8 Questions with Entrepreneur Clay Collins of LeadPages

By Johnny B. Truant

Today, Johnny talks with Clay Collins, co-founder of LeadPages, the largest online generation tool right now. From creativity and systems, to risk and owning up to not being good enough, they cover the gamut of what has made Clay so successful.

(If you prefer audio, you can listen to this episode on the 8 Questions Podcast)

Johnny:  Clay is a good example of somebody who you would say is an entrepreneur, but he’s an entrepreneur because he’s creative and there’s a lot of creativity in the way that Clay does business.  Thanks for joining us on 8 Questions, Clay.

Clay:  Johnny, this has been a while in the making and we’ve been friends for a long time so it’s nice to hook up around some content. Thanks for having me.

Johnny:  Absolutely. And I told Clay ahead of time that it would be cool to swear in this one and he says that it’s gotten too corporate, so we’ll see if that happens.  So, to begin with I want to hear your business story, because I met you several generations ago. I want to say way back to a thing called Project Mojave but maybe even before that. LeadPages is this big company and you’ve got I think you said over 100 employees now, is that right?

Clay:  We’re at 150 employees right now.

Johnny:  So, it’s real big.  So, give me a business story.  Give me how you go to where you are?

Clay:  So, I think every entrepreneur has the long version and the short version. The long version is like when they were seven they had a lemonade stand and that led to something else, which led to something else and it’s just really weird and complicated and confuses people.

So, I’ll start off at the beginning of LeadPages.

I was doing marketing, coaching and consulting, and I had a blog. I think it was called Finance Your Freedom or something like that, because I was really into self-help.

Johnny:  Are we going back far enough here? I’ve got to cut you off as moderator here.

Clay:  I think we are.

Johnny:  Okay. Because I don’t really want to start with LeadPages, I want to start way back before LeadPages. I want to hear the nitty gritty.

Clay:  But Yannick did this interview with me and he’s like wait, I don’t understand. Back up, let’s move, and it took an hour and a half. So, I don’t know if we could do eight questions.

It is so winding and confusing and there’s like three businesses at a time and one dies down and another one starts. They’re the same legal entity, and then I go to graduate school and then drop out twice, while one’s dying and another one’s starting up.

I don’t know that there’s anything clean in there, do you know what I mean? That people are going to come away with and be like yes, I totally understand what happened.

Johnny:  That’s the beauty of it. The fact that it’s kind of un-understandable is the beauty of it. Okay. I don’t want you to tell me the whole story. Give me some of the highlights.

Like I said, and I don’t know if this is where you would want to begin, but I met you with Project Mohave and I do remember Finance Your Freedom. I had a few guest posts on there. So, why don’t you just tell me what some of them are. I don’t need to know where you filed the LLC paperwork and stuff but give me a rough trajectory.

Clay:  Okay. I think most entrepreneurs have always been on their hustle. So, starting when I was seven, starting with the advent of the Internet. Like where do we start this?

Johnny:  This is the hardest 8 Questions ever.

Clay: No, seriously, where do we start this?

Johnny:  Let’s start with LeadPages then. So, you were doing Finance Your Freedom and how did you get into it?

Clay:  All right. So, this is the story behind LeadPages. So, I had this blog and I was blogging to get consulting clients in marketing and coaching clients. Literally I would spend four days crafting a 4,000 or 5,000 word blog post to try and make some perfectly made points that was perfectly articulated and showed that I was right and that other people’s approach was wrong.

I’m very opinionated, right, so I would try and craft these points and write these really long posts.

Right around the same time that was happening, Gary Vaynerchuk was basically creating Wine Library TV. He’d get millions of views per video and he was a video blogger. He would essentially just grab three wines off the shelf at his wine store, flip on the camera, film himself for 12 minutes, uncut, no edits.

He would just taste three wines and draw on his vast history that he had in the wine world and comment on these wines.

It was totally extemporaneous. He’s got way more viewers than this extremely long blog post that I would spend forever writing because I’m not as prolific as you, Johnny.

So, he was getting all these views and I was pissed and I was like how could he create content so effortlessly and I can’t?

So, I started thinking of ways that I could create video based content, extemporaneously, without a lot of prep work.

What I landed on was I created something called the Marketing Show and it was at marketingshow.com and in every episode of the Marketing Show I would review one landing page, I would talk about any split testing results I had around it, any data points I had, why it was created the way it was, why we made it for our clients.

