
Boredom: This one is usually management’s fault as well. If your employees are bored and un-motivated, they won’t put the effort into testing, and you’ll end up with people doing useless busy work that’s bloating your product.
Make sure you are engaging your team and empowering them to make good decisions. If you don’t, your product will suffer, morale goes down, and it’s a self perpetuating cycle that’s hard to break.
Management needs to constantly get their hands dirty and be present!
There’s no silver bullet to prevent politics, lack of testing and boredom, but I have outlined some ways that management and employees can see the signs and hopefully curb the damage. At the end of the day, if you don’t fix it, the company, and you will suffer. Plain and Simple.
Over the past few years there’s been a movement surrounding programming education. There are tons of startups that have emerged in the “learn how to code” space. I am generally an optimist, but I‘ve taken quite a cynical approach to this. Many learn to code sites have come out and proclaimed “everyone should learn how to code.” Think about that, should everyone learn how to code?
Should everyone know how to make their own clothes? Should everyone know how to hunt? Of course not!
The proper answer is, everyone should be afforded the opportunity to an education, not just blindly told to code. One of my few passions is technology, and how technology becomes the fabric that ties us together. This is one of the reasons why I work at a startup.
Just over a year ago I joined Breather. I had come off a very successful 4 year stint in the adult industry. I managed around 20-25 programmers, 5 QA’s, a bunch of analyst and a few PM’s, but I couldn’t code. Was that such an issue? At the time I didn’t think so. I was able to get engineers to work together, I had their respect, I could describe the features I wanted built, I was able to forecast timelines properly, but, I was never able to fully understand how engineers built software.
Before I dive into the nitty gritty, understand that finishing a course like Codecademy does not make you a programmer. Over the past year I’ve learned the basics of the following languages: HTML, CSS, Java Script, jQuery, Ruby, PHP and currently, Objective C. Most of the programming courses out there will give you a working knowledge of these languages, by no means will you be an expert. Every now and again I get a tad too confident in my programming knowledge and I say something stupid, thinking I understand a topic. Fortunately, our engineering team is really cool, and rather than make me feel like an idiot, they help me understand what’s going on. I’m better at building product because of it. So, why bother to learn to code?
Communication with Developers:
I hear it far too often, PM’s say something to the effect, “just get it done,” without knowing what “it” is. As a PM you’re constantly working with engineers, I’m not saying it’s impossible to get their respect without learning to program, as pointed out by the example directly above, but you’ll be at an advantage. You can effectively add to the development conversation and speak their language. You can follow up throughout the dev process and understand what’s done, and what’s left to be done. Not only that, but if your CEO asks you “why isn’t this done yet?” You can offer a more confident response and not just blame it on engineering.
Quality and Iteration:
Shipping product is a major part of a PM’s job. Wether the product is consumer or business facing, you need to be able to iterate and continuously move the product forward. It is not an engineers job to tell you what feature should be next, it’s yours. If you have a working knowledge of programming, you’ll understand what steps are necessary to build the feature properly. By having all the facts you can make decisions on what features should go out first. Not only that, you can aid in the QA process and ensure the product is functioning the way it was intended to.
Fixing the Small Stuff:
Working in a startup is all about being agile and working outside of your comfort zone. I’ve been working in technology for 1/3rd of my life, and by no means am I even close to knowing everything that’s out there. Everyday at Breather I try to learn something new. Your programmers are busy and might not have time to make a small change to your website, an email newsletter or FAQ’s. By learning the basics of programming, you can aid in these day to day tasks. I have been able to make changes a few times, it’s generally a last resort as I am always worried about breaking something, but the important thing is I’m getting better every day.
The gist of it is, you can be a good PM without a working knowledge of programming, but you can be a killer PM, and have an advantage if you take the time to learn.
Making a sale is great, right? Of course it is! There’s nothing more exhilarating than seeing a product you helped build, come to life. Many businesses, particularly startups fail because they fail to generate sales, don’t look at how they made a sale, or worse, their focus is solely sales, without looking at cost of acquisition. Fortunately there are ways to mitigate risk and to ensure that your entire team is focused on the key metrics that will help you succeed. As an advisor and someone who has helped build small and large businesses, I have come to learn that if you only focus on the last part of the puzzle, you’ll likely fail.
