That time of year when the year’s almost run out, the time of year to look back on the past 12 months and beat ourselves up for not following through with the starry-eyed resolutions we made to lose weight, earn more money, and be less of a slacker, this time last year!
I personally have had it up to here (throat-slicing motion) with unnecessary and unhelpful New Year’s resolutions.
But at the same time, I can’t help but be seduced by the mystical quality of the year’s end. The year really does seem new somehow, after all the smoke from the fireworks (and the hangover) clears. Things seem… fresh.
And with that freshness comes a brand new income tax folder, baby!
Our New Years’ alignment
Building and launching Freckle has been big part of our ramp-up plan for this new year, 2009. Our goal is to be self-supporting with products and online services by 2010.
At the same time, we know that we won’t be happy just being in business for sake of paying the mortgage (such as it were). We want to help people; we want to add a little joy back to working (ours and yours); we want to make things that people love.
We all enjoy consulting, but we’ve all longed to do our own thang, too. And now we’re doing it. Boy, does that feel great.
How about you?
2008—a crazy year for so many countries on this little globe.
Has it inspired you to make changes? Take stock? Dream big? Readjust? Right-size? Face down a challenge? Do better? Do more good?
It’s two weeks since we launched freckle to the public.
I know, now, what it feels like to have a small child.
Perhaps I am a wee bit melodramatic (some might say “whiny”). Actual parents of small children: please do not assault me or storm my castle with pitchforks.
But drama queenliness or not, the parallels are there:
post-partum depression: check!
staying up late / getting up early to check on baby: check!
constant interruptions (on top of sleep deficit) driving me slowly insane: check!
obsessively watching and documenting baby’s progress: check!
feeling the immense responsibility that comes with caring for (an)other being(s): check!
daily calls with pediatricians (merchant account services), financial planners (my bank web site), and other trusted advisors (thanks, Erik & Alex) to keep things running smoothly and handle the occasional crisis of confidence: check!
wondering, periodically, if it was all worth it, and then feeling totally guilty because OF COURSE IT IS: check!
And, surprisingly, this is all so much more the case after our launch. Things were downright peaceful while we were developing and running the beta.
Or, maybe this is not surprising to anyone but me. But I was surprised.
Once you ship your product, you too will find yourself screaming bloody murder when faced with a clock!
Launch – 1 Week
The first few days after launch left me quite down. Down in the “teen angst poetry” sense of the word, that is, not the “drunk on tequila and can’t get off the floor” sense. Unfortunately.
Simply put: the bubble of excitement had popped. It wasn’t that we had worked insane hours and burnt ourselves out, although launch day was a long day indeed.
In retrospect, I think the Post-launch Let-down is comprised chiefly of two parts:
the passing of a major goal, the big target we’d been aiming at for 3 months
the transition from All About Us to All About Them
We’d spent a wonderful (and sometimes exhausting/trying/frustrating) 3 months working up to the launch itself. Every time we came up with a fantastic idea, we felt great. Every time we cut out something unnecessary, and thus moved the project forward, we felt great. Every time we wrapped up a portion of the launch feature set, we felt great. Hooray for feeling great!
Once we shipped, we hit a brick wall. Sure, we had future plans, features mapped out, promotional ideas out the wazoo. But the biggest, hairiest, horizon-threatening goal was… done.
And, on top of that, it suddenly became Not All About Us. Suddenly there were all these other people we had to think about. And think about them we have, night and day, day and night!
Aaaaand there all those incoming links to read, and statistics to interpret, blog posts to write, comments to approve (and/or rebut), and, oh yeah, the little dashboard app we built that let us check on how many people were signing up.
You might say we were suffering from attention deficit dis—HEY, LET’S GO RELOAD GOOGLE ANALYTICS!
1 – 2 Weeks
Launching to the public is like getting punched in the face. Repeatedly. By one of those inflatable clown doll punching bags that wobbles but doesn’t fall down. It’s not only never-ending, it’s injurious to the pride.
After the first few days, we recovered from the initial set of knock-down clown punches, but continued to flounder in other ways.
There were tons of little bugs, of course, and we fixed them.
We responded lickety split to every exception / ticket / email / tweet / blog post / fart on the internet that mentioned us.
We even got ourselves a Campfire bot that told us when new exceptions / tickets / emails / tweets / blog posts / farts came in. (This is a mistake.)
We watched the web stats obsessively. (This is also a mistake.)
