Anne-Laure Le Cunff (@anthilemoon) is working at the intersection of neuroscience and entrepreneurship to produce content that inspires, educates, and sustains makers like you. In this episode, we talked about how Anne-Laure builds free products that are good for the world while monetizing related products, how she juggles multiple career paths simultaneously by maximizing overlap, and how to combine multiple interests into a single niche topic that's unique and differentiated.
Ness Labs — Anne-Laure's business
Maker Mag — Anne-Laure's platform for makers to share their thoughts and discuss trends
Maker Mind — Anne-Laure's weekly newsletter at the intersection of neuroscience and entrepreneurship
Teeny Breaks — Anne-Laure's Chrome extension that delivers science-based tips for mindful breaks
@anthilemoon — follow Anne-Laure on Twitter
What’s up everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives? What, exactly, makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses.
Today I’m talking to Anne-Laure Le Cunff of Ness Labs. Anne-Laure Le Cunff, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me.
You are the founder of Ness Labs, where you work on several different products. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about each one?
Currently I’m focusing on three main products. There’s Maker Mind, which is my newsletter which I started this summer, which has currently about 5,000 subscribers, where I write at the intersection of neuroscience and entrepreneurship, because I’m also studying neuroscience part time on the side.
Second product is Teeny Breaks which is a Chrome extension that reminds people to take breaks and gives them suggestions of mindful things to do during these breaks, which are all backed by science with links the corresponding research papers.
The last one is Maker Mag which is a publication for Indie Hackers and indie makers. The ambition is to be something like TechCrunch but where we celebrate makers making actual money rather than raising big rounds.
I’ve noticed every one of these is either maker related, or mindfulness related. How do the two of those intersect for you?
I’ve always been interested by how the brain works. I decided to go back and study neuroscience last year. I’m in the second year of my masters. Lots of the stuff that I study at university is super useful as an entrepreneur, too, in terms of managing my mental health, taking care of myself, being productive but in a way that’s also mindful so I can achieve my long term goals rather than burning out. This is, I guess, why lots of the stuff I work on is at the intersection of both.
So when you say you want to achieve your long-term goals rather than burning out, you sound like somebody who has burned out at some time in the past and realized how crappy it can be. What’s the story behind that?
The very first time I burned out was at Google. I used to work there. That was my very first job. When I joined, I suffered from something which I didn’t know the name at the time but I read about it a little bit later called imposter syndrome, which I think lots of ppl are familiar with, but during this time, somehow I ended up working in a company with so many smart people. I was always scared that someone would realize that I didn’t belong there.
As a result, I worked really hard, probably too hard. But I was saying yes to absolutely everything. I was working very long hours. I never had a drop of coffee in my life before then, but I started drinking coffee just to manage to stay awake. It took me quite a long time to realize that something was wrong, that I was not actually –
I was being very productive and doing a good job, but I was not sleeping anymore. Not a good thing. I talked it about it with a colleague who went through something similar and told me about imposter syndrome and about the anonymous group that Google had then on Google Plus called imposter syndrome, where there were hundreds of people sharing their stories, going through similar stuff.
That thing made me feel a bit better, just realizing that I was not the only one going through this, and then also reading strategies as to how to tackle it. I worked on this with my manager. As it happens, I’m not the only one going through this on the team. There were probably bigger issues there, but that was the first time I had to deal with this.
Then again, when I left Google, I launched a startup and went through something similar. This is also part of the reason why I’m writing so much about these topics today, because it personally helped me a lot to read that other people were going through the same thing and to read about strategies as to how they managed to deal with this. I’m also trying to help other makers going through something similar.
It’s interesting how much running a startup is a mental game. A lot of it is just internal and we talk all about the external challenges. How do you get more customers? How do you grow your Twitter account? How do you rank high in Google? But 80% of it is just, how do you do the thing that you said you were going to do and feel good about it?
I was just at an event with some founders last night and we were talking about how easy it is to give other people advice because it’s so clear what their problems are, but then we look at our own startups and we’re like, “Wait, what if I followed my own advice once in a while? That would be pretty good, right?”
