Taking on Amazon...and winning?
Colleen interviews Nadia Odunayo, the founder of The StoryGraph. Now with over 500,000 users, The StoryGraph is an app that helps you track your reading and choose your next book based on your mood and your favorite topics and themes.
Software Social with Nadia
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Colleen: Welcome back software, social listeners, Colleen here, and I am super excited to bring you a special guest today. Today on the podcast we have Nadia the founder of story graph. Story graph is a site that helps you track your reading and choose your neck next book based on your mood, mood, and your favorite topics and themes.
Nadia, thank you so much for coming on.
Nadia: Thank you so much for inviting me.
Colleen: I would love to start with a little bit about your background. You are an economist by trade, right?
Nadia: Right. So my degree was philosophy politics and economics, and I focused, I focused mainly on the economic side, I was moving to the math mathematical side of things and I was heading into investment banking, post university.
Nadia: Yeah. And I was just lucky with the people I met in my final year of uni. I'd done a summer internship in the banking world and I was just very, not very enthused with it.
It just felt, I felt like there was more to life and I'm in my final year of uni, I met so many young entrepreneurs and people running social enterprises and charities, and I just felt like I've always felt entrepreneurial. And I just thought, you know, I want to go into that feels more like. And I'd also started a creative writing online publication called the story graph.
Colleen: Oh, I didn't know that.
Nadia: yeah. That had given me the first taste of running my own thing. And so I, yeah, and I was lucky to meet people who were in the tech space as well. And that's when I started to be familiar with, oh, maybe I should learn how to code. And yeah, essentially, I, I got, I want a couple of places on coding courses and that's how I got into software post universe.
Colleen: So, did you go work at all in investment banking or did you go right from college or university to learning how to code?
Nadia: So I had a graduate offer for bank and I turned that down and then I wasn't sure what I was going to do. And I'd applied for this entrepreneurship scheme and it got to the final round. And I remembered that when I was filling out the form, there was a checkbox that said we may be piloting a new coding course for women.
Do you want to be considered for this? And I was just like, why not check the box? I wasn't really interested. And I thought, why not? You know? And so when I remember I got the call from the, one of the people who run the program and they said, we've got good news and bad news. And I was like, I immediately knew I didn't get into the main program.
So I said, well, what's the, what's the bad news. And I was like, yeah, you didn't quite make it. And I was like, Okay.
what's the good news. And she said we're going to give you, we're going to do this program. It's called code first girls, and we're going to give you a place. And I remember at the time I was just so disappointed and not getting a place in this entrepreneurship program because it was meant to be my ticket out of not going into the bank.
That I just thought, what do I want with this coding course? And then I remember thinking about it and realizing that I was also. Like the next day, I was offered a summer internship at my college at Oxford where I was. And so I thought, you know what, I'm going to come to work at Oxford for a bit after uni, I'm going to travel to London twice a week.
I was from London, but I was at, I was in Oxford and and I'm going to learn to code and then figure it out from there. And it's so, I'm so glad I did that. And then while I was. Twice a week coding course, I saw a tweet saying we're doing a competition for someone to win a free place at makers academy, which was a new software boot camp in London at the time.
And I had a taste of this coding thing. I saw how powerful. It was. And so I said, I'm going to apply for this scholarship free place. And I got the scholarship. And so then I did a three month bootcamp at the beginning of 2014, immediately after. Well, at the end of 2013, rather immediately after the two months that I spent at Oxford traveling twice a week to do the part-time cutting costs.
So that's how I
Nadia: into software from being like all along since I was like 12, 13, I was going down the investment banking.
Colleen: Wow. Did you get pushback from yourself or from your family to have invested so much time at Oxford? No less. And then be like, I'm going to go do this coding bootcamp.
Nadia: Yes. So it was actually quite funny. I come from a poor background and I remember that, you know, the reason why I was going down the investment banking route since I was young is because when I was at school, you know, it was always this typical doctor, lawyer and your banker or something like that.
And I remember we had this day where you could go with your parents or a parent to work with them. And I remember trying to go with my dad who's an accountant or like, um, my mom worked for herself at home and, and my dad was like, no, you should find someone who acts in a bank or something like that.
And so I went with my best friend at the time her dad worked at. And, you know, when you're 14, everything looks so amazing. And like I, so I remember going and seeing the trading floor and seeing all these, like men and women dressed up in their suits and carrying their blackberries. And I remember at the time thinking I want to be like them.
And it wasn't until I was doing the internship when I was in between my second and third year of uni that I was just disillusioned. And I was like, oh, like, this is not very fulfilling. This is not like, I feel like there's more I can do and give. And, and so that's when I got disillusioned when I was like about 18 and I was thinking.
This isn't really exciting. I'm not sure of the value that I'm bringing while doing this work. And I also just thought there must be more cause I was working so hard at, it was quite academic. I was working so hard at my studies and I thought, is this it? And so when this whole entrepreneurship software thing came up, it was very, yeah, it was so much more appealing and.
Colleen: Wow. So after you did the bootcamp, did you then get a job, your rails background, right?
Nadia: Ruby Rails So back then the, the main focus was Ruby rails and it was funny because I went to that was this jobs, fair tech jobs fair. And it was during during the course, the point of the courses you do the 12 weeks, and then they help you get a job. And I just thought I didn't plan to get a job.
