How to build a profitable content business as a developer

Karls Hughes tells us how he build his start-up draft.dev that creates content that reaches software engineers – which means he combined his two passions, development and content creation.

We also talk about:
  • his transition from developer to CTO, and then to the business owner
  • value-based pricing and how to focus on the customer segment that gets the most value out of your product
  • how to scale as a bootstrapped business
  • why blogging is such a career changer for developers
Karl Hughes
About Karl Hughes
Karls Hughes is a software engineer who turned into an entrepreneur in the midst of the pandemic last year.
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Transcript: How to build a profitable content business as a developer

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[00:00:00] Michaela: Hello, and welcome back. After the quite extensive summer break. This felt so good, to the software engineering unlocked podcast. I'm your host, Dr. McKayla. And today I have the pleasure to talk to Karl Hughes. But before I start, I want to let you know of the new and upcoming code review workshops where you can purchase individual tickets. This workshops are great for people who don't want to organise a workshop for the whole team, or who want to learn together developers with from different companies all around the world. My next workshop will start again at the end of September. To find out more, please go to awesomecodereviews.com. I will also link it in the show notes, but now back to Karl. Karl is the software engineer who turned entrepreneur in the midst of the pandemic last year, his startup draft.dev creates content that reaches software engineers, which means that he combined his two passions development and content creation. Today, I will ask him all about his new business and what he ambitions and what he wants to reach. So Karl, welcome to the show.

[00:01:27] Karl: Thanks for having me Michaela.

[00:01:30] Michaela: So maybe I introduced you a lot with this new startup, but actually what I want to start off with is the startup or the side project that I know you from, and that is CFP land, Call For Paper land. How do you pronounce it though?

[00:01:45] Karl: Yeah, I say CFP land for short, but CFP stands for Call For Papers or Call For Proposals depending on who you ask.

[00:01:53] Michaela: Exactly. So it's, it's a sideways. I find all the relevant tech conferences. Right? And then know where to submit it, how to submit.

And so I think from that, I know actually your activities a little bit. And so, how is that going? Like it had to been really hard for the pandemic and everything. No conferences?

[00:02:13] Karl: Yeah, it's been a weird year and a half for CFP land. So I started the kind of backstory on that. I started speaking at conferences a few years ago and just for fun and to kind of get out there and meet more people and learn things. And so it was great. I had a lot of fun, met a lot of people, but one of the challenges, a lot of the speakers we would always talk about it. It's like, where do we find all the CFPs that are available when they close? Like where do we apply? What kind of speakers they looking for? Things like that. And so I started off CFE land, it's just a simple newsletter, just running it. You know, it was very much a side project and eventually it grew. And it's now a website with a newsletter. It's well over 2000 people subscribed to it. So it's a pretty popular. I mean, this is a small world of tech conference speakers, but it's pretty popular within that small world. So a lot of people do hear my name from it, but it's always been just a thing to do on the side. Actually, the beginning of last year, right before the pandemic happened, I was thinking about, starting a business. Maybe I would make CFE land or something like it, a full-time thing, which was fortunately, I didn't go all in on that site because it was really, I mean, it went from, you know, we were getting consistently growing traffic to all of a sudden, just almost to zero overnight and yeah. I mean, its one of those things I'm glad it was just a hobby project. It's starting to come back. Now. Things are starting to, you know, conferences are starting to like look at coming in person. And also just the virtual events are starting to get more predictable. People are figuring out how to work them. So all of it I think is going to come back and it's going to be, you know, I'll put more effort into it this year. But it's been a tough year for the project and for anybody who's into event marketing and speaking.

[00:03:42] Michaela: Yeah, I can imagine. I mean I started off with on-site trainings and it wasn't like good start (laugh) March, like grew up. So. Why do you change from like you were employed before, right? You were a software engineer, you were a manager. So how did you change from that to become your own boss? So why during the pandemic, was that something that you did deliberately or something that, you know, just the events happened and this is how it go?

[00:04:16] Karl: Yeah, that's a good question. So, I've been with startups. Uh, I've always worked in startups, tech startups, like small companies, less than a hundred people. And so I started off just as a software engineer and was then most recently like leading a team of engineers. And I really enjoyed it. I actually liked my company a lot, but unfortunately the business was pretty strongly affected negatively by the pandemic.And so myself and the rest engineers went down to half-time to kind of conserve money and make sure the company could get through it and figure out what we're going to do next. And so in that half-time I started to explore, well, what do I want to do? Maybe I'll do something different next, maybe I'll try a career shift. So I started writing for fun on the side, just kind of called up some people I knew and started writing technical blog posts for them. And then I found some lists of places you could write technical blog posts. And I realized there's a lot of people who want engineers who were willing to write some blog posts on the side, and I figured it was a good mix of my skills and it also was not negatively affected by the pandemic, like speaking was and things like that. So I started doing it and I realized quickly that there was a lot of companies that wanted this kind of content and that I could work with other engineers to sort of increase my output. draft.dev was kind of born out of just seeing so many people ask me, 'Hey, could you write for us?' And I just realized I only had so many hours, so I better start bringing some other people in on this. So yeah, that it was really, I needed something to do on the side. And then eventually it became a full-time thing within three or four months. I think I had transitioned out of my old job and was doing draft.dev full-time with a very small team at first.

[00:05:46] Michaela: And so right now, are you still writing content? Are you mainly managing people that write for you?

[00:05:52] Karl: Yeah, mostly managing now. So it grew pretty quickly this year. I think it's about quadrupled in size from what it was in January, which is, feels surreal. So I'm almost exclusively managing hiring and kind of helping other people get unstuck. I still do a lot of sales calls as well, but the bulk of our work is done by software engineers who want to write blog posts around the world. And so for them, it's a nice little nice and weekends thing they can do. They make some extra money and they get to learn new technology and write about it. Show what they know for our clients. They're getting experts who are interested in their tools and their tech that they work in.

