In fall 2016 I got interested in online anonymity.
I had this idea that I wanted to create a pseudonym to use online, that nobody would be able to trace back to me, and I'd just use it as if it were a completely normal person. I experimented with Tor, came up with a pseudonymous name, etc, and had all these grand plans of operating a secret blog.
However, I was stumped when I tried to sign up for Gmail: they needed me to verify my phone number. And it's the same story at every major email provider. And the same on Twitter, Facebook, and even Telegram. I couldn't find a way to "verify" my phone number without revealing some of my identity (e.g. by paying with a credit card).
So I started building SMS Privacy. In hindsight I should have validated the idea first, but halfway through building it I asked a handful of TOR users what they thought, and the feedback was mostly positive, so that spurred me on to continue.
I had a friend who was re-selling replica paintings of classical artwork in the US. She gave me the idea to build a site that allowed people to order replica paintings by specifying the painting. Instead of doing that, I built a simple landing page that could take any photo, and send back a real hand-made painting from the photo since the painters were doing the replicas off arbitrary photos of the replica paintings in the first place.
While I was super excited about the idea at the time, I was super excited about most of my other ideas too, and they mostly failed. I had already learned to spend as little effort as possible testing new ideas. I set up a single plain HTML page with a Stripe Checkout form and worried about fulfillment later.
After launch it clearly made the most money relative to past ideas, granted it was not high by absolute standards (a few thousands dollars in a few weeks). That was enough to keep me focused on the project for longer than normal. A lack of alternative revenue streams and dwindling funds kept me focused on the business.
With enough persistence I slowly bumped up sales year over year. It was not an overnight success, but having done so many ideas made it easier to identify the one that I should stick with. The business grew with time and effort, and it wasn't always obvious to continue down a path except from the belief that constantly improving the product will generally pay off.
I love software, and I love to build things and I love to help people, so I've always wanted to start a SaaS company. To facilitate the process, in November 2016 I joined an online program called The Foundation, which helps people build products from scratch on the side and, ideally, start a software business.
I came up with the idea for InputKit in January 2017 by doing Idea Extraction, which is a process by which you identify a target market and then try to find out what kind of problem they want to solve. To do this, I reached out to multiple business owners and asked them questions about their customers, their products, their business model, etc., in order to extract ideas from them about what kinds of problems they were running into and how I could go about solving them. I landed on the problem of neglected after-sales follow-ups. I took a weekend to build a quick prototype using Hotgloo, then did pre-sales with business owners in order to validate the idea.
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After my graduation, I flew to Uganda to do an internship at the Belgian embassy (my first real job), but I hated it. I travelled a bit in the region and was seriously wondering what I would do next. I had a degree, applied to a few jobs, and kept checking my friends' LinkedIn accounts, wondering if I too should get a corporate job. It's quite stressful when you've had success doing your own thing and don't know if you'll hit it big again. You think you were just lucky and begin doubting yourself and losing confidence.
After traveling around Africa, I bought a one-way ticket to Asia after a recommendation from a friend who was living there. I thought I would find inspiration in a new place. I went to Taipei and finally decided to live in Bangkok for two months. I booked a coworking space and didn't know what to do next.
When I arrived at my coworking space I saw a small board at the entrance with many notes like "Looking for a freelance designer" and "Looking for a UX designer", and I overheard some members complaining about how hard it was to hire graphic designers. I didn't have that problem since I had a huge Skype list full of great designers, and I thought, "Maybe let's fix that problem. Let's make a website where I guarantee the quality (with a refund guarantee), streamline operations, pay designers a fixed price per month so they stay with me, and let's hunt for clients.
There was a domain that had expired, and I wanted it for a project — smile.io. I knew that it would become available for registration sometime soon, but not exactly when, so I wrote a script that checked the domain every second and sent me an email if it was available.
One day I was sitting down to dinner with my wife when I checked my phone and saw that I got an email that the domain was available less than a minute ago. I rushed to my computer to register it, but it was already registered. This was frustrating, and led me to learn more about the whole system and to improve my scripts. Eventually they got very efficient, and always were able to get the domains I wanted, so I decided to sell this as a service.
There was a week or so of grunt work — setting up a UI, allowing user signups, payments, etc... It wasn't as fun as the scripts to catch the dropping domains, but it allowed myself and others to use the system in an automated way. The first day I launched the service I got a few orders, and I have basically had orders every day since.
