Josh Becerra, Co-founder of Water Meter Solutions and Monkey Island Inc.
What in the world do Twitter-based apps and internet-enabled water meters have in common? Nothing, unless you’re Josh Becerra, one of three irrepressible entrepreneurs who make up Monkey Island, a firm that has launched multiple new ventures in the last 10 years. You may recognize Josh as a regular at CoCo Minneapolis, but you’d be lucky to chat with him for more than a few minutes, as he is in constant heads-down mode. Fortunately, we were able to pin him down and get him to tell us the Monkey Island story. If you’re looking for evidence that hard work pays off and that nice guys do finish first, then look no further than this episode of the CoCo DreamCast!
Show notes: selected links from the episode:
Connect with Josh:
LinkedIn: Josh Becerra
Links and People Mentioned
Buy the Change
Partner – Colin Hirdman
Partner – Zack Steven
Monkey Island – SEO Results
Google Customer Survey
Water Meter Solutions
Agile Project Management
Recommended Book: Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t by James C. Collins
Recommended Book: Founders at Work: Stories of Startups’ Early Days by Jessica Livingston
Recommended Blog: Seth Godin’s Blog
Don Ball [D]: Welcome to another CoCo Dreamcast. Today we’ve got Josh Becerra, partner at Monkey Island, Inc. Josh, say “Hi.”
Josh Becerra [J]: Glad to be here Don – thanks.
D: Yeah, alright – sound check. There’s a lot behind Monkey Island. You’re doing two things that I can think of right now, so I’m gonna want to talk to you about that. You have the whole SEO practice that you do, and then on top of that, you’ve got a water meter that’s been peddling around.
D: Then, you have a bunch of other start-ups that are part of this, too.
Tell us who else is in Monkey Island, and what your projects are.
J: Okay, sure. I’m one of three co-founders; Colin Hirdman and Zack Steven are my partners. I’ve known those guys forever. Colin and I–
D: You lived together, right?
J: Colin and I were next-door neighbors since we were five years old, so we’ve– we always joke about the fact that we gotta keep each other close because we have so much dirt on one another. Zack moved into our neighborhood when we were all seven years old, so he’s kind of a latecomer to the partnership. But, the three of us – we’d go and play at a park that was within a two-block radius of each of our houses; that park was called Monkey Island. That’s why we named our business Monkey Island. So we have Monkey Island: a search engine, optimization, search marketing conversion optimization – a kind of umbrella online marketing firm. We work primarily with agencies, web design firms, and freelancers – helping their clients do online marketing. We also have a number of bigger companies that we work with directly. It’s a great business. It’s allowed us to stay in the game from this entrepreneurial side of things; launching other projects and ideas, and–
D: It’s your cash cow, right?
J: That’s our cash cow; it helps us self-fund. We have a self-funded incubator, so we have a number of different ideas that we’re executing on, in partnership with some people, and then on our own.
D: Um-hm. Well, just for those of us…who have been around for a couple years and have maybe seen some of your greatest hits –
What are some of the apps, or start-ups that you’ve done?
J: In the past?
J: So the first was called: By the Change. It was a local social commerce network – imagine Craig’s List and Facebook mashed up together; where you’re buying and selling with your friends and neighbors. Then we moved from there to a project called Localtweeps, which was kind of a Twitter directory. This was back in ’08, when Twitter was just gettin’ its feet under it. So we were the second largest Twitter directory at the time, and we were a trending topic on Twitter for a while – signing up like 1,000 users an hour. That was a fun, fun ride. No real revenue model behind that one. We still have that web property, and it’s still getting about 500 users – new users – a month. So that’s kinda hangin’ out there. From there, we decided to build software as a service app on top of Twitter’s platform called S & B Tweet – which also still exists in the world today. It helps agencies get Twitter followers for their client accounts. That’s software that’s a service product that still kinda helps self-fund our incubator. So those are some of the past ideas. And future forward – we’ve got two different ‘Internet of Things’ devices; both in the water monitoring and leak detection space that we’re working on right now. And we have two other software plays that we’re developing…in partnership with the Goodwill, and another one in partnership with our campsite mate, there, Chris Dytestra (?) at Americorp (?) – Some exciting things that we’re working on.