[00:06:29] Michaela: Yeah. Cool. That's really cool. So how do you make the match between the people that you know, write and the eople that want things written?

[00:06:39] Karl: We've got kind of a word it's still an evolving process for sure. We do some recruits. Of writers that are in specific skillsets when need be. And then we put all of our writers into a list, and if you're on our writer list, you get an email every couple of weeks. That's kind of like, here's all the open opportunities for writing. And we have people sort of like give us, just basically apply to write for each of them. And we ended up trying to match up the best writers with the topics because, you know, a client might want an article done in PHP and JavaScript and Ruby and you know, something else instead of like, we've got to find like a mix of writers to cover all those, which is, can be really tricky. But our, our pool of writers now is I think 50 or 60 active writers. And so it makes it easier once you've got a pretty good volume of writers to help pick up the assignments.

[00:07:28] Michaela: Okay. And do you vet them somehow? Do you look at the plagarism and if they can right or that, I mean, there's also like a reason out there. Right? So people just call from the side.

[00:07:40] Karl: It's a huge, that's a huge undertaking. I mean, this is why this is why clients like working with us because it is a lot of work to try to find and vet good engineers who are also good writers.

So we do have a process. We start with a rubric, a skills rubric, but one thing that I learned as an engineering manager was it's really helpful to hire people based on objective criteria, as much as possible. That's not, you know, there's always a little bit of fuzziness when you're working with humans, but like we try to have like a pretty objective rubric that allows us to.

Great or rate each applicant based on specific criteria around like, how good did they do at writing? How good are they do explaining deep technical topics? How good were they at? Uh, things like communication and answering emails promptly, just, you know, being in touch. Uh, and then we evaluate each candidate and we'll accept or ask for more samples from each one.

So we do ask for existing published samples or sort of written sample of their work. You know, most of the engineers who we write with are pretty experienced as far as writers and engineers. Because we are a lot of the topics that we cover are kind of hard to cover, uh, sort of things that most junior developers would have a hard time maybe picking up on the first try.

[00:08:53] Michaela: Yeah. So maybe one thing that comes to my mind. I'm also like a entrepreneur and I'm doing mostly workshops and cultural workshops. I'm also doing consultancy right now. I'm doing quite a bit of research again. And so that's exciting, but on the other hand, but I'm always feeling like I always have this urge I have to program again. Right. So I'm not constantly programming because while that's not my job right now, but if I'm like, months or you know still figured out(??), something. I feel like, oh my God, I'm losing touch. And I really want to go back into it and I'm coding something on the side and I'm always like, I'm still struggling with how to, you know, make that a habit that it's always constantly there because I feel it's so important. I mean, especially for me, but I think also if you are a dev shop(??) for writers, I think it's important to stay at dev somehow. I don't know. How, how is that for you? I think it's also the same for managing, right? If you're in a managerial role and you're managing people, how far can like a CTO or a engineering manager? How far can they be away from actually doing the stuff? Right. I think it's so important. I spent a lot of time, the last couple of weeks, really getting, knowing everything about the latest code review tools that are out there and, you know, all the studying and analysis again. And you have to do that, I think periodically because otherwise you really lose touch. How do you think about that and how do you combine that with what you do right now?

[00:10:32] Karl: Yeah, I agree. I think that there's a lot of value in staying in touch with the technical skills. Even if you like, I've always admitted to my employees and myself, I'm not the best engineer who's ever written code. Right. Like that's okay with me. It's okay. Really love working with people who are good because they are way better because then you get to see sort of like, oh man, humbling experiences. Right. And reminds you. But I do think it's important for engineering managers, CTOs, who are at least at smaller companies, CTOs to stay at least somewhat connected to what's going on the ground. So the way I do that, A couple of things. First I do occasionally for fun, write my own technical articles. So I do it for say like guest posting on different blogs or maybe on my own personal site or other sites around that people ask me to write for. So I do that some just to keep up with what's going on. I think I did pick up like a client article a couple of weeks ago because I thought it was an interesting topic and I wanted to get my feet wet in it. And then the other thing is what I find is that it is easier to pick up new tech when you've already picked up several things along your career. So unlike when you're first learning to code, you know, a lot of junior engineers always ask like, well, how do you, how do you just pick up a new language so quickly? I'm like, well, when you've learned four or five, the sixth is not that much harder because a lot of the same paradigms, the same concepts apply. The same is true. If they. When you've used six different web hosts in your career, likely the seventh one is not that much different so that you probably don't have to learn everything from scratch. Same like any CI/CD tools, testing tools, whatever. Like yes, there is some difference and yes there's subtle things that are important to know the differences between. But like, you don't have to always be the, you know, you don't have to know everything from the root level. You just kind of have to get a good high-level sense of how is this different from the other things I've done in the past that are similar.

[00:12:17] Michaela: Yeah, that's true. I mean, as I said, I was looking at study analysis tools recently and obviously it's different. Right. It's different because it's more integrated in DevOps, for example, in CI/CD, right? It's a little bit more automated, but in the end it was the same, (laugh) like the same as 10 years ago. Right. So, I totally, and the same, like for languages. I feel that picking up, and this is something that I really, I mean, I love to talk about it because I feel like you can pick it up quite fast, but then really getting really good at it. It's even, I think sometimes a little bit harder if you have a lot of baggage, right? So like coming from the object oriented Java and C-sharp world. And I recently it's not recent anymore, but like two and a half years ago I started with python. And I mean, obviously I could program and I could, could really productively do stuff within really short amount of time. I mean, it was days that I, you know. But then I feel like stuck and I feel like, oh, it really took me quite some time to understand, you know, and feel comfortable really that I know how to architecture in python. I could architecture, but it was like it was a Java or a C# application but Python(??). Which didn't feel like it's not by tonic(??) and it's not like how you would do it in that language and learning that and changing the mental models that you already have. I found that quite, quite interesting and tricky. How has that for you?

