Craig Hewitt, Founder at Castos join Hammad Akbar in this episode of Launch Legends Podcast
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Hey Craig, thank you for being on the show. So, founder of Castos, you guys are doing about $500,000 in revenue. I know you've got some more revenue on top of that, but you know, you sell professional services. you only launched in 2017 and you've got over 2000 customers. So very great. so let's start with actually who you are and why did you build a product and how did you grow it?
Yeah. So my name is Craig Hewitt. I'm the founder of Castos. We're a podcast hosting and analytics platform that also does a podcast editing and production. So that's kind of our professional services arm. I got into Castos, kind of via the professional services. I owned and still do a product.service business called PodcastMotor.
That was kind of my first foray into online business and being a digital nomad, built that up into, you know, a really solid business that sustained kind of my family and I then had the opportunity to acquire a WordPress podcast plugin, which is really kind of how Castos started. So we also own and manage the seriously simple podcasting WordPress plugin that are our podcasts hosting platform interfaces with.
So a lot of people with a podcast have a website, a lot of them run on WordPress. We make it really easy for you to manage all of your podcast content, right from the WordPress site and then upload your files directly to the Castos platform.
All right. So quite a plugin, I'm not going to ask you how much you paid for it, but do they have a lot of users?
Yeah. I mean, WordPress gives you kind of fuzzy statistics, but it had more than 10,000 active installs and like everything and wordpress.org, it was entirely free and still is entirely free. You can use a seriously simple podcasting plugin entirely for free. And then we have the Castos platform as an optional add on. So it's kind of our version of freemium.
Oh, great. That's a great strategy. So you actually got something which had lots of very targeted customers, users and you only had to build customers behind it. So talk to me about Castos. How did you start building it?
Yeah, I'm laughing because you say you only had to build it.
I mean we did get lucky. I mean, it was lucky and strategic to say, yeah, Hey, we can acquire this plugin as a, you know, marketing and customer acquisition channels, was lucky and strategic but, I think building a really great product, especially in our market, which I think is both kind of B2C.
So like beat a pro-sumer maybe you would say but also is really, kind of sensitive in that, like it's the way that people express themselves. So, you know, it's like maybe a website hosting provider or something like that. You want the experience people to have there to be really easy and simple and beautiful.
And so I think building a tool like that is hard and our spaces, probably just as competitive as anyone else's, but to build a really great product is super hard. Even if you have a marketing channel kind of already figured out, yeah, building a great product is super tough.
So I actually said it because a lot of people I've spoken to, they really struggled with finding their target audience. So they go on LinkedIn on all sorts of different customer acquisition channels. Really sending out cold emails, trying to get them on the phone, talking to them. So I said it, from that perspective that you had the audience ready and you were able to talk to them probably very quickly, you didn't have to go and try different things to get them on the call.
So of course, building a great product takes a long time. Even with the best customer feedback, you'll probably end up doing something which is not needed in the marketplace. So I agree with you, it's not easy. I'll probably make it sound very easy, but it's actually very difficult. Being a software entrepreneur myself. I know it's very difficult.
Yeah for sure. Yeah. I mean, we did have a lot of access to the folks that ended up becoming our first customers and I also came from the space, you know, so running a product as service in the podcasting space is how we got introduced to the guy that we bought the plugin from.
We had a bunch of customers that had a presence we're able to leverage a lot of that audience. You know, we talked about the audience before we started recording. So I think a lot of that made the marketing and the distribution easier for us. At the beginning, we just focused on the product, which made it a lot easier.
Let’s talk about product development. What does that look like from day one, till the point where you probably launched your first beta version?
Bad. I mean, I'm not a developer, right? I'm a non-technical founder and I'm a single founder. So, it was me figuring out how to work with a developer and pay them and build a nice product that people care about and have it be easy to use without any experience doing any of that. And, I mean, I laugh looking back at our initial product. It was really terrible compared to what we have now, which I think is really great but that's how it should be.
