My guest on this episode is Sam Shepler. Sam is the founder of Testimonial Hero, a company he bootstrapped that helps companies create more effective video customer testimonials. Sam and I spend much of the episode talking about how to create great testimonials for your company and what the driving reasons are for using video over text or other mediums.
In addition to being focused on a really interesting part of a sales process, Testimonial Hero itself is an interesting case study at what a bootstrap services company grows into overtime.
Over the course of the episode, we talk about hiring a great team, using software and technology in your business to automate processes, and we spend some time near the end discussing time management and productivity. Enjoy.
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(3:31) – How do you think about investing yourself and your professional development?
(6:45) – What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made in your routine as you’ve grown in your career?
(8:05) – What are some learnings you’ve had from working with coaches?
(10:02) – How did you build Testimonial Hero? What were the early days like?
(12:12) – What research have you found in the comparison of effectiveness between pull quotes and video reviews?
(14:15) – What kinds of companies are best suited for video testimonials?
(17:16) – If a company doesn’t have a content strategy or video testimonials, which should they pursue first?
(18:16) – Were video testimonials always the main product at Testimonial Hero?
(19:11) – What’s been your journey as a founder?
(21:01) – Was there a tipping point that launched your growth?
(22:15) – What did your day as a CEO look like in year 1 vs. now?
(24:40) – Was there a moment where you realized you needed to bring on a General Manager?
(25:50) – Tracking a CEO’s time
(27:53) – What college course would you teach if it could be on anything?
(28:35) – What strongly held belief have you changed your mind on?
(29:24) – What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
(30:53) – Are there parts of Gumroad you’ve tried to emulate?
Alex Bridgeman: How do you think about investing in yourself or professional events or conferences like Capital Camp or courses for yourself, books? Do you have kind of a mental model for every year investing some amount of time, money, or resources into bettering yourself?
Sam Shepler: It’s a great question. So first and foremost, to the extent possible, I like to practice kind of just in time learning. So, like it’s very easy to go and learn a ton of things, but it can also just be like a mode of procrastination on one hand. So, to the extent possible, I really try to solve the problem that’s like just a little bit ahead of me with whatever I’m trying to learn. And that’s kind of how I think about that. This year specifically, I’m also thinking a lot more about health. So, I’m investing a lot in that because at the end of the day, and having kids this year – my wife and I had our first kid – and that I think, especially I’m 32, and that sort of especially makes you think a lot. You want to be around for your kids. And I’m just like, all right, I’ve been burning the candle growing my business the past couple of years. I wouldn’t say I have completely neglected my health, but it’s definitely like on the back burner a little bit as you’re scaling a business. But at the end of the day, your health is really all you have. So that’s I would say the biggest thing when I think about investing in myself is, one, making sure I’m solving just in time things on the business side and two- well, also thinking about the tactical as well as the strategic stuff. And often, some of the best investments in yourself are actually things that kind force you to think bigger or can get you to shift your mindset because that is so critical. Like the difference between people that are extremely successful and people that are moderately successful is usually just that people who are extremely successful, they thought bigger. They probably worked just as hard, but they basically just thought bigger and had a little bit bigger strategy. So, any sort of program or mentorship that can- Or just investing time talking to people that are a couple of steps ahead of you, that is incredibly valuable. And then as I said, the health and fitness, if you don’t have your health, you don’t really have anything. I think that’s something we’ve all realized this year in 2021- last year in 2021 especially. And so that’s kind of how I’m thinking about investing in myself this year.
Alex Bridgeman: I like that, especially the thinking bigger piece. That was a big one for me last year. I know going to Capital Camp was a big exposure into other entrepreneurs and investors who have spent their career thinking much bigger than I do. And so, it’s almost this forcing mechanism where like, okay, take whatever I’m doing, and then what is the 10X version of what I’m doing? And is that something I’m interested in or would want to pursue? I’d be curious, especially on the health side but also just the learning side generally, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve made in your day-to-day or week-to-week routine, as opposed to maybe a few years ago where health and fitness and other stuff were more on the back burner for you?
Sam Shepler: Well, first and foremost, for the thinking bigger thing, there’s a great quote, I think it’s by Dan Sullivan and it’s, “If you’re having trouble thinking bigger, try thinking longer” as in like longer term. So, there’s no unreasonable goals, there’s just unreasonable deadlines. So that I think is extremely helpful in just extending the timeline that you’re thinking about. In terms of health, I think it’s really just hiring professionals, like hiring a coach, hiring a personal trainer. I mean, I have an executive coach for my business. I’ve worked with many coaches for specific areas of the business, whether it’s sales, finance, marketing, like over advisors over the course of the business. And then it’s the same with your health and your fitness. So ultimately, if you want to make a change, one of the best things to do is work with someone who’s going to hold you accountable, give you a winning strategy, and make sure you execute on that.
