Would-be and current-day product creators take heed: You’re not alone.
In my own quest to help guide the storyboarding process at Digital Telepathy, I stumbled upon Gingko. And I was intrigued that a two-man show could develop and execute an app, that, truth be told, works—in fact, I used it to help craft content for DT’s case studies. Gingko isn’t perfect yet, and Adriano Ferrari, the app’s founding father, agrees: It’s like everything else in life—a work in progress. That being said, it’s impressive and truly inspirational that someone so young could craft something so wise. In an attempt to pay-it-forward, we felt it would be helpful to open up the forum and chat about the joys and challenges of creating products with a small team.
Earlier this month, we started a new series of UX practitioner interviews. We are eager to hear what you think about the Practitioner Series, and if you have suggestions for more experts to interview, we’d love to hear from you!
Q: Can you tell us a little about Gingko as a product, and what inspired you to create it?
Gingko came about because I needed a way to get a handle on all my ideas in various areas. I looked at my daunting PhD thesis, at the screenplays I was writing at the time, at all the bits and pieces of ideas for past, present, and future projects. And then I looked at the tools we use to work with written thoughts and ideas, and felt a distinct lack of flexibility. It took a lot of thinking and experimenting to come up with the current sliding columns tree of cards approach.
Q: What’s your background? Are you a designer, developer, writer?
I’ve done all those things, but I am none of them. People often define their identity by what they do. This works well for specialists who have one deep interest. But for the millions of people like me, who’ve had many interests over the years, it doesn’t apply. My background is very diverse. I’ve done writing, painting, 3D animation, 2D graphic design, software development for desktop, mobile, and web (mostly the latter), and during my Physics PhD program, I dabbled in screenwriting, high-performance computer simulations, and developed a growing interest in AI.
I want to emphasize that I’m nowhere near being an expert in any one of these. But I enjoy diversity and learning new things. It also helps me make creative connections between fields. More recently, for a few months this year, my focus was on writing. Now I’m switching briefly into marketing, before cycling back to programming.
Q: What were some challenges or roadblocks, (technical or otherwise), you faced in developing your product? How did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge, by far, are my own human limitations. I’ve been a perfectionist for most of my life, and it makes it very difficult to move forward sometimes. I’ve always been a thinker. On the one hand, this has helped me develop my mind’s eye to where I can spend uninterrupted hours visualizing, in detail, the things I want to create. But on the other hand, it leads to regular paralysis when it comes to implementation.
I haven’t overcome these problems yet, but I have made great strides in doing so. Mostly thanks to the concepts of the “growth mindset,” combined with Stephen Guise’s work on Mini-habits and Imperfectionism.
Q: Did you do BETA testing for your product and solicit user feedback? If so, what tools did you use to facilitate this process?
We did have a short Beta period at the beginning. We didn’t use any special tools at first, but eventually added Intercom.io for engaging with customers.
Q: What did you learn in BETA? What did direct user feedback through Intercom tell you?
Intercom has been an incredibly useful tool for communication, for observing feature usage and for seeing broad patterns. It’s been two years, and I know, I’m still not using it as effectively as I could to learn and to grow.
Recently, I’ve also started offering Skype calls to new subscribers to help walk them through how Gingko can help them in their particular case. And in turn, I learn the most common stumbling blocks and the most-needed features for paying customers. It’s one thing to read about a bug, it’s quite another to watch it happen live to someone you’re trying to help. I’ve seen a lot of talk about “customer discovery interviews,” where you talk to people who might become your customers, and find out what they could use. This is is useful when your focus is acquisition, but feels backwards. Retention is more important, so I find my “customer guidance calls” far more effective.
Receiving feedback is easy. Organizing it can be easy, with the right tools. Actually listening to feedback is very, very hard. For a long time, due to my fixed mindset, I had trouble accepting criticism without feeling defensive. Even when my users requested exactly what I wanted to deliver according to my overall vision, I felt pressured by it. This all stems from an attachment to the product and to my work. When my identity and my ego were tied to my work, I saw criticism of the product as criticism of myself. I’ve since learned to not take it personally. I now imagine myself alongside my customers, looking objectively at this tool we both use, and seeing how it can be improved.
Q: In terms of tools, what tools or products did you and your team rely on to create Gingko? How many people were on the production team? How did you foster collaboration within your team?
