There is a place in Leeds, UK, where a modern-day Renaissance man lives. His name is Dom Hodgson, and he’s one of the finest and funniest mates you’ll ever meet.
Dom is well known in the SEO community as a serial entrepreneur, and his latest endeavor is Little Warden. Little Warden is a web app that monitors and proactively checks on all of the small to big things that can go wrong with a site. I’ve used Little Warden since it was launched, and it has saved my sites from a world of hurt with Google Search several times (not an exaggeration).
When he’s not working on Little Warden with his wife Heather – a software engineer, CTO of Little Warden, and the reason why everything works – he’s busy doing half-marathons in funny costumes and setting up elaborate Christmas light presentations to raise money for their favorite charity. And when he’s not doing that, he’s either doing whatever he can to get to a Disney park or pretending to be on vacation to make the best of the situation.
Oh, and Dom also does standup comedy. Like I said, he’s a modern-day Renaissance man.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dom for well over an hour. Here’s what we talked about:
- How he got into standup comedy
- Why he
runswalks half marathons in silly costumes
- Where his love for Disney comes from
- What goes into creating his elaborate Christmas lights presentations
- The Little Warden origin story
- An unannounced new feature that’s coming to Little Warden
- What it’s like running a small business during a pandemic
- The unique thing Little Warden is doing for professionals and agencies during the pandemic
- Dom’s advice for entrepreneurs that are struggling and how to be happy and find hope
Jon Henshaw: Today, I am interviewing Dom…
Dom Hodgson: …Hodgson…
JH: …Founder of Little Warden. Little Warden is a site monitoring tool that has saved my butt many times. And I consider it one of my essential apps. Dom, welcome, and thanks for being here today.
DH: Thank you very much for inviting me. Very exciting.
JH: For those who were just listening at the very, very beginning, it almost sounded like my voice changed when I said your last name.
DH: I didn’t notice anything, mate.
JH: Okay. All right. I was just making sure. Because it’s almost as if I tried to introduce you multiple times and completely destroyed it.
DH: And the world will never know. With that secret, we’ll go to our graves.
JH: Yeah. I’m not even going to say it. I’m not even going to try to say it, because they don’t deserve it. The world doesn’t deserve my version of your last name.
DH: They can get that version on your only fans.
JH: Yes. With no pants on, saying your last name.
DH: Well this started out well, didn’t it?
JH: I’m sorry. It’s too early. At least, for me. Okay, fine. All right. All right. Breathe. And, we’re back. I guess, what a great thing to just go right into something that I’ve been wanting to talk to you about for a really long time, which is not Little Warden, yet. I want to talk to you about that. We’re going to get to that. But before we’re going to get to all this stuff, I want to talk to you about, on a personal level, and number one, the thing that fascinates me about you from afar, and I just think, I wonder what that’s like. I wonder how amazing or absolutely horrible it is. And that is your pursuit of standup comedy. How’s that going? And actually, let me reverse that. It’s not going, because you can’t be in front of human beings right now. But how was that going? And what got you to do that? Tell me more about your standup comedy.
DH: Yes. It’s not going very well at the moment. I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a slight pandemic, which means there’s no live comedy at all. The way it started was a few years ago, I was doing a lot of conference talks and I wanted to get better at it. And the way that I thought I’d get better is just to try and, well, get funnier. Because that’s my shtick. I don’t know anything, but I find myself quite funny. And sometimes, audiences do too.
DH: So, I went on a local course here about comedy writing, and the idea was how to get the joke in as small a timeframe as possible. Because if I go on stage at Brighton and say, oh, I’ve got 45 minutes to make the audience laugh. If I go on stage at a comedy club, I’ve got five minutes. You’ve got to go, right. What is the basic elements of this premise that I need to get the laugh? And that’s what we were focusing on. And the audience is so different. At Brighton or any other conference, I can have them laughing very, very quickly because they’re not expecting you to be funny.
JH: And they’re already drunk. They’re already drunk, because it’s Brighton.
DH: Yeah. But if I go on stage at a comedy club like the Frog and Bucket, not only are they drunk, they’re expecting you to be funny. So, they come on with guarded anticipation, and it’s almost like a competition. Go on then. Make me laugh. And so it’s a completely different thing, but it really does train you.
DH: And then I joined an improv group and learned a lot more about letting go, and trusting myself. And we did gigs all around the country. We had a lot of fun with that. And yeah, obviously with the pandemic and everything like that, we’ve done a few Zoom things. But I actually said, do you know what? I left the improv group recently because I didn’t miss that part of it. I felt like I’d achieved all I wanted to achieve out of comedy. Because as you know, the levels of comedy, it’s you start going around doing gigs, and then you get paid for some. And then there’s a huge leap before you get very good paying gigs and get on TV. And you need an agent and all that. And I never wanted that. I always wanted it as just a bit of fun. And I wanted to learn and understand the craft and things like that.
DH: So when it felt like, all right, the next step is you need to put more effort into this, then it actually became more of a time sink to doing some of my other hobbies and some of the other stuff that I do. But I really do appreciate everything that I got out of that.
JH: You said that you’ve had pretty tough audience. And I’m interested in hearing first, what’s a joke that you remember telling that just absolutely bombed, and it was just like you wish you had a bag over your head, and could walk out and nobody would know who you are. And then after that, redeem yourself with the joke that you did on stage that just killed it. And I’m hoping that both of these are podcast-friendly.
DH: Yeah. What I do is I tell stories about my life and stuff like that. The harshest lesson that I learned was the order of the jokes that you tell. And you think it’s obvious now, but the audience had … Before you can tell something which is, I won’t say risqué, but a little bit … You need to have a few jokes. When Scarlett was born, she was five weeks premature, which was a surprise. But she was tiny. Absolutely tiny. And I had this whole story-
JH: Scarlett is your daughter, for people who don’t know who Scarlett is.
DH: My daughter, yeah. Apologies, yes. And I’d take her out for walks in the pram, and women would just surround me because she was a tiny baby. And I made the comment that it was like a bat signal for ovaries. And if you were single, this would be a great way of picking up women. And I sort of made a joke about taking off the wedding ring and going, “Oh, sadly it’s just us two now,” and all that. And when I did that in the middle of the set, it worked so well. I got laughs. I got so much. But I opened at a club with it, and it was just deafening silence apart from three comedians at the back who I knew, who knew my set, who knew that that wasn’t the reaction I intended on getting.