I had a few product sites in my portfolio when I started out on my own, the biggest of which is Cheatography, a cheat sheet generator and repository. I also had a little cash in the bank, and a reasonably regular flow of freelance development work for a collection of clients.
I knew I wanted to eventually transition to a product business, but didn't have any one idea for a product in particular that grabbed me above the others. I've always had a bit of what I call shiny-thing syndrome — I like building something new, but haven't usually been as excited by the prospect of getting it in front of people!
In 2004 I wrote a small piece of code to measure the readability of text. It was a coding exercise at the time, but I added it to my website and continued merrily releasing cheat sheets and writing blog posts. It was a few years later that I spotted that the tool was getting quite a lot of traffic, so I moved it to its own domain. The traffic grew, so I added a small premium offering, and used it as a test bed for some pricing experiments — pay what you want pricing, and things like that.
At the end of 2015, the site was sending a trickle of income my way, but based on decent traffic. The conversion rate was about 0.04%, so I decided it was about time I gave the project the attention it deserved.
In 2013 I co-founded (as the technical co-founder) a marketing web app. During the years that we ran it, I was the only tech guy on the team of 12. The business was centered around a product that was embeddable in any kind of website (mainly e-commerce sites), and it was used by almost 1,000 customers. As a result, I learned a lot about how to juggle between scalabilty, performance, bug fixes, new features, support, etc — everything about running a web product.
At some point I realized that my partner's (the CEO's) dreams were different than mine, and I decided to sell my shares and start looking for other opportunities. Immediately after I left, I started thinking about new product ideas. And of course I was thinking about the problems I encountered in recent months and different ways to solve them with technology. This was in November 2015.
One problem that stood out was onboarding new users in web products. One of my colleagues once came to my office and asked me to add some guides to the app in order to teach people how to use the product. It got me thinking about different ways to improve a poor UX without spending days/weeks/months and without depending on a web developer. This is how I decided to build the "in-app tour" creator that became onboardX. I figured LinkedIn, Google, Facebook, et al have been using these tours for years, so they should work.
In June 2013 I started working on Doorbell as a tool for a different project of mine (Sprinter). At first, I was using Zendesk to gather user feedback, but when it came time to renew the subscription, I realized that I'd only had one message come through it. And since Sprinter was a free app, it seemed like an unnecessary cost.
The combination of not wanting to renew Zendesk and itching to start a new project led me to start working on Doorbell. The irony was that this obviously cost me more than the Zendesk subscription would have cost, at least at first!
The original idea was to just gather feedback from users' apps and email it directly. There were no user interfaces for managing the conversations — nothing fancy. Once I had the first version working, however, it wasn't much work to build an interface for managing the feedback.
Around 2014, I started getting the sense that there were business opportunities in WordPress, but my exposure to successful businesses was limited. I didn't see how selling $5 plugins on Code Canyon could account for a business.
In 2015, two things changed my perception. The first was I built a large Woocommerce site for a client, which started with purchasing over $1,000 in add-ons. The second was I attended a WordCamp conference in Atlanta and met the Ninja Forms guys, Andy Wilkerson, and a few other folks who had real businesses based on WordPress products.
I continued to build SaaS apps, but began looking for an opening in WordPress plugins. In the fall of 2015, I found there was no kanban plugin in the WordPress repo, and jumped on the chance to be the first. My suspicions have been proven right. WordPress is a fantastic ecosystem for building a product. The directory of 50,000 free plugins draws endless traffic, resulting in self-discovery of products with little marketing effort. Most of the easy problems have been solved for WordPress as a CMS, but there are endless possibilities for using it as a platform for self-hosted apps. More than 25% of the top sites on the internet use WordPress. Two clicks and they could be using your plugin. That's a huge opportunity.
My friend Trevor and I were complaining about weather apps a few years ago. There were seemingly endless weather apps in the App Store, but nobody had really nailed a decent UI. Most apps were either too simplistic and gimmicky, or heinously overcomplicated.
We thought we could do better by making something totally obvious: an app that showed only the most important info in one straightforward view.
We also wanted to learn how to make a native app from scratch. (We were web veterans, but entirely new to native app development.) I don't think either of us anticipated that we'd actually finish a shippable product — we just wanted to fiddle around with an idea and have fun for a while.
