Craig Bryant, Founder & CEO,    We Are Mammoth

Craig Bryant, Founder & CEO, We Are Mammoth

It’s an idea that several digital client services shops toy with: build and launch a product of your very own. So what do you do when you have the idea, know how to build it and want to give it a go? Craig Bryant, Founder/CEO of We Are Mammoth has been there, lived that. With the help of his team, he’s successfully spun up not one, but two SaaS products: one accidental, one intentional—both built to help his own people work better and be happier.

Craig joins us to share insights into We Are Mammoth as a venture company, and the stories behind two products: DoneDone, a simple bug and issue tracker, and Kin, HR software to improve onboarding, engagement and the bottom line. Craig discusses five and 10 years into a product, patience as a critical virtue and how to go with your gut when you’re told to pull the plug.


Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. Today on the show, we've got Mr. Craig Bryant, the Founder and CEO of We Are Mammoth, as well as two products, Kin and DoneDone. Welcome to the show, Craig.

Craig Bryant: What's going on, Carl? Thanks for having me.

Carl Smith: I'm glad you're here. What's going on is I am fascinated with the fact that you have a service shop that has successfully spun off, not one but two products. This feels like the thing everybody tries to do but never can. So, take everybody back just a little bit and talk about We Are Mammoth. How you started and also this concept of venture studio, what you call yourself.

Craig Bryant: Sure. We started in 2006 as engineers, me and my two now former business partners, which we can talk about in a little bit too. We're all engineers, we got some gigs and that turned us into a successful business. A few years into that, we started building DoneDone. There's mainly Ka Wai's, Ka Wai Cheung's baby at the time.

We needed a bug tracker, we didn't want to spend, whatever it was, $200, on what we were using anymore. We wanted something simple, so we built it for ourselves, and after we had put it through the rigors of some larger projects that we were working on, we slapped a payment subscription thing on it, and marketed it, small marketing site, and put it out in the wild by itself without any honestly intent of it becoming a business or occupying more of our revenue, or efforts than our consulting business at the time.

It grew a little bit and we liked that. It creates, as you know, kind of passive income, if you will. We didn't pour a lot of marketing into it or anything like that. We just improved it, worked on the tool. I added some features, improved the marketing, website, improved the brand, all of that, and we liked that.

We saw it grow a little bit, and we wanted to do more of it, and right around that time we decided to build another product, and that became Kin. Kin was conceived of as a business, so we wanted to then be much more explicit about revenue, about a brand, about building something that yes, we would use and dog food ourselves, but we had the intent of going out to market with this product.

That was in 2013, so we're coming up on, what's it going to be? Five years of Kin being out in the wild, and I think DoneDone at this point, Ka Wai would be the best one to remind of the launch date. I want to say maybe like 2009-2010 or so.

Carl Smith: Okay. You've got one product coming up on 10 years, right? And you've got this other one that's coming up on five. So, first of all, DoneDone the name, I just love it. When I was working for somebody else, we had Final and we had Final Final, right? Always you knew if there was that little cursive F next to something, that it wasn't really Final, so this idea of Done, or DoneDone. "Is it DoneDone?" That to me was just brilliant, so kudos on that.

But you do it, you just put it out there, it's just a happy accident, you put some marketing on it. It's kind of fun to have a product that doesn't have a client except for you, right?

Craig Bryant: Yeah, it's a different culture entirely. As an engineering team, you have to be in love. I always call it like, you've got to get married to the same code base, because you're not moving from project to project to project. Differently if you're working in advertising or whatever. Now you wake up in the morning and you go to work on the same code base. 

Then, on the flip side, your client or customer acquisition plan is different, right? Because now it's a matter of earning 30 bucks instead of going out and looking for a $200,000 website project or whatnot. That takes some getting used to, and I think with DoneDone, being more organic and just warming us up to it, we were more ready to plan. We had a little bit more expertise and experience in all the things that would be needed to make a successful SaaS product subsequently. 

