What's up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com where I talk to the founders of profitable Internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what's going on behind the scenes so that the rest of us came learn from their mistakes and their successes.
Today I'm talking to Tobias van Schneider. For those of you who have never heard of Tobias, he was the lead product designer and art director at Spotify, but I hesitate to describe him or label him as just a designer because he's really so much more than that. I think of him more as just an extremely prolific and accomplished maker of things and an all-around nice guy.
Now, this episode is a bit different than other episodes I've done in the past for a couple of reasons. Usually when I bring someone on, I'll do a bunch of research beforehand and try to think up some interesting questions to ask and topics to discuss. My conversation with Tobias is a lot more raw and conversational and free-flowing than most other episodes. It's also much less edited than other episodes. As a result, it runs a lot longer. I usually try to cut things down to about an hour, but this one runs way over that. I think it's worth it.
Tobias is one of those rare people who's been successful over and over again. Whenever that's the case, there are also lots of failures behind the scenes. I think in this conversation, you get a really clear picture of both sides of that equation.
It's also really illuminating to see so many of Tobias's stories back to back. If you pay close attention, you can pick up on a few patterns for how he thinks about the world that help explain why so many of the things he does end up working out.
I apologize for the length, but I think you guys are really going to enjoy this conversation if you stick through it to the end. Without further ado, Tobias van Schneider. I'm excited to be joined by Tobias van Schneider. How's it going, Tobias?
Hey. I'm doing well, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Yeah, thanks for coming on the show. You came by San Francisco I don't know how long ago. It was like two or three months. It feels like it was just last week. You got lunch with me…
I believe it was in July.
Yeah, July. You got lunch with me at Stripe, and then we went back to my place and we just talked about what you were up to with Semplice and what I'm up to with Indie Hackers. It was a really good conversation. It's pretty cool to be able to follow up with you now and see how things are going, and maybe have the same conversation in front of a whole bunch people.
Yeah, I would like that. It's kind of funny, we just went for lunch at your workplace and then we ended up at your home.
Yeah, that was not expected. I had so much to do, but then it was like six hours just talking.
Yeah, actually, it was quite a long time. It was really good.
Can you give people some understanding of who you are and the things that you've accomplished? Who is Tobias van Schneider?
Let's put it this way, I'm just going to give a quick, like a short primer basically. You don't know me I'm assuming. I'm Tobias, I'm German. I'm born in Germany. I grew up in Austria which is just south from Germany, same language. Not that much difference. Briefly moved to Stockholm after that to work for another company. Eventually ended up in New York where I live right now and I work as a designer.
I not always worked as a designer, I used to be a developer. I mean, I'm self-taught so you don't really know or I don't really know what category you want to put me. I actually started out working when I was 15, dropped out of high school, started becoming a computer scientist and a software engineer, sort of did an apprenticeship in Austria. Are you familiar with apprenticeships?
We don't really have them officially in the US, but it sounds like it's an official thing that the government recognizes in Austria.
Yeah. It's a very normal thing to do in Austria or Germany, or at least it used to be. The apprenticeship thing comes from more traditional jobs, like woodworking or something like that. They applied it to more modern jobs. You just work at a company for three and a half years for scientists and they try to train you. If you succeed working there for three years, they will eventually take you over and actually pay you some actual money.
That basically just got me into computers. I was repairing computers, building computers. I was so interesting in the hardware, which is why I was interested in becoming a computer scientist. At some point I was becoming more into the software and I was a horrible software engineer, but I was really into it. The more I got into software engineering, the more I found out that I love front end. At the time, there was no such thing as a designer or UX or UI or whatever designer. All software engineers essentially design their own software. I didn't really understand that…
Everything was ugly?
Yeah. Yeah, you could say that. At the time I was working for a company, they did software for hospitals. You know, something you can imagine quite sensitive things that you have to do there. Yeah, I just got obsessed with spending more time on funded development. I think at some point a friend of mine or someone was like, "Hey, Tobias, it sounds like kind of you want to become a designer." I'm like, "Yeah, I guess. I don't know. I just love doing front end and improving apps." That was basically the time when I switched and became a self-taught designer. Since then I have just worked as a designer.
After I moved to New York I worked for a company called, first I worked for Stinkdigital and then Fantasy Tech. I have working for a range of big clients doing websites, apps, and then eventually I ended up working at Spotify for two and a half years as well, which is now already also two and a half years ago. I worked there as an art director and a lead product designer, which was quite an experience as well. I think my design path basically took me through all of the traditional design from branding to print design, then more into web design. I remember, when did the iPhone came out? 2006?
Seven, yeah. Or the App Store I think followed actually quite a little later. It was 2008, right?
Yeah, like a year or two later.
I remember when the App Store came out, that was when I was already doing web design a couple years before that. Then the App Store came out and everyone was just talking about apps and app design. I think that was the moment I basically just followed the money I would assume. I just started doing apps. That eventually got more into product design. Since then I've just loved product design. I've always been, it's really hard to say. I just love creating and making things.
I think, and you probably know that as well. I think when I was younger there was never really, everyone was always trying to find the perfect shoe for you. You need to fit into this box. They're telling you, you're just that. You're just a designer or you're just a software engineer or something. For some reason I always loved combining all of these things and just making stuff and creating things and being a jack of all trades. I think it took me quite a long time to actually find the confidence to be like, yeah, that's me. That's totally fine. I don't have to focus on just one thing.
Yeah. You've done a ton of stuff. You've got a newsletter with like 30,000 subscribers. You've got a blog. You had a podcast for a while. You put together mixtapes. You were a lead product designer at Spotify. You're running a possible SaaS business with a bunch of employees.
You're extremely prolific. That's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the variety of the things that you've worked on, which I think is super cool.
Every time I have a podcast, I kind of prepare and I read and I listen to other things that the guest has done. Usually I end up coming up with a whole bunch of different questions to ask. But when I was reading all of your stuff, I ended up just thinking of points that I wanted to make myself. Not even questions that I wanted to ask you.
I think it's really cool because it and that what you're writing is really thought-provoking and really interesting, that you spend a lot of time besides creating just thinking and writing about things.
I'm thankful that you mention that. I think the blogging thing or writing is a fairly new one for me. I think I started writing just about close to three years ago. Before that, I didn't write anything at all. For me writing has just become this new outlet of… because it's also creating in a way you could say. Writing helps me to think, because it's really just thinking in a different way. I always need to put it out there. Sometimes I just write not because I feel like I have something really important to say, but more because it makes my thinking a little bit more clear. Right?
Yeah. I feel the same way. If I'm trying to figure something out, it's hard when you're just trying to keep it all in your head. Because your short-term memory just isn't that great. If you can put things on a page, if you end up working things out and you can rerun your thoughts, because you can just read them. Then progress from there and build this chain. I'm the same way. My best thoughts come out when I'm writing.
Right. Then you're like, no, I've already written that. I can just publish it.
That's a scary point though.
Right. In a lot of cases you want for yourself, right? At least that's for me what's true. I write it for myself. Then I'm like, no I've already written it. I could just hit a publish button and put it up for others to read because I was only writing it for myself in the first place. That's I think is a good, I think that's always a good motivation to write. Don't write for others. Always write for yourself first, and then write for the others, or maybe just for yourself. You can decide.
Yeah. I think that's a really good tip. I want to talk about all the different things that you've written maybe a little bit later. Why don't we start by talking about what you're working on now and how you got into it? Because working on, when you came over, you spent a lot of time talking about your business Semplice, which if I understand correctly initially began…
I forgot to mention that.
What's the story behind that? Because I think it started as a side project, right?
Yeah. I've been a designer for quite a long time now. One of the big things of the designer is always your own portfolio. It's kind of like the thing that you procrastinate on, that you don't finish, but at the same time it's one of the most important aspects of your career. Because that's how other people can view your work and can find you. I was always really obsessed with making an amazing portfolio. I remember it not such about being anymore today. I'm not sure if you remember that 10 years ago for example or 15 years, there was this thing that you would always relaunch your own website and you put a version number on it. You're like, this V1 and then V2.
You have these big launch events at least in your head around launching your own portfolio or your own website. Then you actually put the number, like V5. I remember there was always this competition between designers or other people. Your friends were really looking forward to it and there was a time where you actually put a countdown on your page of like, my new website's going live in three days, in 40 minutes. I don't know why I was like that, but it was kind of like the community I believe.
This basically always motivated me to do something special for my portfolio. At some point I teamed up with a friend of mine, and I had this idea of redesigning my portfolio. Instead of just showing small imagery of my portfolio projects, I wanted to do full, blown out case studies where you show the full process. Like me sketching, I described the wire framing. I show prototypes. I show behind the scenes information. Almost like tell a story of this whole project.