I saw that there was a great deal of volatility going on in the crypto markets, and people were not making rational decisions or doing proper research when buying crypto coins. They would hear from their friend about a friend that supposedly got in early and instantly became very rich. Of course, the fear of missing out drove them to invest blindly, with no understanding of blockchain technology or how crypto or initial coin offerings worked. I felt strongly that this was not the right approach to investing, especially in an area that was extremely volatile and ran more hot and cold than Katy Perry.
That's why we created ACF — to educate users about the different coins and basic marketplace principles, so that if they did want to invest and trade, they could do so with more information at their disposal. They could also experiment with trading risk-free while having some fun at the same time.
Here in Mexico, in order for an invoice to be deductible, you must get an XML file from your vendor. Usually, you find all of your invoices in your email at the end of the month, download them, and then type them into an Excel file. I thought this process was madness! Why should I have to print a digital file and then capture it again digitally?
I started looking for a simple service: one that receives the XML files, parses them, and stores them in a ZIP that also includes an Excel file, so I can forward it to my accountant. Simple, right?
Well, it didn't exist. Even worse, the more I looked into it, the more I found out that the whole industry is lagging behind 10+ years, starting with the government agency itself! This was a golden opportunity.
At this point I had a simple Ruby script for my own needs, which I'd already been using for half a year. I have my own agency, and during some months of 2015 I had nothing to do client-wise, so I chose to give myself another job and started working on turning the script into Box Factura.
I started in January, and by April I had an MVP.
"Sell to your audience."
My first attempts to get something off the ground with a product business were depressing failures because I tried to deliver a product solution to an audience I didn't understand. So I changed my tune. Instead of continuing to look to solve problems for audiences I didn't fully understand or belong to, I started to look towards the group of people I already related to, and where I already had an audience.
Software developers were my tribe. I knew their problems. I knew where they hung out on the internet, and I was a trusted member of the community.
It's true that programming computers is hard. Programming computers is also a lucrative career. I was living proof that you could learn to code and jumpstart a career in a relatively short timeframe.
The question was, "How do we help people get there?"
In 2013 AngularJS was cresting its peak. I attended the BaconBiz conference in Philly, and everybody asked me what I was working on. What was my product? "I dunno, I think I'm going to write a book on Angular or something?" It was a bit embarrassing, but I did start the book.
My co-founder John was creating these excellent AngularJS screencasts on YouTube and giving them away as embedded videos on egghead.io with a donation button.
I was more eager to make money on the internet than I was to produce the content, so I pestered John for months to let me see what I could do with his badass videos. Looking back, the "first sale" that I made through egghead.io was convincing John that I could execute.
I normally have a to-do list on a notebook for what I'll do each day or week. For a long time, there was something that bothered me. There were tasks that no matter if I did them or not, the next day they'd be there again. Go to the gym, eat healthy, etc. It was very frustrating because scratching them off didn't mean I got rid of them. There was no dopamine shot to the brain. There was no visualization of progress.
It was then that I started distinguishing between to-do lists and daily to-do lists. I had the mock-up done before I realized I even wanted to develop it. Then I read about habits, their benefits, and also found out about habit trackers. The idea to "do a little bit every day, no matter how little" had already been in my head for a few years, but I had never developed an app specifically for it.
It's funny to remember now that one of the daily tasks was "Think of 5 business ideas."
From a business point of view, I decided to productize it when, after researching habit trackers, I found that they were all mostly for mobile devices. And there was no nice modern solution on the web.
I thought, "Well, of course it makes more sense as a mobile app." But then I thought of a talk given by Patrick McKenzie about Marketing for Minorities, where he encouraged selling to demographics and on platforms where there's less competition, and I decided to go for it. Most of us spend the day in front of a computer after all!
I have always been interested in the broad concept of 'new platforms', i.e. everything from SMS or newsletter-centric apps, to message- and voice-based interfaces. I was curious to explore non-Android/iOS apps. For example, I made a chat back end for entrepreneurs who wanted to start an SMS-based business. I was trying a lot of things out of curiosity. I started tinkering with Slack API more than a year ago.
I eventually developed the initial idea for Smooz as a nice hack for some friends who were in way too many Slack teams.
Proposeful's journey starts in 2013, when I founded a small web development agency with a friend of mine. I built a project and finance management tool for us to keep track of bills, projects, and tasks. I kept improving the tool, and by 2015 it was pretty neat, so we launched it as a SaaS product.
It acquired a few customers and we were invited to a pre-acceleration program in my city. It was very focused on market validation, and as part of the program I conducted close to 80 interviews with strangers — freelancers, agency owners, consultants, and other service providers — and mapped all their needs to try to connect the dots.