JH: I’m sure they were laughing because you were bombing. There’s got to be an enjoyment in that.
DH: Yes. You get a lot of enjoyment. Especially because when you do the scene and when you tour, you end up with the same, maybe, 10 people. And you know each others’ sets off by heart. You’re always listening for, oh, that didn’t hit right, or, what did you change there? Or, what has she done? When that bombed, they were in stitches.
JH: What did you do? I mean, what went through your mind and how did you recover, if you recovered?
DH: I mean, you’ve just got to carry on. And what the audience wanted, they were a comedy club audience. And what they wanted were, they wanted sex jokes. And that’s not my shtick. But I sort of transitioned towards what they wanted. You’re up there, and there’s nobody there to help you. And there’s an adrenaline rush there that you are flying, literally, by the seat of your pants to try and make this audience laugh.
JH: All right. That’s good. I’m glad you were able to recover, and you just keep moving. What is your best? Because here’s the thing, is I’ve set you up for failure because you just described how you can’t really tell a good joke until you’ve built up to it. Otherwise there’s no context, it’s just unfunny, people are staring at you. I have a feeling that if you tell this one, I’m not going to laugh, the people listening aren’t going to laugh. Because you haven’t built it up. I’m giving you permission to say it, and then we’ll find out if it works or not.
DH: Also, number one, I haven’t done my set in over a year now. Do you know the reason why comedians introduce themselves?
JH: Remind themselves who they are? I don’t know.
DH: Because the worst thing that you can have as an intro is, “And please welcome to the stage the funniest guy you will ever meet. He is amazing. He has made me laugh. He will have you laughing in the first six minutes.” Because the audience instantly there set expectations. What you want is, “And here’s Dom Hodgson coming to the stage.” You want something completely low brow. Just get onstage and just do it. Introducing, “What’s your funniest joke?” is definitely setting a bar. But do you know what? I’m just looking through my notes because the thing is, a lot of my jokes are UK-based. My funniest bit is about Greggs, and you’ve no idea what Greggs is.
JH: No. I worked with Gregs before, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.
DH: All right. Let me just read this one. So, you know you can now buy scales that connect to Twitter? I saw that last year, and I thought that was a great idea. The only way I’m going to lose some weight is to involve the general public, and have a bit of public shaming. So, I bought one, hooked it up, and set it to its own Twitter account. I’m pretty sure the public shaming began. Almost instantly, people started to retweet whenever I put a bit of weight, and there was a guessing game as to what I ate the previous night. But worse than that is that this Twitter account to my scales … And at this point, it was a true story. Has more followers than my actual Twitter account. Oh, how’s Dom doing these days? I don’t know, but he weighs 19 stone 10 and gained two pounds last night. He had a cheeky Nando’s.
JH: See? That’s still funny. It’s good.
DH: It is. It is. Yes. Yeah.
JH: I didn’t know you could connect a scale to Twitter. That’s an educational joke right there. That’s not just funny. That’s like, I’ve learned something. And also, now all I’m thinking about is I want to go find that Twitter account, because I didn’t know you had that. I don’t know. There you go.
DH: Let’s just say during the lockdown, it’s slightly been deactivated.
JH: You’re like no, I don’t think so. That’s funny. All right. Well, that’s all I have on the comedy thing. I just think that’s really fascinating. I think it’s really interesting as far as you saying why you pursued it. I think it’s always kind of different for different people. It’s interesting that you did it so that you could do better on the conference circuit, which we don’t have right now. Which doesn’t exist any more, at the moment. So, you can’t do either. It’s like a double insult. I mean, I can’t pursue this, and I can’t pursue the other thing, which was the reason why I was pursuing the comedy.
DH: That’s why we have other hobbies.
JH: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. You do another thing that I think anybody who’s ever heard of you, or follows what you do, that is pretty interesting, I think. And that is you dress up in some different costume every time of some animal or something, or whatever. And then you run half marathons, which is a little weird. It’s a little crazy. But you do it for a good cause. And tell me, why do you do that? How did you get into doing that? Where do you find these suits? What is going on here?
DH: All right. I mean first of all, I’m just going to correct you. I don’t run half marathons. There’s a lot of walking involved. You’ll find that all my terminology says I do half marathons. There’s hardly any running. And this all started about seven years ago, that I was volunteering for … In fact, longer than that. I was volunteering for a children’s charity, and I said, look. I’d need to do some of the stuff [inaudible 00:12:59]. They said, oh, just to let you know, we’ve entered you into the Great North Run.
The Great North Run is the world’s biggest half marathon. There’s about 60,000 people that do it. And people train for a year to do this. And it was in September, and they entered me in, I think, April. And also, this was the year after three people died doing it. So, I panicked. But I did it. And I hate running. I will tell you this for now. There is loads of people that say oh, you will find your love of running. I have literally done over 60 half marathons at this point. Like, over 100 10ks. And I still hate running. I’ve never enjoyed it.
JH: There’s no love. You’ve found no love in it.
DH: No. No, none at all. But the crowds are what I love, the audience is what I love. And that’s where I said, right. I’m going to do the half marathon for charity, but I’m never going to do them not in costume. Because one of the things that I try and do in my life is I try and bring joy. I try and create laughter. I try and bring happiness. And that sort of goes back to the comedy, sort of goes to … I’m sure we’ll talk about the Christmas lights and stuff like that, and other projects that we do. The joy that putting on a stupid costume and videoing it and looking in pain brings, as well as cash …
Because the thing is that when you raise money, everybody’s doing a 5k now. Everybody’s doing a 10k. And to me, that never felt … It sounds wrong. It never felt special. It never felt unique. My mantra with fundraising and raising money for charity has always been, you’ve got to do something that A, pushes your boundaries, and B, you don’t enjoy. I don’t support people who are doing a sponsored skydive, really. Because a skydive, that feels more for you than anything else, if you get what I mean.
JH: There’s not enough pain in it, is what you’re saying. You might be scared a little bit, but it’s really just a pretty picture, if you’re filming it. And where’s the pain in it? Where’s the pain? Where’s the embarrassment of wearing my tiger suit and looking like you’re about to die?
