Sol Orwell (00:00:06):
While we’re doing these interviews, we’re finding out that people talk a big game. And I’m not saying this in a negative way, I’m definitely in the same, but at the end of the day, they’re basically, “I just want this pain to decrease,” or, “I want my performance to increase.” And so health conditions and goals became our general primary goal on the website. We have the categories, we need the outcomes to measure the studies, and we need the categories because we need some level of categorization, but it’s really the conditions and goals. And so now we’re at, I think, at 500 conditions and goals. And part of our challenge is, okay, we have 25 researchers. Even if one researcher’s doing five a month, or on top of five a month, that’s still an entire five, six month cycle just to go through the entire thing.
Ben Grynol (00:00:51):
I’m Ben Grynol, part of the early startup team here at Levels. We’re building tech that helps people to understand their metabolic health, and this is your front row seat to everything we do. This is a whole new level.
It was 2011, Sol Orwell started to get back into shape. He was focusing on his health and wellness. And the more he started to explore the internet, the more he realized that it was really hard to find credible information. Well, that led him down a path of founding examine.com. It’s full of credible information and it’s really deeply researched. It’s science-based information, that was Sol’s intent. He wanted to debunk some of the information that was out there that might have swayed one way or another and keep things as factual and pragmatic as possible. Sol sat down with Mike Haney, Editorial Director and Paul Barszcz Digital Marketing Manager at Levels, and the three of them discussed his path with Examine, why he founded it, how he thinks about it, and some of the things that he learned through building it. No need to wait. Here’s a conversation with Sol.
Mike Haney (00:02:09):
The point of today is to really pick the brain of Sol Orwell, who is the co-founder of Examine. And examine.com is a really interesting property. It’s one that we’ve looked at since the very beginning of trying to do what we do because I think you’re one of the only other properties out there that is really trying to be research-driven in a very legit way, at least within the health space. And I want to dive into this more with you and how this came to be and how it’s worked out for you in the many years that you’ve done this and a lot of the redesigning and reskinning and rethinking that you’ve done recently.
But I feel like you guys were very early on in testing this thesis of, people actually want to know what the research says. They don’t just want the simple two line, “Take this, don’t take that, this will solve all your problems,” which is where a lot of the consumer health advice goes to. And the big juggernauts in the space, I think, have on one hand done a good job of at least citing research, but also are clearly optimized towards SEO and getting clicks and driving engagement. And it’s always felt like at Examine, you guys have led with, “What does the research actually say? How can we make this clear to people?” And that’s very much the North Star what we’re trying to do on the Levels content side as well. So you’re just kind of several years ahead of what we’ve been trying to figure out.And I think that the genesis of this conversation was really in the kind of redesign, reskinning rethinking that you guys did with Examine over the last summer, I guess, last few months, or I guess the process went on for many, many months, but really went live this summer. And you wrote, and we’ll link to this and the show notes because it’s fantastic, but you wrote a really detailed, long explainer of, “Here’s what we did, here’s why we did it, here’s what went wrong, here’s what went right, here’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
And that’s what I think we want to kind of pick apart today and dive into more of the SEO angle of this, but also just the consumer experience of trying to go to your site and learn something, that is inextricably linked to the SEO, if that’s how people are finding you, if they’re starting there, but it’s also a little bit divorced from it. I think you guys have struggled with the same thing we have, which is what’s clear to the reader is often not the exact same thing that is clear to Google. There’s sometimes a little bit of a dissonance there and how you solve for that. So I don’t know, Paul, if there’s anything else you want to set up in terms of what interested in you in having this conversation with Sol.
Paul Barszcz (00:04:41):
Yeah. I think you pointed out perfectly. I read the, I guess, blog post that you want to call it that. There’s a lot of great learnings in it and I think I want to use it as some sort of framework to the way that we think about our Levels blog in the next few weeks and months and maybe the next one to three years and iterate on that. So I guess just to start it off, can you tell us more about examine.com? What is it? When did you start it? Why did you start? What is your vision when you first created the website?
Sol Orwell (00:05:12):
Yeah. I have been working online since the late ’90s. I saw PHP 4 come out in ’01 and all that kind of stuff. I’m a comp engineer by degree and so I was always this nerdy guy and I was a very heavy set, I think is the phrase to use. And so about 10, 12, 13 years ago now, I moved back from New York, I was living there, I came back to Canada, I started losing weight. And this is right around when Tim’s four hour body came out. And as I started learning about losing weight, first you get sucked in to do all the supplement claims, “Glutamine increases muscle synthesis by 300%.” Which for a record, if you just pause for a moment and you think about it, 300% is gargantuan. If you’re going to add 300% muscle, that can be bigger than the largest bodybuilder, it’s wild.
So as I lost weight, I realized it’s really hard, at that time especially, it was really hard to find information I could trust. Everyone is selling me supplements or selling me services or some coaching or something like that. So that was the original genesis, was on Reddit. I messaged somebody that I had known for a while and they knew who I was, so they knew my background and I was like, “I think there’s an opportunity here for us to build something.” Now, when I say opportunity, I don’t mean, “Yeah. Giddy up, we’re going to get rich.” Or there’s all this money and Insta, I guess it still wasn’t really a thing back then, there’s all this fame and all that. It was more just, “Hey, you know what? We can do a little bit of good.” So at the time, Reddit’s Fitness had, I think, 10,000 subscribers. I just checked last week, it’s at 10 million, so it’s grown a little bit since those heady days.
So that was the original genesis. And then the blog posts you mentioned, since then, originally we started after body building supplements, creatine, fish oil, it was related to a beta-alanine, that kind of stuff and then eventually grew into fitness supplements and general health supplements and just nutrition and health. And the new version gives us the ability, if we want, to expand into exercise, beauty products, or whatever. So really the core mission, if you want to say it that way, is how do we look at the research around all the different facets of health and how do we put it into a way that users can consume it and then make their own best decisions? And I say this with an interesting backdrop of how do your own research now is this very trendy phrase that is pretty much as meaningless as it gets, right? It’s, “I found one thing that suits my purpose.”
And the last little bit I’ll say as an extension of that. So at the beginning, you guys mentioned how citing your studies Healthline, maybe not specific names, but the larger health companies are citing things and whatnot. I still remember about a decade ago there was an article on Dr. Oz’s site that was, “Hey, you know what? Artificial sweeteners are bad for you.” And the first citation had the exact opposite conclusion. And I remember tweeting at his team about it and I got promptly blocked and the citation was removed. So it’s one of those things also that people love throwing out citations, a lot of things, but there’s very few people who actually spend the effort and time to actually read the studies. And that’s kind of what we try to do to set ourselves apart from everyone else. So that’s kind of how we began and what we’ve been trying to do since then.
Paul Barszcz (00:08:18):
Who actually put all of this together. Did you find writers to help you with this? Did you find other Redditors to join you on a team? How did the first iteration of the website look like and how did it grow from there?
Sol Orwell (00:08:31):
Yeah. So the deal was I basically took care of everything except the research. Even if I know more about a research now than 99.9% of the population, there’s still that gap between almost hobbyist and actual expert. So I basically had another person join me, who took care of all the research side and then I took care of everything else. And then we eventually, for the first two years, we didn’t make a cent in revenue, it wasn’t ever meant to just even be a business, but especially earlier days of the internet, you just made a website because you wanted to. You’re like, “Oh, this seems kind of cool, let’s do it.” There’ was no side hustle. I guess there was, but it wasn’t as common. So that’s how we originally started. And then we properly incorporated in 2015 and that’s when my co-founder, Kamal… He had already joined us, sorry, but that’s when we created, Kamal became the person for research and I basically dealt with everything else.
Paul Barszcz (00:09:24):
So let’s kind of go into the growth part. You mentioned Reddit. What were the main sources of traffic in the beginning and how did it evolve from there? I don’t know if you’re familiar with bodybuilding.com, was that ever part of your traffic source or were you ever part of that community?