I realized these people had a constant problem with keeping their sales steady and not closing deals fast enough. I had been doing that for 5 years so I understood that challenge very well and believed that by teaching the lessons I had learned and providing great tools I could help them save their businesses.
So what I did was throw away 90% of the old product's features and rebuild it as a proposal writing tool
I started working on WriteMapper because I grew tired of failing. In my early twenties I bought myself time to work on my own software products by doing freelance web development. I did this for years, hoping to find the same kind of SaaS successes that was getting so much attention in the media. After working on at least half a dozen projects that didn't bear any fruit, I decided to buckle down and fully commit to making money from my own products.
Once this became the focus, the next step was to identify a kind of software product that people would be willing to pay a decent amount of money for. I had become disillusioned with SaaS products after so many failures, so I know I wanted to steer clear of that. I decided to build a macOS productivity app that could help its users do their jobs quicker and better, since existing apps in this category already sold at prices ranging from $20 to $200 per copy.
After that, I needed to figure out what the app would actually do. For this, I adopted Trevor McKendrick's approach to product idea generation and product validation: looking through Mac App Store's top grossing apps. After my preliminary research, I whittled it down to either a mind-mapping or writing app, as there seemed to be high levels of demand for both.
I waffled on which to pick for a while, trying to justify how I could make something that would be clearly better and different from the products already out there. Mac users are a discerning bunch, and there were already a number of well designed apps in these categories that were performing very well. I also didn't want to make a cut-price competitor, so I was finding it hard to choose.
Here, I turned to the wisdom of books. Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim argues that cutthroat competition results in nothing but a bloody red ocean of rivals fighting over a shrinking profit pool, and that lasting success comes not from battling competitors but from creating "blue oceans" — untapped new market spaces ripe for growth. Reading this book led me to an epiphany: I could combine both ideas into one, thus creating a my own blue ocean. Once I had the product idea down, it was just a matter of coming up with the perfect name, designing the app's logo, registering the domain, and starting to build the product itself.
As mobile app engineers we faced the problem of not being able to reproduce specific user problems on our own devices, be it due to a weird screen size, a strange OS version, or a specific setting. So we developed a really barebones version of this internal tool for remotely accessing logs, patched it into a special build, and began sending it to users that had a problem.
We saw that this was a recurring problem (which validated the idea itself) and thought it would be great to have the tool built in by default for all of our apps. However, sending so many logs, especially for apps with thousands or even millions of users, creates two problems:
- We'd have to transfer and store millions of logs per day, which is neither cheap nor simple in terms of scalability.
- If this service would always be running on the user's device, sending every log all the time, it would use a ton of data and could make their phone bills quite expensive.
To solve this we put a lot of effort into making this thing scale while at the same time reducing our traffic and data storage bills. (We're still rebuilding and optimizing things today.) And for our application-side SDKs, we put a lot of engineering thought into implementing a battery-friendly process for storing logs locally and only transferring them when requested.
Around my second year of university, I really began to feel the itch to do something on my own. Raza (my co-founder) and I would meet up every Friday night and think of ways to make a million dollars — literally. We'd try to come up with business ideas or think of a way a million people would pay us a dollar each. What broke kid doesn't want to become a millionaire?!
Our very first internet venture spawned off from a website you might remember, called The Million Dollar Homepage. If you're unfamiliar with it, a student from England created a website with a million pixels arranged in a 1,000 x 1,000 pixel grid. The image based links were sold for $1 per pixel (10 x 10 blocks). The purchasers of these blocks provided images where they would put their logo/slogan, and a URL to link the image. The creator of The Million Dollar Homepage was successful in selling out the grid, and grossed $1 million! After that, thousands of clone pixel grid websites launched, none of which ever sold out.
I was looking for a new side-project to work on, and I stumbled upon the idea for Credible when I visited Hotels.com. They had a site widget that showed me that someone had recently booked the same hotel that day. I knew immediately that this concept was something special.
When I investigated further, I found a company that did this already. It was a small Shopify app called Notify (now Fomo). The app had solid reviews and appeared to be selling well, but I recognized that there was a big opportunity to hop in and compete. It looked like they had stopped innovating and marketing the app, but continued to sell well. Shopify has about 250,000 stores, so I knew there was a ton of potential.
At the time, I knew zero about Shopify apps, so I did my due diligence by following up with app developers on Reddit. Overall, the feedback I received from app developers was positive, and so I decided to pull the trigger.
