At the time of writing my latest project learnux.io has been out for over two months. Over this time, the webpage has been visited by 20,000 users from 145 countries, generating almost 70,000 hits. Over 220 people have subscribed which resulted in $9,000 revenue over this time. The last 30 days of income presents as follows:
I guess you must be wondering what learnux.io is. It’s a website which offers access to video courses in the field of user interface design and learning tools for UI/UX designers. I would like to share a few tips with you which might be helpful for creation of your own, similar products. I hope that the story of learnux.io will be a valuable lesson for you. I tried to describe it so that it contains a series of hints and conclusions at which I arrived while working on a startup.
The work on the project started circa six months before it was launched and I treated it as a “side project” at that time. The idea came quite naturally — it is a mix of what I do for a living, which is practical design work and video courses which I have been doing for many years now by maintaining eduweb.pl in Poland. One of the best ways you can choose to create a new product is by finding a solution to the problem you have. The product can be e.g. a SAAS solution. Approaching the problem from other side, you can deliver knowledge how to solve the problem. I started by defining the problem and decided that it was a need for learning new solutions and willingness to keep in touch with the latest UI/UX novelties. In order to keep up with constantly changing trends, designers must devote a lot of time for research and experiments. It’d be good to have a valid, updated source of knowledge. Time is money which leads us to a conclusion that maybe someone will be willing to pay for obtaining this knowledge using shortcuts.
By dissecting the problem, you can get a lot information from it:
- whose problem is solved by the product (UI/UX designers),
- how can you talk about it (it is an investment which will pay off in effectiveness),
- it is paid, what features it should have (the most specific and professional).
Such formulated preliminary premises accompanied my beginning of work. Of course, I was aware of the fact that I might miss it, however, there’s nothing wrong in readjustment of the course. Simply, you just have to bet on something.
- Regularly put down problems which you come across. Maybe finding a solution to those problems can be an idea for the next product. I’m using Trello board, but you might as well use your favourite notebook. Usually it is not a good idea to light up straight after noting the problem down. Let the problem occur a couple of times in your notes and take care of its preliminary validation. It’s important to split the ideas into small steps so that they won’t overwhelm you. Also, don’t force the ideas to appear and try to understand your approach first. After you write them down. let them lay for a while. If you don’t know where to start, try getting some inspiration such as this one.
There are many examples of online businesses which were created and developed basing on the ignorance of their creators. They admit that if they had done a profound research of the topic and competition they probably would never start a given project. After all, they succeeded by believing that their solution has a unique market value, but most importantly, by designing it in a way that they would like to use on their own. I, however, have created many online products and one of the things that doesn’t move me at all is risk and hyperoptimism. This is why I tried to conduct an observant validation of the idea, as well as analyse brand trends to diagnose possible risks. This stage will be chiefly based on the answer to the question: “Am I not the only person who has a similar idea?”. I haven’t done the typical SWOT analysis, but I devoted a large amount of time on reading opinions of other UI designers, direction analysis of the software and reading articles on trends on Medium.
- Look through Facebook groups, forums, reddit, Slack channels and the like. Assess if others have a similar problem to yours.
- Use tools such as Google Trends to discover tendencies in the field of your product.
- If you do not have a specific idea, follow websites such as The Next Web, Tech Crunch, The Verge.
Creating quality content
As I mentioned before, I don’t really believe in luck. I rather assume that the people who do the same things as you but better, have just worked harder/longer for it. I’m not sure if it’s what you wanted to hear and you might disagree with me by citing people who made a lot of money on products which didn’t require a lot of work. However, often when you look into details you will see there’s much more to it. And yes… you can also win in a lottery. It is quite possible that you’re smarter than me and you will consciously select a different strategy. I’m not special, I’m hard-working. This is why I also don’t believe the rule of thumb, that 90% of startups fail (but the mistakes they do are worth knowing). It is possible that it’s not the way it should be done — in numerous interviews the originators of tech startups mention that they are lazy. Meaning, they want to make their lives easier so they search for solutions other than work which will help them achieve their goal. It’s “creative laziness”. If I was to be an example for someone there’s good news that if you aren’t lazy, there’s still a chance that you’ll succeed.