DH: I did the Las Vegas half marathon in an Elvis costume with, I think, about 700 LEDs. And honestly, that was horrible. But we did it. But just the laughs and the joy that we brought was just amazing. And we raised a lot of money during it. I’m actually taking a year off running, at least, now. Mainly because there are no races. But also, this goes back to the mantra of, I don’t think you could do the same thing each time and ask the same people. The first year, I think I did one or two half marathons. The second year, I did five. And then it just kept going on. And then last year, I did 26. And that, to me, was about the limit that I could do, time-wise. I was like right, okay. I need a year off.
The idea was everything was going to end in the Disney World marathon, which is meant to be about six days ago. Obviously, that’s all canceled. We are booked in for next year, if it happens.
JH: Yeah. I think they’re actually giving shots there right now. I don’t think there’s any running. I think they’re just giving the vaccine en masse.
DH: But that’s at the mile marker six. You’ve got to make it to six miles, and then you can get your vaccine. And then you make it to 13 miles, and you get the second shot. And that’s how they’re doing it in America.
JH: That’s actually pretty good. I mean, I feel like I might get more sick from it. But yeah, that sounds good. I like that.
DH: Yeah. We’ve just passed raising 50,000 pound. Which has been an incredible goal for the charity and what I want. But it’s time to give it a break and just … Because I don’t want to get to the point where it’s just like, oh, Dom’s doing another stupid thing. I’ve got some ideas for next year. They take a bit of time to work with.
JH: So, we’re going to see this evolve, is what you’re saying?
DH: Yeah. I think we’re going to see the end of running. Definitely not going to see the end of stupid, physical attempts to do something.
JH: Thank goodness. Because that’s what we need. I mean, we do. Most of the time, I’ll get on Twitter, and that’s where I’ll see the livestream. And I’ll be like, oh, there’s Dom doing his thing in this new outfit, and there’s interesting lighting.
DH: Yeah. I mean the thing is that because I did these all on my treadmill at home. And anybody that’s watching, you go to www.RunDom.run, and you will see a picture of every, single run and every, single costume. Some of them were handmade. I’ve got a friend who makes costumes for me. A lot of them are off the shelf. But one of the things that you’ve got to remember is I’m quite a big guy. So, getting costumes that are unique and not stag do-type costumes is a bit more difficult than you think.
JH: Where do you get them? I mean, just anywhere you can?
DH: Anywhere. Anywhere. Any possible place that I can. We actually had a local costume shop that was about five minutes from my house, and a week after I did my last run, they closed down. And I’m not saying I was holding them up, but I’ve got a lot of my costumes from them.
JH: That’s funny. Yeah. They’re like, oh, man. Dom’s not running right now, or walking or whatever the hell you want to call it. You’re not moving for half a marathon. One of the things that comes to mind when I watch you do that is … Because I’ve run a half marathon before. Even a marathon, which almost killed me. And I couldn’t ever imagine wearing anything over me. When I watch you in those outfits, I just think, if that were me, there would be flames coming off because I would be so hot. How do you manage not overheating, and just falling over and dying?
DH: Not very well. I guess I’m just used to it. I’ve always run in stupid costumes. I’ve always run in several, several layers. And I remember doing the Disney half marathon in Florida, and that was 31 degrees. And I did that in my Wreck-It Ralph. And that’s the warmest I’ve ever been. But you just get used to it. And at home, I had two fans pointing towards me when they were. And yeah, it just get warm. But for me, that’s part of the running. I know that I will always finish a half marathon, because I’m not timed. Well, my times for a half marathon were terrible, and they didn’t get any better because I didn’t train. I didn’t go for it, because that’s not what I was about.
JH: Right. It’s the best way to approach it, for sure. Is, don’t train. Just show up in a hot suit.
DH: Yeah. Literally, that’s what we did. And the worst thing I’ve had with the costume, and it’s one of my favorite costumes, is … You’ve been to Disneyland. Before they had the MaxPass, they had the Fastpass, which was the card that you got which allowed you to skip the queue at a certain time. Do you remember that?
JH: Yeah, I do.
DH: Well, at Disneyland Paris, they still use that. And Disneyland Paris do a half marathon. And what I did was I got a dress made out of Fastpasses. We designed the Fastpass, we got it printed into laminated business cards, just in case it rained. So, we’d be fine. And we sewed … I say we. One of my friends, who I paid, sewed it onto a dress for me, with a hoop and everything like that. And then she made me a tiara and everything like that. It looked fantastic. One of my favorite costumes. And then on my back, I had a bag with 2,000 Fastpasses that we gave out to other runners and people [inaudible 00:21:30]. And it was a fully customized Fastpass to the end of the line in English and French. I was so proud of it. But the issue was that … I don’t know if you know this, but some dresses have hoops on the bottom which keep them from trailing. And my hoop fell off.
JH: I didn’t know. I mean, I guess I should know, but I didn’t know.
DH: You should know, mate. And my hoop fell off at the first mile. And so what that left was about 40 strands of cardboard on a string, rubbing against my legs for another 12 miles. By the end of it, my legs were bleeding because of the cards. And also, it rained a little bit, so some of them were deteriorating. But I just sat on the bus on the way home and I’m like, oh, what’s that? I was like oh, it’s my legs. I’d better just get home.
JH: The person sitting next to you is just like, what is going on next to me?
DH: Yeah. Well, that’s my favorite thing. Because we mostly stay off site at Paris. And you have to get on the normal bus. And there’s people there that have just arrived to their Disneyland Paris, and then they see this bloke dressed up as Tinkerbell, in a dress made out of Fastpasses.
JH: And he’s bleeding.
DH: Like, bonjour.
JH: And you’re like, you wouldn’t believe the chafe I have.
DH: It’s worth it just for that.
JH: That’s good stuff. What is your obsession with Disney? Because you know you’re obsessed with it. Where has this come from? What’s the love? Where’s the love come from? Why is it that your family goes there all the time and you dress up in princess outfits?
DH: I will say that I only dress up as princess outfits during running. It’s not like a casual Saturday thing.
JH: Hey, no judgment. There’s no judgment here. You do you. You do your thing.