Prior to starting CrazyLister, Victor (my co-founder and our CEO) and I were eBay sellers ourselves. We started selling on eBay without any prior experience, and within 3 years we reached $4.5M in sales. The vast majority of our success as eBay sellers comes from having very high conversion rates thanks to the emphasis we put on professional design.
After winning a couple of eBay awards for the highest conversion rates, we started getting a lot of requests from companies who wanted us to do for them what we did for ourselves. We saw this as an opportunity to expand our business and started consulting for these companies.
However, after working with a few dozen customers we realized that this was not the type of business we wanted to grow into. We didn't want to be another consulting company, because it wasn't scalable in our eyes. What we needed was to provide all the knowledge we'd accumulated during these years to benefit as many sellers as possible without having to consult them one-on-one.
We knew very well that one of the biggest pains for eBay sellers is the listing design creation process which, to put it mildly, isn't a very positive experience. Moreover, eBay didn't provide a good solution — if you needed a professional design for your listings, you had to pay a lot of money to graphic designers unless you were extremely computer savvy and knew both HTML and design principles.
We poured all our knowledge about eBay sales conversion optimization into one super easy-to-use solution, and that's how CrazyLister was born. We hired a developer, and the first lines of code were written in 2013.
I used to teach at General Assembly in Hong Kong. I saw that Hong Kong and Southeast Asia have a shortage of technical talents in the rapidly growing technology sector. Together with Xiao, we started a new in-person coding bootcamp in Hong Kong. We both were living on personal savings at the end.
Very quickly, we faced two problems. The rent is too high, and, more importantly, we don't want to be constrained by the physical location. That's when we started looking into online courses. We knew that online courses are attractive to learners, because they are relatively cheap and accessible. We also know that most people don't complete online courses. We were pretty confident about our insights, but we still needed validation.
There were two ways to test it out: 1) help existing online courses become engaging, and 2) host online courses ourselves.
We started with the first route. We spent 3 months building out a Q&A system allowing students from any courses to come and ask us questions and get an instant response. In the end, we couldn't validate our values of instant Q&A, because most online courses already have their own Q&A site, and students go there even when there's no response.
So two months ago we started to pursue the second path: to build our own courses. We really wanted to validate that students are looking for more than the curriculum and free videos. We wanted to see if students will pay for the instant Q&A, feedback, and community that most online courses don't offer.
I've always liked "___ hosting" as a business idea. I've often noticed that behind most popular open-source projects there's a multi-million-dollar business whose plan is simply to buy or rent some servers, host that open-source software, and offer a web-based control panel for the customer. Think Git, Apache, Sendmail, MySQL, ElasticSearch, and similar services. It's an easy idea to come up with, an easy product to build, and customers are easy to find, since you can just advertise wherever people gather to discuss open-source projects.
Sometimes the potential profit is huge. Companies whose business model is 'download Apache for free, set it up, and run it on commodity hardware' are now known as web hosting companies, and they're a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Game server hosting is much smaller. The total addressable market is maybe $50 million per year, but that niche size presents an opportunity. Since VCs will never fund a company with so little unicorn potential, and many potential founders would never bother starting one, the whole field has very few competitors — and many of them are less than competent.
My skills and experience are perfect for building a hosting company. I've been making web apps since middle school. My only non-self-employed job was the year I spent at Dreamhost right out of college (2009-2010). Because of that, and my own decade-plus of tinkering, I know a great deal about Linux servers and networks. I know how to get racks full of servers at below-market rates, how to manage those servers, and how to create a web app that the customer will use to control their game — a perfect combination!
My plan was always to expand to many different games, but starting with a single game made sense. It would let me test out the business model, iron out all the businessy stuff, and get some practice with promotion before I had to worry about answering support tickets for issues with dozens of games.
I chose to start with Ark: Survival Evolved because of how much growth potential I saw. Prior to launching, I researched the growth trends of a variety of games through SteamSpy and Google Trends, and Ark was the clear winner.
While in DC, I kicked off a music blog called Indie Shuffle (as a hobby). I quickly became hooked on the "game" of generating more visits, and in the process started to teach myself the fundamentals of front-end development. By the time 2013 rolled around, the blog had become a full-fledged online publishing company, and I was ready to make it my main focus.