I’ll risk a statement that putting a lot of work in a project is a warranty of its success whereas whether it would be spectacular is a result of good timing and validation. In learnux I put ca. 1000 working hours, while ~70% was devoted to creation of a perfect product, where the remaining ~30% was spent on promotion, networking and things you’ll learn about in a while. Probably other way can be chosen or the ratio can even be reversed with a better outcome. However, I feel that the matter is my strong feat, not marketing, this is why I placed my bet on what’s safe. Before I created content, I checked thoroughly competitive resources and came up with the idea, according to the book “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, on how to do what has been already created, yet ten times better. This article might also inspire you. I’m a fair believer in bootsrapping, especially in the early stages of your project, but I tend to treat myself as my own investor and keep this rules in mind.
I decided to create a complete project of a UI application of a smart house which will join the whole material, to create courses which are logically connected, specific, well-paced, engaging, in 5k quality and brimful of practical tips. And then I just did it. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life. Although all the elements centred around the project are really interesting for me, it was neither easy nor pleasant. I’ve heard that if you do what you like, then you’ll never work a day in your life. It’s a lie.
- Prepare a list of things which could be done better than by competitive products. If these are popular products, focus on specialisation.
- Find people who use competitive products. Ask if the thing you’re trying to improve would make them choose your product. Start keeping a list of such people. I used a Google Docs spreadsheet.
- Prepare a list of steps which will lead to creation of your product. Set a specific deadline for each stage. Be consistent. The plan is dependent on the product. I noticed that there’s nothing better than dissecting it and crossing out minor goals.
- Create your MVP. Simply start, but also finish. I know it’s trivial, but I’ve seen many successful people just acting, not overthinking it with great results. This article will also give you an idea of what I mean.
A few words about competition
I mentioned before that the key to success is composed of a great product + good timing + validation. Not competition! The existence of competition in a given product is a positive element of validation. It can prove the thesis that the problem exists and someone is ready to pay for its solution. When creating a product which isn’t yet available on the market it can turn out that people are not ready to pay for it. Whereas while entering even the most competitive markets you can be sure that there’s money on it.
Therefore, what you need to do is simply to deliver a product that is better than that of competition. The “betterness” can be guaranteed by narrower specialisation. Let’s take Slack, for instance, which revolutionised work of thousands of teams all over the world by being simply just another communicator. By following different startups, I realised that having a slightly better product does not have to be a warranty of success. If, for instance, someone would come up with a better version of Twitter, you’d come across a number of obstacles such as pre-existing habits of users, as well as the fact that they have already invested a lot of their time on expanding contact networks, followers and reputation.
What it means is that if you want to create a visibly better product on a competitive market, it has to be, first and foremost, really better, and secondly, it has to take into account a convenient path of transition for its users. Generally — don’t worry about competition. In spite of appearances, behind each of the competitive companies are people who are closer to you than you’d think and they struggle with similar problems on daily basis. Be alert (use e.g. Similar Web and Alexa), do not ignore signs from the market, but do what you do and remain consistent.
- Prepare a list of keywords which describe your product well. You can use your AdWords account or Keyword Planner. Learn also how to use advanced phrases in Google.
- Google up those words — put down companies which are highly positioned and look into their products.
- Set up an account at Mention or Brand24. Monitor phrases which you identified as key ones, as well as the names of the companies offering similar competitive products.
Early stage — Landing Page
At the moment when I had an already defined vision of the product, I started coming up with a name, bought a domain (cheap .io domains are available at namecheap.com) along with hosting in the US and I set up a really simple landing page with info about what will be placed on the webpage. All these steps took me no more than a few hours, including content creation and simple search engine optimization (using proper webpage title or headings). At this stage I already used Analytics and set up an account at Google Webmaster Tools to check how the page will be indexed. I didn’t pay much attention to this stage, but it surely did it good. Secondly, I set the premiere date and launched a simple counter with a possibility of signing up for the notification. The list gave me 76 e-mail addresses, redirecting the traffic from the article in which I announced the premiere to the counter.
- Buy a domain and hosting on servers in a target country.
- Set up a simple landing page adjusted to SEO and set a launch date for your product.
You can say that I started from the lowest of low levels. Never before have I created any content in English, I didn’t have a personal brand abroad nor a list of e-mails or even friends who would be interested in my product and willing to recommend it. I started my work from building reach and finding my way into the business. I started from publishing articles at Medium. I tried to provide them with unique quality, for some of them I even prepared films which I placed on my YouTube channel. In this way I was simultaneously building reach via both websites, though my contents stood up among mostly text-based content at Medium.
The best articles are the ones which have a perfect timing — concern a brand novelty, a topic which is picked up by many people at a given time. In this way for one of the best articles I was able to generate 3,000 hits on the first day and more than 15,000 hits up to today in a few months’ time.