And then we gave away an HTML template so people could take that landing page and just use it for themselves in their own business.

So, basically I was creating videos in 10 minutes also, we were giving away landing pages, I was talking about why they work.

We got more shares than ever, more comments than ever, but in the comments people would come in and say “All right, Clay, thanks for this, but how do I hook this up to WordPress?” or “How do I integrate this with Hub Spot?” or “How do I integrate this with MailChimp or Aweber?” and “How do I publish this to Facebook?”

All this stuff.

At first I was pissed.

What do you guys want for free? I’m giving this away, what the hell!

Then I realized that there was a business there, and I went to the blog audience and I basically presold what I wanted to create to solve all the issues they were asking about in their questions.

So, I asked people what they wanted. If they said yes, we presold what became LeadPages. We got 200 people to give us $200 to be early adopters of LeadPages and then six weeks later we launched the first version of LeadPages. 200 people, $200, $40,000.

So we took that $40,000, hired a developer, came out with the first version of LeadPages and then just started releasing a new feature, or a new integration, or a new landing page template basically every one to two weeks after that.

We moved really fast.

People just watched the story and they became part of the narrative. They became protagonists in the story of how LeadPages came to be. They’d ask for a feature one week and three weeks later it’d be available.

People really got a kick out of it.

So, we started there and then two and a half years later we’ve got 40,000 paying customers, we’re the biggest player in the space, we’ve raised $38,000,000 in venture capital. Although we really haven’t touched it, but it’s nice to have there.

The rest isn’t history but…

Johnny:  History in the making.

Clay:  History in the making, yes.

Johnny:  What is it about business that kind of turns you on? You approach business, and always have since I’ve known you, as almost like a game. How do you think you approach it differently than most people? 

Clay:  I think first and foremost what I’m doing right now is my lifestyle business. So, a lot of people’s idea of a lifestyle business is they’re doing something in Area A so that they can have fun doing B, right.

It’s almost like they’re kind of paying the bills so they can support what they really want to do.

And this is what I really want to do.

Some people’s idea of a lifestyle business is on the beach with a laptop, or travelling around the world in a balloon, creating some business from a laptop.

My idea of a lifestyle business is hiring the most talented people in the world, being able to afford them to tackle huge hairy problems and to go after massive scale.

In any given time in LeadPages there’s hundreds of split tests running simultaneously, sometimes thousands. Being able to aggregate that data, have a really cool data clearing house, doing big data stuff in the background, hiring data scientists.

Going after big hairy problems.

Like having Elon Musk launching rockets into space.

We’re not approaching that, but I do think that much of the interesting things we’re doing in the world hasn’t been exposed to yet.

That’s really what gets me going is scale.

I really enjoy doing this. I’m not pushing myself to do this.

I’ve never been an early riser until LeadPages and now I’m an early riser because it’s like I just want to start the day and get started on some really cool stuff that I want to do.

The other thing is because I get to work with such amazingly talented people, the best people in the world at what they do, I’m able to focus on just doing the stuff that I’m really, really good at.

I actually think that’s a huge gift.

Working 16 hours a day is not a gift.

Spending 16 hours a day like ridiculously excited and only doing the things you want to do, that is a huge luxury.

Being able to work 16 hours a day doing stuff, and that there’s nothing else that you’d rather be doing.

I don’t know that I approach business differently. I see the matrix a little bit in terms of not being afraid to build out a team, not being afraid to pay top dollar to work with top talent.

There’s a few things I see differently. Not being afraid of raising venture capital when the deal is right and when the partnership is structured correctly, and the legal frameworks underpinning the partnerships are advantageous.

There’s a lot of things most entrepreneurs are afraid of that I’m just not afraid of.

Johnny:  So, this is a good logical next question. What do you say to somebody, and I’m assuming this has happened, what do you say to somebody when they say well, you can’t do that? I’m guessing this has happened a lot.

I have a theory that successful entrepreneurs, and you’re definitely an example of one of those, and I am too in some ways, it’s kind of like it doesn’t really occur that something can’t be done. So, it’s like you don’t know that that’s impossible and so you do it and it was possible.

Clay:  Yea. I guess so. I really just don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not something can be done.

I spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not I’m personally ridiculously excited about it and see a way to do it.

I really feel alive.

