Host: Kristofor Lawson
Mixing and Editing: James Parkinson
Theme Music: Nic Buchanan
Artwork: Andrew Millist
KRIS: From Lawson Media - This is Building A Unicorn, the show exploring what it takes to build a big, global business. I’m Kristofor Lawson.
KRIS: Instagram… it’s one of the most popular social networking applications. Everyone tells you it’s the place to be. If you post great images - people will find out about what you do and then you’ll be set. Yet if you’re looking to tell people about what you do - Instagram suffers from one huge problem. You can’t add links to your posts. Every instagram profile has one link for the entire profile… which has forced people to find creative solutions, like continuously updating that URL and telling your audience to check the ‘link in bio’. It’s pretty clunky and a frustration of many users.
KRIS: Now today’s founders suffered from that exact problem and so they came up with a solution. It’s called Linktree and it’s a way of generating just one link that you can then use to direct your audience to all your other platforms.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, yeah. So link tree is a tool that helps you connect all your audiences, your entire online ecosystem. And what that means it gives you once you sign up, you get a link, and you're able to add links and links to a whole bunch of extra content and other functionality that allows you to direct the audience's to your lowest path of conversion.
KRIS: This is Alex Zaccaria he’s the CEO. And in just a couple of years Alex and his brother Anthony have built a rapidly growing platform with close to four million users. But rapid success is rarely quick… and for Alex and Anthony their journey starts in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, you know we had a nice childhood I think we owe a lot to our parents, our father and our grandparents came here with nothing as immigrants and worked their butts off to be able to provide for us in the way they did and, we Yeah, I think, you know, we went to good schools and had a you know, nice neighbourhood that whole thing.
KRIS: Alex and Anthony grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. Their grandparents came across to Australia from the south of Italy, and started a business importing musical instruments. And then Alex and Anthony’s parents also started their own musical business.
Alex Zaccaria: I still remember getting picked up after school, in primary school and literally, whatever was 3:30 and going straight to the music store, hanging around there until mom would be ready to go home at 6:30, 7:00 kind of thing and just being surrounded by loud musical instruments, and watching mum and dad work. And dad was a luthier, as well, so you as well working on violins and doing all those kind of things. So yeah.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah, we saw a lot of what hard work ethic to, to make ends meet and provide for family and get set up pretty early on. And we look back on it now, as adults, and kind of see, see where it was all coming from?
KRIS: This is Anthony.
Anthony Zaccaria: Dad would often, you know, we'd have dinner and then he'd be in the garage fixing violins and cellos, because they had to take them to schools who are customers the next morning, and so he would go early for a meeting at a school with a music director. Come back, pick us up, take us to school, go back to work. Even our grandfather, who coincidentally he also ran his music business with his brother. And that was a whole big family business, actually. I mean, I'm one of the biggest music distributors, grew to be one of the biggest musical distributors in the country for a while there, and similarly had a very strong work ethic, but also had very, very strong family values. And it was always about everything's always about the family, and providing for the family, and being as a family together all the time. Even though he would be up and out the door at five or six in the morning, he'd always make sure I'd have dinner with his family and be there for them at every moment, he could. So I think a lot of that trickled down. Even growing up around a family business. Mum and Dad always instilled… it wasn't really forced to work as a family. It just felt natural, because mum and dad were working together. Our older brother was working in the family business. And mum and dad definitely instilled a lot of those family values. It was always about family time and like commitment to doing stuff as a family. Anytime there was a cousin's birthday, it would be a big family thing growing up, and I just thought that was normal. And my friends would always be like, hey, you want to come out tonight? And I'd be like, and I've got, you know, so and so's cousin's birthday, or so and so’s aunties thing. It would always be a family thing on at least once a week, and my friends didn't understand why we'd always have something on. But I think now looking back on it's actually really special because we all still really close. There’s like 25 or 26, aunties, uncles, and cousins, and we're all really, really close.
KRIS: So being being around, you know, your parents being entrepreneurs, your grandparents being entrepreneurs. You know, in the music business as well. Were encouraged from an early age to, you know, sort of, like pick up an instrument and yeah, be part of, you know, like a musical life.
Anthony Zaccaria: Very much so. Even sometimes if we didn't want to, it was very much like, you know, I always felt pretty bad around it about not wanting to because you there's an array of music always around you and yeah, so we all learn different instruments. I tried my hand at the cello, piano, guitar, bass, I think do you tried to hand it some weird stuff?
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, it was always felt like an obligation. Like, just surrounded by it all the time and by all these amazing instruments that people you know, that love, absolutely passionate about playing guitar, for example, would dream about owning these guitars and we’re sitting around these these shop all day where we could just play them. And just I don't think we ever really got that passion… But yeah, I think I had a phase at some point where I wanted to be a conductor.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah, you did.
Alex Zaccaria: I think just being inspired by our nonno. And I just had this thing where I went to mum and dad and said I wanted to do a term of each instrument, just to learn about each instrument and then be a conductor. I think that lasted two terms.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah. Yeah, I think I kept going after school for a bit, playing base in a few bands and that kind of thing. But then… being around music and the industry… became more interesting. And being behind the scenes became more interesting than actually playing. And just sort of helped separate, separate and keep a passion for listening to music, but sort of being on the business side.
