Maker Spotlight: Becoming an overnight Hacker News success (with Ethan)

Welcome to this week’s Maker Spotlight, with our featured guest, Ethan! Today he launched KanbanMail, and joined us to talk about how it became an overnight Hacker News success — and much more. Settle down, get some coffee, and I hope you enjoy the interview! ✨

Hey Ethan, welcome to this week’s Maker Spotlight. As is tradition, tell us a little about you and your experience.

Hey! I’m Ethan. My first dive into the world of indie makers was about a year ago, when I started Code The Web — a website teaching people web development. It wasn’t really a ‘product’, but in my desperate search for growth and monetization ideas, it lead me to the online maker community. I found out about many really inspiring makers, and I knew immediately that I wanted to launch a real product of my own. I wrote that down as my main goal for 2018, and I’ve recently achieved it!

What are you working on, Ethan?

The product that I’ve recently launched is KanbanMail — it’s a Kanban board for your emails. If you’re not familiar with the term Kanban, it’s a really cool Japanese system for visualizing tasks. I decided to apply it to emails! Here’s what it looks like…

I’ve been using it every single day since a few weeks into development, and it’s really helped me manage my emails! That was some motivation to keep going early on — even if it got 0 users, I’d still have a super-useful tool for myself!

Your main project is KanbanMail — how did you come about the idea? How was the creative process?

In early 2017, I started using an awesome tool called KanbanFlow to organize my tasks. This was the first time that I’d ever heard of Kanban, and I really liked it. I found it so cool that it turned a boring linear to-do list into a picture that showed you what you needed to do when right before your eyes! It made me much more organized, and I always knew what needed doing when. I’m a huge fan of visualizing stuff, and KanbanFlow was perfect. I’ve been in love with Kanban ever since!

I remember a few months after discovering KanbanFlow, I was chatting about it with a friend. I was telling them how it changed a scary list into a calm action plan, and how it really helped. And then a thought popped into my head — what is one of the most scary lists in people’s’ lives? Their inboxes! Before KanbanFlow, I sometimes felt confused about what needed doing. Just like everyone feels about their inbox! Which emails need replying to? Is there an email that I need to act on? I feel like there was something I said I was going to do yesterday… And just like that, I realized how valuable something like KanbanMail could be.

I thought about the idea for a while after that. It definitely seemed promising, but it also seemed almost impossible — I’d never even used an API before! Near the end of 2017, I decided to make a design for it in Photoshop. This was it:

Oooooookay, I’m going to give you a minute to pause and rub your eyes.

Yes, that was it. And here’s the thing — at the time, I thought I’d done a really good job!

In December 2017, around the start of the summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) holidays, I decided to start coding it and to see what happened! I started by making the Photoshop design in CSS. At this point, I hadn’t even really started to consider how it was actually going to work. But I knew that I needed to start somewhere.

After I’d finished writing the CSS, I decided to make a few changes to my original design. Here was the result:

(note the “RIP NET NEUTRALITY” emails 😂)

I suppose you could call that an improvement, but still pretty bad!

I remember thinking at the time — “Why don’t more websites have interesting designs like KanbanMail with lots of colors?” 🤦‍ I even posted it on a Slack channel to ask for feedback and someone said “it’s WAY too rainbow”, but I didn’t listen! I was proud of my rainbow design and I was sticking to it.

Once the CSS was done, I decided to start on the actual code. I decided to write it in React, because I’d heard about the whole component philosophy and it sounded pretty good for an email application. I spent 2 days straight learning it! I also needed to work out how on earth I was going to get the user’s emails into my web app. I had a look at the Outlook API, and by the end of the year I had a react website which loaded emails from Outlook!

I then left for a camping trip over the new year. When I got back, I had set my goals for the year (including launching a product), but was also feeling a bit demotivated. There was so much stuff that I still had to work out, and it just seemed impossible! I mostly forgot about it, and spent more time working on Code The Web.

Fast-forward to the 13th of June. I was checking Product Hunt one evening when I saw Vue Native. Part of the reason that I had decided to learn React was because of React Native — a way to make mobile apps using JavaScript. And looking back, I realized that I’d absolutely HATED React. Now that there was a Vue Native, I felt that I should give Vue a try and see if it was any better. I made a quick HTML file, linked to Vue and got started! As soon as I started playing around with v-for, my mind immediately went to KanbanMail. Vue would be perfect for it! I loved Vue because it was more of a library than an entirely new language you had to learn (what React felt like). I created a quick proof-of-concept:

I spent the next 3 days converting the whole of KanbanMail so far from React to Vue. Vue just felt so much more natural!