[00:13:47] Karl: I agree. I, that is tricky. I think one thing that I've thought about in this transition from being like engineering leader, who's expected to still really know the tech to more of a business owner is that I don't necessarily have to be the best at those lower level of knowledge, right? The specific implementation details. I may not always be the best, but at a high level, I shouldn't how does Python work versus Java? Like I should know that it's almost like knowing what you don't know is good. So knowing that I'm not going to write Pythonic at code, like you call it is maybe helpful more than just knowing like exactly the best way to write Python, because you can always, when you're, again, kind of going back, putting my business owner hat, My goal is to make the company run well. So that might mean hiring somebody who knows these things better than me. It might mean hiring technical reviewers in the future. As I get less connected to the day to day, it might mean hiring well, we already do this. We hire a lot of writers who are experienced in languages and frameworks that I really haven't used much if at all. So yeah, it's definitely important to like, know where your limits are and then be like, ask yourself the question of, you know, is this the best thing for me to learn myself? Or can I hire someone? To who knows it already and get even more bandwidth out of this.

[00:15:00] Michaela: Yeah, I like that mindset. I mean, in general, maybe that's what I want to deep dive a little bit with you. Is that mindset of the manager, a CTO or also a business owner? I think I'm still struggling with that. I like two years ago with this was like I totally didn't feel like it. And so even though I started already my business, I would never say to myself, I'm the founder or, you know, business owners thing. I always say like, I'm a software engineer. (laugh) Like, and, and it really took me one and a half years to say, okay, I feel a little bit comfortable. You know, I'm doing now my tax and all of that, but I still struggle with, for example, sales. Right. It's just something that I feel, I dunno, like, and, but you were talking about sales, like I'm doing sales calls and all of that. So how do you get into that mindset of actually doing the stuff that a business owner does versus, you know, doing the stuff that an engineer does?

[00:15:59] Karl: Yeah. I mean, there's nothing, so I'll just like play the other side and say there's nothing wrong with becoming a business owner consultant who stays very much a software engineer let's say. You know, I have several friends who are consultants or freelancers that essentially like they have a very flexible, interesting work where they can do, you know, work for several different clients, but they don't really have a bunch of employees there. It's kind of just them being a freelancer. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. But if you sort of. If your goal is to build a company that runs either without you, or it runs with you being able to take a vacation, things like that, then you kind of have to step out and figure out what it means to be a business owner and a team leader rather than a doer. You know, the person who's touching every piece of content or whatever. So it just depends your goals, right? Like there's nothing wrong with either path. My goal went in starting draft was, I mean, it was initially just like figure out if this was like something I wanted to do. And then I realized, yeah, it's something I want to do. There's a lot of people who want it. So I kind of, my long-term dream has always kind of been to start my own company and run it. And so this has just been like a really good opportunity at the right time and place, but it is hard. And one other thing that's really hard about it. Letting things go to other people when you know, you could do it better yourself. And I still struggle with that. I mean, like there's some articles that come through and I read what the writer wrote and I'm like, yeah, it's not bad, but you know, I know I would do this better this differently or whatever it is. It's so hard to let that stuff go. And I don't know what the answer is. If you get yourself booked so solid that you can't possibly do it all yourself, that will force you to get good at delegating or you'll just fail. So that's one way you can do it too.

[00:17:56] Michaela: Yeah. True. I think I'm like right now, I'm also in a place in my business that I'm thinking. What are my next steps, right? So I grew to a capacity level where I just can't, like, I'm saying no to a lot of things, but I'm not set up in a way that I can take that on and delegate. Right. And, and I, and I know maybe it's also mindset again, it's not only mindset. It's also like, if you're already at capacity, how do you get a person? And how do you know, you know, like how do you get them to the point that they could actually take off and do stuff. Right. So even for the podcast, I actually have like, And little advertisement out there that, you know, I want somebody that helps me with the podcast. I haven't found anybody yet, so yeah, I'm really admiring that you say, well, you have like a couple of full-time engineers, right.

That are writing for you. And then like these large network of people that [00:18:00] are working with you a little bit more in a loosely coupled way and was just in a couple of months. Right. So how did you get the first ones?

[00:18:49] Karl: Yeah. So this is my process for this. I'm a huge nerd for process. So like it's excessive at times, but I'll just like, be bare it all out here.

What I do is I track my time. So I'm pretty diligent about that. And that tells me like, am I spending say eight hours or 20 hours a week writing articles. So at some point I reached a critical mass where I was writing. 20 or 30 hours a week. And I realized, okay, if I want to spend 10 to 20 hours a week on sales and marketing, I cannot keep writing.

I have to stop and pull this out. So I started to look for other writers. And so that was my first step. What I first did to, to hire the very first one was looked into my network and people I trusted already. So I was like to think of the first hire for any position is kind of your trailblazer is how I call what I call them.

And that means. You're going to give them very imperfect information, but you need them to be smart enough or have worked with you enough to have a high level of trust with you. Like, you know, this kind of goes back to your point about the podcast person. You do want to be picky in that very first hire because they're going to help you set forth a process, then you'll be able to imprint onto other people in the future.