Sol Orwell (00:09:41):
Okay. The real genesis was, it was a level of frustration. So on Reddit Fitness, someone would come in and be like, “Hey, it’s creatine good for you?” And some random user would site five studies, “Yeah, creatine’s good, don’t worry about your kidneys, it’s just some extra energy for your body.” And then two days later, someone else would come in, basically ask the same question. And especially back then, Reddit didn’t have as many tools, so it just became frustrating. People keep asking the same question, they’re not using the search. Doesn’t matter how many times the submission page, you say, “Check search, see if other people have asked, here’s the most frequently asked questions, people costly ask those questions.”So the actual genesis was that frustration that people asked these questions, “So why don’t we just create a website where we can link them and just say, ‘Hey, don’t bother us, just read it off this page?’”
And so that was the original, let’s say, inspiration. So that’s why we’ve always been linked to Reddit, is from day one, Redditors loved our website because we’re generally there. I’ve been on Reddit now for over 16 years. I can almost vote, my Reddit account is almost old enough to vote now. So that was the original source. I think since then, Reddit has sent us millions and millions of visitors. The one caveat I’ll add is, as a traffic source, Reddit is the least purchasing of traffic you’ll come across. They love consuming content, but they might not necessarily become a customer, and that’s all fine. But there’s also, the numbers seem huge from Reddit, but they don’t necessarily convert as much. Bodybuilding.com was that big of a thing for us. We did guest hosts for them, they knew of us.
But part of the issue, and I’m not specifically calling out bb.com for this, is everyone is trying to sell the supplements or product or anything like this. So back then especially, T-Nation was huge for anyone who was in a body building. And same thing, they were always selling supplements. So I remember we wrote something about creatine for them once, but that was it. It was one of their top five most popular articles, I think, of the year. But at the end of the day, because we weren’t really helping them. Because generally we’re very nuanced. We’re never like, Yeah, rah, rah, take this, or rah rah, maybe don’t ever take this.” But we’re more like, “Yeah. Maybe in this situation or that situation it’ll work.” So that’s great for visitors because they’re like, “Okay. These guys are selling me something and they’re giving it to me how it is.” But for all these other companies, it’s not the greatest thing.
So over time, and kind of related, and we will talk about SEO I’m sure, but I cut my teeth on SEO back in 2002 in the really, really good old days. And so we always designed the website to be ready to be indexable by Google. So Google pretty much took off or started us generating us a fair amount of traffic. And then the one thing that made me really realize this was something we could actually make big, was a couple years in Dr. Oz started talking about how great Raspberry Ketones were. And I think three or number seven or something on the Google for Raspberry Ketones dosage, not even the keyword itself. We got 1000 plus visitors in one day, and back then you’re like, “Wow, 1000 visitors, that’s 10 times higher than a normal average.
So Reddit was a huge generator and then Google started taking over. Social media, especially back then, again, was easier to generate traffic off of Facebook at Twitter, Insta hadn’t even come closer to rising. So social media also generated traffic, but I think also because the domaining was relatively memorable. And I’ll mention in the SEO saying, people just remembered examine.com and thankfully for us, kept coming back.
Paul Barszcz (00:12:59):
So I was listening to your different podcast interviews before talking to you today. One thing that you mentioned was that you don’t put any focus on your social media profiles and stuff. I understand that and I understand your reasoning for that. You said because you don’t really own that audience, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, they can shut you off or limit your exposure to the point of 10% of your audience. But what about email? You once mentioned that you don’t put any focus on collecting emails and using it as a channel. Can you elaborate more on that?
Sol Orwell (00:13:35):
There’s things you look back that you’ve said and you’re just like, “What the hell was wrong with me?” I think that would be one of those for sure. So I’m definitely not as antisocial media as I used to be. I’m still generally antisocial media. This happens every time. Five years ago people started complaining about Facebook turning off the organics figure. It’s been happening on Instagram for the past couple of years, that discoverability goes down. I’m sure TikTok is going to have the same thing. YouTube, everyone. YouTube has its own extremism algorithm, is the next thing that kind of engages you. Email was a huge swing and a miss that I did. The first four years maybe, I would say, we didn’t really put enough energy at collecting emails. We were getting five to 10 emails, but almost accidentally, it’s like someone has to go to 90 different clicks before they accidentally find it. So that was a huge miss on our part. And subsequently email has been a huge, huge consideration for us.
And the latest one that we started dabbling in a little bit was… So we launched the new version of Examine just a little bit over a month ago. And so a few months leading up to it, we started building up a pre-list and we started collecting SMS numbers. So I think we ended up collecting somewhere over 1000 phone numbers. And I think when we actually ended up launching and going through the sale, I think 15% converted, if not even 20%.
So, again, every single thing gets harder. Social media’s the easiest to get a follower of, and an email gets a little bit harder, people are more protective now. Phone numbers, people are super protective. But that’s, I think, the next thing to really, really consider is, can you get someone’s… Really, at the end of the day, the question is, “Can I get enough trust to have someone share X about themselves?” And so yeah, that email comment I made, let’s put that under cringe. But nowadays definitely, you got to own your audience and email is the easiest way to own it. So yeah, I wish we had done much more with it back in the day.
Paul Barszcz (00:15:26):
So going to the SMS part, I think it’s still fairly new. It’s still the more [inaudible 00:15:34] many brands are doing it right now. Where’s most of your audience base? Is it mostly Americans that are submitting their SMS to stay in touch with you or is it worldwide or is it a mix of everything?
Sol Orwell (00:15:45):
Yeah. So the SMS unfortunately, to what you mentioned, not only is it relatively Wild West, but the software around it, the development around it, is so relatively nascent. I don’t know if you’ve ever played with Twilio, which is a very common API for SMS, but it’s just… I started using it maybe over 10 years ago when it first came out and it’s still a huge nightmare. So I would say like 95% of our phone numbers were in the US or Canada and maybe 5% of the UK. It’s very headachey to have international support, even just relatively simple as Eve. So that’s something we weren’t able to accomplish in a compressed timeline for the launch, but it’s definitely something for consideration in the future.
Really what I want to know… At the end of, the day it’s almost like trivial math, is the ROI there? If I spend a million dollars but I make seven million back, no one’s going to complain. If you spend a billion dollars and make 14 billion back, the math works out. So it’s something we have to explore, but we haven’t. And again, right now we only use it for pre-list. It’s also relatively much more expensive to contact. If an email is effectively 0.001 cent per month or whatever, an SMS is 100 times more expensive, and it’s so much easier to get banned when sending SMSs. So it’s something we only use as a pre-list and only with multiple layers of consent or approval, but it’s definitely something for us to play around in the future for sure.
Mike Haney (00:17:10):
As we’re talking of looking back historically at the genesis and the growth of the site and talking about the audience and the practical aspects of it, I’d love to hear more about just what you learned on the content side. How did that initial of theory, or I guess thesis would be the right word of, “Hey, we’re going to just really break down the actual research, we’re going to give people these nuance takes.” How did the audience respond to that? How did you find the audience for that kind of stuff? Because the conventional, I think, content wisdom is people just want everything to sail down to single bullet points. People just want to be told what to do, they don’t want nuance, nobody wants to read a study. What did you learn about that part of it over the years?
Sol Orwell (00:17:54):
Yeah. Okay. So that’s interesting. So the original genesis of it all was just because I was involved in SEO from day one, effectively. The pitch has always been just write great content. Now, obviously great content is as useful as, “How much did you charge?” You charge as much as you can. It’s completely useless as an actual strategic statement. But my goal was always like, “Okay, you know what? Let’s make actual content that I would want to read.”
The second part of it is, you’re 100%, most people don’t want nuance. So I used to do a lot more public talks before COVID hit. And one of my favorite numbers to site was the online retail space, nevermind services, this is now five years ago, was 450 billion dollars or some obscenely large number. At the end of the day, if you can even get 0.01% of that market, you’re doing really, really, really well for yourself.