KRIS: What's the biggest thing that you've learned, seeing your parents be entrepreneurs and your grandparents as well?
Anthony Zaccaria: I think probably the dedication to doing something and doing it properly. If you want to do something just get on and do it. And go all in, but just like yeah do it properly and find the time to just do it. No one's going to, no one’s going to do it for you. Dad always has random sayings about that kind of stuff that are translated from hi dialect that can't remember the top of my head now but it's always around the tone is always that no one's gonna, you know, it's like get off your butt and do it if you want to do it. No one's gonna do it for you. And I think that came from, he always tells a story of coming to Australia with a toolbox and five bucks in his pocket and that was it and kind of having to go to uni for a bit, start a job, just find his ways, learn a new language. And it was that whole thing of like, no one's gonna give me a chance here I've got to find a chance and make it happen.
Alex Zaccaria: He always used to tell us that and you know, you kind of go, ah yeah cool dad. It's not really until you are a little bit older and say you go overseas by yourself… even with a mobile phone and money and all those things and you still like a little bit disorientated. Imagine coming here with absolutely nothing and no connection back to your family at home or anything like that. And I think, you know, there's so many immigrants that time that we're doing that it's pretty fascinating and what they've been able to build from them. I think for me, that work ethic certainly… that get up and go and actually make things happen that definitely came from our nonno as well and, and the creativity of things like if you're going to go and work, go and work and work hard… but if you want to create something that doesn't exist, go and do that as well. He was, I still remember going into nonno’s, he had like a wood workshop under his house. He'd always be showing me these weird and wonderful things he invented. Just like, he invented a new way to put frets on a guitar, that an Australian guitar company started licencing off him and that was just like a side thing that he was doing. And he was explaining to me how it worked when I was like 10 and just always been fascinated by the ingenuity and the ability to just be able to create something from nothing.
KRIS: Throughout their childhood Alex and Anthony worked in the family business, along with their other siblings. However as they finished school they started to think about the future. Anthony, who’s six years older than Alex, took a year to work in the family business and help with managing artist endorsements, and he then went on to study Entrepreneurship at RMIT. All this time he was still working in the family’s business and also working in a cafe… but like everyone studying entrepreneurship there’s always a business idea burning on the side.
Anthony Zaccaria: I kind of had like I was trying to start yeah I was trying to start a like a media thing that was like you were able to these it was these mobile like promo people would be around but they'd have these screens over their head. I don't know if they’re still around anymore but like this backpack they would have you know the technology to be like a CD player back then with like a little screen above their heads that you’d play animations and things… and be like a media buy for brands. I tried, I saw some happening in the US. I tried to launch it here, licence technology and that kind of thing. Almost got it off the ground. Didn't.
KRIS: After finishing university Anthony decided it was time for a change and so here packed up and moved to Sydney.
Anthony Zaccaria: I knew I always wanted to be around music, but I want to expand horizons a bit. So I moved to Sydney 2007, 2008. Not long after uni finished and I got a job at the Sound Alliance, which is now Junkee Media, looking after ad sales, media and marketing partnerships, and basically my client base was record labels and music festivals and promoters and that kind of thing. And it was looking after across all the music publication titles, which were, I think Faster Louder, and In the Mix, if you remember those websites.
KRIS: Yes, Yes. That would have been before they launched Junkee.
Anthony Zaccaria: Before, yeah. It was all about selling display ads and that kind of thing before native content was a thing. Well, the thing. And so that was, that was a really good experience being able to… I was living in another city and built a whole great network of friends, relationships, colleagues, which kind of then grew into starting an artist management business. And once I left there, that was when I definitely knew I was like, I don't want to work for anyone else again. Not that it was a bad experience. I was like, I just want to do my own thing. I'm ready. And so I started managing bands.
KRIS: Meanwhile in Melbourne - Alex had also started studying entrepreneurship, and after a couple of months, decided it wasn’t for him… so he was continuing to work in the family business - but he was also running events and parties on the side. And it was at this point the brothers realised it was time to start working together.
Anthony Zaccaria: Had a little artist management business going, we had that four or five artists we were managing. And I was doing a bit of freelance digital marketing work for a similar client base to what I had. Because the artist management wasn't really paying the bills.
KRIS: And so, at what point in time do you decide that you want to start your own agency?
Alex Zaccaria: I was Yes, I was managing DJs I was running parties managing DJs and also had a record label and I think it just became quite organic that when when we were starting to work together, and doing a lot of that work together it'll still very much Anthony looking after more the live band side of things and I was looking after the DJ and electronic music side of things. I growing up was always just I think just a bit more of like a nerd in like the in terms of like, my mates would be out playing sports at lunch or mucking around with a football or even kids playing games in the library, and I would literally be on a spreadsheet working out formulas because that was just what excited me. And I wanted to do those kind of things. So I have no idea why I never taught myself programming still.
KRIS: It sounds like you’d have the mind for it.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, learnt Microsoft Access and Excel inside out but never taught myself programming for some reason.
Anthony Zaccaria: Don't think you could say focused enough for more than an hour.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, exactly. Yeah I think Anthony was doing some freelance media buying and digital marketing. And I looked at that within one night and was like, we’re doing this so much better. Like, I know, neither of us had much experience. So I definitely had no experience in using Google Analytics and AdWords and all those kind of things. But I just knew what the capabilities were and what the possibilities were.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah, we knew it could be done a lot better.