So that very first writer, Was a friend of mine who I knew could write well, he had a similar background in writing engineering and we were in the same city. So we could talk if we need to did a great job, he helped me figure out what things are clear and not clear when I pass work over to a writer from a client. So that was my first step. And then the next thing is to build like a template for what this work looks like in the future. And me and him just kind of like trial and error basically figured out what, what worked and what, didn't, what I needed to give him, to make him. All the information you needed to write articles. And then we start, I started to test it out with other people. So I found people outside of my network, who slightly, I didn't know, quite as well or didn't trust quite as much, or didn't have as much experience. I just started to try them out and see what happened. And then that helped me refine the process even further. And so by December of last year, I was starting to ramp down on my writing and ramp up with these other writers. I found a new bottleneck and that new bottleneck was, I was spending a lot of time editing and editing was also very tedious detail oriented work that I tend not to be the best at or the, like, it doesn't, it doesn't get me excited it just drains me. And so I started looking for an editor and I kind of did the same thing. I started with someone, I knew someone I trusted and I pay them really well. And I was like, look, I don't know how to edit, but you've done it professionally for years. Could you edit this article? And like, help me come up with a process and style guide. And she's now our managing editor and she's full-time and she has a couple other editors she works with now or under her. So I kind of followed this exact same process every time I want to make a hire, just do that account manager. I'd done like a marketing person. And it is hard. It is definitely something that you're going to like, you have to be okay with that person, screwing some things up. You can't expect them to pull everything out of your head, but if they free you up to say, spend more time on the growth side of the business, the sales, marketing, the stuff that generates new business and keeps clients really happy. And coming back then it's worth those slight hiccups that are going to happen because that's the only way you kind of get a bigger company together.

[00:22:04] Michaela: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. But you know, the funny thing is that, you know what I did, I started to automate.(laugh)

[00:22:13] Karl: Well, that's not bad. I think that's a really viable option if you, I mean, this honestly, like hiring people should be like your second resort. Like the first resort should be automating everything as much as possible.

[00:22:28] Michaela: Yeah. That's what I tried to do. I honestly, when I looked into that, I thought that couple of things you can really automate very well and they're nice tools around and a couple of things were still really imperfect, right? So like the editing for the podcast. For example, even though I upgraded my tools and my process. I actually have is a step-by-step guide, how to do that. Right. But the automation is not completely, like, you cannot really automate that too much. There's so much manual, still manual thing. But for example, the whole booking guests and things like this, there is a lot of potential for automation that you can actually do before hiring somebody. Maybe another topic that I want to pick your brain on is, well, when you hire, right. Do you have also to think about how much of the money that you get from your business, right? Are you investing in the hires again? Right? Which for me is also a little bit tricky to do. I mean, especially podcasts, it's not really making money. Right. So it's also harder then to say, well, you know, like you're hiring people, but how has that for you? Would you say that at that point it's okay if the company's had a loss or does it have to be, you know, positive or neutral or, you know, what is your thinking about how much do you spend for hiring and growth and how much does the business have to, you know, sustain itself as a bootstrap business? Right. So funded business. Yeah?

[00:23:54] Karl: it definitely, this definitely depends on the kind of company you have and the way that cashflow works and the way that if you've raised money, it's a different thing than if you're bootstrapping or self-funding. And so I've seen it done both ways. Like when I've worked at funded startups, the way they did it is, you know, we raise a big chunk of money and that sits in the bank essentially.And then we start to hire ahead of where, like basically you hire for what you want to be at in a year. So we bring on five or 10 people all really quickly. And then we try to like get to the point where we can actually support them. So that's risky obviously. And if you're you're bootstrapping, that's not really an option. I didn't have hundreds of thousands of dollars sitting in the bank to just work from. Right. So, the way that I did it was sort of when I started draft, I started to think about. Okay. I don't have a lot of money. How could I build a business? Basically, clients helped me pay for these things. So what we do is we, we get clients pay upfront and that helps us know we've got the cash in hand to pay the writers, editors, and anyone else supporting staff that we need over the three or six months of execution. So it's like, we kind of make the plan with the client up front and then they pay us and then we actually get into production and then we start paying people, but the client's already paid us a large portion upfront, or they've been on a payment plan or whatever. So that helps a ton with being able to know that what we're doing is profitable. The other thing that I do is a forecasting. So basically looking at how much, it costs us to produce an article, how much we can have to charge for that. And then where's the like margin, you know, the profit essentially, but in how much that margin goes to other things like support staff, other support staff that isn't really counted there, or services or tools. To your point about automation I'm big on that too. I spend a lot on SAAS tools that automate a lot of these little things behind the scenes. Yeah. So Zapier and even Calendly and having all that stuff, just kind of automatically do this little administrative work is really, really helpful. And I think it does allow you to run a lot leaner business even if you pay all the subscription fees, it's still cheaper than hiring people.

[00:25:39] Michaela: Yeah, exactly. That's that's also what I. Especially when you're like, when I was completely bleeding footsteps and, you know, even a $10 subscription somehow really string because they add up, right? Like they add up and if you're really making zero money, it's like, oh my God, how I'm going to do that. But then if you, if you're a little bit profitable, I think automation is really a wonderful step to say, well I'm paying like 10 bucks for Calendly, for example. And now it does all the magic and sends email reminders and whatnot. Right. And thinking about how much time I would have to spend here to do that. Yeah. So in the end, you're always, is it something like, would you say that you are getting a salary right now? Do you try to, to really you are sustain it as well? Or are you saying well I'm as a founder right now, I'm investing my time for free?

[00:26:27] Karl: Yeah, I do take a salary, you know, since the, since it started one of my, I don't know, one of my, my goals with it was like, I do want to pay myself something. I definitely make less than I did as a CTO to start out. I'll say that, but you know, to your point, like I'm investing my time centrally into the business. So I'm working at a discount to pay for the company to grow, which is, you know, a fair deal for a lot of entrepreneurs, you know, with a service business like ours. there's different kinds of companies, right? Some companies like a software as a service kind of tool, you can probably take, you probably have to take no salary for longer because it takes a long time to ramp up to the amount of revenue that you can then pay yourself. But with a service business like ours, that's pretty high dollar. We make a lot of cashflow into. We've got to like, essentially I wanted to build into our cost structure, a person like me to run things because it's not like I, even if I didn't work in the company, somebody would have to do what I'm doing. So I don't think there's a way that you can run this business as a real business without having somebody in that seat. Even if I'm working at a discount to help keep things going a little longer. I still have to budget something for this in the future. So I think that's important. I also think that it, again, like, kind of is like business fundamentals. You want to set your business up in a way that it is realistic. Like if, if you make a small business and it. Like pays you anything like you've just made yourself like I mean, that's really terrible, you know, that's a lot of work to get nothing out of it. You may never get to a point where you can sell it or whatever you don't know. So I think you at least have to cover your basics, but I do, you know, I think it's also, I would prefer to invest more back into the business than to take more out at this point. I don't really need a ton of cash, I guess.