So, when something activates me at a certain level, then there’s just no way I’m not going to do it. It almost doesn’t matter. It isn’t helpful to sit around and think about whether or not it can be done.

It just matters about do you have the energy to tackle this at the level that someone needs to tackle it in order to get it done?

If the answer is yes, then go forward. Just keep on going after it.

JohnnyDo you believe in failure?

Clay: Yes, I think that failure only exists if you stop doing something. It’s kind of like the stock market. You’ve only lose money if you sell your stock.

Johnny: It’s so funny because that’s the exact answer I’ve given in the past – only if you stop.

Clay:  I often think about the forever path. So, what would you do if you had to do it for the rest of your life? If you’re just convinced you’re going to do something whether or not it takes 20 years or 40 years or 60, then it really is irrelevant whether or not you have success in the next two months.

It’s mostly about well, did you learn something that’s going to take you to the next level?

Usually things that are really hard can take a long time to figure out. By the time you’re two or four years in, there’s a good chance that you’re one of the top ten people in the world knowing how to do a certain thing.

There’s only a handful of people that know how to run the kind of business we have in the space we’re in and scale it. Two years from now there are going to be even fewer people that can hang at the level we’re at now, that know how to deal with data sets and analysis.

There’s only going to be a handful of people that know how to solve the types of problems that our company knows how to solve, and it’s because we’ve spent four months with ten people working on one project and it didn’t work and we had to scrap it and try it another way.

So, we know the way something works and other people aren’t.

Was that a failure or do all the learnings from that project now become part of our institutional knowledge and tribal knowledge about how to attack certain problems. It absolutely does.

I don’t know that I believe in failure.

Maybe the only real failure is just maybe if you die, but that’s not even failure.

Johnny:  That’s the clock ran out, that doesn’t count. What’s the biggest lesson that you’ve learned in business or life, or what advice would you go back in time and tell yourself?

ClayI think that maybe the biggest lesson is that at the end of the day it’s just all about feeling good. So just follow the things that make you feel good.

Johnny:  Love that answer.

Clay:  I think that if you start thinking about something you want to do, and you start getting just incredibly excited, the more you think about it, the more you kind of build up this energetic snowball that just becomes unstoppable.

That’s probably the thing you should be doing.

The things that you just absolutely hate doing, it’s probably like the least ROI on your time is to do those things.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how I feel.

Probably the biggest return on investment on my time is meditating. I try and meditate every day and it’s made a huge difference in my life. I wish I would have started mediating earlier. I wish my parents had me meditating.

Usually when you feel good about something, success is inevitable.

I can’t think of any given time where I felt truly, truly good about something and just felt like a certain internal traction with an issue that it didn’t actually turn out well.

I think people don’t pay attention enough to those internal signals.

Johnny:  This is actually a follow-up question. I do know this about you, that happiness is important, so have you ever run into situations where you might have had a “good business decision” and you “should have gone in that direction” but it just sucked and so you said fuck that?

Clay:  No, because I haven’t gone down that path so I don’t know how it would have turned out. Do you know what I mean, or was that the question?

Johnny:  Well, I’ve turned away from – there’s been a bunch of things, much to my wife’s consternation, that I probably could have done, like getting a real job when we were losing a bunch of money and stuff.

And I didn’t do it because that sucked, I didn’t want to get a real job.

Clay:  Yes, good for you.

Johnny:  So, I thought you might have those stories. So, before we got on I said is there anything I should know about creative habits or anything that I might not know that I haven’t learned about you, and you said well, I do have a bunch of weird creative shit and that’s where I stopped and said okay, just save that. We’ll explore it in that guise on the show.

Clay:  Yes, so I mediate every day. That’s not weird.

Johnny:  How long do you mediate for?

Clay:  I try and mediate at least 15 minutes once a day, but what’s sort of best for me is 15 minutes twice a day, which is a little bit harder for me to do. If I can’t find a half an hour a day to meditate, that just seems problematic.

Every day I create a want list. I think people are so, even entrepreneurs, if I don’t do this for three or four days, I become totally out of touch with what I personally want. Every day I try and create a want list where I’ll write down sort of just like 12 things that I want.

It could just be like I want a glass of water. And then I’ll be like, oh, I do want a glass of water and then I’ll go downstairs and get a glass of water.

Then I’ll be like no, I want to go on a walk with my wife today.

Or I want to explore this new revenue stream.

