September 9, 2020
A behind the scenes look at my failed app idea
This article is a look at some behind the scenes work I've decided to hit pause on for a SaaS app called Compose. It's a team communication tool that's focused on creating fewer distractions in the workplace through asynchronous long-form writing. Here's what I learned and where I’m focusing next.
Before you read I must say at this point in time I'm feeling like this idea is still not 100% dead. I think there's a solution here but I'm wondering if maybe the audience or market is what needs to be adjusted to provide some usefulness elsewhere. Perhaps in the education space or even with writers/authors. Or maybe I need to present it in a new way that's more of a lifestyle as opposed to a product. Lots of thinking still to do! Okay, carry on....
What is Compose?
For the past couple of months I've been deep at work on an app I call Compose. I made a job change which changed the way I work dramatically. I'm extremely grateful for the change as my stress and anxiety levels decreased. My new role preferred asynchronous communication over synchronous and from that inspired a new idea.
A question I kept asking myself
"Why is chat the preferred way to communicate for teams?".
I don't like Slack (or synchronous tools in general)
Newer chat-based tools have many fantastic features that enable people to communicate easily across the globe. You can share files, make calls, start message threads, and post complete documents that are all searchable. It sounds ideal, right?
On the surface, I think tools such as these are a great value add. Most teams reach for them because it becomes the new watering cooler of sorts for internal teams and a great place to be able to broadcast important team-wide updates. Where I think synchronous tools suffer is that they are completely contradicting productivity in the workplace.
Real-time messaging assumes you have a complete focus on the conversation at hand. You might be trying to work on any other matter to make some progress only to get bombarded with notifications that don't concern you. Sure, you can tailor your notifications, or even turn them off entirely but then you have anxiety or FOMO (fear of missing out) about the day-to-day doings at your workplace. This is no good. Additionally, with chat, there is always an ongoing stream of messages to sift through. Nobody wants to scroll back for a handful of seconds to revisit some previous discussion.
With more teams moving out of offices and into their own remote offices, tools for communication are being targeted as alternative means to communicate effectively as a team. I saw this as a great time to build something for that audience.
How can I solve this problem? Does it need to be solved?
At this point, I think I set out to try and solve a problem that didn't want to be solved. While many people use synchronous tools for their day-to-day communication I think it's rare that they love the experience. Getting interrupted, having to always be online, and only a short message away from anyone even after hours doesn't sound so fun.
With Compose I wanted to bring asynchronous communication back to the forefront. Back in the days of personal blogs and forums you could send and receive replies more calmly. There was an understood latency that existed with asynchronous communication. That latency in my opinion is a good thing. It limits expectations of a timely response if you don't want to right away and there is more time to consider what you are going to write rather than the knee-jerk reactions most chat tools encourage.
The Basecamp team published a great overview of the downsides of synchronous communication that left me nodding to everything as I read. This is how I wanted to work and I'm very thankful for my new role followed similar principles. This new freedom opens your eyes that I think more workers need to experience.
You could say Compose was my attempt to give them that experience. I'm trying to sell more than the product itself. I'm trying to sell a new way to work.
Care to read more about this way of work? Read the compose doctrine.
How it works
Compose is a lot like Basecamp, Trello, and traditional forums. I took pieces of those products and made a simple communication tool that encourages long-form writing. Everything is asynchronous by design. My goal was to ultimately provide categorized places for teams to communicate in writing. Whether it's sharing your updates for the week or bragging about that exotic vacation you just went on Compose would be a place for such content.
Overview of the app
When you first log in to the app you see a dashboard where you can create "Boards". Boards are homes for messages your team will publish over time. A Board can be categorized as anything. Depending on your team structure you might devote boards to sub-teams or just areas of additional focus internally. A board can be customized with a unique color, title, and description depending on your criteria.
Within each board, there is a message inbox view. Here you'll see new messages and a paper trail of activity for that specific board.
Each message contains the message body and response area. Depending on who is granted permissions on the board and on the message itself you can dispatch notifications when a message is published or a team member is mentioned. You can drag and drop uploads for any message and response.
Responses are essentially messages but can be threaded one-level and are tied to a parent message and board.
Overall, the application is quite simple. I wanted it to be a place teams can communicate with fewer distractions. Asynchronous communication is slower but it's more refined. When drafting a longer message you pause to reflect on your writing which inspires richer communication. Writing is probably one of the best skills you can benefit from as a human. Why not leverage more?
