Stacking the Bricks Podcast
EP13 - Justin Weiss's shift from side projects to successful product launches
In this episode…
"The idea that, oh well, I shouldn't charge money for this because… some reason.
Justin spent years noodling on side projects. He made every excuse in the book for not charging for them, including some we haven't often heard:
At the time, it seemed like, 'Why should I charge money for this? This is a passion project of mine.' So I should just release it for free."
But last year, he decided to make a change.
Justin took 30x500. In the first 3 weeks of droppin' ebombs on his blog, he added his first 50 mailing list subscribers. (ebomb, n: our special brand of educational content marketing.)
He kept at it, just an hour or two a few times a week. He researched his audience using Sales Safari; he wrote ebombs; he came up with a simple formula, really, to make writing those ebombs dead simple.
He started a book on the wrong foot; threw it away. Twice. Then he went back to basics and wrote, launched, and presold a beta book. He revised and shipped a finished book. He's made nearly $20k in sales so far. He didn't get on Hacker News or Product Hunt, just built his blog, built his list, and sold from there.
All on an hour or two a few times a week, in the morning, on the side
Justin also has a job and a little kid.
If my prose seems rote and workmanlike, it's because that's exactly what Justin did: He used 30x500 to take something people angst about, that they treat like their BIGGEST EMOTIONAL STRUGGLE EVER, and turned it into something he could simply do, the same way, over & over until he had created a wonderful result.
It's not that his book itself is formulaic, but the process to create it could be a formula. And maybe his ebombs have a distinct pattern to them, but they help people, and people share them, and nobody's complaining.
The process isn't exciting. The results are.
If I could snap my fingers and teach the entire world something, that would be it: The drama of "creative work" rarely helps, and often hurts. It's energy and value just… burning off.
If you're in the place now where the "fun" and "excitement" has worn off and you want to get real and make a product that helps people, and one that earns you money… well, you definitely want to listen to Alex's interview with Justin today!
Alex Hillman: So what people don’t know that are listening is that I’m not much of a morning person.
It’s currently 08:21 in the morning on the East coast; which is not all that early, but my most productive time of the day generally doesn’t start before 10:00 AM. Today’s guest Justin Weiss – he’s on the West coast, which means it is currently 05:21 in the morning.
I’m wondering Justin, how much of your product work do you get done before the sun comes up? I’m not talking just because it’s dark in Seattle, but like really early morning, is that super productive time for you normally?
Justin Weiss: It is and I actually didn’t expect that when I first started working on this stuff, but it’s nice doing this again in the morning, because it reminds me of the hour or so a couple of times a week that I was using to spend writing the actual book that I released.
Alex Hillman: Was doing the book part of what helped you set up a morning routine? And then what was that morning routine before you got to work?
Justin Weiss: It did, and I had to find time to do it. A lot of the times, I mean, I did some of the writing at night and some of it in the morning; I found that at night, a lot of the time, I would be too tired. It would be too easy to come up with excuses not to do the writing and everything.
So, if I said, okay, well tonight I’m going to go to bed a little bit earlier and then wake up early and start writing, then I actually found that I was able to get stuff done.
Alex Hillman: And you’ve got kids too, right?
Justin Weiss: Just one with a second on the way.
Alex Hillman: Congratulations. Did that factor into your early morning decision as well?
Justin Weiss: Kind of, I mean, it hasn’t really been too much of an issue because most of the stuff that I do, I do after she goes to sleep, but in the mornings it’s nice because I can also kind of help my wife out and be up when she wakes up.
Alex Hillman: Nice. So, let’s take a big step back, I introduced you and said you’re in Seattle. Justin, how do you often introduce yourself? I’m curious, so a couple of different facets of you that I think will be interesting to our listeners. The fact that you are both a technical person and also you have a full-time job and now have a product business on the side.
How do you introduce yourself in particular to nontechnical people who maybe don’t understand what you do?
Justin Weiss: For the day job thing, it’s usually pretty easy. For the product side, it’s a writer. Maybe, I just kind of say, “Oh yeah, I write for my website. I released a book”, like that kind of thing.
Alex Hillman: Do you remember what motivated you to start building products in the first place?
Justin Weiss: I’ve always needed side projects. I mean, that’s always just kind of been a personality trait of mine. I had done a little bit of open source work in the past. I wrote an iOS app a long time ago, that was just kind of like one of those scratch your own itch types of things. I’ve always needed a project to work on. I just get a little bit restless when I’m not working on something.