I just said, let me go to this job fair and see what's out there. Even when I started the bootcamp in my mind, I still thought, oh, I'm going to be an entrepreneur. I didn't know what that meant. I was just like, I'm going to be an entrepreneur. But you know, since I'll know about coding, I'll know how to talk to developers.
Like I had just, you know, stereotypes in my head of, you know, developers, don't talk to people, and I can never be a good developer anyway, cause I'm starting, you know, 19. But
Colleen: at like 32
Nadia: like 21, rather. Exactly, exactly. But I honestly thought, I thought that was it. So when I went to this fair, like I, for the first few weeks, I honestly thought, yeah, it's just going to help me be a better entrepreneur, but then I realized, no, this festival, I love, I, I enjoyed it.
And I was pretty good at it. I wasn't amazing, but you know, I could do it and I saw how powerful it was because I said to myself, you know, I also started to think about what being an entrepreneur meant. And I realized how empty that was. Without an idea something.
that I was keen to work on, or that was useful.
And so I said to myself, well, you know, if you focus in on this coding thing, then if you do have a great idea, you can build a prototype yourself. You don't have to hire anyone. You don't have to rely on anyone. But you know, if you don't have a great idea or whatever, you're working on, doesn't work out, then you have a skill that people always need and will pay for.
And so that's when I kind of like a month into the bootcamp, I kind of made that switch of, I need to go all in on this software thing. I should work as a software developer for a while. And yeah, I, when I went to this fair, I ended up, I didn't know how well known or big the company pivotal was pivotal labs at the time, but I got talking
Colleen: Oh, yeah.
Nadia: Yeah. I just went there. I was trying to find my way out and I saw this one, man. I kept on getting lost. And so I, I asked for directions out because I kept on going the wrong way. And as I was going to the exit, there was this one table that was very empty, but it was one, there was no one else there, apart from the people who are monitoring that table.
And I just thought pivotal. That was one of the companies that I like. I'd when I was looking at the list of companies the night before I'd listed it out. Why not just stop by? And anyway, long story short is I was invited to come in and then more and. I just got put into the interview process without realizing I did the proper interview process that everyone else did, but essentially the boss of the London office, his name is JB Stedman.
He said, come in for a chat. We were really close to makers academy. And so we organized this tack a couple of weeks later. And what I didn't know was that was the first round of their full interview process that their famous parent interview that.
Nadia: so after that I got, yeah. Yeah. So in a way it was good. I didn't know Cause it wasn't, I wasn't nervous or anything like that.
I just was like, Oh, this is fun. I'm doing this, this, this pairing big. And and so when I went back to the office, after the fair and I said, oh, I I'm going to speak to the person who runs this office of this company called pivotal.
Well, the makers academy, people were like, what? Oh my gosh, this is amazing. We, we, a lot of our practices that we follow here have been inspired by pivotal. This is great. And so, yeah, before I finished the bootcamp, I had had a job lined up at pivotal and I worked there for a year and a half after the boot camp.
Colleen: Okay. Wow. That's pretty spectacular. It's pretty cool. Right. To go right from your bootcamp to such a good job. So then what happened? So were you just like, what was your next step in this journey?
Nadia: I'm someone who always has side projects. I think a lot of entrepreneurs are like this. I think you're the same. I always had something on the side that I. Even if I even didn't find time to work on it, I just have ideas in my head. So I was always kind of hacking away and it got to a point after about a year, I started to feel like, okay, I want to do my own thing now.
I think I got a bit tired of just being moved from project to project. Not, you know, not being able to like really craft a own a product and like see it through. And I also felt like, I know this is, this comes with, you know, working in different companies. There were times where I just felt like, you know, oh, I'm, I'm just like a book, a bit ability sort of tool.
And I'm just like, I'm a resource, basically. It got to a point where I felt like, you know, We're trying to, Pivotal's trying to be as biddable as possible and where does not you're fit. And, you know, I also ended up getting, and I loved, I loved overall. I loved my time at pivotal, but I remember I worked. I was, even though I was pivotal labs employee, I worked on cloud Foundry that platform as a service for a really long time.
And I remember moving from Ruby to go and it was all super interesting, but I just felt like it was such a niche. And I was also worried about losing the skills that would enable me to kind of. The like flexible when I was trying to implement my own ideas later. And so those things meant that I actually ended up there was another colleague there who he was always, always hacking around on projects too.
And we got talking and then we started hacking around on different side projects. And at one point we got a good contract to do a little contract and we decided it was like a six month contract. And we thought, well, if we do this contract, we will then have enough money to. Do our own product afterwards.
And so after a year and a half, we both handed in a resignation and then went and ran this business
Colleen: And were you also at some point a co-founder on code newbies.
Nadia: Yes. So this, this could be a very long story, but the summary is that business I left, it just didn't work out the partnership. Wasn't Right.
We didn't have any product ideas that were inspiring. And we ended up running out of money and being staffed on a banking project.
We have to take a banking project and. Really good money. But I just wasn't fulfilled. And I just saw this world where wait, I quit. I turned down my banking job all these years ago to go into software and entrepreneurship. And now here I am and I was co-founder of this company, but I felt like I'd become a glorified consultant on this.
Bank where like it wasn't, it just wasn't the most fun felt very undervalued. And I just felt like I was wasting my potential. I just wasn't super happy. And so I quit that business without knowing what I was going to do. But because, yeah, but because my co-founder and I, from that business, we didn't, we were just saving our money.
We would just saving the money we were earning because we weren't gonna invest it in our own product. And so when I left. I took half of that money. I got half of that money, which essentially equated to five years of runway for me.