Alex Zaccaria: Well we assumed anyway,
Anthony Zaccaria: Well, I guess we also saw the, you know, the rise of social advertising and new ad tech that was, that was around, and what was being done in, you know, e-com and sort of that wasn't really being applied into the music space.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, brand and ecom were just doing all these amazing things remarketing, conversion tracking, which seems completely normal now. But it definitely wasn't being used in quite a lot of sectors. Back then I was really only those I guess who could afford digital marketing professionals or to afford to use expensive technology or enterprise technology that were able to do it. And as AdWords and Facebook were making it a little bit more normal. Yeah, we kind, we said, “hey, let's have a crack at this” and the clients that Anthony was working with, we went in and kind of to levelled it out from media buying to say, hey, let's do the social advertising, let's do AdWords. And, hey, if someone doesn't end up buying a ticket, we can actually remarket to them and get them to buy a ticket. And based on how much they, how many tickets they were going to buy, and what they're interested in, and what genres they were interested in, and then starting to get really specific. And using insights to actually do more performance based marketing, which was in especially in the music industry, it was not being done because generally, they, music festivals or anyone selling tickets for that matter, don't own the entire funnel. So you will be buying, like you go to a festival website to learn about the website and then you end up in a completely different ticketing website, with a different domain to be able to actually buy the ticket. And technologically that jump across domain was a little bit harder or just kind of wasn't really done. So we worked out a way to fix that. And we were able to really just start applying a lot of really, I guess intricate strategies and tactics to be able to deliver and in marketing that would, you know, sell tickets far cheaper and more effectively than what they're able to do before and actually go back to promoters and say, Hey, this is how much you spent on marketing this, how much you actually sold from it. Whereas before, it was very much brand awareness based marketing where they would throw money out and hope it would stick.
Anthony Zaccaria: That was probably, I moved back to Melbourne from Sydney, because this sort of stuff was picking. I was like, all right, Alex and I need to be in the same room to do this properly.
KRIS: Alex and Anthony started their agency called Bolster and they had a very niche focus. The music industry. And that helped them get known and acquire more clients.
Anthony Zaccaria: It was, I think it was just, we just applied ourselves in the knowledge we had enough relationships to be able to just give it a go. And it kind of just was pretty organic and word of mouth we didn't do advertising or we didn't do.. It was very much relationship driven. And just like also that nobody else is really doing it. I guess it was that thing of people didn't know they needed this service, if that made sense. It was like, Oh, well, you can do that. Oh my god, I didn't know. Oh yeah, okay? Of course. Like… doing a specialist job because marketing managers had to be all rounders, they couldn't be specialist performance digital marketing people as well as the rest of their job. So we're able to take that off their hands and do it really, really well and be that plug-in digital specialist. And so that that we just hit up everyone that we knew and just went about it and the word kind of spread and it grew very organically very quickly.
Alex Zaccaria: I think this is where I guess our big belief in like going niche came from. We do digital marketing for music and events, and that's all we do. There's no reason for people not to give us a crack or at least talk to us about it. And it became, you know, we will just get a lot of referrals. And I think, obviously, looking back on that period, now, we're very fortunate that it grew so organically means that it was just referral and we never really had to do any crazy outbound marketing sales like, in fact, like we actually probably never really actually won a client when we actually had to go pitch. We weren't good at selling in that way. It was like these relationships, relationship building, showing them what we could actually do, that we were actually always able to generally land the deal and most of those clients are still our clients. So the clients of that agency.
KRIS: And it’s at this point - a couple of years into their journey with Bolster that they ran into a problem… a problem that would lead them to Linktree. We’ll be back with that story in a moment.
KRIS: Alex and Anthony Zaccaria had founded an agency called Bolster and it was doing incredibly well. But a couple of years into their journey they ran into a problem - and it was around social media. They were managing a lot of digital accounts for music festivals and other events, and they were getting frustrated by changing links.
Alex Zaccaria: We were managing the the socials, and the digital for heaps of, major music festivals and just got really sick of having to change the link in bio every time we shared a post. And it was also around the time the Instagram had changed their feed from chronological to, to algorithmic,
KRIS: Right and everyone was so annoyed about it and freaking out.
Alex Zaccaria: Freaking out, yeah... In a more practical sense, like the issue actually was that… It could mean that your visitors are people that came to you, were searching through their feed, could see a post for you that was three or four days old, and it might have something about ‘link in bio’. That person will go back to your ‘link in bio’ and now your bio has changed and it's no longer relevant to whatever that post originally was. So we wanted to solve that problem mainly for us and for our clients and who we were working with and we came up with the idea to, you know, have one link in your bio that you don't have to change and you can just have one really easy to use separate platform where can Drag and Drop the links and add them and schedule him and get your analytics. And so that was probably the vagueness of the brief that we gave.
Anthony Zaccaria: I don’t even think it was that far.
Alex Zaccaria: It wasn’t even that it was like, let’s have like a link and a separate,
KRIS: you know, just a page with many links.