Alex Bridgeman: What are some learnings you’ve had from working with coaches as you’ve grown Testimonial Hero?
Sam Shepler: Well, I think one of them is be careful with the coaches that you work with because it’s one thing to waste money, that’s not even the worst thing, but to waste your time, that’s far worse. There are great coaches, but they may not be great coaches for you. There’re so many coaches out there who have great experience, but they may not be, for example, selling to your target market. So, in general, my philosophy is find someone who is where you want to be in three or four years and learn from them. Even if they’re not like advertising themselves as a coach, build a relationship, offer to pay them for- buy a block of calls from them. Like maybe they can do that, maybe they can’t. But in general, yeah, it’s learn from people who are exactly where you want to be and also to appreciate that every market is different. And especially when we’re talking about like selling into different market, if you’re trying to learn- if your coach had made a hundred million dollars doing internet marketing and they’re selling to- and that type of sale is basically to like a small business owner, which is almost effectively like a SMB or effectively like a B2C sale, and you’re building a company that you’re selling to a buying panel of enterprise buyers, they’re going to give you really good advice, but it’s not going to really work in your situation. So yeah, it’s just like you really want to make sure you’re following in the footsteps of the most- and extremely specific to where you want to end up.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Can you talk a little bit about how you’ve built Testimonial Hero and what the early days looked like and kind of the evolution of your company over time?
Sam Shepler: So, the early days, we were really focused on just finding a better way to create B2B customer testimonials and really focused on making highest quality customer testimonial videos effortless. Because video testimonials, especially for really high consideration sales, like most of our customers are and have always been software companies with significant average contract values, in a high consideration sale like that, social proof and trust is especially important. And having a real customer on video goes a lot further than just having a couple poll quotes. So, we, and at the time, it was just me, basically, I had domain expertise in this area. I had previously worked in video production, random or generalist video production agency. So, I knew this was a problem and an opportunity that could be disrupted. It was also something that I was really passionate about because I really believe that the last decade, the previous ten years of marketing have been more about persuasion, but the next ten years of marketing are going to be way more about trust. So just from a values perspective, I really resonate with the power of putting real customers on camera and bringing those stories to life. So, it’s really the culmination of all those things – the opportunity in the marketplace, something I was interested in, had domain expertise as well. And from then we just kind of thought of like, okay well, how would we solve this problem in a more kind of current and modern way that we think is better for the customer?
Alex Bridgeman: What research have you found, either research you’ve done yourself or read otherwise, have you found on the comparison in effectiveness on written testimonials, either it’s a poll quote or it’s an embedded Google review or something like that, versus something more interactive like video? What are some of the findings on effectiveness between those different mediums?
Sam Shepler: So, first and foremost, I think you want to think of it at basically like the biological level. And there’s a lot of studies that have been done, and I don’t have them in front of me, but if you Google like video effectiveness stats, there’s so much out there around how as humans, we were evolved to read trust cues and micro expressions from people’s faces to determine if we can trust them or not basically. So, we’re hardwired, when we see a face, that is way more engaging than just looking at some text. And then the other thing is these days, if it’s just a poll quote, like outside of even the studies, the comments, we all know that there’s no guarantee that that person even said that, and maybe they signed off on it, that’s one thing, but just the fact that someone is willing to go on camera for your brand, that’s a whole other level of trust right there, even independent of the content. Because people don’t agree to a commitment like a video testimonial if they don’t really, really believe and support your company. Versus signing off on a poll quote, sure, it’s like whatever, people do that all the time. But if you have a video testimonial from HubSpot or a legitimate company, the credibility just like objectively is just there’s just way more credibility.
Alex Bridgeman: What types of companies are best suited to have video testimonials of customers versus some other form of testimonial? Like which companies that you see most often maybe not having video should have video in your opinion?