Alex Hillman: Had you tried doing paid product before? Had you tried to launch a product as a potential business or a side business? Or was it always just side projects?
Justin Weiss: It’s always been side projects. I don’t know if it was just that I was nervous to ask for money or if it was just like, I could easily come up with excuses not to charge, like, oh, well the website that I’m wrapping is free, so my app should be free too. Those types of things.
Alex Hillman: So talk to me a little bit about the shift from side projects to product. What was the difference for you?
Justin Weiss: The difference to me is that when I actually have people to follow or instructions to follow or a process to follow, it’s a lot easier for me to get through some of those mental roadblocks like that. When I see that other people have had success doing the same thing and charging money for it, it’s like, okay, well, I could probably do that too.
That transition once I actually had people from my 30x500 cohort or, just other people that I had seen that are doing something similar to me that were actually making money from it, it became a little bit easier for me to make that transition.
Alex Hillman: Well you mentioned roadblocks. What were some of those?
Justin Weiss: So just kind of like I mentioned before the idea that, “Oh, well I shouldn’t charge money for this because…” some reason, which is probably just a dumb reason in retrospect, but at the time it seemed like why should I charge money for this? This is a passion project of mine. I should just release it for free because everybody else should be able to use it the same way that I want to use it.
Alex Hillman: Is that where that came from, the, “I wouldn’t pay for this. So why would anybody else?”
Justin Weiss: It wasn’t even that, because a lot of these things I probably would have paid for had they actually existed.
Alex Hillman: So, I wonder if you have an idea of where did that idea come from? Because what you are describing is – especially when we’re talking about creative people – people that are makers, whether it’s with a technical skill or a design skill or the ability to write or shoot video or whatever it is, where does that undervaluing of your project work and your time, where does that come from?
Justin Weiss: I don’t know. I kind of want to say that it’s fear, but thinking back, I don’t really feel I was that scared of that kind of thing. I don’t know, I want to say that the general idea that I had was, I don’t want to charge money for this because I had so much fun making it that I just kind of want to share it with the rest of the world.
Alex Hillman: Okay. That’s interesting. And the idea that maybe charging for it and turning it into a business puts you on the hook and can somehow suck the fun out of it?
Justin Weiss: Exactly. When it’s free, if somebody doesn’t like it, maybe it’s like well, you didn’t pay for it, so you got exactly what you paid for it. I mean, maybe I was just kind of worried about the support, which is funny, because I’ve never actually really minded doing much of the support.
Alex Hillman: Interesting. So, it was this sort of this act of theoretical self-preservation?
Justin Weiss: Something like that!
Alex Hillman: Cool. So, let’s talk a little bit about the product that you actually built, which is called Practicing Rails and it’s a book. What is the specific pain that you set out to solve and for whom with Practicing Rails?
Justin Weiss: As I was going through the writing for the website and stuff, which kind of came directly out of the 30x500 work that I did, I started to hear a lot of people getting in touch with me and having problems with the first – or usually the second or third steps of learning rails, where it’s like, “I got through the tutorial. I know how to build the tutorial apps left and right. But when I actually want to build the app that I got into programming to build; I have no idea where to start. I am confused by all the different types of technologies that are out there. I have no idea what to learn next. I just look at this empty skeleton rails app, and it’s like, okay, well now what?”
Alex Hillman: Understanding that that’s the problem, how do you actually fix that problem with Practicing Rails?
Justin Weiss: So that was actually something that I was able to find just by doing some research for people, or some Safari online for people having similar problems and seeing what the recommendations were. A lot of it just kind of came from my own experience because this was some problems that I was still kind of facing every once in a while, when I started a brand new project and kind of using those ideas to form a good process that somebody just starting out could follow in order to take the idea that they clearly have in their head and turn it into something that they can actually tack on.
Alex Hillman: Gotcha. So you just said the magic word in my mind, which is process and in the podcast series that we’ve been working on, a bunch of the conversations we’ve been having with 30x500 alumni is taking knowledge that maybe we take for granted because we’ve learned it, someone else hasn’t and turning it into sort of an end to end process. You get to choose the distance between those ends, of course. The end result of your process, was it a fully functioning app or was it something else a little more specific than that?
Justin Weiss: It was a little bit more specific than that, because in my experience, it’s once you get that first feature done, the rest of it just starts to come a lot quicker.