From then on, I spent about a month working on KanbanMail in my spare time (without telling anyone 😬). I finally took that guy’s advice, removed all the rainbow stuff and made a completely new and slick interface. I got everything to work properly with Outlook (including columns!). And finally, in early July, it was ready.

I wanted to share it with a few friends that I had made from Maker’s Kitchen, until I realized that basically everyone else used Gmail, not Outlook! So I spent a VERY intense week getting everything to work with Gmail as well as Outlook. It was pretty hard because Google was much stricter about everything and had much worse documentation.

Finally, KanbanMail was ready to share with other people. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough for people to get the idea. The actual Kanban feature worked very well, but there was a lot missing including the ability to send, reply, forward and delete emails.

After releasing a beta for free, I spent the next two months adding all the features necessary to start charging for KanbanMail! I also added a few nice features such as notifications. I nearly lost motivation a few times along the way, and Makerlog really helped me stay on track. No, I wasn’t told to say that — the streak is so motivating!

And there you have it — here I am now, just as I’m launching KanbanMail for the first time!

We see that a while back you reached #1 on Hacker News, must’ve felt incredible? How did this come about?

I finally shared KanbanMail for the first time on July the 20th with 17 people. I knew most of them from Slack or Telegram. I’d shared a little MailChimp sign up form so I could notify them when I gave them access. I decided that I’d give everyone on the list access manually, to keep things under control. Little did I know how much that would come in handy!

It felt so weird knowing that other people were using my product. I hadn’t told anyone for a month and had spent hours on end coding it, and now REAL PEOPLE were using it. It was scary and amazing at the same time. I also posted on the Product Hunt chat that I’d finally launched the beta. Satisfied, I went to bed that night.

The next morning, I woke up. I checked my phone. I was surprised. I was getting all these “Congrats on getting to #1 on Hacker News!” messages from people on Twitter and Telegram.

At first, I was just in shock. Was this really happening??? I checked Hacker News, and KanbanMail was coming 3rd!!! Apparently, someone had seen KanbanMail on the Product Hunt chat and posted it on Hacker News while I was sleeping!

Hacker News Poster!

It had gotten to #1 a few hours earlier! Thanks to the awesome and supportive maker community for getting screenshots 😇

SUCCESS!!!!

Look at that beautiful image 😍

As you can imagine, the post got a lot of comments! In that screenshot there were only 24, but now there are 139. Hacker News is notorious for negative comments, and I knew this before KanbanMail ended up on there.

It was actually much more positive than I expected though! 90% of the comments were that it wasn’t immediately obvious that you could scroll on the landing page 😂 (it’s been fixed now, don’t worry).

I’d put a price on there of $12 / month and made it look like you had to pay, just to see what would happen! Surprisingly, there were very few comments complaining about the price.

It was wonderful, it all felt so surreal. Remember, less than 24 hours ago I was the only person in the world to have ever used KanbanMail. It actually came at a really great time, because I was starting to question if all the work would pay off. I’d worked on it for hundreds of hour already, and my release to 17 people wasn’t very ceremonial. But getting to #1 on Hacker News, something which is often idolized by the startup community, was more than enough to snap me out of it!

After a few days, the landing page had 20,000 visitors and 380 people signed up to the beta list! Just a couple of weeks ago, that list hit 500 😄

Remember earlier when I mentioned that I was giving everyone from the list access manually? Well, I now had 360 more people to give access! The problem was, most of the people signed up expecting a finished product. And KanbanMail was in REALLY early beta — you couldn’t reply or delete, two features that are essential to any email application. I thought about this dilemma for a while. You can read more about the dilemma in my post on the Indie Hackers forum.

In the end, I decided to let users in slowly. I was planning on letting in 20 per week, but I had only given about 40 people access a month later. I’d added a few more essential features by then like sending, deleting and replying, but I still needed to get some other stuff done before launching. A lot of this was payment related! Even though I was using Stripe, it still took nearly a month to sort out all the payment code and automated free trial ending emails! I can’t imagine how long it would have taken if I didn’t use Stripe…

Even if your product is ready, it’s not ready for launch if you are monetizing it. Make sure to allow plenty of time for this.