When we went into Kin, we knew that it wasn't just building something that we were going to use. Like, we had to be more explicit about our marketing and sales plan and all of that. In terms of being successful, I'll just be candid, because I always am. It's tough. It's not all of a sudden, at least with our products, we're not a unicorn or anything like that, they take work and they take patience. It takes several years, at least in our experience, to get these things up to a point where they're making enough revenue to where we feel like we have the luxury of investing more.

It takes some time and patience, and that's one thing that is hard. It's like, you're in it for a year, and you go, "Should we pull the plug?" We've been told to pull the plug on these things a couple of times, by pretty experienced people, and we haven't. Instead, we go, "You know what? This is kind of a long haul project, we're bootstrapped, we know it's tough, but you've got to be patient, and you've got to make really good decisions about every investment that you're making."

I can't brag about having made the best decisions all the time for Kin or DoneDone, but that is truly what it takes. Like, we're talking about how to invest $1500 as opposed to outside investment, or in the case of our revenue, it'd be in the millions and millions of dollars, that we have a little bit more wiggle room with our profits to play with.

Carl Smith: With DoneDone, how many people work on that exclusively right now?

Craig Bryant: Well, that kind of segues us into where things are at right now. DoneDone is no longer under We Are Mammoth as a business. Last year, Mike and Ka Wai, my two former business partners and I, we decided to go our separate ways. In doing so, they took DoneDone as a business, moved it out of house, and now they're running that 100%. That's their job.

So, now I'm left with We Are Mammoth and Kin as two businesses. I think the answer is it's Ka Wai, and it's Mike, and I think they have some help on the graphic design, some marketing, and stuff like that. I'd say like two full time, and then two part time contract people to help them out with some of the things that they're not specialists at.

Carl Smith: By all means tell me, "Go to hell," but-

Craig Bryant: Go to hell.

Carl Smith: ... I'm just curious. You've got to wait. Dammit, Craig. But with Mike and Ka Wai, were they just ready? Were they just at a point where they thought if DoneDone had the right amount of attention and love, it could get there?

Craig Bryant: Yeah. The Germans have a really good word called jein, which is you blend ja, which is yes, and nein, into one, and it's jein. So yes and no. That gets us into the venture studio story that you also wanted to cover off on. I'd say a year and a half ago with We Are Mammoth we saw the writing on the wall of what a technology consulting company of our size was going to become in the next few years.

More and more we saw commoditized engineering services being provided. We were only competing on cost, so we decided as a business to re-engineer what our purpose was, what our mission is, what we're out there to do, and to sail away from this ocean of consulting services, and get more aligned with where our hearts really are aligned, which is building businesses, building digital products, like DoneDone, and like Kin.

We wanted to do more of that, and we wanted to take a business risk that would say like, "Every year, we want to put five or so businesses out into the market, be formulaic about it, see which ones work out," inside of 365 days and decide at that point if we should be doubling down on our investment with any of those ideas.

At about the time we were really digging into marketing it and communicating it with potential new clients, by the time we were communicating it internally, going through the process of researching, discovering new ideas that we wanted to bring to market, Ka Wai, Mike, and I were talking about where we thought our future was as business partners. The more I pushed our company to change what it was we were doing, from what we originally went into business together to do, the more we realized that they didn't really want to create more businesses.

They were happy with what we had done. In fact, they wanted to downsize a little bit more, and that helped inform our decision ultimately, to go our different ways. We no longer shared a singular future, and they wanted to minimize their risk a little bit, and focus on DoneDone. Yeah, I think the answer is yes. They think that there's more potential in DoneDone if they can focus solely on it, and that's what they're doing now.

Carl Smith: Right, and this is interesting 'cause this gets to the concept of stables and volatiles, and so in this instance, they were the stables who are like, "This is good. This is where we need to focus." But you were still that volatile who was going, "Let's keep changing, let's keep going." And both are needed, but both have different environments in which they can live, right? Which they can thrive. It makes sense that at that point, the environments had to split.

Craig Bryant: Yeah, definitely, and I'm still like that, and working with Tracey Barrett and Tom, I've learned a little bit about that character trait in me. Like, I always want to be discovering problems, and I always want to be switching gears. I always want to be trying new stuff out, and that's great to a degree. It's a double edged sword, though, because a lot of that means that I'm non-committal with things.

