Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Matt Baer, founder of Write.as. We make digital tools that help creative people get their work online, from words to visual art. What we’re most after is building usable software that doesn’t kill your creative ideas (as notifications, feeds, and “likes” tend to do), to encourage free expression by giving you better privacy, and to make digital expression accessible to everyone.
The main products we build are Write.as, a focused writing/blogging platform, and the open-source software behind it, WriteFreely. It serves everyone from poets to programmers, from people who write professionally to those who write to get something off their chest. Today we host over 75,000 sites, more than 500,000 articles, and power hundreds of independent WriteFreely sites across the web. Our Pro service is built for individuals, and our Teams service is built for companies and other organizations.
Beyond our flagship tool, we’re building Snap.as, a minimal tool for sharing photos and galleries, and Submit.as, a submission management system made just for written content. Both of these products work perfectly with Write.as but are also useful on their own. Ultimately, this is what we’re building -- a suite of integrated apps that all share the same principles of simplicity, privacy, and respect for the user.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I'm a software developer and writer, though I wrote my first line of code before I ever wrote a meaningful essay. From around age 9, I’ve gone from making HTML websites to Flash animations, to games, to web apps, to mobile apps, to this company I’m building now. I’ve always been interested in learning new things throughout my life, and I follow whatever new challenge interests me -- that pretty much explains how I’ve gotten to where I am today.
I came up with the idea for Write.as in late 2014, while I was working at a (now-defunct) social media startup. This was my second major job after school, and I was happy to be there. But ever since I’ve had a broadband connection I’ve had some kind of side project, and my ongoing one at the time was a tool called “LunchTable.” Essentially it put a new interface on social networking and brought people together into groups called “tables.” It never took off outside my group of friends, but it wasn’t really meant to either. It was more of an experiment -- something that taught me new skills and scratched a creative itch.
Give yourself time to make something truly good. Don’t get discouraged if your assumptions don’t turn out correct.
Also around that time, it seemed like every day there was more news about government surveillance from the Snowden leaks, which had me thinking about privacy more than usual. I’ve always been on social media and wary of their constant data collection but seeing these internet companies give the government unchecked access to our private lives really hit home for me.
So in early 2014, I’d added a new feature to LunchTable where people could create these “tables” without signing up. Then, by simply sharing a link, they could invite people to join in and chat with them -- no sign up needed. This was nice and easy from a UX perspective and kept people private by default since the service didn’t collect any personal information. It worked pretty well and really provided the seed of inspiration for Write.as, which took the exact same tack when it first launched.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I hacked together the first version of Write.as on a spare weekend. I had sketched out some potential mobile app designs to get an idea of what things might look like in the future, but I wanted to make something that people could use quickly. I was also learning a new programming language at the time, Go. So the prototype was as bare-bones as possible -- an old-school telnet application that would let you connect to it, write, and then publish what you wrote. I chose a telnet application partially because it was something this new language let me do, but also just because it was fun and interesting.
Like LunchTable, there was no sign up needed. You’d connect, write, and when you are finished, it would give you a regular URL you could share with anyone. It was basically like a pastebin, but the posts showed up on a nice-looking page, instead of something made only for programmers.
At that stage, the idea of Write.as was so simple, and everything was an experiment. There was little design needed -- if I wanted to add something, it really went straight from the idea into code.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Once I got the app working, I was excited to share it with someone. I figured other techies on Reddit would appreciate it and find it interesting enough to try out, so I went to the /r/linux subreddit to share what I’d made. A bunch of people tried it and gave feedback, which showed that I’d at least made something mildly interesting. Plus I liked it, so I kept working on it.
Over the next 9 months, I released mobile apps on Android and iOS, an app on Chrome OS, a browser extension, a command-line tool, and finally a web app where anyone could publish. With each new app finished, I’d usually share it on Reddit and just talk to people about it. That was enough early exposure to get people paying attention to Write.as and looking for future updates.
In these early days, costs were low. It helped that plain text takes up so little space -- Write.as saw thousands of posts, and everything could still fit on a small server that cost about $10 per month. Besides that, I only needed to pay for domain names.
I’ve realized the importance of staying sharp and personally centered. Getting enough sleep, get into healthy routines, and generally treat my mind and body well.
Then in June 2016, about 18 months after launching, we finally became a “business” when I added accounts, blogs, and a paid plan on top of our free offering. I’d heard these feature requests for a while, and I knew I wanted this project to sustain itself at some point. So leading up to this, I’d reached out to our followers on social media to let them know what was coming. I’d sent them surveys about future features, and let them reserve their Write.as username ahead of time as thanks for their input. Because I’d kept everyone in the loop, people were looking forward to the new features and started using them as soon as they went live.
However, it was almost two months before we saw our first customer. People loved the clean, simple blogs they could now create for free, but were hesitant to pay $4 per month. I rushed to add more premium features and experimented with lower pricing, and eventually, it paid off. It wasn’t a lot of money, but that very first payment from someone I didn’t personally know was the final validation I needed to keep going.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
One of the most important things I’ve done to attract new customers is publicly talking about the ideas behind the product. As the web gets more crowded and everyone vies to be the “greatest” product in their category, we’ve done well by outlining out our unique perspective on the world and calmly pursuing it. Generally, that involves me being the face of the company and writing a lot. But I’ve happily grown into that role, doing talks at conferences and, of course, using the product I built to regularly publish my writing.