It’s that fear of not knowing where to start, not knowing what to build first, not even knowing, “Okay, well I have so much stuff in my head and how can I get one little thing down on paper so I actually have something to start working on?”
Alex Hillman: So this is really cool. A lot of the conventional wisdom is “I want to build my first app” and you took it one layer more granular because an app is effectively a collection of features or fixes or actions, and you put together an end-to-end process so somebody would be able to create the first feature; the win was not the entire app, it was just one small feature.
Justin Weiss: Right, because once the app boots up and you start to see something that you actually wrote working in your browser or on your phone or whatever, that is the thing that sparks that addiction, that makes you actually build the rest of the features that then leads to having a final app.
Alex Hillman: I think this is a really counterintuitive lesson for a lot of people. How have people responded to the book? Do people get to the – they finished their first feature and is there a new “Now what?”, or is the reaction something else entirely?
Justin Weiss: The reaction I’ve been getting from people is just that it seems to remove almost a little bit of a mental roadblock. Where they were just stuck trying to pull in too much at once, trying to grab too much at once in their brain, trying to do something just absolutely perfect the first time. It’s funny because the reaction I’ve been getting is the reaction that I had to some of the books that really had an effect on me where it’s like, okay, well, I think I already kind of knew this, but actually reading it, seeing it, having processes to follow has really allowed me to accomplish this thing that I didn’t think that I was going to be able to do.
Alex Hillman: You just mentioned books that influenced you and had an impact on you, what were a couple of those?
Justin Weiss: One of the biggest ones when I was becoming a developer was The Pragmatic Programmer. It’s funny because going back and reading it just a couple of months ago, how much of it seems like – I want to recommend it, but I don’t know that I really can all that much anymore because it had such a big influence on this generation of programmers that everybody’s going to be like, “Yeah, of course, this is obvious”, but even then the people that I read it with were relatively new developers and they all found it maybe a little bit more obvious, they skimmed through it a little bit more than I did when I first read it. But they still got a lot out of it.
Alex Hillman: That’s really interesting. So I want to switch gears a little bit to actually creating Practicing Rails, the book. How much time per week were you spending? Roughly, because you’ve got day job. You’ve got kids, family stuff. You said most of your work was going in the morning in an hour or so, if I remember right? So how much time per week are you actually putting into creating, marketing, sort of the whole thing?
Justin Weiss: So I spent a little bit of time every day. It’s kinda hard to tell because it varied a lot, but it was usually about an hour or two a day for the actual writing of the book. And that was usually about three or four days a week. Then about anywhere between two and four which would usually be split between the evening in the morning for writing blog posts and email newsletters and doing all that other kind of stuff.
Alex Hillman: That actually was my next question is how did you prioritize marketing and creating the product? So it sounds like you separated them into sort of two discreet steps or sort of areas of work. What was the division of work? How did that actually sort out in your head and in practice?
Justin Weiss: I don’t remember exactly how it started, but I got into a routine of shipping a new blog post every Tuesday morning and so once I had that and then I started doing something similar to the newsletter subscribers and doing an email newsletter every Friday morning, once I did that, those were kind of sacred, no matter what, those were going to go out.
That kind of helped me balance those two, the marketing and the actual developing of the product because I was able to know exactly what I was going to be doing any particular day. If it was Monday or sometimes Sunday night, I would be writing a blog post. If it was Thursday evening, Friday morning, I would be writing an email newsletter if it was the rest of the days, I would probably be working on the book.
That helped me keep a balance and also keep from letting the book overpower the marketing that I had to do in order to actually make sales of the book.
Alex Hillman: Smart. This is sort of the power of having that routine and not letting, not leaving it up to your intellectual effort at 05:15 in the morning to say, “What am I going to work on now?” knowing before you even sit down to work exactly what you’re going to be working on.
Justin Weiss: Oh, yeah and I mean that was huge having just a concrete next step every single time I sat down at the computer.
Alex Hillman: You mentioned the weekly time for the newsletter and blog post writing in particular being sort of sacred. Did you ever miss a day?
Justin Weiss: I came close a couple of times, but usually I could find a way to do something. There were a couple of times where I took things that I had sent to the newsletter and converted them into blog posts, which is something that I always wanted to do, but never really had the motivation to do it when I could actually just, oh, I could write a new post instead and save these things in reserve.