One of the biggest frustrations of running my music blog was that by the time I took it full-time, I was receiving upwards of 300 email pitches a day from artists, record labels, and publicists, all looking to have their music featured on Indie Shuffle. After a while I simply started ignoring them, though I knew in the back of my head that there had to be a better way.
Then, toward the end of last year, I decided that a good way to learn some new coding languages would be to try and solve this problem by developing a website to streamline the process. And thus, SubmitHub was born.
The idea was simple: interested parties could send their songs (SoundCloud or YouTube) to Indie Shuffle on SubmitHub. We would then receive the submissions in a consistent feed from which we could either give it a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" — the former meant that we were planning to blog it; the latter meant that we weren't interested. In the back of my head, I figured it might be possible to one day charge a small fee in exchange for a few words about why we weren't interested. (e.g. "You can't sing in tune.")
At the time, my main focus was on solving my own problem. I hadn't given much consideration to the thousands of other music blogs who might want to use it. I suppose in that sense I was lucky: I was already "part of the problem" and therefore had a good understanding of what was needed to "solve" it.
I discovered the idea in a pretty straightforward way.
I looked through the Top Grossing apps in each category of the App Store, and specifically looked for apps that ranked well (i.e. they were making money!) but that sucked: they looked poorly built, or had bad reviews, or some combination thereof.
It helps that I speak Spanish because I lived in Mexico for 2 years when I was 20, but that was just a lucky coincidence. I do think the language barrier helped limit the competition, and it's probably one of the reasons there were no decent Spanish Bible apps even though the App Store had already been around for 4 years at that point.
I didn't do any validation other than scrolling through the App Store. There's obviously a market for Bibles, and I had a hunch there was a market for this on the App Store.
I think a lot of entrepreneurs focus too much on making something new, which then has to be "validated," instead of looking around and noticing industries that already exist and are doing well. The Bible market's been around for hundreds of years, and Christianity's been around for thousands… it's not like I had to go and gauge the demand for a book that's been around for thousands of years. The demand is there.
The only real question was whether people would find me on the App Store, and there was so little competition I thought I had a shot.
CoderPad started as a side project while I was still working a day job at Everlane (the first and only job I have enjoyed). I was interviewing a bunch of candidates and kept getting into situations where I wanted to see how a candidate would figure something out.
One asked me if a certain Ruby object supported the .map operation, and I wanted to say, "Just try it!" The problem was, we were using some old-school shared text editor like Collabedit which didn't support advanced features like that.
I thought this was ridiculous, so I tried to buy a product that would do what I wanted: provide a real-time execution environment alongside a synchronized text editor. To my surprise, I couldn't find any. I thought that it couldn't be too hard to build, so I hacked a Ruby-only prototype together in a weekend.
Once I started using it to interview candidates at Everlane, it seemed pretty obvious to me that I could sell this to other people — it was providing an obvious balm to a stressful experience. I also happened to be casually interviewing at other companies for fun, so I rebuilt the prototype and started seeing if my interviewers liked it, too. They often did, which I took as a sign that it was the right time for the idea.
I came up with the idea for Logojoy when I was designing a logo for a client. I've been a designer for 12 years or so, and I've probably made 150 logos for clients. I would get frustrated designing logos for small businesses because (a) it was so time-consuming to create 30 mockups, (b) it would take weeks to do those small back-and-forths, and (c) the logo would end up being so simple that I felt like that entire process was a waste.
As soon as I had the idea, and couldn't find anyone doing it right, I started working on it.
My company is called I Think And Do, and years ago I made the first automatic face swapping app: Face Juggler. Since then it's been copied by everyone. About a year before I started Face Juggler, I'd written down a goal in my diary to make a website that 1 million people visited. (I had just listened to one of Anthony Robbins' courses. I think he's a genius.) I didn't deliberately make Face Juggler to do that, but I think I had it in the back of my mind. I saw the new face detection technology Apple had put in iOS5 and thought I could use it for something funny, so I started playing around and came up with face swapping.
In order to validate the idea, I showed the initial version to my wife (my girlfriend at the time) and a few friends, and they thought it was funny. That was it really, but I think that's the most important test for something that's meant to keep people amused. If you make things that you and your friends like, chances are other people will like them too.
I was raised in Coimbatore, a city located in Southern India with a very entrepreneurial culture. It's also very famous for gold jewelry manufacturing. Given this background, I felt I had a natural advantage and decided to do a startup in this space.
