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How I Work September 24, 2014

How I Work: Corbett Barr - Fizzle

How I Work: Corbett Barr - Fizzle 

This week, CEO and Co-Founder of, Corbett Barr, joins us to help understand how he has arrived at his multimedia, entrepreneurial education business. 

Fizzle has created a thriving community based around "honest business education" that helps entrepreneurs build better businesses, doing things that they love.

The goal is to make solopreneurship and small business ownership a part of your lifestyle, rather than struggling to make a life outside of work.

Listen to the Full Interview

Q. What is your job title & what do you do? 

I’m one of the co-founders of Fizzle, and also the CEO. We’re a small team of four people, and we run what is essentially a training library and community for entrepreneurs. 

Fizzle Team - How I Work - Moblized

We’re not using the word ‘entrepreneur’ with a capital E as in, people looking for venture capital and trying to build the next IPO. We’re talking about small, independent businesses. 

We want to help people who are building things that will support them doing something they love for a living.

Q. What did you do before Fizzle?

I started out working in Fortune 500 consulting, and quickly realized that I did not love working for giant corporations. I wanted to work in an environment where I felt I had more impact over the overall results, and frankly I didn't find working for big insurance companies all that thrilling. 

Q. How did you become an Entrepreneur?

I jumped into the world of entrepreneurship, and initially, I did what a lot of people do in Silicon Valley. I found a co-founder, built a software prototype, and shopped it around to venture capitalists. We did that whole thing. We raised venture capital and built an office.

Eventually, in 2008, when the financial world collapsed, I was at a crossroads, because we didn’t have enough revenue to keep the company going. 

We had to go hat in hand to our investors and other investors. When it was clear that we couldn’t keep the whole team together, I decided to use it as an opportunity to do something radically different. I took a sabbatical instead of just jumping into the next thing. 

I wanted to hit the reset button on life. So my wife and I reset our lives via a trip to Mexico. 

Corbett Barr - Mexico - How I Work - Moblized

Once there, we kept meeting people who weren’t rich or retired, but had figured out ways to make their careers work around their lives, and I started to wonder why I couldn’t do that. 

Why did it feel like I had to put my life on hold to build my business, instead of being able to do both at once?

So, I started a blog on a whim in 2009, while we were on that trip, and I really haven’t looked back since. I’ve built my entire business, including Fizzle, based around that first blog.

Q. How do you spend your downtime? 

[Netflix, board games, whitewater rafting, other?]

Since that trip in 2009, we’ve really changed our lives pretty drastically. My wife and I now live in Mexico for the winters, so we’re down there 3-4 months every year. I surf pretty much every day when we’re down there. I still run the business, pretty much like I do over here. I’m able to put in 90% of effort, I’d say, down there. The only frustrating part is the slow internet.

During the summers, we like to travel as well. For the past few years, we’ve had a habit of going to Europe in the summer for a while. I do love work, and I love writing, but I also really love travel and outdoor activities.

Q. What’s the first thing you sold? Is there a story?

As a kid, I did the typical things. I mowed lawns for cash, things like that, but none of them were really a business. They were just freelancing efforts. 

The first thing that I tried to build and sell was around 2003 or so. I thought there might be opportunities in the search industry, even though Google was really taking off. I felt something was being left on the table, so I built a small search engine, and launched it. 

But, I came to realize that there’s this thing you need when you launch a business, and that’s differentiation. 

You need to have a really clear idea of why people are going to sign up for your service, and you also need to have a clear idea of how you’re going to reach those people.

I had addressed the differentiation part to some degree. The idea was that people would be rewarded using my search engine versus others through some sort of point system. There’s a lot of money that search engines actually make, and I thought, why not cut the users in on that? 

As far as how to reach people... I guess I thought that if it was interesting enough, I’d be able to get press for it. That does work, sometimes, but since then, I’ve learned that it’s much easier to go audience first, come up with an idea, and start talking to people about it from the beginning. 

This as opposed to going away and trying to build something for six or nine months only to unleash it on the world and then find out that it wasn’t as exciting as you thought it was in your head.

[Haven’t we all been there at some point?]