You know, they say like, if you're not embarrassed of your first version, you launched too late. we didn't launch too late in that respect. I mean, the way we did it is I think a nice model for folks if they're starting out like as a consultant or they own an agency or something like that is use that revenue to pay rent and support your family and stuff like that, but also to fund the development of your software product.
And that's what we did. So we were able to hire a developer part-time. And it took about five months to build a product and to update the WordPress plugin to kind of support that and then we launched, kind of that to existing audiences of WordPress users and very fortunately kind of had customers on the first day which I think is something that not a lot of people do.
We had a kind of major hiccup on the WordPress side with our launch day that kind of broke some people's sites and stuff. But aside from that, the SAAS side of things, the product launch actually went pretty smoothly.
Yeah. So when you say launch, did you follow any email sequence? Did you create some hype or you just sent them an email and said, look, okay, we've launched this product.
Yeah. I think we might have sent an email a couple of days before launch and then sent an email on launch day but we put some things into the WordPress kind of user experience to prompt people and say, Hey, you know, here's this hosting platform you can opt in here and have your files hosted and manage all of your stuff from WordPress.
So a lot of the opt-in of that conversion and like awareness for the customers was kind of natively in WordPress. You have to be careful about that. I think to respect the real estate there and respect the way people use that tool since it is, you know, open-source and free and people don't want to be bugged there.
And I think we do and did a good job of respecting that. But at the same time, putting the value proposition in front of customers in an authentic and genuine way.
How did the product go from there? So you got like a bunch of customers in the beginning. Straight away. And you got a bunch of users.
How did you work with them after that? And how did you get into a point where it's a great product now?
Yeah. I think that the easy answer is we just listened to everything everybody said and try to distill it down because I think that's really hard if you're hearing a bunch of different things and I've had failed attempts at other products where everybody is saying something different and you, at the end of the day, you just say like, what is going on here?
Like, how are we so far off that. This guy says they need an API. This guy says they need OAuth. This guy says they need a better UI and it's all over the place. You can't say, this is the thing we need to do. I think maybe we have the volume of feedback, from a bunch of free users of the plugin and very fortunately a decent number of paying users of the hosting platform to say, okay, a bunch of people are asking for this thing, let's go tackle this.
And it was like whack-a-mole right. So like you go to the arcade and you get this game where like the little mole pops up and you whack him on the head and then he comes over here and you whack him on the head over there. And that's, I mean, that's what we did for an embarrassingly long amount of time, like a year and a half of just like, well, what’s the fire this week.
Let's go put it out. Let's go fix this thing or create this feature or whatever. But I think we're pretty agile in that way. Even today, our product development cycles are not super long, but we stay really attuned to what our customers are asking for. Our support team gives us a lot of really actionable feedback that informs the product decisions and product cycle.
And, we're not an old enough company. You know, we're not base camp to say like, Hey, we're going to plan a year out and just go build this thing for a year. I think any company that's less than, I don't know, five years old can't do that. They're just not mature enough from a product and really understanding what the users want to plan more than a couple of months out.
I don't know if that's your experience.
Unfortunately you had to do that for a year and a half, but it sounds like you did the right thing. What would you have done differently?
Yeah no, I wouldn't have done anything differently. I think it's just stressful is the reason I say unfortunately, because I mean, literally every day is a fire drill of like, Well, we had five users, you know, send us a message in the last day saying that this thing is broken or that we did this to their website or that, you know, whatever it is, that they can't believe we don't have this feature.
And so we have to aggregate that you kind of emotionally deal with it, you know, as like me as the founder or the product person, and the support agent at the time and then filter that to the development team and scope it out and then give them the tools they need to craft a solution that fixes it.
That’s pretty interesting because, as I said to you, we did a product launch last week and we are experiencing probably the same thing.
it's very emotionally draining when you're getting tons of negative feedback, complaints, issues, and people are just kind of scratching you over chat. And, it feels like it's never ending. It's like you fix one thing and 10 other things come up. First we launched, it was horrible. And then we calmed down the week after and it's slowly stabilizing now.