Writing each article didn’t take me more than two days and generated about a few thousands of hits. Grammarly and Hemingway App are very useful when you’re writing in English. Converting traffic from this type of content ain’t easy — you can plug in Upscri.be which will let people subscribe on your list. I relatively quickly gave up on this solution as it brought about only a few leads.
I placed my bet on building recognition and a base of people who followed my profile. Over this time, I gathered more than 600. I linked articles and films created in such a way on particular groups on Facebook, such as Sketch Together, which helped me gain recognition and reach for my articles. Another way for building a list was creation of free resource which could be downloaded by providing an e-mail. By linking it on a few Facebook groups I tried to hit the right time and I gained 500 additional addresses.
In this way by devoting ca. 100 hours for creation of additional content I gained fair reach — around 600 addresses on the list, the same number of followers on Medium, over 3,000 subscribers on YouTube, almost 100,000 views (I created four valuable films). It means that by investing a relatively small amount of resources I was able to reach with every newly published content a group of more than 4,200 nonrandom people who made a particular action to receive notification.
- React to brand novelties by publishing materials when people are searching for them.
- Spend some time on preparation of a small amount, but highly valuable contents.
- Diversify the channels and publish contents on websites which are visited by people potentially interested in your product.
Reach through social media
Through the whole time of preparation, I kept my Twitter updated, publishing even up to eight tweets per day which allowed me to gain ca. 300 followers. It is difficult to assess the real influence of Twitter on the success of learnux.io, but one I know for sure — it was Twitter which allowed me to get in touch with producers of software which I discuss in my courses, brand websites with novelties and also with some of the influencers. Reaching out to a person on Twitter usually requires commenting one or two tweets and retweeting two or three next ones. Next, it is worth to send a private message to that person or mention them in your tweet. In this time I was also active on other social media websites — Facebook, Quora, Reddit and Product Hunt.
These are services in which you can successfully promote your startup. However, first you must gain reputation by writing valuable comments and helping others in evaluation and development of their products or by linking to valuable resources. The same can be done on various sector groups on Facebook.
If I were to briefly assess the channels:
Facebook — It is hard to build reach without a marketing budget, while using extra funds requires a lot of time for preparation of ads. I didn’t focus much on this channel.
Twitter — The best place for gaining industry contacts, requires being familiar with the specifics, but generates highly profitable outcomes.
Reddit — Relatively low effectiveness, it is possible that the subreddits connected with UX were too niche so I just decided to let it go.
Product Hunt — Highly valuable response and help of the startup society, also high traffic during the premiere.
Because I wanted to focus on the making of courses and I avoided distracting notifications I used the help of Kasia who kept on sending me links to topics in which I could help substantively. I usually spent about half an hour a day doing this. In order to make our action successful we kept a spreadsheet on Google Docs with all the replies/advice given. I tried to list addresses to people to whom I replied. During the premiere we asked them a favour to rate our project — it worked!
- If you still don’t have it, set up a Twitter account. Start following all industry influencers. Retweet their content and comment it from time to time. Tweet interesting things with a lot of hashtags and slowly build reach.
- Set up an account on Quora, Product Hunt and Reddit, join environments such as r/startups or r/enterpreneur and the ones connected to your industry. Keep posting as often as you can, make sure that what you post is uniquely valuable though.
- Join the communities on Facebook, Slack and others in which you’ll be able to find your prospective clients.
About a month before the launch I started looking for people who could help me with the promotion of the project. For searching you can use tools such as Buzzsumo or search on your own on social media and YouTube. It is good to prepare a Google spreadsheet with all the prospects you’ll gather this way.
Eventually, I tried to conduct all the communication via e-mail to store everything in one place. E-mail address can be found fairly easily, you can use tools such as Hunter, as well as this article. You can also extract e-mails from Facebook groups, for instance using Grouply. To be honest, I didn’t focus much on such growth hacks, I don’t think they’re quite worth the time and ethically, not my first choice.
Concentrating channel of communication with partners and influencer helped me successfully manage them using CRM Streak for Gmail where I could create separate pipelines for influencers, software producers or for industry websites. Exemplary pipeline looked like this:
I tried to use unusual ways to reach out to influencers who could help me with the promotion of the project. I recorded a several dozen of short, personalised video messages which I included in the e-mail. I really wanted to compress the video so it could be carried in Gmail attachment. Almost half of the people responded to such a message.