So from our point of view is, “Hey, if everyone’s battling for the simplest quick takes, that’s cool. Let them battle. They’ll get 90% of the market, 98% of the market, who cares? All we need to do is set ourselves apart from everyone else, and that part is being annoyingly nuanced and contextual.” So we might have 100 visitors come to us on a random day and 95% of them are like, “Ugh, just tell me what to do,” and they’ll never come back again. But other 5%, we are hitting exactly what they’re looking for. That’s what makes the internet great. You might be into crocheting cartoon characters using yarn. And in your community, in your city, you’ll find not that many people, but once you make it a worldwide thing, you’ll find more than enough people that have that exact interest.
So the same thing for Examine. We’re not even pretending that we’re going to appeal… And obviously we’ve made some modifications and changes, and we can get into that too, but our thing is, it’s not even worth the effort. If people that like us, they basically love us. They really, really, really love us. Everyone else, if they don’t like us because we’re too complicated, that’s okay, the world is more than big enough and I honestly don’t care, if it’s the right way to say it. Not in a dismissive way, but live your best life kind of way. You do you. So that’s how we tackled it.
Mike Haney (00:20:08):
So how did you find that in a audience? I very much appreciate that idea of, “Look, we’re only going for the one or 2% that care,” but then the hard part is finding those. It sounds like you started with a relatively big funnel if a lot of folks are coming in and maybe bouncing, but you must have figured out over the years how to target and reach those people who want what you are offering.
Sol Orwell (00:20:29):
So I’ll be honest, I don’t think we really do a great job targeting because I don’t think there’s an easy way to slice and dice to that audience. So the original genesis or the original, sorry, source of traffic, is Reddit. So Reddit is inherently more nerdy, there’s a lot more engineering type. I have an engineering background myself, they’re much more interested in the details, operational logistics, that kind of stuff. So already they have a slightly stronger affinity towards what we’re doing. So we’re getting more into it.
Similarly, there’s a lot of health professionals that really like us because we’re giving them the nuance they need to understand it so they can tell to their clients or patients, there’s a bunch of biohackers that love our stuff. And then the other fourth kind of segment that we really attract, is people have chronic health conditions. So what we found out, for example, is that a lot of people take supplements, not because they’re necessarily anti-prescription, but they’re already on prescription, they already have side effects from 1, 2, 3, 4 different kind of scripts, and they’re looking for some supplement that can alleviate the slight bilateral control issues they have because they’re taking something for the kidneys, [inaudible 00:21:26] taking something for liver, because they’re taking something for bronchitis or whatever it is.And so at the end of the day, how do we slice across an audience to find one that is most interested in nuance and detail? I don’t think there’s an easy way to do it. So our approach has basically been the same. We’re getting a ton of traffic, a decent amount, I guess, a chunk, of traffic from Google, we’re getting a bunch of traffic from Reddit. We are basically as unapologetically us as we could be. And then the side effect of it is, let’s say the three of us are super nerdy and I come across the site Examine, I am much more likely to share it with you guys because I’m like, “Hey man, these two people are really going to enjoy it because they can nerd out too.” So our word of mouth has been particularly strong because again, we’re unapologetically ourselves.
And I’ll be honest, I told the team the goal that we want is ubiquity amongst the health professionals. Google came out in 1999, but by 2003, 2004, if you’re talking to your mother and you’re like, “Hey, you know what? Just looking up on Google.” And they’re like, “What’s Google?” You’d almost be offended. “How do you not know what Google is? Everyone knows what Google is. Where have you been a living?” That’s kind of the goal we’re trying to do across the level of the more nerdy people.
The final bit I will add in terms of exposure, we did a lot of guest posts. We wrote for bodybuilding.com, we wrote for CrossFit Journal. And remember we got into a bit of a fight with them because they’re like, “Hey, we have to pay you for anything we publish.” And our thing is we don’t take any money from anyone else. 100% of our revenue is from our subscription customers, so we make no money from writing. Thing is, any kind of COI for me, I just want to live that life. And so I remember we had this huge argument with them back and forth and eventually we agreed to a $1 payment for this article we wrote and then we of course never cast that check.
So we wrote for NSCA, NASM, AND I’ve spoken at, FNCE, which is a major registered dietician conference. Kamal, my co-founder, is all the fitness conferences, all that kind of stuff. So we’ve also been exposed to those audiences because they’re more likely to like what we do. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think there’s any singular source that has been identified by us as the grail of people who will love us. A lot of health professionals are honestly so busy, they don’t care about the nuance. Again, they just want the quick, “Tell me this works and tell me this doesn’t work.”
Paul Barszcz (00:23:37):
I think touching on your team a little bit more, can you elaborate more on how is your content team structured? How big is it? Are the freelancers or are they employed by you? How does that work?
Sol Orwell (00:23:50):
Yeah. So our content, until the past month or two or even past month, past week, sorry, has been relatively ad hoc. And what I mean by that, is we don’t have a content team, we just have a bunch of researchers who nerd out and get their research on. And when it comes to research, we had just spare parts of research. We had our database, which is a quick summary on studies. We had our study summaries, which is much more involved in terms of summarizing studies, we had our content about our pages themselves. So I’ll be honest, it was very ad hoc. It was kind of like, “Hey, you know what? We have an updated our official page, six months. Oh shit, we better get to it,” all that kind of stuff.
Only now that we’ve merged all of our content into one thing, are we finally building our own proper version of an ERP, to see where all studies flow in our system, where they go and all that kind of stuff. Having a more, let’s say, systematic approach. So these are the top 20 supplements. We got to make sure they’re updated, rechecked every three to four months. These are the top next 20 to 50, check every six months. After top 50, you know what? Who really cares? Check it once a year. Or it’s not as simple, if something’s getting a lot of studies, we got to update it more often. If there’s one study a year on BPC 157, then we don’t have to worry about checking up on it that often.
So we were doing it relatively ad hoc, but now we’re taking a much more systematic approach of, “Okay, what is the frequency of updates on research? How much interest is there in this topic? How expansive is the topic?” Something like fish oil, I think I page as 800 references, but we could easily have twice that amount over time as we really flesh it out more. So in terms of the team, no one is actually identifying or connected to content per se. Everyone is either a researcher, a copy editor, or a reviewer. That’s their job. Long-term, to be honest, we don’t see ourselves as a content company, we see ourselves as a database, slash educational resource. We have agreements with a variety of a healthcare companies and universities where they’re gaining access to our entire database of information for their students or clients or whatever. So effectively we’re an educational company. And so as an educational company, there’s no singular piece of content we’re generating. It’s more like, “Here’s the latest and here’s it always updated.”
So the team is, like I said, we split it into three. Researchers and reviewers are kind of one and the same. One writes and the other one just double checks, “Does this make sense?” Oftentimes, for the reviewing part, we have more specific health experts. So for example, a reviewer of ours, he’s a double PhD, M.D. up in Victoria is PhD’s epidemiology and infectious diseases. And his M.D. is also on urology kind of stuff. So when COVID first hit, we were writing about Coronavirus, he was a reviewer to make sure, “Hey, is making mechanistically?” And all that kind of stuff. Copy editors are obviously a little bit different, they’re a little bit more obsessive with grammar, but that’s it, we don’t have any content marketing team. We actually have zero marketing. It’s literally me, my right hand man, our customer service person. We’re the only three non… The dev team now, we’re the only three non-researchers on the [inaudible 00:26:56], everything else is just research.