At the time, I believe there were maybe one or two agencies if even who did something like that, because it was a ton of work. Also, people wouldn't, they don't want to, at the time it wasn't so much, like 10 years ago, even 10 years ago it wasn't so transparent. You know what I mean? People were actually trying to keep a lot of secrets. You wouldn't tell people how to do things.
Yeah. That's totally different today.
It's totally different, yeah. I remember 15 years ago finding someone else's PSD file, like a Photoshop file that I could open myself and look how they did it.
That was like Christmas, you know? Yeah, exactly. Seeing the layers and actually seeing how they work. Nowadays it's perfectly normal because everyone shares everything. Anyways, I wanted to focus on this case study format.
I teamed up with a friend of mine, he's a developer and also a designer. He helped me put together my portfolio. I did these case studies. It took me weeks and weeks. It was really successful. It got me a lot of attention, a lot of exposure, because no one has ever seen case studies like that. We basically developed this backend tool for me to put together these case studies.
So many other people were then asking me, what are you using? What backend are you using? What CMS, and that was the moment where I was like, oh, maybe we could take the thing that we used for my portfolio and just sell it as a product.
Did you initially when you first started building this thing anticipate that people would really like it and think that it would be cool, or was it entirely just for yourself and you just wanted your inner circle of friends to think it was cool?
I mean, I built my portfolio obviously to get attention and impress people and get the jobs that I wanted to get. The technical system behind, like the portfolio system I built 100% for myself.
Interesting. BEcause that's so much work to get that done. That's really investing in your own portfolio and the future of it.
Yeah, exactly. I just wanted to make sure that I can keep publishing case studies and that it's going to be easy to do that. I just wanted to make my own work easier.
It's kind of like, imagine same as, you're having a company or whatever. Then you're like, oh, shit, I need a tool to compile, to automatically create PDF invoices from certain data sets. Then you can't find the perfect solution. Then you're like, you know what, I'm just going to do it myself. Then you have this tool that makes really cool PDF invoices and send them to your clients. Then you're like, I could actually sell this ring. Maybe there's someone else…
Yeah. Suddenly people are asking you about it.
Right. It was really 100% I can tell you there was not even a single thought of publishing business as a product. Funny enough, the first moment I had the thought of like, "Oh, this could be something someone else may want to use," was only after friends of mine kept asking me and be like, "Hey, do you know a tool that could help me do case studies like you do?"
It took me literally from that moment probably like, it took me another four years before we even published Semplice. You know what I mean?
You were like, "Yeah, whatever." You don't have that. It's almost like you don't take it that serious. It's not like, oh, it was this magical moment of oh my God, I'm going to be rich. I can do this product. It was more like over the years more and more people had to tell you. Then at some point you're like, oh, of course. Why don't we do this as a product?
That's the hallmark of something that starts as kind of a side project. You're just not thinking in product mode. You're not thinking about how do I market this and sell this. You're just thinking I want to build what I want to build, because it's fun for me and it's useful for me. Which I think often times even though it might take you a long time to get to the realization that it's a business, you end up building probably the best product if you go that route.
Oh, you're so right. I think you just put it right. That's the thing. You just said it. You said you would just not in product mindset. That was 100% true. I wasn't thinking about that at all.
Where were you at the time? Were you working at Spotify?
No, no. That's way earlier. That was way before actually came to New York. Now I'm in New York for seven years. That was even before, that's like more than seven years ago.
I think the initial idea about of Semplice was about I would say 9 or 10 years ago. That was when I also redesigned my portfolio with the big case studies. I was in Austria at the time and I had my own agency, which I worked with a bunch of people together on client projects. You know, your regular design shop basically. Yeah, that was that.
People eventually started asking you for Semplice. It took you a while to really decide that hey, this is something I want to turn into a business. What went into that decision and what were some of the first things that you did?
Oh, man. That's a good question. It's kind of funny because when you look back it doesn't, people always expect this to be planned through, thought through. Kind of like oh, I had a business plan and then I did all of this. I was very sure about everything. It wasn't at all like that. I think again at some point we started refining the system. Basically I'm talking here about my friend who's now actually my partner on Semplice. We kept refining the system for myself. Then he used it as well on his portfolio. Then we actually give it to some other people. Then we still haven't thought about selling it at all. Because I was busy having clients and then I worked at Spotify and all these things.
Then at some point I believe, that was about four years ago now. We were like, "Okay, you know what, let's sit down let that's redo the whole system from scratch." Still we didn't really figure out, we didn't know exactly that we were going to publish it. We were like, "Let's do it." We had a completely different name for the product. It was completely different branding, everything. Then while we were working on it, it took us about one and a half years to actually redo everything. It was still kind of like for us. I think my mind slowly shifted to product thinking. I was like, oh, shit. I think it was also because I was working at Spotify and working on a product there. I was like, I think we need to try it.
I remember we put up, the first thing that we did was, I think that was five years ago now. We put up a little, you know how it is, like a little signup of thing of like, hey, you can sign up here for more information. We're actually going to launch this. At that time we didn't have anything whatsoever. I believe a thousand people signed up and it was quite a lot for five years ago, at least from my perspective. I was completely overwhelmed.
Then I was like, look, I talked to my partner Mike. I was like, "Mike, here's the thing. Let's just build it. If we're going to sell just 100 copies and we have some of the coolest people or some friends that we respect using it, it's a win. We cannot lose. Just 100 people. We don't care." Because we do it for fun anyways. That was the bet. He was like, cool. I have no expectation whatsoever. All we need to do is sell 100 copies. 100 copies I would, you can always sell. You just knock on doors. You just got to be really annoying. You just like 100 times. You can always do it. I was like, I'm feeling confident that we could do it. Yeah, the rest is history. At some point we launched it. The good thing was always that we had very low expectation. We didn't want to get rich. Didn't want to get millions of people using it. We just wanted 100 people. Very simple. You know how it is.
I like what you said about the fact that you had low expectations at the end of that story. It's true in the beginning too, because you were talking about how the beginning, you didn't have this nice, neat, well-formulated business plan that a lot of people expect to exist. I think it's good for people to hear that, because more often than not the reality is that the start to any sort of business or any sort of movement is really chaotic and messy and unplanned. It's liberating to know that because I think people often times aren't doing the things that they really want to do because they don't have the perfect plan. They're like "Oh, I can't do this, I don't have it all figured out yet." It's like, most of us don't have it all figured out yet. That shouldn't stop you.
Few people. There's this whole thing about, I used to give quite a lot of talks, like speaking engagements. The title of my talk was side projects are stupid. It was an unfinished sentence on purpose because it was kind of, people were getting a little triggered by it because you're was given opinion. People were like, "No, side projects are not stupid." Or they're like, "Yeah, they are." Essentially the full sentence is side projects are stupid because they have to be. That's always kind of like a thing that I try to follow.
For me, a project or an idea has to be stupid in the beginning. I'm talking about simple and stupid, kind of like the keep it simple and stupid, the KISS principle where you keep it simple and stupid on purpose because what we do or what most people do when I talk to people, and you know too. You talk to any friend and you know they have some sort of passion project or side project. You will ask them, you're like, "What are you working on the site? Or what do you really want to do? Then they will tell you about this idea.
Sometimes they have this idea for 20 years. They haven't done it yet. Then you ask them, "Why haven't you done it yet?" Then they come up with all of these famous excuses of oh, I don't have enough time, I think this is too risky, I don't have the funding, I'm not sure how I'm going to make money with this. Or oh, there's so much competition or someone else has already done it. You know, you have all of these excuses. The thing is, you're not keeping it simple and stupid because you're just making it more complex. Because if you immediately sit down, you have this stupid idea and you're like, oh, I need to figure out exactly how I'm going to make money, like how I'm going to monetize this, what the strategy is around all that. You're basically making it more complex. There will be some, how do you say, you basically just killing the movement. How do you say?
Yeah, you're adding a whole bunch of friction.
Yeah, exactly. You're not doing yourself a favor. If you keep it simple and stupid, which is basically what low expectations are in a way, you will automatically do things. Because you're like, I don't know. I'm just going to figure it out by step. At some point you will get more complex, but then at least you're ready for it, right? In the beginning I always tell people, keep it stupid. It has to be so stupid that people almost laugh about it. Because they're like, "Holy shit, how are you even doing this? you don't even know what you're doing." You can with full confidence say, "I don't know either, but I'm going to figure it out." If you think that way, you're ahead of 90% or more of all the people.
Because everyone else is still having all these excuses and being like, "Oh, I'm still not sure how I'm going to monetize this. Oh, someone else just did what I did." You know how often hear this? I often hear this, "Oh, I had this idea for five years. Now someone did it." I'm like, "Yeah, because you didn't do anything. You were just sitting on your ass not doing anything. You're having your secure full-time job." Anyways, sorry. I don't want to go ranting or something.