Although I tried my best to prepare for the launch, I think that at this stage I committed a few mistakes. It seems that I cared more about building interest in the upcoming product than about validation which I finished before. As a result, I devoted a lot of resources for actions which would bring more favourable outcome if implemented later. As it turned out, it is much easier to promote an already existing product than promise of that product. The same people who didn’t respond to my message, replied later on to my follow up which I sent after the premier with the link to the project. When the project was live I had a lot more fun and motivation for promoting it. If I could do it again, I would definitely spend less time on looking for support before the launch of the project.
- Create a list of influencers and the most popular industry companies which could help you in the promotion of the project. You can also use paid tools such as Revfluence. I haven’t used them on my own so I can’t assess their effectiveness.
- Prepare CRM for contact management. The list will grow over time. Use supporting tools, for instance, Mailtrack helps you track whether a person has read your message. There’s a cool article and a list of other useful tools here.
- Do not focus too much on making a buzz before the premiere, unless you have better ideas than I had.
I started building suspense about 2–3 weeks before the premiere. I wrote a post on Medium in which I explained who I was and what problem is solved by my startup. I also placed a Call To Action, a request to fill in a simple questionnaire which helped me gain another 32 contacts. I regularly kept posting on social media with the countdown to the launch of the project. I freshened up some contacts I made before with influencers. Next, I focused on activisation of people who signed up on the mailing list. Altogether I sent them four messages before the launch. The statistics look as follows (penultimate column is an open rate, the last one — click rate).
Apart from the second message which contained an image which probably placed it in a different tab in Gmail, the remaining messages had a high open rate reaching more than 40% which only confirmed that I managed to collect quality e-mail addresses. The messages contained what follows (in order of sending):
- Information about scheduled launch + CTA — fill in the questionnaire
- My story + CTA — fill in the questionnaire
- Three free tutorials which I previously published on YT and Medium + launch reminder + CTA — let your friends know about the launch (click to tweet)
- Unique, free tutorial for subscribers only + launch reminder + information about promotion for subscribers for the first week
Mail on the day of the launch was connected with adding the product on Product Hunt and it looked like that:
On the next day I sent the subsequent e-mail, in three days another one which informed about expiring time of -20% promotion for start. It means that in two weeks (before and after the launch) I was sending messages every second day. The number of people who resigned from the Newsletter — 0. The conversion from the list to the registered users — almost 20%. I think that it’s a proof of how it’s good to invest in the quality, not quantity, and not to be scared of sending out e-mails too often. Small lists can also convert very well.
- Prepare communication templates before/during the premiere so that it’s ready for sending.
- Share your story — tell your users who you are, what problem you’re solving and prove that you believe in it.
I don’t think that I managed to create the atmosphere of waiting for my product. When the counter stopped, there were just a few people on the webpage and probably I was the most excited one. With the hindsight I think now that it’s not worth it to get all lit up by the launch itself. As I mentioned before, the promotion before the launch doesn’t pay off well, and a side effect of making too much hype can result in a high number of hits at the beginning, but can also cause a sudden drop in interest after a while. It’s better to build audience measurement systematically and watch the bars grow gradually rather than to have a great peak at the beginning and big turnover later. On the other hand, this is the specificity of the first product. The effect of waiting can be more easily achieved when we’ve already got some history and attached customers. If it’s our first product, it’s better to relocate the resources into its better development rather than coming up with the premiere strategy.
What is more important is what follows. It’s good to create a number of descriptions (short, medium, long), press pack, pictures in different seizes or prepare and plan posts on Social Media beforehand, for instance using Buffer. I tried to send those materials to the biggest possible number of editorial offices, influencers I reached out to or industry websites. It’s good to prepare your own list, basing on this one, enriched with industry websites working in the field of your product. By the way — this list curated by Lisa Dziuba is quite amazing, partly I was glad I haven’t found it before the launch as I’d probably spent too much time reading.
- Prepare resources required for launch. Different types of descriptions, screens, press pack.
- Make a list of websites and people you’ll inform about the premiere of your product.
The post-launch strategy in the case of learnux.io is based chiefly on one rule: systematicity. Every month I send mailing to the base of subscribers and update materials with new contents. I realized how great effects can cause a little amount of systematic work, for instance in strategy of building links. Imagine that you’re devoting 15 minutes a day on helping others on different websites such as Quora. By writing one or two posts per day you’re able to build ~300–600 links a year!