Sam Shepler: So really the- even to just roll back on that question, it’s less about the tactical video versus non video, and it’s almost more about thinking first and foremost about your customer content strategy. Because content that’s coming from customers, that’s anything that your customers say is going to be received with just- it’s going to be so much more powerful. So, you might not be able to get video testimonial from all your customers and you may not- And in some areas of the funnel, you might just want- you don’t need a long 90 second testimonial, you might just need a 30 second clip of a customer answering a specific QFD, question, fear, doubt, that the buyer has at that point in the sales cycle. So, the reality is it’s a little bit more nuanced in what the best marketers are thinking as like, first of all, what are our strategic initiatives and where can we use customer voice and inject it in our marketing to really fill any gaps there? And it’s probably not just going to be one monolithic video testimonial. It’s going to be like a whole customer video strategy because buyers want to know different things throughout the buyer journey. People in the beginning, they probably aren’t even aware that they have a problem. So, the same piece of customer video that’s going to work later on in the buyer journey is very different than what people want to know first and foremost. But all of that being said, to kind of answer the question as asked, anything that is a high consideration purchase is especially going to lend itself to investing in a customer video. Because otherwise if it’s just something like I don’t really need a customer video to buy a toothbrush necessarily, it’s just like a commodity- yeah, that’s basically like a commodity purchase, I just get whatever, I really don’t care. I have no like loyalty. But if I’m like- say we primarily work with B2B companies, mostly B2B software companies, but even on the B2B side or B2C side, it’s like if someone’s deciding between their NordicTrack bike and their Peloton, that’s another good example of a high consideration purchase that you can absolutely leverage customer story in terms of the larger content strategy.
Alex Bridgeman: If someone doesn’t have a content strategy or video, they have neither, should they try to start with both at the same time or build up a content strategy first and then introduce video testimonials or flip that back and forth?
Sam Shepler: I mean, at the end of the day, if you don’t have any video testimonials, anything’s going to help. But the more, just like anything, the more strategic you can be, you’re only going to see better results. So, you don’t need to over-complicate it, but hopefully, and this is something that we occasionally help people with, but to be honest, our clients are awesome. They’re really strategic. So, most of the time it’s already figured out. But basically, the simplest thing is like get testimonials that are similar to your ideal customer profile. Like if you’re trying to attract a certain type of customer, find a persona in your existing customer base that aligns with that, and that’s what you want to focus your resources on.
Alex Bridgeman: Did you always start with video testimonials as your product at Testimonial Hero? Or did it evolve from something else?
Sam Shepler: Yeah, well, always focused on video testimonials from the start. Video is for sure my background, and I’m a big fan of if you’re going to start a business, you have to have an edge. For sure video is one of my biggest edges. So, from the start, I basically look at opportunities. Like if I don’t think I can build the category leading business in that category, I’m probably not going to be excited to go after that opportunity. And yeah, I knew that we could build the category leading video testimonial creation service. So, from the start, that was always the vision.
Alex Bridgeman: So how did you start Testimonial Hero? Was it bootstrapped or did you raise money at some point or what’s been your journey as a founder?
Sam Shepler: We’re a hundred percent bootstrapped company. And because we are a tech enabled service, so we have a services component to our business. So as long as you have a services component and you’re really- Well, the great thing about having a services component is it becomes relatively easy to bootstrap because you don’t have these huge development costs or any expenses. You just sell it and then you produce it and then you just kind of keep doing that. So that’s just what we did. Although, one thing I will say is the more you can get paid upfront or have the better payment terms, that is super key. Like cashflow is everything. And like most of our- that made a difference for sure. And as we become increasingly tech enabled, we’re not like a pure software company whatsoever, but we’re becoming increasingly tech enabled, and the fact that we have all this, like this service layer, that is just we’re constantly just making money, and we have the funds to deploy because of that service. So, the short answer is we were able to do it relatively easy because we’re not a pure software company that would require a huge upfront investment or a manufacturing company that would require that huge upfront investment.
Alex Bridgeman: Was there a tipping point at one stage of your business where things seemed to grow a little a bit faster, maybe key customer, or you made a key hire at a position? Did something happen at some point early on?
Sam Shepler: I would say the tipping point for sure for us was when I started hiring great folks and stopped trying to do everything myself. At the end of the day, people are everything, and I think we got really lucky with finding some amazing, amazing people very early on. And then either I was overwhelmed and I stepped out of the way and just- and also just honestly, I just trusted them and I stepped out of the way and kind of just trusted them to let them do what I hired them for. And when you find great people and you trust them and you don’t micromanage them, that is what kind of unleashes the flood gates in terms of- at least in this type of business, really for all businesses, but especially in a service-based B2B services business.
Alex Bridgeman: What did your day as a CEO look like in year one or two versus today?
