Behind the success of Trends.vc - Dru Riley, Trends

I speak with framework based research extraordinaire, Dru Riley, about his route to success with Trends.vc.

Dru:
In the beginning, I was working harder than I ever worked in my life, but it was still more fun and it's having that alignment of input of effort and output of results.

James:
Hello, and welcome back to Indie Bites, the podcast where I bring you stories of fellow Indie Hackers in 15 minutes or less. Today, I'm joined by Dru Riley, who is the founder of Trends.vc, which at its core, helps people discover new ideas and markets who expertly research reports.

James:
Trends is a bootstrap company that makes money through its Trends Pro reports and community. Back in 2017, Dru took on a mini-retirement, sold a second home and set out with a few years of savings to strike out on his own. After launching various newsletters and products, he eventually landed on Trends, which I actually didn't make any money for the first few months but then if you fast forward six months, the growth was impressive. He was at over 20K MRR and growing fast.

James:
Now Dru is working through the challenges of scaling a rapidly growing business and even hiring people to take over the juicy core of the business. The reports. Dru was on the Indie Hackers pod a few years ago when he was going through that growth period. He talks more about that in that episode. I'll leave a link to that in the show notes.

James:
If you're a regular listener, you'll know what's coming next. It's a sponsor slot. It's Ahrefs. I've actually been speaking to some of my Indie Hacker friends this week, who have almost been using Ahrefs as a game. This process of finding relatively unknown, low difficulty, high volume keywords that they can rank for is like striking gold for them. If you have used Ahrefs before I want to hear your stories of these unknown keywords you've discovered and started ranking for. If you haven't tried Ahrefs, give it a go. What is stopping you? They've even got a fantastic set of free tools, which you can find at ahrefs.com/awt. That's ahrefs.com or there's a link in the show notes. Let's get into this conversation with Dru Riley of Trends.vc. Dru, welcome to the podcast.

Dru:
That was a great intro. Thank you for having me.

James:
Well, it's good to have you here. I recently noticed you're hiring for an analyst to write the reports for Trends.vc. Dru, the reports, your core competency, your bread and butter, talk me through your decision style outsourcing this.

Dru:
I think the tipping point for me was realizing that I could take the role of an editor where if something didn't meet the standard, it just wouldn't go out of the door. So far, seeing what I've seen with the micro reports that people have submitted, the reports will be better than when it was just me working on these in a vacuum, of course, with report reviews and talking to domain experts and beginners. It's always good to have a different perspective. If anything, I've seen the reports show more promised than if I was the only analyst working on them, but it took a long time to get to that decision.

James:
Isn't that interesting? I feel like many founders would find that, if they want to have control over the core competency of their business, they think they can do a good job of it. Well, for me with this podcast, right? I think I'm the only one that can edit this show like I do but the reality is if I handed this off to an editor, I'd have so much more time to focus on other things in the pod, the research, the finding a guess, the promotion of the show and then I wouldn't have this big edit to do every time because I find someone to do it.

James:
When do you think you're going to start handing off those reports of the analyst? Is it something in the next few weeks you're going to do? Or is it something you've done in the past with freelancers?

Dru:
Yeah, we have someone that's very close to the finishing stages where we're about to hire them where finishing a full report is now part of the hiring process. You bringing a podcast is a great example because you being the host, I think that's hard to replace, but the researching part, I believe Tim Ferris gets help with research. The editing part, I'm aware of some YouTubers who they do all of their own editing and that's probably a lot of the secret sauce. Trends.vc was a podcast and we were looking for a new host. It just wouldn't be the same.

James:
What does your day to day look like now? What are you spending time on?

Dru:
Oh man, it's not as focused as I would like it to be. It started out very focused where I spent most of my days in the beginning, just researching and writing and a big tipping point was adding the community on top of that. A lot of context, which has happened. One, trying to solve the [inaudible 00:04:03] problem of how do you build a community from scratch. The other is just that building a community and researching and writing reports are very different activity so you're constantly putting on and taking off different hats.

Dru:
Right now I'd say the day to day involves researching, managing our team, preparing for weekly check-ins, any operations tasks, marketing tasks. One thing for me, mid to long term. That would be great is to bring more focus to my days where I can say, "Here are the big three things I want to tackle and we have help with everything else. Right? Let some fires burn".

