Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Karl, and I’m the founder of Draft. After almost a decade leading engineering teams at venture-funded startups, I decided it was time to leap into entrepreneurship. Draft is a productized service that provides technical content to software engineering blogs on a subscription basis.
August is my third month running the business and first month full-time, and I’m on track to bring in $10,000 in (mostly) recurring revenue this month. The business isn’t going to replace my salary as a CTO right away, but the freedom of running my own business has given me a lot of freedom to stretch my creative muscles and spend time with my family.
My son Joe and dog Chili. We get to hang out together every day now!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
At the beginning of 2020, I was starting to feel bored. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my job, but I didn’t feel like it was pushing me out of my comfort zone. I worked for an early-stage tech startup, and when Covid-19 hit, the engineering team went down to half-time to save money. With a little extra time on my hands, I started to think about what I might want to do next.
Be careful about listening to experts. Experts forget what beginners don't know, so they skip things that are obvious to them. I’m not saying you should never listen to experts but don’t assume that everything that worked for them will work for you.
Jim Collins - the author of Good to Great - presents this idea called The Hedgehog Concept. The idea is that your business should be at the intersection of something you’re passionate about, something you’re the “best in the world” at, and something that drives your economic engine. This framework helped me eliminate many weird (and likely unprofitable) business ideas off the bat.
The problem was that I didn’t feel like I was ever going to be the “best in the world” at any one thing. Like a lot of entrepreneurs, I am deeply curious and not obsessive about details. I tend to float around and try a lot of things out.
Fortunately, I had read Scott Adams’ (creator of Dilbert) How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. In the book, Adams introduces the idea of “skill stacking.” He says that it’s almost impossible to become the best in the world at one specific thing, but that it’s very possible to be in the top 25% of people at a unique combination of two things.
This led me to consider my skills. I had been a software engineer for over eight years, and I had always enjoyed writing. A few companies had paid me to write for their blogs in the past, so I reached back out to them and started to explore technical blogging as a business.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I started by applying to write for several community writing programs. These programs offered modest pay, but after a few conversations with people who run the programs, I realized that you could get paid much more by finding and working with your clients.
Building a service business is all about trust. I needed to find a way to convince clients to trust me as quickly as possible while raising my rates to a sustainable level. I set up a landing page and spent the most money I’ve ever spent on a domain name ($500). Ironically, most of my sales have come through word of mouth, so I’m not sure the domain has paid off yet. Still, it’s a long-term asset.
As I had more sales calls with prospective clients, I started to realize a few things:
There were a ton of technology companies who wanted to get into content marketing but couldn’t find software engineers who were also good writers.
The problem wasn’t just content generation - most prospective clients had no idea how to make a content plan or promote their content.
Price was rarely an objection. Most of my customers are SaaS businesses, so the lifetime value for each customer they get can be huge. Paying $1000 or more for a high-quality, technical blog post wasn’t an issue.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My “launch” was simple: I opened up my quarterly contact list and started setting up meetings. Few people in my network went on to become customers directly, but several introduced me to someone else who did. It was encouraging to get so much help from people, and it speaks volumes about the value of maintaining your network.
I ultimately want a business that is enjoyable to run, but you don’t get there by only doing things that you find easy. Struggling into the unknown, scary situations is how you grow.
Besides referrals, I started writing more content and sharing it widely on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit. Several people reached out to me through social media because they saw my writing somewhere and wanted to hire me for their blog.
I’m not a fan of the big, flashy launch - especially for a service business - but I was amazed how quickly clients found me. Having an audience and social media following from years of writing and building things on the side played a part in the business’ initial success.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Because referrals and content marketing work so well for this business, that’s where I’ll likely focus in the first year. That said, I’m planning to explore cold outreach and direct sales in October once my operations are more streamlined, and I have a few more writers helping out.
The nice thing about a subscription service like Draft is that most clients stick around for a while as long as you do good work for them. I’m too early to have reliable lifetime value numbers, but others in the space have told me 12-24 months is common. This means that every client I sign could be worth more than $24,000.
On the flip side, the scary thing about a subscription service is what happens when a client is not profitable to service. This could happen if it’s really hard to find qualified writers for them or if they require many extensive revisions. So far, I haven’t had one like this, but it could pretty quickly eat a chunk of my margins.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Draft has been profitable from day 1, but that’s to be expected in a service business. Now that I’m working on it full-time, my focus is on standardizing operations and recruiting other writers so that I don’t have to spend as much time on execution. My goal is to only write articles that I want to write by the end of the year and have the rest covered by my team.
The operational expenses in the business are pretty low - a few hundred dollars per month for software - but finding good writers is a risky (and sometimes costly endeavor). For example, if a writer botches an article, I’ll pay them for their time, but will have to pay another writer for a rewrite. I’m combating this problem by creating very detailed content plans and briefs up front.
While I enjoy running the business and I’m learning a ton, my goals for Draft are pretty modest. I want to build a company I enjoy running and have the ability to travel and take time off whenever I want. It’s a lifestyle business that affords me opportunities to learn, try new creative things, and spend time with people I like.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m learning to embrace fear.
It sounds counterintuitive because I ultimately want a business that is enjoyable to run, but you don’t get there by only doing things that you find easy. Struggling into the unknown, scary situations is how you grow.
In her book, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert says, “the less I fight my fear, the less it fights back. If I can relax, fear relaxes, too.” It’s a work in progress, but I’m slowly learning to relax through fear.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Airtable and Zapier run about 90% of my business. I have a base with all my clients, writers, and articles that serves as a publishing calendar and work tracker. When an article meets specific criteria, a Zap automatically creates and shares a content brief with the writer. When I accept a new writer, Zapier automatically emails them and adds them to my approved writer email list.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The E-Myth Revisited - Even if you just want to build a small, lifestyle business, you must think like a business owner and not a tradesperson. This book is essential reading if you struggle to get out of the day-to-day work.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First, be careful about listening to experts. Experts forget what beginners don't know, so they skip things that are obvious to them, plus they often exhibit hindsight and survivorship bias. I’m not saying you should never listen to experts - they can help you avoid many pitfalls - but don’t assume that everything that worked for them will work for you.
Second, just start trying things. Getting Draft off the ground felt relatively easy because I had spent years on side hustles that never really got much traction. I doubt I would have had the guts to go full-time on this project if I hadn’t done some of those little projects that had failed.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m always looking to hire good freelance writers. If you have any experience writing code or working in tech, I might have paid opportunities for you every month.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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