Anthony Zaccaria: Basically. Yeah.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah. And it's like that simple. We said it to our developer and I think and yeah, he he built the prototype in about six hours. It was like that morning, we had a meeting with him. He builds it out and was like, Is this what you mean? I was like, yeah, that's exactly what we meant.
KRIS: Now that they had a prototype - Alex and Anthony had to give it a name… and for that they leaned on their co-founder Nick who came up with the name Linktree. This was in early 2016, and the team started rolling out Linktree to all their clients. It was a side business intended to solve a problem, but it started expanding.
Alex Zaccaria: I think I think they'll just seen in other people's socials right. So Splenour put it in their Instagram bio, and a few other clients have done it and they will discovering it. And, you know, it was still like, I think one of the first early organic signups was like… the City of Melbourne, which us being in Melbourne, I was like, that's awesome. You know, like, we love the city, and we reached out to them. And still at that stage, being able to have like this really personal service where we're doing everything we could and just really stayed on top of being able to develop out features that early users were wanting. Yeah. And then so we kept doing it that way, and were still growing the agency and generally working on Linktree as a side hustle going home at night. Right, continuing to
KRIS: I assume, you thought that it would just remain just like a side project. And it's nice. A few people signed up. That's great.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah. There's quite a few of those things. We always had lots of ideas. And we were like, hey there will be a little side project, little side project, and the agency was like, scaling rapidly. I think that point it was 12 or 15 staff, maybe.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, through that year we to. I think the first year it was one to 18 and then the following year up to 35 staff or something. So we're dealing with like a yeah, scaling agency, client work, which is just generally a lot of work and dealing on that with people on that level. And then yeah Linktree is starting to scale as well. And we'd be dealing with all that work and generally hiring one or two people a month and then trying to scale that and then going home and doing the same with Linktree.
KRIS: At what point did you realise that this is something a little bit special something this is this is a bit bigger than you thought it was gonna be.
Alex Zaccaria: Look still enough a little while longer. Probably a lot later than we should have noticed. It was, I believe a little bit later that year… We kind of it's probably July I think around that year when we actually took the whole team up to Splendour in the Grass as a retreat for the company. And we decided that that week, at the start of the festival that we're going to… rebuild the entire platform and refactor it because again, like I said, we built that kind of prototype really quickly. It was just a way to get it out there and see what it was and if it would solve this problem and because people were signing up like people actually like these people are signing up organically. They’re starting to ask for features that are a little bit hard to build in the way that we've built it? So we spent a bunch more time actually refactoring and redesigning it. And a far less refined version of what you see today. But with the actual live preview, and, and the links and those kind of things were before that it didn't have any of that.
KRIS: Around this time - people were still organically finding out about the service. And the team were planning a launch for their new version of Linktree. Alex says they wanted to be prepared for the moment when they’d put their service on Product Hunt and they’d see a rapid increase in downloads, they didn’t want the site to crash. However before they could even launch the new version, someone posted it to Product Hunt for them.
Alex Zaccaria: And it was the night before our sister's wedding, of which I was in the bridal party, and someone put it up on Product Hunt. So we started getting like a spike in signups, and then getting these alerts at like two in the morning, the night before the wedding got on the computer, realised that someone had hunted it, which is awesome. And there was like, hundreds of comments, people trying to reply and then like thousands of signups and the servers teetering on the edge of disaster. And so yeah, luckily the photographer did his wonders the next day and hid the bags under my eyes. But we yeah…
KRIS: Were you like the whole time through the wedding thinking, oh, what's going on now? Let me check the signups, has the website gone down?
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, yeah, exactly just like watching that. So yeah, I've tried to push it out of my head and really be present in the moment for our sister. But yeah, it was super exciting was always wanted to be there. And a few days after that is when Alicia Keys signed up. Which was it was, yeah a bit surreal. I think we will still in that coworking space we're looking at. We're looking at we had, we still had a thing on Slack, where we would get a notification every time someone signed up. So it was kind of five to 10 signups a day like I said, or maybe 20 by that time, and it was fine. I was really excited looking through who signed up and looking at everyone. So we saw Alicia Keys pop up and like that’s not real, that can’t be real. We looked into it and looked at the email address and we’re like oh, this is, this is real, and we like doing a little happy dance around the office and all the other businesses that are in there just looking at us going what the hell is going on?
Alex Zaccaria: So it turns out that it was Alicia Keys’ digital agency. Signed up, and they’d seen it in product on. So we reached out to them and said, Hey, we'll give you free customization, free features, all these extra dedicated support if you sign up the rest of the roster. And so they did that they signed up, I think Eminem, and Tupac, and Pearl Jam, and The Killers. And that's kind of really what started pushing us into that that side of the world and really being seen by some major users. And I think, for us was probably the most, extra gratifying. Because coming from the music background, essentially, we really had music in mind when we built this thing and what we designed it. It's such a fragmented industry, where you have for a musician, they'll have them merch on one platform, and their tickets being sold on another platform, and they're streaming on another platform. It's not one cohesive e commerce platform where they can have all their revenue. So to have one unified place where they can connect all the dots was super important for them and that's definitely where it kind of connected the easiest for people. And now it serves so many purposes across so many verticals. And people are really showing us the way that they’re using it across different user groups, which is exciting. Be here that for us at that time it was so fascinating to watch and exciting.