Nadia: And so, but I didn't know what I was going to do. And so Saron who runs code newbie was like, come and be my co-founder code newbie.
And I was like, really, are you sure? And so in the end I decided to give it a go and I was on the verge of moving to the states to do this thing for. But in the end, ultimately it didn't work out. And Saron decided that it wasn't the Right.
direction, that code was going in.
And so that after a year I was kind of like, you know, left in the lurch and like, again, uncertain with four years of runway.
Nadia: And so I was like, well, I still, if we, as a runway and I couldn't offer having a year of dislike doing, you know, doing it was, it wasn't kind of my own thing, but being like a co-founder or something and trying to take something off the ground, I just thought, you know what I'm going to, and I'd had two kind of partnerships that didn't work out or companies that didn't work out.
And I was like, you know what, I'm just going to start something by myself. Now I've got four years of runway. And actually, I didn't even say I'm going to start a company. I just. You know, I have all these side projects that I haven't really been able to focus on in the last three, four years because of work and just other hobbies and things that I get up to outside of work.
And so I said to myself, so it was January, 2019, and I said to myself, I'm going to take the two. Side projects that I'm most excited about, and I'm just going to spend January hacking away on them. I'm not going to put any expectations. I'm not going to put any pressure on it. I'm just going to work. You know, I was like I said, I got four years, so was going to work on these two and I had two apps.
So one of them was a running app and it auto-generated running routes for you. So you would give your starting point and you would say, I want to run five kilometers, or I know in the states it's more miles, isn't it. Like I wasn't gonna run like.
Nadia: Three miles. And it would basically give you a running rate that started and ended where you were.
And this was inspired by the fact that I used to, I don't want as much now because I do other things, but I used to run and I. I, when I figured out what 5k route was, or a 10 K route was, I would just do the same route and I would get like bored of it. And so this was a way to help me, you know, find new routes or when I was traveling for conferences, you know, it would be a way to go on a run in an unfamiliar place.
So anyway, that was one app that I was going to work on in January. And the second one was reading lists app where essentially. It was only meant to be a companion app to good reads. Cause I, I had been using good reads for eight years at this 0.7, eight years. But there was no way to create private lists or less that you shared with a select few friends that you could then track your progress through.
So say you you, you had a subject matter you wanted to delve into. So you put together a reading lesson and you would have a progress bar or, you know, I have a friend who, whenever she writes a book really highly. Those books. I would want to collect them in the less than see, you know, these 20 books.
How many of them have I read that kind of thing? And so I was like, I'm going to spend January of 2019 just working ping-ponging between these two apps. And so I got to like, I dunno, it would have been January 1st or January 2nd maybe. And I said, wait, which 1:00 AM I going to start with? And I said, let me start with the reading app.
And essentially I have never picked up the running up. I have done. Since from then to now, I've just been working on the meeting up and it's grown into a story graph.
Colleen: Wow. So, wow. There's so much in that that I want to talk about. Okay. So let's start with, you started working on the reading app and you never pivoted to the running app because you were having so much fun or like what, what made you see that this had potential.
So this is what it was, you know, how I, because this was a side project I'd had for years. So actually had a backlog with a friend set up in an old pivotal tracker. And so again, because this wasn't a, this is going to be a business. This is just a side project. I just spent a week. Yeah. I think it was a week just hacking through or working my way through the backlog.
I wasn't worried about customer research or anything like that. And I just had so much fun. Like I felt so alive and you know, they talk about the founder Porter. Yes.
this was the first time I was like, oh, like I need to work on books and reading. It was like the first time I felt alive, like Really?
like super passionate.
And so at this point I had this feeling like I need to build something to do to do with books. And so at that point, I then said, let me show you this prototype that I've built to. And so I got, you know, I did cause I know the importance of customer research. I'm always trying to talk to customers.
And so when I decided I'm going to be serious about this, we'll see, basically see if there's a need for something in this space. I was like, okay, let me do a customer research interview a customer research round and see if there's something here. So I, I lined up five people and I, I also about their reading and then I showed them this Demo that I'd built.
And essentially after those interviews, I realized that I had to stop that app. It wasn't compelling or exciting enough. There was a lot of this is cool. Yeah. I guess, I guess I would use it for this. Yeah. So I immediately was like, okay. Nope. So at that point I said to myself, okay, this feeling of when. On a book's product is super exciting, but this is not it.
And so I put that aside and I spent the next three months distinct customer interviews. So I didn't cause I was like, I don't. Yeah. I was like, I don't want to build. Something that people don't use or don't need. Like, I was like, if I, so I just started doing custom interviews. So the first round the hypothesis was, is there, is there any pain, but it was, it was more research gathering.
It was like, are there any pain points in the book space? So then off that round, I think I discovered, okay. People still find it hard to get consistent high quality recommendations from one source. You know, people would often have, you know, one or two trusted friends. If you didn't have any people in your network who ranked than it was even harder, you know, you might have some. Articles or like bloggers that you followed, but it was a lot harder. And so I was like, wow. Okay. Recommendations. Cause this is still just me on my own, like trying to figure stuff out.
And so then, then I started doing more research, being like, okay, what is not working with current recommendation systems? How are people currently trying to find books? And that's when I ended up on the whole mood. Aspect. I would, I would see, I started to get involved in the books community on Instagram as well.