Sam Shepler: Well, year one or two, obviously, I was the CEO, but year one and up to year one and a half, it was really just me. So, I was doing everything. I was doing obviously the sales, I was doing a lot of the client management, paying bills, literally some of the editing, although we did have some contractors on the editing side then, but a lot of the editing, project managing the contractors. So, basically complete chaos in the early days, as it should be. That’s just the reality. But basically, for the first kind of year and a half, I really just worked super hard, built up a war chest of capital and because of that- and then I was able to actually invest in a couple key employees early on. And then, yeah, I would say now my- well, I did just bring on- promote one of my team members to General Manager as well. So, I think that right now my kind of day is navigating that transition, and that’s a new thing for me and kind of figuring out how we can best make that relationship really successful and making sure that I am trusting him and I’m giving him enough guidance but not stepping on his toes either. And then we are only about two weeks into that right now, so really focused just on that at the moment. And then as soon as we are feeling great about that, which I’m sure we will be, then the question for me is really like, okay, what’s the next sort of high point of leverage to attack? What’s the next point of constraint that we can remove that’s going to help us get to the next level? And likely it will be around more content creation, more media stuff, and then recruiting always in terms of our growth goals. So, I would say it’s really going to be around those two things, content and recruiting.
Alex Bridgeman: Was there a moment that told you in the last year or two that you needed to hire a general manager where you just had too much stuff going on and you needed to have someone else handle some of that load for you? Was there a specific moment you can remember or something that happened that really made that switch happen in your mind?
Sam Shepler: Not exactly because the reason behind doing it is actually more strategic versus like a lifestyle. Although I think the lifestyle benefits could be nice. But the reason to do it is actually like our big vision, bigger than Testimonial Hero, is actually that Testimonial Hero is just one company in a portfolio of tech enabled services that we’re building. And with my GM Kevin running Testimonial Hero, that’s going to free me up to think about other tech enabled video marketing services that we can start and within that portfolio. And then the grand- The next vision is to really build a portfolio of category leading video marketing services.
Alex Bridgeman: There was a First Round review article a little while ago talking about the CEO’s tracking of their time using their calendar and then a few other browser plugins and stuff, just to see where they were spending time in their business, whether it was on recruiting or strategy or meetings, internal communications, all of this other stuff, admin, and it gave them this- It kind of spit out these different numbers on where they’re spending their time. Also, before doing all that though, they wanted to like test and see, okay, where do I think I’m spending my time? And then where am I under or over-investing? Do you have any sort of internal system like that where you track how you spend your time and if there’s an area of your business that you’ve been over or under investing in? Is there some system like that that you’ve developed over time just for yourself?
Sam Shepler: Honestly, I love that. I might start doing it. I don’t currently do it right now. So, I use as my kind of personal productivity system/ philosophy, I’m a big fan of Kanban, which the basics of Kanban is it’s just a card-based system and you have a couple of columns. One of them is what you’re working on, and you have to limit your work in progress to usually like whatever you set. So, I set like three things max. And then you have your backlog and your someday maybe on the left. And so, it is like someday maybe, priority is like near future, and then like in progress and done. So, I will occasionally kind of audit and tag my tasks in different categories and make an audit, and I’ve used Trello for this, it is a good card-based thing, obviously. So yeah, from that perspective, I can get some visibility into what I’m focusing on, but I’m not currently using any crazy time tracking. I might do it again, and I like the idea. I’ll have to checkout that article. But no, not currently.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I’ll send you that article. It was pretty interesting. Moving into some closing questions. What college class would you teach if it could be about any subject you wanted?
Sam Shepler: I would probably say, I mean, I would love a class on scaling B2B services, scaling tech enabled services.
Alex Bridgeman: What do you think the curriculum would look like?
Sam Shepler: First, it would really be about finding your edge, picking which idea are you going to do, what’s the combination of what your edge is, the market need, what you are actually like, and then moving on to go to market and then scaling and everything in between, fulfillment, etc., etc.
Alex Bridgeman: Gotcha. I like it. What strongly held belief have you changed your mind on?
Sam Shepler: I think for a long time I thought that I would just build a services business. Basically, I was like I’ll just build this because I don’t have a software idea at the moment. But at the stage that we’ve scaled to and how happy I am and how much fun I’m having and how profitable the business is, I think I’ve changed my mind that services, and especially when you tech enable them, can be just fantastic businesses in their own right. So, I think I’ve changed my mind that services don’t have to just be like the temporary thing. They can absolutely be the main thing if you do them right.