No, that's a good rant. I think even if somebody did it already, that's not always a reason that you shouldn't do it to with your take for your own flavor or your own personal style to it.
That's even more a reason to do it. I mean, if someone else, that's the thing. I think people see it, they get discouraged. They see someone, oh, someone did it. I think if I would see something like that and I'm like, "Oh, I had this thought already for five years and I was very unsure about it. I see someone just did it and they have some medium success with it." They're just, how do you collect?
Yeah, validated. They validated the idea. I'm like, oh, thanks for that. I'm just going to, you already did the market, like maybe the research. You already did the testing. You already introduced the people to whatever it may be. Now they want more of it and I'm going to give them more and I'm going to do it with a special twist. It's actually even more motivating.
Yeah. I think that's really wise advice. It's just people put up barriers. The hardest thing to do in any startup is to stop yourself from quitting. I think if you never get started, then it's really like you quit before, you just quit early. If you have all these goals and these levels of expectation for yourself where you have to have the world's best idea and you have to be profitable from day number one and it has to do this and it has to do that, then that's just like 100 reasons why you can give up and you can quit or you can never get started.
On top of that, it kind of drives you away from doing the things that you like to do. Because most of the things you like to do don't have some obvious path to success. When you were working on Semplice or working on your own portfolio initially, yeah, in hindsight it's obvious that you could take what you built and sell it to other people. At the time, it would not have been obvious to anyone. It just seemed like a fun thing you were doing for yourself. I think sometimes it's better just to do what's fun.
Yeah. I have to, if you don't mind, I have to give you another example.
I remember I did this weather app, it's called Authentic Weather. Have you seen it?
No, I haven't.
All right, let's do that. Basically at the time, and I believe that's already eight, seven or eight years ago, it was before my time in New York. I had this idea, I remember on, you know Dribble right, the designer's platform? A lot of people put up redesigns of weather apps. Because for some reason, I don't know, designers had this fetish of designing weather apps. I think it's just because they're very simple and you can do something fun with it. They just put up these mockups. Everyone was always designing weather apps, but they were not developing it. They were just making mockups and designs of it.
I got so annoyed by it that I put up my own concept of a weather app. Essentially all it was, it was completely reduced. It was just a gray screen like on the iPhone. Then in big fat type it says, "It's fucking raining." for example. I was basically saying, "This is like the anti-weather app." Because the thing is, all the designers, they always went into all these great details of showing beautiful graphs, kind of like statistics and graphs, pixel perfect. I always looked at it and I'm like, I don't give a shit. I don't need to know, this is not a dashboard or something. All I want to know, is it fucking raining or not? That was kind of like how the idea was born. I put it online.
I got so much feedback on it and people kind of loved it and they loved the humor of it that I actually started developing it. Trust me, there was no intention of building this as a product. I was just making fun of all the others. Then it got so much feedback, I was like, oh, I think I'm just going to build it. I built it with a friend of mine for the iPhone initially. Then we also built it for Android. We just charged a dollar for it.
I think at this point now, I don't know. I haven't even, I neglected this project a little bit. We got a couple million downloads. I think there's still probably like 100,000 or so or 200,000 active people using it right now a month. It's one of these small things that I did, but it kind of blew up. I had absolutely no idea that this is going to happen. It was just a fun thing. I wanted to take this as an example because it's even better than Semplice, because it's actually really stupid.
It is really stupid. I'm looking at the pictures now, they're hilarious. It's fucking raining now, get your fucking umbrella.
Yeah. Basically what the app does is, we have this database of, I think it's about 200 phrases. "It's fucking raining." There's even more stuff like that, a little bit more sophisticated.
Essentially we just take the weather information which is like, is it raining, sunny, or whatever, cloudy. We take the temperature, and then we try to match it to a phrase that fits the weather as good as possible. It's kind of like telling the weather in a very humorous way. Then we also build in a camera functionality. Obviously the share functionality was a big deal, because people obviously shared that a lot. If you go on Instagram and do #authenticweather, a lot of people are actually sharing that stuff.
Yeah, that's like a small, not any people know that I actually worked on this, which is kind of funny. I always meet people and their like, I tell them about it and they're like, "Oh, you did Authentic Weather? I didn't know that." Apparently, I think Authentic Weather was one of the few things that I did on the side that, you know when you do something and it breaks into different target groups that you don't have anything to do with usually?
Just people completely outside of your wheelhouse.
Yeah, exactly. That's what happened with Authentic Weather. It's still going, but that project was kind of like, it's simple and stupid, but all the same time also quite complex. Because it also costs a lot of money with the weather API and everything. Let's see how that goes. Anyways, that was a fun project to do and it was very stupid.
It's a really cool example because you're right. It simple and it's stupid and it's a side project. At the same time, it's fun to analyze in retrospect what works about it and why it's so popular. Because in a lot of ways, it's just because you did what everybody else wasn't doing. You just did the exact opposite. That made it stand out. It's just so funny. You've got these sharing features as well. It's like I right now want to share this with my friends, just because I think they'll think it's hilarious.
Yeah. In retrospect it makes so much sense. Like why people like it, why they share it. Because when you think about it, everyone checks the weather. That's a universal thing. Everyone does it at least once a day at least usually, at least the ones that have a smart phone. The app caters to that and just brings in some color really.
Because every weather app right now looks exactly the same. It just gives you the temperature, and then some boring statistics or something. Whereas Authentic Weather is like the most brutal, honest weather app out there that just tells you to get naked when it's really hot outside. That's just how it is.
Yeah. It's got a lot of personality in it. It's pretty much anything if you analyze it in retrospect. You can find out why it worked. It's hard to figure that out beforehand, which is why coming up with good ideas difficult. I think one of the things that…
It was a joke.
Yeah, it's just literally a joke.
It was just one big joke at the beginning.
I think what's cool about people like you and some other people that I've had on the podcast is that you guys are just prolific. You're constantly making stuff. I'm sure you've made a lot of stuff that didn't blow up and make million dollars. That's fine, you just made it for fun and it was a fun thing that you did and maybe you put it in your portfolio and maybe you just move on.
I think for a lot of people, they see it as they have to get it right on the first try. They have to do something that's perfect and it needs to succeed immediately, when in reality the people who are having the most successful are constantly doing lots of stuff that's not working and kind of just figuring it out as they go.
Yeah, I think that's a good point. Also because we don't talk about it. You're the same, Courtland. You're the same kind of person. The thing is if I look at my hard drive right now or all the projects that I have running or have done in the last couple years, I would say about maybe 30% actually see the light of day.
Then of those, it takes another percentage that is actually that I consider kind of successful. A lot of them I launched and they disappeared and whatever. Then I would say 70%, so the majority actually has never seen the light of the day. There's a dozen apps on my computer that are actually fully developed and I have never launched them. I'm pretty bad actually with following own advice. You can probably say that, because I'm the same. I'm a perfectionist in that regard. I try to make it perfect. I'm like, oh, I'm not sure. I come up with all of these stupid excuses.
Again, at least there's 30%. If I do 10 different projects, there's 30% that actually sees the light of the day. I think a lot of people don't know that. You just mentioned it again, it's all just about expectations because people have the expectation of having this one thing and getting it right. That's a really dangerous place to be in because you're not getting it right, unless you're very lucky. That's too dangerous. You're having way too much expectations of yourself. You will not finish anything.
It's better to, there's kind of like this thing about, I try to follow like the mindset of waste your ideas. Just put them out. Just put out ideas as much as you can. I think a lot of people are always scared. They're like, "If I have five ideas, if I put them all out, then I don't have any ideas anymore. Then I'm done."
It doesn't work that way.
It's usually like you put them out and then you get new ideas and new ideas and new ideas. Because if you're just sitting on your ideas because you're too afraid to put them out there, that someone steals it or they don't work the way that you want them to work, again, you will never do anything like you said. I'm always someone who's like, just waste your ideas. Just tell everyone about it. Just do it. Keep doing it, keep doing it.
Yeah. I think it's like writing too. If you are trying to write a blog post and you sit down and start writing, you don't have that many ideas, just the process of writing down a few of them and writing your first paragraph will give you so many more ideas for what else to write. At least that's how it happens for me. I think it's the same for building stuff.
Let's get back to Semplice, because we got through the part of the story where you had really set your goal to find your first hundred customers. Today Semplice has far more than 100 customers. You've got I think a whole team of people working on Semplice. How did you go from where you were then to where you are now?
Good question. You probably expect a perfect answer.
No, there's no perfect answer. I think what's cool is that everybody's story is totally different. Sometimes things take off on their own. Sometimes there's a big challenge. I'm curious what's going on with you. Because when you talked, when you come to SF, we kind of just talked about where things are now. I didn't really get the story of the path that led to now.