Anthony Zaccaria: It also helped validate some of the product to, because we were able to work so closely with her team. And they helped us kind of say, oh, do you reckon you could build that or Wouldn't it be cool if it did that sort of thing? And it helped us sort of get that, that really early feedback as well.
KRIS: Right. So you were you were actively talking to Alicia Keys management team, figuring out what they really wanted in the product?
Anthony Zaccaria: Yep.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah. And they were obviously very forthcoming with ideas and really what you know, and we'll obviously so dedicated to keeping them on board and just making sure we're going to be delivering on what they were requesting. And even though we knew so much about what, how people would need to use it in the music industry, actually hearing from artists of that calibre with that many followers and that many label partnerships and those kind of things and how it would actually need to work. So we put a lot of effort into building out functionality for them. But for the most part, it's really from a branding customisation point of view to make sure that it all suits. So leap links for example, which basically allows you to completely bypass your Linktree and go directly to one of the links that was on the Linktree that came from the idea of, you know, Alicia Keys, needed to release a record and not wanting to confuse people with a bunch of links and just want just want to go to Spotify.
KRIS: Just wanted to go straight to the latest record. This is what we care about right now.
Alex Zaccaria: And for a certain period for seven hours or something and then going straight back to the list of links, which serves another purpose of actually being able to help people discover and a the discovery of the rest of your content outside of just that one link.
KRIS: Alex and Anthony had just one developer from their digital team working on Linktree in the early days, but as more and more people signed up to the platform they were able to start dedicating more of his time to their side business. But as that started to grow they had to balance the already growing agency with their newfound digital success.
Anthony Zaccaria: It was all in all the time between both things, and split focus going we've got this product that's really cool and has a lot of potential. But crap, there's a website that needs to go live in two days for this client, or this new festival’s announcing next week, and… managing a team becomes a whole other set of challenges. And growing a team. And I guess the thing you're not ready for when you're just want to do stuff is all the, you know, the business stuff and business admin that comes along with any kind of startup or business that you know, we at that point had to move offices. So, you know, finding a space to rent in itself, doing it, signing a lease, figuring out payroll, tax, employment contracts, all this sort of stuff is also happening alongside that. And then with Linktree as well you know, being a global product is privacy policies you got to deal with, and all sorts of stuff. So it's very… it's trying to figure out how to split our time and who was doing what was definitely a learning.
Anthony Zaccaria: This probably sounds ridiculous to most people, but it actually was probably the thing that got us through. We all lived together for a couple of years. So I had moved back from Sydney. Alex had, moved in to a place near the office and had a couple of his housemates and moved out. So I'd moved into one room and I was actually going between New York and Melbourne for about two and a half years during this time because my now wife was, had a job in New York and she moved there. So I was doing two months there working from there two months back in Melbourne. So I was in Melbourne, I was living with Alex. Nick had moved back from overseas just before he started working with us at Linktree… was at his parents, Alex was like, “Dude, what are you doing?” You're miles away, you're wasting two hours in traffic, come move in with me. So the three of us were in this house, all throughout this kind of two and a bit year period and that was actually that was kind of the only way for us to manage because after hours is when we'd have our time together to work and plan stuff. Which most people would think is really, really unhealthy and probably is a bit but also…
Alex Zaccaria: It was definitely unhealthy, but necessary.
Anthony Zaccaria: It was definitely unhealthy for the whole work life balance thing, but it was actually really productive at the same time because we're able to just bounce ideas get stuff done together, you wouldn’t be able to get stuff through the day because you were very much just like running from thing to thing during the day just just keeping up. So, it's very much a learning in that, taking the time to, taking the time out to plan and think ahead is just as important as the actual doing and executing. Easier said than done now because we never really set out to be like, you know, Linktree’s this thing. we put together a deck, and going for investment. It is a five year plan. It was like here’s a problem that needs fixing. Let's work out and keep working on fixing it, and fixing it. It was always about the product first, and fixing problems first. Rather than, like, let's turn this into the biggest company in the world, which, you know, now with hindsight, we're getting better at that planning stuff. But yeah, during that through that time, it was very much like, just one thing after the other.
KRIS: So how did Linktree go from a side business to its own company… that’s coming up after this quick break.
KRIS: Linktree had seen great success. They had the likes of Alicia Keys, and Eminem, using their product and they were growing rapidly. Alex says around 2000 people were signing up to Linktree every day in early 2017, and by the end of the year they were seeing 5 or 6,000 users every day.
Alex Zaccaria: The biggest challenge that year really was most of that scale was coming from overseas, and still is. So it’s global from day one, you know, users in the States. And that just comes with practical problems. Like, we should be posting on Instagram during the US day, not in our day and you can’t schedule on Instagram and someone needs to get up at four in the morning and make a post. And we need to Yeah, look at all our reporting within US timezones and and all these kind of things you get used to pretty quickly.
KRIS: And how are you funding Linktree during that time?
