Launching my first SaaS product in 54 hours, 20 minutes, and 5 seconds

I’m looking for about 25 early users for my new SaaS product, written about here, which provides easy FAQs for mobile apps. Early users will help dictate the future roadmap, will get direct support from me, and will get a steep discount in exchange for their feedback. If you are interested use the following 50% off (forever) coupon to sign up, https://appfaqs.co/?coupon=50percentoff and then send me an email at matt@appfaqs.co.

Success!

AppFaqs.co is officially live! I’ve never successfully built a SaaS product before, but oh have I tried. The number of zombie projects littering my hard drive is large (> 15). It always starts in some insane burst of motivation that fizzles out faster than a banana with a santa hat thrown at the sun (theoretically). After that insane burst, I usually feel slightly guilty the week after I started it, but I push that little voice down inside my head. Then I forget about it.

Doing things differently

Startup culture seems to be an insane treadmill, in which you are supposed to launch a product, raise money, and then become the giant company you hated in the first place. Given my troubling past with co-founding an externally funded startup (see this post, although I am happily employed at a funded startup currently), I’ve recently been discovering the bootstrapping community. The thing I like most about the bootstrapping community is that it’s less about valuations and vanity metrics and more about lifestyle. Last week I listened to an episode of BootstrappedWithKids in which one of the speakers rails against just how much shit we have materially that’s useless to us. Taking inspiration from the bootstrapping community, I decided that I would build a SaaS product with the goal of making it a virtual small business. In doing so I also set forth several rules for myself.

1. Building the product should not interfere with my life. I would much rather spend time with my girlfriend or grab a drink with my friends than be staring at a computer.

2. I am happily employed. Building the product should not impact my performance at my day job. Rather, it should improve my effectiveness at my day job by allowing me to experiment with technologies I might not otherwise have used.

3. I don’t care how long it takes to build. As stated before this is a lifestyle business, not a twisted horror flick where I have to code my way out in under 1.5 weeks.

4. In the future, I would love if the product became my sole income provider. I’m also happy if it brings me a few hundred extra a month and allows me to tinker with tech and marketing strategies I find intriguing.

What did you decide to work on?

One of my iOS apps, Reverse Phone Lookup+, was causing 3-5 support emails to hit my inbox a week. Not a lot, but enough that I was doing a bad job replying to them. From there I decided that I should build a tool that reduced the number of support tickets I received, so that this newly born SaaS product would have at least one happy customer.

Alright you nutter, how’d it go?

I would introduce this with some grand flourish, but really… it’s just a chart. It shows the number of hours I worked on the initial release, including coding time, time spent reading technical books related to the project, setting up ssl, exploring hosting options, etc.

Created using Caato Time Tracker and Excel
Created using Caato Time Tracker and Excel

Some interesting factoids:

  • I started work May 16, 2015 and pushed the first version live to Heroku on August, 13 2015.
  • Total time spent working on the product was 54 hours, 20 minutes and 5 seconds.
  • There are often long streaks where I don’t work on the product at all. For example, I didn’t work on the product for 9 days between May 20 and May 29th.
  • The largest chunk of continuous time I spent working on the project was 3 hours.
  • I often have multiple entries on days I work. I use a modified Pomodoro Technique in which I take long breaks often, and whenever I feel like it.

How did you stay motivated this time?

Following the ground rules I set out above, I was able to focus on enjoying the process rather than racing my own ghost down into a lonely hell of my own making. Tortoise, not that egotistical Hare.

I also decided that I should read any technical book that would improve me as an engineer and could be applicable to the project. I worked through Mastering Modern Payments and Rails 4 Test Prescriptions. Mastering Modern Payments was great at providing confidence in the recurring billing system I built on top of Stripe (really Stripe did all the work, and I’m some sort of parasite). Rails 4 Test Prescriptions reinforced the pseudo-not-quite-purist-TDD process I like to use, and provided a fantastic base for building out every sort of test I needed. Highly recommended, and it made me much more confident with RSpec at my day job.

Another motivation booster was my ability to axe launch features. I use Trello to organize my tasks, with product features going into a ‘V1 release’ list and a ‘should be done someday’ list. If I found a feature boring me, and it could even feasibly be cut, it got cut. The initial version launched with everything I needed to personally add it to my own apps:

  • Support for multiple subscription price points
  • Standard user registration functionality
  • A decent landing page
  • Ability to add Apps to your account
  • Ability to add Questions to your apps
  • A CocoaPod for easy integration into iOS apps
  • Tracking for the iOS integration
  • Analytics (GA and Mixpanel from the wonderful Segment)
  • Good test coverage
  • Some decent legal docs from RocketLawyer

Things I didn’t launch with include:

  • Ability to cancel or change a subscription. I manage that manually.
  • A free trial (although I’ve since added a 14 day free trial).
  • A sexy logged in UI. It’s functional, but it’s not going to win any awards.
  • Any sort of pre-launch functionality or waiting lists. Since this is a long term virtual small business that I myself will use, I found it more exciting to market a fully functional SaaS app than a landing page to collect email addresses.The pre-launch hype boggles my mind a little bit, why are we in such a rush?