How was that experience for you? You said you always have a constant barrage of issues and complaints from customers and things you fixed.
I mean, it's tough. It's a little tough to look back on now, you know, it's like when your first kid is born, you say, Oh, it was great. Like, it was a magical experience, but the reality is like you didn't sleep and you got, you know, changing diapers and all this crazy stuff that you don't remember.
I don't remember the details of a lot of the bad stuff, but just generally I very much remember the cumulative stress over the first couple of years, maybe just me saying like, this is not good enough. I'm amazed that we have customers that want to pay us money in some ways.
And I think that I'm really hard on myself from a product perspective. I think most founders should be, to always want to create something better.
How did you manage the customer's expectations in the beginning? When, apparently according to them, nothing was working. So how do you manage that to make sure that they don't churn and go somewhere else.
That's another burden.
Yeah. Yeah. That's the huge risk. I mean, they cancel and go somewhere else too in the WordPress ecosystem, like a Shopify app or something, or a regular sinless asset, you have things like the G2 Crowd where people will leave their negative feedback.
And for us, that's our biggest kind of customer acquisition channel. So, keeping everybody happy and managing expectations was really important. And I think we were just really honest to say, like, we're a young company, this is a new product. I totally hear that this is important. It's important to us too.
We're doing everything we can to make everyone happy, but it's not possible and so sometimes the answer, the best answer is to be really honest with someone and say, I totally hear you that you want this thing, but it's just not going to happen. Because if we do this, then we're going to leave 10 or a hundred people hanging over there.
And that's not overall the best thing for the ecosystem and for our platform, not just for me as the founder, but for everybody to say, like, we have to listen to what is kind of the representative biggest voice. And it's not always just a single person.
So where is the product now in terms of maturity? you're getting lots of people happy with that, or you're still getting lots of feature requests.
Yeah. I think we're very feature complete. You know, it's never done, right? because like we just hired a new developer, so we're ramping up our product development velocity. But, it is very feature complete like the core.
And I think, you can probably relate that like the life cycle of an app is like getting the basics down, you know, and it took us a while to do that really well, but we're definitely there now. And now it's things like integrations and expanding the platform to let folks do more with their podcast.
And so that means things like a Zapier integration. We just launched the ability for people to have private podcasts instead of them just being entirely public. So things like companies having internal podcasts for their employees that only those people have access to, those kinds of things that are kind of beyond the core of what a podcast hosting and analytics platform does, but what offers enormous value to people kind of on the edges and that are a little more progressive with what they're doing from a podcast perspective.
Great. So Craig, I mean, you've done tremendously. Well, you've got 2000 customers. Now my question is how did you manage to fix the product? Add features to it? Listen to the customers at the same time, have that kind of growth as well. How did that happen?
I don't know. I don't have a good answer for that. I mean, I think, like we've been big on content marketing from before we launched, you know, we had a blog, talking about podcasting coming from the podcasting space from my previous company. I really understood what this should be.
So I think we didn't have to go figure that out. You know, like a lot of folks trying to figure out. What a product should be and not being kind of from that space is really tough, you know? So like if you're going to go make a SAAS app for architects, and you're not an architect, you have this enormous, like learning curve to overcome.
And I didn't have that. Like, I am a representative customer of ours and maybe not our best customer, but I am a representative customer of ours. So like, what I want is give or take what we need to build. So, I had that and it's just a matter of building it, and you know, getting the developer hours for that and I think that the thing that we're just getting over now is like, using support, and support hours and resources to work around problems to actually fixing them within the app. So they don't ever happen but I mean, I think if you don't have the developer time to fix a problem, you as a support person, have to go fix those problems.