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, well, we were supporting it through the agency. And personally putting money into it and keeping it up. I guess the the main cost was the infrastructure. But it was around that year that we put out the pro version as well. So we we'd started to recognise that users, to our surprise, were signing up and wanting to use this product. And there were so many other people with the same problem that we had, which was exciting. But then the next thing was that users were actually saying, ‘Hey, we want this feature, we want to be able to do this’. And recognised it was an opportunity to create revenue through it. So yeah, even when we started, we never expected to create a paid version of it. So we set out to work out how to actually be able to create a plan and be able… actually pay for the subscription and get access to extra features and build out a bunch of extra customization options and analytics options is the first thing that we launched. So I remember launching that and sitting at home, sitting at my girlfriend's house when I was supposed to be at the dinner table, when our developer called and said hey It's live. And I'm sitting there just refreshing like someone's gonna pay for it. Someone's gonna pay for it. Someone's gonna pay for it. It took about five hours just waiting for it and eventually one came through that wasn't us and I'm just like Yes, someone's someone's actually on the first day of launching, like, pulled out and pulled out their wallet and spent their hard earned dollars on on something we had built, which was really incredible.
KRIS: Around this time Linktree was making enough money to cover the salary of their developer, and so they started expanding. Putting on more developers as the platform grew. One of the mistakes many businesses make is not working out what their users want… but Alex says they were very focused on talking to users to figure out what their platform needed to be.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, so in terms of the features we just spent so long, actually spending time talking to users we were such a, we just made a really conscious effort to be super user driven and customer driven, and working out what they wanted and whatever they wanted the most is what we built. So as well as knowing, you know, thinking that we know, the best on what our users want. There’s definitely, one big learning that we had was, there's a certainly a tipping point where you think, you know, you might know better than what the users think and in terms of what we actually want to put out and and and the features we're putting out. And then it gets to a point where we put out a couple of features that don't necessarily hit the mark, and have a realisation where the users know better. And we don't know, we don't know how users anymore as well as we used to. And it's going to take a lot more research and a lot more talking to users to work out what it is they want. So we spend a lot of time doing that. So generally it was whatever came first was or whatever they wanted, came first. And that definitely served us really well in terms of being able to grow the paid version of the product. And when we put out the first version, we did all these things to just make it a really great product that people wanted to use. It was unlimited links, unlimited, lots of things so that people would want to use a product and when we brought out the pro product, we needed to do something to make sure that the pro version was worth paying for. But we always took… this mentality towards it that we should always add value to the pro version and never remove value from the free version... You know, reduce the amount of links that people could access on the free version. Instead, we would add value through customization options and extra features and analytics and making the pro version better.
KRIS: By Mid 2018 - Linktree hit their first million users, and it was around this time they made a decision to put Alex in charge of Linktree while Anthony would stay focused on the agency. They’d all be in the same building but they wanted to reduce confusion amongst their teams who were getting pulled across different projects.
Anthony Zaccaria: So now that now that we did that I was able to… to be a bit more strategic and see something Alex may not in terms of we should be hiring these kinds of people do these sorts of things, and I'll go off and do that and help bring it to the table whereas he's in the detail time. And then same with the agency. I'm in the detail on that. And he'll come in over the top of something being like, why haven't we done this look at this new idea I've got because he's not in the client detail anymore. So it's actually almost serving us better in a way being able to do that.
KRIS: The brothers don’t remember doing much to celebrate their first million users because they were so focused on keeping everything running. But Linktree kept growing rapidly and in 2019 it passed 3 Million users… which Alex says was a different story.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, yeah, we definitely celebrated three million users. But yeah, it was kind of it was you know, when we look back at it now we go okay, literally some tech tech startups are like striving for this number of a million users and we were still kind of operating to the side hustle at a million users and probably should have been putting more you know, we put a lot of attention and when I say more attention is probably no more attention we could give, we were giving absolutely everything we could to it across all our time. Going home and still, you know, if we left the office, or went to bed, or stopped working before 2am it would be unusual… we were definitely burning the candle at both ends and doing a lot of work.
KRIS: How how did you avoid burnout during that time?... or didn’t you?
Anthony Zaccaria: I don’t know.
Alex Zaccaria: I don’t know how Anthony got through it.
Anthony Zaccaria: I think I was better at going to bed earlier than you, you were like “no I’m in the zone at midnight. Don't worry”. And maybe it’s because I'm older than you. I was like, mmmhmmhmmm, get up early and worry about in the morning, but yeah, I don't know. I think Just maybe I'm still stressing it somehow and it’s going to come later.
Alex Zaccaria: It’s on the way… So it's a hard thing to do but I think Yeah, now we've definitely learnt the lesson of we're better off, yeah, trying to look after ourselves and getting some sleep otherwise we won't be won't be around to really to help out.
KRIS: How are you handling things like support requests and stuff from all of your clients that are overseas?
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah. We were getting in the thousands of requests per day. And so many of them similar requests and… that was so important for us to give the direction of the product we really actually, you know, we would, we would all spend time in support and actually answering questions throughout the day. We definitely didn't put enough emphasis on it early on, like we would kind of let that go for a few days. And when we had a chance we would get back to it. Login and just like answer the important ones and it definitely, probably wouldn't have been an amazing experience for our users at that time. But we built a roster system around casual staff that would come in and distributed around the world and be able to log in. And got that down to be able to just answer all those questions throughout the day and build out a solutions and knowledge base article. And we're still improving that process now in terms of making sure that teams are skilled and knowledgeable on the product and across the changes we're making and all those kinds of things. But yeah, that was definitely a big challenge, trying to keep up with that volume. And it was also a big lesson like, Nick loves it. He was always looking at it. Because if we get in that many user requests or support requests, it means we haven't designed it well enough. If people aren't, being be able to work it out for themselves. So he was always wanting to do the support work. To be really understanding. And it's also gives you a really good I guess, anecdotal anecdotal knowledge of how our users think and the way they ask questions and the way they think. And so generally, when we have new staff or new team members start, especially in the design team, we will say, they’ll design something amazing and really complex and does all these things and we’ll be like, go spend two hours and support and talk to our users and learn how they think. And almost immediately afterwards, they come and just like wipe everything away and start again, because it is just such a fascinating look into the way people think and the way people use the product.
