The Campfire Labs Origin Story

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I should preface this by saying that nothing went according to plan. I didn’t want to start a business. I definitely didn’t want to start a services business. And I didn’t expect to become business partners with my mentor. But sometimes plans are overrated.

The business gurus and TED speakers say every company needs an origin story. If I had to choose a time and place, I’d start this one in Athens, Greece, in September of 2018, at a graduation party for 15 students who attended Social Hackers Academy, a code school for refugees I co-founded one year earlier. Hearing stories about the school’s impact on their lives, I felt inspired to do more. I felt like I had escaped the rut I fell into after selling my last company. In my Airbnb that night, I wrote down a vague personal mission: “Make more money to give more money.”

When I returned to Denver, I hatched a plan to make said money. For the past two years I had spent most of my time making short documentaries and writing stories for magazines like Fast Company. During that period I would receive the occasional LinkedIn message from a friend or stranger asking if I would produce content for their company. I declined every offer but one. My friend Matt Sornson suggested I help him ghostwrite and edit a branded book for Clearbit. We spent a year interviewing sales leaders like Mark Roberge and David Skok. When we hit publish, it became an instant success. Within the first six months of publication, the book generated $30,000 per month in recurring revenue. Given what I’d learned from the Clearbit project, I decided to start accepting those requests from friends and strangers and turn it into a company.

When I started the company, I wanted to create something that passed what I came to think of as “the MAYA test.” The concept of MAYA, which stands for Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, was originated by Raymond Loewy, an industrial designer in the mid-20th century who designed cultural icons such as the Exxon logo, the Lucky Strike cigarette pack, and the Greyhound bus.

As Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote:

“Loewy had an uncanny sense of how to make things fashionable. He believed that consumers are torn between two opposing forces: neophilia, a curiosity about new things; and neophobia, a fear of anything too new. As a result, they gravitate to products that are bold, but instantly comprehensible. [Loewy] said to sell something surprising, make it familiar; and to sell something familiar, make it surprising.”

In startup parlance this means finding an “Uber for X” idea—or, in the case of Campfire Labs, an “X for content marketing” idea.

When I wrote magazine stories, I learned that many of the best writers have to do branded work to pay the bills. (The Atlantic paid me $250 for a story that took more than 50 hours of research and writing). But these writers often struggle to find companies willing to pay high rates. When I put these two ideas together—marketers’ demand for high quality writing, and writers’ demand for good freelance work—I saw an opportunity to create a marketplace for only the best brands and writers. Call it the “anti-Upwork,” or as I started describing it, “the Toptal for content marketing.”

This content marketing business model passed another test I found useful in building my last company. We’ll call it the “Monetize Your Brain” test. As I wrote in a blog post about building SimpleData (which originally started as a side project):

“The thesis of the project was simple: take what was in my head and monetize it. In other words, build a business that leverages all of the skills that I had learned over the first three years of my career in entrepreneurship, marketing and sales.

When I started SkyRocket—my last (failed) startup—I solved someone else’s problem which meant the time-to-market was significantly longer and the investment had to be much larger. I had to stay up late in the night reading industry journals just to be on the same playing field as my competition. In my second go-around I didn’t want to do that.”

One challenge of starting a company is surmounting the chicken-and-egg problem: early customers want proof of prior success, but in order to prove success you need to find early customers. “Monetizing my brain” enabled me to start the business with a chicken on the team. When asked about our track record, I could speak to my experience writing for magazines, producing content for Highfive (my job before I started SimpleData), and writing the Clearbit book.

With a business like Campfire Labs, I could speak from a position of (relative) authority. But as I quickly learned, writing magazine stories and branded eBooks is different from creating a marketplace. My domain expertise could convince skeptics to try a new product, but creating a good product was another beast entirely.

In the next part of this series, I’ll describe the process we used to test my idea. (Spoiler alert: What we ended up building isn’t exactly what we intended—or even what we wanted.)

Michael ThomasComment