That being said, how do you create a culture that’s data driven and focused on the right KPI’s? There are plenty of awesome articles out there on this topic, namely Pirate Metrics by Dave McClure. The point of this post is to discuss culture rather than the actual application of these metrics, I’ll save application for another time. Here are a few tips to ensure your team is on-board.
Purpose: Not all data is created equally. You’ll lose your mind trying to track absolutely everything your users are doing. You’ll likely read too much into things and get distracted. Focus on the key items. When I talk with startups about tracking user behavior, I usually force them to focus on the funnel before anything else. Track the funnel that relates to the one important metric your company is concerned about, and optimize that before you do anything else.
Accountability: You’ve got people working for you, but how can someone be truly accountable if you don’t have concrete evidence that something they did works? Each person that works for you needs to own some portion of the metrics. A prime example is email marketing. Your marketer should be accountable to open rates, click rates, shares. Your job as a business owner, CEO or manager is to set goals and ensure that decisions are being made based on data.
Transparency: This is by far the most important of all the points. If you are cagey about your data with team members, they won’t trust you. At the rate startups fail, you can’t afford to not be transparent with your metrics. I’m not saying that all data should be shared, but data surrounding your KPI’s should be. If everyone in your company is focused on a few key metrics and knows how their role can bring the numbers up, you’ll have a much more engaged staff. This is easy to do.
At Breather we have a company dashboard that has our KPI’s. This dashboard is always up and running on a screen in our office. You can’t avoid it! If you walk to the kitchen, bathroom or to a meeting, it’s there, staring you right in the face.
It’s one of the tools we use in decision making and it’s always top of mind. There’s one caveat though, this only works if step 2, accountability is adhered to. There needs to be consequence and reward for actions. If the team collectively hits the numbers, we grab drinks on Thursday, if we don’t, we discuss why and take steps to rectify.
There’s one very important thing to remember throughout all of this. Once you start implementing a data driven culture with purpose, accountability and transparency; you need to be able to prevent decision paralysis. This is when you refuse to make changes due to the fact that you don’t have enough data or you’re scared that the change you’ll make will hurt the numbers, and you’ll look bad. You need to keep you’re team thinking creatively and know that even though they’re accountable to the numbers, they still need to stay creative, take risks and try new things.
At Breather we always say, ask for forgiveness, not permission.
May 24th, 2013 started off like any other day. I got up, walked Milah, hit the gym, said goodbye to Sarah and drove to work. The afternoon rolled around and someone called in a bomb threat at Manwin. My programmers and I had just pushed a new feature that would impact a lot of people, and it needed live testing. I was totally stressed out and waiting in the parking lot for 45 minutes to be let back in the office. I don’t think they ever figured out who called in the bomb threat, but it was probably just some dude who really didn’t like the porn industry…go figure. What’s important here is the text message I got from my buddy Julien Smith during the event.
Julien and I met through a mutual friend, Greg Isenberg, a few years back. Julien was really interested in my adult-industry background, and the large volume of users I dealt with on a daily basis. Now, during this parking lot episode, in usual Julien fashion, the text I got was vague: “I wanna ask you something” or “ I wanna know if what you can do for Manwin, you can do for me?” Little did I know that this text message changed the course of my career and how I envisioned success.
I was 28 with an awesome job. I traveled the world, made great money, had over 40 people working for me and impacted the lives of 20 million people a day running Pornhub and Youporn mobile. I accomplished more before 30 than many people get to do in their entire career. Did I really need more? The answer was “hell yes,” but not for the reasons you might think. Working at one of the largest adult companies in the world had its drawbacks. It was one of the most treacherous political landscapes I had ever seen. I was tired of arguing and spending most of my day fighting battles. I truly enjoyed my team and the challenge but the fun was no longer there.
I did what I had to do. I helped build a department from nothing and execute a strategy that made Manwin millions of dollars per month.
When Julien told me about the idea for Breather I remember saying to him “this is crazy, it’s either going to work really well or implode, there won’t be a middle ground here.” I had been working with big brands like the NFL, NHL and Family Guy before I worked at Manwin; and at Manwin I was selling sex. These were somewhat established companies with some infrastructure. I had never built anything from scratch before, and considered myself a risk-averse person, a little too nervous to start my own company.
Breather was a crazy idea with some funding and a website. This was my way to prove to myself that I could help build something from the idea phase and shed my risk-averse nature.