There were other times where I ended up having to ship in the evening on a Tuesday or a Friday instead of in the morning. Turns out that nobody cares about something coming in a little bit late. I had actually heard from people that had a consistent schedule for their posting and stuff, and thought they’d be angry or thought that your readers would be angry if they didn’t release some week, and it’s like, no, they’re not angry. They’re just worried about you.
Alex Hillman: That’s funny. Yeah. People are like, “Hey, is everything all right?”
Justin Weiss: Exactly.
Alex Hillman: So of all of the things that you’ve talked about so far, the choosing the pain to set out, figuring out how to solve it, prioritizing marketing time, content writing for the book and for blog posts, what’s been the hardest part of all of this process so far?
Justin Weiss: The hardest part for me has been trying to write something that’s specific enough that it actually solves a particular problem that I’ve been seeing without trying to say, “Okay, well, there is this other problem that’s kind of related to it and there’s this other problem that’s kind of related to it. And there’s this other one that’s kind of related to it”, and either turning it into a just absolute monster of a blog post or something, or on the other hand, trying to make the answer so generic that it doesn’t actually help anybody.
Alex Hillman: In the summary that you had posted to The Forge, the alumni group, you had said that you wrote the first 7,000 words of the book two separate times and scrapped it both before sticking the landing, so to speak. Was that related to what you just described in terms of things going off the rails – no pun intended, or was it something else entirely that was taking things to a different place?
Justin Weiss: No, it was absolutely that. It’s actually funny because I just listened to the last Stacking the Bricks podcast where Amy was talking about how it takes a certain amount of doing Safari until things start to click. That was totally the case for me.
The first 7,000 words, second 7,000 words, those I wrote really, really quickly after starting to hear back from readers and things. I just didn’t have enough information about what their problems were, what they needed, in order to build the right product for them.
I just remember the reaction I had after the first 7,000 words, and I said, this is exactly like every single other tutorial out there except worse – and that’s not something that I wanted to do. So instead I found as I was doing those, I kept on writing blog posts, I kept on writing email newsletters, I kept on hearing back from readers and hearing exactly where their problems were.
It turned out that a lot of the problems that they were running into just weren’t related at all to the problems that a lot of the tutorials were facing. It was more around, how do I actually come up with things on my own? How do I figure out what to learn? How do I actually make this stuff stick?
When you’re following a tutorial, which is great for getting that initial contact with rails, that makes a lot of sense. But once you actually start trying to build your own apps you need a little bit of a different kind of help.
You need a little bit of a different kind of direction. I didn’t realize that until I got to about maybe third or fourth month of doing this. That made a huge difference and made it a whole lot easier to actually finish.
Alex Hillman: We talked a bunch about the amount of time that you were spending on actually creating the book and you just said the three to four month mark, that’s of doing Safari?
Justin Weiss: Yeah. That’s everything, it’s doing Safari, writing blog posts, chatting with people on my list. Just kind of getting to know the people that actually like to read the stuff that I like to write.
Alex Hillman: How long was it after you started Safari before you were shipping blog posts and having that kind of interaction, that feedback loop that was giving you more data about your audience?
Justin Weiss: Right before I took the bootcamp was when Amy wrote her guide to – I forget what it exactly what it was, the four-part guide, maybe? It was a blog post – a four-part guide on building your first product. She had a thing about, “Okay, well, here’s what you should do and then you should write a blog post and then should can do it again next week and you should do it again next week and you should do it again next week.”
That kind of triggered the whole idea in my mind that I should actually start trying to do this again. That was also right around the time of the January boot camp, which is the one that I took. As part of the bootcamp extended program there was also some stuff around shipping blog posts, so that just kind of got it into my head that, I don’t need to do a whole lot of research before I can start shipping small little blog posts. Those just really have to answer one specific question from one specific person, because if somebody is curious enough to ask about it online or they’re having such a problem that they’re willing to ask about it, then probably they’re not the only one running into that.
That was totally the case with me. So the blog posts kind of came simultaneously with a lot of the Safari research and obviously the more I did, the closer they were able to become to the problems that people were actually facing.
Alex Hillman: Right. So very quickly able to start shipping things for your audience, building your list. What were you able to build your list up to before launch? Do you remember?
Justin Weiss: Before the actual launch, which was in February, I was able to get the list up to about 1,970 subscribers.
Alex Hillman: You started from zero. Is that right?
