Designer, founder and journalist, William Channer has +10 years experience enabling and inspiring startups through apps, books and podcasts on advertising, business, design and technology.
How and why did you start Dorm Room Tycoons (DRT)? My co-founder and I started DRT while in university in order to get my hands on information we normally couldn’t find in text books and in class – hence the name Dorm Room Tycoons. We started by following and reading popular blogs such as Ryan Singer at Basecamp and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, but after a while we thought “Instead of just reading these blogs, why don’t we actually interview the guys behind them: speak to them first hand and see what they have to share?”
But rather than asking your typical ‘generalist-generalist’ questions you see quite often, I asked questions that myself and, I assume, a lot of people specifically wanted to know more about.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In my interview, Hervé Godard of Blake Magazine likewise suggests meeting the owner(s) and the people in charge as often as possible because often times there’s an interesting story behind how the company or product came into existence. Perhaps two people who normally should never have crossed paths, but somehow did and it turned into the company they represent today.]
This is how I discovered advertising and was really inspired during my interview with John Hegarty, and decided that I wanted to work for somebody like him. So I used DRT to get my foot in the door and interview the top ad guys (Rory Sutherland, Dave Trott…) at the advertising agencies in London. I leveraged my interviews and was smart about it, and as a result of my interviews I did get a job as a copywriter for BBH London and creative for AKQA.
I’ve also written on technology for sites like The Guardian and Designmodo. My publications as a journalist established my credentials in the technology sector, which then gave me access to these thought leaders and innovators, and experience taught me ways of approaching them and getting them to sit down with me, answer my questions and honestly opening up to me. Once you’ve an interview with one big name, that further establishes your credibility and others are then more willing to make time for you.
It also comes down to the quality of the copy in your emails. Everybody wants something. I can invest hours researching and finding out exactly what the person I want to do an interview with wants, and then crafting the email the right way to cut through the thousands of interview requests they likely receive and get them to respond to mine. This all comes down to the quality of your copywriting.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The most thorough and well-written book I’ve read on copywriting so far is *Copywriting: Successful writing for design, advertising, and marketing by Mark Shaw.]
In the beginning, DRT was a weekly publication and required a ton of work. Nowadays I can’t post interviews on a regular calendar anymore because it’s quite difficult working around the schedules of such high-level and busy people and securing a big name every week. Additionally, I’m now juggling a few startups and apps myself:
- Panda is a free newsfeed dashboard for designers, developers, and entrepreneurs
- Podcast Gift is a weekly curation of the best podcasts in business, design, and technology
- Ways to Connect is a book I co-authored with Ryan Singer of Basecamp
So to summarize:
- Establish your credentials
- Get your foot in the door by contacting people who already know and trust you
- Perfect your mission, product/service, and quality of your copywriting
- Use the people you already know as a springboard to contacting more difficult to reach people who don’t yet know and trust you
- As you expand your network, be open to and actively seek out collaborative projects and business ventures that further establish your credentials and let you do what you enjoy doing
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In a presentation at UC Dublin, Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York dissects his personal step-by-step method for convincing complete strangers to not only let him photograph them, but also to open up and share deep personal insights into their lives:
Tell me more about how you designed the copy for your emails. It is really all about your approach and positioning. If you approach them as a fan, I think that generally turns them off. They may respond to you and thank you for following their work and emailing them, but they probably won’t take your request too seriously.
But if you come on the level with them and approach them objectively and professionally, like:
“Hey, I interview the world’s influential innovators in the _______ sector. I’ve interviewed a few of your peers, and I’m interested in what you have to say. What do you think?”
Then you’re much more likely to get a ‘yes, it would be a pleasure’ or at least a ‘Sounds interesting, tell me more about it.’