D: That is a lot. [laughs]
J: Well, there’s three of us plus partners.
J: We’ve got things divided up in a way that makes sense. Some are on a different acceleration curve than others…all of them are definitely of interest to us.
D: Yeah, yeah. It would seem that just looking at everything that you’ve done, and the fact that you sun-setted the first one you mentioned, right?
D: But the rest you haven’t really, right…you’ve been able to keep them.
J: Yeah. Well, that’s the beauty of the S & B Tweet, for example. That software is a service and there isn’t a lot of customer service that happens. That’s a nice business model that, you know, we’d love to be able to replicate with some of these newer ideas. And Localtweeps is just, again, a free online directory. So hosting that website – it doesn’t really have a cost.
D: Yeah, yeah. Do you guys have an– ‘cause some entrepreneurs you meet – they’re all or nothing, this year, on a project. If that doesn’t take off, then next year they’re all or nothing on another thing. It’s almost like a serial process – okay, so serial entrepreneur; I go from one thing to the next to the next in a linear fashion. Well, here you’ve got a kind of a portfolio. Is that something that just makes sense with you guys? You share that philosophy of having multiple irons in the fire to see what might take off?
J: Yeah, I think we do, and it’s served us well. We feel like, again, of these projects: some are moving a lot quicker than others, some are just newly hatched in the last couple of months; whereas some we’ve been working on for months, if not years now – and in partnership with people. That, I think, is one thing that we started our first project in 2005. Now, 10 years later, to be still be in the game and having learned, throughout those 10 years, some of the things that we think are important around partnerships. There’s a number of the projects that we’re executing on today that there would be no way that we would have the bandwidth to do ourselves. Finding really strong partners to help execute on has been important.
D: Yeah, yeah. You don’t meet too many teams that are boyhood friends, so that’s kind of cool. Tell me about the time when at least two of you first banded together – or was it all three at once?
What was that moment where you really became Monkey Island?
J: It’s a good question. We all had different entrepreneurial experiences on our own. For example, Colin started his first business right out of college and ended up growing that; he had an exit on that business in 2006. Zack was an entrepreneur when we were still in high school. He had a patent on like a shoe lace; like shoe fastener kind of a thing.
D: Did it involve Velcro?
J: No, it did not involve Velcro, so that was the–
J: …that was the innovation, actually.
D: Yeah, right. [laughs]
J: He went on and really put significant time and effort into that and grew it, and had some distribution and everything. But he ended up sun-setting that. I had been living overseas and I had started a soccer camp in South America where I was living. When my wife and I decided to move back here…we closed the camp and came home to Minnesota. It just kind of worked out that we were all– Colin was looking at exiting from his business; Zack was done with his thing and looking for something else; and I was coming back. We were all having beers at Zack’s one night, talking about our shared interest in entrepreneurism, and we thought we should start something together. We started brainstorming ideas and that’s kinda…was the genesis of it – over beers at Zack’s house.
D: That’s cool. How long ago was that?
J: That was probably 2004, 2005, yep.
D: Awesome, awesome…There’s two things that are real prominent; I mean, obviously, there’s your SEO practice.
D It sounds like you gained the experience to be able to have that practice and be credible in that space from some of the things that you were building and doing.
Was there any one start-up that really gave you your SEO chops – your SEM expertise?
J: Actually, that story is a more typical entrepreneurial…By the Change – we were sun-setting it, and we had raised money to do that, and we had executed on the plan the way that we told our investors we would. There were some built-in assumptions around the distribution channel; things that didn’t end up working out. We were getting to the end of that, and nobody really wanted to go back to work for anyone else. So we fell into a SEO relationship with a friend of a client, and that started it off; we started understanding more about that space and took more of an interest. There were times when, at least Zack and I both, had to go back and get real jobs. So our entrepreneurial experience has been: raise money, not succeed.
J: …You know: fail, go get jobs, work, figure somethin’ else out to make money – make money now in a way that’s sufficient enough to not only to be able to be in the game, but also fund other projects. It’s been a good journey. I mean, it’s been a memorable journey.
