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How a startup CEO used user research to grow his business, find product-market fit, and keep the focus on the user.
Loic Alix-Brown is the CEO of Flick, a SAAS solution to help entrepreneurs, content creators and small businesses find the best hashtags to reach their target audience on Instagram.
Erin: [00:00:33] Hello everybody and welcome back to Awkward Silences. Today we are here with Loic Alix Brown. He's the CEO and cofounder of flick among a couple of other portfolio companies that they're, they're running and they are a small scrappy team who have successfully gone from negative $40,000 to over 60 K in monthly recurring revenue in just a handful of months with just a handful of people.
So we're going to talk today about how user research, built to purpose for a small lean team trying to really learn as fast as possible can be a great growth lever So thank you so much for joining us.
Loic: [00:01:14] Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited to be on here and be able to share some of the experiences I've had over the last 12 to 18 months.
Erin: [00:01:22] Fantastic, and we got JH here too.
JH: [00:01:24] Yeah. I feel like I'm so much of the advice you get around user research is contextual and, um, I think like that small struggling team is a context that maybe doesn't get covered enough. So it should be cool to dig into.
Erin: [00:01:35] Yeah, absolutely. So how many companies go from right from seed funding or three people to the next stage? Not very many. And so user research can be such an important tool and really getting started at all
JH: [00:01:48] Yeah, And when you get to the next stage, like you kind of have the luxury of like having a little bit more breathing room. And so that's when people like publish, you know, how they do things and their practices, but they're at a different maturity And when you're in the early stages just trying to survive, it's usually harder to pull your head up and like, share what you're doing and stuff. So, I think you just don't get as many of those stories
Erin: [00:02:06] Yeah. So thanks for pulling your head up and spending some time with us.
Loic: [00:02:10] No worries. No
Erin: [00:02:11] Yeah. Yeah. I know you mentioned you're in the middle of a bunch of launches. What do you have going on right now?
Loic: [00:02:16] yeah. So, we, we have probably one of the biggest launches, to date on flick, coming up in the next few weeks. We, we've sort of been, actually beta testing it in over the last, three or four weeks. and basically, fix it was a search engine. and this is, bringing an analytical side to that.
And. and I'll use this to, sort of track that progress and sort of closing that loop where people can actually get to see the impact, that our search engine, and the results they get from that, give, to, their social media and more particularly in their Instagram accounts.
Erin: [00:02:46] Great, and yeah. Tell us, for those who haven't used, you do your like a search engine for hashtags for Instagram.
Loic: [00:02:53] That's correct. Yeah. So the idea is, just like, an SEO search engine optimization, you need to target the right keywords to reach your audience, and certain keywords are harder to rank on than others. Um it's the same for hashtags on Instagram. If you want to reach your audience and you need to use relevant hashtags, but you also need to use ones that aren't too competitive for the size of your account.
JH: [00:03:14] That's really clever.
Loic: [00:03:15] And so flick helps you basically find those, in a few minutes, um, for your different posts.
JH: [00:03:20] So, I was going to say, Erin kind of teased it, you know, at the start of the journey within flick, you guys were in debt ,trying to figure out how to make it work. Like where did you start? Like that feels like one of those things that's like probably an overwhelming situation to be in. How did, how did you determine like what you needed to learn or how to learn it and move forward?
Loic: [00:03:37] Yeah. So, at that time, I knew nothing about product management. I didn't know anything much about SasS. and, I was actually taking care of everything, around marketing, basically taking care of our client accounts. And, um prior to that, I had three or four years where I was growing Instagram accounts myself.
and, I gathered a bit of experience in sort of like insight into like the pains that you could get. w when doing that and that actually, one day, one of our clients, existing clients, asked us, you know, Oh, it'd be so cool if we could find hashtags really quickly in such. Pain to do. and, what will our CTO and myself, we looked at each other, and I was like, you know what?
That's something that a lot of people are going to want to do. and that was a complete hypothesis at the time. I knew I would have loved that tool when I was doing all this, Instagram stuff. but I had no idea whether other people would. and so, We actually, over the weekend built a prototype, where you would have to input code into that prototype for it to work.
So there was like, no, there wasn't actually like a, sort of front facing application you're putting code of and sort of this data visualization third party, tool would sort of show the data and I got on a few calls with people, that I knew in the space and they seem to validate, My hypothesis.
and then, two weeks later we launched a minimal, really minimal viable product. looked absolutely awful. You can barely do anything. and, we sort of never looked back from there. Yeah.
Erin: [00:05:05] I love that you, the first user test you did was with something without a UI at all. Tell us more, like how did you, people talk about MVPs a lot, right? So you're talking about a pre MVP or the, you know, the truly minimum, but how did you decide what was sort of sufficient for people to get it and to validate, okay, there's something here.