Your podcasts sound as though they are done in one take, no editing. How do you manage that behind-the-scenes so that both you and your interviewee sound so unrehearsed – lacking grammar errors, perfect clarity and flowing logic of thought…? That is all down to the editing in post-production. People want and expect a certain level of quality; therefore it’s very important for creating a useful high quality product that
- Your listeners want to continually follow, listen to and download
- The people you’re asking to interview trust and want to be a part of
On some of my interviews on skype I’ve even had to reschedule interviews so I could mail them one of my own personal mics so that the best quality recording possible. The content you’re putting out there is going to be there forever – as a signature of your credibility and competence, and also for the person you’re interviewing; and you want to get it right the first time.
Personally, I use Logic Pro – a software specifically designed for music. I’m more into seamless sound and fluidity that lets you cut out the ‘ums’ and ‘uhhs…’ and blanks in our conversation. Also, some interviewees record their answers on their iPhone headphones, where the sound quality isn’t that great and so I must boost certain sounds while suppressing other sounds. I’ve found that Logic Pro lets me add a little extra finish that listeners don’t realize while their listening and in the end creates a more well-rounded interview.
Why doesn’t DRT have a comments section? Most comments tend to be noise – they don’t really add anything to the quality of the initial content. When you’re sitting in front of someone really wise, you tend to prefer to shut up and listen to what they have to say. Therefore DRT is designed to have the attention fully focused on the person I’m interviewing.
How do you monetize DRT? When I started DRT, it wasn’t monetized. Today I do earn a little income though advertising while my podcasts continue to be free to listen to and download. I do this because I think this sort of information that is already readily available in some form or another and should be free. Charging for that information isn’t something I want to be known for. Even today, DRT has limited advertising on its site, and each podcast is sponsored by a company, but again the focus is on the person I’m interviewing.
Even today, DRT itself isn’t a significant source of income, nor is it meant to be. It is instead a way for me to find paying jobs and entrepreneurial projects with people. I am sometimes approached by brands and companies to do consulting work for them, but that isn’t my main focus right now.
That being said, if you’re providing specialized knowledge and solutions that is not easily found and readily available, and requires extensive research and a unique solution to each individual problem, then it’s understandable that you charge for it, and consumers would understand this and be willing to pay for it.
Have you found Ad Blocking software cuts into your revenue to the point where you’re working for free? Not yet.
After +108 interviews, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned? You have to have a name. People put a lot of emphasis on the product. Your product is important, but it is absolutely insane the amount of products that are created every day!
Therefore what’s more important than the quality of your product is the reputation and credentials of the person behind the product. Consumers will buy a product if they are convinced it will help them or make their lives easier, but consumers will also readily buy or invest in a product – sight unseen – simply because a person they know, trust and respect created it or is publically investing in it.
Consider for example the Paypal mafia – The group of guys who co-founded Paypal and then went on to use their name and reputation to start and utterly dominate many other industries. They created a network exosystem for themselves. Now when these guys speak, people listen.
What are a few of your favorite advertising campaigns?
I have a small advertising budget, any advice?
1. How does your target demographic want content to be available to them? In a printable pdf document? A blog post? A podcast? Or do they want the option of all three? Create your content and then transfer it into the format that your target audience wants.
2. Self-publishing on Amazon is almost as easy as launching a blog, plus you have Amazon’s algorithm and sheer visitor volume working for you. You might not get rich on it, but it’s one way of earning money and a great way of gaining exposure and building credibility for future projects.
3. Invest in networking and creating a high-quality social ecosystem. Get on a plane and go to San Francisco – or wherever the financially backed and well-connected industry leaders and innovators are. But don’t just go, organize your trip dates, then spend the next few months emailing and packing your schedule so full of meetings that by the time your plane lands at the airport you’re already 15 minutes late to your first meeting, and then EVERY meeting after that!
Apply to Y combinator, a site that provides seed funding for promising startups. If you can become y-combinator alumni, you’re well on your way to building your reputation and network.
I’m a startup, what are your top 4 DRT interviews I must listen to?
- Patrick Collison of Stripe on what makes Silicon Valley special
- David Karp of tumblr on the importance of startup mentorship
- Sam Altman of Y-combinator on funding the next visionaries
- Jason Fried of 37Signals on why copy is more important than design