Tip: Answering support tickets at 2am may feel productive and wise and responsible, but trust me, it’s the hormones talking.
In our exhaustion, we let our actions be driven by what was in front of us. The crying baby was calling the shots. If something wasn’t screaming for attention, we didn’t give it any. Total End-of-Noseitis.
In theory, we meant to spend a significant amount of time moving forward on some super awesome features.
In reality, we pretty much spun our wheels.
I want a free account with 50 million user logins! And a Google Android app! And Rolex integration! And a pony! Also, how do I mine for fish?
I’m not implying that supporting our customers is a waste of time. Au contraire, I think it’s very educational in addition to providing warm-fuzzies and being, you know, the right thing to do. But if you’re not used to it, an influx of feedback—no matter how kindly written and positive—is psychically exhausting.
And, as indie software developers, we can’t afford to spend all our time reacting. If we don’t set aside time to pro-act (gah!), to work on what makes freckle great, it will slowly become not-great.
And nobody wants that, right?
Now, two weeks later, we’re settling into a rhythm. Folks who submit tickets at 2am are no longer experiencing 5-minute response times (thank god), we’re sleeping through the night (mostly), and we’re no longer spending all day feeling sad that someone on the internet misunderstands us.
It’s all about setting boundaries.
Boundaries, I say! Boundaries! Not drunken 2am joy-rides with the lane painting truck!
Setting boundaries, in this case, has nothing to do with ignoring my mother-in-law’s emails. (Which are actually quite charming.)
It does mean that I no longer check for support tickets or feedback emails every 30 minutes. I no longer begin to salivate whenever the Campfire bot goes “Ding!” I do not obsessively monitor the number of accounts. I try not to even look at the traffic analytics.
Q: Statements of fact, or daily affirmations? A: A lady never tells.
This helps a lot, in terms of time management and resource management (where “resource” == “my sanity”). But these are only patches, little Hello Kitty Band-aids slapped on some pretty deep cuts. These changes are themselves reactions to a problem, rather than the forging of new… thingies.
So, to kick our own asses back into gear, we’ve scheduled our first “freckle day” since the launch. We’ll meet at 9am—like it’s a job or something—and work through til evening.
On new things, not catch-up. We’ve set goals! We’ve outlined steps!
Time will tell what the future will bring. New experiences, no doubt.
We’ll continue monitoring our energy and enthusiasm levels and trying new techniques to keep ourselves—and freckle—moving ahead.
Oh, yeah. And writing about it.
And if you’re interested in more touchy-feely posts about product-launching experience, well, you know where the Subscribe link is. (Hint: right here
Before we launched, I made a prediction to the rest of the team—Thomas, Dieter and Joe—that the majority of our traffic, and thus our market, would be American.
Well, I can admit when I’m wrong.
Hooray for numbers! I like facts!
It’s true that American traffic has been the single largest unified segment of our traffic, at 41.4%, but we’ve been receiving significantly more non-US traffic than US traffic (the remaining 58.6%).
Our long tail is really long, petering out with a lot of “one hit wonders” (sorry!) from 15 countries such as Latvia, Estonia, the UAE, Iran, Afghanistan, and Mauritius.
I’m a little surprised.
I don’t know if this is typical or if it may be because we’ve got the attention of more Europeans, thanks to our being in Austria. The fact that the 3rd highest country is Germany is not surprising to me due to the sheer strength of the German design and indie web industry.
Unsurprisingly, Firefox dominates, with IE low down on the ladder at about 6% total for all versions. Safari is only 19%, though, and I thought it would be higher.
Google Chrome’s actually got a very respectable slice with 7%, a greater market share than all types of IE combined. We hadn’t devoted much time to testing in Chrome but now that’ll change.
We had a couple “traffic events”: David mentioned us in a tweet. We got mentioned on “Lifehacker”:http://www.lifehacker.com and “Ajaxian”:http://www.ajaxian.com. We were #1 on Delicious popular for a short time. Screenshots of our front page & app have made it onto a number of design gallery sites (the kind without commentary—like “CSSMania”:http://www.cssmania.com).
CSSMania sent us more than twice as much direct traffic as Lifehacker (& more people signed up, too)
Ajaxian sent us yet more direct traffic than either of those two—to the tune of nearly 4 times more than Lifehacker
Delicious popular is a big source of traffic, despite the fact that people almost never talk about it in the same breath as more showy “today’s hot link” sites (e.g. reddit, Digg, etc)
While Google Reader by far has the lion’s share, long tail on RSS feed readers can stretch on for miles
When we heard about the Lifehacker post, we were sure we tried to prepare for an unexpected flood of incoming traffic—thankfully, it wasn’t the case.
