What Blogging Taught Me About Building Products

Startups are cool. Blogs? not so much.


But blogs capture the essence of startups: create something that people want, find them, attract them, retain them, and make lots of mistakes along the way.


No funding, no technology, and no other people. Just the purity of your hard work and ingenuity.


To celebrate my 40th blog article, below are blogging lessons that apply to product and startups.


Ship it now


Since launching my blog, I spoke with 10+ people who told me they want to start a blog. So far, none of them has.


99% of startups and blogs die before they are created.


Ship it now. “Tomorrow” will remain “tomorrow”.


Nothing but value


It is instantly clear whether readers find a new article valuable. Responses and questions flow in and it starts spreading without intervention.


Nearly all articles are not valuable enough. In these cases it really doesn’t matter how beautifully the article is articulated or how hard I work on promotion, people don’t care if the value is not there.


Startups work the same way. Without real and significant value, you’ve got nothing. And the signs of real value will be there from day one.


The only predictor of reality is reality


It’s impossible to predict the success of an article.


The one predictor I have found is that the harder it is to write, the worse the article will perform. Trying too hard is a symptom of a bad idea or lack of clarity.


Products work the same way, you should use all the data and intuition to point you in the right direction. But until you test things against reality, all you’ve got is an unproven guess. This is why speed and experimentation are invaluable.


Fire all the cannons right away


Don’t save anything for later. Make the title as short, insightful, and powerful as possible. Make the first sentence as short, insightful, and powerful as possible. Make the 2nd sentence as short, insightful, and powerful as possible.


People have no attention span. None. Grab them with everything you’ve got.


Friction


After playing around with posting on my blog, Reddit, Twitter, and other platforms I can tell you that one extra click can make or break virality.


Reducing friction is a sure way to increase engagement.


Who is this for?


Even my mom stopped reading my articles after a while. This is because articles about startups simply have no value to her. I AM NOT MAD MOM.


Targeting the right audience is as basic as it gets but so important. Who is this feature for? Who is it not for? How do you put it in front of the former and not the latter?


Fans are better than followers


I don’t have many fans, but the ones I do have are invaluable. They provide feedback, say nice things, and spread my content far and wide.


People who love you are crucial for startups too. As the YC mantra goes: “...a small group of customers who love you is better than a large group who kind of like you.”


Two tales about Data


When I finally implemented Google Analytics on the blog two things happened:

  • Readership went down quickly

  • My anxiety went up quicker

Turns out that watching the numbers made me write for the numbers. Readership started going down which made me more anxious and therefore a worse writer. Things got better (maybe) when I stopped looking at the numbers.


The second story is about when I started sharing the entire article by email (instead of just a teaser with a link to the blog). People stopped clicking the links in the emails which looked bad according to the data. Then I noticed many repeated email opens. Turns out that people were reading inside their inboxes and forwarding the emails to others. Less friction, more readers, but the data didn’t tell the whole story.


Lesson for products? Data is not king and is not everything. It’s a tool that you can use or misuse.


Purists fall short


Getting people to subscribe to a blog is hard. I’ve tried a lot of tactics.


The only thing that moved the needle? An ugly, blunt, and disruptive subscribe popup that shows up on every visit to my blog.


It’s ugly but it increased the subscription rate by 5x or so. I later learned that prior to the popup, readers didn’t know that they could subscribe at all.


Product lesson: if you need a user to do something, don’t be subtle or gentle about it. Don’t be a purist. Put it in their face, make it easy, and just make ‘em do it. (btw please subscribe at the bottom thx)


Focus


The best articles and features are narrowly focused and get to the point right away.


Stay away from apathy


Strongly opinionated articles are better for 3 reasons:

  • They spread wider

  • When you get it right they strongly resonate

  • When you get it wrong people will bother changing your mind

Being opinionated is not about being right or never changing your opinion. It’s about acting according to your belief instead of being neutral.


I believe the same to be true for products. The best don’t just solve a problem, they take a stance on how the problem should be solved. The more opinionated your product is, the more people will love it or hate it. Either is better than apathy.


There’s no better growth than word of mouth


It’s free, it is credible, and in the right conditions, it is exponential.


This is another reason why creating a ton of value is better than creating some value. The word-of-mouth threshold is high, but when you surpass it everything changes.


Keep trying


I have written 40 blog articles. Seth Godin has written 7000, so take his advice:

When we sing in the shower, we hardly expect applause. In fact, that would be awfully weird. But online, when just about anyone might be clicking, watching or sharing, it’s disappointing to put your work into the world and hear nothing. Nothing but a black hole that absorbs your best work and reflects nothing back. And if that happens again and again, it can become overwhelming. It’s tempting to dumb down your work, or go for a shortcut or a quick hit. Worst of all, to simply give up. Please don’t. The body of work you’re creating adds up over time. The consistency and empathy of your vision will seep through. Drip by drip, you’ll create something worth noticing. The key word is empathy. While of course, you’re welcome to make work for just yourself, the path forward lies in figuring who it’s for and the change you seek to make. To go where others are instead of requiring them to put in the effort to figure out what you’re up to. Sooner or later, the crickets will ask for more.

And one meta lesson


The diminishing returns of learning will hit you after 4-5 years in the same field. That 30th product book, that 200th conversation with a founder, and yet another conference, are not as impactful as the first ones.


By contrast, indirect and interdisciplinary learning only increases in value over time. You see new connections and gain a fresh perspective.


Start a blog, read books in new fields, work on a random side project, talk to people as different from you as possible, go broad and then tie things back to your core discipline.