The good thing is that with my partner, we have very much the same expectations and we're very aligned on having the right expectations or no expectations in that regard. When it came to Semplice, the good thing was always that from the very beginning we would like, again, we just want 100 people. Then when we had 100 people we were like, you know what, let's try 200 people. Let's see if we can do it. Then we had 200 people and we were like, all right, let's try 400. How about that? We just climbed up the ladder like that.
Also from the very beginning, we knew that we didn't want to explode to some regard. You know what I mean? I know that obviously would be a luxury problem to have. We were always saying if I could choose between having 20 new people using Semplice a day to having 1000 coming in tomorrow, I would always choose the 20 a day. We were always very cautious of, let's try to keep quiet. Let's try to focus on the quality. Let's try to focus on the curation of getting the right people on the platform. Let's not try to attract too many people, because we were so scared that they maybe ruin the product. They maybe ruin the brand, the image.
They would also certainly, if you're a team of two for example and then you have 1000 customers coming in tomorrow, it's kind of like a good thing, but it also can destroy you. There's probably a handful of companies who got destroyed because of that, when the demand is just way too high and they're just crushing your, they would find so many bugs at once, like a 1000 people and they would all ask for support. You're like, oh, shit, I can't do anything.
What a lot of people do in that case, in that scenario is that they would overreact. Oh, shit, we just got 1000 people. Let's just hire five more people to fix all of that. Then the rush goes over and there's no more thousand people anymore. Just small amount of people coming in. Then you're sitting on all of these employees for example. That's when a lot of companies go down, because they miscalculated it.
For us from the very beginning we were like, hey, let's keep it small and simple. That's kind of like what we did. Over the years, I think we were two people for more than a year. Then we hired our first person. She was helping with design and everything. You know how it is when you have the small company, you don't hire specific roles. You just hire a person who's as crazy as you.
Like a jack of all trades?
Yeah. You just got to do everything from now on. That's your title. It's still kind of like that. It's actually something we pride ourselves at Semplice is that everyone is a designer on the team. Everyone is a designer who does something else as well. That's really cool because we all share the same mindset. It's all about designers creating for other designers. We're still fairly small, actually. Right now we're just five people. We used to be a little bit more. A year ago we were seven. I actually like to downscale it a little bit again.
Because sometimes, you know we had this conversation with my partner where I remember we were seven people and my partner and I, we were just playing some computer games and he was like, "Hey, Tobias, I miss the time when it was just the two of us." It's not like we're having a big company. It's just like seven people. He was like, "You know, it's kind of nice because it was just the two of us talking to each other." He was like, "Let's do this." I was like, "Yeah, let's do it." Now it's like seven people and you have to have meetings. Obviously we want to be nice, like everyone's ideas are always welcome. There's seven people now who have ideas. Again, that's not a bad thing necessarily. It's a different thing than being a single solo or like a dual creator team.
Obviously that doesn't mean that we're going to kick out everyone and lay off everyone, but there was something about it that we were like, okay, let's try to not get ahead of ourselves and hire more people. Let's try to actually make it more that everyone in the team becomes more of a creator and more independent, that we actually can create more rather than having this trickle-down thing. Again, it sounds crazy because other people are like, "You only had seven people. What the hell are you talking about?" Seven people are enough to have meetings. Things are taking quite long actually compared to just, especially we're all remote. That's actually one thing I forgot to mention. Everyone in Semplice is in a different time zone as well. It's not as easy as sitting all at the same desk.
Yeah. There's so much there that I want to ask you about. There's the fact that you guys are super patient and you're in no rush to find success as rapidly as possible, which is really cool. Because I think it alleviates you of so much pressure and it prevents you from making the bad decisions that come with that kind of time crunch that most people put on their success. I thick it's also really cool that you guys are designers. I talked to so many companies that are started by developers or are started by people who aren't developers or designers.
I feel like designers bring a whole different vibe to things. Developers for example have all sorts of blind spots. We tend to think things aren't valuable because we can build ourselves, and why would anybody pay for it? I'm curious, are there blind spots that designers have? Like everything has, designers are perfectionists too much, or is there anything hard about working with a bunch of designers?
I think the perfectionism part is probably the biggest one. Yeah. I mean that's just, at least if I would look at other designers and also myself, although I have gotten better at it I have to say. I was way worse a couple years ago.
There's a huge degree of perfectionism with designers. Designers never ship anything. I mean, that's one of the main reasons I believe, but it's the same with developers. Developers are, they're also perfectionists. There are so many developers that I work with. Every time they're done they're like, "Oh, let me refactor that code. I can make it better." I'm like, "No." Then they re-factor it for a whole month.
Then after that they're like, they actually made it 10 lines shorter, the code, and they optimized it. Then they're like, "Oh, actually, I can do better. I can refactor it again."
That I'm always like, "Look, you can easily spend 10 more years on it and you can probably get your 30 lines of code, you can get it down to one line of code at some point. But that's not the point." I think we have the same with a designer. A designer always sits at the final design and is like, and you as well, right? You're also a hybrid. You're also a designer yourself. You know it as well, right? You look at your own design or Indie Hacker and you're like, "I can do so much better."
Yeah, it's torture.
Yeah, it's like a torture. Then if you just keep doing that, you're never going to ship anything. I think we definitely had that with Semplice as well. There's quite a lot of fights that I had with my partner, because we're both designers and we have, he's also like a hybrid developer, so he's like someone who wants to make it perfect from a code perspective as well.
Yeah, I think we wasted a lot of time on that, on making things a little bit more perfect or doing things that no one actually is going to notice or doing a feature that we thought was actually really cool and actually no one has ever used it once since we launched Semplice.
That happens, you know. I think that's still fine. Again, we had very low expectations from the very beginning. We were also, here's another thing actually. That's really important for people who are listening. I always had the thing where I was like, look, we're going to try to get as many people as possible but we're going to try to keep it slow. I can always work on something else that makes money. You have a full-time job. If you have a full-time job, it's luxury anyways because you have the whole evening or in the morning or in the weekends. Obviously you have to sacrifice some parts of your life. You actually have quite a lot of security. You can launch a side project with almost zero risk.
Even well in, like after a year of launching Semplice and going full-time on it, I was always telling my partner and he was telling me too that if things don't go too well, let's just take on some freelance gigs on the side to pay some bills. I would take on, honestly I would take on a freelance gig or I would even go full-time for a company just to pay like an employee that I would have on Semplice. I know that sounds kind of funny, but I have no problem doing so. I think a lot of people, they don't think that way. They always think that they need to be 100% self-sufficient with just that project from the very beginning. You know what I mean?
Yeah, absolutely. I think it's a good example of how you guys early on didn't feel rushed to succeed to a crazy level. You're able to slow things down and make rational decisions, which on one hand feels like a luxury, but on the other anybody can make the choice to have lower expectations or have no expectations.
It also makes me think about when you say that if you have a full-time job, okay, you can come home at night and work on things. I think a lot of people say they want to do that and then they don't actually do it. They're saying they want to do it for years and they never actually do it. I always think that if you're telling yourself you want to do something and you don't actually do it, then maybe you don't actually want to do it. The thing you've been telling yourself is kind of a lie. Because we're all pretty good at doing the things we actually want to do.
For example, I love playing video games, but I also want to keep my girlfriend happy. I don't play as many video games as I otherwise would. That doesn't mean I'm not doing what I want to do. It means that I'm prioritizing and doing exactly what I want to do the most.
When I look at somebody like you, I see someone who is always creating and you love the process so much that you're not willing to let any random hardships get in the way of you doing what you love. If it turns out that Semplice is not going to be enough for you to pay all of your bills, then you keep working on Semplice you just get a job. Whereas other people might quit because they don't really enjoy it that much. I wonder if this is something that people can learn, or if they're just working on the wrong things.
Maybe it's just the wrong things, yeah. I think you're right about that. Because it's one of these things that you don't, if you force yourself to do it, it's probably not the right thing. That would be kind of horrible, wouldn't it? Like if it stops being fun, it's not a thing anymore for me. It's actually kind of nice that you bring that up because it's kind of like, that's how I would decide to kill a project. If it stops being fun, I usually kill it. I either kill it or I try to hire someone to do the things that I don't think are fun. The other person may be think that they're fun.
Like the accounting right for example. I don't like accounting, and that's why I pay someone to do accounting. That person who does accounting is crazy obsessed with accounting. It's like, oh, I love it. I love numbers and all these things. I'm like, I don't like it so you can have it. You have now the best, the two best things of both worlds. You get to do things that you like doing. For me it's the same. I usually, that's the reason when I stop doing something. Like you said, I think there's quite a lot of people maybe that if they don't bring themselves to work on it, maybe it is the wrong project. Because you shouldn't be forcing yourself and no one else should be forcing yourself. Yeah, there's a little bit of sacrifice obviously in it.