Justin Weiss: Yeah. I started from zero and it took me, I think about, maybe three or four weeks to get to that first 50 or so.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome. And it grows from there. It’s one of those things, sort of a snowball rolling downhill, the more you do it, the more it grows, the faster it grows and that sort of thing.
Justin Weiss: Yeah. Especially because as you start creating more of a body of content, you start to see more SEO traffic, you start to see your baseline starts going up a little bit more and there’s one thing to get huge influxes of traffic from your stuff being posted to Reddit and all that kind of stuff but I found that it seems to be the people that land on your stuff from Google and then find that it solves their specific problem that end up becoming email subscribers.
Alex Hillman: All right. So this is a perfect transition. I want to talk about your ebombs because I point to your ebombs as an example of excellence, truly. I mean that you hit every mark. They’re crispy, specific. They’re very specific. They’re helpful. They’re actionable, your personality shines through. All these are all things that are, they’re not hard to do, but they’re not easy to do all of them well and consistently, and I think that’s the thing that impresses me the most about your ebombs is your consistency.
So, I’m curious if you can share any of the specific steps that you’ve created for yourself that you follow when you create your ebombs? Do you have a checklist? Do you have a process that you go through? Tips for people about what works really well and what doesn’t, to consistently create the kind of excellent ebombs that you do?
Justin Weiss: One thing you’ll probably start to realize as you read through a bunch of them, is that there’s almost a little bit of a formula that I have there, and I didn’t do that for any specific writing reason. I did that because otherwise it would never be able to write these things. If I had to come up with a structure and the content and the examples and the actual problem that they’re trying to solve all at the same time, it would just take me forever to get these things done. So I usually kind of start from a problem statement, which comes directly from Safari.
That’s usually a question that somebody has or some sort of crazy problem that they’ve run into. A lot of the times I can get the details from Safari and then tweak them a little bit to become either a little bit stronger or a little bit more specific or relate them to something that I’ve actually faced, when I’ve run into those same types of problems.
From there I go into the actual explanation of the solution. And so, for those, the actual solution pretty heavily outweighs the statement of the problem. Usually the problem is only a couple sentences. And then the solution is the rest of the 900 to 1000-word blog post.
Usually at the end I do kind of a wrap up and then some sort of, “Where would you try this?” – a question or something to get them thinking about it or trying them in their own apps because one of the things I talk about in the book is how important it is to try something as soon as you learn it, because otherwise it’s just never going to stick with you.
In terms of the actual process I go through, I’ll usually start with an outline because that makes it pretty obvious what’s on that main path from the problem statement and what’s just kind of like, okay, well, I wanted to talk about this and I also kind of wanted to talk about this. By doing an outline first, it keeps me on one straight path and it also makes it a lot easier for me not to waste a lot of time writing words that I know I’m eventually going to cut from the final thing.
Alex Hillman: Has anyone ever called you out on your magic formula? Like, “Justin, all these blog posts to the same?”
Justin Weiss: Never. I’m sure that people realize it, but it’s simple enough. I mean, I think it’s common enough that people have seen that kind of thing before and so it’s just kind of, Oh, well this is a blog post that solves this problem.
Alex Hillman:. Have you heard from someone who says, “I just found your website and the next thing I did was basically read everything you’ve ever written?”
Justin Weiss: Yeah, totally. It’s really funny because I hear about the, “Okay, well I landed on one post” and it’s always one post that I wrote, there’s one or two or three that are really, really, really popular or more so than everything else. But those lead them to the ones that actually solve more of their specific problems and then they read a couple of those and then they start reading more and more and more. And then all of a sudden it’s like, “Okay, well, I just signed up for your newsletter and I read all of your posts and I loved them and they helped me solve all of these problems.”
The one thing that I keep on hearing over and over again, is “This is a problem that I thought I was the only one having and how did you know to write something about this?” Well, you’re not the only one!
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome! Is there any common theme across those most popular posts?
Justin Weiss: I’ve been looking for one and I haven’t really been able to figure it out. By far the most popular one is one about searching and filtering rails models without having to use a dependency or without having to install a dependency like Solr or Elasticsearch or any of those types of things. Just doing some really, really simple filtering.
I mean, that was one of the first ones I wrote, which means that it’s been around for a long time. So it’s just got a whole lot of aggregate traffic, but even taking that into account, it’s still way beyond the rest of them. The other ones are focused on new stuff in rails, which, it’s nice to write about every once in a while, but I worry too much about those being a little bit of candy posts where it’s like, hey, it’s fun to read, but you don’t actually get anything out of it. So I try to at least have something in there that they can really take out of it to put in their own apps.