We used pretty standard tools and platforms for web development. Node.js, MongoDB, etc. As for organization, we used Trello for a time, but found it limiting. We switched to Gingko for all our organization and collaboration eventually. As a bonus, this allowed us to understand first-hand how to improve Gingko for that use case.
Our entire production team was one brilliant developer, Aleksey Kulikov, based in Russia at the time (he’s now in Slovenia). I had hired Aleksey as a freelancer, and soon after he asked to join the project as a partner. For over a year, we worked together on Gingko. Collaboration was difficult at times, mostly I believe because of our inexperience in creating a business, and both of us having misplaced expectations. But we learned a great deal. In the end, it was decided that the best thing to do would be for him to return to freelancing. He’s now a member of the very selective TopTal.com freelancing platform.
Q: Now that you have created Gingko, do you have an itch to create more products? If so, what are some ideas you have and, if not, what are you on to next?
I don’t have that itch yet, mostly because Gingko is still far from where I want it to be.
But I always have far too many ideas. When I do “finish” Gingko, I’ll likely move to social innovation.
For centuries we’ve used the same stories and models to structure our lives and our work. I think the world needs a new way of working together, and of being compensated. For instance, despite the incredible technological advances in the past 200 years, our methods for communicating the most advanced knowledge in the scientific world is still PDFs behind paywalls (which isn’t that different from the centuries-old method of “a bunch of papers distributed to elite subscribers”). In the last century, there has been no qualitative change in the way science is communicated. The reason for this is simple: there has also been no change in the way scientists are hired and compensated. This is just one example of how our institutions have failed to take the opportunity to improve.
I have one idea I’m very excited about for how to start changing this. It’s a combination of the ideas of Ben Franklin’s “mutual insurance” (but in reverse), and “unconditional basic income,” that I’m calling “mutually assured prosperity.”
Q: Did you ever create a product that never went live? What was it and what happened, if so?
Yes, I’ve started many projects that never went live. Many were dead before they even got off the ground, but a few went rather far.
The first product I ever sold was a habit-tracking app, HabitShaper. I wrote it for Windows, and I started getting some sales. But instead of buckling down and learning how to market it better, I decided that “obviously” it would be better as a web app. Looking back now, that was a form of self-sabotage.
There were two related businesses to HabitShaper (one mobile and one SMS), and one that was closer to Gingko in spirit, called SciStream, which was a collaborative LaTeX word processor (i.e. for writing equation-heavy research papers).
If I had to name one common mistake in all these failed projects, it’s that my ambition and vision far outpaced my skills. I should have taken each of these projects as simply a way to learn and grow while providing value to a few people, and not as a means to an end (be it “success” or “making a difference”).
Q: What advice do you have for product developers? What are some of your key learnings and takeaways from going through this process?
My advice is likely to apply only to a narrow segment of product developers: solo and bootstrapped. For starters, ignore everything you see and read about start-ups! It simply doesn’t apply. And worse than being a distraction, it creates unrealistic expectations that shatter your productivity.
Secondly, focus on the process.
Just focus on making some improvement in either coding (improving your product), writing (refining your vision), or marketing, every day. Leave the rest aside, and keep at it. If you are a bootstrapper, I highly recommend reading and studying Amy Hoy’s work: https://unicornfree.com/.
Finally, one of the biggest mental shifts I’ve made recently regarding my output has been in setting a firm intention for what I need to accomplish, and not deviating until it’s done. There are dozens of features and improvements that had been in the backlog for over a year, that I managed to deploy in the span of days and weeks with this simple change in mindset.
I call these two modes “Engineer Mode” and “Pathfinder Mode.” Engineering mode feels like you’re building a 3-story building, and need to plan out everything from the foundation to the roof, while secretly wanting to build a skyscraper. If I hit an obstacle, it feels like the whole structure is unstable, and I go “back to the drawing board”. It’s no wonder I get stalled before I start.
Pathfinder mode is more like putting a clear pin on a very vague map. I know roughly where the challenges might be, and where the easiest path could lie, but I don’t really know until I start walking. All I need to do to get there is to keep going around and through obstacles until I get to where I need to be.
In the end, it’s just about putting all concerns aside other than doing your own personal best, and delivering value to a (steadily growing) number of people.
Also, when all else fails, this quote helped keep me grounded:
“If we attend continually and promptly to the little that we can do, we shall ere long be surprised to find how little remains that we cannot do.”