D: So, if you were to plot it on a map, it would look like a rather irregular path then?
J: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I mean, there are those stories of those entrepreneurs who put chips in on one idea; it’s their first idea, and it just takes off and that is not our story.
D: Yeah, well, those are unicorns, too. [laughs]
J: Yeah. But we’re– we feel like we’re pretty scrappy, and we have a much better understanding of how to build businesses today than we did 10 years ago. I think that’s allowing us to have more success as we’re moving forward.
D: Yeah, yeah.
What was your idea, 10 years ago, of what it meant to be an entrepreneur?
J: I was worrying about the logo, gettin’ the business cards printed, talking to people about the idea…getting really good feedback from people, like, “Oh, yeah. I think that’s a great idea – I would totally do that.” Then, coming to the realization that while people may say that to you, to get them to do it – two very different things. Being a little bit more rigorous about the idea, about how you choose it, and then how you plan on the execution of it – are things that we’ve learned along the way.
D: Yeah, yeah. In fact, you gave me a really good tip the other day about Google custom surveys.
D: It sounds like you used that for market validation…I think you were trying to figure out what the ideal pricing (?) scheme would be for your water meter?
J: Yeah. It’s a tool that we’ve used: Google Consumer – Consumers Surveys, yep.
D: You can only customize ‘em so much. [laughs]
J: Yeah, yeah. But it’s a neat tool because it allows you to pose a question to the universe of Gmail users that are willing to accept these questions. Then, they– it’s like a survey, right? They respond and it gives you valuable feedback on your ideas. It’s a tool that we’ve used in the past, for sure.
Tell me about the water meter.
D: I remember I was on vacation last year when a couple of the guys from Google Labs came by…I heard that you had a chance to talk about this water meter and they were turned on by it.
D: They thought, We’re from California where water is increasingly scarce.
D You’ve got a product that helps with that problem – can you describe it?
J: Yeah. So, there are two different Internet of Things devices that we’re developing right now, in partnership. One: a whole-building watt monitoring device. It’s ultrasonic, so it clamps – imagine the main pipe that’s coming into the basement of this building, or in your home…you would be able to clamp this on the outside of that pipe and, as water comes into your home, or into this building, you get that in a graph and the data of that flow on your device, basically.
D: Um-hm. So sound waves penetrate the pipe?
D: …And actually measures the amount of water that’s passing through?
J: Correct, yep. I think the innovation around that is really in the software, and how you can create alerts – so that if there are certain types of flow during certain hours of the day, or increases in flow, or decreases in flow, you can get alerts. And, with all of the customer research that we’ve been doing – that’s where the value really is: for people to be able to identify anomalies in usage that they can directly attribute to leaks or other things like that.
J: That’s one of the devices. We…started executing on that idea because Colin, my business partner, owns a number of duplexes and things around town. He would get water bills that were really high every now and then, because there was a leak, or like a toilet that was running and the tenant wasn’t calling and saying, “Hey, you need to come fix my toilet” – they’d just let it run, because the tenant didn’t pay the water. So he looked and looked and tried to find something and he couldn’t find anything; so we built this. Then we started talking to other landlords, property managers, property management companies – some of the bigger companies definitely shared this issue, but on a much larger scale. That’s where we really saw the business opportunity. We started getting some pilots installed in different places and, through those conversations, we started hearing from a lot of these management companies that 95 percent of the time it’s a running toilet that’s causing the leak, or 19 out of 20 times it’s a running toilet – from two different sources we started hearing this. So we started to explore that more with them and tried to understand…where the value was in that.
That led us to the development of a second Internet of Things device, which is this toilet monitoring module. It’s a very small device that…screws onto the bottom of the toilet tank. And, again, it’s a connected device… sorry for all the potty talk, but if a toilet is flushed, then water is flowing through our device into the tank and, supposedly, the tank should just shut off after the flush is done; if it doesn’t, you have a running toilet. In this little device, it has a flow meter; it has a turbine that harnesses the energy of the water that powers the battery so that you don’t have to worry about it being corded – there’s some kind of cool innovations there. But, most importantly, it’ll send a text message to the person who’s responsible for the building saying, “Apartment 402 has a running toilet,” so they can just go fix it immediately. It saves ‘em a lot of money, it conserves a lot of water, and – in the case of a leaky toilet – it’ll protect the property. There are a lot of benefits and we’re getting a lot of traction with both of those products.
