I Built An App That Punishes Writers If They Don't Write

Published: August 24th, 2021
Burak Kanber
Founder, WritePhobia
from New York, NY, USA
started April 2021
market size
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
270 days
growth channels
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
40 Pros & Cons
1 Tips
Discover what tools Burak recommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Burak recommends to grow your business!
Want more updates on WritePhobia? Check out these stories:

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Burak Kanber, and I'm a software engineer, entrepreneur, musician, and sometimes-educator and writer. Some consider me an expert on machine learning; enough so that I've been approached to write and publish two books on the topic. Secretly, though, I wish I were a fiction novelist. There's just something "capital-R Romantic" about that lifestyle. I picture myself like Hemingway, earning a living by writing 500 clever words a day while I lounge by the pool.

I built WritePhobia because writing regularly is hard for me to keep up with. I'm always telling myself that I'll write that new blog post this weekend, or that I'll finally start the draft of that novel I've been thinking about. Like many others, I tend to "meta-write" more than I actually write. I'll dedicate hours to listening to podcasts on the craft of writing, but when it comes time to put pen to paper I find myself drifting off into something else.

Once I came to terms with my poor discipline I decided to build an app that punishes me for my bad habits. So far, I've got a few dozen users writing regularly on the app, which is great seeing as it's only in public beta and I've done zero marketing!


What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for WritePhobia?

I started a marketing technology company with a partner back in 2009; serving as co-founder and CTO there has been my full-time career since then. In the early days of the company, I took it upon myself to learn about machine learning, or "ML". I've got a somewhat obsessive personality, so this wasn't the perusal of a few papers and books. I did a deep dive, learning those algorithms inside and out, writing them over and over in different programming languages until I'd internalized them.

There's a lot of gatekeeping in the technology field, especially a decade ago and doubly so in the field of machine learning. I very quickly became disgusted by the attitude of ML practitioners, who claimed that if you didn't have an advanced degree in computer science, and if you didn't use the Python programming language, you didn't have a chance. I disagreed wholeheartedly. Machine learning is just math and algorithms. You can do it in any capable programming language.

Then I started writing. I wrote about machine learning on my blog. I wanted to teach readers the core concepts so that they didn't have to rely on the gate-kept Python ML community. I also decided to demonstrate these algorithms in a programming language that everyone universally despised: JavaScript. (Clearly, things have changed a lot in the last decade.) My blog posts were read over a million times and after that, the book offers started coming in. So I became an author! But I was "just" a technical author writing about niche topics in computer science. That wasn't quite my secret dream of becoming the "next great American novelist".

I was also a huge podcast listener at that time. One day I listened to the Radiolab episode "You v. You". One segment featured a woman who had tried everything to quit smoking, but nothing stuck. Eventually, she made a pact with her friend: if she ever smoked again, she told her friend to take $5,000 from her and donate it to a hate group. She never smoked again. Smoking has this vague, long-term but abstract negative consequence: you might get sick years from now. But this pact transformed the long-term into the immediate -- smoking a cigarette was transformed into a gut punch that would have consequences today.

Those two threads -- my yearning to write fiction, and that concept of building habits by making consequences immediate -- sat with me for a long time. I'm someone who's constantly working on side projects; I love building software so much that I do it both as my day job and as my hobby. I'd been thinking more and more about writing again lately, and finally, this year, decided to pull the trigger on that project idea I'd been marinating for nearly a decade: an app that punishes you for not writing.

At the time I started WritePhobia, I had just wrapped up another side-project: Scrumsheet, a scrum app that uses Google Sheets as its data store. ("Scrum" is a project management process for software developers.) Scrumsheet was built as a desktop app and distributed through the various app stores; I wanted to avoid repeating this approach with WritePhobia because app store marketing is a whole different ball game, so I built WritePhobia simply as a web app.

Take us through the process of designing the MVP.

Normally, I can spin outside projects in a really short period of time. A week or two at most. WritePhobia was a little different, and I had to work on it in two separate and distinct phases. I first built out the writing and editing experience. This came pretty easily: a text editor here, a place to read posts there, and a place to set your daily word-count goals.

Then I hit the great wall of demotivation. The logistics of tracking word-count goals and charging a user at midnight if they miss a goal aren't too complex, but it was a lot for an every-other-weekend project. What happens if a user deletes words? What happens if I make a mistake and the app keeps charging people? I couldn't afford a designer, so it was u-g-l-y. On top of that, there was my doubt that the app was too simple, causing scope creep: "this is just a text editor that charges you money -- won't users want more features, like a community and writing groups?" So I set the project down for a few months.