I’m intrigued by the Direct / Bookmark vs Links numbers shown here. (Social Media includes Twitter, and RSS Readers can’t identify the many homebrew or low-profile web-based ones.)
I can only assume that many of the Direct / Bookmark visitors are, in fact, coming from desktop-based RSS readers. Or else people sure do talk about us a lot to their friends.
The US simply doesn’t have a monopoly on edgy web stuff, even if it appears to be the case. We sure have a lot of international visitors. (We’ve noticed some of our most active customers are, too.)
We won’t lose much if we stop supporting IE 6, which we planned to do. (We’ll just be sure to announce it clearly first.) Thank god.
I really wanted to avoid a big launch. We intentionally avoided creating a build up, etc., etc. It mostly worked.
Our stats software
FYI: The screenshots are from our Clicky account. We use it to supplement Google Analytics & are quite happy with it.
Today we’re on track to whiz by the 600 accounts mark. This is by far faster than we were expecting, with the low-key launch that we’d planned. Imagine: at least 600 people have come to our site, skimmed our copy, clicked the big old pink trial button, chosen a plan, and filled out the forms. That’s a lot of accumulated time and attention.
But you know what? I don’t care.
To tell the truth, I couldn’t give a flying fig about signup numbers. Or maybe I could, I don’t really like figs.
Signup numbers mean nothing. They’re not just a poor target, they’re a false target. Signups aren’t the same as customers. Not even the same as potential customers. Signups aren’t even necessarily human.
We’re in this to build a sustainable business: to make truly great software, to help people add a little joy back to their daily business, and to make a living doing it.
We’re not building a tasty startup snack for Google to devour, digest, and defecate.
Our goal is to have a handful of very happy customers, not a legion of barely interested user accounts.
For us, the freckle experience has to be quality end-to-end or we might as well not bother. We won’t sacrifice that for popularity.
And if popularity comes to us anyway, we’re going to look away and resist it unless it can be used to further our goals for our product, our business, and for our customers.
Well, we’ve solved our latest credit card validation problem and it seems like a good time to give a quick recap of the lessons we’ve learned during this whole sordid process. Things that nobody bothers to tell you, not even the people you’re paying to do just that. This is 2008, but credit card processing is a technological throwback to the Dark Ages.
Things nobody bothers to tell you, version 1:
The web sites for credit card processors & merchant account services are completely useless. Do not try to use them, not even the big fish that everybody respects (e.g. Authorize.net). You will only waste your time. Instead, call their tech support. We’ve found their human support to be unfailingly friendly and helpful, at least when it comes to answering direct questions rather than making suggestions (hence the Stuff Nobody Tells You). The hold music’s so beyond awful it enters into laughable, though.
If you want to process AmEx, you have to call them directly, set up an account with them, and then talk to your merchant account service. Just because your CC processor’s interface shows you that AmEx is active, and your merchant account people tell you that everything is systems go, doesn’t mean there aren’t hidden things you have to do to, you know, actually process cards. Or that the errors will be helpful.
Address verification (AVS) is voodoo. Not real science. AVS is inclined to reject real, valid cards all the time, even when you don’t count “user errors” (e.g. your bill says Apt 4 and you put #4). D’oh.
Test charges are pretty much unavoidable. So, since AVS essentially doesn’t work, the way to verify a card is to make a tiny charge on it and then void the transaction. It’s not a charge you’ll ever collect on, but it’s not exactly a hold either. To us, it’s a bit squicky to think that this is the only way to verify a credit card number in this, the 21st century.
Some banks will reject small test charges. About 10% of cards used to sign up were declined. Thanks to Stuff item #6, we couldn’t tell why from the error reports. Nobody could tell us why, either. We called Auth.net and they had no suggestions. We only found out as fast as we did because one would-be customer, our friend (& tasty designer) Johnny Bilotta, called his own bank to ask if there was a problem. Trying to be considerate internet citizens, we had set our test charge to $.01. His bank told him they reject small test charges under $1.00, but our credit card processor never thought about it. Even though it’s their business. Useless buggers.
