Writing: Highly Effective

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As a digital creator, I live to put shiny new things into the hands of people all over the world.

Crafting an experience that elicits a response in the market or on social media is addicting. It’s partly why I still wear my creator hat despite the fact that Drifty is growing and our successful products are changing less frequently. I can’t imagine a company where I’m not helping create new products several times per year.

Traditionally, my method of creating has been through software. I’ll build a web app that does something interesting, I’ll find some people on Twitter that want to try it, and I’ll build an audience and iterate on the product.

While I’m addicted to building new software products, it’s still a time consuming, potentially costly process that I can only afford to do a few times a year.

As I’ve been writing more frequently, I’ve realized that I get a similar high to building software products when I release a blog post and people read it.

It also struck me that writing has been a hugely important part of Drifty’s growth, including on social media, email marketing, and customer engagement and support.

It seems that writing is one of the most effective means of digital creation. It’s a process that requires little time investment, no support or maintenance costs, and doesn’t randomly break when you’re asleep.

Great writing can solidify your brand, spark conversation and traffic on social media and beyond, help your customers, and bring in more customers from search engines.

Writing has become just as important to me as developing software, and it is becoming a large part of how we run Drifty.

Get writing!

Creating Value ≠ Adding Features

I’ve been working on Codiqa with Max for a little over a year now. I’ve learned a ton. Indeed, the roller-coaster metaphor applies: there have been many ups, downs, lefts, and rights. Looking back, a lot has changed for us: We quit our jobs, became profitable, grew an amazing user base, created a second product, formalized an umbrella brand, and joined a pretty sweet program in Texas for three months. That’s a lot of change!

However, the one thing that hasn’t changed as drastically as I would have predicted, is Codiqa. Codiqa started out as a simple solution to a problem that both Max and I experienced in our day-to-day lives: it’s a pain to get a working mobile website or app in HTML5 up and running quickly. We built Codiqa as a way to solve our pain (and, as it turned out many other people’s). When it came time to launch publicly, Codiqa was immensely valuable from day one and grew to 10,000 users within 30 days. Here is what the beta version of looked like:

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The product was minimal, easy-to-use, and did one thing very well: easy visual prototyping coupled with production-ready HTML5. That’s it. Of course, there were some nice features integrated as well, but the main value of Codiqa was at the product’s core from day one. This is what Codiqa looks like now, roughly one year later:

On the surface, not much has really changed. Now, that doesn’t mean Max and I have been sipping margaritas on a beach somewhere. On the contrary; we’ve been working on Codiqa intensely since it launched. It’s simpler, faster, and more elegant than ever before. We didn’t waste time adding every bell, whistle and feature in the book. Why? Because they don’t really matter. Codiqa was already valuable from the beginning. Our customers told us this is, and we let them help guide our development. Adding more features for features sake would only dilute and clutter value, not enhance it.

I see a lot of startups launch products where the problem being solved, or, the solution being offered just isn’t there. Then, when no one buys the product they scramble to add feature after feature in the hopes of creating value. There’s nothing inherently wrong with adding a new feature, so long as it builds upon the value of your product and it’s something heard from your customers over and over again.

For example, our Codiqa customers love the way it makes jQuery Mobile easy to build and create with. After launching, we would often receive questions and requests about doing the same thing for the popular HTML5 framework, Twitter Bootstrap. It didn’t make sense for us to add Bootstrap support as a feature, because Codiqa is a mobile-first focused tool and an integral part of the jQuery Mobile community. Not to mention, it would bulk up the simplicity of the product that we feel passionate about maintaining. So instead, we used the technology that powers Codiqa to build a new tool, Jetstrap, that focused purely on Bootstrap and the booming community there. By doing this, we were able to create another revenue source, which is much more valuable than adding just another feature.

Don’t be that company who adds feature after feature with no regard to its effects. Be conscious of where your (potential) customers find real value. Ask questions. Listen. Features don’t always offer or return equal value.

Bootstrapping is Hacking

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For the average startup founder, much of your life revolves around fundraising.

It seems to make a lot of sense: startups are highly failure-prone, and any increase in your odds of success is a great thing. Often startups are building product without revenue coming in, waiting to launch and take the world by storm. Having money in the bank can keep your mind focused on building something great, and bringing smart advisors on board can help you make better decisions. Not to mention the signals a big round sends to competitors, investors, and potential customers.

My company is largely bootstrapped, which means we haven’t raised any formal financing rounds. While we have taken “pre-seed” investments from TechStars, I still consider ourselves bootstrapped, and we have chosen to not raise follow-on investment despite ample opportunity to do so. It might surprise you to know that we are profitable and growing in spite of this.