How was ‘launch’ day?

I hate that day. Launch days for people without pre-launch functionality is like throwing a grain of sand into a lake and hoping somebody notices. It’s usually not fun, and it’s usually dead silent.

I posted a show HN since that felt like the closure to my ‘V1 Release’, and promptly went to bed. The next morning I awoke to an email saying it had been added to Product Hunt, and it did surprisingly well by finishing in the top 10 for the day. Didn’t generate as many paying customers as I was hoping for, but it still felt good to see some positive encouragement and warm leads.

I should also mention that if you happen to change DNS providers the night before you ‘launch’, you should probably make sure your MX records get transferred over. In my infinite wisdom, I totally forgot and was unable to receive emails for most of ‘launch day’ which probably resulted in a few lost leads. Oh and DNSimple is awesome, especially for Heroku SSL configurations.

What’s next?

The next Trello board of mine is called ‘Get 10 Paying Customers’. Any marketing or product enhancements are being viewed through that lens, and I’m reading Traction: How Any Startup Can Achieve Explosive Customer Growth. I’ve been reading Gabe Weinberg for a while, and enjoy following his progress with DuckDuckGo.

I’ll be writing a followup post with my current thinking on the best way to get those first ten customers, so if you want to hear about it please sign up for my email list in the side bar. My leading theory, is to build out a core group of early users from my own social circles and the first few people to sign up and offer them special features like a ‘featured’ spot on the home page, VIP support, and some ability to dictate the future feature roadmap.

If you’ve got thoughts about how to get those first ten customers, or just want to share some love (or hate? But that seems mean) I would love to hear from you in the comments!

Conditionally enable Poltergeist with Capybara

Poltergeist is a driver for Capybara that allows you to run tests on a headless Webkit browser provided by PhantomJS. Minus all those fancy words, it means your javascript tests are run inside a real browser that can execute javascript in order to simulate a real webpage. But… it’s slow and sometimes you need features it doesn’t have, like being able to programmatically POST (looking at you stripe webhook tests).

If you want to conditionally enable it for a specific rspec suite, here’s a snippet that should save your day and make your test suite faster:

 

AppleWatchWeekly.com – Shuttered

A while ago I posted about AppleWatchWeekly.com, which was my latest foray into another side project. Today I closed down the publication.

Honestly it went ok. I managed to get 20 subscribers in about 4 weeks and the last issue had an open rate of 60%, click rate of 30% and 29 total clicks from 20 subscribers (I didn’t click on any to skew these numbers). So why am I closing it? The most basic reason is that I’m just not that interested in curating a newsletter every week about Apple Watch. I’m excited about the possibilities mainstream wearable tech opens up, but I just don’t care deeply enough about Apple Watch in particular to dedicate 2-5 hours a week on gathering news.

I wouldn’t really consider this a failure, I’m just letting go of a project I started as an experiment. The experiment went well from the perspective of me realizing it was not a thing I was willing to do long term. Anyways, I can guarantee I’ll have another random side project coming soon!

Insanely Simple

I recently picked up the book Insanely Simple by Ken Segall after my roommate insisted it was a ‘game changer’. I’d originally pegged it as a book on minimalistic lifestyles, but it’s actually a book about how simplicity has driven Apple’s design decisions for most of it’s history. Segall touches on Steve Jobs illness and quotes a few lines from the commencement speech he gave to Stanford in 2004.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all internal expectations, all price, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…

No on wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No on has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.

… and yet Steve Jobs continued to work until his death in 2011. For me, close encounters with death and radically changing perspectives from traveling have led me down the path of savoring life, rather than influencing change like Steve Jobs seemed to have done even after getting a terminal diagnosis. I’m not sure there is a correct answer here but it does beg certain questions. Am I spending my most valuable asset, time, correctly? Am I simplifying my life down into moments that maximize the happiness I get out of it? Should I even be maximizing my own happiness, or is that too selfish? Why aren’t I out trying to change the world to make it a better place so that others can lead happy lives too?

AppleWatchWeekly.com – A Newsletter Experiment

From my corner seat at a Silicon Valley startup, the Apple watch is pretty much everything the media talked about this week. As an iOS developer it means brand new exciting times and a future that holds at least one more piece of wearable tech.