Anthony Zaccaria: No matter how simple we thought everything was and how it looked and the language we tried to have on the landing page. And I must have thought there’s no other way to make it any simpler. And that user feedback always helped me form that. Like how they said, do you remember thinking that one user that when.. We had this tagline that was like, ‘You only get one chance to link make it do more’, I think it was something like that, that was on there? And this one user sent a thing like, “hey, I've just signed up for Linktree, but I know you only get one chance, I don't want to stuff it up, So can you help me out?” We were like oh, Wow, that's really cute and like, okay, we better, maybe that tagline isn't the right way to go. Because we thought you only get one chance to link you know, make it make your one bio link or link in your Twitter profile, do more for you. But like they’re not even thinking at that level, they’re thinking at this. So there was a really, really fascinating insight to all that. And we still and then also helped inform a lot of our support articles and all that sort of stuff. Because, yeah, which still is really.
KRIS: Anthony, you were us more focused on the sort of agency aspect. And what were some of the, like differences that you notice, between, you know, the two businesses that you're running, you know, between running an agency and also a tech product that is scaling rapidly?
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah… The product, Linktree, the SAAS product, is what you're selling, and it's about bettering that experience. But on the agency, it's people and the service and so, and the products are the people in a way and so how you hire, and the idea is you have translating that into something people want to buy and pay you for and then delivering on that is a massive challenge. Because there's so many moving parts, whether it's a Facebook campaign or producing a piece of branded content for a brand like Red Bull or YouTube… it's all about the creative output and the people. So managing teams, building team, putting some structure. We were always very, one to one with our clients. So the person doing the work is the one talking to the client, there isn’t any layers of fat, like there was in lots of agencies who are very flat structure. As the agency was growing, we had to be like, we can't do everything anymore. We need some, you know, more senior people and that also meant we had to grow the team because staff were with us for two or three years and we wanted to be able to progress them into new roles and promotions as well. So yeah, figuring out ways how to do that and have, have other people manage people within the business was definitely a big learning and also challenge of being able to, letting go as well. And like someone else can handle this and I don't need to micromanage it. That was definitely a hard one to deal with, but also liberating.
KRIS: How were you guys thinking about culture? With these sort of like two separate businesses kind of like coexisting under the one kind of entity? How are you thinking about developing a good culture and like, How were you measuring that?
Anthony Zaccaria: It was always very much about finding people that were passionate about what they did, and people who were able to be autonomous because of the nature of the work being very reactive. We didn't have a lot of time. I guess it came back from how we started the business to we, you know, we saw that other agencies would have all these rules, like, we need five day lead time minimum to do anything. And we're like, five days, I'll do it in five minutes. Let's go. And we kind of built the agency around that reactiveness. So we needed to build a very autonomous team. A team that was passionate about what they did in the entertainment space, passionate about digital marketing, content creation or whatever it was. So there was sort of things we're trying to we're looking for and trying to instil.
Alex Zaccaria: Team surveys and definitely measuring and it was always just such a massive thing for us to make sure everyone we hired was a culture fit in those definitely a certain culture that existed within Bolster. You know, people that really love music, people that also love digital marketing and also technical enough to do the digital, the actual paid performance work. And it really grew from there. Bolster now has social team, and web, and content creation, and brand activation, and digital, and there's still just this amazing culture of people that really love and are passionate about entertainment, and music, and band together to make that happen. And it was, yeah, early last year where we really made we completely separated the company's… We really need to be able to build this separate culture, the way those two businesses operate are different. They’re still under the same roof, which we enjoy because they’re all friends and there's different people where everyone can hang out with at lunch and we can do things together like do yoga and meditation and we feed, like everyone has team lunch together provided on Mondays and free breakfast where they all can do that together and integrate social culture in that way. But then in separate areas of the building and can really focus and get to work.
KRIS: Linktree now has close to four million users and is still growing rapidly. More than 10,000 people sign up to the platform every day, and they have more than 130 million unique visitors a month. A lot of their signups have traditionally come from the US but they’re seeing huge growth in Brazil, Indonesia, and Argentina.
Alex Zaccaria: Brazil’s a really interesting one. Really exciting. Our biggest user is actually Brazilian in terms of following numbers. And we've now hired a Portuguese speaking Brazilian, internally full time to start producing Portuguese based content, and be able to do business development in Portuguese and do all those kind of things. We're seeing that as a really, really important thing. It's nowhere near as big from a pro and paid perspective, but definitely from awareness and growth. And when you look at some of the major social accounts around the world, they're generally big soccer players, those kind of things, actually from Brazil. So it's really important, Indonesia’s scaling massively, which is kind of driving the growth in Asia as a whole. And then yeah, Germany and the UK, but a big focus for us this year is to really get the paid version across some other non English speaking countries.
