How I Fell in Love with Typography and Literally Wrote the Book on It

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Matej, I'm a UX designer and a typography geek. I started my journey towards becoming a designer when I joined an after-school class at the age of 13. The class was called “Web design” and I joined it because I wanted to get access to the internet (this was the late 90s, internet at home was only starting to become a thing) so that I could download cheat codes for the video games I had been playing at the time. I ended up learning the basics of HTML and, by the time I was in high school, I was already designing and building websites for clients. Eventually, I started to focus on doing more UX design work as a freelancer but I always wanted to experience being an in-house designer in an on-site role. So I moved to Germany to start my first full-time UX position and then to London where I worked for a couple more companies. Disappointed with the work I had been doing, I really wanted to start something of my own. I got the idea for Better Web Typography when I was still in Germany and released it two years later while I lived in London.

Better Web Typography for a Better Web is a course that comes in a book format. It teaches web designers and web developers about web typography and how to master this art in practice. The idea was simple: I’ve learned a lot about typography since I first encountered this intriguing art, but most of it was about typography in print. I wanted to translate what I’d learn to see how it would apply to the web, so I launched a free course about web typography for web designers and developers. It was a basic but solid introduction to the topic and 10,000 people signed up in the first month after launch. People who signed up were hungry for more, so I decided to expand the content of the course and release it as a book. One and a half years after the release of the original edition, I released the second edition and it's not a simple book anymore. Adding digital content like Sketch examples for designers, the source code for web developers, exercises, and learning games turned it into a course that comes in a book format.

It's now two years since I launched the free course and the list of subscribers has grown to over 20k and the sales are at around $2k/month on average. I also have automation set up that delivers printed books to anywhere in the world.

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What motivated you to get started with Better Web Typography for a Better Web?

I was working at a small startup that wanted to change how digital magazines are designed and read. I never studied design so I had limited knowledge about typography at the time and typography is very important when it comes to designing magazines. So with no educational background, I decided to do what I always did: learn by myself. I bought a book called The Elements of a Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst, which is considered a typographic bible by the design community. That's when I got hooked.

Typography is an art that seems superficial when you glance at it. People think it's mostly about fonts. But once you take a deep dive, you learn that typography is so much more and it has a way of making people geeks about it. Robert Bringhurst's book only focuses on typography in print, so it spurred the idea of writing something similar but with a focus on how it applies to the web. Eventually, I concluded that the best way to package this is an online/email course. At first, I thought about creating a gallery of websites with good typography but realized that there are enough gallery-type websites out there. Besides, I always had a thing for writing—people have been telling me how much they enjoy reading the things I wrote—so it made total sense to produce educational content in some format. I chose the email course format because I wanted to turn it into a regular newsletter at some point.

Start small, release early, but keep refining and updating.

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I created a landing page, described the idea and had a form where people could sign up. I said to myself, "If I can get 500 people to sign up, this is an idea that should be implemented." Working with startups I was well aware of the risks of shipping something that doesn't sell. In my case, at the time, it wasn't about selling, but about people signing up.

I still worked for a small startup at the time when I came up with the idea for “Better Web Typography” (original name). I was relatively happy with my first on-site, in-house position but I still wanted something more. I wanted to have a side project that would help me develop my skills but that would also allow me to do things as I want and leave my ego at home. I strongly believe that this is an important aspect of being a good designer. And I never planned to turn it into the business that it is today. I just saw an opportunity to help others learn something that I found tricky to learn by myself. So the core purpose of my Better Web Type project was always to help designers and developers learn about web typography and, with that, create beautiful websites with high-quality typography.

What went into building the initial product?

The most important thing to make Better Web Typography for a Better Web a reality was writing. By the time I started writing the book, I had been writing articles in English for years. English is only the third language that I speak but it's also the simplest. I believe this is why it aligns so well with my style of writing, which is focused on simplicity. But this was a challenge like no other before. It's one thing to write a 2000-word article, it's another to write a 40,000-word book. It requires tremendously sharp focus, huge amounts of willpower, and persistence. It takes people years to write a book and that's usually because they lack one of these three.

It took me three months to write the book. The process was a bit quicker because I already had the foundations for it from the free course. But I ended up rewriting most of the content and adding lots of new content as well. The email course was limited to a couple of lessons with a word limit of 1,000 words. I wanted to keep it short and sweet. Now I could write about all the details that I wanted. When I was writing the book in the summer months of 2017, it was one of the hottest summers in London. I would write after work when I got home at around 6 pm and I still remember how hard it was somedays to get myself to start writing but I kept going. I even took a whole week off from work to push through the toughest chapters.

I had a specific launch date in mind that I was working towards: July 31, 2017. I remember I sent the book into editing and proofreading before it even had figures in it. I wrote it in Markdown and then converted it to the epub format (iBooks) and from that to PDF and mobi (Kindle) as well. I wasn't 100% happy with how the PDF version turned out so I completely redid it with proper text-editing software soon after launch. I paid for the editing and proofreading, and I did everything else that's required to release a book by myself.