And so if you get into the business side, it’s hamstrung us in many ways. But I’m much more interested in our success five to 10 years from today, long-term success, big success, than, “Hey, you know what? Let’s generate all this content out today so we have some extra money for the next year.” And then it’s like a hamster wheel, you just keep chasing the latest topic. You keep trying to make something into something it might not necessarily be. Whereas, we’re like, “Hey, we’re budget researchers, we’re just going to keep nerding, and over time, our content is going to get so massive and interconnected, that you basically build your own moat.” After 11 and a half years of Examine, we have, I think, 10 million words on the website. Over the next 2, 3, 4 years, we’ll easily add a million words a year, if not even faster. That’s the competitive advantage we have in content, it’s that not trying to churn out an article or a blog post or anything like that.
Mike Haney (00:27:52):
Let me ask a really practical question there. How do you find your researchers?
Sol Orwell (00:27:56):
So the lucky thing we’ve always had is we have a bunch of nerds who love reading our content. They’re on our email list, they follow our website. And one of the things we’re very proud of, you know there is the customer satisfaction score or whatever after someone deals with customer, they give you a frowny face, meh face or a happy face? So I think the industry standard is 75 to 80%, whereas our, when I was last checking last week, was like 98.7%. And I looked up what that other 1.3% was, it’s because we refunded them and they thought that within 12 hours was fast enough. So the nice thing is, because we’re very responsive to any typos we make, any mistakes we make, we always, “[inaudible 00:28:36].”
So if a request comes into customer service, we send to the researchers for them to actually answer properly, not the boiler plate. The reason I say that is whenever we put out a hiring call now, people apply in droves. When I put out the initial call in November, 2013, sorry, the years sometimes get a little bit fuzzy for me, 2013, we had over 500 PhDs apply for what was ostensibly one job. In the end, I had to split it into three part-time jobs, because I’m like, “There’s too many basic people, I can’t figure it out.” Every month we get maybe 30 to 40 to 50 people applying just through our careers and jobs or whatever the link right now is in the footer, so that’s kind of how we’re finding. We’re in the lucky position that we were so obsessive about our reputation, how we operate things.
So I mentioned right, there’s no gifting allowed in anyway whatsoever. There’s no endorsement allowed, no vouching, no testimonial. You will not find me giving a testimonial anywhere on the internet, anything to do with health, or anything around anything that we do in a professional capacity. We even have a thing where if a friend wants to send you a book, treat them like a friend and buy their damn book. You want to treat them, you want to support them, buy a book. So I think by having all these rules around how we operate, people are kind of attracted to it.
And then we also, it is a famous adage, “People don’t quit jobs, they quite managers.” And so we’re very big on empowering our people, so many of our research have been quoted in Washington Post, New York Times. It’s not like Kamal and I are obsessed about, “Ha ha, we must…” You’ll often read from companies that are 50 employees and somehow only the founder is the only person ever quoted in any kind of mainstream media and it blows my mind. I’m like, “What are you doing with all your employees?” So we try to empower employees. And so our employee turnover rate is pretty much zero. And even the few that have left, they’re still on our Slack, via chat. There’s one employee who left three years ago and we still chat with them once a week in Slack.
So I think building that community, building that vibe, people want to work with you. And I’ll be straight up honest, we don’t generate a ton of revenue, we don’t pay great, we don’t pay peanuts, but we don’t pay great by any measure. But the four day work week, while we operate, that we very strictly operate. On Fridays, you’re not allowed to post on Slack. I love seeing the graph of Slack messages, and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, it’s pretty much at zero. So I think taking care of people and our reputation, it just has now built this automatic stream of applicants. We recently did a hiring call for developers and same kind of similar thing, Guillermo, who founded Vercel and React, and Next.js, sorry, which is a very common front end, he tweeted to his audience. So 500,000 plus people seeing it on Twitter, we had 250 plus applicants for two roles. So it took us a while to get there, but we’re very appreciative that we are in a position where we are a wanted commodity as an employer.
Paul Barszcz (00:31:32):
So sticking to the same topic of your team, how does your CMS look like and who built it? And do you guys manage it internally? Do you have an agency? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Sol Orwell (00:31:43):
Yeah. So everything is internal. So the original version of the software I wrote. Subsequently, we basically rewrote it out and then we started working on top of it. And what happened was, effectively, until three years ago, we had a single developer who was just churning away at it. And this was a gross under-resourced allocation on our part, I won’t even pretend it was the right move even remotely. But we basically ended up, anyone who’s worked on code, we ended up with so much technical debt that it was like, imagine seeing a car that the chassis is wood and still it’s put together by duct tape, not even nails, it’s just all duct tape. So the system was so broken, the code was so broken, when we hired our second developer three years ago now, sorry, my timeline’s a little bit off, two and a half years now, sorry, he was a bit bewildered by how bad it was.
And so when he created our study summaries, which is one of our parts of our membership, the entire part of that website was completely separate from everything else. It had its own search engine, it had its own little database, it was totally uninvolved. And so the big part of this Examine 2.0, is this blog post you guys mentioned, was creating Examine 2.0, where did it come from? What was the reasoning? And part of it was the software was just completely no good, no bueno. And so we decided to rewrite it a few years ago. We ended up using Laravel as our backend, which is a very, very common popular PHP framework. We ended up using Next, which uses React as a front end, which again, is a very, very popular framework, very easy to deploy off Vercel and all that kind of stuff. So everything was custom built.
And so right now, our task is effectively hiring, expanding our dev team. We were at four people before the launch, we should be at seven people hopefully within the next 60 days. So we’ve built it. Now, the problem with CMS is, it’s good enough, but there’s all these extras we can add, “How can we speed up the website?” All that kind of stuff. So that’s why we need the additional manpower. So when we were under-resourced, we basically had it as, “Good enough. It worked.” It took your credit card, it showed you the content you wanted, it showed it fast enough. But we are now aiming for something much, much, much more expansive.
Mike Haney (00:33:59):
I know one of the topics we’re really eager to get into, and I want to be conscious of the time we’re taking today, is the SEO side of this. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now with SEO and how that’s maybe the product of the learnings you’ve had over the many years that you’ve been doing this.
Sol Orwell (00:34:15):
I’m going to get myself boxed for, sorry, 25 seconds here. You know how you read these books about startups and how they started up, like eBay, his wife wanted a Pez dispenser or something and that’s why he created eBay and the turn out was absolute malarkey. So I just want to throw out the same thing is true with TripAdvisor, where the story is that they were indexing reviews from magazines, they tried to sell it to corporate or businesses, nobody cared, so that self-published and it became a giant hit, that’s absolute garbage.
Back in the good old days, back in the early, early 2000s when PageRank was an easy thing to see off the toolbar, all you did was buy links and didn’t matter where you bought links from. And the single most notorious buyer of text links by far was TripAdvisor. Anytime I would buy links, and I was small fry, by no means was I even top 10,000, I was just some random dude instantly that… Because back in the day Google updated once a month, so you’d have to wait a month to see what people were doing. Instantly, right after the update, boom, TripAdvisor would pay 10x and wipe out my links with their own links. [inaudible 00:35:14].
So back in the day, the SEO was easier, write great content, which was aka just via text links. Nowadays, SEO has changed. And so the big one that maybe a lot of people don’t realize was three summers ago, Google released the YMYL update, Your Money or Your Life, aka health and finance. And people have misunderstood what Google was trying to do. What’s happening is there’s so much disinformation out there, usually off grifting, that Google was like, “Hey, we would rather give you reliable but maybe not the best information, versus giving you possibly good information or great information, with the downside that we’re possibly giving you the worst information.” They’re basically like, “We’ll give you 60 to 80% instead of giving you negative 100 to 100%.”
So a lot smaller sites were non-established sites, including us, we thought wiped out. So before Google did their update, we were getting maybe 40, 50,000 visitors a day. And once the YMYL updates hit, we were down to 4,000. What’s super interesting to me, and I kind of mention this about word of mouth, is the 4,000, all of it was branded search. People were searching for creating Examine, ashwagandha examine.com, “What does Examine say about fish oil?”, it was all our brand name. And that’s kind of my thought was, I got to be honest, you know you get these little things you geek out about, that’s the thing I geeked out about the most was like, “Wow, we have thousands of people every day searching for something related to Examine.”