[00:28:12] Michaela: I personally always think that you have to love the way and the progress, right? Not only that, because otherwise you could really end up with a lot of regrets. So unless you sat, right, you probably don't. I mean, it depends on how much you need right now from a supportive perspective on no, how much money cashflow do you need right now to feel good and then you can invest into your business and the growth and that's the end goal. But I also think like if you're starving on the way, it's not that it's not just the right.

[00:28:53] Karl: I mean, it depends, you know, if you've got a bunch of money that you've saved up and that can be your bankroll for a while. Sure, you might be able to do that. But, everybody's circumstances are different. Like I knew that I didn't have that, so I couldn't start a business that was going to take me two years to pay myself. It just, wasn't an option. I've got a family to help support, you know, so for some people, I think alot of engineers who want to become entrepreneurs, they think like, oh, I'll just builda software product. And that's the, you know I'll grow it. But the time required to grow, that is huge. And the amount like you have to think and be realistic with yourself, about how much runway as we call it, do you have to make no money? And if you don't have a lot of runway to make no money, then maybe that's not the right kind of business for you. Maybe you need to think about like, eh, is there another more service business where you can get some more cash in the door early or is there a info product or a course kind of business, you can start where you get more money in the door, early, things like that.

[00:29:45] Michaela: Yeah. I also think that, I mean, even if you do a software product, really trying to gab people paying for it as early as possible is super, super valuable because it keeps you honest. Right? Like having 200 people sign up for freestyle. You know, feels really good from, from an endorphin perspective or dopamine, but is it? Are you actually on the right way? And you don't want to feel like invest all the time three years and say, well, you know, I'm investing all of my time and you know, which is, I think a very noble goal to do, but then after three years you realize, actually not that I want to charge for it. You know, nobody's really interesting. So actually starting with something and putting a price tag on it, I think is a really good strategy also to know whether or not that is valuable, right. Or, or how to tweak it, that it becomes something that people want to also pay for. And for engineers, it's not that easy. I think engineers is a specialist species that are, I was actually talking with my husband lately about what are we paying for? And there are a couple of like the IDEs are all free. I mean, he's actually paying for his,

[00:31:02] Karl: I do pay for mine too,

[00:31:05] Michaela: but a lot of them are free and they're really good. And then the other tools are all also free or either the organization pays for it. Yeah, I dunno. I think we are, we are too bunch.(laugh)

[00:31:20] Karl: Yeah. I mean it is. But the other thing to think about one thing I've found that was surprising until I started the, this business was that your pricing will determine your market in a lot of ways. So for example, just in draft.dev's case, if I charged half of what I do, I could probably open myself up to different kinds of customers that I don't have today. But the downside is, you know, we wouldn't have the money to hire other people. So we wouldn't be able to do things at the scale we're doing. And so we'd have to scale way down. We'd have to be very limited in who we worked with and it would just be a different company and there's nothing wrong with that. There, it just is like different price points end up enabling you or pushing you into different market segments. And so when you go with the free market segment, like you said, that may not be the people who you actually need to pay you later. So companies that do freemium, a lot of times, what they'll try to do is roll those free subscribers up into a company plan later. But if you don't have outside investment, that's really hard. It takes a long time to get there. Yeah. So it, again, it kind of goes to like, be realistic about if you're bootstrapping and self-funding like, can you really afford to do that kind of freemium strategy? And like, usually the answer is probably not.

[00:32:32] Michaela: Yeah, exactly. You're right. So. When I get from what you're explaining here is that you also have a little bit like higher paying clients, a little bit companies that you have contracts with. So how do you get them? You were talking about sales. How do you do sales? And you [00:32:00] know, like how did you get to that?

[00:32:54] Karl: So early on what I did was I said yes to anyone who wanted me to write an article for them. And so what I started to learn was which kinds of companies, what size of companies, what kinds of teams that are hiring me are the ones who are least price sensitive or most willing to pay the highest dollar amount, because they got the most value from the article. So. You know, for example, I could write the same great article for a team, like an engineering team that wanted some content for their blog. As I could write for a marketing team that wanted content to put out to the public to make sure that engineers knew about their product. It could be the same article that was just as good. But that marketing team would pay me two to three times as much as an engineering team would because that article leads directly to revenue for the company. So it's a totally different business model and sit like you have to think about that. When you think about pricing services, there's a guy out there named Jonathan Stark who talks a lot about value based pricing. And while I don't, I wouldn't say we're like a value based price service entirely. We think about that a lot, because what he's saying in value based pricing is you should charge. The amount of value a client gets from your whatever work, your service. If an article is, let's say for our case, like if a company can clearly make $2,000 of revenue from one article, we write over the course of a year or two, let's say our articles are a great investment. You know, that is a clear winner and they will pay us, you know, up to that, whatever, probably half of $2,000, a little more or whatever. So that's that side one. If on the other hand, the company is not sure of their revenue per article like that. They don't know how many visitors it's going to attract. They're really nervous about that. Or maybe. They know that each article only gets $300. They're never going to pay for our services. They're not a good fit. And so that's where, like, to me, the hard part of sales quote and quote, is figuring out who the ideal target market is that has the willingness to pay and actually gets a good value out of our service. Um, and so the clients that, you know, sure. I have people all the time and say like, yeah, you guys are too expensive. That's totally fine. We are not set up to do that kind of low cost work, but I have a lot of clients that think we're a great value and they probably would pay more if we charge more. But like, you know, there's a sort of a limit to where yeah. The pricing pushes you into different markets. And so anyway, I think that the big part of sales is figuring out how to narrow down your market as much as possible. And so for us, it's like started off as just like, we'll write any technical content and then it got more narrow and it's like, Technical content aimed at software engineers, but then we started to narrow down even further to like start ups who are trying to hit, trying to get in front of software engineers from their marketing teams. And so now we're like super narrowed down and it makes it really easy to have sales calls, like, because I basically know there's only a few hundred companies in the world. Need to work with us anyway. So it's a really small list. They all know each other's, there's lots of introductions and referrals. So you know what, we're not going to be like the next Facebook size company ever. That's fine. We're doing really well in the small thing that we're good at.