Alex Bridgeman: What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Sam Shepler: Gumroad I think actually might have to be the best business I’ve ever seen. They don’t have any meetings, and the founder and CEO, Sahil Lavingia, he spends just like a couple hours a day maybe working on the business, no meetings, and then he’s like obsessed with figure drawing and painting at the moment. So, he just like goes and goes to figure drawing classes. And they’re an extremely successful business, obviously. So, I think I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s doing, like doing things a little bit differently and also doing incredible things, incredible hobbies, like he’s an incredibly talented artist, and really making time for that while running a great business.
Alex Bridgeman: It seems like it’s one of those things where it’s really hard to do from the get-go just because your business probably either doesn’t exist or is too small or you can’t just work a few hours and then go paint. Like you have to get to a certain scale, but it’s very aspirational in terms of here’s where I want to be in the future. And then, it almost outlines like, okay, if I want to only spend four hours and have no meetings, I need to somehow get rid of meetings. Like how do I do that? How do I build a team that can work without me needing to be present at a certain time to communicate with them or something else? So, I find it hard to get to that point, but it’s aspirational in terms of directionally where you want to go as a CEO in terms of managing your time. Is there a part of Gumroad that you’ve tried to emulate maybe more specifically, like perhaps no meetings or some other- if I remember right, I know he has employees who- I think most of his team doesn’t work full time. I think most of them work only 20 hours, maybe 30 hours at most or something like that. I could be mixing that up with something else, but I remember that he didn’t have many full-time employees and he talked about potentially going full time for many folks, and a lot of folks didn’t want to. So, there’s a lot of really- Gumroad is a really interesting example because there’s just tons of internal culture examples within that business to try to learn lessons from. But what sorts of things from Gumroad do you think you’ve tried to take on to your own business the most?
Sam Shepler: Well, for one, I think I’m rearranging my schedule, so other than this, we’re recording this on a Tuesday, but I think in like two weeks, Mondays and Tuesdays are going to be completely free of meetings once I kind of back cycle off things that were, of course, already scheduled. So, that’s exciting. But honestly, the thing that- We haven’t personally done a ton from Gumroad yet. All of our people are full time in general, and we like that and they like that. But what honestly most impresses me about Sahil is really that he sort of conquered the need to just like keep growing more. Obviously, he could grow the business more if he didn’t spend six hours a week doing his drawing and art and whatever, but it’s actually very hard, at least I think for a lot of founders, myself included, to give themself permission to do things that don’t have direct business benefits essentially. So that is what I’m most impressed about with him – he can do that and have hobbies and have no- like just be cool with it and not feel like he is making some sort of trade off where like, oh man, he could have added an extra couple million in enterprise value if he wasn’t doing this. So, I think just like enough is one of the hardest things to have. And we all think that we’re going to be sort of happy when we have like, oh, I’ve just got to get to this next goalpost, but then inevitably, we keep moving the goalpost. It’s just one of the challenges of human nature I think with a lot of high-achieving, type A folks. And I think that, honestly, I admire; it’s something that I’m working on and just being more kind of content and appreciative of what I have, what we all have, and I admire him a lot for that. Seemingly, at least from the outside, he seems like he’s found a really good balance there.
Alex Bridgeman: It certainly seems like it. There’s a similar article by Dan Shipper about Andrew Wilkinson, The CEO of No. It’s from his newsletter, but there was a Product Hunt reposting of it recently. If you read that by chance, it talks about him trying to remove- really similar ideas, like removing meetings and allowing time for tennis and walking around and playing with his kids, that sort of thing. Have you read something like that? I’ll send it to you if not.
Sam Shepler: Yeah, actually I have read it. It’s a great article. I haven’t read it in a couple- I read it when it was published, but yeah, definitely, that’s a great reminder. I’ve got to check it out. Also, honestly, Andrew Wilkinson, I love what he’s doing at Tiny and get a lot of inspiration for the future and thinking big from looking at what he’s done.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, it’s pretty impressive. Well, thank you so much, Sam, for coming on the podcast. This has been really great to have you and to chat all about video testimonials, growing your bootstrap business, and a little bit of free activity chat at the end here. So, this has been a lot of fun. Thanks for coming on.
Sam Shepler: Thanks for having me, Alex. My pleasure. And if anyone wants to get in touch, a really good way to reach me is just through Twitter. I tweet about all these topics that we’re talking about, especially kind of productivity and entrepreneurship stuff. It is just Sam Shepler on Twitter.
Sam is the founder of Testimonial Hero, a company he bootstrapped that helps companies create more effective video customer testimonials.