D: That’s really cool.
D: What a strange…that’s really nichey, right?
D: Sometimes that’s the thing that really can take off… It sounds like you…had insight into a really particular need – through Colin.
D: That would suck if you’re a landlord and suddenly you’re paying these big bills and you have no way of knowing which unit is the cause of the trouble.
J: Yeah, yeah. Now the product road map goes way beyond that – especially with the whole home monitoring. The ultrasonic that gets clamped on – the Google Ventures guys who were here, they were really interested in this being something more that a consumer would be putting in their home versus like a building operator. So we are developing some custom software aside (?), where, for example, you can input the signature of your shower in your home that lasts five minutes, a toilet flush in your basement toilet, and your upstairs; how long the dishwasher runs and your lawn irrigation – so you develop all these signatures through the software. Then the metering system will be able to tell you if you’re going out of bounds on your consumption. From a consumer standpoint, especially in California – if their consumption goes over a certain amount, they get deemed with penalties, right? This isn’t the case in Minnesota, ‘cause we have an abundance of water and water’s cheap, but there it’s much different. So we do see a consumer play coming out of this ultrasonic version, and we’re hoping to push that consumer play here in the next, I don’t know, four to six months.
D: Does it feature anything that will…will it shock your teenager who takes the
15-minute shower – or a timer? [laughs]
J: No, but it– you could set an alert to show you when there is a 15-minute shower, and then you get to go and talk to your teenager.
D: ‘Cause that’s the problem, right? I can imagine if you’re a parent in California, you’re gonna get the fine.
D: … But the kids are just gonna do what they do anyway.
J: They’re gonna take a shower. [laughs]
D: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
J: So that was the interest on the part of Google Ventures. We are actively following up on that with them, so we’ll see where it all goes.
D: Good, good. Well, best of luck…it’s fun to get validation from somebody who looks at new startups all the time.
D: … And is involved in interesting ones.
J: And there’s a big data play, obviously; if you have enough consumers with these, then you can aggregate usage at the county, city level – and that data is important to different people.
D: Yeah, yeah.
J: Especially Google. [laughs]
D: [laughs] Yet another data set that they can consume.
D: Then you’ll get ads, you know, served up when you search.
J: Yeah. [laughs]
D: You know, about – I don’t know – controlling your teenagers. [laughs]
D: If I ever walk past your campsite – and for those who are listening: if you come to CoCo Minneapolis, all you have to do is walk down the corridor from the front desk, head towards the back and along the way – you guys are on the left-hand side, there.
D: I always see your heads down. I mean, seriously, you guys – you come out occasionally, you need to come up for air, but I don’t see you spending tons of time socializing and tipping back beers; you’re really focused on your work.
How do you balance things like client to demand with your startup?
J: It’s not easy all the time to do, by any means. But I think we’ve developed certain processes, and the way that we work together, that allow us to be able to juggle a number of things. We’re put our heads down because we need to make sure that we are focusing on our client; the client side of things – in the end, that’s what’s helping us fund projects, so that takes priority. That side of our business is growing. We are in the process of trying to deal with some of those growing pains, and figure out how we can make sure that we’re delivering the topnotch service that we always have to clients, while still giving ourselves some time to do some of the other fun project work.
J: We are much like a software development shop; we do scrums and sprints and we have opportunities to check in and talk – that happens every morning for 15 minutes, then weekly for breakfast, then quarterly, where we’re actually…we don’t plan full years – we only plan by quarter – but we get pretty in-depth at these quarterly planning retreats; where, normally, we’re offsite, then we’re talking about what objectives we want to hit, who’s responsible, and what kind of budget we need to put behind things. While we’re not a big business, we try to run it like it is. I think having that intentionality and level of communication has served us well.
D: Um-hm, um-hm. Very cool.
