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How Jenny Gyllander scaled her Instagram following and built a thriving business

Jenny Gyllander ⚈ Founder and CEO ⚈ Thingtesting

This interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.

We sat down virtually with Jenny Gyllander, Founder/CEO of independent brand discovery site, Thingtesting.

Join us as we discover how Jenny grew her Instagram following into a VC-backed business; her 2 keys to demand generation; and what she believes is her most significant accomplishment.

Tell us about your background, and how Thingtesting got started.

I grew up surrounded by design and brands. I thought I would spend my career focusing on that, but then I stumbled into entrepreneurship through a startup conference called Slush. After running it full time for a few years, I fell in love with entrepreneurship.

In 2017 and 2018, when I was working at a venture capital (VC) fund, we saw companies creating the European versions of direct to consumer (DTC) brands. Suddenly my original passion for brands met the world of entrepreneurship. I geeked out. I thought, “This is my niche. I found it.” I tried brands in my spare time and had so much to say. I started the Thingtesting Instagram to share my thoughts. I saw them, tried them, tested them.

At what point did you see traction with Thingtesting because people appreciated the honesty and that it wasn’t sponsored reviews?

I tested during my evenings and weekends out of pure joy and passion. Brands offered me money to review their products pretty quickly, but I never did. I had a full-time job and could sustain honest reviews. I did it to maintain the integrity of Thingtesting.

My email exploded. Weekends weren’t enough time to work on things. Users had a ton of ideas, and I talked to them more and more. I thought there was definitely traction to jump. I started by launching a subscription on Instagram. I’m not a coder or tech person, so I just used the tools available. Essentially, people paid to join a community where I gave extra content. I called it Thingtesting Friends.

I'm grateful for that because it showed me there was opportunity behind what I was doing. I quit my job and started working on Thingtesting full-time. I realized I could do this “as-is.” I had enough revenue to sustain my lifestyle and continue reviewing one product at a time. At the same time, many brands that pitched me were pets’, kids', and men’s products—there was more that needed testing.

Testing one product at a time wasn’t scalable, though. I wanted more voices on Thingtesting. That was my “aha” moment. I saw an opportunity to create what Goodreads is for books, or what IMDB is for movies—an unbiased, third-party review platform for DTC brands.

I went to a couple of angel investors and asked if they would support my idea and raised a small angel round so we could hire 2 product team members and start building thingtesting.com.

Since you organically built your audience for Thingtesting, how do you define demand generation? What role does it play in your marketing?

It was an organic evolution of doing what felt like the right next step at the time. The number one thing for me—or other brands—is authenticity. It’s key to communicating with and relating to consumers. It boils down to doing something different and better. That’s the core of demand generation.

“It boils down to doing something different and better. That’s the core of demand generation.”

Has building a community been harder or easier than you anticipated?

We launched thingtesting.com in March 2020—the same week the pandemic hit hard in the U.S. We've never seen what traction looks like without the pandemic, but we've gone from a few hundred DTC brands in our directory to more than 2,000.

In that process, we’ve tested new channels, and spoken with our community in new ways. We’ve stayed on Instagram, but it was unsustainable for me to review during the day and work on the brand at night. So we’ve kept reviewing products, but shifted our content to our newsletter, the channel where we’ve seen the most growth.

Every Thursday, we send a Thingtesting newsletter on the latest brands and trends. It’s been incredible seeing the community evolve from my mom—my first Instagram follower—into a huge newsletter audience. I encourage founders and entrepreneurs to explore what feels right. That’s been key for us in understanding our audience. Instagram was our launch platform, but today we see desktop-heavy usage from our newsletter. That’s what makes sense for us and our community right now.

Fast, fun facts with Jenny

  • More of a morning person. I do my deep focus work in the mornings.

  • Extrovert. But something interesting happened during the pandemic where I realized how taking quiet time to myself is important—especially as an entrepreneur.

  • I completely love Tokyo. It’s one of the coolest places on earth. But Helsinki is also a great city.It’s my hometown, and I love the lifestyle.

  • I’m fascinated by design. Maybe I’d be a graphic designer.

Looking ahead, what are your plans for testing new channels and platforms in the future?

Everything comes back to authenticity. The channels that make the most sense for our team are the ones that are the most successful.

We have an incredible new Head of Content, Natalie Sportelli, who’s exploring new channels. But you have to be careful in launching those. Creating on a new platform means committing to creating more content, so it’s important to select them thoughtfully.

For a long-time, we've been focused on getting readers for the content that we've made and exploring the brands that we’ve curated. Since the launch of our review writing experience this past fall, our focus has been on engaging our users for crowdsourced reviews on Thingtesting -- something that's been my vision from day one.

What’s something that you’ve learned along the way as an entrepreneur that you didn’t anticipate?