[00:35:38] Michaela: Hmm. And so you're also doing direct, you going to a head of marketing and pitching deeper, or how do you, and do you use like LinkedIn or sites like that to find those?

[00:35:52] Karl: I don't do a lot of outbound. You know, there's kind of two kinds of sales and marketing and it's called outbound or inbound.

I am not much of an outbound outreach to people kind of sales person every now and then I we've tried it a couple of times. It's just like, I don't like it. It doesn't seem to be that productive. We do mostly inbound and referrals, which means that people see the content we're writing out there in the internet and they say, oh, that company did a good job.

Let's go talk to them. Or they see, they talk to a, another client of ours who gives them the recommendation or they see maybe, I share a lot of things on LinkedIn and Twitter. And so they, they see that and they contact me directly through that. We're also doing some like meetup groups and conferences, things like that too, to kind of get the word out a little more.

To be [00:36:00] honest, like at this point we've had enough business from this inbound stuff that we haven't needed to do a lot of direct outreach. So I think that's ideal if you can get that set up, but it does take, I mean, I spent a lot of time building a reputation and the connections and networks. So like, that'd be hard to replicate if you were somebody earlier on in your career.

[00:36:56] Michaela: Yeah. I'm also completely a hundred percent inboubd because there's just like this. I don't want to do it. Like you know whenever I get an email from somebody, I don't know, it feels like spam, but I don't want them to be that person. (laugh). Like, I don't know, like it's also mindset obviously, right. because I know a couple of really, really wonderful, safe people that I alsotried to learn a little bit about, and it never feels like they do it in a way that it doesn't feel like, you know, it's this LinkedIn message that you get like that, you know, went out to 1000 people and drinks the same rate. So, but yeah, I've never, I've never tried it and I'm not really eager to try it anyways, but yeah. So it's inbound. Right. So do you write on your own blog as well? Do you write content for yourself or content marketing?

[00:38:03] Karl: Yeah. Oh, quite a lot. I try to write at least an article or two a week, sometimes more. Yeah, I, so I write for my own personal blog and then the draft.dev company blog quite a fair bit, although I've been trying to get more writers for that as well.

And then guest blogs, whenever they come up, whenever people just happen to see something and want, want me to write about? Yeah. I think writing is a really powerful career booster. Even if you don't become self-employed as an engineer, I was just talking to one of our writers the other day and they were telling me about how.

Writing this article on some new technology. I don't even remember what it was, but they got to write this article on a cool new tech that they'd never used at their day job. And they now get to put in their resume, you know, Hey, I've worked with this and look, I can prove it. I've got an article out there that I wrote, and that's really powerful because like at our day jobs, like as a software engineer, I would usually get to work in like one or two languages, one or two frameworks at a single company because a company doesn't want to have 30 different tech tools they're using. They don't always want to experiment with the newest things. It's not worth it. But with written content, a blog posts, you can go explore and try the try five or six new things over the course of a year and get those published. And now you've got proof that, Hey, I know all the cool new stuff that's been happening. So I think even if you don't go, the self-employed route, there's a lot of advantages to writing, but if you do go the, like become a freelancer or consultant or starting a business, having all this writing out there on the internet is extremely powerful. I mean, there's people who reach out to me because of articles I wrote three or four years ago. And so it's just this like compounding interest effect of good content being out there. And so you just never know when that stuff's going to really pay off for you.

[00:39:44] Michaela: Yeah. I totally totally see that, but it also takes really long time.Like if you want to write an article you have no idea about that tech it really takes time, right. Especially if you want to. I mean, probably an introductory to something is quite easy to ride, but when it gets a little bit more substantial that it's definitely like, for example, I'm thinking about all studying analysis tools that I analyzed over the last weeks, so I'm thinking about what I'm going to do with it. And if I'm going to create a YouTube video out of it or blog posts, definitely. I mean, I don't know how long are you people spending on a blackboard. It probably would spend from my own blog post, it would take me several days to do that. To have that blog posts that you want to bring out there. How is that for you? How long do you spend on an article?

[00:40:35] Karl: There's definitely different kinds of articles that require different levels of time, commitment and research and all that. But I think you do get, I've gotten faster at writing since I've been doing it more.I'll say that I, you know, before this year I probably wrote a blog post a week on average, you know, maybe. 2000 words or a little less now I'm writing a couple of week and having written even more, some at some point throughout this year, I've really taken that average time way down. So I don't really have a, I don't know what, I don't have an hour number or anything like that, but I do know it's like usually with a good solid day, I can finish up a single blog post unless it's something really, really specific, and then maybe it's a two day thing. Its whether you should invest the time to get faster and better at writing blog posts. I don't know. That's, uh, you know, depends on what your goals are and what you're looking at do, but even just writing one a month, you know, you think about, again, like this compounds over years. And so one blog post a month is only 12 a year, but then you do it for five years. And now you're talking like 60 blog posts. That's a lot, like a lot of people never write 60 blog posts in their life. So I think there's some just, you have to think about doing things consistently over time and the value of that.