Do you look to anybody in particular as an inspiration or a model for how you approach work and life?
To some people it’s like, “Oh, Steve Jobs,” you know. [laughs]
D: Is there anybody who really– you have a soft spot for in how they talk about…startups, or creativity, or things like that?
J: Man, that’s a good question. Early on, like in– back in ’05, I was one of those people who was a consumer of business; all the business books, the goods to greats, the founders at work – all of those kinds of books. I found myself getting further away from reading that kind of stuff. I’ve unsubscribed to Seth Godin’s blog, and things – although I think he’s a genius and I really like a lot of what he puts out, I find that, with our team and our experience, we feel really good about the processes that we’ve put in place. We’re enjoying…the journey now… Early on, we were all about the goal and we wanted to get to this place, which was, whatever – a big software play with a big exit and blah, blah, blah. Not that we don’t want that, but I think we’re all much more focused on the journey to get there; that that’s really where life happens – tabling some of the philosophical business stuff and just letting it unfold, and trying to influence the way it unfolds by making good decisions and finding the right partners has been important to us. But I can’t think of one person, like a Steve Jobs that I– I mean, I admire people like Steve Jobs for certain attributes of their personality, or what they were able to accomplish. Don’t get me wrong, I think the guy was genius in many ways. But I don’t know how good of a husband or a father he really was, right? So I’m trying to do all of that – try and be all of that, and have healthy relationships, both with my business partners, with the people here at CoCo, and outside of CoCo…just balancing all those things.
D: Yeah, yeah.
J: But I feel blessed that I get to do this with two of my best friends; and I get to come to a really cool place; and there are cool people here that I’ve met and I get to hang out with; and on occasion do a Beer and Chat, and tip one back. I feel really sorry for folks – friends of mine, even – that go to the same place and sit in a cube and do stuff that they’re not that interested in. I’m always advocating for people to think about how they can do what they really want to do and live this life – this journey that we’re all on, day to day – and just make that fun.
D: What is it, do you think, tends to stop people up? I mean, there are probably many factors, but
What are some things that you commonly see that people get tripped up on so they get stuck in, [laughs] let’s say, the “cubicle,” as opposed to getting out there?
J: I think there’s just a lot of risk and uncertainty that goes along with what we’re doing.
J: And that isn’t always easy to cope with. People have different circumstances so they’re sometimes not able to, because of any number of reasons.
D: Um-hm, um-hm.
J: I’m not being judgmental, by any means, but I do think that the biggest kinds of barriers are a risk; the risk, the uncertainty – the fear of failing, I think, is a huge one. That’s one thing that I’ve learned: to get over that fear of failing. I’ve done it, and I’ve done it enough times to know that my mom still loves me, my circle of friends still think I’m an amazing professional and friend, right? We grow up in a society that isn’t really pushing people to…go outside the lines. When you do, there’s a lot of stuff that you have to kind of deal with – fear of uncertain; that uncertainty, or risk that, “How am I gonna pay my mortgage?” “What if this doesn’t work out?” “How does that look on my resume?” There are all kinds of factors, I think.
D: Is it as simple as just saying, “I’ll just have to get over it, and take a step out there”? Or are there– do you think there are things people can do to actually…offset some of those risks, and make it a little more feasible to enter into entrepreneurship, or self-employment?
J: Yeah, I think it’s worth dipping your toe in. I think…young people, who maybe don’t have kids, or mortgages, or things like that – I think it can be a little bit easier for them to kinda dive in and say, “I’m gonna try to do this for the next couple years.” But people my age – and I consider myself one of the older people here at CoCo [laughs] – I think it’s worthwhile to put yourself out there by saying to your friends and family, “I am going to do this.” It’s like, “This a recent experience for me.” But when you decide to lose weight, if you tell everybody, “I’m gonna lose 30 pounds,” there’s a lot of accountability that goes along with that. But I think where people fail at losing weight is that they don’t tell anybody that they’re trying to lose weight… nobody’s asking, “Hey, how’s it going?” you know? I think the best thing for somebody who has an idea, yet they need to keep their day job, is try to execute as best they can; either to themselves, or find a partner that can help them do that – but tell people, “This is what I want to do. I believe in this idea, I’m gonna execute on it.” And tell as many people as you can, because that’s what’s gonna help you achieve your goal.