When you talk to people and they ask me, they're like, "How can you work on all these things? I don't have any time." Then I talked him through, I usually ask them, "What do you do? what you do tonight?" They usually answer like, "Oh, I'm going to have some drink with friends." I'm like, "See, I don't have drinks with friends tonight. I'm going to work." The thing is here I'm not trying to be judgmental. I'm like, "Look, if you want to have drinks friends, that's fine because that's your priority. If you like doing that, you should be doing that."
Whatever your action, there's this quote from, is it Gandhi where your actions are always your priority in an indirect way. Because whatever you're doing right now is your priority to a certain degree. Because otherwise I would be doing something else. That's the reason why I'm now doing this podcast with you because it's a priority for me. If there would be something else that's way more important, I should probably be doing the other thing. In this case right now, you could argue that the most important for me right now is doing this podcast with you. Because otherwise I wouldn't be doing it with you.
It's kind of like the thing with going out with friends. If that's your priority, that's fine. For some others it's not. Or they just skip a couple days a week and then just work on their project. That's kind of funny. Every time I talk to people who are like, "Oh, I don't have time." I would ask them and they're like, "I'm just going to go out with friends tonight." I'm like, "See, it seems that you have enough time. You're just doing other things. That's cool, you can do whatever the fuck you want." You know?
Yeah. I agree. I think that's a perfect way to sum it up. It's not like you and I don't make any sacrifices or other makers don't make any sacrifices. It's just the things that we're working on, we like so much that it's worth whatever the sacrifice is. I'm like you. I don't spend as much time going out as maybe some other people do. I don't spend as much time watching TV as some other people do.
Is this admit where we don't have friends?
Yeah, I think this is where we slowly, gradually reveal that we don't have any friends at all.
I sometimes joke about that though. When people are like, "How can you be so productive? What's your secret?" I'm just like, "I don't have friends."
I think the other thing is that people underestimate how much just doing a little bit every day can really add up over time. If you've got, when you're talking about all the projects you have on your hard drive, I could have said everything that you said verbatim. It's completely true of me. 30% of them are just released, and the rest, no one sees the light of day, but there's so many. It's not like you did that overnight. You made that all that stuff in one sustained work frenzy.
It's like, you have been working a lot for years and years and years and years. Other people are doing the things that they like to do for years and years. It's just a lot of the stuff people like to do isn't additive. You can watch 6000 hours of TV and you're not going to have anything to show for it. Or you can go out to dinner with friends five nights a week and probably you'll build up some really good social skills. If you're a designer or a developer or product person and you're just making and building things, then even if you just do a little bit, an hour a week, a couple hours a week. Then after a long time it really adds up.
Yeah, it does. It doesn't feel, I think this whole conversation is already weird to be honest. While you were talking, I was trying to reflect on this. Like when you talk to friends about, like when they ask you or you would be giving advice of oh, maybe you need to sacrifice this and this. I think this whole conversation is already weird because I never feel like sacrificing anything else to what I'm doing, you know what I'm doing?
You just want to do that.
It's almost like it feels normal. Yeah, it's normal. I'm not like sacrificing anything. I don't feel like I'm canceling other things in order to do this. Oh, I wish I could be doing this instead but I really need to finish this project. It's not even like that. You know what I mean? It's really weird.
You just want to do the project. That's what you're doing. You end up not doing the other things.
Yeah, exactly. Trust me, I play a lot of computer games too. Yeah, I never think about it that way being like, oh, I could be also playing computer games. No. If I want to play computer games, I'd just play computer games. I mean, maybe that's like where we can end it on, like this whole of being like, if you enjoy playing computer games all day, so be it. Play computer games all day. Just don't make yourself feel bad about not doing X, like certain things.
Maybe that's okay. Because we don't have to force ourselves, it's the same with me. I feel that every day that I don't go to the gym. For some reason I have to go to the gym but I don't want to go to the gym. I'm like, maybe I should just stop thinking about going to the gym and feel guilty about it because I'm not go to go anyways because I don't like it. Then there's other people who are like, "Tobias, I don't know, I just go to the gym automatically because I really like it. I don't even think about it. I have to go to the gym. I just go." It's kind of like that attitude. We're getting too philosophical probably.
No, it's not too philosophical at all. I think it's funny you bring up the gym thing because I bought a set of weights for my apartment. I was thinking, you know, maybe if I have it 10 feet away, then I'll go. I literally stare at these weights every day and never touch them. It's like you said. As long as I don't make myself feel guilty over it, then it's fine.
Yeah. It's like me having my, I have a gym membership actually. Since three years, I've went twice. I count myself as a silent investor in my gym. I'm their favorite customer who never comes.
Yeah. I've been there. One of the things that I wanted to talk about was a question that I asked on the Indie Hackers for him a few weeks back. I basically asked people if they could just magically have any knowledge, any business-related knowledge just uploaded into their brain instantaneously without having to practice, what it would be. I'm curious what your answer would be to that question, especially since you're running Semplice now and you've got so many other things that you're working on. What do you wish you knew or what skills do you wish you had?
I should have prepared for that question.
Welcome to the Indie Hackers hotseat.
I may have to repeat myself here. I think the single greatest thing that helped me is really the keep it simple and stupid thing. Moreso the stupid thing. Almost to a degree, like, I'm almost weird to a degree where I'm like I really, every time I come up with a project I try to make it, even though it may be not as stupid as it is, I try to make it even more stupid on purpose. You know what I mean? Because it feels at that point, because stupid essentially means that there's very little expectations attached to it which means it's easier for me to gain some momentum because there is no complex things that I need to solve.
Then the other stupid thing is that I love the idea of telling people about a project. When I ask 10 people in my family and they all laugh at it and they're like, "That's stupid." I'm usually the kind of person whose like, "All right, I'm going to do it right now." Because for some reason I just want to pay back to people and prove them wrong. I try to set myself up for proving people wrong.
It's kind of like I get a little kick, for some reason I get a kick out of it when people are like, "That's stupid. You can never do this because you haven't thought about this, this, and this." I'm usually the kind of person like, all right, that motivates me even more so. Now I'm going to do it. I think if I could give this away, if that's even an answer to your question, that's kind of like the principal or the concept that I try to apply to every single idea of trying to find what motivates you and keeping it super simple so there's absolutely no excuse to not do it.
That's so funny, because we're so aligned on so many things. I think we're actually polar opposites in that I am such a planner.
I plan everything in meticulous detail whenever I'm going to start something new. To your point, it's funny because most of the time my planning doesn't work out anyway. I make all these plans and nothing goes according to plan. I feel like I have to do it. Another cool thing about just keeping it simple and stupid is that ultimately if you fail and things don't work out, then at the very least you can save face and be like, "I wasn't really trying that hard anyway." Versus if you plan every thing out and it doesn't work. You don't really have that lifeline.
Actually, yeah. That's a good point. It's a good way out as well because you don't, I think it all comes down to not taking yourself too serious in that regard. That's also what stupid means in that case. You're not taking yourself to serious. I don't know, there's something about maybe that's just like from childhood, because teachers back in school would always tell me that I wouldn't be able to do X. They were always telling me, because my grades were really bad in school. I was a little bit of a problem kid. I had problems with authority I guess. The teachers were always telling me, "You would never find a job, Tobias, never. Your grades are shit. You're a lazy ass kid. "
For some reason that motivated me from the very beginning. I was always like, I'm going to prove those assholes wrong. I'm going to show them. They're so wrong. For some reason I still tr to do that today. Even today, here's the funny thing. That's maybe a little sick, I don't know. Even if there isn't such a conflict, I try to fake-create that conflict for myself. Because otherwise I lack motivation.
It's almost like if I have an idea and I will tell 10 people about it, and everyone is like, "Yeah, that's cool." I would be hating it. I'm like, "Why is no one hating my thing?" Why is no one, because I'm basically saying if everyone is like, "Meh." It's not a really good idea probably because no one is getting really, no one has a passionate opinion about it. I'm usually trying to turn it up a little notch and be like, "What about this? What about this?" I just wait for people to be finally against me so I can prove them wrong. You know what I mean?
This gives me a really stupid idea actually, something like rentahater.com where you can go and pay a flat fee for a hater who will just tell you tell you why your idea's crappy and why it won't work. You can try to prove them wrong.
Yeah. I think it does motivate some people. I'm the kind of person who gets motivated by that. Maybe there's also something about validating your idea. I feel that if everyone thinks your idea is okay and no one has an opinion about it, then your idea probably wasn't as good. If everyone is outraged by your thing, chances are high that you may be on to something there. Even if the first reaction is something negative. I still believe that's just because people are like, it's pushing the boundaries too much or they're offended because they wanted to think about this first. You know what I mean? I think if people are very passionate about your idea, even if it's like negatively, there's some hidden meaning behind that. There's a reason why they are like that.