[00:41:45] Michaela: Yeah, true. And do you, do you use any software for, you know, helping you with the writing process? For example, the Rome research would be one, or I'm using obsidian. It's a, it's an open source version, which is very similar to it, which I think is a good way to, it's like a second brain and you can link your resources. And I think it helps with writing. I recently started like half a year, but do you use something like that for your, for your process to, you know, keep track of what you read and what you want to write about your ideas?

[00:42:15] Karl: So definitely I keep what journalist call called like a swipe file or marketers called swipe file of ideas and things that I think about throughout the day or week or year, I do keep a swipe file. And then I also, as I start to like refine a topic, I start to create an outline of like, what ideas do I need to include in this article and how do they link together? So it's, it's really hard to write. Just boom, like bam out of blog posts without doing some research and, and outlines for me first. And actually I think this is one of those, like, time-saving hacks that a lot of people don't do, they just jumped straight into writing. And so then they get this mess of like ideas and then trying to fix it all later. It's really hard. If you spend more time researching and outlining organizing, it usually comes out better. And then I, you know, on the back end of things, like I use Grammarly pretty heavily because I go into back to my, I'm not a detailed person. Like I've gotten better and faster at writing, but at the same time, I missed punctuation and like spelling and all the little stuff. Right. So Grammarly is kind of my savior there. I always highly recommend if you're going to write consistently, I think it's free. You usually, so there's no reason not to use it. And even if you pay a few bucks a month, that's it very well worth it.

[00:43:22] Michaela: Yeah. I also use Grammarly and it helps quite a bit with everything.

[00:43:30] Karl: It's not perfect. And I mean we have like real editors, human editors as well, because there's definitely things that won't catch, but it does, it can get some little things that are easy to miss.

[00:43:40] Michaela: It's really nice. Yeah. There are a couple of things that, because I'm not a native speaker, right. So sometimes it corrects me and I'm like I really don't think you're right, but I'm not sure who is right now. Like, and then sometimes I go with Grammarly and sometimes I just leave my stuff because I feel like it's not always correct. Right. But I really like it. I can recommend it as well. Yeah. It's really cool. So maybe the last thing that I wanted to ask you is, so you transitioned from software engineer to CTO, right? So it means a lot of managing as well. People managing and then doing your own thing. I guess this people managing already at the, at the startup already helped you to get a lot of those skills that you need now to delegate, to understand, to hire people and, you know, to have this, I mean, you have brilliant large company already within a couple of months, right? So do you think that the CTO role and the managing role really prepared you and in what way?

[00:42:44] Karl: Yeah, definitely. There's a couple of key things that having some roles with startups helped me with. So first I came in as the first employee, basically at the last two startups I was with maybe first engineer, but whatever is like within the first four people at the company. So I got to see everything. I mean, you get to see the founders going through raising money and pitching the investors. I got to see how they hired people, how they dealt with cashflow and like deciding, you know, how who's going to do their accounting. Like all these little nitty-gritty things that are not engineering, but at the same time, you just get exposed to by being in a small business. So getting to see that firsthand kind of gave me like, oh, okay, those are the things I would think about. If I started my own business, you know, that was part one part two was it gave me a huge. A lot of connections in software startups, which are now kind of my target market for the clients we have. So that has been really good from that standpoint as well as well. And then the last thing was not being afraid to hire people, have to fire people have to give them performance evaluations. Like all those management tasks you just said, it was super helpful to get the opportunity to do that in a protected environment. That wasn't my own company where, you know, I think I tried really hard to be a good manager. There's a little less pressure when the company doesn't depend on you being a perfect manager, you know, like there's kind of a I could have made a bad hire and that's going to happen. It didn't feel that high stakes. Now it feels a little more high stakes. Cause it's my own business and this is kind of how, you know, make a living. So I do think that that helped a lot. Now there's plenty of people who do it without that experience. But I think for me that having that like level of experience and background. Did it give me a lot of confidence to make this easier than it would have been had. I just started this straight out of college or something.

[00:46:28] Michaela: And so what is it, what is the end goal for that company? How, how large do you want to grow it as large as possible? Or, you know, like, is there, is there some other areas where you think you could expand to something different, like other services or other products that you could create?

[00:46:48] Karl: Yeah, I don't know, this is funny because like most startups, like they go into it, like the fundedstartups, they go into it with a very clear idea of like how big they want to go and where they want to be, what their target total addressable market is. Like, I don't really know all that stuff. This is a lifestyle business in that, it's fun to run, it's really interesting and challenging, and it is paying meenough to get by. So like, I just kind of want to keep doing that. Now I do likethe sort of growing, because it exposes me, it forces me to learn new things. That's been really fun. So like growing and hiring account managers had never hired an account manager before. So I got to learn what that's like and how do I give them work? How do I keep up with them? How do we pass things? Right. Like all this really interesting, but yeah, I just want to keep doing it as long as it's interesting and fun to run and figure out is and provides challenges. Yeah. And we'll see, maybe in a year or two it'll just keep getting bigger and I'll be out of my control and I'll have to like, let somebody who's more experienced, run it or maybe in a year or two it'll like the same diseases today. It'll be fun to run. It'd be interesting. I really don't know. To be honest.

[00:47:53] Michaela: Yeah. I think it's perfectly fine not to know. There are so many interesting paths that, you know, life can take. And so, yeah, I'm really, really excited to talk with you about all of that and to see how it grew out of. I'll keep looking out for the business and probably checking in and ask you, how many people do you have now? And I think it's, it's good to be open and just explore and have fun on the way up, but there's not one right. Way to do things. Right?