But it’s the cases where we know what to do which is so hard to do it, often, because it’s this internal psychological battle. Tell me about the startup that you founded after you left Google.
When I was at Google I was working on the digital health team. Some of the products that we were looking after were Google Fit which is the opponent of Apple Health but for Android phones and Android watches. As part of this role, I worked a lot with health specialists and doctors, etc.
Something that became clear to me after a while was that we were focusing a lot on exercise, getting people to walk and run, et cetera. But lots of why you’re healthy or not healthy is based on what you eat. And I also have a history in my family of people who struggle with this and became quite sick as a result.
My mom is diabetic and my grandma is diabetic, too. We took a test. It’s not genetic. It’s just because they ate very badly for a very long time. So that’s the sad thing about it. It’s preventable. I left Google to start a company in that space, helping people eat better and in particular helping people who don’t necessarily have a lot of knowledge when it comes to nutrition.
So, helping the people who really needed the help, because lots of startups in that space at the time were targeting people who were already very passionate about this and could probably deal with it on their own. I worked on that and it was really fun and tiring, but two things that didn’t go well.
For the first one - and this is also why, when I discovered Indie Hackers afterwards it just made much more sense, but we didn’t have a good monetization plan. We didn’t know how we were going to make money, so we had this “we were going to save the world” approach but without really thinking sustainability in terms of business. That was one big problem.
The other problem was that I decided to work with a technical cofounder at the time because I didn’t know how to code and I didn’t know him very well. You know how they say starting a company with someone is a bit like getting married? I basically got married after a one-night stand so it didn’t work out very well.
We’re good but we didn’t have compatible working styles, where it - just not the same vision, so we broke up, which is apparently one of the most common reasons why startups fail. Pretty unoriginal here, but we broke up in the end. That was the second issue. But I think even if we didn’t have that issue, due to the fact that we didn’t manage to figure out how to make money was one of the biggest ones.
I often say that a business can be any kind of project that you want to work on as long as it has a way to sustain itself from its own revenue. You can easily go too far in either direction, you know, a business in your case where it’s a really great project that you feel really good about, but it can’t sustain itself.
Then people will go the other direction where it’s like this pointless thing that doesn’t bring anybody any joy, maybe brings harm to the world, makes people less happy but it certainly pumps out a lot of money. What was your plan after you decided to call it quits on this business?
This is around the time where I think I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that time. I went from, “I’m going to save the world,” to “I have no idea what I’m doing.” This is also why I decided to start studying neuroscience because I went back to the drawing board, and I was like, “Okay, business-wise right now, I really don’t know what I want to do.”
I decided to go back to what I’m interested in in general, what I’m passionate about in general the stuff that I really enjoy reading about and learning about. That’s always been, even when it comes to nutrition and the way people take care of themselves, that comes back to how the brain works. I found this program that you could take part time at King’s College in London and decided to join that.
It was very interesting, because before from my first startup, I picked a problem and decided to work on it, whereas this time, I just decided to learn as much as possible about a topic that I’m passionate about and see what comes out of it.
This is how I ended up where I am today, working on what I’m working on and building the product that I’m working on, because I’m starting from knowledge that I’m building rather than building a solution and figuring out afterwards if it actually solves the problem that I want to solve.
I first met you a little bit over a year ago at Ghyslain’s Indie London meetup in London. He was on the podcast a few weeks ago talking about how he got that meetup off the ground. Do you remember what you were working on back then? Had you already started Ness Labs?
I had started Ness Labs at the time just as a consultancy because I was studying. When we met last year, it had been about two months that I had started my masters so it was really new. At the time that we met, I was dividing my time between studying for school and freelancing.
So you had these two jobs and decided to throw in a third job which is to become an indie startup founder once again. How do you juggle working as a consultant, working as a student and starting now three different products?
I think the reason why it works so well for me is that they are all very intertwined. I can use stuff from any of the three into the three other ones, so everything that I study at school, for example, I reuse in my articles, in my products.
Teeny Breaks, that we mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, for example, all of the research that the product is based on is research that I studied at school, for example. With clients I started doing just marketing but I’m doing more and more customer psychology projects where I help them understand their users, which is also something that I can do now that I’ve done a bit more research at school.