We regularly deal with members of the startup community that just can’t fathom why we’d want to bootstrap. Are we not thinking big enough? Are we naive and think more equity means more value, ignoring the common wisdom that having a smaller piece of a larger pie is better than a bigger piece of a smaller one? Are we greedy and think revenue is better than having lots of users? Are we just complacent?

The answer I realized is so much simpler: I feel a strong pull to do the opposite of what is considered normal. I want to hack the startup process and throw out the idea that typical software startups need investors and capital in order to build value and be successful. I don’t believe it for a second, and I don’t care to do something just because so many say we should.

For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why I just didn’t care about fundraising. In my mind it’s largely a signal that you own less of your company, are shooting for a quick exit, and are delaying answering the really tough questions that will decide whether your company succeeds in the long term. Many VC-backed companies have prioritized the desires of investors over the interests of customers or their own employees. That’s not a very customer-focused environment or even a happy place to work.

Earlier today I was watching a great interview with Paul Graham about how hackers can be great business people. One quote stood out as Paul was being asked what characteristics great hackers tend to have:

“[Great hackers] tend to be sort of disobedient. They don’t like to do what they’re told. And in fact when they’re told to do something, it tends to create some bias in them to do the opposite. Because I think they assume, often rightly, that if they’re being told to do something that it’s in somebody else’s interest” – Paul Graham (watch this part)

Ignoring the irony that YC is all about large VC-backed startups, I realized: this is how I’ve always been. Tell me to do something and I’ll strongly consider doing the opposite. Tell me something is true and I’ll try to disprove it. Tell me I “should” do something and I’ll assume you have a one-track mind.

Of course, when I was younger this manifested more in typical teenage disobedient behavior, but now it manifests itself in a strong distrust of absolutism and a desire to explore the nuance of a problem space, and find a solution someone missed.

So, maybe I’m stubborn and being stupid by not putting some money in the bank or not striking with investors while the iron is hot. In my mind I am challenging the belief that fundraising is a required part of the startup experience.

I don’t believe it, and my company is already disproving it. Internet startups are so cheap to create these days, all you need is some skills and the desire to learn to market and sell your creations. You don’t need a business or marketing background, you just need to hack, hustle, and make things happen.

That is a profound evolution in business, and I want to keep pushing in that direction. The internet has removed so many barriers for all of us, and every day we knock down more.

Happy hacking!

Bootstrapping to 140,000 users with Twitter

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We are huge fans of Twitter at Drifty. And for good reason: we used Twitter to grow Drifty into a profitable startup with 140,000 users in just one year. Not to mention we did it for $0 and formed strong relationships with our customers in the processs.

By some measures, our startup shouldn’t be notable on Twitter: a small team in a small city in the Midwest that hasn’t raised VC and rarely leaves the office. Yet we’ve defeated the typical odds to become relevant and sustainable without needing outside investment, in large part because of the equalizing effects of social networks like Twitter.

I’ve noticed that most startups don’t utilize Twitter much at all. They might have a profile but never tweet, or they just consume content and never share anything with the world. It’s also possible they think they need a PR/social media person to be successful on Twitter.

If two introvert nerds can be successful on Twitter, anyone can. And they can do it for cheap, potentially avoiding the need to raise outside capital to reach a real audience.

Find your Community

When we launched our first product Codiqa, a super simple HTML5 app builder (it’s free to try!) in January 2012, all we had was a cool landing page. What we didn’t have was any users!

Unwittingly, we built Codiqa following what has become a core product strategy for us: build something valuable for an existing community, start participating in the community, and work towards bettering that community.

For Codiqa that community was jQuery Mobile, since Codiqa was initially launched as a simple interface builder for jQuery Mobile.

When we first started tweeting for Codiqa we included @jquerymobile in all of our tweets. Since the community we were targeting all knew @jquerymobile, but no one knew Codiqa, it was a good way to indicate we were interested in becoming part of the group. Eventually @jquerymobile retweeted our initial tweets and we started to see users signing up for our private beta and further tweeting the link to their followers. It wasn’t long before links to and reviews of Codiqa showed up on the web, which boosted our SEO ranking.

For Jetstrap, our second product focused on Twitter Bootstrap development, the community was Twitter Bootstrap, which was already quite large and growing when we released our first versions of Jetstrap.

We approached Jetstrap the same way, by mentioning important bootstrap accounts like @twbootstrap, @mdo, and @fat. We had some really great luck where the bootstrap guys tweeted about Jetstrap and @mdo even mentioned us in a really great blog post about Bootstrap 2.1 and the future of the project.