I had little knowledge in this industry at first, so I started off selling plain gold jewelry online under the brand name Krizda.com, but I soon realized that unless we had a unique value proposition it would be difficult to compete with the local jewelers. In India, there is a jewelry store easily available in a 2 mile radius almost anywhere in the country. If we were to compete here, we had to be different.
At the time we saw a lot of jewelry companies going online, but they had little online marketing experience. Given our lack of sales and high amount of competition, we pivoted into a marketplace helping other jewelers list and market their products on our platform, like Amazon for jewelry. However, this required heavy capital investment, and we did not succeed in raising capital.
One fine day, when Sachin Tendulkar (a very famous cricketer/celebrity in India) retired, there were a lot of gold and silver coins being sold with his face on them. We thought, "Why not do this for our customers and make everyone a celebrity?" That's how we introduced the personalized gold/silver coins.
During college, I took a year off to work on an e-commerce startup with a friend. We made a number of classic first-time entrepreneur mistakes, and after a year we decided to shut down the company. I went back to school, finished my degree, and started interviewing for jobs at different startups.
The whole experience left me feeling pretty burnt out on tech. While working on the startup, I'd lost touch with the intrinsic joy of building things for their own sake, and I'd been focusing on work to the point where I was neglecting my personal health.
I felt like getting back into the startup world would just continue that trend, and after spending some time reflecting I realized that what I really wanted to do was travel for an extended period and work on just-for-fun side projects.
So that's what I did. I picked up some freelance web development work and I emailed a bunch of hotels in Central America to see if they'd give me room and board in exchange for web and marketing help. I heard back from a hotel in Costa Rica, and I started working with them to promote yoga retreats during the country's low season.
However, right after we started the project, someone stole their yoga instructor's laptop, and she decided to leave Costa Rica for her native England. All of a sudden, there was no more work for me to do, and it looked like I was going to have to cut my stay there short.
I still wanted to hang out in Costa Rica, so I pitched the hotel owner on bringing a group of developers to his hotel for a "programming retreat." Occupancy rates are low in hotels during the off-season, and the idea was that we could fill his hotel for a few months when it would otherwise be empty. We threw together a landing page and started taking sign-ups. Around this time, my co-founder Alexey came on board.
It turned out there was quite a bit of interest in what we were doing — 30 people came on our first trip, and Hacker Paradise was born! People had such a great time that we decided to keep doing it, and to turn it into a sustainable business. We also decided to open up the community to designers, entrepreneurs, and other non-technical creative types.
During my undergrad I read about the extended mind thesis, which encourages us to think of computers as extensions of our biological minds. Since then, I've thought quite a bit about "extended mind design" — I think this is a useful frame for thinking about many techniques and tools commonly tagged as "productivity advice", "lifehacking", or "metaskills".
A key function of your extended mind is to help you allocate your attention effectively. Our daily attention environment is surprisingly hostile by default, because a lot of actors have strong incentives to misdirect our attention. Recognizing this, I began observing how my attention shifts during the day and taking measures to make my attention environment more amenable to what Cal Newport calls "Deep Work".
One morning I was doing some programming and I needed to ask my client a question. I opened Gmail with the intention of emailing the client, but my attention was immediately derailed by some new messages in my inbox. When I remembered my original intention (perhaps 30 minutes later), I realized that Gmail would be much less of an attentional liability for me if only my inbox were hidden by default.
I hacked a Chrome extension to implement this functionality the following day.
It started off as a sabbatical really. Around March of 2013, I just needed some time off. The corporate development environment was just weighing on me. I decided to take a year off to work on what I wanted to work on (and just live off of my savings).
I saved and lived a pretty frugal life (even now I try my best to live below my means). Having that lifestyle let me save enough money to just take some time off when I needed it. Again, I feel I was lucky in this. Picking software development as a profession kept me gainfully employed after college and let me put away huge chunks of money (while still have a pretty comfortable life for me and my wife).
During that time off, I just wanted to explore new tech and build what I wanted to build. About three months in I came across a web-based game called A Dark Room, and reached out to Michael Townsend to see if he'd be okay with me porting it over to iOS (with my own spin to it). Building a "production quality" game has always been on my bucket list, so this was a good opportunity. It took me about 4 months to get everything ported over. (I used a platform called RubyMotion, as Objective C/XCode was just too painful to work with.) It pulled in very little revenue after release, but through my grassroots marketing efforts (and a lot of luck), A Dark Room iOS hit the number one spot in the App Store in April 2014.