And I started to see the language that people were using. They will say, I've just read this book. It made me feel this way. What other books like will evoke similar feelings or I'm a mood reader seeing this a lot. I'm a mood reader. And so that's when I said, okay, there's something in this mood space. And so then I started to go down that route and essentially it was three months of customer research until I felt like I had enough of a concept for an alpha.
And the alpha was just a straight up personal recommendation service, nothing else.
Colleen: So how many people do you think you spoke to during those three months of customer research?
Nadia: so let's think of, so maybe about it, wasn't like actually that many, so probably if I did it. Maybe full five rounds and maybe five, five to eight and eight. So maybe, I dunno, maybe in about 30 to 50, because, you know, I would, I would, I was quite strict with, I'm not going to do anything until I've done the customer research.
So say I had a round of five to eight people. They could be spread out over a week or two weeks, and then I would do my synthesis. And so I didn't try. And like, so even though it was like three months, It wasn't like every single day I was talking to a lot of people. Cause I also didn't want to feed back overload if you know what I mean?
Colleen: Yes, you said, and then you do your synthesis. What does that mean?
Nadia: So that, that's a way of basically drawing out learnings from the, from the research. So essentially It's a basic, Yeah. it's a way of like doing the analysis and then figuring out what's next. So for me, Yeah.
I do. I do it. I mean, you could do it in many different ways. One of my most common ways is to get like a virtual.
The sticky board with post-it notes and draw out the key points and what I, what I do by the way is I record the interviews, video, record them and watch them back. Cause that means particularly because I'm doing them by myself. So too, it means that I have. Write down what I think I heard as opposed to writing down what they actually said.
So I try when I'm interviewing by myself, I recalled, I always ask permission and I record the interviews and then I watched them back and take I take down what they say, bullet points. And then I group up across the different people. I grew up. The them into themes. And then I'm able to see, ah, people keep talking about, they can't find recommendations.
People keep talking about how they don't trust the ratings on good reads or like you would see patterns and that's what would help drive that would that's what would help figure out what the hypothesis or the question was going to be for the next round?
Colleen: Okay. And you also said you got involved in an Instagram book, books space. What is that? How so two questions around that. What does that mean? And how, like what pointed you in that direction?
Nadia: So they could have books to grab it's the books community on Instagram, and it's called books to go out.
Colleen: didn't know about that.
Nadia: And I think when I had said to one of my friends that.
I was. Looking in the, you know, I was excited about an idea in the books and meeting space. She said, do you know about the books community on Instagram? And I just thought I was like, No.
I don't know. And she essentially, I learned about, oh, that was the other thing I did.
You know, the three months of research, it was also not only did I do customer interviews. I also went to lots of industry events, like publishing events. I saw panels and to learn more about the industry and see if there were pain points on the, on the publishing side or the authors. And so it was mentioned in a couple of talks, then there's books to Graham growing community of Bookstagram 30 million posts on this hashtag.
So I just started looking through that tag and seeing different accounts and just seeing what they were posting, what they were talking about, what they were complaining about. So there was lots of complaints of being in reading slumps and saying, I just can't, there's all these books. I have all these books at home, but none of them are appealing to me.
And, and I was, and this was when I started to move towards, like, if I could, you know, build something that could help someone say, oh, this is actually the perfect book for you right now, given your mood and giving your reading tests. That would be amazing. And so that's the kind of my customer research was just kind of trying to figure out if that was a compelling, useful, valuable product.
Colleen: This fascinates me so much, because that is such a hard problem. Like Amazon can't solve that problem with all of their engineers and data scientist.
Nadia: So it's funny. You said that cause as you, so I'm still working. I, at this point and I definitely had people say to me, like peep up, maybe other founders who tried it or other, other people who'd worked in this space. And there was definitely a lot of. Good luck. It's basically impossible. And there's Amazon and, you know, I just, it was that founder product fit thing is probably the reason why I continued to during those times where I was like, you know, is this city a, I.
Am I, you know, going down a path, that's just not worth it. Well, I just couldn't let it go. So I just said to myself, don't don't think about Amazon. And I also was like, don't think about good reads. Don't think about what's out there. Just you focus on the next step each time. So that's why the customer research rounds were very grounding because I just said to myself, I'm not thinking about what I'm trying to build or this big, amazing product I'm going to build or that kind of thing.
And I'm going up against Amazon. I didn't even think like that. I just said, just follow. Follow the comms, follow the little nuggets and just take each today. And like, even sometimes I have to remind myself of that. Like now I have to be like, just take each day, Nadia, you know, keep going, just follow, just follow what the customers are telling you and what, you know, the pain points you see.
And if I had focused on, if I said at the beginning, Yeah.
I'm going to take on Amazon. I'm going to build an amazing recommendation algorithm and. It's going to be the best. I think I would have very quickly probably lost confidence and said, no, I can't, I can't do this. Although I don't like saying I can't do anything, but you know what I mean?
Colleen: Yes. I know what you mean. Yeah. Like that, coupled with the fact that you're selling to customers, like the number one piece of advice I always got was like never sell directly to consumers ever.
Nadia: Ah, so funny you say that because when I was reading about entrepreneurship while at uni and all that and even, you know, talking with entrepreneurs, I, I always had the thing of like, you want to get into a B2B space. It's like a lot better. You can charge more. And so again, when I was thinking about, I want to be an entrepreneur.
I was always thinking, I was always trying to gravitate towards B2B ideas and it was so funny. Cause I had this moment when story guff started picking up and I was thinking about the business model and all that. And I was thinking, oh, I'm in exactly the kind of business that I didn't want to do in terms of like the financial and also just daily dealing with customers is hard and it, you know, it can be very it's, you know, it's tough.