I’ve learned so much—the list is long. One of the perks of being an entrepreneur is you're constantly learning. Every day you're doing something you've never done before. The role changes and adapts. I’ve gone from just me on Instagram to now we are a team of 11 people based in Scandinavia, Africa and the U.S.

Building something remote has been a learning experience. I’m in New York for the first time since Covid-19, and meeting my team in person for the first time. It’s incredible how culture-building works in remote teams. Everyone's different. The challenges of building a team remotely was something I never expected, but I enjoy it. Since we hire internationally, I see opportunity in always having remoteness.

Another thing I’ve learned is staying true to my vision. Many DTC brands use first-party review tools, so what we see is curated and filtered; a subset of what's out there. I got upset when I learned that. How is this giving consumers the full picture?

I think about the times that I could have accepted money for reviews and hurt the consumer’s trust. I’ve learned we have to preserve trust and be stubborn to be true to our vision.

You need to continually iterate and be flexible, but if you have a gut feeling as an entrepreneur that something is right or wrong—listen. Listening and staying true is the longest-term value that we create for our company and ourselves.

How do founders or entrepreneurs build a great DTC brand?

I see brands focused on growth and user acquisition when they should be focusing on product development. Don’t put fuel on the fire until the product is right. Nothing is more important than the quality of what you’re selling. Don’t scale something that’s not there yet. It doesn't matter if your campaigns are beautiful or your packaging is stunning if your product breaks. I give that feedback to founders because I want to help people buy better.

"Don’t put fuel on the fire until the product is right. Nothing is more important than the quality of what you’re selling."

You’ve gotten many accolades, including “Forbes 30 Under 30” list and number one on Product Hunt. How have you processed this while running your business?

I'm really honored. I would never take it for granted. It was an Instagram account when I received the recognition, and it was overwhelming because I didn’t know what to do with it.

I could have taken advice on what to do next and gone a different route. But it was important for me to reflect on what I wanted to build.

My focus is more on immediate things and next steps: Is what we’re publishing today good? Are users liking it and will they come back?

How far out are you thinking? How do you plan for today’s experience while thinking about the future?

I think about it every day. I jump between what's next and what's 10 years from now. For me, it’s staying true to the vision, iterating on it, and listening to how the product is evolving for users. That’s my job and I love it.

I’ve had this vision for some time. I was inspired by the Michelin Star stickers for restaurants. How do you give every retail store, online and offline, that proof and approval? How do you build that trustworthiness? These questions keep me up at night and get me excited because the road isn’t clear. Building trust is one of the hardest things you can do. But seeing that stamp of approval is my vision.

From making Thingtesting’s first logo in PowerPoint myself to first working with a graphic designer, we’re always considering how it would work on doors and stickers. We’re far from that vision, but I enjoy seeing things come to life.

"For me, it’s staying true to the vision, iterating on it, and listening to how the product is evolving for users. That’s my job and I love it."

What has been your biggest breakthrough?

For me, it has been building a team. Two years ago it was just my Instagram account. In my wildest dreams, I never thought about having a team or the resources from our seed-round funding. I screamed when one of the partners at Forerunner Ventures followed the Thingtesting Instagram account. Forerunner was the VC fund I wanted. I’m proud to work with the best people in the industry.

The result of that funding is being able to build a team. That’s my proudest achievement. Having other people see the same vision and solve problems our way is rewarding.

Before Covid-19, we had an event at a white space gallery, where 15 founders talked about their brands. We called it Thingtesting Labs and 250 people came. Investors. Consumers. My mom. A whole spectrum of supporters, and everyone enjoyed it.

I was standing in the back and felt like, “This is it. This is what I want to build. It’s happening in front of me. Founders and users discovering, enjoying, and reviewing things together.” I wondered, “How do we make what’s happening here happen on the internet in a trustworthy, intimate, and exciting way?” The world needs better products. If I can help people discover them, that’s something I like waking up doing.

How should an entrepreneur get people excited about their product?

I’d ensure that the product is good, they’re proud of it, and it’s working. You've got to do things that don't scale before you do things at scale. From there, it’s going to be different for every single entrepreneur.

I come back to authenticity. Founders need to be the first spokesperson for their brand and product. If you’re not authentic, it’s going to be tough because people can sense it.

Is there any gem of wisdom you wish you’d known in the beginning?

Advice from others is always appreciated, but listen to yourself. The secret to demand generation is doing something different and doing it better. It’s about being true to yourself and authentic.

It doesn't matter how many leadership or entrepreneurship books you read, because when the problem comes, you might not have a book with the solution. Leaning on other founders, advisors, investors, and angels is key. Your whole life you’re building a network of people you trust. Whether you’re becoming an entrepreneur or not, make sure you have a support network around you.

Published: January 20, 2022

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