How a surprise life event turned a side project into a business

Over the last four years I’ve been sending a weekly newsletter called Charged that rounds up everything good in technology so people don’t need to keep up with the industry.

Almost the entire time I’ve been sending it, people have regularly asked why I’m bothering with email, but as time has gone on and the news industry has shifted to a colossal, angry algorithm-driven machine, it’s become clear that email is one of the few channels left that aren’t full of people trying to use algorithms and UX tricks to get me to stick around longer, or click more.

Since beginning the process, I mulled building a daily briefing on top of email — in addition to the original weekly version — that would fly the opposite way of social networks, push notifications and attention-grabbing headlines.

Instead, I figured I’d deliver just a single daily email, regardless of the news’ importance, to try an encourage a slow-web approach to the media.

The reality that I discovered, as an ex-journalist, is that almost no news is important enough to warrant pushy notifications, or hype-driven reading. It can almost always wait, and I figured there was something in that approach — and building a community around that would make it even more powerful. Oh, and that the news is incredibly distracting.

Bad tooling, and a personal surprise 👀

I mulled creating this newsletter for a long time, but had three problems:

  1. There didn’t seem to be a decent tool for sending these types of email.
  2. It’s not sustainable to do it for free, and ads are awful.
  3. I could code, but not that well and I wasn’t good with my time.

While I love Mailchimp and Campaign Monitor, they’re the wrong tools for the job. Their services focus on marketing emails and it shows: the archive pages are just crappy web versions of the same thing from your inbox, and they basically live and die in your Gmail— there’s no sense of connection, or even that thousands of others might be subscribed just like you.

Advertising posed another problem, too. It’s clear from the state of the media that the current ad-based model for media just isn’t going to work long term and there’s going to be a shake-out because people are burnt out on their eyes being sold to the highest bidder.

So, like any good procrastinator, I constantly put off doing it and just focused on the weekly newsletter. Over time, it grew from 0 to 2,000 subscribers, then 10,000, then 15,000. Something definitely seemed to be there, particularly because open rates, even at the highest subscriber rate, stuck around 60–70% — but there was always a reason not to do it.

In 2017, after three years of procrastination and mulling building a product that’d solve this, but continually deferring it, until something unexpected happened: I got diagnosed with adult ADD.

A side quest 🌟

I already kind-of know what you’re thinking: oh yeah, everyone’s a little ADD, but frankly, I had no idea what being told you actually have it means, or what the implications might be for, y’know, actually getting shit done.

There’s a ton of stigma surrounding ADD, and people tend to joke a lot about it everyday, so I’d never really considered that I might have it. It wasn’t until a good friend, after visiting for a week, suggested I go and take the test because he’d noticed small signs that were familiar to him.

I’ve always been a lot of things: disorganized, messy, unable to really learn new things fully, constantly jumping between projects, and so on. I just figured that’s a byproduct of being constantly excited about the next big thing, and I dunno, from working in the computer industry. I literally never thought anything of it, and would never have drawn the conclusion that there could be something worth looking into more.

Growing up in New Zealand, mental health isn’t discussed much, if at all. I don’t know anyone who has a therapist, and I’d only ever heard ‘ADD’ as a derogatory term that people throw around as a joke, so constantly put off seeing someone about it out of shame, or maybe fear.

Still skeptical, I visited a clinic in the Netherlands that specialized in such things. While ADD in children is well documented, adult ADD is not: most people don’t take it seriously. Luckily, the clinic here, does — you visit for an entire day and they run through a bunch of tests from psychiatrist discussions to a full-on electronic test called a QbTest.

Being diagnosed is a full-on, exhausting, expensive affair (well, on paper — healthcare is reasonable in the Netherlands so it was completely free if you’re willing to jump through a few hoops). Being properly diagnosed gives you hard numbers, including data on why they believe this is the case.

I’ll save the details for a different post, but after doing all of these different tests for six hours, I got the news: you’re very ADD and hey, it’s a good thing you visited! We have medication and coping techniques we’ll teach you for that, and it’ll help on a daily basis more than you’re possibly able to understand. Also, it’s better you found out now than in say, 20 years. 😬

Left scribble: attention during initial test. Right scribble: attention after treatment.

I don’t really know how to aptly describe getting this information for the first time: an epiphany?

A realization that maybe my brain wasn’t broken, and that “you’re so distracted” reports from teachers weren’t just because I couldn’t apply myself?