And so it's, so yeah.
it's definitely a hard business to be in.
Colleen: Yeah. So you said that one of the things you, one of the tactics you use to kind of deal with that is focus on one day at a time and focus on your customers. Has there been any points on this journey when you just want to quit? Like, it's just feels too hard, especially by yourself. Like weren't you so lonely in the beginning?
Nadia: Oh, yes. Like, you know, I was and Luckily because I live, I live by myself as well. So luckily pivotal was super friendly and I was still able to just go in and use a desk in the office. So once or twice a week, I would go in and you know, just be able to work with old, alongside old friends.
So that was super helpful. But the thing is, I definitely had moments of particularly when I was pre-product. I definitely had. Of Dao or CA you know, is this, do I have the skillset to even build something that would be compelling enough? Within a reasonable timeframe? Like I said, I really think I was just lucky with that.
I didn't have anything else that I would rather go and do at that, at that point in time, you know, I didn't want to get a job. I didn't have any other grand idea. And up until that point, nothing else had gotten me that excited from a product perspective, then the area of books. And so that is what, even in the moment.
Where I thought, you know, I'd hit a dead end or there was one customer research round where I was, it was, I was essentially trying to test for product market fit and the results were basically like, your product is a nice to have. And I remember it being so deflating and being like, oh, do I just stop here now?
This isn't it. This is never going to be more than a nice to have. And you can't build a business on a nice.
to have. Yeah. I just think it was, I just couldn't let it go. I think there was, that was kind of a gut instinct thing as well. That just kept on driving me through, I guess. And I think the other thing is even when I had those moments, like when I was when I had the alpha and the beta, there were always some people who are super excited even. Yeah,
And so. I would I would see an email from them or, you know, they would respond to, you know, my newsletter that I do. And it would always, there'd always be something that would just say, there's something here. Keep going. Whether it was happened to be something from a customer or just an internal kind of feeling like I'm like, no, you haven't.
As long as there was something that I could do as in whether it was a customer reset round to find the answers or you haven't implemented the things that you've learned from the customer reset around. It was, there was always just, I dunno, something that just kept me going and to say, okay, just do this next step before you, you know, pack it in and just do this now.
Colleen: So you did three months ish of customer research, and then you did an alpha and then what did you do from there?
Nadia: So it got to the point where I realized I had, like, I think I onboarded two rounds of people onto the alpha and again, talking, I would let people use it. And then I would kind of do, I can't remember whether I did video customer research or email. Well survey, but long story short is the, it got to the point where the feedback was pointing in one direction.
And that was, this recommendation looks awesome and looks perfect for me, but I'm not going to read it until I finished the book I'm currently meeting and the other five books. On my shelf. So it got to the point where, okay, this product is, is never going to be, it's not very useful. Cause the, the real pain point is not necessarily finding new books.
It's choosing your next book. That, that's what he is. Like people say, I've got all these books at home and this one now just goes into the list. So that's what I kind of pivoted the product to. Okay.
Definitely. Sometimes people need new books, but a lot of the time they just. Pointing in the Right.
direction for books already on their radar, or they know the kind of things they want to read about, but there's like 50 of them.
So how do we help them choose the best one for them? And so that's when I shut down the alpha, because it was a lot of work. Cause I was personally recommending books to people doing research and recommending
Colleen: wait, what? Wait, can
Nadia: Yeah. That was the alpha.
Colleen: You were, you were personally like, oh, they like these books. They'd probably like this one.
Nadia: I had a survey. Yeah, I did a survey, so they had like a profile and then, and then they filled out a form on the, on the, on the, on this website. And then I think they ha I had a deadline. You'll get it within this much time. And then they got an email saying your recommendations ready? And it was, it wasn't very manual,
Colleen: That is impressive.
So it got to the point where I said, I've learned enough from this alpha, so I'm going to shut it down and I'm going to. Three months building a Bita. Cause I'd done enough research by this point that I could put together a backlog. And actually that's when I started my newsletter because I said to myself, it's just me.
At home, I'm now going to get heads down and build this Bita. And I'm worried about losing momentum from like all the people who've spoken to me in my research rounds and been excited. I'm worried I wanted some form of accountability or some form of like, Okay.
if people are expecting a newsletter, an email from me every week, I've got to have something interesting to say every week.
And so I, I started the newsletter. I think it must have been June of 2019. When I started building the Bita and I think, I think the first issue is called, like building a Bita. And so, yeah, and so then I just spent two or three months building the spitter, which was a more fully fledged product where you could track books, you wanted to read and you could filter by mood and pace and all the dimensions that I learnt from my months of research, the people were really looking for when they were trying to find books.
Colleen: So almost six months from of customer research and playing with ideas and testing product before you launched the beta. Okay. And then is that what your product is now? That's that was about two years ago now.
Nadia: That code base is the one that's currently now live.
Colleen: Okay. And what did you find when you launched that? How did that go?
Nadia: So originally I launched it private, or I call it concierge, beta. I was manually onboarding
Colleen: I like
Nadia: Yeah. I was like, who wants to be part of my concierge? It's Bita. And I made, I made it sound fancy. And then, because I was, I was manually onboarding people. So I was manually adding in every single book in the, in the database.
Nadia: I had to I remember people had to fill out a form and one of the, one of the fields was, so how many books do you have in your good reads library? And I sent you, you appointed people who had like 300 books or something. And so,
Colleen: You don't make you don't pass the test.