Errors are incomprehensible and your credit card processor is useless at helping you solve validation issues. The error you’ll get in most cases is General error. In other cases, you may get Declined, but there’s no way to tell why. Calling your CC processor won’t help you, either, because in many cases, they can’t get more information than you’ve already got. In other cases the phone reps just aren’t trained in spotting what must be common problems (e.g. the low test charge).
When you ask why stuff doesn’t work, even due to Stuff Nobody Told You, they think you’re kinda dumb. Despite the support being, as we said, unfailingly friendly, there are always these awkward pauses when we’ve asked about Stuff Nobody Told Us. For example, when we called and said “So our account says we can accept AmEx but they’re all being rejected. Can you help us?” The nice lady asked, “Well, are you set up for AmEx with your merchant services provide?” and I said “No, what do you mean?” Awkward pause ensues. The lady assumes she is speaking with a polite nitwit and then the rest of the conversation takes twice as long as it would have if she hadn’t thought I had a room temperature IQ. Which is too bad, because there’s no documentation or on-ramping process that tells you this, and nobody thought to mention it, either, when I asked if I made the calls to both Auth.net & the merch acct people to ask “Hey, we’re going to live. Do we have everything in place?” last week.
That’s all for now, but I’m sure there will be more.
For more real-life depictions of Ecommerce Surprise, & more harrowing stories of our adventures in setting up a paid web service: Subscribe. You know you want to.
We have no FAQ page yet because we didn’t know what the genuine frequently asked questions would be, and by gosh do we hate fake FAQs.
You look very nice, but I wish we could date without having to give you a credit card on the very first day — Vlourenco
Three points here:
There’s a 30-day free trial with no features crippled. Yes, it requires a CC, but we don’t charge you for 30 days and we remind you twice to cancel if you don’t love it. We are not in any way trying to be sneaky.
There is a limited free account option that requires no credit card, available under the 3 paid acct options. This is an approach we borrowed from Basecamp, so I’m pretty sure it’s not an awful thing to do.
We’re also going to post screenshots and videos and stuff later this week, but we wanted to focus first on shipping. We didn’t want to fall into the trap that so many others do, not shipping for a year or more while trying to make things perfect for every potential eventuality. We honestly did not expect this much attention (like David’s nod) so fast.
We’ll work on building the actual FAQ page tomorrow.
Please keep the feedback coming. We prefer to genuinely learn than to pretend we know everything & can anticipate all.
The night before launch
And all through the office
Keyboards were heard
Seeking rhymes for “office”
Office? Office! There’s naught a word
… that rhymes with “office”
Maybe not. There goes the attempt at pre-launch poetry.
Or… does it? When in doubt, haiku—that’s what I always say.
Preparing for launch
Home stretch can’t stretch any more
Hooray! Sleepless night
Actually, we’ve beaten our ticket lists into submission, and as for that sleepless night, well, that’s not really the kind of “startup” we are. In fact, we’re not a startup at all.
This seems like a great opportunity to discuss what we are.
And principally, we are not a startup. We may be making a product, which may be starting out (or up, if you must), but that does not a startup make.
Instead, we’re the key peeps in two happy, tiny, successful consulting companies (slash7 and abloom) who are working together on a product—the kind of thing we need to use every day in our consulting gigs.
We’re powered by passion! And Red Bull! We’re funded by our own enthusiasm! Not with venture capital.
Our focus is on creating a small, sustainable business. We’re not looking for mega launch day press (in fact, we’re hoping to not get mega launch day press, yikes). We’re not interested in flashy parties or getting on TechCrunch.
We’re interested in helping to make your day-to-day experience more enjoyable. We want to make great software that makes people happy. There’s just not enough of that to go around.
Well, folks, it’s T minus 2 days til L-day. Launch, that is. Which is on Monday. Today is Saturday. Yes.
Your freckle team is hard at work, burning the proverbial midnight oil! We use Campfire to stay in touch, talking about all the sorts of really important things you’d think we’d be talking about just a scant two days before freckle‘s world premiere.
argh, i just managed to hit a cut into my toe while walking upstairs. bleeding like a pig now :/
1. raise your left foot. 2. move left foot forward. 3. put left foot down. 4. raise your right foot. 5. move right foot forward. 6. put right foot down. 7. repeat from 1.
sounds easier than it is
hope it doesn’t get eitrig.
joe, i’m sorry you hurt yourself.
but i also feel less alone now!
you should do a social network for clumsy people
The secret’s out! Our next groundbreaking product: definitely a social network for clumsy people.
The corners? Rounded.
Time tracking is tedious? It's not you, it's your tools.
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