How have you attracted users and grown Better Web Typography for a Better Web?

At the time when I released the book, I already had almost 15k subscribers on my mailing list, all from the free email course that I'd released earlier that year. So I knew that most of the traffic would come from there. I actually did a pre-order campaign where they could get the book at a discounted price. It was the first time I was setting up payments and automation online, so I wanted to be sure that everything worked perfectly on the release date. I covered all of my costs that had been piling up until that point (around $1,000) and started turning a profit with the pre-release alone. I didn't have an established way of bringing steady traffic to the website at the time so sales were fluctuating a lot.

Month Revenue
Jul ‘17 2764
Aug ‘17 2834
Sep ‘17 307
Oct ‘17 2332
Nov ‘17 720
Dec ‘17 333

I sold more than 600 copies of the book in the first two weeks but then the traffic stopped. This is one negative aspect of focusing on an email mailing list only, so I started to share the news about my newly-released book on social media and wrote a guest article for CSS Tricks, Web Designer magazine, and Net magazine. This helped get more traction and the sales picked up again after that. For the next few months, I was updating the book, adding new content, adding digital extras (cheat sheets, example files), and sending a campaign to my mailing list every time I added something new. I never tried advertising it on social media or paying for search results. The price of my product is relatively low and I don't think that optimizing ads on Facebook is time well spent. I don't want to "buy" customers for 80-90% of the price that I end up charging.

I did start a Facebook page, however, and organized a few giveaways. I figured out that those are good for getting "free advertising" if participating in a giveaway requires mentioning friends that might be interested. I also kept creating learning games like the Equilateral Triangle one, the Web Typography Quiz, the Font Memory Game, and similar. All those got featured in aggregators and mailing lists like Sidebar and Hacker News. This helps to get more traffic for the short term. I published chapters from the book as articles on the Better Web Type website and those too got featured by various sources.

The learning games were particularly successful. The Font Memory Game, for example, has a "competing" aspect to it. In the end, the player is presented with their result and encouragement to share it on Twitter and Facebook: "I completed the normal mode of the Font Memory Game in [x] minutes and [x] moves. Can you do better than me?" Players would then share their result on social media, which would lead to others seeing their result and giving it a try themselves. It definitely had a viral coefficient to it but I wasn't able to measure it. I realized that I’d much rather spend time creating learning games like these (and learning how to code better at the same time) than to invest time into figuring out how to best advertise the product on Facebook.

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What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

I only make money by selling the product. I have been thinking about other ways of making money, like charging for ads in my newsletters, but decided not to do it. I want to keep my newsletters on a somewhat personal level with my subscribers. I want to keep producing things that are valuable and educational for them. Adding advertising to email newsletters doesn't align with that. I'm also fortunate that this is my side project, as I still work full-time. I don't need to rely on it as my only source of income so it's easier to make choices like that. It can be challenging at times but it allows me to build a relationship based on friendliness and trust with my customers and subscribers. Lately, I have been receiving emails from people telling me how much they enjoy my monthly newsletters. I was really surprised by that, and even they admitted that they were surprised by the fact that they could love a newsletter so much.

So, my business model is built around the value I give to my customers/subscribers: either free (email course and newsletter) or paid. I try to balance the value I give out for free with the soft advertising that keeps people coming back to my website. Something that differentiates me from others is customer service. I handle it all by myself. It probably seems like a waste of time for many people, but people buy the book from me, so if there's a problem with their order, I want to be the one that they can rely on, not a third person whose job is to handle these cases day in, day out. I'm passionate about typography, about my business, and I'm also passionate about solving problems for customers when they arise. This was also a reason why I never went down the path of traditional publishing. I want to be in control and in touch with my customers.

Charge based on the value your product delivers, not based on other, similar products.

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All of the payments are processed through Shopify. I have card payments processed by Stripe and I also support PayPal, Apple Pay, and Google Pay. Most people pay with PayPal, which was a bit of a surprise. I guess it's because it's not a huge amount to pay and it's more convenient.

As I mentioned earlier, I kept adding new content and digital extras to the book so I was able to raise the price accordingly, which had a positive effect on stabilizing revenue. My customers realized they're getting more than just a book, so they didn't mind paying for a high-quality product. I actually think that I underpriced my product at first. I was too caught up in the mindset of eBooks and what their prices usually are. I failed to realize that my product was much more than just an eBook. Something that really helped to stabilize sales was introducing a combo product—digital and printed version of the book, combined. After all, it's a book about typography, people like to see such details in a physical form.