So, a month later the actual product was pretty much ready. I decided to take a leap of faith and let the remaining 446 people in all at once! What was the worst that could possibly happen? I also automated the access process so that new beta testers could access KanbanMail immediately.

It all went smoothly, except for a few bugs! I also got lots of good feedback. Releasing it to those 446 people all at once gave me the confidence in KanbanMail to finally launch it!

Now, what’s the biggest obstacle(s) you’ve faced while shipping KanbanMail?

Wow, where do I start? Making a product on your own is not easy. Especially not a software product. I run into roadblocks nearly every day, especially when using so many API’s! I have learned to just accept that something is not working for a really weird reason, but then realize that someone must have done it before and so can I if I look at it the right way.

One of the biggest roadblocks I came across originally was Gmail support. Google’s documentation is 100x worse than Microsoft’s, and their API is much more confusing.

Another roadblock was sorting out payment — KanbanMail is built entirely without a backend, so I had to experiment with cloud functions. It took a lot of time, but they’re awesome! It means that I have to pay a total of $0 for hosting! In fact, my only costs for KanbanMail are the domain name and the amount that Stripe takes from each transaction! I’m very passionate about building things cheaply 😄

You’re also rather productive on Makerlog — a few days ago you reached 26 tasks done in less than 24 hours! What’s your workflow like?

I’ll usually start the day by checking my emails. Surprise surprise, I use KanbanMail! Bias aside, it has actually really helped me with my emails — both dealing with them and getting things clear in my head.

I’ll also check Twitter, Telegram and Slack. This is contrary to the advice of many people who say not to start the day with social media or emails, but checking my notifications always gets me motivated for the day!

Up until now I’ve had a massive to-do list called “Before paid launch” containing every single thing that I’d need to do before charging for KanbanMail. Each day, I look at that list and see what needs doing! I’ll occasionally choose to work on a ‘nice to have’ feature if I’m getting a bit bored of what I’m working on. I use Notion to make my to-do lists, it’s awesome!

I find that music really helps my productivity! I highly recommend checking out Two Steps From Hell — they’re a music production company specialising in film-like music. They have some really great songs that just turn you into a productivity machine! Message me for suggestions 😉

And of course, Makerlog also really helps my productivity. I promise this isn’t scripted! 😆 There have been a few days where I haven’t felt like doing anything, but have ended up getting closer to my goal as a result of wanting to keep my streak. I’m really subscribing to this “ship something every day, even if it’s a small thing” mentality! It keeps up momentum. I honestly don’t know if I’d be launching today if it wasn’t for Makerlog.

You’ve been an active maker in the community for a while — tell us how you got started shipping products and what you’ve learned.

I touched on this earlier, but it all started with Code The Web. I found the community based around Product Hunt and Indie Hackers from there, where I realized what I aspired to do. I set “launch a product” as my primary goal for 2018, and just a few hours ago I achieved it!

As for what I’ve learned — I’ve learned so much stuff! I’d say that actually making something has taught me 20x more than looking through Medium or Indie Hackers. There’s so much that you just kind of pick up along the way, or are forced to learn. Development, marketing and more!

As always, closing question: What advice would you give other makers out there?

I think the most important skill that I’ve learned is talking to people online. Being transparent, helpful, engaging, and the sort of person that people want to follow on their journey.

I think that 50% of marketing is all that targeting stuff with fancy graphs and statistics. But the other half is something called “building hype”. I think that Indie Makers are in the perfect position to take advantage of this, and get a supportive community of people interested in what they’re doing backing them all the way. My advice is this to be personal — be your normal true self, just with your audience in the back of your mind (before you retweet that dumb celebrity news).

Closing remarks

Thanks for interviewing me! I’ll be writing more like this in future, so don’t forget to follow me on Medium. And you can follow me on Twitter if you want tips, advice, interesting ideas, transparent statistics and updates on what I’m doing!

Also, I’ve just launched KanbanMail! After three months of very intense work, it’s finally ready! If you’re curious and want to try it out, you can sign up for a free trial. Or, if you’re feeling super awesome, you could become my very first paying customer!!! You can check it out here…

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