So there’s the pre-YMYL and then the post-YMYL. What happened around YMYL that a lot of people don’t appreciate in the SEO space is, that’s when Healthline became kind of ascendant. One little backdrop because we’re talking about SEO, is Healthline actually became ascendent in SEO because via a website called Authority Nutrition, which was run by a buddy of mine. And Authority Nutrition ranked number one for words like broccoli, coconut oil, banana, nevermind like fish oil and all these other who cares supplement, they were ranking for gigantic terms. They were getting 500,000 visitors a day from Google. So Healthline bought them out, merged them into the web… Right now, if you type in authoritynutrition.com, they’ll redirect you to Healthline.
And so when Google made this bet, Healthline realized, “Whoa, Google really cares about old, established, dominant brands. That’s what they care about in health.” And so the three big companies in health space, Healthline, Everyday Health and WebMD, these are all billion dollar companies. And the fourth entry now is Verywell Health, which is owned by About, which is another gigantic company. They went out and they started buying out established health companies and just started regurgitating their blog content on those websites too. So Med News Today was bought out, all these other health site. Was it Psychology Compass or whatever? I might be getting the names wrong with the domains. They bought out all these late ’90s established health sites, started regurgitating their blog content on them, and voila, they basically dominated the hell out of the top 10. So this YMYL update did really, really good for those guys.
So then the counter argument that Google started introducing was they started caring about E-A-T, expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. And the idea with E-A-T is, you put the author there, there’s a reviewer there, you put their bios, where you basically let people know that you are an established brand, all that kind of stuff. We’ve invested heavily in E-A-T and sometimes it goes up. I think the peak traffic we had after YMYL hit from Google was 20,000. I think at the worst we dropped to 7,000. We never changed anything on our website. We’re not a very responsive website. And when I say responsive, I don’t mean we can’t respond, we just choose not to. We’re more worried about how do we build something that’s a bit more sustainable instead of again being on the hamster wheel and whatnot.
So at the end of the day, SEO has basically become kind of a bonus for us. If it sends us above 10,000 visitors a day, that’s great. If it doesn’t, well, c’est la vie kind of thing. The one thing that we have started pushing into that’s now we’re starting to realize with the new version of Examine 2.0 is… So one of the fundamental things we changed with Examine 2.0 is, we basically made the entire website abstract. And what I mean by that is when you look at health, there’s two things. There’s the intervention that impacts your health and then there’s the, let’s say, the health measurement. And the measurement can be something broad like, “I feel better,” or it can be something very specific, “My systole, diastole, my blood pressure,” basically the first number and the second number, we’ll pronounce it like that. They’re very specific things.
And so as a database, this is why I said we’re a database company, we’re an education company, we basically now interlink all interventions to all outcomes. Let’s just use the generic-based outcomes. So we’ll say, “What is the impact of fish oil on blood pressure? What is the impact fish oil on diastole? What is the pressure of fish oil on systole?” All these kind of things. So what our SEO play for the future is, there’s no other website anywhere on the internet that’s giving you the breakdown of information on intervention meets outcome. If you look for blood pressure, you’ll find Healthline article.
Fish oil is a big word, sorry, is a popular supplement and blood pressure is a popular supplement. So if you look up fish oil, blood pressure, maybe you’ll find Healthline or some other website. But if you’re looking up something a bit more esoteric, let’s say ashwagandha. And some more specific, I think one new outcome we just added yesterday is otitis media, which is, I think, some ear thing. Don’t quote me on it, but it’s a very specific outcome that impacts people. If we are the only page that tells you, “How does fish oil or vitamin D or vitamin C impact otitis media?” And it is relatively unique content, it’s, “Here’s a couple of studies, here’s our summaries on the study, here’s a great early intervention, the efficacy, here’s our summary on what the actual outcome is, what the intervention is.”
That is our long-term play, is we have, I don’t want to say we’ve given up on the major keywords, but we’re trying to compete against these Goliaths. And maybe one out of a million you’ll be… David is a small one. David, you know, get him with an error spear or whatever. Well, you’ve defeated Goliath. But I’m a big fan of the process on probability and the very high chance of Goliath is going to smack the hell out of us. So we’re much more focused on, “What do we do that no one else can do?” When we have 500 interventions that we have roughly 5000 outcomes conditions at health categories and 500 times 5000 is a very, very large number. And it’s obviously not to that maximum capacity because we need the research to be underlying behind it. But as far as we’re concerned, as long as there’s, I think, five studies on any combination of intervention outcome, that’s good enough to make it indexable by Google, it’s enough unique content, it’s super, super long tail.
And then the secondary part of this, so the way we generate revenue just for someone who doesn’t know, is we just have subscription access to more detailed breakdowns and more information. That’s it. There’s no extra product, there’s no extra, blah, blah, blah. It’s just more information, more details. And so every month we summarize 200 plus studies across 25 health categories. And when I say summarize, we have a researcher go through it, we have a copywriter, we have a reviewer, usually a second reviewer, we add graphics. It’s a very, very involved process. 10 researchers spend their entire month doing 200 summaries. Those 200 summaries are unique. Those 200 summaries don’t exist anywhere else on the internet. Maybe the abstract of the study does, but we actually break it down into useful language and we give them context in the big picture. That is all beautifully, deliciously fresh content that does not exist anywhere on the internet.
So we can also expose that traffic, we can easily… This is where it’s nice building it on CMS, as you were asking. We can be like, “Hey, after 180 days, make all studies summaries free, let Google index it. And so people fall across or come across our content.” And so eventually, generally, we’ve only had 1000 pages in Google historically. We don’t have a lot of long tail pages, but now because of our brand authority and the long tail potential that we’ve unleashed that no one else can do, the SEO opportunities open up a lot more. So I’m very curious to see what the numbers look like in six months time, in 12 months time, once we really, fully implement all these things and see how Google shoots it.
Paul Barszcz (00:43:14):
Yeah. I think you hit the nail on a head with your keyword saying uniqueness. I hear a lot of people in SEO space talk about it now, especially with Google’s latest update here in September or late August. So going back to your intervention and outcome part, how did you guys decide to restructure your categories on the website? That is something that we’re thinking about now at Levels. It’s not necessarily easy process. We have about 300 articles on our website now and it’s starting to get kind of overwhelming for people. A lot of our readers say they love our content, but they say they have trouble keeping up just because we have a great flywheel of publishing several articles a week. And there’s just so much content to absorb, and especially for people just coming in and discovering us. How do you see a solution for us? Or how did you approach it for Examine?
Sol Orwell (00:44:11):
Categorization? So we basically had to build our own taxonomy for health. So ours was a little bit different than yours because what your kind of situation, looking at it very directly, is you have this content and you want to kind of figure out categorization to build on top of the content. Our thing was, “Okay, we take all of health, how the hell do we categorize all of that?” And part of our problem was we had these supplement guys that were 17 categories. We had our supplement categories, which were, I think, 23 categories. We had our study summaries, which had this 2501 different categories. One of them, for example, cannabis, but we’re not going to have a cannabis guide. Not beyond even the legality. We’re like, “We’re just not going to have a guide our own cannabis, just smoke it until you’re too high, take a little bit less next time, or more, whatever you want to do.”
So we basically had to build our own health taxonomy from scratch. So a few others existed on the internet and just a few different databases, but effectively what we did was we ended up creating three levels of hierarchy. And all of this was organic. So you mentioned this Examine 2.0. We started the process at January, 2020 pre-COVID. I remember going to San Francisco and sitting down with Kamal and be like, “Oh, shit, we got to reset pretty much everything.” And we finally release it in August 18th, 2022. And even then we had to still take a lot more shortcuts than I would’ve wanted. And by shortcuts, I don’t mean we’re not giving enough content, but, “Shit, we need to have parent and child outcomes in this way, whatever, we’ll deal with it in three months. It’s not that critical.”
