Kirill Zubovsky is the founder of Scoutzie, an online marketplace that connects designers and clients. In this interview he talks about using your own product, the importance of exercise, and facing the fear of starting a business.

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Before we begin the show, would you tell us a bit about yourself?

I’m 26. I’m an engineer. I moved out to the west coast a couple of years ago, shortly after graduating from university,

I knew I wanted to work on startups. I spent a year hacking on different ideas, learning things, and trying to understand where my passion was.

What was your path to starting Scoutzie? Why did you decide to move out west?

I did an internship for a telecom company when I was in school, and realized that working at big company wasn’t for me. I wanted something where I could experiment. At the same time, I took a business entrepreneurship class that inspired me to try new things.

The weather on the west coast is better, and I wanted to be in a place surrounded by other entrepreneurs, where I could spend time figuring out what I wanted to do.

Did you know anybody when you moved out to there?

When I moved out west, I came to Seattle first. I had one friend there.

The startup community is pretty vibrant in Seattle. It was easy to talk to people and find new friends. There was a startup called TeachStreet, which later sold to Amazon. Thursday nights they would do standing office hours at a local pub. The startup community would come together to talk about there problems and ideas. It was a great way to meet new people.

From September to January, we went from the ‘Wouldn’t this be great’ stage to a working site with tons of beautiful portfolios.

They had an open desk in their space. They ended up letting you use it, right?

They did have an open desk. I still had to pay a couple hundred bucks for it, but the price was very generous.

I got to sit with them and see how they were working. At that time, I was learning how to code. If I needed help, I could ask one of their developers for help. Something that would have originally taken me days to figure out could have been explained in a matter of minutes.

How long did you have desk space with the startup?

A couple of months.

I tried different things. I worked from home for a while, then I had the desk, then I would go to coffee shops.

I told you earlier, that I didn’t want to have a 9-to-5 job. Having a desk in one place that I went to everyday felt like one. It impacts creativity and impacts thinking.

Working from coffee shops is awesome. You get this background noise, you get people talking, and sometimes you overhear something funny that might inspire you. The noise actually helps you tune out, and focus on what you are doing.

You also worked on a few different products, and applied to Y-Combinator and TechStars, but were initially denied. Tell us a bit about that.

My first idea was called Attention HR, which came out of my own needs.

Once I graduated, I had a ton of parental pressure to get a job. I applied to a few jobs, and discovered that the resume process was just atrocious.

You write some ridiculous stuff in your resume that nobody reads, because some machine just highlights the keywords. I thought it was terrible.

“I sent over 500 emails to designers that I found online. I would crawl through design websites, because I wanted to start with the best designers.”

I had some industrial engineering skills—I wanted to find clients that had a problem that I could solve. I could solve it for them much faster, and much cheaper than if they went through a consultancy.

I actually tried it for a couple months in New York. I had a company going. I had business cards—all the most important stuff. I would go out to meetups and talk to people about what they were doing.

There were clients, but I wasn’t ready for them. I was fresh out of school, and they were expecting a McKenzie-type consultant.

I thought it would be great if I could create a platform where I, and others like me, could put up our skills and book us to work on a problem. We could match the problems people were having with the skills available. I applied to an incubator with that problem, and didn’t get in.

I worked on it for a bit longer—I wouldn’t say I got discouraged, but it is difficult when you are working on a problem by yourself, you aren’t getting traction, and you are getting rejected. So, I decided to pause the project for a while.

Kirill Zubovsky Desk
Kirill’s desk at Scoutzie. It isn’t messy, but only he knows where everything is.

I played with a few other projects. One was called PresenterMate. It is the simplest Mac app out there. All it does, it hide icons from your desktop.

The reason I built PresenterMate was because I was frustrated and tired. I wanted to build something cool that I’ve never tried before.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a messy guy, but I like to have things accessible on my desktop. It is well organized in my head, but if you look at it, it is a mess.

If you go into a conference, you can’t show up at a presentation with 2,000 icons on your desktop. So, I found a solution online, where you could type a command into the terminal that hid the icons. I took that, built it into an app, and submitted it to the App Store.

At that point, I realized that I needed a pretty icon. If I didn’t, people wouldn’t download the app. I was living off of my savings from my college internship, and knew that it would cost a couple hundred bucks to design an icon—a couple hundred bucks that I didn’t have.

Instead I walked over to Best Buy, and bought a Wacom tablet for $80. I looked at a few pictures online, and drew it on the tablet. It didn’t look too bad, so I just went with it. In the end, I got a tablet and a logo.

Let me ask you a question about PresenterMate. What goes into a Mac app? What is this built in?

Well, building it was easy. I knew the command that hid the icons. Packaging it into the app was also straightforward, because there is a ton of information online.

It took about five days to develop and draw the icon. It took about a month to get it into the App Store. I’m happy with it. It still makes money.

Let’s talk a bit about Scoutzie. How did you decide that a marketplace for designers was what you were going to build?

I think the market decided it for me.

I was fortunate. When I was in Seattle, I met a designer named Kelly Smith. At the time he was working on another startup, but I told him about the Attention HR. He said, “You know, people looking for designers could really use this right now.”

A designer and a business guy was telling me people could use this right now. I figured that I had found product-market fit. I took it from there, and spent a couple months developing the idea and sketching it out.

“As a startup founder you tend to be so engaged in your product—you want to build all the features, you want to do all the marketing, you want to do everything now.”