In some respects we have been lucky that these communities are active on Twitter, but if you look hard enough you’ll be surprised how many communities use Twitter to share timely and relevant content, and they would love to share something that contributes to that community in an authentic way.

Enable Sharing

If you are authentically contributing to the community and bring value, people will want to share your stuff with the rest of the world.

Make sure you have Tweet and Follow buttons on all important landing pages, and put some thought into writing solid copy for the Tweet that will be shared. If you haven’t made yourself known yet in the community, make sure your tweet mentions important accounts that will help you gain visibility.

Invest some time into writing good copy for your Tweet button. Pretend you are going to Tweet this yourself, does it give your followers a good impression of you?

Here is the Tweet copy we had on the Codiqa beta landing page:

 

This tweet no longer had mentions of @jquerymobile because they already knew about us and we didn’t want to annoy them, but the copy was enough to make it dead clear where our product fit into the community.

Be a Creator

There are many different types of Twitter users. Some only consume, less consume and produce, and even less produce more than they consume.

As a creator, you have to produce more than you consume. This means finding interesting content to share to your followers, but also sharing your opinions and thoughts.

It’s also important to be personable. Many businesses sign their tweets with the person that is writing them, but another strategy is to engage followers with a personal account. This also helps build your personal brand which has value on its own.

Amplifying content for other users is also important, but you don’t need to make it 50% or more of your tweets: producing meaningful content is a positive contribution in its own right.

Tools and Services

There are many tools that help make you more awesome on Twitter. The two that I absolutely love are TweetDeck and Buffer.

TweetDeck lets you add multiple columns of tweets based on a filter. I often do a “search” query for my products since it’s more encompassing than a “mention” filter. However, having “mention” filters means you can favorite tweets for the account being mentioned. Otherwise, TweetDeck uses the default account set in the preferences. This is what my TweetDeck looks like (I have a few other columns that don’t fit into this view):

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Buffer, on the other hand, lets me queue up Tweets and posts them at certain times during the day. This is great because I often think of things to tweet in bursts, and Buffer distributes those tweets over a more reasonable stretch of time so I don’t annoy my followers. Buffer also has analytics so you can see the impact of your tweets. Here is a shot of our Buffer dashboard with a Tweet we shared on our Jetstrap account:

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Buffer also has great extensions for the browser so you can share the pages you are on easily, and those guys are Twitter experts and super nice. Check out their blog for a wealth of info on kicking ass on Twitter.

Start Now

Twitter is an investment, so it’s best to start early. Some days I feel like all I did was waste time on Twitter, but those days pay off when our product announcements reach a larger and larger audience. TweetDeck and Buffer can be highly addicting, so use them in moderation (that advice is meant for me more than anything).

If you are completely new to Twitter, I suggest sharing articles that are relevant to your market, and work to become an expert in that market. Follow relevant accounts and engage with them in an authentic way (read: don’t just spam them to buy something). Find a healthy balance of personality and professionalism that is appropriate for your market, and don’t be afraid to take risks.

Profit?

How about you? How do you use Twitter to grow your business? Have you experimented with unusual Twitter tools or services? Anything that I can improve on? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Welcome to the Drifty Blog

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Though Drifty might be a new brand to some of the people who have followed us, we’ve actually been around for a little over a year.

Drifty makes the popular web development tools Codiqa and Jetstrap. We live to make it easier to build with web technologies and to empower more people to build their dreams on the web or in the app store.

Codiqa is focused on making it easy to build rich mobile experiences (both native and web) with jQuery Mobile, and we launched it at the beginning of 2012. Over 2012 we grew it to profitability, formed some awesome partnerships with some great leaders in the industry, and built a small team around it

Jetstrap, our second product, was launched mid-2012 with the goal of making it easy to build desktop-oriented sites and utilize responsive web development with Twitter Bootstrap. Jetstrap has had an awesome reception since we launched and we are in the process of moving it out of beta and into a big part of our business.

Our company is primarily bootstrapped (we have only taken a small investment from TechStars). We run our company as if our customers are our investors, since in a lot of ways they have been. We consider ourselves a customer-financed company, and we answer to no one but them.

Our company is based in Madison, Wisconsin where we recently moved into a small office right on beautiful Capitol Square in the heart of downtown. We think Madison is well-poised to become a hotspot of tech companies in the future, and we are so excited to be a part of it and to invest in it.

We will be blogging on the Drifty blog primarily about running our company, and leave more product-specific posts on our product blogs.

Stay tuned and thanks for joining us on our ride to make it easy for more people to develop real things on the web and mobile!