I think if I was working on three very different things that didn’t have a link together it would be much harder, but it’s not the case. I have those three things that work well together. I don’t have a very clear line between one project or the other. I always work on the three of them.
You’ve got Maker Mind, you have Maker Mag and you have Teeny Breaks. Which one did you start first?
Teeny Breaks was the very first one. I built it during the 24-Hour Startup Challenge that was organized by Pat Walls last year. I don't know if you remember.
I do. So Teeny Breaks is a Chrome extension that helps makers take mindful breaks. What does that look like exactly and what are some of the plans you had when you first made it and how you could turn it into a business?
I didn’t have any plans. I just wanted to participate in the challenge and do something meaningful that I thought would be interesting. The way it works currently is that it’s a Chrome extension and every time you open a new tab, you have tip telling you, “Hey, take a break,” and this is what you can do.
There’s a link to the research paper that shows why this tip is science-based and if you’re the nerdy type, and lots of people in my audience are, you can go and read a little bit more about it.
Yeah, that’s me.
There’s currently no monetization plan for it. It just took me 24 hours to build. It lives on the Chrome Store, so I don’t pay anything for hosting. People seem to like it. I see it more as part of the portfolio of products that I want to build to just help people be more mindful of the way they work. I’m just going to keep it as part of that.
I think that’s the beauty in the way I approach things by having several products, is that if there is something I truly believe is good for the world and good for people, but I don’t have a clear way of monetizing it, it is completely fine to have this because it doesn’t cost me any money and I have other products that are profitable.
I noticed that your first business you were working with a technical cofounder, and on Teeny Breaks, you coded it yourself.
Did you learn how to code at some time in between these two things?
I did start learning how to code after what happened with my first startup. I decided after what happened with my first startup to never again be in that situation where I partnered with someone for the wrong reasons.
I wouldn’t be against the idea of having a cofounder again, but in the future if that happens I want to partner with someone because I really believe that they can bring something to the business, I trust them, I admire them and I think that together we could build something better.
Not because I feel like I would be totally unable of building the product myself and that I need to rely on someone that I don’t know very well to do it. This is the reason why I decided to learn how to code.
I think that’s the right way to do it. You don’t want to be dependent on somebody else. You don’t want to bring somebody in because you absolutely need their skills because you can code, so you need to work with this coder who you barely know.
I hear the same advice given to startups trying to raise money. You don’t want to raise money because you need it. You want to go to investors and have the luxury of picking really good investors to work with at a time where you don’t really need money. I think operating from a position of desperation or neediness is usually not the right approach.
Exactly. It’s all about being in control, I guess.
That’s exactly it. You want to have control. Eventually, you took your coding skills and you went on to build a second product called Maker Mag. Tell us a little bit how the idea for Maker Mag came together and what exactly it does.
For Maker Mag, it was in December last year, and we were talking with a bunch of makers and Indie Hackers and we realized that all of the news in Wired and TechCrunch and these magazines were all about how much money a startup had raised versus how much money we were making. Then there was Indie Hackers which is an amazing community, but there was no magazine with people writing stories for people, who were covering the news of what’s going on with bootstrap founders that achieve amazing milestones, not about closing a round but about closing a deal with a customer.
We decided to launch this all together. There were about 70 people who joined on that project. It was a bit messy, but it was fun. I was in China for work at the time, too, so it was a bit hard to coordinate.
But we put together the website. It was very scrappy, just WordPress, super quick, off the shelf design. We spent more time working on our values and what we wanted the magazine to about than the tech, basically.
We decided that it would be participatory in the sense that anyone would be able to write on it. It wouldn’t be three or four so-called journalists. Any maker could write about themselves or about someone else, that it would stay free for the community, and that we wouldn’t have any type of programmatic ads.
In terms of money it would just be sponsors, so no tracking to respect everyone’s privacy. Those were the principles that we decided on. We launched in December and since then we’ve been publishing articles every week. We have a monthly podcast and a newsletter.
You’re doing what, $1,500.00 a month in revenue for Maker Mag?
Yes. We have a few sponsors, and what’s really nice is that a few of our sponsors are just regular sponsors. Every month, they support Maker Mag and then there are the occasional sponsors for specific campaigns or stuff like that that we work on together.