Loic: [00:05:27] Yes. So I think, I think at that time it was the first thing, when getting on these calls was mapping out, you know, the key questions and what we thought the value would be in the product. And to us it was. Could we demonstrate that this tool would save time? And can we demonstrate that this tool would show you suggestions that you can never think of?
and then obviously we had hypotheses around what other sort of nice to have would be cool to include. but when we first got on these calls, we wanted to do is, See whether or not. firstly those two pain points were big enough for everyone and whether, a slightly neater version of the pre MVP we were showing, we're going to solve that.
And it turns out that they did. And from then we decided, all right, let's, let's. Spend a week or two developing something that we can actually sell. and we, and we launched the MVP couple of weeks later, and we actually made people pay for it straight off the bat. it was very cheap, so it was 10 pounds a month or which is roughly $12.
Yeah, we just found one partner to promote it. One of the people I actually got on a call with who said, Oh, I really like this idea. I think my audience might really like it. And we got 200 users in our first month, and we sort of then started doing some more proper user testing, and I'm taking it all the way to 18 months later and what it is now.
JH: [00:06:46] That's awesome I really do I want to echo what Aaron said I love the fact that you started with the functional ugly prototype I think people always jump to design tools and what can we make and kind of mock up and make clickable but really like in what you all did right Is starting from what do we need to learn Okay we need to learn this What's the best cheapest way to learn it And in this case you know something that functioned sounded like a much better way to learn than something that looked great. And I think that just that stuff gets overlooked so often. So that's, um, that's really cool that you were able to find that approach.
what, what happened from there? Like now you actually have users. Did you mostly just talk to them or did you keep going out to other people for feedback?
Loic: [00:07:20] yeah, that, that, that was really interesting. From that point onwards when we started getting users, there was actually a period of two months where we were still an agency, and the agency wasn't going well. but, we sort of were like, okay, this is cool.
Let's see how many people actually stay. On this platform because, you know, it's a search engine. We don't know how sticky this sort of thing is, before we devote any more time to it. and obviously this isn't something that, you know, anyone else should do. This is just because we still have this other business running, and this was sort of like a, Side project within that business. and we actually let it run for, for a couple months. and, and people stayed, obviously not everyone, but, out of the 200 users, a few months later, we still had around 140, which for two week old MVP is pretty decent. and it was only then two months or three months later where we realize, you know what?
This has some longterm value that we said. Let's not do this agency anymore. Let's fully focus on building this out. And from that point on, what's really started, looking into how we can improve the product and getting on calls with users. to start with, we were, we had no brand. It was, we tried to reach out to people, not using the product.
but that was very hard. people weren't willing to give up a half hour of their time, 45 minutes of their time to go on a usability call or a user interview. but, instead, what we did is we found the people who loved. our product, and we focused on them to start with.
and we sort of asked them, you know, what is it about our product that you love? and we try to double down on those aspects. so, you know, initially people were like, wow, this is awesome. firstly, it's very quick. And the secondly, it's great to see all the stats. and I love the fact that we can filter, the results in this particular way.
And what we did then is the next iteration, big focus on making those even better. Until we got to the point where, we repeated this process, very often. so you'd get on a call, you'd figure out what a user really likes, then you'd go away. and the product managers and designer would work on it.
work on a potential mockups solution, go back to the user, run a usability test, and do that until, the usability was good enough. And then that would be sent over to the developers, , and built and that's how we ran for roughly, six months or so. Yeah.
At that point, yeah, we were releasing something to the users every, probably 10 days, something new would be in app. So it was really sprinting towards getting to a place where we were happy with the product.
Erin: [00:09:41] So how are you, it sounds like you, you're talking to your, your most active customers, is that right? Or yeah And how were you deciding what to build from the feedback they're giving you? Are you, is it largely, you know, new features that they say would be interesting or you're hearing, you know, the pains that are describing and coming up with features on your own or fixing usability issues or something else entirely?
How are you kind of deciding from those conversations what to do next?
Loic: [00:10:10] So this was still, obviously at the very beginning of our journey. And we had in mind our users were going to be these Instagram experts that needed a tool to really, make the, streamline their process, and make it easier for them. And with that in mind, we'd speak to these users and we were quite narrow-minded.
eh, and I slightly regret that. at the beginning of our journey we'd ask what's the most important thing? Okay, awesome. you want to save more time? And then we'd go back to the drawing board and then we'd think, okay, how can we save them even more time?