Alex Hillman: You said that up to launch, you had gotten a little less than 2000 people on your mailing list, right? Launch day was how long after you started?
Justin Weiss: So I actually did two launches. I did one in October and that was when I had about 900 people on the list and that was for the pre-release of the book. That was the first time I had opened a presales. I was really uncomfortable with opening up presales without actually having a product I could give them on day one, which is yet another thing that I probably didn’t actually need to worry about.
But, that was October, I started writing what became that draft of the book in June. So, however long that is and I took breaks here and there from writing because if I kept on doing it from the beginning all the way to the end, I would just get burned out. It became a better product for me, letting it sit for a couple of weeks and then coming back to it, especially when I was doing revisions and drafts and stuff.
And so that was actually the second draft of the book that I released for the presale, after that I shipped updates about every three weeks or so. The first beta book was PDF only and then the first update I did was almost entirely spent just trying to get it working in EPUB and Mobi but then after that it was mostly, it was doing a couple more full passes through the book, getting better examples, getting better screenshots, all that kind of stuff and then actually shipping it.
Alex Hillman: Do you have sales figures from your launches that you’re willing to share with us?
Justin Weiss: I do, so for the initial launch, I got, I sold about, let’s see – so that I made 2,500 the first day, which is not that big considering a lot of the other launches I thought, but, that actually stuck, that number is stuck for a couple of days. By the time I did my actual formal launch, I had made about, 12,500 in presales. Then I came to the final launch and that ended up going a lot better, I think mostly because there was a little bit of urgency for the discount expiring. For that, I made 5,500 with 180 copies sold and it also drove a lot more subscribers to my list.
Alex Hillman: Those numbers are contained to a particular day, a range of days?
Justin Weiss: I’m considering that in, about maybe 72 hours around launch, that kind of thing.
Alex Hillman: Where did most of your sales come from?
Justin Weiss: Almost entirely from my list and from people that had been recommended it by people on my list.
I mean, I didn’t get picked up by Hacker News. I didn’t get picked up by Product Hunt, I didn’t really get a whole lot of success on Reddit or anything like that. But I had about 15% of the people on my list ended up buying the book in the month of January, I mean since January 1st, so January and February. It’s that’s pretty much where I drove most of the interest.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome. And so total revenue to date on your first product?
Justin Weiss: I should be breaking 20,000 real soon now.
Alex Hillman: Congratulations, that’s awesome! Yeah, Amy and I are super excited for you – really, really proud.
Justin Weiss: Thanks.
Alex Hillman: There’s a little technique that I’d love for you to share related to your sample chapter that I know worked really, really well for you. Talk to me about where the sample chapter fits into your marketing, your landing page and how you used it to drive more sales.
Justin Weiss: Yeah. So, I remembered hearing somebody talk about this on a podcast and I wish I could remember who it was, but somebody had recommended at the end of whatever sample that you release to your subscribers, putting the thing that Amazon does with their Kindle books, where it’s like, “If you want to read the full book, then click here and buy it”.
So, I did something similar to that in my sample chapter and just had a like, “Want the full version click here and buy it” and it takes you to a landing page where you can then buy the full copy of the book. That ended up doing really well for me because it’s just easy. You get to the end of the book and you click it and you can get the full version. I kinda knew it could be better, especially after talking to a lot of the people in The Forge and calls to action and just kind of showing people what they would get on the other side of that, because “You like the book? Well get the full one!” is good, but it doesn’t actually tell you anything about why you should do that.
I ended up expanding that to almost a full page of just kind of a “Here’s what the rest of the book is about. Here’s what the other chapters in the book will teach you and here’s what you will be able to do when you’re done” and that improved that quite a bit.
Alex Hillman: Do you have any numbers for what actually drove that?
Justin Weiss: I wish I did, one of the problems that I’ve had with tracking some of this stuff is that the popup that I’m using to actually sell the book on my book sales page, the Gumroad one, isn’t keeping track of things like the Google analytics campaign tags. So, I haven’t really been able to tell accurate numbers for it. But yeah, so that’s been a little bit rough.