DH: There’s a few answers there, but I think the main thing is when we went to Disney World, there’s an atmosphere there of just joy. Because most people, when they go to Disney World, it is either a once in a lifetime thing, or they’ve saved money for five years to take the whole family for a big, family reunion, or it’s their honeymoon. And there’s this concept of don’t sweat the small stuff. We’re all there to have a singularly good time. We want to make the best of it, because we’ve spent so much money, and we’ve looked forward to this. So, you’re walking down Main Street and you bump into someone by accident. It’s like, oh, don’t worry about it. People want to help you. There’s just this joy. And that’s the feeling. And that has changed recently, I won’t lie. But there’s that joy that we have that every time we go, we get a little bit of that.
JH: It’s the fantasy of it, the idea that everybody is there for the same reason. And the way that Disney runs their parks, everybody gets to experience something that is similar and also expected.
DH: Yeah. And don’t get me wrong. It’s escapism. There’s a bubble there. But isn’t that what holidays are all about?
JH: Yeah. I’m not complaining about it. I’m just describing what it sounds like you’re saying you like about it.
DH: And that’s what I say to people. But also, there is a community there. I’ve met some of my good friends there and things like that. And we have other hobbies outside of Disney and things like that. But it’s one of the things that we love. And don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that everything they do is great. I think some of the things that they’ve done recently have been moronic. And that’s from a fan and a shareholder point of view. But Wall Street doesn’t listen to me, because their share prices are the highest it’s ever been.
JH: I don’t follow Disney close enough to know whatever it is they’ve done that has made a die-hard fan question their Disney religion.
DH: Oh, let’s not get onto that. This is a fun, cheery podcast.
JH: Before we move on to talk about Little Warden, which I really can’t wait to talk about because I absolutely love it, what’s up with the Christmas lights? Because for anybody who has ever seen your Christmas lights, it’s significant. I mean, it looks like it is connected to some sort of AI that is making it do all kinds of amazing things. It’s just pretty amazing, really.
DH: Yeah. I’m sure many of you have seen the videos online of people’s houses, that sing to the Christmas lights and stuff like that. There’s a very famous Chop Suey one and things. And I’m the sort of person that looks at that and goes, oh, I’d like to do that. I wonder how hard it is? And then you look and you think oh, actually. That’s quite hard. And so I bought some of the stuff a few years ago, and then I didn’t really get a chance. And with lockdown, I thought, do you know what? Let’s do it. Let’s do it properly.
We actually started some of it … Every year, we do a little bit of the house. But we started to do it big last year. And it’s a weird hobby, because it’s sort of like four of five hobbies in one. You put all the lights on your house, but then you have to program all of the effects. Everything that you see on the house is all individually programed and sequenced, down to the mouth movements with them singing a song. You have to sit there and go through each of the mouth movements of the song and mimic the mouth movements manually. Or, you can buy something that somebody else has done. But yeah, and to your American audience, this is nothing because your house is the size of streets.
JH: Some of them. Some of them are. All of them aren’t that big.
DH: Hey, look. I watch TV. I know what they’re all like. But we’ve got a really good community here, and again, that’s what I love about it. I love the community. I love being a part of a good community. And so, yeah. It synchronizes to music. When we play a song, the lights will go and we use something … The term for them is pixels. They are WS11 lights that are all programmable, and they can be any color you want, for any time. And yeah, they all go off and it looks good. And you can see that on the Hodgson Lights website. There should be a nice video.
JH: Sweet. I’ll make sure I include a link, and I’ll probably steal an image or a video and put it on my site, and won’t ask permission or anything like that. Just so people can see. In fact, I’ll save them. I’ll save them the click.
DH: Just put Jon’s Christmas lights, and just replace Dom.
JH: Yeah, exactly. That’s what it is. I’m going to actually just take it over and just say it’s mine.
DH: That’s great.
JH: With the least amount of work possible. That is the way of the Internet. That’s certainly the way of people we’ve known in the industry. Like, oh, does he do that? No. He stole that.
Little Warden is one of my very favorite apps. It’s probably one of my favorite apps partly because a lot of the things that you’re doing, they’re things that I wanted to build years ago, and just never did, or couldn’t, or whatever. And then you build it and it’s just like, man. This is so good. But it’s not simply that it does what it does. I think the reason why I love it the most is because it saves my butt. It’s saved it so many times. And an example of that is when you’re in charge of a site. I’m just going to be really vague here, because I have to be. You’re in charge of a big site, and maybe there’s a lot of people, developers, who work on that site. And somebody does something that completely hoses your robots.txt file, or there’s any number of things, believe me. And I’m sure you know, actually, that you can do to completely screw up your SEO.
And so what is absolutely beautiful about Little Warden is that it is just on top of it. I think you call it Robot Dom. Here’s Robot Dom, just out there in the background, always watching. At least, it feels that way. Who sends me that alert pretty quickly after something happens and it detects it. That’s like, oh my God. I got to get on the horn and tell these people to undo … I’m using good language, as opposed to the language I want to use. But undo the thing that they did.
DH: That’s exactly why we’ve done it. Did you ever hear the origin story of Little Warden?
JH: No. And I would love to hear it now. It seems like right now is a great time for that.
DH: It does, yeah. I used to run a hack day, or a hackathon, as you Americans call it, in Leeds, called Leeds Hack. One day, I woke up and I was like oh, where’s the website for the Chinese characters? Like, oh. I don’t remember doing that. So, I went to log in and I was like, oh. Because it’s not my website any more. Because it had expired, and I missed it. And so I was like, oh God. So, I registered the .net, and then we moved on. And then somebody has bought the .com and tries to sell it back to me all the time, now. But I’ve got a little book of startup ideas, and I was like, right. We need to sort this out because this happens to me, I know it happened to an agency that I’ve worked for a few times with clients. And I was like, there’s a market here to do something.
And I left it for a few years, like you do, because everybody has this idea. And everybody has, oh, we could do that. And then we actually took, going back, a Disney Cruise, me and my wife, and my daughter. And we picked a cruise because my wife said right, you need a break. You are doing too many things. You need to stop, so we’re going to take a cruise. And we took at transatlantic cruise from Orlando to Europe. We spent 15 nights. And I had no Internet, because the Internet on the cruise … I think it was something like $100 for 10 megabytes. Something stupid like that.
JH: Was it a Disney Cruise?
DH: Of course it was a Disney Cruise. Let me tell the story. Who’s telling the story, me or you?
JH: I’m sorry. I just had to know. I had to illustrate the picture of the story, what’s happening. Go ahead.
