Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hi, I'm Jay — short for Jesper. I'm a freelancing UX designer and front-end developer from Stockholm, Sweden. I started making websites as a teenager and tried my hand at video game design for a few years. Around 2010, web apps became my passion while I was bouncing around agencies and startups.
Today I'm all about BlankPage, which is a writing tool and motivational service that helps aspiring writers finish their first draft. It started out as a project to help a friend write more. I thought my experience from game design and motivational psychology could be of use. It was. He still hasn't finished his manuscript, but lots of other people have.
The people writing with BlankPage are a surprising bunch, usually people who've already made a career for themselves and are now making time to write. And there are more women than men, so I'm not building a traditional tech product. BlankPage is a bare-bones writing experience whose main goal is to help people establish a habit of writing.
So far, BlankPage has helped over 15,000 writers, and together they write the equivalent of two full novels per week.
What motivated you to get started with BlankPage?
I had a friend who used to tell us these amazing stories. He was always thinking up new worlds and fantastic scenes. But he would never get around to writing them down. He kept talking about the frustration of not getting any writing done.
Eventually I began thinking about it as a design challenge: Could I turn the slog of writing into a pleasurable experience?
I was working as a web developer at the time, so I sat down one weekend and tried out a few designs. When I had a prototype up and running I realised there weren't really any other products like this on the market.
Slowly I started putting more time into it and fleshing it out as a more users started writing. Three years later, we have plenty of competitors, but also thousands of writers.
The goal from the start was just to run a profitable business, cover my costs, and maybe afford a new iPad. But BlankPage grew out of its costs in the first six months.
After that, I set my sights on making a living exclusively from BlankPage. That turned out to be more challenging, and I'm still not quite there yet.
What went into building the initial product?
I think I spent two years building the first version. The demo took me a weekend, but then I got so caught up in the excitement of building something new I chose to go with all new tech… Big mistake. I ended up with Node.js and MongoDB on the back end, and the semi-familiar Backbone.js on the front end.
So I spent months working hard learning new tech while trying to iterate fast on the product. I'd basically fallen into the sunk cost fallacy and kept digging myself into it deeper.
I was bootstrapping and wasn't that interested in the business aspect of the project, so it took me a long time to realize that all that time was way more expensive than paying another developer.
Everyone is shorter on time than they are on money. When I realized my mistake, the product was too far along for me to rewrite to a more reasonable tech stack. Instead I scaled back on features and took on client work based on the same tech. This helped me learn a lot faster.
It took months of long nights and weekends. But the product worked, and things started going my way. So I was finding luck by doing hard work I guess.
Now, I did crash a relationship and switch jobs several times, so it wasn't a smooth development process but a series of sprints and crashes. I could have avoided this by being more strategic from the start.
I don't think I would have made it through without coaching from Thord Daniel Hedengren and Patrik Thunström, whose constant discussions of product strategy, business, and development helped me tremendously.
How have you attracted users and grown BlankPage?
BlankPage was on the front page of Product Hunt the day that Product Hunt launched. This was just luck. A Dutch designer I knew from Twitter liked what I was doing and hunted me in the beta. So the very first time I heard about Product Hunt, BlankPage was number two on the front page — ahead of products like Scrivener and Ulysses.
I remember I was on a plane to Missouri to visit my brother, finishing up the subscription process. When I get off the plane I get notifications about massive traffic from Product Hunt. I scrambled and launched. Then I had to spend the rest of the weekend fixing bugs that I had planned to fix before launch. Sometimes, you've just got to push things out.
Since then I've bought some ads and done a few campaigns with AppSumo, but mostly growth has been by word of mouth. SEO helps people find BlankPage, but I believe most people struggling with building a writing habit simply don't know there are services like this. Staying motivated is a very old problem. But services that keep you motivated are pretty novel.
Since we help people write, we also receive an extra boost from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) each November. About half a million people participate, and from October through November they're scouring the Internet for motivation. A few thousand writers join us each year just for NaNoWriMo.
Note: Each year begins on October 1st. More than a month remains in the 2016-2017 period.