Q. Describe Fizzle. Give me your elevator pitch!

Fizzle provides a community that lets entrepreneurs build better businesses doing something they love. We’re really finding that the community is the piece that people love most. 

When you’re one person trying to build a business, whether it’s a freelance gig, building a product, or a SaaS business, it’s very easy to feel alone.

It’s easy to get stuck with tunnel vision in front of your laptop the whole time. Fizzle gives you a place for feedback, camaraderie, accountability, and a lot of times, other Fizzle members are there to just keep you in the game.

What we find with entrepreneurs is that the biggest enemy is simply quitting. 

That’s what happens to a lot of people. We actually named it Fizzle because most small businesses end up fizzling out for one reason or another. 

We found the best way to combat this is by surrounding yourself with other entrepreneurs -- seeing that what you’re trying to do is normal, there are a lot of people trying to do it, and learning from what other people are doing.

Q. Who are your clients and how are they unique?

The majority of our customers are one-person teams. There are a few two-person teams. We don’t really have a lot of small teams. We have a few people who have had recent success, or who have been at it for a couple of years, who are now building out teams, and they might have 4-5 total employees. 

But for the most part, Fizzlers are new people in their first couple of years, just trying to make that breakthrough and figure out what product they can sell to support themselves -- and they’re doing it on their own.

Q. What pain point does Fizzle address?

We’re really trying to help make sure that people don’t get stuck on road blocks that defeat them entirely. 

We address this in a few ways:

  • We have weekly coaching where people can show up and ask us questions directly.
  • We have a training library with over 100 hours of video content that helps people learn about everything from starting a podcast to growing an audience and everything in between.
  • As I mentioned before, and most obviously, there’s the community.

Really, we’re just trying to combat those roadblocks in any way we can, and over time, we’re working with our audience to figure out what the best ways to do that are.

Q. What tools / software / apps do you use at Fizzle?

1. What is the platform your business / site is built on?

It’s on Wordpress. 

We talk about Squarespace a lot on the podcast, because we like it as a very low-barrier way for people to get something published online. But we’re based on Wordpress because we have to do a whole lot more with our site. 

We’ve done a lot of custom development on Wordpress, and because of our business model, we have members who belong to our site, we have to charge them on a recurring basis, we have to give them access to certain resources that are members-only, and we also integrate with a custom forum platform (IP Board) that we use for conversations. All of that is glued into Wordpress as the core platform.

2. What do you use for distribution?

We recently switched our podcast feed over to Soundcloud. 

This is partly because we really like Soundcloud’s player, their stats are more in depth, and we liked the fact that you can interact with an audience there directly. 

Fizzle on Soundcloud - How I Work - Moblized

People can follow you on Soundcloud. Of course, we’re still represented in iTunes, like every podcast, because that’s really where the lion’s share of listeners show up. 

That's it for the apps that we use on the podcast itself.

We publish blog posts on a weekly basis. We have a plugin that we use in Wordpress that sends out a tweet of our latest blog post, just so that we don’t forget, but we don’t use Buffer or anything like that. 

We’ve tried in the past, and have found that because we have a team of four, we tend to each go in and publish some tweets about things that we’re reading and things that we think would be helpful to our audience.

3. What services (if any) do you use for customer support?

We use a service called Intercom. 

We’ve tried several support apps, but what we like about Intercom is that it’s not just customer support. It’s also automated customer communications and a great member directory for us, all rolled into one.

Corbett Barr - Intercom - How I Work - Moblized

Intercom integrates with our app, so we can send it data about our members. Then we can segment those members and watch their behavior once they sign up, and send them messages based on that behavior.

We have two standard use cases for Intercom:

  1. We have people who join and really just connect with Fizzle wholeheartedly from the beginning. We have messages that we send them specifically that are aimed towards encouraging them and thanking them for their interaction.
  2. The second group consists of people who sign up and then don’t get around to using Fizzle right away. We watch their behavior -- how many times they’ve posted in the forums, how many videos they’ve watched, those sorts of things. We send them messages trying to encourage them to jump in and to use the resources more, especially during their trial period.

We’re focused very much on churn and trying to reduce the number of people that are leaving. 