Nadia: yeah. And so I Yeah. I just onboarded people and then there was an ASP.
Of the product where, because every time I onboarded a new person, a bunch of new books got added to the product. And then I had these filter menus where you could filter by a genre or the mood or pace. And so I realized, wait, I don't peep, anyone could find this useful for book discovery. And so then I made the beat of public in September and.
Yeah, initial feedback was kind of like, Okay.
this is interesting. And that's when I realized that I needed to be very much more intentional about intentional, about who my customer was at that time, because I kind of said everyone come. And so I realized that when people were saying, Hmm, it doesn't really work for me.
I realized, wait, they're not my customer for the beater. So even though, you know how they say, like, you know, when you start a product. You wouldn't have a clear definition of who your customer is, and it's better to go more niche because you can expand out later. And so I realized, even though in my mind, I was like, this could be for everybody.
This will be for everybody. I was like, no, at this stage of the product, you can't pretend to cater to everybody. You have to filter like out. And so I remember starting with like avid mood readers. It was like, you read. And you're always reading multiple books and you, you stop and start books because you're, you're, you're maybe not in the mood for it now.
And that was super helpful on in boarding people who've really felt like the product resonated with them. Cause they, they felt, you know, there was a lot of finally a product for us mood readers like that. That was the original. And then as the, you know, the product developed, it's kind of now expanded to be.
But I also had a hypothesis as well, which was kind of underlying everything, which was. You know, sometimes they say like, what do you believe that not necessarily everyone believes, and this is not like some wacky idea, but I got, I came to the viewpoint. That really everyone's a mood reader. But even though, you know, I would have some people say I'm not a motivator at all.
Like, I, I just, you know, I stick to this list and I read it and that's it. But my like hypothesis was, I think everyone is on the scale of mood reading. Cause there are some times when you don't like a book and maybe if you'd picked it up at another time it might have worked for you or like in a different context.
There are some books that will never work for you. They're just not for you. But I do think that everyone has an element of mood reading in them. And so when I really, when I realized that that was it, I became a lot more comfortable with specifying this niche early on, because I knew that, you know, eventually the product would hopefully develop into something that had wider than.
Colleen: Okay. Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I, I feel that way sometimes, right? Like, I wouldn't say I'm a mood reader, but there's, I have multiple books and sometimes I'm like, oh, I don't feel like reading this one tonight. So that was 2019 and cents, right? September, 2019. So since then you have hired a co-founder
Nadia: Yeah, I wouldn't. Yeah. W yeah. So
Colleen: as hired, not the right word.
Nadia: I was going to say, no, no, no, it's not Brought on Yay. I will say, because I say it's funny because I, I never even, we have someone who also works for us. Part-time and actually she, Abby came first before Rob did. But, but even though, yes, technically it's like, I'm in charge.
I never see it that way. You know what I mean? It's very much like, even with Abby, I'm like, oh, we're all colleagues working together. But, but yeah, so first actually came Abby, so it got to the point where one day it was while I was still doing the Bita. I don't know how this got someone did a tweet about the story graph, the Bita.
I remember seeing my Twitter notifications blowing up at essentially Scott Hanselman, who has like a quarter of a million Twitter followers or more retweeted this tweet. And I remember being like, no, not now need this. I need this exposure later. So I had a flood of users and a flood of requests to like add new books and, and add books that fit this category and that category.
And so I just said to myself, wow, I can either build the product. I can spend days doing these manual. Requests for people. And so that's when I was like, I need help. And so actually two years ago, tomorrow, exactly because I, I reached out to Abby on the 22nd of September, 2019. And he started on the 23rd of September, I believe.
And I remember this because my birthday's on the 24th. So I remember on boarding her and saying, just so you know, I'm not doing any work tomorrow. Cause that's my bad. So he's had two year anniversary tomorrow. So two years ago I said, I need help. I reached out to her, I'd met her. She was a well-known books to grammar and she was just going freelance.
It worked out so well and she reads a lot. So, you know, she had a wide breadth of knowledge in this. And I just reached out to her and I said, I need help. Is this something you're interested in? So she came on board and she started helping do a lot of admin and just tidying up of book data and just helping me do just manual requests for people to import them.
And then later that year it was, it was the one's husband who actually saw something on Twitter. We got. I spoke about how I was doing spending hours manually entering books and adding in the moves and the pace, all that kind of stuff. And he said, oh, I've been learning machine learning. I know promises, but maybe I can.
Help automate this for you. And Yeah.
like within two weeks he had some amazing first version and essentially since then, he's just, Yeah.
he's just been working on it. And I think four months after he first reached out, he'd quit his job and doing full time. And I remember being like, whoa, like I have no money for you like to see, you know?
And so, yeah, no, he just goes through equity and we've been working ever since. Yeah, he will be two years in February, two years full time. So yeah,
Colleen: So when you hired Abby, she was freelancer. So were you paying her out of pocket because you weren't charging yet at that point,
Nadia: so actively I, it was mostly I'll put on. It was mostly out of pocket. Cause I was mainly putting money into the company, but I did run a paid B2 program because when I sh yes, when I shut down the alpha product, I still bought in those personal recommendations to the Bita. But I was like, you know, I can't just be doing this.
I didn't want to just offer this to everyone. It D like it wouldn't scale. And it was a lot of time. And so I said, Pitched this paid beta program where you could pay five bucks a month and you would get a personal recommendation a month. And also you will. I think, I can't remember if you, I think you access to some extra features, but there's also a monthly call with me.