[00:48:22] Karl: That's what I say to engineers all the time who are like, aren't you afraid you're getting out of the tech or you're getting out of engineering it's such a good feeling. I, yeah. I mean, maybe at first I was a little nervous about that, but to be honest, like your career can take weird paths. Like a lot of people have like winding career paths that don't necessarily just go linearly from engineer to senior engineer, to lead developer, to whatever. Like, so sometimes taking in diversion and doing something different for a few years or months or something can like open up new opportunities if you come back. So if I came back to software engineering, jump into something a little different than I was doing before, or maybe I'd get into the technical documentation or some hybrid skillset. Like, so anyway, point being that, like, just because you studied something once for a few years, doesn't mean you have to do it the rest of your life, that, you know, you don't have to commit forever. There's a lot of tangential skills that are, it's good to be, have some familiarity with software engineering, you know, in the background. So explore alittle.

[00:49:22] Michaela: Yeah. And I think, I mean, you're bringing so many new skills, right? So in addition to the skills that you have, because to be really fair at one point, like if you're like, let's say you're JavaScript engineer for five years, for 10 years, like we are both in this industry probably even longer. I'm definitely longer in this industry. Right? So what's like me writing Java script for 15 years or 12 years, what's the difference here? Right? So where where's the difference? Well, when you're exploring something else, suddenly you have a complete different mental model. Again, you have seen so many other things and then you're coming back, you're bringing actually so much value to the business, right? And I think you are probably even a better engineer than just spending your time just doing this engineering thing without trying to be. Focused on the one thing that you're doing. So, yeah. And the other thing, maybe so we can wrap that up is that when I started, when I started my business, I was really like, oh, there's a right in the wrong way to do things, and I listen to podcasts and read books and picked how others are doing it. And I mean, there are so many things you can be on Twitter, you can do content marketing, you can do this or that. And so it all felt like, oh, if you don't do this right, if you don't have thousands of followers on whatever, right. Then you're not going to make it. And you know, this is all not true. You can do your own thing in so many ways. You can have a wonderful business without being really online without having an online presence. You can have like a huge online presence and not a striving business. Right. So. I think it's really important to understand what drives you on one thing that you said is like, what gives you energy and what drains you? And I think this is more important, and obviously you will do things that drain you for a short time, but you should really try it. Get rid of them and get more energy flowing activities and maybe hire people or turn your business into something else when you're, when you're facing those draining moments I think.

[00:51:19] Karl: Yeah. Those were, that was my exact struggle. When I first started was feeling the same way. It's so funny you say that like, there is a quote and quote right way to run a business. I thought, you know, and I thought like, oh, well, if I don't follow the template, whatever that template is, which you can't find, you know, like I follow that, then I'm going to screw the whole thing up, but like, yeah, you're exactly right. Is everybody carves their own path. And one of the hardest parts to me about starting a business was not having a boss up the chain to just ask questions about like, I've always been a very independent employee, but at the same time, it's nice to be like, So, what do you think we should do here?You know, like, look up, look back and just ask your boss questions. There's nobody to do that to anymore. So now, I mean, I bugged my wife a lot. I bugged my friends a lot, but like they don't, they're not going to know the same thing. They don't have the same interests. So like, Hey, anyway. Getting over that is tough and it is something you just have to overcome and just be like, you know, go all in on. Once you do accept it though, it's really liberating. And yeah, to your point, you can run a business a lot of different ways and it's fun if you pursue it that way.

[00:52:19] Michaela: Exactly. The most important thing is there is no right way. And there are ways that worked for one person. And it's not only how did executed it or the ideas that it had, but also the circumstances that they have been in and so on. And, and I think it's just being sensitive. I think that I'm sometimes a person that pushes really hard, which isn't always a good thing. Right. So if it takes so much pushing, Maybe, another pass would be better, right? Like if it, if it takes so much effort, this is something that I try to realize early on that, you know, if this is now really hard, maybe it's not the right thing. It's not meant. So try something else, go step back and try it in a different way. And then, you know, and then it will work out better, I think.

[00:53:07] Karl: That, that's definitely true too. There's a lot of people who start businesses and think that it must be a grinding uphill, battle, both ways. Like it's gotta be so hard and they have to eat ramen for years. And like, I mean, I just don't think that that's a hundred percent necessary if you're willing to be a little flexible in like what you do and who you serve and how you serve them, because there's. Ways out there to make a living, you know, with your own business. And they don't, you know, you don't have to just pick one and stick with it forever. You can kind of pivot around and move and figure out what works best. Find out places where you can actually make a living and not have to work 80 hours a week every week. So yeah, definitely want to purse. Well, but again, that kind of comes back to your goals. Like, what do you, what are you thinking you want to do? Like, do you just have some idea you can't let go or are you trying to just make a good living and have a lifestyle? Business. Like maybe I am. So, you know, everybody's different. Everybody's got their, their grand vision, I guess.

[00:54:06] Michaela: That's really true. So thank you so much. I think we are in the, at the end of this show today, is there something that you want to tell my listeners, something that you want to give them on on the way, if you haven't talked about?

[00:54:20] Karl: If anybody ever wants to cat more about this stuff. I'm on Twitter at Karl Hughes. And then, you know, I'm happy to talk to you about like, if you ever wanted to write some for draft, we always are looking for writers or just want to talk business stuff or whatever else, engineering stuff. I love helping people out.

[00:54:39] Michaela: Yeah. I will link everything in the show notes. So thank you so much for being on my show today, have a good day.

[00.54.43] Karl: Thanks Machaela.

[00:54:44] Michaela: Bye. Bye.

[00:54:46] (Outro) I hope you enjoyed another episode of the software engineering unlocked podcast. Don't forget to subscribe. And I talked to you again in two weeks. Bye.

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