We've tried all sorts of ads and campaigns. But as techies, I think we often jump on the next big thing because that's what everyone else is talking about. We tend to forget that all the old strategies work really well, and we're just not blogging about them because they're no longer new. Our two main sources of traffic are SEO and letting our users share their progress.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
When we started out the idea was to have people pay to get access. A paywall, basically. My theory was that if you had skin in the game you'd be more likely to commit to writing. That didn't work.
While some people did sign up, very little traffic converted. Now BlankPage is a classic SaaS. You subscribe monthly or yearly, following a 7-day free trial. We tried a freemium model, but it turns out motivation and freemium really don't work together. It practically adds another hurdle for writers to get past.
Out costs scale linearly with the amount of users and writing we store. And we've had a lot of ups and downs in revenue. So I've had peaks of great margins and profitability, and months where I'm losing money.
I think the clarity of the business model is why it works. Everyone understands a subscription. They know what they're paying for, and they know what they're paying. Getting too creative with your business model is a bad sign. Usually it's just fear that your product isn't good enough. Charge for your product as simply as you can. People will pay for things that are valuable to them.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?
I have a short-term goal — to be able to work exclusively on BlankPage — and a long-term goal — for someone to write the year's best-selling novel on BlankPage.
Just think about what it would mean — for the writer, for me, and for the product. If BlankPage helped just one struggling writer finish something great, it would be huge. JK Rowling struggled to find time to write Harry Potter while her baby was asleep. E.L. James didn't plan on finishing 50 Shades of Gray. Now you may or may not love these books, but their impact on the world is irrefutable.
BlankPage still has a lot of struggles in front of it. Text is not easy to work with technically — there are just so many edge cases. The competition is growing every day. And I still need the time to add features that have been waiting since launch! But we're also moving into a really interesting position from both a business and a design standpoint. So I think the future is going to be very exciting.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced? Obstacles you've overcome?
The biggest challenge for BlankPage has always been text. Text is surprisingly hard to work with in current tech. There aren't any real standards, fonts don't support every language, storing and working with text is tricky, and exporting can be difficult, because different document formats use their own layout technologies.
Staying focused on what really matters for the product and the writers is a struggle for every product. It's just so easy to start working on details and things which annoy you, but which the actual market just doesn't care about.
I put too much time into UI design when I should've been working on writing better sales pages and instructional material for my user base. The basics are much more important than all the bells and whistles of the world.
Another big lesson for me is that if I had put more time into switching from Backbone.js to React for my front end earlier, I could've saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. Even small choices need to be strategically aligned with where the business should be going. Focusing on what impacts the user long-term will always be more profitable over time than putting out fires and tweaking design now.
What were your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?
Having a published author as an advisor from day one. Without having someone who actually writes for a living to bounce ideas off, BlankPage would never have become the focused product it is. Many of our competitors clearly don't have this feedback loop — they keep adding features to "kitchen sink" products.
Having worked with motivation and studied it academically has been a great advantage as well. I've been able to accurately track if a change helps or not without getting lost in vanity metrics.
That said, loving to read and write has probably been the most critical factor. I don't think you can develop a product for someone else if you wouldn't use it yourself. The greatest understanding only comes from immersing yourself completely in the problem.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Take the time to get to know your market. Hang out with them online. Get to know what the problem is from their point of view, and then prototype solutions.
Find the quickest possible way to deliver something that solves that problem and iterate fast. There's no need to start with the full-on SaaS. Making ebooks or holding workshops work just as well, if not better, for validating your ideas about the market.
It's not the first mover who wins — it's the fastest learner.
If you haven't listened to it, the podcast series Masters of Scale, by Reid Hoffman, is amazing, both as inspiration and a source of practical tips on what can go wrong while building products.
If you're interested in motivation or making things fun, there's no better way to learn than Raph Koster's amazing book A Theory of Fun. Buy it, read it in 3 hours, and love it forever. I think I own 4 copies and have given away another 10 or so.
Where can we go to learn more?
I blog about life and design over at JesperBylund.com. You can also follow what happens on BlankPage on our blog. I prefer Twitter if you want to connect, but I'd be happy to answer any related questions here in the comments so everyone can get the context.
—, Creator of BlankPage
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