We could talk about Maker Mag for hours. The idea of putting together a news site with 70 collaborators is insane. But I want to spend a little bit more time on your third and most recent product, Maker Mind. Maker Mind is a newsletter. How does it work, exactly?
I realized a few months ago that most of my audience if not all of my audience was on Twitter. With everything that has happened with Medium recently and lots of people being locked on certain platforms, I wanted to diversify the platforms where I could connect with my audience.
A second thing is that I wanted to start writing again about topics that I really cared about. I do believe, and it’s not just me believing, it’s the case that it makes it easier to learn stuff if you write about it. It’s called the generation affect. Writing about anything you learn will make it easier for you to remember later.
Since I have to study lots of material at school, I figured that I could build a new audience on my own platform and also take advantage of the generation affect by making sure that I would learn and remember stuff better by writing about it and blogging about it.
In July I committed to write one new article on my website every weekday, so five articles a week, all about neuroscience applied to entrepreneurship. I’ve been sticking to it since July. I’m posting these on my blog and on Twitter and every Thursday I send a digest to the subscribers. They can have all of the links and also a little intro so they can have a little bit of context around the content.
I love the fact that this idea plays so well with everything else you’re doing. Like you said, the reason you could be so productive is because all of the things you’re working on are pretty related.
You can do research at school for your neuroscience degree and then come home, write one of your daily blog posts about what you learned and how it intersects with being a maker, publish it to your newsletter, maybe even publish it on Maker Mag and tweet it out to your Twitter audience.
In the first month after you launched, you were able to grow from pretty much nothing to 2,000 email subscribers. What do you think got you to grow so quickly early on?
I’ve been really happy about the growth. It was 2,000 subscribers in the first two months and 5,000 in three months, basically. But I do think the consistency helped a lot, because if you look at the popularity of my articles, it’s the Pareto rule. Twenty percent of my articles drive eighty percent of the traffic.
So far, I still haven’t figured out the recipe or the magic that makes some articles go completely viral. I had one article that I posted on Hacker News that got 30,000 views in one day, and I read it and I read other articles I wrote, and I don't know why this one did so well.
By writing every day, I just increase the odds that something is going to be popular. That’s literally the only strategy that I’ve been having, I just write every day. I make sure to post it on Twitter, to post it on Hacker New, to post on Indie Hackers. I just make sure that people can find the content. It’s a bit like going fishing, where I just wait and I see and sometimes catch something.
You mention that you’re now at 5,000 subscribers. You posted a milestone on Indie Hackers about that in October, just a few weeks back. You had a whole timeline of how you grew Maker Mind to what it is. One of the points that you made was that Maker Mind is unique. There are a lot of newsletters about mindfulness. There’s a lot of newsletters about productivity. There’s not that many about the intersection of neuroscience and both of these things and being a maker as well. How do you find an audience, if you decide to pick something that’s so niche and so specific that you’re totally unique?
I think you mentioned it in the question, but that’s the thing, is that what makes this unique is that fact that it’s at the intersection of two topics, that those two topics are topics that are very popular. I’m getting a subset of people who are interested in entrepreneurship and that’s a lot of people, and people who are interested in mindfulness, and that’s also a lot of people.
What’s nice is that it’s unique enough to make it easy to differentiate and to pitch to people. They can understand it very quickly and they can see the value in it. At the same time, it’s not too niched, where I would really struggle to find an audience.
The other thing, too, is that I’m writing this for myself. Everything I write about is stuff I’m interested in. The type of people I’m connected with on Twitter or online or the kind of people who are also interested in similar topics than I am. The fact that I’m writing for myself makes it easier to write stuff that I know is going to be interesting to people who follow me online.
Makes perfect sense. If you don’t need to reach hundreds of millions of people, you can always be sure there’s going to be at least 5,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 people who are the same as you, who are interested in the same things that you’re interested in.
You found your first paid sponsor earlier this month as well in early October. Now you’ve got your first sponsor for six weeks, and that’s how you’re planning to monetize Maker Mind and turn it into a business that’s capable of sustaining itself. How do you go about finding a sponsor for a newsletter, because it seems like you’ve done it twice now? You’ve done it for Maker Mag and now again for Maker Mind.