James:
Back in 2017. Is this what you wanted to end up doing? Did you have an idea of, "If I'm leaving my job, this is the ideal situation for me. I want to be working on X, Y, Z", or was it more, "I want to optimize for freedom and flexibility of my time and doing something that I enjoy and is fulfilling"?

Dru:
Yeah. More of the latter where it was that north star, I would say was freedom and flexibility. It's hard to say now, but in the beginning I was working harder than I ever worked in my life, but it was still more fun and it's having that alignment of input of effort and output of results, that value capture that was there. The connection was very clear between what you put in and what you got out. I hadn't felt that to that degree before. That was a great feeling. Even though I was working, I don't know, three, four times as hard as I worked before, it was fine. It was exhilarating.

James:
Do you remember that first report you did for Trends.vc? Was it the Cloud Kitchens one?

Dru:
Yep. It was Cloud Kitchens.

James:
Why did you settle on that as your first one? Did you put a considerate amount of effort into writing it time research effort into doing that first one? Or was it more of a quick thing where you wanted to get it out there into the world?

Dru:
Yeah, I would say based on my standards at that point, I put a lot of effort and time into that report. That was the first version that this framework-based research was presented to the world. In terms of how did I arrive on that topic? I still now have a back list of topics that we can cover. Some things like programmatic SEO have been on that list forever and we just got to covering that topic.

James:
I had no idea what programmatic SEO was until I saw it, when you tweeted about it. The Trends report is going to tell me everything I need to do, but so many of those Trends reports, all of it is just such a nice tidy way, even for the free report for me to learn about something. I think tens of thousands of others have found exactly the same.

James:
How did you come up with this simple clean bulleted list? I've not really seen it before, maybe Axios had this almost summary-like bullet point list. You've seen a lot of copycats since then. Did you get inspiration from anywhere else or what made you do such a simple sectioned bulleted list?

Dru:
Yeah. I tend to think very laterally. I'd say the biggest inspiration was the Founders Podcast, where for years I drove back and forth to Jiu-Jitsu training, listening to the Founders Podcast. One thing that the host David does is he draws these through lines between the lives of different entrepreneurs across history. In a way that's the same thing that we're doing but for markets and movements where, you may ask, "What's the connection between no code and decentralized finance that may not stand out?" but all of these things are connected.

Dru:
In terms of the framework-based research, I just think that's a great way to learn any topic, right? Where you have this standardized format, these questions that are a forcing function, where to provide a simple answer, you have to deeply understand this thing. You can't feign understanding in a way like writing. Writing is a very honest activity.

James:
You tried lots of different things in your time since you left your job. You started and stopped things. You moved on now. You're focus on Trends. Why is it that this one stood out to you as something that was going to work long term? Because lots of Indie Hackers, they're trying lots of different projects. They don't know when to start and or stop them. Was there an inflection point in there that you were like, "Yeah, this is going to work out for me"?

Dru:
Yeah. I think the inflection point was the day that we started selling single reports the day that, that single report sold because the sales came in a wave. In terms of before then, how did I know it would work? I didn't know it would work and as far as I understood it was just something that... It felt like I could do for a long time and that was what was different about it compared to the other ideas where it was simply, in my mind, a good idea. It seems like this could make money. It seems like there was a need there. Whether I could do it for a long time without a clear feedback loop, that part wasn't clear to me. But with this, it was clear that even if I had to go back and take on a full-time job, this is still something that I enjoy doing.

James:
Did you start out Trends with just the actual report? At what point did you launch the community?

Dru:
Yeah, the community probably came seven or eight months after the Pro Reports came out. Pro may have been introduced five or six months after the free reports.

James:
I'm wondering what you now know about community and cultivating and building community that you didn't know back then and also why you went with the community element of it in addition to the Pro Reports.

Dru:
One thing that comes to mind, and this is sort of table stakes for building a community is having some sort of top of funnel of how do you get people's attention? How do you create this magnet that draws people in?

Dru:
The thing that I don't think a lot of people pay attention to is the idea of rituals or building habits as a group. We have daily stand ups, we have weekly Trends tribe calls, where people are randomly matched for one on one chats and we also have weekly Masterminds.

Dru:
What went into the decision to launch the community? Yeah. That came from releasing these reports and then having people reply and then having people that have similar backgrounds reply and I'm like, "Oh, it would be great if Ethan met Stan or Stan met Will and making these one-off introductions". It just seems like it would be a great fit to add a community on top of that. I didn't think about the amount of work that it would take, the amount of context switching that it would introduce, but at least that was the idea.