DH: The thing is that Scarlett was one and a half at that point, so she’d be in bed by eight o’clock. Obviously, we wouldn’t leave her on her own. We’re there, we’re lying in bed. You do what every married couple does. You get your laptop out. And I played a few games, and I was bored, and I was like, do you know what? I’m just going to work on something. And then I started playing with Little Warden, because obviously you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with no Internet access, the best thing to try and build is a website crawler.
JH: Right. Something that monitors constantly over the Internet, without any Internet at the time. Yes.
DH: And the thing with Heather is, Heather is the smartest person I know in the world. She’s got a PhD in math. She’s a much better programmer than me. But she also doesn’t like the way I program. I was working on it as, can we do this? What do we do, that? And after about three days, she’s like, “Just give it here. Right. We’re going to build it, and then you can just market it. And you can come up with the features, and I’ll just build it.” And thus, I wasn’t allowed to do any more features for Little Warden. But we built it, and we built the first version in about three months. And it was purely, the initial version was you paced all your domain names, it checks your who is, your SSL for domain exploration and SSL exploration. It works for subdomains as well. And it checks the response code of your home page. And then once we launched, we started adding more and more features, and it just evolved.
JH: Yeah. I’ve watched it evolve since the beginning. And it’s interesting that, as most, I think, apps and ideas do, it came from an instance or experience that you had where you’re like, man, I really wish this existed so this hadn’t happened to me, or because I need to get this particular thing done. And so it sounds like that, obviously, was one of the main features, was to monitor the expiration date of your domain. But also, just other things that made sense, like you said, as far as monitoring site and making sure it’s up.
And then as is a normal thing in our industry, everybody has that thing they wish the app did. I’m assuming you’ve actually got a torrent of feature requests.
DH: We have so many feature requests. What we’ve tried to do with Warden is stay in our lane a little bit. Be quite a strict tool that we do one thing but we do it very, very well. We don’t go off. We don’t do uptime checking, so we don’t check your website every minute because to be honest, that’s not what we’re getting to do. There’s too many apps that already do that, and they’re already too cheap. We couldn’t compete in that area, because we have to think that there’s only a team of two of us. And if our uptime checking goes off at three o’clock in the morning, one of us is going to have to get up. We struggle a lot to have a holiday as it is. To have something that checks every minute whether our service is up … God. That’s not going to be good.
We also don’t check the whole website. We check specifically specific URLs, for the very reason that some of the big sites have over 10,000 pages that they’re checking. But they’re checking for specific things. We don’t just do a whole round robin, so we don’t inundate you every day with new notifications, so you get overload. But yeah, there are lots and lots of … I could tell you the next feature, that we haven’t announced yet. And if anybody makes it this far into the podcast-
JH: Right, right, right. Exactly. They’re like, here’s your prize. Get ready. Here’s your prize. Right now, three, two, one.
DH: We are adding the page speed, the web core vitals, directly into it.
JH: Oh wow, nice. Are you using … I think there’s a code repository on GitHub that they released, where you can actually put it on your own … Are you using that code base, or something different?
DH: We are testing at the moment. I believe we might be using Lighthouse, which is what most people use. Which I believe is the one that you’re talking about.
JH: Yeah. I’m sure that’s what it is. I mean, I know it’s Lighthouse, technically. I don’t remember the name of that GitHub repository, but I’ll find it.
DH: That’s what I think we’ll be using. And the thing that we’ve tried to maintain with Warden is we never put the prices up for customers who are already customers. We’ve added tons of new features, and we have put the price up a few times, but the price you pay is the price that you sign up at. It doesn’t matter what we add, you’ll never pay more. And it’s quite funny, because one of our first customers currently pays us about three pounds a month, because she was the first customer to sign up. But the billing was wrong. I hadn’t fixed it yet, but she’d found the website. And she managed to sign up, and she’s like, “Oh, you can refund me if you want.” I was like, “No, do you know what? You were willing to give us the money. You were willing to take a risk on us. It’s our fault that we billed you the wrong thing. You go for it.” And so she’s got a fairly decent account for that amount.
JH: I appreciate that. I have a very similar attitude towards that, because I like it both as a consumer and somebody who has had some experience in the past with an app. When I was in control of my past SaaS, that was a role that we had was we would grandfather everybody in. They don’t do that any more, now that I’m gone. But that’s even the approach I’ve taken with Coywolf and membership, is I’ve pretty much just said whatever it is you sign up for today is what you’ll pay forever. And there’s things that I’m planning, I want to do. There’s even an app I’m unbelievably slowly building. But I’ve told everybody who’s there that the prices are going to increase. Whatever it ends up being, that building, I’m so thankful that you actually even gave me the time of day, and gave me any money for what’s coming out of my mind, that it’ll always be that set price. So, I appreciate that. And I think that your customers probably really appreciate that.
I did want to ask you real quick about the feature that’s coming out, which is how is that going to work? For example, if you’re monitoring the core web vitals and just general page experience, performance, what’s the alert going to be? Is it going to be that it changes? In other words, is it going to be that you’re just going to keep telling them that you have 100 pages that completely suck? Or is it going to be that this page changed to good or bad or warning?
DH: Now you’re coming to the reason why we haven’t launched the feature yet. This is one of the main issues that we have with Warden. And we are actually going through a backend UI push at the moment, because we have a lot of advanced functionality that people miss out on. Let’s say, title tag changes. You can get alerted for the title tag change, which is what most people do. They get alerted for any title tag change. But actually, with our system you could customize it and say, I only want to be alerted if it doesn’t contain the word X, if it contains a number that is above or below this. You can go much more granularly. You can even put a regular expression in there. We’re trying to make that approach more viable for people, so they can see, do you know what? You’re not inundated. With the web core vitals, you’ll be able to say, alert me if it changes abound, or alert me if it increases by a percentage of X.
JH: Right. You get the option. That’s nice, okay.
DH: Yes. But it’s about making those options easy to use for people. And that’s one of the things that, to be honest, we’ve struggled with.