And a lot of it was just like, Hey, we either can go create this feature or fix this bug. I am not a developer, so I can go manage these bugs and help people, you know, fix their podcasts or their sites while my developers build features. And I think those features have done a lot for our growth.
So whether that's right or wrong, I think just using a lot of band-aids in the first year or so to kind of like you said, plug those holes is how we manage some of that. I would rather our developers focus more of their time than they maybe had to in other respects on building features and, you know, moving the platform forward.
And my time was spent on, you know, chatting with customers and helping them be successful.
Great. So what would you say has been your biggest growth channel? Was it the plugin or your content marketing?
Oh, the plugin, right.
Oh, that's a great strategy. That's a great strategy where you buy something, which has your customer base already, and then just work with them.
And then you have a customer base, which you can sell them to. That's great. So what's in the future for Castos. Are you going to keep doing it? What are you doing?or there's some big plans.
Yeah. So I think that there's two really big things that we're working on. Now I touched on one of them, which is like private podcasting.
And there's kind of a spectrum of this and, you know, public podcasting like this, where everybody can listen to private podcasting, say like a company wants a podcast for their sales team, right. Or their HR team. and we're building integrations, like I mentioned with Zapier and membership platforms.
So I think the opportunities here are really interesting. So I think about like, What if you integrated with your email service provider to say, like everyone who signs up on this page or gets this tag, or something gets automatically subscribed to a private podcast, or you have a Shopify store. And every customer that buys this thing gets a little private podcast about how to make the most or care for their, you know, fireplace set or whatever.
Or a membership site or folks that teach courses, all want to deliver content in unique ways to their audience and a select part of their audience, especially. So it's a place that we're seeing a lot of interest from our customers saying a lot of different things, you know, Hey, I do this thing or, Hey, I'm a mental health provider.
I want a podcast for every one of my patients. I mean, that's great. We can totally do that. So that's a place that we're looking at and then monetizing that directly within the platform. So letting our customers say like, Hey, it's not just private, but it's premium as we call it.
I have a private podcast. You can pay me $5 a month or $10 a month to get this premium content that nobody else can get. So that's coming really soon for us and the other thing is expanding how kind of widely and well, we integrate with WordPress. So, integrating with page builders like Elementor and BeaverBuilder, which are enormous tools in the WordPress space to let folks further kind of customize the look and feel and the environment of the podcast on their word press site.
Great. So one last question, imagine someone's listened to this and they're at the start of their journey where you were probably a couple of years ago, they haven't gone through the painful process, you mean, a period where you have to really fix all the fires to put out all the fires. What advice would you give them when they're just starting up.
The thing that we didn't do that, you were talking about before we started recording is I would have a longer beta period. It's something that I see some of my friends do that I never understood until I launched. And, you know, some things definitely didn't go.
Right. But I think if you are a little more patient and intentional about like, Hey, we're gonna launch this to five people and just manually onboard customers. You don't even need to get payment or anything, do that for a month and then go to 50 people and do that for a month. And if you have like a list and you should be able to do that, it's the thing.
We didn't do that in the long run. I don't think it would have changed a lot where we are now, but it would have made those first few months much less stressful and that means a lot.
Yeah. We, like I said before the recording that we launched a product with a one week beta and we launched it to a much bigger audience, and then we are really struggling right now with so many issues we didn't even think about, so I'm with you on that where doing slowly for a couple of months, make sure the product is right. You have all the support in place. You have all the little things like a knowledge base in place. You know what kind of questions people are gonna ask? You know, little kinks you can fix very quickly. Those are the things. If you don't fix them and they go live and the customers are paying you, they have no patience for it.
They just bombard you with lots of support requests or they churn. So it's better to spend the extra time doing Beta, but Hey, you know what you still got through and you got to half a million dollars in revenue, so it wasn't too bad. Anyway, Craig, thank you very much.
Thank you for coming on the show and I hope to speak to you soon.
Thank you very much. Awesome. My pleasure. Thanks so much for having me.