Then, as most entrepreneurs should, I came back to the app with renewed confidence and vigor, said "screw it, let's do an MVP", and decided I would do as much as I could in two weeks and then start showing it to real users, for better or for worse.

Those early public-alpha days were a real scramble. Billing was live, and I had users in different time zones, so I had to check every hour to make sure the app didn't accidentally mischarge people. The homepage looked atrocious, the dashboard was unintuitive, but users were using it and telling me that it was helping them, so I had no choice but to chip away at the rough edges and add some polish as I found time on the weekends.

This is what the first landing page looked like. It was essentially plain text on a page. I did this initially to avoid having to do design work, but in retrospect, it's also clear that I made the incorrect assumption that visitors would care more about content than design:


After running this landing page for a few weeks I decided to try my hand at a design update. I wanted the site to feel more "writer-ly", and came up with this:


I still kind of like that design, but ultimately the feedback was that the colors were a bit much and the layout felt a little bit "old", i.e., it didn't conform to the more modern design language commonly used on landing pages.

One last iteration to lighten up the design involved grabbing some cheap illustrations. This is the design that's in place today. It's still not as shiny and polished as the landing page templates you can buy through the popular theme sites (like themeforest.net or Caard), but it's close enough to modern that it works:


Describe the process of launching the business.

My main priority was getting the billing and payments system right. WritePhobia would need to save a credit card, respect each user's timezone, track writing goals, and charge users $1 automatically at midnight if they didn't meet the writing goal for that particular day. Fortunately, stripe.com is a thing, so credit card processing is a lot simpler than it was even just a few years back, and I was thrilled to see that they support my use case. The billing came together in time for my self-imposed launch deadline, but that effort did come with some downsides.

If you want to create a PPC-driven product you should start with the keyword research, landing pages, MVP, and demand building as you hone in on what the product is, and not the other way around.

Because I focused most of my time on the billing functionality, I launched WritePhobia with the world's simplest homepage. It was a few lines of plain text describing how the app worked. It was also a bit tongue-in-cheek with phrases like "Get punished for failure". Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn, famously said "If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late". Until this point, however, I didn't understand just how bad that embarrassment could be! Showing people writephobia.com made me cringe every time. I'm not a designer so honing in on a homepage design took a few iterations, and I'm still not thrilled with it. It's serviceable for now.

Initially, I had big dreams of getting PPC to work. I ended up dumping a few hundred dollars out of a tiny savings account I made for the project into Google, Twitter, and Facebook ads, only to discover that the product is just too niche to be successful on those PPC channels. I've considered hiring PPC consultants, but I'm not yet convinced of the ROI there.

Fortunately, the app has gathered a small but steady stream of new users just from my own word-of-mouth and social efforts -- primarily direct messages to users on Reddit and Twitter. I'm now thinking about the long-term of WritePhobia marketing, hoping to capture a good share of the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in November) crowd, as well as developing a newsletter strategy.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Initially, I really wanted to make pay-per-click work. I started with Google Ads and also tried some Twitter and Reddit ads as well. Several hundreds of dollars later, I discovered that these channels don't really work for WritePhobia. My impression is that the product is too niche to target an audience properly. I even tried to retain a Google Ads expert to help with that channel, but we never went forward with the engagement because they were unable to find any competitors or search terms that would work! I don't believe I've gotten a single active user from PPC.

Part of the problem here is that I built WritePhobia because I wanted it as a product, not because I saw a marketing opportunity for it. If you want to create a PPC-driven product you should start with the keyword research, landing pages, MVP, and demand building as you hone in on what the product is, and not the other way around.

What is the work of hand-selling the product to small groups of people? I've had success in dropping the link on various Reddit threads where we're discussing tactics for staying motivated to write. There's a similar story on Twitter; if I see people discussing the topic, I'll offer my non-WritePhobia advice, and also refer them to the app. It's important to bring value to the conversation and not just spam your app link. Reddit is particularly sensitive about self-promotion, so you have to be very careful about how often you post the link to the app. I do it only sparingly and when the conversation is highly relevant.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

WritePhobia is enjoying slow but steady growth these days. I'm not spending any money on marketing for the moment but instead dedicating a few minutes each day to Reddit and Twitter engagement. The app itself has made a small amount of money in the last month, nearly all of which will be donated to writing charities.