It’s all been inbound. I’ve never, ever done cold outreach or anything for Maker Mag or Maker Mind. I do marketing. The content itself is marketing, basically. I don’t want my answer to sound like, “Just build it and they will come,” because I don’t believe in this.
Putting your stuff out there is just inbound marketing. If you make sure that enough people see it, you will attract the right people and the right sponsors. I also find that that makes the relationship much easier with the sponsors, because they reached out to me because they think it’s a fit. I don’t necessarily need to do any type of hardcore pitching to convince them that it’s the case.
In both cases, for Maker Mag we have Blockstack as a sponsor. We have Makerpad as a sponsor, all inbound. For Maker Mind, our first sponsor is an app called Ivy. They found the newsletter when I launched it on Product Hunt. They reached out and when they gave me the description of their product I was like, “Yes, that makes total sense.” It’s a mindful productivity app. It’s just perfect for my audience.
Then I have another sponsor coming up and targeting entrepreneurs and promoting mindful entrepreneurship. It’s all been inbound, so the only advice I would give to people that at least worked in my case is just to make sure that you’re super visible and putting yourself out there, and having your clear value proposition so any potential sponsor can very quickly see that this would align with the type of audience that they’re trying to reach.
You’ve mentioned that you didn’t quite believe in, “If you build it, they will come,” so you’ve been pushing your content out there so people would see it. Tell me about some of these channels where people find out about what you’re writing about and the different strategies you use to succeed on each one.
For people who know me, they probably know that I’m very prolific on Twitter, maybe too much. I post a lot on Twitter. What I really like about Twitter is that if I share something and people like it, they’re going to reshare it with their own audience. It has this ripple effect, that you don’t necessarily have on other social networks. This is why I’m a big fan of Twitter.
Then I started posting on LinkedIn. On Mondays I do a Mindful Monday digest, where I put links to all of my most popular recent articles so people on LinkedIn can see them too. These are public on LinkedIn, too, so if enough people like them they can get picked up by the algorithm and more people are going to see them.
I also post on Facebook groups. I don’t do it all the time because I find it a bit time consuming, and also, I don’t like use Facebook in general. I only do it for the ones that did very well on other platforms. I post them there. There are some mindful productivity groups, and entrepreneurship groups, so I post there.
Then the last one I post to is Hacker News. I post systematically there. No idea why some work and why some don’t, but the ones that worked brought me so many subscribers. Another ripple effect is that there are lots of people who curate content for their own newsletters and their websites and their blog based on what’s trending on Hacker News. I also get all of that SEO juice afterwards from other people resharing my content.
So not only are you consistent with writing every day, but you’re consistent in publishing that writing and submitting it to pretty much any channel that you can find. Anne-Laure Le Cunff, we have come to the end of our hour, but before we go, I would love to get your advice for early-stage Indie Hackers who are just now getting started. What do you think they can learn from your story?
I’d say work in public. Share what you’re doing. Share your milestones on Indie Hackers, tweet, post on Medium, your own blog, whatever, but don’t expect people to just find you if you if you’re working in the dark. Put yourself out there.
Can you tell us where listeners can go to find out more about what you’re up to at Maker Mind and in Ness Labs overall?
I’m not going to share my Twitter handle because I made it when I was 12 and it’s impossible to spell, but people can go to NessLabs.com, N-E-S-S-L-A-B-S.com. There are links to my Twitter, my newsletter and everything I’m working on there.
Thank you so much, Anne-Laure Le Cunff.
Listeners, if you enjoyed hearing from Anne-Laure Le Cunff, reach out to her and let her know. She didn’t want to share her Twitter handle, but I will certainly be tweeting about this episode, so just look me up. I’m @csallen, C-S-A-L-L-E-N on Twitter. Like the tweet or retweet it when I tweet about this episode with Anne-Laure Le Cunff.
If you are interested in getting more from the podcast, I now have a newsletter for the podcast, so head over to Indie Hackers.com/podcast. Subscribe there, and I will send out my own insights and thoughts on each episode when they come out. Thanks again for listening and I will see you next week.
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