Well, there are two monthly calls with me, a group call and also a one-on-one call. And this was just basically having invested beta testers who were always testing out the product. The group who was great, cause people were bouncing ideas off one another and then the one-on-one call. There's nothing like a one-on-one call just to get the real, honest feedback and really understand how people use the product.
Some of that money basically went into paying API, but ultimately, yeah.
it was still, I still needed to, it was it that wasn't enough that could maybe cover a few months and then it was Yeah.
Money that I'd put into the company. And then when Bob joined, he started putting in money into the company.
Colleen: So it's been two years. How many users do you have now?
Nadia: So we have, well, we're close to half a million registered users, registered users active is about in the, in the two quarter of a million to 300,000 mark at the minute. But I'm looking at it cause you know, my birthday is three days and I'm like, Ooh, we're 4k off of half a million registered users. So maybe it will be a birthday present.
So yeah, we So That's how many registered users we have. So we have hundreds of thousands of users like active users. And we have we have, you know, thousands of thousands of users who hit the site or the app every day, every day we have like about over 20 million pages a month at this point.
So. Yeah, it's going well. And we're trying to, you know, we're doing our plus plan, so we're, we're on the path to profitability as well. So we've got over two, we've got 2,140 ish paying customers and we have a monthly pan and annual plan and essentially people get extra features. And so we're about basically at the break even point now.
And if the trajectory continues, we'll be able to be profitable. So we're hoping that that continues. And also that our costs, we can, we re we're paying close attention to our costs right now and how, because we've not operated at this scale before. And so we're trying to figure out, make sure things are optimized.
Cause we don't want to Walden, which it keeps growing the costs grow a lot bigger than our subscription fees come in. Cause that wouldn't be sustainable. So that's our main focus. My main focus Right.
now is the profitablity.
Colleen: And you guys decided to charge the users,
Nadia: So it's funny. Yes. I was going to say, it's funny, you make that point because when I originally I was going down this route of a book site cause I've always, you know, entrepreneurship is always like, you want to get to profitability or earning money as soon as possible. And so my original thing was okay, I'm going to be taught.
Doing publishers or authors something along those lines. And I remember I actually got, I was thinking like, you know, publishers, they want to advertise, or they want to, you know, the, the, the main way was like advertisers put their, have their books. Be highlighted amongst others. And I remember that one of the things I learned from customer research was that people didn't trust certain recommendations from certain places because they said it's always the biggest publishes.
It's always the same books. It's always the publishers with money. And so I said, well, I never want to have the recommendations be tainted by who like the publishers that have the most money. And so people don't trust them. I want them to. The best book for you. And so I kind of went off that track and then there was also a whole world around like data and like anonymized data, but trends and things like that.
But I was like, you know, people, that's a very, I don't know if I want to go down the route of like data, like reports in terms of like, you know, what people searching for looking for. Cause I know that's something publishers would be interested in too, but I know that, you know, like people like. I wanted to make sure that we run, I ran a high trust, like product and company.
And I also got some advice from a mentor that basically said the best company can get. Can get, gives so much value to the users directly that the users want to pay. And so I always said to myself, okay, let's test this. Can we build something? Even though it's very, it seems very unlikely. People don't believe it's possible because it's a book's website.
Good reads is completely free for users. I was like, can we like, let's just test it. So we, in October of 2020. The years are all messed up because of, you know, the pandemic. So I'm just in my mind, I'm like last year, the year before last,
Colleen: who knows.
Nadia: so Octavia. Totally. It must've been, we just put up a page cause we were out costs were going up cause we were probing and we were like, okay, we need to start thinking about how, you know, what I feel like financially, we're fine.
So I, you know, I had the few years still and, and what was fine. And so it was more that we're like, if we're going to make this as longterm sustainable business, we need to start thinking about profitability from that.
Nadia: And so we just put up a page, a pre-order we said story golf plus coming next year, I said early 20, 21 purposefully gave myself some room.
And we just said, these are the features we're getting, just sketch them out. Didn't exist. $30. Pre-order it's going to be $50 and we had 1400 people pay.
Nadia: and so we were like, right, okay. Let's build this past thing.
Nadia: Yeah. And so we it got to the point where, because we will, we officially launched January of this year
Nadia: It got off the launch.
I was like, right, okay. Now we need to launch the plus plan because we have all this money that people have paid us and they want that. Extra fetus. And so we spent, yes, I remember we eventually got it out just the end of February, beginning of March, if you were in the states, it was, it was February where I was, it was the 1st of March, early hours of the morning and yeah, the plus plan launched.
And so, Yeah. we've been, we had a kind of it wasn't uptake. Super great originally. And then we've just been again, I've been just doing customer research. So I've, I've been speaking to the people who use the product every day, finding what is it that makes them keep coming back? Because the product wasn't designed to be used every day, but I would see people tweeting and saying things like, I love story golf.
I use it every day. It's like, I need to talk to these people using the product every day. Even I don't use it every day. What are you doing? And so I learned, Okay.
These are the most avid readers. So that updating something every day, and then they're looking at their stats, they all love stats. So then it was like, Okay.
how do I, we enhance the stats piece and what do we give the most?
Active users also tended to be paying members. So how can we enhance the stats for them? And it was like, I was going down that route. So I've been involving the pro plus product. And also, yeah, just like just trying to continually improve the product, making it more visible. So some people, you know, we had so many people originally say, I didn't even know that was plus.