JH: It’s difficult. I mean, it’s never easy to make something simple. I mean, it’s always you look at the spectrum, which is you figure it out. Which is on one side. Like yes, it technically does it, but you need to know how to almost code. To, I’m going to make the decision for you. I mean, that to me is the other end of the spectrum. And that was something that when I was at Raven was always the struggle. And it’s funny, because looking back, I made plenty of mistakes. But one of the mistakes I made was I had it in my head that we were for advanced SEO. We weren’t for newbies or whatever. And we didn’t want to make decisions for people because of that. And to me, that was a mistake.
If I were to do something all over again, whatever it might be, I would approach it from, this is going to be able to handle almost everybody on the front end. And then maybe we’ll offer some more advanced things. But you have to look for it, or want it, or need it. And on the front end, it’s going to be magical. It’s going to make some decisions for you. But for people who actually know a little more or need to do a little more, they can click on this thing that will allow them to change the settings and that type of thing. That’s how I would do it over. Yeah. It’s interesting.
DH: Yeah, no. It’s exactly right. We have such a wide breadth of users. We’ve got some users which will literally go into every, single feature, try it out. And we’ve got some users which will paste all of their client domains and never log in again.
JH: But they get the alerts. I mean, I’m one of those people who … I’m on the latter end. I come in, throw in all the domains, and don’t log in hardly ever because I don’t need to, because the alert system’s so good. I mean, I get alerts in Slack, because you have Slack integration. I mean, it’s awesome. And so a lot of the times, either it’s a good to know. I don’t need to take any action. And other times, it’s like, oh my goodness. And in fact, even with your alerts, I’ll go back to the robots.txt example, you provide a diff. So, I don’t need to log in. In case you were wondering, why don’t my paying users log in? It’s because you’re giving them everything they need in the email alert, or the Slack alert or whatever.
DH: Oh no, we’re aware of that. What we say to people is that a lot of it is fire and forget. As long as you are coming in and adding your new sites or your new clients as you launch them, or get them, or sign them, then you shouldn’t have to log in to Warden every day unless something goes wrong. But I just want to make sure that my ideal thing is that for every client, all of their sites are green. Because that means that if anything goes yellow or red, that means that there’s something wrong that either they have to fix or we’ve got wrong. And that’s my aim. If everything’s green and you don’t log on for half a year but you’re looking at any alerts, then I’m happy.
JH: Yeah. I think I said on the front end of our conversation today that it’s one of my essential apps because it’s almost like insurance, a little bit. But it’s just piece of mind, really. And this is, for those listening, this is not me trying to sell Little Warden to you on Dom’s behalf or whatever. This is literally an app I’m passionate about because it’s saved my butt. And that’s why I’m talking about it like this. I mean, it’s an app I really like, and it’s incredibly useful, and it’s affordable. And I use it for every, single site that I run.
DH: I have given Jon absolutely no money whatsoever.
JH: Not yet. Actually, this is all about leverage. Be like, I’m just not going to publish this until I get my check. Oh my goodness. Let’s transition a little bit into what it’s like running a small business and an app, and even what that’s been like through just the pandemic and stuff. There are people who are listening who are either interested in starting something, who have something, and they’ve had their own struggles, whatever. And so I think this would be of interest to them. What’s it been like? In fact, I would say even before the pandemic. What’s it been like, just being a truly just small business? And really for you, I think a business of two, because Heather is your partner in this, and it sounds like is also the brains of it.
DH: I have never denied that. And I feel guilty every time somebody tweets, “Oh, Dom’s launched this. Oh, Dom’s amazing app.” And I’m like, no. You don’t understand. We’re incredibly lucky in the fact that I have an amazing wife that is willing to work with me on my stupid ideas. And that we can work together. That’s what we do. We work on our projects together. The only thing we tend to outsource, really, is design work because we’re both not very good at that. But for the most part, we’re very self sufficient in what we do. And so it has been, since we launched Warden, sort of a whirlwind. It was originally launched as a backup, and now it’s become the main income. I’m pleased with it. Before March last year, we had month-on-month growth every month. But we’re not talking hockey stick growth, we’re not talking VC investment growth. We’re talking sometimes that growth was maybe 10 pounds a month. It was very slow, partly because my marketing wasn’t right, and I was never happy with one of the …
Well for instance, just on a tangent, we launched free trials yesterday. And it has taken us, what? Three years to launch free trials. And that’s because I’ve always in my head gone oh, but we’ll only get one chance at someone who signs up for a free trial. So, we want to make sure it’s the best. If we just launched this feature, or we just make this change, and then you’re always like … Oh, if we just had this bit. And then before you know it, three years later.
JH: I know that feeling. I know that feeling well.
DH: Yeah. And Little Warden, it means so much to all of us. I’m not joking. When we get a sign up, I’m so proud and so pleased. And I get upset when we get a cancellation. And Heather will tell you that when we get a bug report, it almost gives me physical pain because I feel like I’m letting the customers down, and my baby’s not working. I’m like, can we fix it? Can we fix it? And she gets so annoyed with me. But that’s the nature of what we do. But we love it. We wouldn’t have it any other way. Trust me, I’ve given her several opt-outs. “You can get a real job if you want, darling. I won’t judge you. That’s fine.”
But yeah, from March last year … Obviously in the UK we had a lockdown in March. We call it lockdown number one, now. And I thought in my head, with a bit of ego, that we’d be fine. Because the entire premise for Little Warden was, we are going to be there watching your stuff while your staff aren’t. So, when your staff are on furlough, at least somebody’s monitoring all your client sites, and all your sites for that. And then even if they’re just furloughed and they can only work [inaudible 00:49:22], somebody can just log in and either renew a domain name, or just look at an issue. Or read that email. And we lost a lot of customers in that first two weeks. Like, a significant portion.
And I didn’t take it too well. I couldn’t understand it. And it took me a while to realize that actually, all of our clients had lost all of their clients because the first thing they do is cancel all the marketing spend and things like that. And it took me a while not to take it personally that we’d let ourselves down with it, that we’d done something wrong. There was pretty much nothing we could have done to fix that.
JH: Yeah. I mean, Little Warden is not hugely expensive. And it does sound more like what you described, which is the very, very unfortunate experience for many of our friends who have agencies and stuff like that, where the spend went away, the business went away, the clients had to stop everything. I mean, it was just so devastating even just for the clients that it devastated the agencies, which then goes down the line and causes them to have to just pull back and stop paying for everything they were using for their clients.