Intercom is the core of our strategy there, because the onboarding process is critical for us; making sure that people get in and figure out why Fizzle is valuable. We need to demonstrate that value to them. 

Sending those customized messages based on their behavior as opposed to sending one-size fits all auto-responder messages has been really key in keeping our churn low.

4. What do you use for internal productivity and communication?

About 4-6 months ago, we found a tool that we absolutely can’t live without called Slack. 

It’s sort of a group chat tool, but also more than that. It’s  a combination of group chat, instant messaging, and forum software as well, because you can post files and links, and you can go in and search for those.

Fizzle Corbett Barr - Slack - How I Work - Moblized

You can also set up automated messages from a lot of the apps that you use, so that they go to different channels within Slack. It’s made our communications on the team much more real time. 

It also has taken us out of email almost completely, and I mean really, almost completely.

It’s not as if you’re emailing someone and waiting five hours for them to get back to you, because you can see if they’re online and just reach them directly.

I probably receive maybe one email every couple of weeks from the team. Mostly, that’s just because there’s some message that they need to forward to me that isn’t easy to do within Slack. But otherwise, 99.9% of our communications all happen within Slack now.

We also use Asana for project management, and a little bit of communications happens within there. But mostly, we use Asana for task management, project management, and for meeting agendas and things like that. It’s a great place to just stick your agenda and check items off as you go.

5. Are there other interesting software, gadgets, or hacks that you use?

We also use something called Geckoboard, which is a metrics dashboard that allows us to track all the key things that we like to follow about our members, including the usage of the app, the retention of our members, sources of new members, and things like that. That’s been great for us.

If you did want to get into the software development a little bit, we’re based on Wordpress, which is a PHP platform, but we use Git, like most people, for a repository, and we use Beanstalk for deployments of our software.

Q. What apps, tips, or tricks do you use to help out with your own workflow?

For workflow, I’ve been trying something that I’m loosely calling the "Complete Calendar". It's not a software or app necessarily. Rather, it’s based on a blog post by my friend, James Clear. The post summarizes a study on motivation. They took three groups of people and divided them up.

1. There was a control group that was told, “You guys need to exercise. Go off for two weeks, and do your best to exercise and report to us.”

2. The second group was told, “You need to exercise and here’s a pamphlet about all the reasons why exercise is important for you and good for you.”

3. The third group was told, “You need to exercise. Here’s the motivational pamphlet, and I want you to tell me where and when you are going to exercise over the next two weeks.”

All of the groups were sent off and at the end, they found something really interesting.

They found that the group that was only motivated ( group 2) actually did worse than all three of the groups.

The group that had to report on where and when they were going to exercise (group 3) did over 2x better than the average.

That study gave me the idea of not just saying, “I need to get something done,” but saying that and then also deciding specifically where and when I'm going to do it.

As a result, I’ve planned my calendar out -- pretty much every hour is accounted for on my calendar now. This is when I’m going to do my writing. This is when I’m going to do my support email. This is when I’m going to work out. This is when I’m going to knock out that big task on my list.

I’ve been doing it for just a few weeks now, and I hope to write about it more. It’s been a great change for me, because what I found in the past was that I worked really hard to make my day as clear as possible. That was my goal--I didn’t want a lot of meetings and things in the way.

But when I had a clear calendar day ahead of me, I found it really easy to procrastinate all morning or all afternoon, because it felt like, “Oh, I can get to that later. I’ve got all day ahead of me.”

This fixes that.

[Note: Timeful, an app developed by professor of psychology and behavioral economics Dan Ariely, is built around a similar idea, and it’s free.]

Q. What are a few trends to watch out for that will define this market in a year?

1. Trickle down of technology

We pay a lot of attention to very small business, since that’s our audience. What we see a lot of times is a sort of trickle down of the capabilities that bigger businesses have, in how they view their business and how they communicate with their customers and so on. We see that trickle down as software tools become better and better and easier to use, which means very small businesses or solopreneurs can now take advantage of what previously you’d have build on your own. 

The ability to have a metrics dashboard with Geckoboard, for example, is very much open to people without software development experience now, which is incredible. The ability to use something like Intercom to send these behavior driven messages to members, like we already touched on. A lot of times, that was something you would have to develop in house before. We love watching this progression.