So we basically ended up doing three levels of hierarchy. And the reason we ended up with three was we realized, if you were to take health broadly, cardiovascular, everyone knows cardiovascular, and brain health is a big one and bone health is a big one. But when you actually get down to the things that people experience for health, it’s never cardiovascular, it’s never bone. It’s, “My bones hurt,” or, “I have osteoarthritis, I have joint issue.” Or if it’s brain, “My memory’s not so good,” or, “I can’t focus.” People think of it in these large categories, but in reality they think of it one layer down. But then when you look at the research, the research doesn’t do that many subjective stuff. It’s not being like, “Oh, what’s their memory like? It’s more like we’re talking about blood pressure. It doesn’t care about blood pressure, it cares about, “What’s the systole and diastole? Cholesterol, “What’s the HDL and LDL?” Most people don’t care about HDL or LDL, they care about, “Do I have high cholesterol? Do I have low cholesterol?”
So that is why we ended up having three different layers or levels, let’s say, of health categorization or health taxonomy. And then we started filling it out. And I got to be honest, it was something that took us months and even today we’re still evolving. Originally it was categories, conditions, and outcomes. And there was a huge debate internally even around the word outcome. “Should it be parameter? Should it be metrics?Should it be this?” We even surveyed our users because it was so contentious internally. When I say contentious, we’re not like, “Ah, you’re an idiot.” It’s like, “No, this second doesn’t…” There’s no word basically. Outcome was the most generic word that works.
Then even conditions. So conditions generally work. So you have diabetes, that’s the condition. You have osteoarthritis, you have this. But then we realized that’s only on the negative side or on the kind of fixed side, but there’s also the improved side, and that’s the performance side. “I want to swim faster, I want to run faster, I want to run longer.” So then we ended up having to make it conditions and goals. So the entire process was basically, I don’t want to say trial and error, but it was a very organic process. And so along the way we did these customer interviews called Jobs-to-be-Done. And so they’re about 45 minutes to an hour long and we were basically trying to understand, “What’s the actual problem the user is having?”And so an easy one that I can empathize with is weight loss. People will say, “I want to lose weight because I want to look good,” and whatever. But the reality of it, especially as someone who’s lost, is you just want to feel more comfortable. My pants aren’t as tight, I don’t feel so self-conscious if my shirt’s a little bit lifted, my belly’s a little bit exposed, I’m not like, “Ah, I must hide this thing.” That’s really the job you’re trying to get out of weight loss is, “I want to feel more comfortable in my skin, I want to feel more confident in my skin.” So same thing when we were doing these interviews, we were finding out that people talk a big game, and I’m not saying this in a negative way, I’m definitely the same, but at the end of the day, they’re basically, “I just want this pain to decrease,” or, “I want my performance to increase.”
And so health conditions and goals became our general primary goal on the website now. We have the categories, we need the outcomes to measure the studies, and we need the categories because we need some level of categorization, but it’s really the conditions and goals. And so now we’re at, I think, at 500 conditions and goals. And part of our challenge is, okay, we have 25 researchers. Even if one researcher’s doing five a month, or on top of five a month, that’s still an entire five, six month cycle just to go through the entire thing.
So it was a lot of work and it’s something we’re constantly changing and I’m pretty confident, even in 12 months from today, it’ll have further tweaks. I wouldn’t be surprised if we have actually five layers, but we hide them for most. Like dandruff is an interesting example, dandruff doesn’t actually exist. There’s, I think, skin flakiness and something else, and something else, so those are three outcomes. So dandruff is a parent outcome, but it’s not a condition because the actual condition is something… Once you’re into health, it gets just really gross. So it’s something we have to organically build. It’s something we’re trying to do as responsive to users, not us trying to force some preset, hierarchical methodology upon our users. So it’s as a user-driven design, as they call it, that’s what we’ve been trying to build out right there.
Mike Haney (00:49:42):
And what have you, it might be too related to tell, but what have you seen so far in terms of usage patterns, traffic, feedback from your audience about this sort of reorganization or new kind of UX on the site?
Sol Orwell (00:49:56):
So we are very obsessive about feedback. We’re always asking two questions. There’s PMS surveys. I’m not a big fan of NPS, it’s a bit too generic and also people have weird ways of ranking zero 10, but generally the feedback has been positive. There’s definitely, it’s kind of like 10% of users absolutely hate what we’ve done. They even hate the color purple. Like, “Ugh, the color sucks, this design sucks, you guys suck.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s okay. You can go somewhere else.” At least that’s why I think in my head. But generally users have liked it because they’re finally able to look up what they care about.
At the end of the day, the reality is people don’t care about fish oil, they don’t care about creatine, they don’t care about vitamin D. They care about what the hell happens if they take that vitamin D, what does fish oil do? So if we made it easier for them to look up… Okay. So this is another little, let’s say user design. If you have high blood pressure and a supplement can increase your blood pressure, such as caffeine because it’s a stimulant, that is a negative impact on, but if you have low blood pressure and you take caffeine and it increases your blood pressure, at worse, it’s kind of a neutral thing. You might even be happy. I have low blood pressure so I faint very easily, for example. So maybe you’re happy that caffeine increases it. So we’ve also designed that into our system where there’s good and bad depending on the condition and outcome you’re looking at. So the users have generally been happy with it because we’re now giving you grades on the efficacy of any intervention on the conditions you care about.
And what’s made it more important is, I’ll be honest, you know how we were talking about Jobs-to-be-Done. One of the things that people really love as a job is being able to show off how smart they are. I love it. [inaudible 00:51:30] smart, I’m like, “Yeah. Giddy. What up?” Anytime your comment can be dumb, you’re like, “Ew, let’s move on.” Cringing on my comment on emails earlier, “We don’t have to stay on that.” So one of the things we allow people to do with our website is we let you look very smart. And so people love going to their friends and family and being like, “what are your health conditions? I will tell you what to take because of the research and all that,” even though anyone can look it up themselves.
So generally the feedback has been very positive, but I will admit I wouldn’t be surprised if in 12 to 18 months we decide, “Ooh, we got to tweak some significant components of it.” Part of it is going back to what I said, we were very under-resourced on the development side. Now that we’re beefing up our development team, we can do a lot more, a lot faster. So I’m very, very curious to see even… We get enough traffic, I don’t know, what do we get? 30, 40,000 visitors a day. We get enough traffic that we can play around with a lot more A/B testing and get numbers much, much, much faster than a smaller website would be. So I’m actually very curious to see how we could evolve the website over the next six to 12 months.
Paul Barszcz (00:52:36):
Nice. So over the coast of the last hour that we’re talking almost, you talk about your personas in different ways and can you just elaborate more on how your personas on your website evolved since the inception of examine.com and what does it look like today? And do you cater your content to them in any way? I think the answer is yes, just because of the customer surveys or the use of research you did to redo examine.com. But can you just give us more details on this?
Sol Orwell (00:53:10):
Yeah, so the original was basically people who were lifting weights or who were into… And it’s more specifically lifting weights. We weren’t really that interested in if you want to do the marathon or whatever. It was more, “Oh, you lift weights. How do you maximize your potential?” That’s why creatine was one of the first things we did, beta alanine was one of the first things, beetroot is very, let’s say, popular of nitrates for endurance athletics, but it’s not something to be covered because we don’t really care about it. Subsequently, we’re actually not that big on personas, we’re more bigger on this entire Jobs-to-be-Done framework. So the idea with the Jobs-to-be-Done, so the guy who exposed it us, Bob Moesta, he was like the guy behind the Snickers ad, Snickers campaign, and he realized when people eat Snickers they don’t treat it as a normal taco bar, it’s a little bit more heavy for them, so it became a snack. That’s what stickers was. Your easy, sweet, delicious snack.Bob Moesta is like OG, he’s been around, I think, since the ’70s. He used to work with Clayton Christensen, who was very infamous in the business circles. Bob says his claim to real fame is in the car, his little arrow that tells you which side the gas tank cap is on. And that was his thing in the ’60s, or not ’60s, sorry, ’70 or ’80s. He was also the one behind the famous, if you look it up, McDonald’s milkshake. Now, the reason I mentioned that is, his big thing is it doesn’t really matter what the persona is, it really matters what the problem is they’re to try to solve. Now, the persona matters in the marketing language, but in the actual core product it doesn’t really really matter.