Why I think it failed
Solving communication problems is hard. Changing the way people do things is harder. Most teams are used to Slack or Microsoft Teams at this point. Chat has become standard and only those who don't like chat (like myself) would even give Compose a few seconds.
Selling this tool to product managers or any managers would be tough as they need to stay on top of their teams all day, every day. Asynchronous tools aren't meant for them.
Compose was never meant to be a direct competitor to those big apps but I think the general assumption is that it is. I don't have enough ammunition for that war. To compete I'd need an entire team with almost endless funding. That type of goal contracts my own goals of working more calmly as I progress in my career. You probably won't find me trying to convince venture capitalists to loan me some money any time soon.
Why I think there's still potential
I think this app could go somewhere. Finding a very niched audience would be my best guess as to where it could perform. Perhaps in the education space for students and teachers to have classwide discussions? Or maybe it's more of a forum-like app waiting to be transformed? I'm not so sure.
For now, I have spent far too long on it without seeing too much interest. I'm keeping it alive but need to do some deep thinking on how it could potentially evolve into more of a niched offered rather than just marketed towards remote teams who need to communicate. Slack and similar tools already own that space. I'd need to disrupt it in a hard way to even think about getting traction.
What I'm focusing on next
As I put Compose on pause I decided to continue most of my efforts towards my blog (web-crunch.com). I'm creating new content every week that I'm hoping will benefit the multiple goals I have ahead as I build it in public.
Keep the Ruby and Rails community alive and well
A new collection (series of tutorials) I have recently dug into is called Let's Build for Ruby and Rails developers. The goals with this are ten-fold.
- To create a new community, job board, and developer hangout for Ruby and Rails developers
- To promote my content on both YouTube and web-crunch.com
- To keep the Ruby and Rails community alive!
- To help others learn
Create more passive streams
While working full-time at my current role I am always looking for ways to make additional money. My wife is a stay at home mom at the moment so that leaves me to bring home the bacon.
One salary is enough but it sure would be great to have more flexibility from month to month.
Help people find jobs
I previously mentioned building a job board and marketplace for Ruby and Rails developers. Well, you might wonder how I got the inspiration for that idea.
I recently quietly launched lancer.to which is a freelance-only job board. I got my start as a freelancer and have always enjoyed the hunt for finding roles that weren't local to me. There are very few opportunities in the midwest (where I'm from) so I had to search elsewhere.
One of the best clients I found was on Craigslist which is nuts to think about. There are some hidden gems out there if you put in the work to find them. I want to be able to provide a place that helps solve that "work" problem. What if there was a freelance job board that didn't suck? Sites like freelancer.com and upwork.com devalue pretty much all contractors on the platform.
While courses are a huge effort I found decent success with my recent course Hello Rails. I plan to write more about that experience soon so look for a follow-up article/video.
I have a collection of ideas in mind for courses focused more on entry-level developers. There are massive amounts of tutorials and courses out there. I want to focus on quality over quantity. Doing so means perhaps fewer courses but more rewards for both the students and myself.
Premium blog content
There are a lot of tutorials I've been meaning to write, record, and publish but time has been of the essence of late being a new father. Back when I relaunched a new redesign of web-crunch.com I added a new series of features around premium content. While I don't love the idea of blocking content behind a paywall I think for certain pieces it makes sense.
I'm considering doing more Ruby on Rails API builds with popular front-end frameworks for example. Putting a couple of those behind a paywall will help me keep the lights on and pay for server costs to host everything I do.
Other mini-courses and deep dives come to mind here as well. The fee to unlock would be one-time payments (no subscriptions) that you get instant access to upon completion.
Failure is good
I've failed a lot as an entrepreneur. Lots of ideas have been built only to be tossed in the garbage. Doing all of this makes me question my judgment and my career. Maybe I'm better off doing something entirely different. Farming? Selling physical products? I'm not sure. What I do know is that the process of building something that others take an interest in is very inspiring. It's a big reason I press publish every week and don't plan on stopping.
Through each new failure, I learn something new and those experiences you can't just "learn" until you experience them. If you're in a similar position as me I just want to you know I empathize. This shit is hard! If it wasn't, everyone would be millionaires and working 4 hour weeks. Hang in there and don't give up.