I also stay active on social media and I’m gradually considering channelling a certain amount of income for paid advertisement. I talk a lot with my clients by listening to their opinions and automising collection of feedback and proposals of future materials using Intercom. I also configured simple analytics which allows me to measure key metrics such as quantity and source of registration and subscription. I upgrade the various functions on the website. For instance, by watching a few recordings collected by HotJar I realised that many people use hamburger menu so I added more translucent section structure and log-in option. I also noticed that not so many people recommend learnux.io using the referral system and I intend to redo it in a way that it doesn’t offer immediate gratification (free month) at the beginning, but activate the users only after they started using the service and are pleased with it. Basically, it’s obvious — you are ready to recommend a website only when you’re convinced of its quality. Until I analysed the referrals statistics and started to think about the reason for such a small number of referrals, it wasn’t so obvious back then. I am also trying to create at least one post a month for Medium/YouTube, as well as keep up and make new contacts with industry companies and influencers.
$0 — the money spent on marketing
My remarks regarding paid promotion boil down to one — don’t do it. None of the channels I tested appeared to be effective. Creating ads on Facebook takes a lot of time and has a disproportionate outcome. AdWords and LinkedIn are very expensive for start and there’s only a slight chance that this will pay for itself. I quickly realised that I had to burn a lot of money for ads in order to learn what works in a given situation. I decided not to waste time on it. In the future maybe I’ll use the potential of Lead Ads on Facebook, however, from my experience I know that collection of contacts in this way is cheap only when our landing page is strictly connected with the content of the form. I also haven’t received a valuable payback from commission meaning that for instance sending discount codes through partners. In my opinion the time for making a deal, the necessity of lowering the price, often by 40–50% (so that the discount is not only for subscribers but also the commission for the partner) is disproportionate against the benefits. Not to mention the fact that really valuable partners will not work like this with a startup.
What to do? Instead of paid advertisement, try content marketing and generating valuable content — articles or freebies. Instead of buying ads, write posts on a blog and take care of building links. Instead of getting involved in a partnership programme, spend some time on talking with your clients and you’ll see that it generates additional value. Instead of organising press conferences and inviting partners to dinners, share your products for free and only then ask if the product was useful and ask for review.
By the way, another advice: never ask for more than a feedback, especially from influencers. You’ll see that when they notice the value in your product, they’ll be the ones to recommend it on their own. This is one of the messages I received:
To finish this article, I would like to inspire you to take up unconventional actions. Apart from methods described above, I tried to realise a number of additional foundations which were to help me in collecting the traffic and adding traction to the project. It’s important to always stay open and curious, and motivate yourself to learning. Keep in mind, that improving yourself 1% daily makes you 37 times better after a year.
One of the ideas was preparation of the website in an original and interesting way so that it fixes into memory. I bet on a purely authorial solution by working with great people — Piotrek Świerkowski who helped me create UI and Piotrek Palarz who works in eduweb.pl as a front-end developer. The people who are the clients of learnux.io, value much the visual aspect, so it’s obvious that UX course website couldn’t have a bad UX. The fact that we created a good website allowed me to come forward with it on contests of such sites as awwwards.com or thefwa.com. The websites are visited by people I described as prospective clients of learnux.io, so the whole strategy worked. And… I won a couple of rewards!
The effectiveness of this strategy exceeded all my expectations and Awwwards delivered almost 7,000 hits on the page and is the second most effective source of traffic!
This is just one of many non-standard strategies I decided to implement. The other example can be the one that at the beginning — all classes as a part of the website are open — in other words — everyone can view a random lesson. This strategy allows me to link to specific lessons (or even to a specific second of a film), where after the click you begin watching. Just after some time the AI on the website assesses whether you’re ready to pay for the subscription and this is when it blocks the access to the next lessons. For a part of users, it is possible that they’ll see what they came for without buying the subscription. This allows for a wide promotion, for instance on Quora, where I can place links to materials. Although I’m working on delivering a clear message that the content is paid which is important and fair.
Another partisan method is redirecting to the webpage with a parameter, which adjusts it to the recipient. For instance, if I promote my product on the discussion group connected to Sketch I can provide a special link https://learnux.io?c=8 which will replace the images on the page with the ones connected with Sketch, and in this way, they will profile a service for a specific recipient. Ouch! hope they’re not listening ;)
I hope that you enjoyed this article. I tried to keep it to the point and leave some action triggers that might help you with your own startup. If you’re ready to act and looking for even more step-by-step approach you can also check this resource, or this ebook. If you feel there’s something that needs clarification or you can share some thoughts on the topic — please leave the comment!
Oh, and don't forget to visit learnux.io from time to time ;)
Best of luck in your project 🤞