Month Revenue
Aug ‘18 992
Sep ‘18 2543
Oct ‘18 3318
Nov ‘18 2100
Dec ‘18 1371

The most important thing that I learned is that I shouldn't underprice my products. Charge based on the value your product delivers, not based on other, similar products. Yes, my product was initially just an eBook but even then it was so much more than a typical eBook. It already had source code included and code examples. The other thing is that the product should be considered unfinished at first. I improved the book so much in recent months that it's almost a completely different product from when I first released it. Start small, release early, but keep refining and updating. That, combined with reasonable pricing, is a formula for success.

What are your goals for the future?

I want to write another book about web typography. It's a topic that keeps attracting me and there's so much more to be written about it. How to apply similar principles outlined in my first book to more complex web applications, for example. I also want to produce other educational content for designers. With Better Web Type I realized that I love being an entrepreneur and I love to help people learn new things. I think I'll focus more on digital-only products in the future, though, mostly because of the simplicity that comes with that. And then the final thing is to keep stabilizing traffic for the Better Web Type project. I'm working on introducing a blog where I'll regularly post articles and that should keep bringing new people in on the long term, too. I don't really have any traffic goals because this is still my side project. Whatever comes out of it, I'm grateful for it. The most important thing for me is that it remains a fun thing for me to work on.

I now know how hard it is to write a book (the naivety that accompanied writing the first one is gone) so I'll need to gather the willpower and find the sharp focus that I spoke about earlier, again. I now work remotely so I have more control of my time, but I still expect this to be a big challenge.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Something that I failed to do from the start—and it's still not resolved—was setting up my technical solution to back the online sales. I use MailChimp for the mailing list and Shopify for eCommerce. But I didn't use Shopify from the start, I used a very basic version of PayPal payments when I first released the book and, to this day, it's hard to see who purchased the book and what version in Mailchimp. So I'm not able to send more sophisticated messaging to subscribers who already bought the book or promotional messaging to the ones who didn't. The reason I didn't use Shopify from the start was that I wanted to save on costs. I later realized that the Lite version of it only costs $10/month and the value it brings for this price is unbelievable. It's important to reduce the costs but some costs are worth it. This was one of those cases. If I had to set up another similar project I'd use MailChimp and Shopify from the start.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I think being a UX designer who worked with a lot of startups before trying something on my own was really helpful. I could learn from others' mistakes, in a way. The best decision that I made was to start really small and basic, validate it, and then build and expand on that. Another positive thing that came from the nature of how UX designers and software developers tend to work is breaking things down into solvable problems. Business Model Generation, Startup Owner's Manual and Lean UX are great books that can help you understand these concepts better. I definitely recommend them. Sometimes I found myself not wanting to start working on the next thing for an unknown reason. I soon realized that the reason was a lack of information or fear or a combination of both. If you break things down into smaller problems that you know how to approach, you build the required information that you need to solve it and the fear will go away as well.

Break things down into smaller problems that you know how to approach.

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I do believe there was luck involved in making Better Web Type successful—like the fact that the free course was featured so intensely and led so many people to sign up. That allowed me to create a mailing list and rely less on others when it came to selling my product. But on the other hand there's a personal trait that also contributes to the success of my project: the relentless structure I bring to my personal side project. I don't treat it like a hobby. So I don't just work on it when I feel like it. I treat it like a business. I know that there are things that need to be done even if I'm not eager to do them. I also learned that structuring my free time in a way so I always have time to work on my side projects is very important. I always plan things ahead. I plan what I want to do in Q1 of 2019 and then break it down into monthly "milestones". Without this, I don't think Better Web Type would be anywhere nearly as successful as it is.

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What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Something that I've seen others put emphasis on but a lot of people still ignore it: the mailing list. It is the best way to build your audience and establish a relationship with your subscribers. I've seen people starting Facebook groups and pages. I do think there's a place for that, but the mailing list gives you direct access to your people. Facebook (and other social media) on the other hand can decide to change something overnight and it may have a profoundly negative effect on your business.

The other thing is the approach to product development. Don't just come up with one idea and stubbornly persist on making it a reality if you haven't validated it yet. And if you try to validate it but fail, don't be stubborn. Let it go. You'll get other, better ideas in the future. That's the cool thing about it: more ideas always generate even more ideas. After you’ve validated your idea, produce something that is valuable and that people can pay for. Something small and basic, but expand and build on it afterward. And once you validate the idea, don't lose sight of the goal. When I was writing my book, I drew it on my whiteboard so it kept reminding me of what I'm working towards. Writing a book, designing, and building software are really hard. You need something to motivate you on a daily basis.

Where can we go to learn more?

I'm happy to answer any questions your readers might have. If you want to learn more about Better Web Type you can check out the free course or if you're very keen to learn about web typography, buy the book straight away. You can read a sample chapter from the book as well. And, of course, you can follow me on Twitter @matejlatin, the only social media I'm actively present on.

Matej Latin , Founder of Better Web Typography for a Better Web

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