I'll be up and running in a month with something that nobody else had thought about, and two weeks later, I don't even remember it. [crosstalk 00:11:33] then I'm moving on, you know? I think they got tired of that.

Carl Smith: We're the same person. Oh, my goodness. So often I'll be like, "Why are you doing that?" "You said to do that." I went, "I did?" They'll be like, "Yeah." I'm like, "Oh, well I obviously was wrong. I don't know what that Carl was thinking." The two of us should probably not go into business together.

Craig Bryant: No, let's not. 

Carl Smith: Let's keep it as it is right now. With Kin, Kin is still under the WAM umbrella.

Craig Bryant: It is.

Carl Smith: Okay, and how many people are focused full time at Kin?

Craig Bryant: The answer right now is between 8 and 11. 

Carl Smith: Wow.

Craig Bryant: It's a little bit more of a Craig Bryant sort of an answer, because we have a consulting business still. We still have the venture studio business. As a business owner, where I want to put my money down, is in Kin. The reason for that is I think it can be summed up by a remark that Lisa, our CEO at Kin, made to me when she decided to take the role of CEO last fall. She said, "I just don't think Kin has had its day yet."

That to me was fairly profound. Like, we had built a brand, we've got customers, we've got revenue. We've done a lot with the product but we have not really, we haven't found that market fit yet. We haven't evolved it enough. We haven't given Kin the opportunity to really, I don't even know if it's grow or expand or whatever. It just has not had its best years yet.

So, for me, I went, "All right." I was going through this business partners split, I was going to be getting full ownership over both the venture studio and We Are Mammoth, and Kin, and for me I went like, "All right, I think that the best bet for us and the place my passions are most aligned are going to be in the workplace still." Like, I think that workplaces, all the companies that come to your events, beyond like what we're working with breweries, and plumbing companies, law offices, churches. We run the gamut with Kin.

We've been doing this for five years, us and our competitors. Our Bamboos, and Namelys, SurePayroll, everybody and their mother who's in the HRIS industry right now. But we keep seeing the same research come out which is saying like we're not improving engagement. Employees are still leaving, global employee engagement's at ... It's not all time lows. It creeps up a little bit, but we haven't really solved the problem yet.

I think that that's a problem, and that's what I think Kin is meant to be, and that's what we're moving toward. It's a little bit different than saying Kin right now is a place where you're parking your employee data and managing your PTO and all that. We're stacking it up a little bit, we're going like, "All right, utility and workplace organization is super important. It really is." We've gotten to that plateau there, though.

Like, everybody's using an HRIS now, so now we really do need to double down and focus on employee engagement, making sure that everybody feels like they're on a mission at their workplace. Once Lisa and I sat down and discovered that vision, and discovered that mission, and that story, that narrative that we want to take out to all of our customers moving forward, then I was going, "All right, this is what we want to do."

Back to answer your question, a lot of our effort right now with our team of 8 to 11, we've got a couple contractors working, is focused on Kin. We still have the consulting business to service and take care of, and it is profitable as well, but what we want is we want to improve the workplace. We want to improve health and wellness in the workplace, and we think Kin can do that.

Carl Smith: As you do this and you look at Kin and you look at the consulting business, these are two completely different mindsets. So, how do you personally deal with being in a product mindset for part of the time, and being in a service mindset for the other part of the time?

Craig Bryant: We talk about it all the time. That's how. Like, honestly, even today, Lisa and I were talking about how the dynamic is. What's the relationship in our workplace when we're expecting a team to switch hats between servicing a very large enterprise website that is for another company, and then switching hats and coming back and dealing with Kin? Like, PTO projections, and helping keep the product moving forward. It is very different, and I don't know that we've really solved it or cracked the nut.

The things that I can tell you, though, are that hiring somebody, like I said before, to come in and mind a code base, the same code base from now, for the next five years, while you're still working at the company is a lot different than hiring somebody with the expectations that they're going to be switching gears, and doing something in marketing, or doing something in 401k projections or something like that, where month to month to month they're going to be getting a different sort of slice or different exposure to different businesses.