I mean, it's the same with, that's why you always say all press is good press, right? Because the negative thing spreads even more. I would say the people who hate my work most are probably also the biggest promoters of my work. Because they're so passionate about spreading my work, even in the wrong context, it gets to other people who then eventually like my work, if that make any sense.
It gets people charged. I think it's funny because there's such a, I think we all have a draw to be politically correct and not offend anybody and to be within accepted boundaries. The result is a lot of people end up coming up with stuff that's stale and doesn't have any personalities and doesn't push any buttons and doesn't challenge the status quo. It ends up being uninteresting. Whereas if you're making weather apps and you're not afraid to say, "It's fucking raining outside." And make that be your weather app, then people latch onto it because it's interesting and creative. I think people could really benefit from the advice that, don't be afraid to push some buttons. Don't be afraid to make people upset with what you're doing or to go, to really reveal your a personality.
I think it's hard because you kind of feel naked. If you're putting yourself out there and you're baring your soul and you're being transparent and you're letting your personality shine through. To be honest, there are so many just, there are enough lifeless products out there that are just drab and boring. You can do really small things to make yourselves stand out. Indie Hackers is a dark design not because I meticulously researched and I decided that a dark design would be the best, I just wanted to be different then everyone else's just because I like dark designs and I wanted it to look different.
Me too, Courtland. I like it too.
Thanks, Tobias. Let me check in on time, because you said you have a couple hours. It's already been an hour. Do you mind going a little bit longer?
No, I have enough time. I can do all day for you.
Cool. I love you too.
If that's what's needed, I'm going to do it.
I think we spent a lot of time talking about motivational stuff. I think that's awesome. At the same time there's two types of people. One type of person I think is the majority of people who talk about doing things but they never really get around to doing it. What they really need is to find a way that they can start doing the things that they want to do. I think there's another type of person who I encounter very often and who I've been myself. This is a person who's actually extremely motivated and who is always doing stuff. Either they never finish and they don't stick with it, or the things that they do aren't working out.
A lot of times it's just because they don't have the right knowledge. They don't have the right skill set. There's something that's holding them back, and it's not just being motivated. I'm curious what kinds of practical things that you've learned. What kinds of lessons have you taken away from the things that you've done at Semplice and your other apps and all your projects that aren't simply here's how to keep myself motivated, but that are also here's how to build up your Twitter following. Here's how to market a product, or practical things that may be counterintuitive that you've learned. I know that's a super vague question, so I'm happy to dive into specifics.
No, I'm going to give you the perfect answer.
There's a couple things I believe. We're talking about this, just to repeat a little bit, we're talking about this kind of person that is quite motivated, creating a lot, but is feeling not getting anywhere. Obviously there's probably specific things that we would have to look at, whoever that person is. Overall I would say the first thing that helped me a lot is that, find a partner. I know there's a little bit that's disdain sometimes on the Internet where it's like, oh, you have to be a solo creator.
That's really cool if you can do everything. I personally think that's a little bit bullshit. I don't think you have to be a solo creator, unless you're the perfect person for that. I think most people, if they find their perfect counterpart, that's exactly what they needed. I'm someone who's very, I can do a lot of things myself. I actually thrive when I have a partner. Every time I work on a project or any project really that I've worked on, I've always had a partner on it. I always had a partner that had at least, or close to like a 50-50 share to some regard. That partner is just taking care of other things.
There's not only about, there's not only the thing that you can share the tasks, but the main thing is really motivating each other and holding each other accountable. It's kind of like I will tell you, "Courtland, I want to do this on this." Then you're actually going to follow up with this every single week with me. If you're just by yourself, it's easy to lose track because no one is going to hold you accountable. That I think would be the first advice, and also something that I've learned over the years. I always try to find my counterpart to some regard.
Even if it's just a best friend that I'm paying. You know what I mean? I'm like, I'm just going to pay you to be my best friend so I can talk to you about, because you need someone to reflect and be like, "Hey, I have these ideas. I don't know, what do you think?" Sometimes they're just, again, I just pay that person to have a conversation or be like, "No, Tobias, that's bullshit." Then I'm like, "No, I'm going to prove you wrong. Here's the thousand dollars, thanks for the conversation." I need it because I'm a really, I think I work very well in a team, especially small teams. I really need this. I think that's the first thing.
Then the second thing when it comes to feeling like it doesn't go anywhere, I learned that over-sharing has been one of the biggest promoters of all of my projects, and you probably know that as well. That's probably not a big secret even. A lot of people just don't do it. I know a lot of people who create a ton. I sit down with them and they show me all the things that they did on their computer, whatever. I'm like, "Holy shit, you're doing so much more than I do. I feel really bad right now. Apparently you're not putting anything out there, nothing."
I always meet these people and I'm like, "You haven't even, why you not tweeting about this? Put something on Dribble. Please upload this on something else. You need to put yourself out there a little bit more." I know there are some people who are like, "That's just not me." That's what I'm basically saying if you're not the kind of person who can force yourself, we actually talked about that as well. You remember we talked about Twitter activity and tweeting a lot.
Yeah, because you've got a ton of Twitter followers. You tweet so much more than I do, it's crazy.
Yeah. The thing is, it's hard for me to, it would be hard for me to tell you and be like, "Courtland you have to tweet a lot more too." Because maybe you're like, "No, I would rather spend the time building the products that I'm working on." I would fully agree with you on that. For me when I tweet, it's not because, it goes back to what we already talked about. It's not because I'm like, oh, shit, I really need to tweet. It's more like an extension of my brain. It just flows out, kind of like talking. Like, oh, here's a tweet. All of that eventually mounts to something.
You can either tell people and be like, look, you have to put yourself out a little bit more. If you design a lot of things, you have to put things on Dribble. You either force yourself of doing so because that will eventually get you noticed because you have to be, because everyone on the Internet is kind of screaming at all times. That's like what Twitter is. Everyone's like, you know, look at this, look at this. If you're just the quiet girl or boy sitting there and not taking part of that, it's really, really hard to get noticed. Again, maybe you're not the kind of person, and that is totally fine. I wouldn't force yourself to do it. Maybe you can find a partner that is the counterpart of that.
When you look at Semplice, it's that perfect example. My partner Mike, most people don't even know that he exists. He kind of enjoys that for some reason. He's like, "Tobias, you know what, if someone's going to blame Semplice, it's going to be you." I'm like, "Oh, fine." Basically we have different responsibilities. He likes to create the stuff in the background and he hates tweeting, he hates social media and all these things. He's perfect with all of these creating things. He works very, very well with me. We're basically a perfect fit because I'm doing him a huge favor of being this front facing, little bit of public figure and I'm doing all of this promotion stuff. If something goes wrong because he had a bug in the software, I'm the one who's getting the blame. I'm like, it's fine. I have all these other things that Mike is basically doing for us or for me.
Yeah. You've done a lot of things that are really hard to do. I think building an audience is a great example. You've got a massive audience. You've got tons of followers on Twitter who are super engaged. You've got an email list that you grew from nothing to 30,000 or 40,000 subscribers. You send them a new email every single week. I think even for people who might have no trouble at all putting themselves out there, it's difficult to consistently find good content to share and have people who are engaged to paying attention to and to reach those people. What are your tips for people in that situation who are trying to build an audience?
The question is just so interesting because I've always been that person too who is asking other people of like, where do you get your ideas from? When you say how do you grow an email list, I'm like, oh, I wish I could just give you one, two, three. You got to do this, and then this, and then this. Then success is guaranteed. First of all …
What's the story behind your email list? How did it grow? Because I know it started off super small.
Yeah. Honestly, every subscriber list starts with one subscriber, which is probably your mom. That's something actually to keep in mind. Every list has started with one subscriber. Don't forget that. No one has started with 30,000, 40,000 or more. The number one thing, keep it brief, is expectations once again. I had zero expectations. I was like, I'm going to like write to 10 friends. That will be it. At the time, it was 10 friends. Then you know how it is. It becomes 20 and then 30 and then 40 and then 50.
The second kind of like a secret you could say, but not really, is mostly consistency. I'm pretty sure that you can confirm that as well from the work that you're doing. If you show up on a daily or weekly basis, it is something that other people appreciate, they will recognize it, and they will talk to other people about it. If you show up every single day, and it's not so much about the quality or the kind of content or whatever you're writing. It's more about the consistency that you're putting stuff out there on a daily or weekly basis. It's essentially what gives you this momentum pretty much. Because other people do recognize that. You also recognize that yourself. You will feel how that, it just feels better when you do it.
A lot of people that I know, and I'm including myself here. Every time I see things not working the way I want them to work is always because I'm not consistent. It's like when I'm skipping emails, when I'm skipping certain things, I'm not doing it on a weekly basis. I'm just being lazy. I'm not, even if that would be, let's imagine I would write the same amount of emails or articles as I'm writing I now, but I would just distribute them in a different way, like less consistent, but they're still amounting for the same. I would see less people talking or reading it. Because it's just a different kind of thing.