And so our core product that we changed because of Jobs-to-be-Done was we shifted away from our focus on supplementation to a focus on health conditions and performance and goals. So that was a major thing we’ve changed. Now, in terms of our content, yeah, our content [inaudible 00:54:49] changed because we’re now shifting more towards, “How do we impact these things?” And obviously we can see, like I mentioned dandruff, beauty is a big thing that people look up in health conditions. “How do I get rid of, how do I decrease acne?” I’ve got acne and I’m almost 40, that never goes away, so you just deal with it as best as you can. So that is definitely a part we’re being responsive on.
The other part that we’re very responsive on though is also, how much depth do people actually want? So we had something called NERD, the nutrition exam and research digest. And so our study summaries that I mentioned are, we’re doing 200 plus of them every month, it’s maybe two pages. It’s four major sections, couple of paragraphs, that’s about it. NERD was six studies and we did a 10 page thesis on each single one, it was a lot. And what we found out from users was, if it covered a topic they cared about, they got super excited for it, but it was a topic they didn’t care for, it was overwhelming. If I gave you a 10 page thing on a topic that might be of interest to you but not actually fully involved, you’re like, “Yikes.” There’s no way can get enough breadth with eight to 10 or even six studies a month. So we responded realizing, “Wait a minute, the breadth mattered just as much as the depth did.”
But at the end of the day, what we found is, if we’re writing six studies on blood sugar, which is of interest to diabetics, if you’re a health professional and you deal with people with diabetics, you care about it. If you have diabetes, you care about it. If you have a parent, because parents eventually become the children and you have to be their parents and you have a parent that has diabetes, you care about it. So again, the job is we’re giving you the best diabetes information and the demographic or the avatar or whatever phrase you want to use is suggesting it, is completely different. The marketing around the changes, we are continuing education units and all that kind of stuff, but the core product, I think, is relatively unchanged by much between those audiences.
Paul Barszcz (00:56:42):
So going back to your audiences and your personas, have you ever considered expanding Examine to… Basically expanding the content that you have, the type of categories you serve? Or expanding in different verticals? For example, on video, would you ever consider making YouTube videos on the content that you have short-form, long-form answering questions? You know can rank for those easily as well?, that could be another source of traffic. And then the second part is, would you ever consider or did you ever consider translating your content to other languages such as French or Spanish or anything else?
Sol Orwell (00:57:17):
Yeah. So there’s two sides to it. When you say expand, there’s two ways we can expand. One is in terms of media, and so definitely video and audio has been on our radar for a while. The one slight negative is because we are larger, we don’t have the luxury of being as, let’s say, amateur hour as you can be when you’re small. When you’re small and you put something out, nobody cares, “Whatever,” shrug, “Who cares?” Move on. Because of our built in audience, we can’t just put out some quick video and everyone’s like, “What the hell is this? This is embarrassing to connect with your brand.” Same thing with audio.
So we’ve been planning videos and audios for about a year now, but we were waiting on it till Examine 2.0 came out, and now that the monsters finally out, but still we have a lot of monstrous work to do, our hope is at some point in the first quarter of next year we can start rolling out videos and audio. Part of it is that we can almost build a bank of it and then feel comfortable, “Okay. We’re two weeks behind, that’s okay, we have three videos saved anyway, we don’t need to get it back.” So that is one thing we’re definitely going to do.
The other side of the expansion of content is in different areas. Right now we are generally associated with supplementation and nutrition, but what about lifting weights? What about beauty products that I mentioned? What about prescription medication? So the abstraction of the website lets us do that, but I’ll be honest, we have so much information to cover that we would need to minimally double our research team to at least 50 people before we could seriously consider doing it. Now, I would definitely love to do it. Now, part of the way we hamstrung ourselves, is because we’re self-funded, we have no external funding, we get to do whatever we want to do at our pace. There’s no one breathing down my neck, there’s no board that tells me what to do, we are the board. The downside of course that is our resource allocation has to be a little bit more precise and targeted.
But down the road I would love, in five, 10 years be able to, “Yeah, you want to look up exercise science? We got it. Want to look up prescription medication? We got it. You want to look up acne skin…” The number one industry we get request for is not even exercise or medications, it’s beauty products. That thing is huge amount of money. And then, subsequently on top of that is, we have always been very big about not recommending brands, but how tightly do we adhere to our no brand recommendation? We finally build something where you can scan a UPC code and it’s lists you all the items in the product, be it a supplement for performance or exercise or a beauty product, and we basically tell you, “Yeah. You know what? Vitamin E is in this and it doesn’t really do anything unless you have X, Y, Z. And then as vitamin C, the dosage is so small that you might as well be urinating it out anyway.”
So there’s a lot of ways to expand and if I had 50 million dollars in the bank I would totally do that like a wild person, but until we can do it in a… But the other problem, obviously, is you lose your culture and all that kind of stuff too when you expand too fast. So yeah, we definitely want to expand into other areas, it’s just not necessarily viable. We have so much to do on our own side before we can worry about that. Can we repeat the second question? I forgot an [inaudible 01:00:26].
Paul Barszcz (01:00:25):
Yeah, it’s more around the expansion to different languages too. You kind of answered that with your part words, so you have to double your team or hire.
Sol Orwell (01:00:33):
Okay. So in terms of expanding into different languages, I would love it. We get requests for Spanish all the time. The problem we have, it’s not just about, “Oh, let’s just write this in another language.” “It’s, the language we use is very, very precise. And there’s so much of it being generated every month, that it’s not as simple as, “Oh, I’m just going to hire one really good Spanish and English speaker and be like, ‘Go for it.’” There’s so many health terms, medication terms, medicinal terms, nutrition terms that are very specific to that world, that it would require a gigantic effort. So maybe down the road again, once we have enough resources where you literally sign contracts with other universities and whatever and then reverse engineer, “Hey, you know what? Now let’s translate our language.” But I mentioned we have 10 million words, that’s going to take a long time to translate. So I would love, at a minimum, to expand into Spanish, but it’s just not viable anytime soon unfortunately.
Paul Barszcz (01:01:44):
I want to challenge you on that just because I think you solved the problem of doing this in English, you found the researchers, you have the copywriters, and to me that in itself is a great feat. So I don’t see how could you not replicate it in a different language. To me it’s something simple and I’m only saying it’s simple because you already did it once.
Sol Orwell (01:02:04):
Yeah. So it’s definitely replicable. A lot of the work is already done. The issue is twofold, is both on the demand and on the generation. So first of all, we have to invest a significant amount of money to convert all the existing content. Secondly, then we need to convert the ongoing words. The problem is because, again, we’re not going to find some Joe Schmo at 50K a year who’s going to be able to translate this. You need a proper medical copy editor and they start off at least 100Gs. So let’s just even say two people is all we need and they can translate the website, so we’re 200Gs of investment. And let’s even add 50K, HR and all that cost back. 250K, not a crazy amount, but a decent chunk of change. We now have to sell 250K worth of Spanish Examine to the Spanish audience of which we have no connection to, we have no real relationship to.