Another thing that’s worked is constantly keeping people updated on our progress. So as we release new tools and features, we make sure the relevant people know about them, both in our own community and new ones. This gives our platform a sort of “heartbeat,” keeping people interested in what we’re doing and showing that the product is always evolving. Because of this, we often see people who leave naturally come back after a while, because we’re constantly enabling people to do new things with the platform.
We’ve also had successful weekend projects that end up giving us steady exposure from new audiences. Our first one was called HTMLhouse -- a little tool for easily publishing web pages and previewing your HTML in real-time. After that, we made a browser extension called Make Medium Readable -- a friendly dig at a similar platform that inspired Write.as.
The key to these projects has been making something that stands on its own, showing it to the people who would enjoy it most, and sometimes making a small statement that gets people interested in what you’re building.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’ve come a long way over the past five years, and I can’t wait to see what the next five hold for us. We’re at a point now where we have a solid, mature creative tool, so now we get to focus on enabling new uses on top of it. Today, that means things like easy newsletters, minimal blogs, and focused company communications. In the future, it might mean new kinds of digital communities, especially connected by protocols like ActivityPub, and new collaborative publications.
We’re still spending nothing on user acquisition, growing entirely by word-of-mouth. We see over two million pageviews across our platform every month, and tens of thousands of new posts published. And while the numbers are still small, revenue has grown by 200% year-over-year since launching paid plans.
Our next big challenge is moving into the B2B and institutional markets. We’ve already started to prove that there’s a demand with the large customers we have so far, but it’s an entirely new arena that’ll demand a new set of skills from the team.
We saw our first run of profitable months at this scale earlier this year. But the business has been bigger than me for a while, so in May we started hiring -- and I started to quickly learn how to manage a team. This has been another challenge I never could’ve anticipated before experiencing it first-hand. But I’m excited to finally have a group of passionate people to help build everything I hope to with this company.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
There are very few things I’ve learned so far that I’m “done” learning. But for one, I’ve seen the value in physical presence. It’s tempting to never get out from behind your screen, especially as an internet business. But I’ve made stronger connections and accomplished more by meeting people in person than I ever could in the same amount of time online. So I make time for conferences and meetups that’ll benefit the business, as well as regularly sitting down with customers and users, and that’s been extremely important for us.
I was most blind-sided by the experience of going from a one-man company to a team of people. It was something entirely out of my wheelhouse. When challenges came up, the best I could do was to draw on my experience working at other companies, try to come up with a good-enough solution, get very comfortable not knowing whether it was the right thing, and just move forward as best as I could, being honest and transparent along the way. For the most part, it’s been relatively smooth. I just don’t think I’ve ever adjusted to something new so quickly.
Lastly, I’ve realized the importance of staying sharp and personally centered. The business has grown much more demanding over the years, now more popular than ever, with high-value customers and a team I’m responsible for. Even more so today, I’m the crucial part that moves it forward. So that’s been plenty of reason to start getting enough sleep, get into healthy routines, and generally treat my mind and body well.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The community around our platform plays a major role in our business. So we keep in touch with them on Twitter, using Tweetdeck particularly for its multi-account support (we have one for each project we’re planning to build), and the ability to keep track of certain search terms.
Then we bring everyone together in a public space using Discourse. This has been one of the best moves we’ve made, giving us a direct line to the people using our software, allowing us to answer support questions in a single public space rather than 10 different private emails, and helping us actually bring people together with each other.
For development, we use GitHub for our open-source projects and the bug tracking that goes along with them. We host a private Gitea instance for our closed-source projects and then do all of our project planning and team chat in Phabricator, another fantastic open-source tool that we’ve found works well for development.
Lastly, we’re a huge user of our own product, Write.as / WriteFreely. We share product updates across several Write.as-powered blogs -- easy, because you can publish to multiple independent sites under a single account. Then we have a private Write.as for Teams site, which gives everyone on our remote team a space to write out daily objectives, share product feedback, and make plans or proposals. It’s become the calm space we check every day that keeps us all on the same page, without constantly interrupting us.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I try to draw on many different sources for inspiration. Patrick McKenzie’s writing has helped a lot over the years, along with most of the books, podcasts, and writing that comes out of Basecamp.
I also appreciate the occasional business-related conversation that comes out of some Hacker News threads, particularly because they’re spontaneous and not as polished as you might see in other places.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I think the most important advice I could give is to give yourself time to make something truly good. Don’t get discouraged if your assumptions don’t turn out correct, and always remain open to answers as they reveal themselves to you. Today, Write.as has become much more than what I first imagined it would be. It’s only gotten to this point because I let it evolve as assumptions were tested, new questions got answered, and I followed different roads for long enough.
Lastly, while it’s important to read success stories from other entrepreneurs, don’t put too much stock into a single source of wisdom. Seek a wide array of knowledge and inspiration -- from art, from business, from the people around you -- and don’t be afraid to form your own ideas about what your endeavor should be. This is the beauty of building a business: whatever it becomes is entirely up to you. Above all, trust your gut and forge your own path. It won’t lead you astray.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re looking for developers, particularly Go (golang) developers, plus a marketing person that can help us reach writers in a way that stays true to our ethos. Beyond that, we’re open to anyone who likes what we’re doing and thinks they can help out in some way.
If any of those jobs sound interesting, please reach out to me directly or apply at jobs.write.as!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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