If you have, let's say for example you would have 10 articles and you have them already written up. Rather than publishing them all at the same time or publishing four now and then three two weeks later and then another two four weeks later, I would always make sure that you publish one a week over the course of 10 weeks. Because that's going to give you most of the success and most of the traffic because of its consistency.
That's like people can rely on you and turn it into a habit.
Probably, yeah. Some psychologists or whatever can dig into this and explain why exactly it works. There's something about it. Everything is about consistency. It's the same with working out. It's better to work out, which we're both not doing by the way apparently. It's better to work out an hour a day over the course of a year than cramping in six hour of work out every two weeks, because it just doesn't work. You have to have that consistency.
Yeah, I think that's already it. I think that's literally how my email list keeps growing is because I, and I haven't done it always. I skipped weeks. People will be friendly to remind me of that. I have skipped weeks because I was lazy or because I couldn't do it or because I wasn't inspired enough. I showed up for more than two years now pretty much like 99% every single week and wrote an article. You know what, sometimes these articles are shitty. They're not interesting. Sometimes it's like literally an article where I'm like, hey guys, I don't know what to write today about. Now that I'm already writing, I'm just going to keep writing. Oh, there's more letters coming. I'm still writing. That's it. That's the article. People still appreciate it because I just showed up.
Yeah. I've seen the same things happen with some of the things I've worked on. I think that's really good advice, because for example, this podcast. When I first started doing it, it was extremely difficult for me to get out. I think by having more consistency, I got better at it as well as people were more interested in it. The first two episodes were getting a couple thousand downloads. These episodes nowadays are getting like 20,000 downloads. I could see the charts with the graphs where if I miss a week, which I haven't done in a while, but it kind of resets things. All the downloads go down and it has to start back from an earlier point and slowly get back to where it was just because I missed a week. Not because the episodes are any worse. I think consistency is a really good tip. It makes me think about, go ahead.
Okay, yeah. I just wanted to add to what you said. You know, people have such short attention span, especially when it comes to online. If you skip your podcast for two or three weeks and then you publish one again, you kind of broke your consistency. They're like, "Who the fuck is Courtland again? Who's that guy? What podcast?" You know what I mean? Of course it's not as bad, but it's kind of a little bit like it. You're not in the flow anymore. You're like, I don't even know, who's Tobias again? What's this newsletter? When did I actually subscribe to this thing? They just didn't read it for a month because I skipped it, you know? That happens.
That's why I tell people starting newsletters, you can't have a quarterly newsletter. You can't even really have a monthly newsletter. That's too much time for people to know who you are.
Unless you're already established.
Yeah. If you're already established, you can do whatever you want.
You can do, yeah. Kanye West can write a newsletter every quarter if he wants to.
He can do it once a year. People will read it. I think what's interesting is like, a lot of the advice and stuff that we're talking about is really common. It's not stuff that's hard to find online. What makes it good advice isn't that it's not obvious, it's just that it's just hard to follow. We can say, "Be consistent," and people are like, "Okay, yeah, I'll write that down. Be consistent." It's pretty hard to be consistent with your newsletter every single week.
For me and the Indie Hackers newsletter, what kept me going early on was that I kind of did have that huge influx of users at the beginning. There was like a thousand people on my mailing list after a week. I felt incredibly, it's like you have the haters who are motivating you. It's like, I felt guilty if I didn't write a newsletter or if I did a half ass job. I had to write the newsletter every single Thursday and start that habit because I was like, man, there's a thousand people waiting on me to write this newsletter. I never would have written it otherwise. After a while, it just got easy because I've done it so many times.
Yes. You know that is? It works for me as well. It's pride.
I have a lot of self pride, although I wouldn't necessarily say I have a huge ego or anything, it definitely plays a role in motivating me. I have a lot of pride. The fact that someone can be like, "Oh, Tobias, you're so shitty. You're breaking your own advice. You're not consistent. You skipped the newsletter." That makes me so angry. Not at the other person, but at myself. That keeps me being consistent because I don't want to upset people. Most of all, I don't want to upset myself. Yeah, pride is actually a really good motivator. It's the same thing, I have to mention it here. I'm the kind of person who loves to thrive on outside pressure. If I would have a project that I want to work on, I'm usually the kind of person who tells it to every friend in my friend circle because they're going to hold me accountable, because they're going to laugh at me if I'm not going to follow through.
That's something that helps me a lot too. If you have an idea, don't keep yourself. Because if you keep it to yourself, no one's going to follow up. No one's going to hold you accountable. You have to tell it to friends. You have to be careful because there are also these kind of people, I'm pretty sure you know them. You know the kind of people who always tell everything to everyone, and then they're not doing anything anyways? They already have the image of like, "Oh, yeah, it's just Courtland. He's just talking. He's just like yeah, whatever. He wants to do this, yeah, whatever." Obviously you have to be careful. You don't want to be end up being that person.
Are there any things that you've told to friends or coworkers that you just ended up not doing?
Yeah, like a lot probably. Yeah, a lot. This is just the problem. When you're the kind of person who always creates new things and always has new ideas, I'm always the kind of person who sits at the dinner table and is like, "What about this? Oh, I could do this." Honestly for example, my podcast is one of the things that probably is one of the biggest letdowns for myself and maybe friends as well. I'm not saying I've stopped doing my podcast for good, but I haven't done an episode in many months now because it was just, you know how it is. You're the kind of person who would, I couldn't do it anymore. I'm writing this blog, doing new articles, I have this product. I have all these other side projects.
Then the podcast, it was way out of my control. Then also when you're a perfectionist, you're spending so much time on researching, finding the right guest. Then it takes like, the thing is there's so many outside thing that you don't have under your control. There's other projects that I have, every thing is under my control. Whereas the podcast, it's very much dependent on other people's schedule. Every time they reschedule, you know how it is. Someone was like, "Oh, yeah, let's do the podcast." Then a day before they're like, "Oh, shit, I have to unfortunately cancel." Then they're like, "What about in two weeks?" Then you look at your calendar and you're like, "I can't in two weeks."
Then it keeps going and you reschedule a podcast interview for like six months literally. You know what I mean? it just takes so much time. Then at some point I was like, fuck this. I'm not going to do the podcast anymore. Because it was a project that didn't really, it was only costing me money because I don't have advertising on it. It was just like one of these products where I was like, I feel so disappointed in myself. Because people liked it, I liked it, but I just couldn't make it work with my current workload. I'm disappointed in it. Maybe I can bring it back. It's one of these projects that I'm, yeah. I'm definitely disappointed in myself.
Imagine if you were someone who only ever found it within himself to do one. The thing that you started with was your podcast. It just got exhausting and you couldn't do it. Then you probably live the rest of your life thinking, you know, I gave it a shot and it didn't work out. In reality you've done so many things that it's like, if one of them doesn't work out, that's fine. You've got a ton of other things to do. It's sad when I see people quit things because I think, you just started with the thing that's not what's right for you.
Some people love podcasts. Some people love the uncertainty. I don't like it and you didn't like it, but some people are totally cool with it. That's their thing. If you don't do enough things, then you end up striking out on the first or second thing that you try. You never really know if it's just because you had the wrong idea that wasn't really meant for you. I think it's cool to see someone like you who's incredibly successful to have things that don't work out. Because not everything's going to work out. In fact, most of the stuff that people like you make doesn't work out. You just keep going.
Yeah, there's a lot. Some of them are, you know, more painful than others. The podcast is not too painful because it feels like you could still make it work with publishing here and there. I think the only reason why my pride is a little bit hurt because it's, you know how it is. You're talking about consistency and you know that consistency is what is important, especially for a podcast. I feel a little bit sad about it because, like a podcast is also this thing where I'm like, oh, I need to do it right. You know what I mean? It needs to be good. I need to focus on it 100%.
I think when I started my podcast, it was just kind of like a side gig. It was always like, oh, yeah, whatever. I'm going to do it tomorrow. Then especially with the uncertainty, I felt like I don't have it under control. Then I just started slacking. I just started rescheduling and I was like, I don't want to do it anymore. There are other projects for example, have you heard about DotMail?
I can tell you if we still have time.
Because that's a huge failure. A huge failure. I remember that's about eight years ago now. I did a concept for a mail app, like an email app. It was called DotMail. I had all these ideas around, and I did a nice case study on my portfolio of how I imagine this new email app to work. It was like a complete, it was a redesign, but it also had slight little adjustments of how we treat email. Because I was always really annoyed by email in general. I published this thing without actually having the intention of building it. It was just me talking about email. I can send you that, actually. It's still online somewhere.
I just found a link to it. I'm looking at it right now.
Yeah, that's like eight years ago. I haven't touched it since then. Anyways, so I publish it and it got picked up by a lot of news outlets and Fast Company and Wired magazine, all these big magazines were writing about it. They're like, "Here, email reinvented."