2. A/B testing 

It's become very easy. Whereas before, you had to have someone that was practically an expert, or have people write something in house. I remember ten years ago with my prior startup working on A/B testing that we had to develop in-house, and it was an arduous thing. Now with Optimizely or Visual Website Optimizer, you can have a test up and running in five minutes or so. It’s incredible.

Q. What is a successful day at Fizzle like?

I’ve kind of given in to the fact that I’m only able to accomplish a few things a day. You can really get frustrated if you think that you need to get twenty things done. It just never seems to work out that way. Eventually, I just accepted the fact that I can only get so many things done. 

I really try to plan out my calendar day-by-day, so I know exactly what I’m working on, and week-by-week as well. 

A great day for me looks like getting just a few things done that I need to get done, and getting a few things done that I want to get done as well. 

I try to build into my calendar things like workout time, time for writing, time for reading things and learning new things. I try to balance my day that way, and realize that building a business and having a great career is really a marathon. It’s not a sprint.

I want to be doing what I’m doing 20 years from now and to have some sort of impact and meaning. I think that this "marathon view" is the way to make that happen.

Q. If there was one thing that would make running your business easier, what would it be and why? 

I really like to focus on what I call "operating systems for myself" and for our company. What I mean by that is that, just like your phone or your computer has an operating system that defines how it works, I like to define an operating system for my business and myself which basically governs how we get things done.

There are all kinds of different systems that you can try out, but ultimately, each of us operates differently. 

If you don’t set out a system and try it and try to improve it, then you’re really just kind of shooting in the dark. 

You're hoping that this week is really productive or next week’s really productive or that the third week feels like you’re really working on your life's work and contributing something meaningful to the world.

If you define an operating system, it gives you that chance to have something to aim for and something to improve. 

You’ll know why this week wasn’t very productive: either you weren’t able to stick with your operating system, or it was deficient in some way. To me, that’s the key to getting better over time. I’ve been working now for nearly 20 years; all of my adult life. I feel like there’s still a lot of room to grow, but I also feel like I am making measurable progress every year, and I love that.

Which is to say -- wouldn’t it be a great shortcut to have an operating system manual from the get-go?

Q. If you could go back to before Fizzle and give yourself advice, what would it be?

Start with the audience first. 

If you have some sort of idea of a direction you want to go with your company, it’s much easier if you start by having conversations with real people about it, and to involve those people behind the scenes in what you’re working to build.

It’s really the lean startup approach; the minimum viable product approach, but more audience driven. 

That’s how I’ve built this first business. It almost feels like an unfair advantage. If you start building and audience and you start showing them what you’re working on, then by the time you release the thing, you have people that are going to be there, who feel invested and are invested in your success because they’ve helped you along the way. They’re going to be willing customers when you launch. 

As opposed to, like I mentioned before, going heads down and tinkering on something for 6+ months and then releasing it to the world, only to find out that it was much better in your head than it is in real life.

Q. What are your top three pieces of advice for aspiring business owners?

Well, as already mentioned in the last two answers, the first two would be:

1. To explore your personal operating system

2. Focus on your audience first. 

3. The third would be to work on something that you care about.

I’ve been in both situations before. I know it’s cheesy to say follow your passion or whatever. And I’m not saying that you have to have one singular passion--I don’t think that’s true for most people. But focus on something that you can really get behind, that you feel strongly about, that you feel like is wrong with the world or that you feel like could really, dramatically improve people’s lives with. 

It’s just so much easier to wake up in the morning excited about something, to go to work on it, and to feel like if you carry out the mission that your company is there to fulfill, that you’ll make a positive impact.

Software Recap

Here are the apps and solutions that were mentioned by Corbett.

Software / App Name What It's For
Website Hosting / Membership platform
Squarespace Easy Site Creation / Hosting
IP Board  Custom Forum Platform
Communications / Onboarding / Churn Reduction
Team Chat / Instant Messaging / File Sharing / Alerts
Project & Task Management / Agendas & Checklists
Metrics Dashboard

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