Mostly, the experience was this revelation that suddenly there’s this reference point, and validation that the world didn’t make sense for a reason. I’d never really connected the dots that people’s brain’s work differently, and it’s hard to imagine outside of the way your own works because you’re stuck with it.

I figured I just got distracted easily before, but now I knew there was more to it and had tools at my disposal to actually deal with it. One in particular that I found useful, Bullet Journal, has utterly changed my life — and it all came from an understanding of what I’m up against.

Perhaps in a future post I’ll share more specifics abut these things — it’s difficult to even share this part publicly — but if you’ve ever even suspected this might be something that affects you, I highly encourage you to visit a diagnosis center! It’s a great experience, and the worst that can happen is you aren’t diagnosed.

Connecting the dots 👨‍💻

Me looking at this before 2017: ◉_◉

Somehow, just after all of this, I decided it was time to try and make the thing

I don’t recall exactly how I fell back into it, but do remember realizing something suddenly: because of all of these events, the medication, and these new techniques, I was suddenly able to complete tasks fully, and even understand how code worked.

I’ve always been able to code, but never graduated much beyond building small apps, websites and so on. My forte was always words, but with this newfound context I was able to connect the dots together and actually understand code, where before I’d be banging my head against a wall trying to get it all working, without ever really going deep enough to understand it.

The first few weeks of this experience felt like seeing inside the matrix for the first time. Because I could sit for more than an hour at a time, I was able to grasp the deeper context that tied things together. In other words, it felt like this all of a sudden:

This long-winded experience out of the way, I was able to wire up the pieces to code a product around the daily briefing I’d always wanted that deeply winds the community in, and drags email out of the inbox.

By combining email, a community and a great web experience together, I figured I was onto something that the news organizations were missing. We’re all so burnt out on social media, but people still want to talk: it’s just happening in private communities more and more.

I called the app underneath Hubble, and it’s a plugin that lives within Craft CMS. Hubble provides what I like to call a ‘content-focused community in a box’ for creators like me, particularly those that are already growing beyond something like Patreon.

Using this as a foundation, re:Charged was born.

It’s not perfect, but its a start, and it works! 👌

Over the years I’d written so much online, but never really launched a product like this, so I did so timidly. In August, I began inviting close friends to join an alpha and iron out issues before opening it up wider. There was no trial, and people needed to pay full price to join and they did.

It turns out that people liked it enough to actually stop reading news altogether and just focus on the newsletter each morning. The beta was just 20 people, but they were all deeply involved and gave great feedback.

This newfound confidence made me decide to open it up to the weekly newsletter folks to join, in some sort of ‘beta’ mode. Hoping for 50 subscribers, it became almost 150.

After a few weeks of daily writing, iteration and positive feedback, I decided to throw the doors open and just do it: anyone could sign up, and things got a bit serious at almost 300 by the time January rolled around.

Sure, I’m not a millionaire, but holy shit, 290 people are paying me actual currency is a thought that goes through my head every day.

It’s not quite enough to give everything up and move to the beach, but it’ll pay the rent if people stick around.

To be frank, it’s sorta terrifying, but incredibly exciting because it means so much more to me than just having people paying: it’s something I actually built, and it came after years of trying, and failing, to make code stick.

None of this is to say I’ve nailed it, or that the product is out of the woods yet: I’ve still got to figure out how to get new people on-board, and how to grow the company further, but it’s a start. Ultimately, my goal is 1,000 subscribers, in keeping with the ‘1,000 true fans’ philosophy:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month.
If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

One other thing came out of this process, which was also unexpected: I finally got the confidence to go freelance. I’d always been doing it on the side, but being a scatterbrain meant it was scary. Almost overnight, it wasn’t anymore.

Too long, didn’t read (or, the takeaway) 🚨

2017 was weird in a lot of ways. The combination of a friend’s honesty, and finally getting over my own pride to get tested for ADD was this life-changing experience that wound up with me figuring out how to code, getting my shit together and ultimately becoming independent.

Out of that, I launched a product of my own and it seems to be working! There’s a long journey ahead — the next step is making Hubble available to other creators — and I don’t know if it’ll work out in the long term for reCharged yet, it’s still early days.

I can, however, confidently say becoming comfortable with discussing mental health, visiting a therapist and getting diagnosed with ADD was a pivotal moment in my story so far. Ultimately, I hope by sharing that more people will be able to do the same.

P.S — If you liked this and want to join my daily technology briefing / ‘slow news’ experiment, you can sign up to re:Charged using the code ‘medium-party’ to get a 25% discount on your first month. Or just say hey on Twitter.🎊

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