D: That may not sound so radical to anybody who’s been running around saying, “I have this idea I’m workin’ on.” Anybody who’s an entrepreneur – they’re bending everybody’s ear about it.
D: It’s hard from this perspective to imagine back to when it was very risky to do that, you know?
J: Yeah. But at the same time, everybody who’s an entrepreneur, let’s say, here at CoCo, who’s already done this – at least it happens to me, and I bet a lot of people will say the same thing – anytime I’m at Happy Hour or something and people ask me what I do, and I tell them about some of the ideas we’re working on, or the businesses that I own…many people will say, “Yeah, I’ve got an idea.” And I’m like, “Oh, really?” – a lot of people have ideas, right? – “Oh, you do? Tell me about it,” and they tell me. “So why aren’t you executing on it?” – That’s where we get into this kind of fear. I feel like it’s, as entrepreneurs– maybe we can’t relate to this idea of putting ourselves out there. ‘Cause we already are, but we…I think all of us have had this experience where someone in our network of friends, or family, say, “Yeah, I have an idea,” but they’re not executing on it.
D: Yeah, yeah–
J: And it’s that person that, I think, could dip their toe in by just saying, “I’m gonna execute on it; I don’t know how, but I’m gonna find someone to help me, and we’re gonna see where it goes.”
D: Yeah. I suppose it’s also possible that, for those of us who have stepped out and have taken on at least one idea, there’s yet another idea that’s much crazier and much more risky–
J Um-hm. Yeah.
D: …You know, there’s the stuff you can take, let’s say, I was a writer and I became a freelance writer – their idea’s crazier than just freelance writing–
D: …that I still harbored, even though I was, for a number of years, was successful as a freelance writer – that was like a half risk, in a way. The full risk would have been…you’re putting everything on the line – if it doesn’t work, there’s kinda no plan B, you know?
J: Yeah, yeah.
D: Maybe it’s true that all of us have what we’ve been able to do, and then there are yet other levels that would be stretches beyond where we’ve been.
J: Yeah. And I feel like there’s probably stretches that I could be making right now that I’m choosing not to – although I think we’re stretched pretty far.
J: It just depends on each individual’s circumstance, and–
D Yeah, yeah, certainly–
J: …what they’ve got goin’ on.
D: Very good. Well, Josh, thank you very much for–
D: …telling us about your story. We’re gonna put some of the things you mentioned…into the show notes.
D: …So they can follow up on you and your crew…Are there web pages for all the products that we talked about?
D: Okay, great. We can give people links to that and they can go check out…for the water meter solution – is there like a video or animation or demo of some kind on there?
J: Not really. There’s some pictures of the whole building monitor, and then there’s a 3D CAD design of the toilet on there, yeah.
D: Okay. Very cool, very cool. Yeah, I mean, manufacturing – you took on a whole other beast by getting into an actual physical object.
J: Oh, yeah, yeah. We’re learning a lot along the way. And we’ve got some really strong partners, which are helping us – that’s been great.
D: Alright, alright. In the event that it takes off, and you suddenly become a hard guy to get a hold of, will you at least promise me now that you’ll come back and do another Dreamcast with us?
D: …Like a follow up?
D: Okay, I just want to reserve my spot now. [laughs]
J: Alright, sounds good.
D: Alright, very good. Well, best of luck and thanks again.
J: Thanks, Don.
D: Thanks for listening to another CoCo Dreamcast. You can find the rest of the Dreamcasts – there’s eight of ‘em now as of this listening – at cocomsp.com/dreamcast. And, while you’re there, please leave a comment and tell us if there’s anything you like or don’t like. Sign up for our e-mail newsletter, where we will be releasing news about new Dreamcasts as they become available. Thanks again, and see you next week.
About the CoCo DreamCast
Our goal for the CoCo DreamCast is pretty straightforward: we want to talk to CoCo members, find out what makes them tick and learn how they’re living out their dreams. Look for another episode soon!