I was laughing at it because I was like, this is ridiculous. I didn't even expect this to blow up because I didn't reinvent anything. It was just like me trying to take a different take on email. Because all this attention pouring in, I got millions of views in traffic. The first reaction was just like oh, shit, you know what, I just need to capture that interest and put up a quick dotmailapp.com website with an email sign-up and being like, "Okay, you know what, if you're interested in this, if you're interested in buying this then put in your email and we'll think about it." Within the first month, about I think 60 or 70,000 people signed up.
I was like, that's a good test. That's like, if we would develop it, there's already 70,000 people who have initial interests and who would buy it, even if just 10% of those would buy it. That will be so cool. I was like, shit, that's cool. Again, it was not planned. That was just unexpected. I tried to find developers and I teamed up with someone. I worked on this for more than a year. It was a huge failure. The developer completely underestimated, I think we all underestimated working on an email app because email protocols are so fucking old, it's really annoying. That's why you don't see much innovation in that field happening because it all runs on protocols that are decades old. That was a huge failure. I switched to another developer, and you know how every time you switch developer they always come with their own religion.
They got to rewrite everything.
Yeah, I'm going to rewrite this, we're going to do it like this. This developer was so stupid. I'm like, fine, let's do it like this. Again, I used to be a software engineer so I'm not completely stupid. I can read code and I understand how things work. I was like, "Yeah, you're right. Let's just try a different approach." It completely failed again. I slowly had to disappoint people because one and a half years later people were asking, "What the hell? You said you guys were developing it. What's happening?" Then at some point I was like, I think it was two years after, I wrote out a message and I was like, "I'm sorry. We're shutting it down."
I felt so fucking disappointed. You can't believe me. Because you have this huge audience more or less. At this time it was more than 100,000 people who signed up to the email list who are like, "Yeah, I want it. I want right now." I was like, "Yeah, fuck it." Yeah, the nothing happened. I think three years later or four years later actually after that, I had another, I was like, shit, there's still nothing happening in the email market. At that time, mailbox launched I think a year after I did the DotMail thing as well. Then they actually got acquired from Dropbox and it got shot down.
I saw all of that thing happening and I was like, oh, shit, we can still do it. It's almost like a little flame was lighting up inside of me and was like, oh, this thing I did four years ago is still kind of relevant. Maybe I'll try it again. I looked for a developer and I teamed up with someone. Again, I tried to make it like a team. Not just me hiring a developer but just making, hey, we're a team now and we're going to split this thing 50-50. We worked on it for a couple months and the developer ditched me again and it didn't work.
I underestimated it. Then I was like, but at that time I didn't tell anyone about it. I was like, I'm not going to tell anyone about it. I'm going to do this in secret because at least then it's just a disappointment, like a personal one. Actually, you're actually one of the first people I tell you this, because I never told anyone that I actually started working on it again. That's actually just a year ago now I believe. I had another try at it, and we shut it down again. Now I'm basically, I think I'm like, fuck this bullshit.
Apps are really hard. I've done a couple myself, and none of them worked. It's just not easy. There's a giant graveyard of people trying to reinvent email.
Yeah. I was like, so this is, maybe this is interesting for some of the listeners. Because it's a huge disappointment from the very beginning. Even worse so because there was a huge potential too. If you already have 100,000 people who signed up to your thing and then you have to disappoint them, that's even worse than doing something that only your mom is going to be disappointed about you because you told her about it. I was really angry at myself. Because I'm the kind of person who's like, if I promise something, I follow through. I don't give up.
You have the self-image that…
Yeah. I feel bad about it. I know that a lot of things, the reason why we couldn't do it was also, a lot of it was my fault because I wasn't strict enough with the people that I teamed up with, you know? They were treating it more as a side project. You know how it is. You can't treat those things as a side project. They're too complex. You have to dive into them. You have to give them a certain amount of your time, of your attention every single day, otherwise you don't get it done. It was my fault.
I feel really bad about it, but I'm slowly starting to feel better about this whole thing of being like, fuck this bullshit. I don't care anymore. I don't care about this email thing anyways. Maybe I'm just telling this to myself. I think I'm glad at this point that it didn't work out. Because when I look into the future, I'm always like, can I see myself working on an email client every day? Fuck no, definitely not. Maybe I was attracted the challenge. Maybe I was very energized by the overwhelming feedback. Maybe that's what was the reason why I wanted to work on it. Am I really passionate about email? No, definitely not.
No. It's funny because it's like the story goes against some of the things that have helped you succeed with other projects, like having low expectations. Which it's really hard to do if you have 70,000 people sign up for your email list saying they want to pay for it. How do you have low expectations for that? You just got to make almost 100,000 people happy right out of the gate. I think we started this interview by me asking you, who are you and what are the some of the best things you've done? You said that you wanted your best thing to come in the future. Maybe we should end on that note. What are some things that you would like to do in the future? What are your goals really with the things that you're working on now?
I think it all comes down to, first of all, all of the things that I'm doing right now, I always want to have fun. That's the most import thing. If the things that I'm doing right now is not fun anymore, I'm going to stop doing it and I'm going to find something else. Number two, I don't know exactly where I'm going, but as long as I know where I don't want to go, that's enough for me. It's almost like as long as I know this is not what I want to do, then at least I can try to avoid these things. I go into a new direction.
Number three, I would love to do something in, to get a little bit more specific for you, I would love to do something in the air travel, like aviation industry at some point because it really has so much potential and there's so many thing is that are really bad about it and I'm really interested in it, but I also know how complex it is. That's more like a wish list kind of thing. It's not like, oh, I have very concrete thoughts of what I'm going to do. There's something about it that I want to work on it in the future. In general I think right now, I'm very, very open to, maybe this is just because I'm just a little too used of the technology industry. I'm really interested in breaking into more traditional industries right now.
Again, I'm just talking right now my out loud my thoughts pretty much. There's something, I think I'm getting a little bored sometimes of the tech stuff, you know what I mean? I remember 15 years ago I would be so passionate about building websites. I would be like, if you would show me a website that was like, with cool animations and transitions, I would be like, "Woah, that's so cool. I want to build this too." I would always have these ideas of making it even better and better and making it more flashy.
Now if you would tell me, "Hey, Tobias, you want to build a website?" I'm like, "Fuck no. Go away with that bullshit. I don't want to build a website anymore." It sounds kind of funny because I'm working on something that helps people build websites. There's a different kind of view that I have right now. For me, websites right now are not the same thing anymore as 15 or even 20 years ago. You know what I mean? Now it's more about, just make them usable. Make them easy to read. Go away with that stupid flashy stuff. Don't put too many animations in there. I just want to get to the information. Let's try to improve other things than making Internet websites more flashy for example.
I know it sounds funny right now because I'm maybe ranting a little bit. I think my passion or interests has just changed a little bit. I'm not as passionate about doing websites anymore because they don't feel like, 15 years ago was this whole experience around the website. I sometimes spent minutes or hours poring over websites, like how they were done because they were almost like a mini movie sometimes. Nowadays, websites and design has become so standardized, it's almost boring. You know what I mean? No one is doing, very few people are doing anything special anymore. I think that's just because like UX designers and all these people came around, and everything was just about, let's make everything look exactly the same. The innovation is in the same place.
Again, I can't even complain right now because you could argue these things are now more accessible because there are norms around how we do things. It's not the wild west anymore. Maybe that's also, I'm seeing the positive things about the accessibility and the norms and standards. At the same time, it makes me lose passion to build within that space. Does that make any sense?
It makes a lot of sense. I think it's so cool looking at the pattern that underlies how you think. You're almost always pushing against some sort of trend or something that has become the accepted standard.
I think that's probably why a lot of the stuff that you do stands out. Because you're constantly asking, "What are people doing, and how do I do the opposite? What's wrong with what people are doing?"
I think the tendency that a lot of other people have is to try to figure out what other people are doing so they can emulate it, which is the recipe for not standing out. People are, yeah, they're trying to fit in.
I'm definitely not trying to fit in.
No, not at all.
Please don't. That's like the worst thing that can happen. Every time it happens, you can slap me in my face and remind me.
I will make sure to slap you. Anyway, Tobias, it was great having you on. Can you tell people where they can go to support you or to learn more about what you're doing?
Yeah, sure. It would be nice if you can just check out my, you can just check out my website at vanschneider.com or on Twitter @vanschneider. Maybe Courtland is going to link that up as well. That's pretty much it. Just check out all the things that you can find there. You can read my blog if you want. There's a lot of things written about the things that we talked about. I would appreciate it if you can say hi on Twitter if you enjoyed this episode. I think Courtland would appreciate that as well.
Yeah, me too. Thanks so much, Tobias.
Thank you so much, Courtland.
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