I’ll be building out a few apps for launch day, but I’m also going to be experimenting with a curated newsletter for all things Apple Watch in an alternative bid for readership and possibly even a new revenue stream. I’ll likely be posting more numbers (and hopefully sponsorship revenue numbers!) at some point, but for now if you are interested in getting a newsletter every week related to all things Apple Watch sign here:

AppleWatchWeekly.com

 

The Year I Discovered My Life is More Important Than My Startup

“They just fired me”

The words caught in her throat and reverberated oddly into my brain. I could feel the moment starting to warp into some sort of shakespearian ‘lesson’ I was supposed to latch onto and spit out at my junior employees years into the future; and yet I simply stared staunchly back into that statements twisted face in denial. Standing before me was one of my best friends who I had recruited a year earlier to be a linchpin in a company I helped co-found. That moment would cause me to leave the company. It also changed my life forever.

Beginnings

My life up until this moment was a fairly standard american dream story, and I was doing well on that scale. Born to middle class parents in the suburbs of seattle; I tottered my way through early childhood with an incredible amount of love and support. In high school I would captain two sports teams, graduate at the top of my class and be lucky enough to get an opportunity to attend and wrestle for Stanford.

Fast forward 4 years and I graduated with a degree in Computer Science, which essentially means I was now able to do weird things with computers and had managed to vaguely understand some basic theoretical computing knowledge.

Startup Echo Chamber

As I progressed through my undergraduate studies I became infected by the startup itch. It started small but was compounded by the seemingly mainstream idea that all computer science people were supposed to be the next tech millionaires. After all, we had all been successful thus far into our lives…. what was to stop us from becoming the next Zuck or Gates?

Halfway through my senior year of college I was put in touch with three people (two domain experts, one serial entrepreneur) who were interested in forming a company. I was the first technical guy on the scene. We had a real team with some serious depth, a small amount of seed money in the bank and hopes of wild success both monetarily and in the industry we were hoping to help.

My wrestling teammates would joke that I would be the first guy to be a millionaire. He’s got it all right? Engineering degree, a fledgling startup…. oh and he’s young. That means he can pound the ‘work’ drum 24/7 like ‘all’ the successful startups stereotypically do.

Soul Searching

I had worked on the company for a year and a half prior to the firing incident. I wasn’t unhappy with my life but it had the feel of suburbia to it despite the fact that I was 24. I rarely tried new things, dates were virtually nonexistent, and I’d let friendships flounder all in the name of a startup. Forced to choose between a friend who I felt had been wrongly fired and the startup I’d help nurse from infancy I decided to choose my friend, a decision I’m proud of.

My lease ended two weeks after I told everyone I was leaving, and after being best man at a fairytale perfect wedding I was sick of the status quo. My friend called me up shortly after….

“I’ve got a year before I start medical school. I’m leaving to travel South America for two months, you should come with.”

…and there it was. An adventure I hadn’t even considered taking was now staring me straight in the soul just daring me to say no. Equal parts scared and exhilarated I decided to freelance for a month to get some extra cash, and then I jumped straight into the abyss of traveling.

The Most Soul Stretching, Personality Bending Year of My Life

I ended up traveling for 9 months, and it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I spent 2 months in South America, 1.5 months in Ireland/England, 1.5 months snowboarding and 4 months in Southeast Asia. With the exception of South America and a stint in Vietnam I traveled solo.

Honestly, words cannot describe how much I have changed, nor accurately catalogue the experiences I’ve had while crisscrossing the globe with nothing but a backpack. I managed to knock out traditionally stunning bucket list places like Macchu Picchu, Bagan, Angkor Wat, and Stonehenge. I’ve also managed to sleep in an oasis in the middle of one of the deepest canyons in the world, pulled a snooze on several villagers floors, and done things that shouldn’t be written about publicly in many a hostel dorm room.

And yet none of those majestic places hold a candle to the people I’ve met. The sheer fact that as a solo traveler you have the opportunity to walk downstairs and interact with people from all over the world is simply stunning. It refines your own personality as you retell your life story while simultaneously bringing out the inquisitive extroverted side of you. There are simply so many people to meet with interesting tales that it’s stupid to not be start conversations. Usually I ended up tagging along with other travelers for days or weeks at a time, which makes the ‘solo travel’ thing a bit of a misnomer. Several people I have met I now consider to be lifelong friends who I hope to see again (oh and special shout out to you ‘Sleazy Riders’, the appropriately dubbed motorcycle gang I was a part of in Vietnam).

On an emotional level all the travel has caused me to be more blunt and honest with my feelings without fear of rejection. I fell in love four times. Well maybe not love in the traditional sense, but  I’ve experienced deep heartfelt emotions for several people and have also experienced the deafening heartbreak of having to let them go. For a guy who had previously only been in two serious relationships, I’m much more developed and in touch with emotions as well as confident in what I want.