The hardest part was actually finding users. I sent over 500 emails to designers that I found online. I would crawl through design websites, because I wanted to start with the best designers. If they were good enough I’d send them an email telling them about this Scoutzie thing—when it launched they would be one of the few designers on there. Half of the people didn’t respond, but half of them did.

Early on, I didn’t have the upload function working. I’d email the designers, and ask them to send me a folder of their work so that I could put it on Scoutzie.

It was fun. Thinking back about it—it was super exciting. From September to January, we went from the “Wouldn’t this be great” stage to a working site with tons of beautiful portfolios.

What are the biggest hurdles that you’ve had to cross? Are there any that you foresee?

I think one of the biggest challenges is connecting the mindset of our users with what we’ve created.

We have power users that love it, and it works great for them. However, we’re still seeing a hurdle with new users.

People are used to going to a big agency, telling them about their problem, and sitting down for coffee to start hashing out the app idea. In the end, the agency ends up charging five times what the app should have cost.

A lot of designers are leaving those agencies, becoming freelancers, and coming to Scoutzie.

The advantage for clients is that you get to work directly with the person who would have worked on your application before. Except now, you don’t have to talk with account managers, you don’t have to pay for office space—at the end of the day, all that stuff came out of your bill.

A lot of people have this mindset that design should take a lot of time and cost a lot of money. We’re trying to break through it.

Team Scoutzie Hiking
The Scoutzie team on a hiking trip.

You guys designed Scoutzie using Scoutzie. What lessons did eating your own dog food teach you?

Mostly a lot of small lessons.

Design is an iterative process, and we’re pushing code every few days. It is a little confusing for new users, but we try and listen to our customers, and implement as much feedback as we can.

We’ve had a couple of sprints that took too long. We took a couple of weeks on features that we realized were not core, and didn’t need to be there. For example we added a cropping feature. A lot of designers asked for a tool that helped designers crop to the site’s aspect ratio. We spent a couple of weeks designing it, and building the JavaScript.

“There is nothing you can do with fear. Just don’t care about it. So what if you fail? You’ll go back to where you started, and do it again.”

Once we created the tool, we realized nobody was using it. They were still cropping everything in Photoshop. In retrospect, we should have realized that if designers are going to crop something, they’ll do it themselves in Photoshop, not in the cropping tool. We should have told them what the ratio was, and what it would look like online.

Eating your own dog food allows you to think about the smallest possible solution to a problem. Often times the hardest part about development is how to not do anything.

Making development changes take a long time. It is a lot about decision making. What should you build? What shouldn’t you build?

With that said, I know you guys have been doing a lot of work on Scoutzie lately. Are there any features you can tell us about?

In the next couple of weeks we will be releasing a more sophisticated search feature. Right now you browse by category, and then through peoples portfolios to see who is better at branding, information. We’re going to put that up front to make finding a designer more straightforward.

Kirill, do you have any thoughts or advice for entrepreneurs?

I’m still a very young entrepreneur. Because it has only been a couple of years, and I’ve only started one company, I almost put myself in the wantrepreneur category.

Based on what I’ve experienced, I’ve got three things to share. You will also hear this from Y-Combinator.

First, Talk to your users often. Ask them questions. It doesn’t help anybody if you are trying to guess their behavior. Just go and ask.

It solved a lot of unknowns for us. There were situations where we couldn’t figure out what users were doing. We asked them, they told us, and we fixed it—the problem is solved for everybody.

Scoutzie Homepage Dashboard
The Scoutzie homepage shows off works from designers.

How do you go about selecting users to ask? Do you just select someone randomly from a list?

I did.

It sounds kind of strange when you do that, but that is what I did when we first started the company. For a while we forgot about it because we were so busy building things. Now we’ve started doing in again.

You just say , “Hey, I didn’t see you use this feature, can you tell me why?” In our case, the users said that they didn’t know what happened when they pressed a button. It was a critical enough step in the process, where if they didn’t know how to use the feature, it would impact the client relationship. We had to make it clear what the button did.

Sorry to interrupt you. So, other advice for entrepreneurs?

I think it is important to stay healthy.

Paul Graham even added exercising to the list of things you should do while you are at Y-Combinator.

As a startup founder you tend to be so engaged in your product—you want to build all the features, you want to do all the marketing, you want to do everything now. Why wait for tomorrow?

You end up working crazy hours, and that is not good for your health. Once your health starts to deteriorate, you start to gain weight, you become more agitated, and your mental health goes down with it.

In order to stay healthy, you have to work smarter, not necessarily longer. Everybody works long hours, and if you are tired that won’t help you. It is really easy—I’ve seen a lot of my friends fall into the same trap—to forget about rest, sleep and exercise.

The last thing isn’t so much for people that are already doing a startup, but for people who are thinking about doing one.

Fear is a big factor.

What do you do about the unknown?

What if you fail?

What if I don’t know what you are doing?

There is nothing you can do with fear. Just don’t care about it. So what if you fail? You’ll go back to where you started, and do it again.

If you start now, and just do things, you will discover new things about the market, and users, and yourself. You are way better off just trying things.

As a wannabe founder, you need to find out if you actually want to do something, or if you are too afraid. If you are afraid, just stop and go back to what you were doing. But if you know that you want to do something, but are slightly fearful, just dive in.

Entrepreneurship is a binary option. You don’t spend time wondering what would happen if you do something. You just have to do it.