So again, I’m not saying it’s not something we don’t want to do, I’m not saying it’s not something that’s doable, I’m just saying when we have so many pressing things, launching into YouTube, launching a podcast, expanding the content, expanding into health, expanding into foods. Oh my god, nevermind exercise, science and medication, and beauty products. Food. Blueberries, blackberries, bread, oh my god, bread people lose their mind off of bread. And let’s not even touch something complex, bananas, oranges, meat, red meat straight up, chicken meat, breast versus thigh versus wing. There’s so much stuff for us already write that that, I think, is much more interesting to us then right now trying to take a suddenly different tact and go into a completely different market that we have absolutely no subject matter expertise or domain expertise in.
Paul Barszcz (01:03:50):
So Sol, just two last quick questions for you before we end this. I wanted to know what supplements do you take today, if any? I think over the years from listening to your other podcast, you mentioned that you took vitamin C, D and K and possibly creatine. I just wanted to know, has this changed over the years and has your research influenced this at all or is it purely based on your personal needs?
Sol Orwell (01:04:17):
So I think what’s funny about health is a lot of it is psychological. If you know a pill is maybe a little bit good for you but it’s too large to swallow and you’re very irritated by it, is actually the net effect positive or negative? So the only supplements I take now on the regular is personal vitamin K and vitamin D. So the two of them are actually very good together. Calcium is a third one that’s really good but you can really, really easily get it from your diet. So I have a genetic disorder, my ligaments easily, my surgeon said I have very soft bones, so I take K to help with those. Actually don’t take creatine and purely out of laziness, that’s it. But I think creatine works. If someone was to hand me a drink every day that I beat and mix into it, I would totally drink it, but out of sheer laziness I don’t.
So the only other one I do take on the regular is fish oil. So before I mentioned joint issues I have, fish oil makes me feel that my joints feel better. And one of the things I love telling people is they love coming to us and be like, “Hey you know what? I told my mom or my dad not to take this supplement because it doesn’t work, even though it tells them. And they keep saying it makes them feel better.” And I’m always kind of incredulous, I’m like, “Hey man, if they’re taking something that they feel legitimately makes them feel better and it’s $2 a day, a dollar a day, and they can afford it obviously, why do you care?” Sometimes you don’t have to yuck someone’s yum. So fish oil is it anti inflammatory, but I feel like it makes my joints feel better, especially when I’m playing sports.
So those are the only three supplements I take on the regular. I do have a sun lamp. So in Toronto it gets really dreary, especially in winter time. A very cloudy, no sunlight, so I’m a big, big believer in those giant halogen lights that just inundate you with light. I definitely find that it improves my mood, but other than that, I’m actually pretty agnostic to supplement.
Paul Barszcz (01:06:03):
Have you ever looked into nootropics or got dove deep into it like Reddit’s Subreddit on nootropics at all? I think the most basic forms probably creatine falls into it and then there’s the caffeine pills. And then Four Sigmatic kind of falls into that space as well of Lion’s Main and Chaga. Have you ever considered adding that type of content to Examine or have you ever considered using those substances for yourself or supplements?
Sol Orwell (01:06:32):
First of all, fully aware of Reddit nootropics, they’re huge fans of Examine, they talk about us all the time. When Examine 2.0 came out and post about it, there’s a lot of feedback on what we did. I’m not necessarily anti-nootropics, but similarly to kind of overall with supplements, I think more people are so weirdly obsessive around supplementation when they don’t even get that adequate sleep, when they don’t de-stress themselves, when they’re exhausted from whatever else they’re doing. So I had never really gone down the rabbit hole of nootropics, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m not even an expert, it doesn’t even matter what I’m really saying, but similar to my approach on creatine, it’s out of pure laziness. You’re taking all these things and as long as I’m getting adequate sleep I feel fine, so I haven’t really gone down the rabbit hole.
With that said, yeah for sure we covered down on Examine, we’ve got memory and focus and a bunch of other, we have brain health as a category. There’s so many different facets of it. So absolutely we cover on Examine, absolutely people use Examine to build their nootropic guides. We have guys who are in, I think, memory and focus, so it’s not like we are in any way are against it, but purely out of sheer laziness, I haven’t really done it and I’ve just stuck with trying to get enough sleep, try to get enough sunlight, try to get enough exercise, enough walking. I feel like that’s the best form of nootropics are those things I mentioned and I don’t think enough people are good at that in the first place.
Paul Barszcz (01:07:52):
I highly agree. I think sleep is probably number one. And I think through trial and error I discovered about myself over the years. And I think I prioritize my sleep now and I try to get at least at least seven and try to go for eight, whatever.
Sol Orwell (01:08:04):
And very underrated as naps first, especially even post workout nap. There’s this weird societal things of napping sometimes I’ve heard is not manly, which is the most insane thing I’ve heard of. What’s more manly than taking a rest whenever you want? That’s the most manliest thing I can imagine. So I’m a huge believer in like, “Hey man, some people love eight hours of chunks sleep. Some people are great with six hours and they need a 45 minute app in the middle.” A lot of cultures, the siesta, and even I’m ethnically Pakistani, we all took midday, midafternoon naps, especially because it’s usually too hot to work at that time. I’m a huge believer in find your cadence of sleep, there’s no perfect one. If you like sleeping from 2:00 AM to 10:00 AM, go nuts, if you like 10:00 PM to whatever it is, 6:00 AM, go for it. Just find the right cadence for you and I think it’ll much, much, much better beneficiary there.
Paul Barszcz (01:08:56):
Absolutely. So my last question for you is, have you ever considered publishing a book with all the knowledge that you have? Or it could be either two ways, either through your own personal story or some sort of book regarding all the content that you already have on Examine.
Sol Orwell (01:09:12):
So there’s two sides of it. I’ll do the personal side first. So I joked for years about not writing a book, or if I wrote a book, it would just be 10 words or something like that. If you go to our about page, I mentioned this previously maybe, I’m the 20th person listed, so I’ve no desire for any kind of notoriety. If anything, I tried to… I know the editor and chief of [inaudible 01:09:36] magazine, I know a few writers who are NYT, all that kind stuff. I’d rather get people I know in there talking about the [inaudible 01:09:41]. So personally, I have no interest.
On the second side, on the business side or on the Examine side, we actually did a test four or five years ago of a color book, beautiful graphs, all that kind of stuff. We ended up ditching it. Problem on that perspective is that research is constantly changing. So there’s this model of, I’ll sell an annual, updated version of a reference book or whatever, and we could do that and we could generate a significant capture, a chunk of change. But we just feel ethically, it’s kind of a weird one for us and we don’t feel comfortable.
Now, we get it, some people prefer it, we’re not saying don’t do it to anyone else, but we prefer our always up-to-date online model. The problem with health information is that you even make a typo, you say, “You should not take it,” when you meant to say, “You should take it. That “not” can have such deleterious health effects down the road on so many different people. So that we would rather always make sure our content is editable, so we can always make sure we give you the latest edition. In our study summaries we had a corrections page, that’s something only major newspapers usually have. So we could catalog the mistakes we’ve made and the updates we’ve done to make sure that our users who might have read it previously are like, “Wait a minute, this said something else.” So it’s something we’ve considered.
But the other important factor, and this even goes back to when we were talking about Spanish. This business is not built to be something that’s a juggernaut. This business is not built to be a [inaudible 01:11:07]. This business is built for me to have an comfortable life with all of our employees, [inaudible 01:11:12], all that kind of stuff. So the moment we start adding other facets that are not core to the business, such as publishing, you got to do all the setting and all the fonts and all that kind of stuff. Now it’s distractions that we to hire someone to deal with or I got to deal with it. And honestly, I’m one of the lazier people I’ve ever met in my life. I have no desire to deal with it. Even if you tell me you will [inaudible 01:11:33] make a clear 100,000, two, three, $400,000 profit, I’m like, “It’s a lot of work.” So we generally stick to what we know and we’d rather grow that for ourselves, than take a slight tangent into a dirt road and see what it brings to us.