DH: Yeah. And that’s what happened. Very quickly, I said, okay. I’ll tell you what. Anybody that is canceling for COVID reasons, we’re just going to give them six months free. Try and let them ride the storm out, and we’ll not be a bother to them. And that wasn’t six months free, we’ll start billing you at the end of it. It was like, right. Your account’s canceled. But if you want to use it, there’s another six months. You can use that. That’s fine. And a lot of them appreciate that. Some of them, it was heartbreaking. We had a travel company in South Africa that their team were using us a lot, because they had a lot of little sites. And they said, look. We’re probably not going to have a job next week, but thank you for your offer. And then that puts it into perspective that actually, do you know what? It’s a lot worse for people. You’ve got to think about that.
Then a lot of our friends started losing jobs, and agencies started to downsize. I don’t know if you saw, we launched the [Search Startup 00:51:28] app, where I’m quite lucky in the fact that I have quite a few friends in the industry that also have SaaS, and also have businesses. I emailed them and said, right, what can we give people that are either starting up themselves, because they just lost their job, or need a hand? I think I got about 15 different people, and people to give a Data Studio course, six month accounts, some free stickers, or their website still up on SearchStartupApp.com. And we just said, right. Just put your name in there and we’ll send you an account. And we had over 200 people sign up for that. And again, there was no money in it. It was effort, but we just wanted to make sure that people had a little bit of …
We have an unofficial thing in Little Warden that we’ve never really spoke about, that whenever we see somebody go freelance, we give them a Little Warden account for a year. And we just say, here. Do you know what? You’ve got a lot on your plate. If we can help at all, use this. And again, it’s not a sly way of trying to get them to give their business, because we don’t ask for a credit card. And nine times out of 10, they don’t renew. But I’m just giving them the opportunity. I’m just saying, look. If we can just take a little bit off your mind so you can concentrate on the business, you do that.
JH: I think that’s good marketing. I mean, I think that’s good, keeping an awareness of your target market, making that connection, and giving them something without really any true expectation of them returning it.
DH: Absolutely not, except when they don’t. But I’m a big believer in karma. I’m a big believer in, you do good things, and good things will happen. And in my life, a lot of good things have happened. I can’t deny that at all. Back into the story, yeah. Last year was tough for a lot of people. And it was tough for me. And a lot of people think it’s about the holidays, because as you mentioned earlier, we go on a lot of holidays. Mostly to Disney. And in 2018 we decided, I’ll tell you what. The one thing we’ve never done is we’ve never been to every Disney Park in the world. So, let’s do it. But let’s do it all in a year. In a year, we were going to go to every, single Disney Park in the world. The ones we hadn’t been to were Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. In 2018, we booked and paid. We were going. And we were going to go on May the 4th, 2020. You can probably guess, we didn’t get to go. I feel like I was one of the only people to have to cancel a Disney holiday at every, single Disney Park last year.
But the funny thing is, that didn’t upset me. That wasn’t what was getting me down. It was work. And the lockdown number one was okay, because it was manageable because it was the summer. We had Scarlett. It was like an extended, six-week holiday. We did a lot of stuff together. We could go out for walks and things like that. She also wasn’t doing that much school, because she was in nursery at the time. But it felt a lot like Heather and I would take it in turns. One of us would have an hour or two with Scarlett, to play and to entertain. The other one would get some work done. And then you’d swap. You’d have lunch, and then you’d swap again. So, you’d do it in a couple of shifts. But it meant that any time that we wanted to do something together, like discuss a feature or discuss an issue, we either had to do it at night or over Slack. And don’t get me wrong, we talk a lot over Slack even though we’re in the same room, just because it’s easier to remember stuff.
JH: That’s pretty funny. I like that.
DH: It was hard, but it was bearable. The two other lockdowns that we had, we had the one in November and the one right now, are a lot harder because it’s raining a lot. You can’t really go outside. And Scarlett has school work now, so we have to concentrate on that and you can’t … Yeah. I posted a blog post a few days ago, and normally the company blogs are all just marketing crap and all happy yappy. But I was like, right. I’m going to tell you about, that it was actually hard. My job really with Warden is to manage the features, talk about the marketing, do some of the marketing, do all of that, but also design all the interfaces, design which button goes where, what does what, how does this work. And there was a bit of functionality that I couldn’t get working in my head. And normally, something like that would take me a day. But because of the lockdown and everything like that, it was months. I just couldn’t get it.
And the situation was just increasing with everything like that, and it just wasn’t a good time. And it took me a while to get into it. And I fell a little bit out of love with Little Warden. I couldn’t dedicate, because it just felt like there was no future with it. I couldn’t fix this, so what am bringing to the table if I can’t do the one job that I’m doing? Because when you own a business, there are so many different hats to wear, and there’s so many different things that you can focus on. Even with marketing, what do you focus on? Do you focus on outreach? Do you focus on sales? Do you write a blog post? Do you do this? And I found myself doing little bits of each thing, but not concentrating on one. And obviously, that wasn’t having enough effect.
About that time, we got approached by two companies who were interested in buying Little Warden. And I sat down with Heather and I said, “Look. It might be the time. We could have a fresh start. We could do something. We could pay off the mortgage. We could do X, Y, Z.” And so we considered it. And then we just said, look, do you know what? If we sold Little Warden, yeah, we’d have a bit of cash, we’d pay off the mortgage, we’d maybe travel for a few years. We might actually get to Disney Parks. But then what would we do? We’d start another business. And we’d start again. And we’d build up a Little Warden. It just felt like this didn’t seem worth it, because we’d already built something that we consider quite special.
And that made me sit down and realize that, do you know what? I need to work this out. And we fixed that issue. We had a good chat, Heather and I. We came on with a marketing plan and what the issues were, and what could we do. And we agreed to outsource some of the bits that were a little bit beyond me at the time. And we’ve been doing that to great success. We’ve knocked out three or four different features since we’ve had that conversation, some of which have been on the plan for two years.
JH: Do you think that having those companies or those people come to you, interested in your business, acted as a way to remind you that you have something of value, that what you’re working on isn’t a waste of time? And it sounds like it also reminded you that you have something good in your life. I mean, because this is definitely a lifestyle business, from my perspective, in what you just described. I mean, is that what got you out of your funk?