Fortunately my instincts about taking the gig were right. The past year has been pure insanity. In under 9 months we’ve built a full iOS and Android/web booking interface, we have over 15 locations in 2 countries, 3 cities and more than 10 employees.
The bottom line is if you like routine, job security, a 9-5 schedule and an expense account, a startup isn’t for you and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
If you’re comfortable with a 24 hour neurotic feeling of not knowing where you’ll be in 3-6 months from now, and a schedule where you’re always on…then jump in head first. That may sound genuinely terrible, and it can be, unless the idea works. The feeling of building something from the ground up and having people tell you how your product “helps them” and how they “love it” is one of the most rewarding feelings I have ever felt.
Does the title sounds hyperbolic? Maybe, but think about it. When was the last time something turned out exactly the way you wanted? You’ve got best laid plans but something comes along and gives your plan a little shove and you’re on another path, whether that path is good or bad is up to you to decide. Last week I posted about my experience at AccelerateOTT, here’s the follow up video where I discuss how all the different roles in my career that have helped me become better at building product. Whether it was my time at Airborne, my time building Pornhub and Youporn mobile (don’t expect a link!) Or my current role at Breather. All these experiences helped me hone my product development style.
Where you start isn’t where you’re going to end, and as someone who’s been building product day in and out I’ve come to realize that products, like people, need change and evolution. Users can’t handle products that are bloated with a bunch of different and unnecessary features…but why? The answer is actually simple: feeling overwhelmed. You have a few seconds to sell your product to a user. They’ll download your app and if your signup process is difficult, if your UI isn’t intuitive, you will lose that user – plain and simple. So, how should your product evolve? What features are necessary? That all depends on what you’re building, but I’ll share the method we employ at Breather.
Before you start building, figure out the one metric that’s important to your business and every feature you bake into your product should be focused on growing that metric.
Now, when you and your team are planning, before you say “oh we need this feature!” Think about it, do you really? Do you need another image filter, a fancy carousel or a notification for every event in your app? Probably not. Look at “Yo” and “Secret.” You can’t do too much in these apps. You can send a “Yo” or share a “Secret” with a cool background image. That’s it. It’s easy to understand, dumbed down and straight to the point.
At Breather our goal is to get people into our spaces. Our ethos while building product is:
How do we reduce friction and make it easier to get people into our spaces?
Every feature we develop and build into the product is based on this! It comes up all the time and is the lens for making decisions. There are a million different ways to think about this, but the KISS Principle is my fav.
That’s it! Until next time – keep it simple, stupid!
This is my 10th year in the mobile industry and I’ve been fortunate enough to see this space go from ringtones and video, to being included in some of the everyday things we do; like, unlocking a door or ordering a cab. I have always wanted to share what I have learned during this time, but never knew if people were interested. So, a few days ago I decided to take an opportunity and find out. I was invited to Ottawa to speak on June 6th 2014 at AccelerateOTT. I was asked to talk about mobile, product development and my career in general. I have never been shy, but I was nervous about how the 350 people in the room would react, most of them in their mid forties. Would I make a fool of myself? Do people even care about minimum viable products and my experience? I got myself a little worked up, I didn’t even want to do a practice run with my co-workers and peers.
I was at dinner the night before with some speakers and I got some time to chat with Luc Levesque. For those of you who don’t know, Luc is a entrepreneur and VP of SEO at Trip Advisor. After having dinner and a great conversation about product and SEO with him and a few others, I got some confidence. Still, I didn’t sleep all that well.
I woke up groggy and nervous and made my way to the convention center. Right before I went on I was introduced by Brandon Waselnuk. He’s the CEO of a great startup that I advise, TattooHero. I stood up and did my thing. Like a flash, the 45 min talk was over and a bit of a blur. After it was done, I left the stage and a lot of people were asking for tips. “How to get their product out of the door?” “How do I hire good team members?” “How do I create a good company culture?” I answered as many questions as I could, but I was asked numerous times if I had a blog. There’s plenty of blogs about product development, but people seemed to like my laid back, simplified approach. So, that lead me here. I’m going to use my time here to share tidbits of knowledge about mobile, team management, product development, my time as Director of Mobile for Pornhub and Youporn as well as my current role of VP Mobile at Breather.
Check back soon!