What I'm most looking forward to is November's "National Novel Writing Month" (aka NaNoWriMo). WritePhobia is the perfect tool to help writers stay on track for the goal of 50,000 words in a month. Over the next couple of months, I'll be doing some pre-marketing for that event and attempt to make some sort of loose partnership with nanowrimo.org. This will also involve new feature development, like support for writing groups and peer review.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One powerful thing I've learned is that I personally don't have a taste for marketing. Iterating on landing pages, ad copy, and keyword targeting simply doesn't excite me. I don't have the energy for it. I'm much more of a product-focused person, but it turns out that "If you build it they will come" is utterly false. Marketing is much more important than the product itself (much to my chagrin).

Building WritePhobia has scratched my own itch for a product that I want to see on the market. But the next time I have that yen to build a micro-saas product, I will absolutely start with the marketing end of things. I'll start with the keyword research, mailing list signup, community building, and idea validation, and I'll tag in marketing experts from the start. Only then will I build the product that fits the need. I'm certain that approach will net more money, but I'm interested to see how satisfying (or dissatisfying) it is from a product perspective.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I find Twitter to be a really valuable tool whenever it comes to finding professional or niche communities. An important thing to know about Twitter is that you can't expect your Tweets themselves to get direct engagement or click-throughs or traffic. A lot of people who use Twitter for marketing expect to be able to simply broadcast and see results. That doesn't work. What does work on Twitter is starting conversations Use Tweetdeck to maintain searches for topics that are relevant to you, and spend some time each day talking to people? You'll make friends and build a community that way. Another tool I use is Owlead, which helps grow your Twitter following by automating follows and unfollows.

Other than the Twitter-related tools, I've got a Substack mailing list I just recently created; this will be part of my long-term content marketing strategy. I've used Fiverr for various one-off tasks, like generating a list of Tweets for WritePhobia that I can use when I don't have the inspiration to write anything original. I've used Octoparse to scrape the top 1000 writing prompts from Reddit's /r/writingprompts, and added those to a tool in the WritePhobia app. And then there's the standard slew of tools that all micro-SaaSes need: Stripe payments, Google Analytics, Google Search Console, SEMRush, and so on.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

There are two that I'll call out: the first, which I've mentioned already, is the Radiolab podcast. The episode "You v. You" was the initial seed for the idea behind WritePhobia. Truthfully, I haven't listened to Radiolab regularly in several years, but the early days of that podcast were truly fascinating and constantly kept my mind buzzing with new ideas and concepts.

The other is the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. There are, of course, lots of books about the science and psychology of habit-forming. But I like this one in particular because the author blends science with prescriptive advice and concrete tactics. He also discusses negative reinforcement as well as positive reinforcement, where many other books focus primarily on positive reinforcement.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

As a product-focused engineer, this pains me to say: but marketing is far more important than the product or technology. WritePhobia is a side project of mine that I do for fun, so I'm able to nerd out on products and not worry too much about marketing without it negatively affecting my life too much. In my 15 years as an entrepreneur and founder, I've seen lots of great tech companies fail due to lack of marketing, and I've seen lots of companies succeed due to marketing despite a lack of tech. I have a blog post that digs into this topic a bit more: Don't Overinvest in Engineering.

It's also really important to know your goals. Too many young entrepreneurs start out wanting the world. They have lofty, vague goals, but these are often so vague as to be unachievable. Instead, take a day to think about your goals -- both your life goals and your goals for a specific project -- and write them down. Commit to them. My goal for my full-time startup wasn't to become filthy stinking rich, it was to support a fully independent and comfortable lifestyle. Knowing that goal shapes the decisions you make, and also lets you measure how far you still have to go. My goal for WritePhobia was to build and nurture the product, not to reach a huge scale, and that informed my decisions as well. At some point, I'll start a project with different goals: maybe I'll want to make passive income, or to scale rapidly, or to dominate a niche, but whatever the goal is it will be one specific* *goal that I can target and pursue directly.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you're looking to use the app to develop your writing habit, visit us. Set up your writing goals and start writing! If you're looking to learn more about the craft and business of writing, sign up for our newsletter. Finally, if you just want to hang out and interact, follow us on Twitter @WritePhobia.

Want to start a writing workshop teaching business? Learn more ➜