How Products Go Viral – Andy McCune on the North Star Podcast, Hosted by David Perell

Check out the North Star Podcast Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • “The most successful companies these days aren’t creating content, they’re curating it” Andy McCune
  • Booming cities give off an energy that anything’s possible
    • “At the end of the day, if someone really has a vision and they’re serious about it, I think you have to be in the middle of everything to make it work. In places like New York, San Francisco, and LA… you’re just surrounded by all of these like-minded people.” – Andy McCune
  • Founders & startups fail when they try to solve problems they’re not connected to or haven’t personally experienced
  • To make a product go viral:
    • Make it so great that it advertises itself
    • Embed growth within it


  • Andy McCune (@9th) is the co-founder of Unfold, a mobile design toolkit for storytellers that was acquired by Squarespace
    • He’s also the founder of Earth, a travel media company  
  • Host – David Perell (@David_Perell)

Books Mentioned

Curating Content > Creating Content

  • “The most successful companies these days aren’t creating content, they’re curating it” Andy McCune
    • One benefit of such: Creating content is fully dependant on you making something new, but when it comes to curating, there are essentially no limits
  • Andy is the founder of Earth, a travel media company with over 1M followers on Instagram 
    • Andy started Earth as a travel wish list, a collection of amazing places he hoped to one day visit
    • It would be tiresome and expensive for Andy to constantly travel around the world and take photos. Instead, he curates photos from other travel photographers.
      • 🎧 “There’s no one way I could make enough money to actually keep this a sustainable business if I tried to create it all. But, by curating it, I can pull content from all of these different creators.” – Andy McCune
  • Similarly, David curates a lot more content than he creates and adds value to readers by sharing his findings through his weekly email

Booming Cities > Quiet Towns

  • Andy and David both live in NYC
  • People in places such as San Francisco and NYC give off the energy that anything’s possible, while people in small towns often give off a collective feeling of “we gave up on our dreams”
  • “At the end of the day, if someone really has a vision and they’re serious about it, I think you have to be in the middle of everything to make it work. In places like New York, San Francisco, and LA… you’re just surrounded by all of these like-minded people.” – Andy McCune
    • “If you work really hard at something, you can achieve great things. New York embodies that for sure. Everyone here is dreaming, everyone here is doing. You pull anyone over on the street and they’ll tell you what they’re excited about and what they’re moving towards.”

Hard Work > Luck

  • David has noticed that a lot of successful people believe hard work plays a larger role in success than luck
    • If you have an idea: Take action, make something, work hard, and watch what happens

Tumblr is Content Curation At its Finest

  • Both David and Andy agree that Tumblr has had a massive impact on the internet, yet doesn’t get the credit it deserves
  • “So many of the brilliant, brilliant creative minds of our generation came from Tumblr. Literally, the most creative people I know – creative directors at massive companies, and people running their own agencies – all recognize themselves as Tumblr kids” – Andy McCune
  • Why was Tumblr so valuable?
    • Building off the above, it’s all about curating other people’s content, as opposed to creating your own (and there aren’t many social platforms out there that encourage this)
  • Putting out your own content can sometimes be intimidating, while simply sharing someone else’s is much easier
    • In a way, content curation empowers those who aren’t creating to still be creative

Startup Advice

  • Many startups fail because the founders try to solve problems that aren’t there own
    • If you decide to build a startup but can’t relate to the problem, you’ll constantly be spending time on market research. But, if you can relate to the problem, YOU ARE the market research (and the customer).
      • (Often, your intuition can tell you things that would be impossible to measure with data)
  • When looking for a co-founder, find someone who has the skills that you lack
  • A framework for assessing ideas:
    • If you and your co-founder both agree on an idea, one of you should still play devil’s advocate (even if you’re a solo founder, try coming up with several reasons why the idea might, in fact, be a bad one)
      • “Before I even present an idea, I have run it through the wash… and I try to kill it. And if that idea is still with me a few days after, it’s probably time to raise it.” – Andy McCune
  • Advice for brands: Start using influencers to market your product
    • Run tests with multiple influencers to find out which influencer drives the best results. Then, try to find look-a-like influencers for future partnerships

Don’t Know How to Code? No Problem

  • It’s great to know how to code, but knowing how to manage coders is also valuable
    • Neither Andy nor his partner was a technical expert but they still managed to hire coders to build Unfold
    • “You don’t have to be an engineer anymore to build a software company” Andy McCune
      • 🎧 You just have to know how to give explicit details and draw a sketch of what you want – then, you can hire someone to build it

Making Products Go Viral

  • Tip: Make your product so great that it advertises itself
    • For example, when influencers started using Unfold, followers would continuously ask for the name of the product
      • “Every Unfold story is really an advertisement for Unfold” –Andy McCune
      • (It also helps if your perfect target is an influencer, because influencers are friends with other influencers, and a lot of them share tips among each other)
  • When building a product, try to embed growth within it
    • Unfold was popular among influencers, but it also became a tool for followers who were aspiring influencers. Those aspiring influencers then started using Unfold, which translated to their followers wanting to do the same.
    • Similarly:
      • PayPal paid people $10 to recruit new users
      • DropBox and Zoom have built-in virality – the standard product is free, but you need the person receiving the message/content to download the software
        • (For David’s recent Write of Passage course, he sent a Zoom download link to over 170 students; that’s a lot of potential customers and advocates!)

Remote Work & Coding

  • Today. it’s easier than ever to work remotely
    • When thinking about your ideal career, consider what kind of lifestyle you want and instead build around that (Andy pursued a software app and travel media company because he wanted to work remotely and travel the world)
      • “Build around your lifestyle and not the inverse”Andy McCune
  • One of the best skills you can learn: How to code
    • “Literally anyone can learn to code. It’s like the way out of generational poverty, thy way out if you’re stuck in your home town… It’s your way our if you’re in a 9-5 you don’t like. If you want to change careers, learn to code.”Andy McCune
  • Coding and petroleum engineering jobs will be some of the last to be automated by AI
    • Any repetitive activity will eventually be automated by software or machines 
    • Your takeaway: Look for jobs that require creativity

Additional Notes

  • People prefer to post on their Instagram story more so than their feed because there’s less pressure to post the perfect image as the content is temporary 
  • Andy and David are big fans of electronic music
    • “I can’t work without listening to music” – Andy McCune
      • (Andy listens to music ~6-8 hours each day)
  • Why was Squarespace was the perfect company to acquire Unfold?
    • Squarespace focuses on creating the most beautiful templates for website; Unfold focuses on creating the most beautiful templates for stories
  • Andy absolutely loves Tulum, Mexico and owns the Instagram account, @Tulum
  • “If I have love, family, and I’ve invented something, that’s all I need”David Perell
  • You don’t have to be completely original to succeed in life:
    • Google built off of other existing search engines
    • Wikipedia wasn’t the first online encyclopedia
    • Bitcoin was far from the first cryptocurrency
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Notes By Alex Wiec

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