Or I want to start a conversation about tackling this huge issue in our company.

And it just reminds me, as soon as I write it down sometimes, I’ll get on Vax or I’ll get on email and I’ll be like hey, let’s schedule this meeting.

I realize that if I don’t do that, I can get dragged around all day by lots of other peoples’ agendas for my time.

That’s fine to some extent. When you have a team this large, it’s important to support the people that you’ve hired because ultimately you’ve hired them to accomplish something that was important to the business or important to you.

But if you do that, it should be like a deliberate trade-off. It’s always important to have that north star of what do YOU want in that situation.

I’ve noticed this with kind of having a company this large, often someone will come to you and say hey, there’s these two options, what should I do. And I’ll be like well, what do you recommend?

The best leaders are the ones that don’t even get to recommending two options. They’ll say there’s a range of options, here’s the one I suggest. Here’s why I suggest it. Here’s the back-up plan, all that stuff.

They actually know what they want to accomplish. They have vision.

So, there’s meditation. I do these daily want lists, which has just been transformative for me in my life. It’s high values, anything I’ve ever done in the business.

Then I’m just always investigating weird – I listen to this Abraham Hicks stuff, there’s these guided meditations around energy. Every once in a while I’ll just book an hour with a Shaman.

I’m just always exploring sort of the edge of what’s normal.

I’ve just seen so much crazy stuff to not believe that there’s something bigger going on, and that nobody has a lock on it. It doesn’t belong to one specific religion. No one has a monopoly on that.

It’s kind of crazy the places that you’ll find truth. I think that we kind of block our own development when we stop exploring far and wide for truth wherever it can be found.

Johnny:  I forgot to ask about that, there’s a real spiritual component too. I don’t know if it bleeds into your business but certainly about you personally in a way that might surprise people.

Clay:  Yes, I think there is a spiritual component to our business. Maybe not overtly, but I think LeadPages is a business where enough people have seen enough miracles happen that people kind of believe in the impossible.

There have been months where we’ve just doubled as a business in one month, right in front of everyone’s eyes.

There have been months where we’ve wanted to accomplish X, and even the people working on it didn’t think it was possible, and then we far exceeded expectations.

I think that a lot of times people could come into the company feeling a little sceptical and then hear me give a talk in front of the company about what we’re going to do, and then two months later we’re actually doing it.

We have this culture of suspending disbelief about what’s possible and what isn’t.

I don’t know if that’s spiritual or not, but it’s there.

Johnny:  This next question is probably my favorite. It’s unique to you. Hopefully this doesn’t sound as a slight. I say it lovingly. I’ve mentioned several times, I’ve said Clay is probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever met who can barely tie his shoes. What I mean by that is, and I think you know what I mean by that, is that you have certain things that you’re excellent at, and certain things that it’s like you know, you can barely manage your calendar sometimes. So, what’s the balance there? How do you manage that? How is that a superpower, which I feel it is?

Clay: Yes, I think I don’t attempt in any way, shape or form to compensate for my weaknesses personally. I have a full-time executive assistant, and she’s amazing, and I don’t touch my calendar and she does.

I live just a very simple life. I drive a beat up Subaru with a dent in it. There’s not a lot of high maintenance stuff going on.

Yes, I think I just try and operate and spend as much of my time as possible kind of in my zone of genius and try to not step into things that I’m not good at.

I think everyone’s happier.

Johnny:  What sort of system have you built around that? You’re running a very large company that’s doing a lot of revenue, has had a lot of growth, so what systems do you use to make it all work?

Clay:  I’m not really good with systems. I’d say the business has a lot of systems. I personally don’t have a lot of systems.

I think that the fact that I’m not good at a lot of things actually predisposes me to success because I inherently acknowledge that I can’t accomplish what I want to accomplish without working with an amazing team.

I’ll give you an example of this. When one of the formative events of LeadPages was when I hired my co-founder, Tracey. So, Tracey…

Johnny:  I’m sorry. I just have to pause to say how awesome that is because I didn’t realize that she was officially co-founder, and I love Tracey.

Clay:  Oh, no, she’s fantastic. She’s co-founder, absolutely partner, my business partner, all that stuff.

So, she started as a customer of mine for Project Mojave and she started volunteering for me like one day a week.