Alex Hillman: That’s okay. The confession that I always like to share, and I know Amy does too, is we never look at – I don’t think we’re tracking any of that stuff – we never look at it anyway. It’s one of those things that often leads to sort of unnecessary optimization.
It takes your eye off of your audience because you’re looking at numbers. I was just curious if you had an idea, if there was a surprising number, but you do know that it was definitely driving a good number of sales.
Justin Weiss: Yeah, I do see those coming through in Google Analytics all the time.
Alex Hillman: Awesome. Successful prelaunch launch. You shipped it, you got over all the mental roadblocks, $20,000; really awesome! Looking back, what’s one thing that you would do differently?
Justin Weiss: I would have thought a lot smaller! It’s a book; everybody told me – and of course I didn’t listen – that if you start with a book it’s going to take over your whole life. And I had a little bit of that. There were a lot of things that I had heard of other people doing as their first product that were a lot smaller and probably would have done just as well for me and just as well for my readers. I know Pat Maddox had a paid email list that he was playing around with. It’s like hey, I could have launched that in a day instead of spending five months writing this thing and it could have led to a book eventually, but it didn’t need to start there. So, that was one big thing.
The other one was that when I first started writing the book, or coming up with the ideas for the book, I wasn’t very good at figuring out what the core problems that people were facing were. That led to those wasted words that led to a pitch page that was kind of meandering a little bit, that was like, okay, well here’s a problem. And here’s another problem. Here’s another problem. Here’s another problem. And this thing that I’m going to come up with is going to solve all of these things. That locked me into a direction that I might not have taken if I had started from scratch.
It worked out fine. I mean, I’m very happy with the way that the book turned out and I’m very happy seeing how it’s helped people out, but it made the book a lot harder to write than it really had to be.
Alex Hillman: So the two specific things I’m hearing in there is even though it seemed like there was a handful of pains that were all related, they were still too spread out and you would have done better by just zeroing in on one, locking in and doing everything you can to help soothe that pain. And then the other thing is – and we talk about this in the class – there’s many, many, many different ways to kill the same pain, even for the same audience. Getting locked into a single format, whether it’s a book or a course, those are just some of the options.
You can really look at not - it’s sort of the intersection of what solves the pain? What do they buy? And what are you able to create with the most reasonable – because least isn’t necessarily always the goal, for the most reasonable amount of time and effort. The intersection of those three circles is sort of that’s the sweet spot and you could have bulls-eyed that just a little bit more.
Justin Weiss: Yeah, definitely. There was one point after I had thrown away the second batch of words, where I just kinda got fed up a little bit and set this book aside and said, “Okay, well, if I was going to come up with a different type of product, then what would it look like?” I went through the whole process from 30x500, again, I Safaried an audience under a different topic that popped up during the keywords and themes overview that I did, and ended up writing a little bit of a sample pitch page for that.
That was really nice because even though that product I haven’t actually started on, it helped me focus on, “Okay, well maybe I can actually just pick one area to make the primary focus of the book” and that’s what also helped me realign Practicing Rails to what it is today.
Alex Hillman: That’s a really awesome tip for sort of doing that mental reboot of letting go, it sounds like, because you had to go through that a couple of times. It was like, “I’ve sunk a bunch of energy and effort into these words but they’re not working.” Sometimes you need to give yourself that little win, without the intention of creating the product, you set out to ship the pitch page that was more consistent with the Safari research. You did it, you knew what that felt like and you were like, “Okay, I’m capable of doing this. So now I know that I can go back at the work clearheaded”.
Justin Weiss: Exactly. It was nice for me because I was able to go back to a lot of the material that I had in the first place and just realize how much I missed the first time through. The bootcamp is definitely high intensity and even at that point, a lot of the time I feel like I wasn’t ready to just zero in on some of the things that were actually really important.
I would either say, “Okay, well, I kind of know how to do this. So I’m just going to concentrate on this part that I don’t know how to do already,” or, “I’m going to focus on the part that’s interesting and maybe not so much the part that isn’t” and going back and looking at that, it’s one of those, knowing what I know now, some of the stuff that I skimmed over the first time I realized how important it was. Some of the stuff that I actually focused on, I realized how unimportant maybe some of that stuff was.
Alex Hillman: Has there been anything that’s really surprised you along the way at any step from beginning to end before launch, after launch? What’s been – f anything, a big surprise for you?