KRIS: The Linktree team is still quite small, when I recorded the interview they were just 12 people including the founders. And like all small teams they’ve had to work out how to manage the infrastructure required to keep their service functional… and like all products that experience rapid growth - they’ve had a few moments where everything could have gone wrong.
Alex Zaccaria: Yeah, there's been it's been a few moments.
Anthony Zaccaria: Yeah, a couple wasn't there?
Alex Zaccaria: We got banned in Russia one time, for like an entire year.
KRIS: What happened in Russia?
Alex Zaccaria: We don't know. There's so we saw, you know, when competitors pop up like it is, you know, we created this product that did nothing else existed like it. And now there's a you know, a few others that range from doing some really nice, even innovative things, and some that are kind of just a complete copy of it. And quite a few of them are popping up out of the Russian region. One of them was, we'd reached out to because it was pretty direct. plagiarism. And about a week later, we just got completely banned in Russia. And I don't know if those two are connected. I like to think they were, it makes a way better story. Yeah, it was, it was pretty interesting. We kind of tried a few things to try and get around it and who in the hell do you contact? We kind of left it at that and eventually it came back and, and that was all good. There was a time that we got a call from the FBI because ISIS were using the platform.
KRIS: Okay? So you're gonna have to talk through this one.
Alex Zaccaria: We got an email and a call from the FBI saying what's going on here. And we looked at and it was basically just like some articles that were popping up on Twitter and things about this platform that ISIS were using to spread propaganda and that kind of thing. I mean, it was terrifying at the start, and we did everything we could to block it all and and thankfully, they didn't keep trying to use it, we just blocked it. I guess, the learning for us there was really just security and spam measures as a whole. That was something that we started to recognise it at the outside of just that incident. There was people you know, trying to use Linktree to get around Instagram security and these kind of things. So with scale comes bad actors as well. And quite a big chunk of our engineering team right now is dedicated towards spam protection and security and just making sure our users are always safe. And that the brand perception is always you know, that we're not some kind of tool for spam, which lots of spammers would try to have, if they had their way would end up happening. So there's a lot of focus put on that, but it was, it was just that for, you know, really only lasted a day or two, but it was it was like, got to the extreme that we didn't even recognise it until like, yeah, a federal agency had to call us.
Anthony Zaccaria: And there was that time that, when I was in New York, and it would have been two in the morning for you or something, it was morning for me over there. And Instagram momentarily blocked the Linktree URL.
KRIS: I can see how that would be problematic.
Alex Zaccaria: Less problematic now we're very diversified, and people are using it across so many platforms but… they fixed it within I think it was like 19, who's counting exactly 19 minutes and It was around 20 minutes. And it was actually because they got something like 40,000 reports that it wasn't spam it was they, like just a false positive accidentally recognised it as spam. It just blocked the whole domain and they got so many real reports and so many major users were using it, that they issued us an apology. And… we haven't had a problem since.
KRIS: Instagram is Linktree’s primary platform but they’re now seeing a rise in other social networks. Around 40% of their traffic now comes from other social sites like Tik Tok. And all of this growth has been organic. It’s only been in the past few months that the team has started spending any money on paid marketing. That’s the beauty of a product that is shareable. People will see someone they know using it and then sign up. And up to this point the company has been entirely bootstrapped. They’ve taken no outside investment and have been able to use their own profits to keep expanding.
Anthony Zaccaria: I never really thought about it. We were never really like in the quote unquote “startup world” so to speak. And probably didn’t even think it was… honestly I didn't even think it was a possibility. We just and that probably came back from working around in a family business growing up, you did everything yourself which took us a while to get out of that be like no no you can just pay other people and hire people to do other jobs and learn to grow things and my parents always would be like you have to do everything yourself. And like even just stupid things like the plumber would be like a family friend, and like it always just be people you know doing stuff for you rather than just like paying for someone who you have to do the job properly if that makes sense. So we, and that's how we grew the agency was like we can hire one more, we can hire one more person rather than us taking a big salary it was always like let's grow the business let's grow something really meaningful here and it’s probably the same that we applied to Linktree is keep keep the business in check and make it all happen organically. Yeah, it's actually, it is really nice to see.
KRIS: I mean, you've been around family businesses, your entire lives. What's the biggest thing that you've learnt working together?
Alex Zaccaria: I think it's, it's funny we get asked a lot how we work as brothers and how you could possibly work your brother that closely, and I think we like to see it as an advantage. I would say yeah, I think growing up in a family business and always having to work around family has probably given us that, that foundation to be able to work closely with your family and set personal things aside, to business, and those kind of things. Or it all meshes into one and it's all one big pot pie and it’s fine. But I think you know, what we've been able to do together. We’ve definitely moved faster, like we can yell at each other and not have to be polite to each other like you would with other colleagues and just get things done, because we can just be just like direct and to the point, and be best mates a minute later.
Anthony Zaccaria: We definitely realised we can definitely just move faster because we've got a very similar brain and know each other's weak spots and strengths and just play to those. So I think it's actually, it's actually quite a good thing we can play off each other.