So now I then spent time adding little badges around the site. There's a plus feature here, or, you know, unlock this plus feature. If you, if you if you, if you're interested in like more advanced stats or if you want a special type of similar books, that's more focused on your preferences. You know, little tips around the product in a way that's, hopefully we're trying to get the balance between.
What people love about our product Right.
now is there are no ads or anything it's very clean and quiet. And so I didn't want to have suddenly big banners everywhere saying plus plus plus, but enough that people noticed it and you existed. And so things like getting an email when your free trial expires, like little things I've been doing and we've seen we've just seen like the uptake growing grow.
And yeah, we recently, we recently released a very powerful feature, which. It's up next to suggestions and essentially we recommend. From your two weed pile. And we give you a reason why, so we basically help you pick up. We basically give you specific suggestions from books. You've already said you want to meet and help you choose what you read next.
So we'll say maybe this one, because you a similar user to you enjoyed this one, or if you want something similar to the last book. Maybe this one, or if you're doing a reading goal and you're behind his like a short one to pick up. So this has been a very, this is added a lot of value to our paying members because it's just helped them actually work through rather than just adding a bunch of books that they want to read, help them actually read them.
And that, that's just an amazing when we get that feedback, when people are saying, wow, you're actually helping me read books that I've wanted to read for ages or cleared books on my bookshelf. It's such an amazing feeling to know we're actually helping enhance reader's lives in This
Colleen: This whole story is utterly amazing to me. It's like, you guys were never in a box. Like the rest of us are trying to get out of our box and you're like, I was never in a box. I'm going to do exactly what I want. You know, I think because like, I live very heavily in that indie SAS world. So I listened to a lot of indie hackers.
And if you listen to indie hackers, 9.5 out of 10 people, Cortland has on our developers making tools for other developers. Right. Like, we were all really tightly coupled and what you have done, like you did everything. I don't want to say wrong. That's not the right word, but like you did everything we've always been told not to do.
Right. You're like, don't care about your rules. I'm just going to do it because I love it. And I'm passionate about it. And I don't know. It's just so exciting for me to see you take this like really hard problem that no one thought they could solve and trying to. And now you guys are having so much success.
Like that's so awesome.
Nadia: Oh, thank you so much. I mean, I think I see what you're saying in terms of, it's not the it's like what you said, cause they say, you know, build for. What you know, and so that whole pattern of developers building for developers and, or even what you said, the bef what we spoke about before the whole business to business thing, as being a smart way, it's easy to kind of figure out what your price, much easier to figure out pricing and to also, you know, like, know who you're going to speak to and selling to companies, that kind of stuff is a lot, there's a lot more.
Over a playbook, I would say like every, every place is still different, but there's a lot more of a, a playbook and it's a lot easier to, I think, get to that profit profitability piece sooner. But I would say the one thing that I just think is just, if, if, if you do like you just have to do it. It's the customer research like that is the thing that.
Like you said, this is just such a big, huge space and it's a really hard problem. And you know, we've done a good job of solving it so far. We've we've got, we could take what we've currently got and make it miles better. Like even though people love it already and think it's great. We have got like a bigger vision with it and lots more we want to do, but just because we just stay to stick with that customer reset.
Really, you know, having a good process around it and being not shying away from it as well, and also not cutting corners with it. So there'll be times when I would do a recession. I'm like, no, you have to find the time to watch them back and do the synthesis, Nadia. Don't just, you know, like anecdotally be like, oh Yeah, people generally think this like actually do the research, you know?
And you know, I'll always find. Some new pattern or something, even if it was just confirming something, I had kind of guessed, but just, you know, seeing it and having the confidence to say, okay, this is what's going on right now. I just think that has been the, a big part of us doing well so far, I would say so far because you know, you never know with stuff like this.
Right. You know, hoping those plus numbers still keep going up, hoping people still keep loving the product. You know, it's, it's a. Even though. yeah,
We're two years in and we're doing, going well, I'm almost at half a million. I still, you still have the thing of like, you know, this could all fall apart or like just stop working.
You can start plateauing or, yeah.
So when we were trying to keep that in mind to just keep the stay focused.
Colleen: What is your long-term vision for your life and story graph?
I would love. So we're not. So we want to stay in D our dream is to stay an independent company that's possible. So Robin, I can have our salaries and we can invest back in the product, whether that's hiring a handful of people or hiring people who work with us on a short-term basis to, to help where we need like methods, design stuff, perhaps, or, you know product overview or accessibility.
That's something that I've been, you know, It's trying to always improve on all different facets of the product. But essentially, Yeah.
I just want to build a product that is it's known as a really excellent tool for tracking your reading and choosing our next book. It's basically known as I would love the product to be essentially seen as like your best friend that like, no.
All about your reading, but also knows about all the books in the world. So you just trust them. And it's just the, it's just a joy to use. And if that brings joy to readers, avid readers, it enhances their lives. And also inspires people who don't read or maybe used to read, to pick up a book and get into a meeting.
And then we're bringing so much value that we can stay profitable and independent and running from several, several years to come. That would be absolutely incorrect.
Colleen: Wow. Wonderful. Well, Nadia, thank you so much for coming on software social today and sharing with us your adventures in building story graph,
Nadia: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so honored to have been invited.
Colleen: that's going to wrap up today's episode. Please check us out on Twitter and we'd love to hear your feedback. Thanks.
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