Justin Weiss: The biggest thing is just that there are people that I’ve admired for years and people that I’ve never met before, but all kinds of people that actually want to hear what I have to say. Of course that’s because I’m helping to solve their problems, but it still blows me away that there’s so many people who are just eager to see or eager to read what I have next, that are eager to see me succeed, help me succeed, and just kind of become a part of almost a community just of people that are going through a lot of these same experiences.
Alex Hillman: That’s awesome! Looking forward, because you’re continuing to work on selling the book. Are you working on another product yet?
Justin Weiss: Not yet. I’m still kind of taking a break from all that.
Alex Hillman: What’s one thing that you currently struggle with, but are trying to get better at?
Justin Weiss: The biggest thing to me is that I still tend to see patterns everywhere, especially where they don’t actually exist. A lot of the time when I’m doing research I’ll take things that aren’t really related and try to find a way to relate them. It seems the more unrelated to pains are, the harder it is to find a common ground that’s actually helpful to people. You start to say super generic stuff. You start to make up things sometimes because you can’t find that middle ground between these two people. So it’s, “Oh, well, when I have kind of felt like this person and kind of felt this person, this is what I had.” That’s not really the way to do it.
Luckily I have people that can actually call me out on that kind of thing now, that helps out a lot, but that’s still something I need to get a lot better at is just not summarizing, but more just figuring out what the core problem is.
Alex Hillman: Having a product for sale – this is the big shift that we started this conversation with from side project, big part of your life. Now you’ve got a product for sale how has that impacted your life, your work, what’s changed now that you’ve sold a product?
Justin Weiss: I realized that a lot of those mental roadblocks just don’t exist anymore. A lot of the things that I was worried about – actually pretty much everything that I was worried about – never actually came to pass. So, having that realization has helped me become maybe a little bit bolder in what I try. It just has opened up a lot of doors in terms of what I think I’m capable of.
Going through the process that actually led to a book has been amazing because it’s also made me listen a lot more. I start to hear problems a lot earlier than I have been. Whenever I am trying to write something, I start from that problem and then go through the process to try to figure out, okay, well, what’s the way that we can fix this that actually solves the problem and isn’t just what I want to build. That’s been everywhere. It’s been writing job descriptions. It’s been helping people out when they don’t know how to really write their own problem and just kind of like, okay, well asking the right questions that aren’t , “Okay, well, what’s your problem”, but try to zero in on that, by asking them to describe more about how they’re feeling, what that’s leading to, those types of things.
Alex Hillman: That’s such a great answer. Alright, we’re going to wrap up for the day. The last question is one of my favorites, but who is the first person that comes to mind when you hear the word successful?
Justin Weiss: I got to think about this for a second.
Alex Hillman: That’s okay. That’s the normal amount of pause.
Justin Weiss: All right, there’s a guy that’s pretty big in the Ruby community that I’ve always kind of idolized and it’s been awesome because he actually now follows some of my stuff and I’ve actually had a chance to talk to him over Skype and that kind of thing. Avdi Grimm , he’s written a few fantastic books on Ruby, including the first one that I recommend to advanced developers coming in, who just want to really level up their stuff. He does a twice weekly screencast series that I actually got to guest on, which was pretty awesome.
He now has a way to let his product business give him the lifestyle that he wants, which is a great family life where he doesn’t have to really answer to a boss or a workplace or any of that kind of stuff. He gets to actually build stuff and people buy it from him and then he gets to do whatever he wants the rest of the time.
That to me is kind of where I want to be at some point, sometime in the future is where I can let the product business just kind of supply me to the kind of lifestyle that I want - which isn’t a fancy lifestyle. It’s just the kind of opportunities to pursue whatever I feel like pursuing.
Alex Hillman: That’s perfect. This has been so much fun. Absolutely worth me getting up to be on a call with you at 08:15 in the morning. I hope it was worth it for you getting up so early as well.
Justin Weiss: Yeah, definitely!
Alex Hillman: How can people follow you, find out about what you’re working on, read your ebombs, study your technique, buy your book if they’re into it? Where do people find you, Justin?
Justin Weiss: So the easiest thing is just Justinweiss.com; that’s where I do all of my writing right now. The other, I’m only really active on Twitter other than that and that’s just @JustinWeiss.
Alex Hillman: Awesome. Well, thank you again. Congratulations and thank you so much for sharing with the Stacking the Bricks audience. This has been amazing.
Justin Weiss: Thank you.
Alex Hillman: Alright, thanks Justin. Take care.
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