DH: Yeah. That, and some very, very heart to heart conversations with my wife. I hate the term, she’s my rock, because it feels very American and sitcom and all of that. But she’s always there to talk it through, and to give me an understanding. And yeah, just being honest with her. Because it’s hard to be honest and talk about your feelings and say, look, I’m struggling with this. And so to be able to have that conversation and go, do you know what? I just said to her one night, I was like, “I don’t know what to do. Everything I’ve tried is not working. What do we do?” And we had a long chat about it. It wasn’t a fun chat, but we had a long chat. And we’re in a better place for it.
JH: What would you say to somebody who’s listening right now who maybe doesn’t have the same support that you have with Heather, and is also kind of struggling with the same thing? The same thing being this, I don’t know, I would say self talk, where you keep telling yourself that, I can’t fix this, and I don’t have the growth that I wish I had, and I just feel like things aren’t going anywhere. Which is, by the way, as both of us know, extremely common for any type of business like this. What would your advice be? I mean, what would you recommend them to do, whether it be what they say to themselves, whether it be getting out of the house, whether it be seeking help? What would be your recommendation?
DH: Before I answer that, I’m just going to go back to what you said about being a lifestyle business. And I did a conference talk about this last year, and you’re right. Because whenever you talk about companies, whenever you talk about software, there’s this idea of hyper growth. And you want to build a unicorn, you want to build the biggest company you can. And I had years of growing up for that. And you read the stories from the founders that workbook have … People that were millionaires because they’d sold out in their mid-20s and stuff like that. And then you get to your mid-30s and you think, do you know what? I haven’t done any of that. And then you sort of feel a little bit like a failure. And I came up with this mantra of, I don’t want to build a unicorn any more. I want to build a horse. Because what I want … And it’s a bit of a dad joke, but I want something with a stable income. And that’s what I want.
I’m very happy with my life right now. I’ve got an amazing wife. I’ve got an amazing daughter. I’ve got a good house. I can pay off the mortgage at some point. I don’t want to be a millionaire. Heather and I wrote down a list of, if we sold the company, what would we do, buy? And it was like, we’d go on holiday. That was it. Our perspectives and what we want to achieve in our lives are … It’s a good exercise to do, to sit down and go, right, what do you actually want? What do you actually want to do in five years? What do you need? How many customers do you want?
Because there’s this expectation with software and SaaS that you’re always smashing it. And oh, you must be doing great. You must have loads of customers. And yeah, outwardly, everyone’s like, “Yeah, yeah. We’re doing great.” But inwardly, there’s always a little bit of shame that actually, you’re not doing as well as people think you are. And Little Warden, you would be surprised at how few customers Little Warden has got compared to what everybody thinks. But we’re happy with that. And we need to grow it, we know. But we’re not talking most amount of customers. We’re not talking that sort of customers. We’re not even talking [inaudible 01:02:51] customers. We’re a very niche product, and we understand that.
If you are struggling with what you do, I would take a look first of all, there are so many support networks out there. If this is a side project, there’s an on the side Slack community with people that are doing all this, and it’s a really, really good place. There’s a Slack group to chat about any problems that you’re having, because other people are there. Speak to your family members. If you are doing this on your own, maybe consider a co-founder. They do shift the burden. They do shift the expectation, which is you.
And also, reassess what you’re expecting to get out of the company. If you’re aiming to sell this for a million pounds, or, sorry, $6 million, I don’t think you’re-
JH: I don’t think the conversion rate … By the way, I don’t think the conversion rate is that right now. Go ahead.
DH: And then that sort of thing. You need to have a look at what you’re actually expecting to achieve, and what you’re going to put into it. But just don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s so many communities out there. Even the subreddits and things like that. There’s so many [inaudible 01:04:05] threads from anonymous accounts that say, I’m in this situation. What can I do? There are books to read. One of my favorite books that had a look at the way that … There’s two things that I go to quite often. One is Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, who died recently. But his book about the founding of Zappos, and being customer-centric, that left a mark on me about how I could improve and have a look at it.
And there’s another talk, and it’s on YouTube by … Let me just have a quick look. It’s by the guy who started Wufoo, and it’s about delighting customers. And it’s such a good talk about what they do, and how they … With delighting their customers, and what they did to make sure that even something as boring as a form builder was a joy to use. And have a look at that, see what other people have done. I went on a bit then, but-
JH: No. I mean, I just think everything that you just said is wise, whether you believe it or not. And I think that for anybody who’s listening, it’s really just helpful advice. And I think that’s a lovely way to end this conversation, with a bit of hope. And for those who might be struggling with their business, where they can go to make things better. It may not make the business better, but maybe it will make your life better. So, thank you for that.
DH: Well, your business isn’t going to get better if you aren’t putting your effort into it, if you aren’t in the right mindset. I don’t think I’ve done that much extra effort into the business since we had the conversation. But my productivity has increased so much. I’m putting as much time as I was in before, but I’m just getting a lot more out of it because I’ve got a better mindset and a better focus.
JH: Well and again, I think you’re describing the ideal approach to lifestyle business, which is … Because I separate the two. I mean, I think you’re either building something to sell, or you’re building something because it’s what you want to do in your life at the moment. And I really connected with a lot of the things you just said. With Coywolf, Coywolf for me is an aspiration. It’s something that I’m going to do at my own pace, and what is reasonable for me to do with all the other things I have going on in life. And I want to always enjoy doing that. And I want it to be done in the way that I want it to be done, if that makes any sense.
I don’t want to be beholden to some investor. I don’t want to build something that looks like what everybody is telling me the way it’s supposed to be done. I want to do it my way. And it may fail, but damn it, I’m going to have a good time doing it. It’ll be an expression of me, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does, then, fantastic. But it’s my way to be creative. And it’s my way to do something, and hopefully make something that other people can get something out of.
DH: Yeah. And that’s what it is. The amount of projects that I’ve started that have failed, you just learn something every time. Coywolf is a great project. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.
JH: Yeah, we’ll see. I don’t know. Hey, thank you for your time. I love talking with you. It has, as you know, been awful not having the conferences, not being able to physically actually in the same room and hang out for hours. And so, just really enjoyed this conversation. I think this is the longest I’ve ever talked to anybody doing this interview series. And I can probably talk forevermore, but we both have things to do. I’m pretty sure we have stuff we got to do.
DH: We do. We do. All right, well, thank you very much.
JH: All right, man. Take care.