On a personal level I’ve also managed to find peace in the moment. I’m much more content and happy, largely because I’ve discovered that my life as a whole is head and shoulders more comfortable than 99% of the people in this world. If a naked, barefoot little kid in Myanmar who lives in a bamboo hut can jump up and down in excitement before giving you a high five; surely my petty problems are miniscule. Perspective is a wonderful gift.

 The Valley Round 2. This Time As An Employee

Since the beginning of September I’ve been back in the valley, and have taken up a development position at a seriously cool company called Curious.com. The team is an incredible mix of diverse personalities that mesh astoundingly well, and being the destination for learning anything is a goal I sincerely hope we fulfill.

Since being back I’ve been camping, started learning how to draw and play guitar, been on 4 dates, work out 3-5 times a week, baked some delicious muffins, ridden the majestic beasts known as roller coasters and have spent time with friends long neglected. I’m finally filling my life with experiences that touch me as a sentient being rather than some robot drone who supposedly gets his adrenaline kicks from development or company milestones.

I’m not trying to make a point about founders vs employees. I am trying to make a point about all of us as people. Do you really want to look back on your life and remember that time you increased the lifetime value of a customer by $1 through an A/B test? Even if you are ultra successful, will your life become 100x better because of an influx of money?

Cherish the time you have. Work on problems you want to see solved, but work with people you want in your life. Get out of your inbox and go push the boundaries of your existence. Cast away your comfort zone and wrap yourself in the unknown. I’d like to believe there is a clock counting down the number of days we have left to live that exists somewhere in the magical organ we call the brain. I have no idea when my clock expires but I do know that someday in the future when that clock expires I will confidently proclaim that I have lived. This past year has given me a taste for life, and I will boldly stride through the next years of it seeking more.

Take a step back and give your life a hard look. We don’t all have to live a drone like existence of work 24/7. There’s more, and I urge you to discover it.

 

Postcard Panda is now live!

Postcard Panda, an app that allows you to send a real snail mail postcard from your iPhone is now live in the app store! The idea stems from the fact that during my south american adventures I managed to buy a lot of postcards but never managed to actually drop one in the mail which I felt a little bad about.

The app is powered by Lob.com, and the artwork was skillfully designed by David Laplante.

You can download it directly from here:

Postcard Panda on the app store

or view the landing page at:

Postcardpandaapp.com

Two Questions That Will Make You A Better Leader

To me a highly effective leader is someone who leads from the back. Like a good user interface an effective leader frames the problem, points their employees in the right direction, and then gets out of the way. If a leader has surrounded themselves with the right people (aka people smarter than themselves), getting out of the way allows your organization to fully unleash their collective creativity on a problem and grow closer together as a unit.

As a leader from the back it’s imperative that you are continually getting feedback from your team, but it’s often an awkward and formal experience. One leader I had the opportunity to work with briefly, Matt, asked me two questions at the end of every week (and I asked him the same questions) that grew the rapport between us incredibly quickly. Sit an employee down and try them out, you’ll be surprised at the results:

Tell me three things I did this week that you think I did well

Tell me three things I did this week that you think I can improve on

 

Make it a conversation and ask these questions on a regular basis. You’ll learn a lot about your employees perception of you as a leader, will smooth out any issues before they become issues, and get a chance to give your employees continual feedback as well.

Quantity vs Quality In Early Stage Prototypes

Way back in 2009 I took my first Human Computer Interaction course at Stanford from my future advisor, Scott Klemmer, that sparked my curiosity with early stage products. Recently I decided to relive some memories and logged on to his 2012 coursera course where I was reminded of an incredible story that really embodies the value of low fidelity prototypes and not being afraid of putting your work out there at it’s earliest stages.

Here’s a transcript from a section of his lecture “Creating and Comparing Alternatives”:

When you’re designing, does it make more sense to go for quality and try to come up with the best possible design? Or does it make more sense to go for quantity first as a path to try and learn and understand?

There’s a story that Bayles and Orland tell about an art teacher who divides the class in half, and he tells one half of the class, ‘You’re going to be graded exclusively on the quality of the very best thing that you make.’

He tells the other half of the class, ‘You’re going to be graded on the quantity of things that you make. Doesn’t matter how good it is; all that matters is how much that you make.’

And what this teacher found was that while the quantity group was busily churning our piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the quality group sat around theorizing, and at the end of the day they had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and piles of dead clay.

So this gives us some intuition that rapidly producing many alternatives has a lot of value.

Prototyping isn’t all about just fine tuning the interface. It’s about gaining experience and learning from your mistakes as fast and as quickly as possible. Think about your ‘MVP’. Now go draw it on paper and have a conversation with a target customer.

 

More Reading:

For a deeper dive I suggest reading more about Steven Dow who does fantastic research into parallel design practices.

If you are interested in the book in question it’s titled “Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking