2018: the writing year

Looking back on 2018 the theme was less code… more writing.

I started off the year posting a couple of articles I wrote… then shifted back to writing software… then went back to writing articles.

My understanding of the entrepreneural process flipped from -

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Build it
  3. Find customers…

To -

  1. Find customers
  2. Test the market with mini products (content / landing pages)
  3. Build a bigger product if there is a market

Here’s some highlights from the things I tried in 2018.

I gave my wife a coding puzzle for Valentine’s day and I challenged Reddit to solve it

I started off my marketing tests by writing an article for Medium.

It was Valentine’s day of 2018 and the WHOLE WORLD was obsessed with Etherum.

I had just completed a job where I wrote some code that stored some data into the Ethereum block chain.

One morning my wife asked me how ethereum worked and I had a brainwave!

I stored $100 of ethereum on a secret address in the blockchain and created a puzzle for my wife. If she could solve it she’d get the money.

I sent her the puzzle on Valentine’s Day then wrote an article so that other people could try the puzzle out too!


Valentines day puzzle


I shared the article on Reddit and posted it to Hacker News.

This was the first time I had ever shared something I’d written on the internet so I had NO IDEA what I was doing. I ended up violating two reddit communities’ terms of service and hitting the hacker news spam filter.

Still, that article got about ~3000 views and proved to me that writing articles is a good way to reach people.

I learned so much with this first article! Some highlights include:

  • That stories are actually little products - check out Donna Lichaw

  • That there is an art to creating stories that go viral - Karen X Chang is incredible!

  • That it’s really challenging (and important) to learn to write clearly - check out On Writing Well

This was only a small victory, but it was very important. I got much better at writing but that was later in the year. First I had to learn about design.

I leveled up my design skills

If you want to build your own products design is SO important.

The design process involves getting really clear on who a product is for, what problem the product is solving, how the product will solve that problem and why life will be better as a result.

Good designers answer these questions and then come up with blueprints that can be made into products.

I’m fortunate because my wife is a designer. I asked her to teach me her process and she didn’t disappoint.

I recommend checking out her design challenges and downloading her design cheat sheet. I learned a ton and I’ve used what I’ve learned to build mockups and landing pages.

Here is a screenshot of the first app I designed after she taught me her process.


Designs for my 30-day challenge tracking app

I built (and launched) the app I designed… in 3 days

Since I had a design, I set myself a challenge… how quickly could I throw together an app? Three days it turns out.

Three days is pretty quick for an engineering project (even a simple one). The build was quick because I used Firebase and React Native. These technologies are very useful for building quick prototypes. If you’re building MVPs this is the stack I would recommend.


I launched the app on the Google Play app store.

I got 800 downloads over the month the app was live. A single user purchased the full version so the project was profitable! I made $3.

After a month I took the app off the app store to try other ideas. The app needed work and I wanted to work on other things.

I wrote a popular article for the freeCodeCamp publication

I was looking for a way to drive US traffic to my projects without spending a lot of money on Facebook ads.

I had read that people who run blogs and publications are always looking for new high-quality content to their audiences.

I put together an experiment… write an article on a subject I’m very familiar with and see if I could get published.


My article on landing coding gigs was accepted to the freeCodeCamp publication and distributed the the ‘Freelancing’ medium topic.

I was surprised at how well my article did. It received over 2000 claps in the first week and showed up all over the internet.

The article was published in August and continues to get viewed by ~200 people per day.

I added links to my blog and email list and twitter to the article and these have kickstarted a personal email list.


Stats for my article on how to land a coding job with very little coding experience

I learned that -

  • Guest posting is a very effective way to reach large audiences
  • That publications are easy to approach - you’re helping them when you write a good article
  • That the internet is designed to spread articles… so articles (and videos, pictures etc…) are a good way to draw attention that can be diverted towards bigger products

This was a big victory. I have always struggled with driving web traffic. My android applications were successful because google delivered ~30 new customers per day. I have been looking for a way to get that stream of customers for web products. This seems like it works.

I ran 2 landing page tests ~40 people signed up for my pre-launch list in 1 week

I kicked off September by taking another design class. I felt that I needed to be able to create pretty designs to sell my ideas.

The class was super helpful. I became pretty comfortable with Adobe XD and was able to produce some pretty nice looking landing pages.


Freelance Map landing page test


Product testing 101 class landing page

Freelance Map

My first landing page test was for FreelanceMap.

The pain I was addressing came from personal experience.

It can be lonely to work alone. With FreelanceMap you could use an app to find other local freelancers.

To test this value prop I built a landing page and drove traffic to it using Facebook ads.

The main landing page leads to a pre-release signup form.


‘Get the app’ - call to action

People could sign up to hear when the app was ready.


I ran the ad for 1 week and 39 people signed up to be notified when the app is ready.


1 week of running ads at $5 / day gave me 39 subscribers

I felt like the test went really well.

The experiment design was pretty good but not perfect.

First, the ads were run in India because traffic from there is cheaper. I still wonder if US traffic would have converted differently.

Second, I never asked people to pay for anything. After running the test, I was left wondering if building the product would make me any money.

I didn’t want to build something that people wouldn’t pay for, so I tried running another test.

Product Testing 101

Product Testing 101 pitched a class about building landing page tests.

My experiment design was a bit different for this test.

The landing page was very text heavy. I tried very hard to convince people that the class was worth paying for.

Down at the bottom of the landing page I asked people for money and I installed a plugin that let me track how far down the page people read.


Asking people for money

When you come up with a product idea there’s a lot of risk around whether you’ve found a real audience whose pain you understand.

I personally feel that the value proposition for this product was more contrived.

Apparently Facebook users agree with me. You can see that the clickthrough rate for Product Testing 101 are half the clickthrough rates for FreelanceMap.


.7% CTR for product Testing 101 vs 1.52% CTR for FreelanceMap


Nobody clicked through to the pre-release list signup page.

That said, I considered the test a success.

Scroll tracking showed that a lot of people read my entire pitch.

Most people bounced when they got to the pricing CTA.

I felt that this test design gave me a clear answer — this product pitch (addressed to this audience) wasn’t strong enough for people to be willing to pay for it.

Overall I felt that these landing page tests really worked. Tests like these are a really good when you have found an audience, understand their pain, and want to know if you can reach more of them.

These tests don’t work so well when you’re not clear on who your audience is or the pains you hope to address. If you want to learn about audiences I think doing a bit of research yields better results. After running the landing page tests I tried a research based approach… read on to hear how it went.

I did some research and wrote the most ‘clapped’ article for October on freeCodeCamp

I found myself looking for a way to identify an audience and understand where they needed help.

I designed an experiment where I picked an audience I knew a lot about (new programmers) and I spent some time reading forums to get a sense of what kinds of problems they were struggling with.

I combined my notes with my own personal experience and came up with an article about the mental side of learning to program.

That article turned out to be really helpful. People really seem to like it.

As I write this article that article has gotten over 25K claps and was viewed over 9,000 times in a day. It also ranks first in google for the keyword ‘struggling developer’.


img My article was the top article for October on freeCodeCamp and it ranks first in a google search for ‘Struggling Developer’

That article continues to generate traffic and followers for me.

To me it’s validation that it’s possible to identify a market hole through research.

I’ve come to believe that research is a very valuable tool for getting clear about who you’re building something for and what they need help with.

Research helps you move from guesses to facts… but I find it to be really difficult. What is an audience and how do you find them online? When you read a forum thread, how do you know that the problems your reading about are widely experienced?

I thought that software could make the research process easier. Also, my background is in data engineering + I think I really was looking for something to code.

I built a couple of data tools. They’re very technically ‘cool’ but they didn’t turn out to be very useful. Still… they’re worth mentioning.

The Reddit research tool

When I began researching audiences, I turned to Reddit.

Reddit divides communities by ‘subreddit’. Different communities have different focuses, cultures and interests. I thought it would be cool to take a subreddit, extract all the keywords from the forum posts, tally up recurring keywords and see what gets talked about most.

I built an interface where you can search for a keyword and see all the subreddits where that keyword gets mentioned. You can also search for a subreddit and see what keywords get mentioned there.

img My reddit research tool makes it really easy to x-ray a subreddit to get a sense of what topics appear in a subreddit

After I had built this tool I started using it.

The tool is actually pretty useful. It lets you use keywords to quickly hone in on subreddits with people talking about a certain topic. I found a lot of interesting subreddits I never knew about using this tool.

That said, I haven’t had a lot of success coming up with business ideas by trawling reddit forums. Reddit has a lot of students so I kept finding myself running into pains associated with academic work or finding jobs. I’m not saying this approach can’t work… but it didn’t work for me.

Still, I wasn’t ready to give up on quantitative approaches just yet.

The Android market research tool

While doing research I happened to come across a company that uses Amazon data to find product opportunities on Amazon.

Jungle Scout uses Amazon’s ‘Sales Rank’ metric to estimate daily product sales for every product in Amazon’s catalog. By combining this sale estimate with product review data people who use Jungle Scout can find products that sell well despite needing to be improved.

I figured this approach might work with the Google Play Store. If I could find apps that were getting downloaded a lot but had poor reviews maybe I could build something better.

I ended up scraping the google play store to collect about ~60,000 app listings.

It turned out it was pretty easy to see what kinds of apps get the most downloads…


A bit of data crunching led me to some niches I thought I could build apps for.


I thought I had found a niche in the ‘Name Art’ market

I thought I’d had found a market opportunity when I came across apps for creating Name Art.

These apps are little drawing programs that kids use to trick-out their name and send them to their friends.

The apps are all pretty low quality and are LOADED with ads.

I thought I could whip up a similar app and so I got to coding. This is the result.


My social signs app

I didn’t get many downloads after releasing this app.

A bit of research revealed that the reviews that I had been basing my decisions off of were fake.

Moreover, building a product by looking at competitors just didn’t work very well for me. I kept finding new competitors… and since I had no connection to my customer base I didn’t really understand why they would or would not want an app like this.

Maybe a ‘copy the competition’ approach could work but I think it seems easier to go study the customers. After all, if they have a problem and don’t know about the competition then the competition is irrelevant.


So that brings me to 2019.

As I write this, I’m still searching for my product-building approach.

No doubt about it, this journey has not been easy. Each success was accompanied by A LOT of failure… and even things that worked (like writing articles) weren’t always very repeatable.

I’m still optimistic though.

Looking back I can see how far I’ve come. I started 2018 with a very different entrepreneurial world-view. My understanding keeps getting more complex and nuanced.

I think it’s only a matter of time before I settle on a product-building approach that works for me.

Until then I just focus getting up each day and putting in the work.