At some point I was like I have to hire you, how much does this cost. And it ended up being like how much she made that year, it was like the real cost of a real like business person in your business. It wasn’t like one of these – I don’t know how to say it, it wasn’t $40,000. I’ll tell you that.

I don’t want to reference numbers but it was like this was…

Johnny:  It wasn’t like hiring an assistant.

Clay:  Well, there’s a lot of different levels of assistants, I’ve realized. So, it wasn’t like hiring an entry level administrative assistant. That’s true.

So, it was basically the amount that she needed to make was the amount I had in my life savings/ retirement, and I said well, if everything goes to crap, then I can just pay her out of this. I was in my twenties at the time. So, I was like I can rebuild this and at least I haven’t screwed someone else over.

I bit the bullet, hired her.

The first month I hired her, we tripled our revenue because I hired an actual pro.

She had run operations for software companies before. She had been in HR.  She had – this isn’t good, but like she had fired dozens – I mean she’s worked in real HR for like large companies. She had interviewed over 1,000 people in her life. She understood accounting.

This was like a real person.

It wasn’t like I was outsourcing to someone in a developing company for $3.00 an hour. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or those people, they’re hard working people and all that stuff.

And I’m not saying that those people aren’t real either. I’m just using expressions.

Johnny:  We get what you’re saying, Clay. It’s cool.

Clay:  Okay. All right. So, we tripled our revenue that month.

She took on operations and I took on marketing and product. From the very beginning the very foundation of this company, this partnership and it’s not trying to do everything yourself and working with the best people you can afford to do the best job you can.

I think I realized that really early on and I think it’s been absolutely instrumental.

I think it can be not a gift but a curse when you’re too good at too many things, because you stop focusing on your zone of genius.

For me it’s easy because I’m really good at the stuff I’m good at, and then like everything else I just absolutely suck at. That was a blessing for me.

Johnny:  So, last question.  What are your thoughts on risk or when do you feel something is maybe too risky, or is there such a thing?

 Clay:  Yes. I think it’s a great question and I think there’s a really good argument out there that the best entrepreneurs aren’t risk averse.

They just have these risk minimization frameworks, and they don’t make huge leaps of faith. They sort of test assumptions and pivot from there.

I think that’s true sometimes but it doesn’t work when you’re launching a rocket into space and you’re Elon Musk, right.

I think you just have to be very realistic with yourself about what you know, what you’re good at and when possible, you just run little experiments along the way.

With LeadPages we presold the first version. We took that money, we hired a developer and then we built it out and there was a very minimally viable version of the product, and then more people bought, and we added more features, and then more people bought, and we added more features.

Then at some point it was like 30 people, we’re up to 150 now, there was 30 people and we were asking people to move here from out of state.

And I was like well, we’re investing most of the profit from this business back into the business, so you know, having a few hundred grand in the bank account isn’t enough for 30 employees. We could have one bad month and then this affects peoples’ insurance, college, retirement.

So, we raised some venture capital. We minimized some risk there. That’s when we did our $5,000,000 round and then we grew bigger and then we raised some more.

I don’t know that it’s really about staying up at night and biting the bullet and it’s like I’ll do it. And then you’re just all in.

Usually this happens in baby steps. You gradually work yourself up to bigger and bigger levels of scale.

I don’t know that we’ve ever assumed a ton of risk in what we’re doing, ever.

I really don’t think anything we’ve done has been risky at all.

The biggest risk is just sort of the social stigma that can come with being an entrepreneur.

I feel very fortunate in that I was home schooled. I was always a weirdo. People were always like where do you go to school. I said well, I don’t go to school, I do this from home. And then everyone looks at you like you’re weird.

So, I’ve always been comfortable operating outside the established norm and I think that’s really helped me out.

I think there may be social risk, but I don’t think there’s a lot of actual real risk that goes into being an entrepreneur when you’re doing it the right way.

Johnny:  Fantastic. Thanks for joining us for Eight Questions. I feel so official, but thanks for being on, Clay. Readers can find LeadPages at leadpages.net.

Clay:  Johnny, thanks for having me. This has been a blast. You always do a different thing than everyone else, so it’s refreshing to answer a different set of questions. This has been fun.

Johnny B. Truant is the author of the Fat Vampire series and The Bialy Pimps, in addition to everything he has written with Sean at Realm & Sands.

Johnny and his family live in Austin, Texas (after several years of planning to move and complaining about life in northern Ohio).

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