What we're talking about now is that there are opportunities within Kin to move around. Yes, as an engineer, you're going to be tending to the same code base, but you can work on the front lines in customer experience, you can be feature driven, like working on data insights, like one thing Kin does not do well right now is put Kin's data to work. All of our companies, all of our customers' data is not giving them enough insights into what the future of their business or workplace is going to look like.

So, do you want to work on that? Yes, so you're an engineer, and you want to work on different stuff. Well, here are the opportunities, and this is how it presents itself in the context of a product.

Carl Smith: This is truly fascinating to me, because when I was running my shop, we had a couple of products we tried to get off the ground, and I think we hit the spot that was almost the worst spot. We were moderately successful, so there's no way it could stand on its own. It was going to take cash, but a few people liked it, that we had to upset, right? When we told them, "We're not doing this anymore."

For people who are running more of a consultancy, a service shop, what advice would you give them if they're thinking, "I've got this idea, I know how to build it?" What's going to happen once they build it? What are the tips you would give them? "Don't do it?"

Craig Bryant: No. You probably made the right decisions, meaning like you're a good business person, you look at your revenue, you go, "I'm not willing, I'm not that bought into it. It is not proving itself out, it's time to pull the plug," so be ready to do that, I think is the first tip.

Second tip is as a founder of a consultancy, you got into business for a different reason and now you're trying to get into a different business for a different reason. You've got to change your mindset a little bit, because it's not a pet project. If you bring a pet project into your consulting business, you're going to ruin everybody's day, because in six weeks you're going to forget about it, like we were just talking about.

It takes perseverance and discipline, and in the same way that engineers will need to comment and wear that different hat, you as a founder need to wear that different hat. You need to continue to be passionate about whatever problem it is that product is meant to solve or to help with.

Carl Smith: So one of the things that you mentioned, you said it a couple of times, is being bootstrapped. Is there a time where you might consider investment, or you might consider even selling Kin?

Craig Bryant: The answer over our five years of Kin, to that question, is yes in both cases. In taking outside investment, the easiest way to say it for Kin is I don't know what more money would do for our product, and for our company. I don't know how to put it to work, and that's the same advice that some investors who I have spoken with over the years have given me. It's like, "You don't need money. You need more customers. Go find them."

Carl Smith: That's great advice.

Craig Bryant: And then I went and cried and drank coffee for a couple of hours, but there's wisdom in it. I forget who he was, but he was a local investor here several years ago at this point saying, "How many customers do you have?" I said, "Okay," whatever it was, "100." He's like, "Great, go find 100 more. After that, find 100 more, and just keep doing that. You don't need money."

At least in the business that we're in, and the growth rate that we've seen, like investors just aren't that interested in throwing that much money at it. I'm going like, "All right, well, I'd rather use all that time to focus on my business and just saying we're a bootstrapped business and forget about it." If I ever look at our year in hindsight of financials and go, "Oh, my God, it's a hockey stick. Someone's going to be interested in this," then I don't know, for some reason that's the only time where an investor would be interested, then at that point I'm going, "Wait a second, the company's already making plenty of money. Let's just keep doing that."

Right now I'm in control of our destiny. That feels pretty good, and I don't have to spend half of my cycles talking to people who are not users of our product. So, for me, right now it's good. In the future, will we need it? Maybe. We have some pretty ambitious goals right now, and the teams running it full throttle, and is it going to be enough? I don't know. It has been so far, though.

Carl Smith: And that's the fun of the game, right? Is being in control, getting to make those decisions, and seeing what happens.

Craig Bryant: Someone said, "You should be more concerned with making money than spending it." When you're bootstrapping a company, you just don't have the luxury to sit around too long and think about how to spend other people's money.

Carl Smith: Well Craig, thank you so much for being on The Briefing today. I've personally learned quite a bit. I'm sure people listening that are thinking about spinning products up in a service environment have got a lot of new things to think about, so truly appreciate you giving us your time today.

Craig Bryant: Cool. Thank you for having me, and yeah, if anybody's got any questions, let me know.

Carl Smith: We'll definitely hook up your contact info. And everybody listening, we'll be back next week. Thanks so much for checking us out, or whatever that was. All right. Later.