James:
Do you enjoy running both?

Dru:
Yeah. The thing I like most about the community are Masterminds where, in a way I was just solving my own problem, but just seeing the impact that, that has had and that's having on other people has been the best.

James:
You were part of the Mastermind when you started Trends, when you had the idea for it. Was it zero to one?

Dru:
Yep. Yes. Yep.

James:
Well, you talked about joining that Mastermind for you was a comfort challenge. A comfort challenge is not a term I'd heard before. You mentioned it in my DM's Dru. When you said like, "Attributed to 80 to 90% of Trend success" that perk my ears up. I was thinking, "What are these comfort challenges?"

James:
I did a little digging, right? You said they come in three forms: mental, physical, and social. Physical could be something like ice baths or cold showers. Comfort challenge. For you, joining that Mastermind and going there. You actually had to ask to get in the Mastermind because there was a quota in order to get into it. That was a comfort challenge for you, as an introvert.

James:
How have you found comfort challenges have impacted you now in your day to day? Do you still do them? Do you still come up with them? Do you have a system to do these and track them?

Dru:
Yes. I think of Masterminds, a lot of times they turn into these quests of this a great way to gamify life. You gave the example of joining the zero to one Mastermind, before that and what led up to that was a comfort challenge of joining the Indie Hackers Online Community, and then going to an in-person community. Both of those were comfort challenges. I only had the opportunity to do that comfort challenge, to ask to join Mastermind. Once these other two have taken place inside of one of our Mastermind sessions, I brought up the idea of Trends.vc. I didn't know how it would land with the group but that was a comfort challenge.

James:
Yeah. Well, it's very interesting. I noticed you had a pod with Tyler King briefly. You did seven episodes of it, then you stopped. I love that. I love that you decided it didn't work out and then stopped. I think more people should try new things. Was the pod a comfort challenge for you? [inaudible 00:12:06] me why you did it and then stopped.

Dru:
Yeah. I'm sure it was. The thing about comfort challenges, most of them are mundane. You forget them because they don't work out. As you said, we did a wrap up episode where I forget both of our reasonings. I think for me, if I were to go back, maybe it was too much of a context switch where the low and context switching right now for Trends.vc is still high and already high.

Dru:
For Tyler, he had a different podcast with our friend, Rick, start up to last. I think he imagined a similar format in terms of what we were doing so that wasn't necessarily meeting his expectations there. Yeah, it was a mutual decision too. It was an experiment. It was a comfort challenge and then bringing that to an end, as you said.

James:
My final question to you Dru before we go into the recommendations, what you doing outside of Trends? You mentioned Jiu-Jitsu a couple times. Are you still doing that? How regular you're doing it? The stuff you do on the side help you when you go back to your computer and sit and do some work?

Dru:
Yeah. I took a break from Jiu-Jitsu around the time that Trends.vc started up. I like to learn for fun and that's why Trends.vc in a lot of ways is the perfect business for me to run. As I mentioned, I just got back in the strength training. I lift about five or six times a week and I've been nomading for a little over a year. Most days I love to go for daily walks. I'm just exploring new cities and doing tours on the weekend.

James:
Amazing. Where are you at the moment?

Dru:
I'm in Cape Town, South Africa. I got here less than a week ago.

James:
I end every episode on three recommendations, so very quickly, a book, a podcast and an Indie Hacker.

Dru:
I would say book: Sapiens and a great follow up to that is a book called Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. I think it's just a great way to understand human nature and also realize that everything is made up, countries, money, property rights, [inaudible 00:13:50]. Pretty much everything. Podcast, I mentioned it before, Founders Podcast. The biggest inspiration behind Trends.vc and then Indie Hacker, I would say Pat Walls. Were both software engineers by trade, building media companies. I like the way he's clearly thought about life and you see it in his writing, so I appreciate that.

James:
Fantastic recommendations Dru. Thank you so much for spending time with me here on Indie Bites. Speak soon.

Dru:
Thank you for having me.

James:
Thank you for listening to this episode of Indie Bites. If you want to learn more about SEO, then check out today's sponsor Ahrefs. If you want to find out how I'm planning to take over TikTok with my friend, Dan Rowden. Check out the latest episode of No More Mondays available on all the best podcast platforms. See you next week.

Behind the success of Trends.vc - Dru Riley, Trends
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