And what that did is, the improvements we made in those first six months were very narrow in the sense of the problems we were addressing. we felt like our product adjust those problems, to a good extent, but we wanted them to, to fully adjust those problems, which made us sort of ignore, all the signs that actually, a large number of our user base wasn't.
this, Instagram expert that needed more time, but we're actually brand new Instagram users. and we sort of found out the hard way, it was only when we sort of step back and we realize, Oh, our churn is not going down. why is this happening We started interviewing less active users and trying to get them on the phone, or people who've canceled and try and get them on the phone. And that was a massive switch, in, in the way we decided on what to build and sort of the direction of the company and the success
and speed at which we grew
JH: [00:11:32] And were you like primarily leaning on like with these qualitative conversations or were you also at this point as the business started to grow, layering up, laying in other tools, like, um, you know, event tracking or surveys or other kinds of quantitative analysis, or was it all like, let's just talk to people.
Loic: [00:11:48] So, um Going into building a product, not, not knowing anything about sort of product management or anything like that. the first thing I did is I read a ton of books around product management. So lean startup and, you know, every, every lean book there is, and, and obviously every single one of them, you know, says, obviously talk to customers, but there's also this, quantitative side of analyzing the data.
And what actually happened is, uh there were a few months where. We got obsessed with analyzing this data that we became quite slow in the way we developed. because we're startup, we've got maybe five, 600 users that and time to get statistical significance on anything takes absolutely ages.
And so what we actually decided to do, as a, as a company, is we do track data. We track data using amplitude. Since the very first day we actually launched the MVP. but we stopped relying on the data to make decisions, so instead we did heavily, rely on these quantitative interviews.
and to me, I feel like when you're first getting started, it's great to keep eye on the data to see if, you know, something's drastically changed. but having to have statistical significance for every decision you make, is just, it's going to slow you down, in iterating and getting to that product market fit.
versus trying to get on as many interviews with your customers as possible, especially if you're a startup, with, low amounts of, of customers.
Erin: [00:13:17] Yeah, absolutely. Going back to what you're saying. Before about this switched from talking to kind of your, I don't know how you looked at it in terms of, you know, your top sort of 10% of users or whatever, but going from that to casting a wider net in terms of your lower usage users. Tell me more about that and what that unlocked for you in terms of, you know, product discovery in terms of growth.
Loic: [00:14:21] Yeah, no, absolutely. So, at that point in time, I think we, we were sitting at around, 600 users or so. so our hypothesis was all of these users are, you know, they've come on to our tool, because, that on Instagram all the time. And. They just want to do this quicker. And that was the biggest mistake we've, we've, I think we've made, in terms of a wrong hypothesis.
it turns out that, around 80% of our users are actually people just getting started with Instagram. and so the way we found that out. two things. the first thing we did, is, we decided to, every time someone canceled, we'd send out an email, get and try and get them on a call, basically get as much feedback as possible, in a very manual way to start with, because we were looking for, qualitative feedback.
and then secondly, when, we started getting more traffic to our landing page, we switched up off sign up flow to try and get information there. And so when people sign up. They answer a few key questions, but it's allowed us, sort of to segment our users going forward.
so for example, we'd ask, you know, what's your experience level and Instagram, when you sign up. and that's also unlocked a lot of insight because, when we do look at analytics, we can segment them, based on that. And,
Erin: [00:15:31] Yeah I think it's an interesting, right? Because you know, the sort of conventional wisdom, right, is to, you know, you want to be looking at your best customers and serving them, and you can't serve everybody all the time, but you're finding that, well, actually there's this other.
You know, use case of a lot of our users. And are they at this stage, are they all paying that same, you know, 10 pounds a month? Or are your heavier users paying you more or how's that breakdown?
Loic: [00:15:57] yes. So, uh, the average revenue we get per user now is around 12 to 13 pounds a month. currently. so we went sort of three, three stages of pricing. We started off with just one plan, 10 pounds a month. That was our beta plan. and then. when we returned to the app a few months later, as I mentioned, we actually changed that and we had three plans.
One was 10 pounds, one was 15 pounds, and one was 30 pounds a month. and that worked well. People were signing up. There was no issue there. but, once we started collecting feedback on cancellations and speaking to users, you canceled. We quickly realized that, the people using, flick, weren't necessarily Instagram professionals who were making money off the platform yet.
or they weren't brands. They were these solo preneurs, these content creators. And through that insight, we realized, you know, these people aren't making a lot of money on Instagram, if any. And they can't justify, even if it saves them so much time, they can't justify. I'm spending, you know, 30 pounds a month on this tool.
and so we actually dropped our prices, So now we've got three plans once, five pounds a month. the next one is 10 pounds a month, and the top one is 14 pounds a month. we do have a plan for agencies, which is 60 pounds a month, but, not many people are on it.
I think maybe around 1% of our user base is on that plan. Uh, what we have
done though to, to counteract that is we've started to diversify our product line, and have bolt-ons and add ons and sort of things that people who are really getting the most out of our product and who are making money, can upgrade in app to sort of counter balance that, change in our base pricing plans.
Erin: [00:17:36] So the, um, the, that entry tier, that five-pound tier, those people that you realized were, um, largely not, you know, making money off Instagram and were more amateurs. and so what did you learn about them and how to provide for, for their use case that was different than what some of that earlier segment was looking for?
Loic: [00:17:54] Yes. So, so, the, the insight, around all this, and that particular plan, came in around September. so September, 2019, and, what we realized is because we've focused on making our product grateful experts, people who knew nothing about Instagram sort of got lost. I had no idea or struggled to understand the value of our product, but also, just the, the, the usability from the usability side.
it was just very hard to use for someone who's not very familiar with the terms that are on Instagram. and, what that led us to do is actually design a whole different set of tools, and sort of onboarding for these users. so from September onwards, one of our, actually one of our, OKRs was, to, Build and redesign the whole onboarding, and, add features where necessary, to make flip better for people who aren't Instagram experts. and to, basically get them to that activation, in an easier way. and to give you an example, one of the things that we built is, before then, when you searched, uh, you could only see, data in a table format when a graph format, which both are quite unintuitive if you're not very familiar with Instagram. now what we've done for, for users is we've tried to take it. uh, as much of a decision making process from a beginner as possible while leaving, adequate amounts of information for someone more advanced to sort of make their own decisions and we've done that in the way we display data in the tool tips and in other general tweaks in the UI and onboarding
JH: [00:19:30] Yeah. That's really good insight. Uh, what does it say is my own curiosity here has gotten the best of me of like, who are these people that are are these people that are Instagram amateurs that are also signing up for like an Instagram optimization tool? Like it's that, that persona, like how are they finding you? I'm very fascinated by this.
Erin: [00:19:44] Hashtag influencers.
Loic: [00:19:46] Yeah, so it's a very good question. Then we have the same ones. we'll, there's two, two main categories of people. you'll, you'll have, Your, entrepreneurs trying to build a personal brand.
but they haven't made it yet. So they're, they're trying to find a way to build that personal brand and they have not enough money to pay for it. For paid advertising. So like Facebook ads or Instagram ads or YouTube ads, they don't have that money. So they're looking for cheap alternative and hashtags provide that for them.
and the, the second, the second one is actually photography photographers. we have a ton of photographers who sign up to our platform and who want to gain that little bit of extra exposure. And usually they're looking for to target a particular location, and really, sort of make a name. For themselves within a very, very sub-niche.
and hashtags are the perfect tool to do that. if you use no Instagram ads, it's very hard to target a specific sub category using hashtags That's all they are really that that that communities within communities and if you leverage and use the right one to stay, it's very easy to pinpoint. pinpoint.
JH: [00:20:51] Hmm. That makes sense. I actually, uh, I oddly follow a lot of photographers on Instagram and, um, it is a cool way to find people. It's like, you know, certain camera hashtags and other stuff, so that makes a lot of sense.
Erin: [00:21:01] Yeah, I'm like side going down a rabbit hole of hashtags right now and looking for flick. And now I'm on hashtag flight, which is not at flick. Totally different thing. But periodically, I'm sure you, I mean, this is a little, definitely a tangent, but we'll get, we'll get back to it. So, I'm sure you've seen this like debate, right?
On like our hashtags over, right? Like the in marketing, the, the popular one is like, email is dead, long live email, right? Um, I think, you know, hashtags got a bad rap or people use like 37 of them and, you know, it's just like, are you kidding me? It's like hashtag mania. But I imagine you have like, you know, some hot takes on hashtags what have you learned about hashtags through your research that I don't know what just might be interesting.
Loic: [00:21:42] Yeah. Um, so, I feel like, there was a period on Instagram back when I was growing my accounts. so around two years ago, also, two to four years ago, where you could, hashtags were relevant. and, that's because there were so many other ways of leveraging, the, the Instagram algorithm, to give you a sort of a basic example, if you've got lots of big accounts to like your content, then all of their followers would actually.
See your content on their explore feed, in the Instagram app, which meant that you could be a brand new account. And if you've done this and know the right people, your first post could reach 200, 300,000 people. and that's how people used to grow. All of these sort of niche pages that you see posting about cars or, or travel content, all that sort of stuff.
they used to grow in that way. And that sort of died down. Instagram caught onto it. And, they flag accounts that do it now. and, people have been looking for an alternative. and what's happened is hashtags have actually started to sort of, take over and become that
Carrie Boyd is a Content Creator at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.