Welcome. I’m kicking off my new blog with this post about the demise of my labor of love for over a year, Knack.
(Boring back story: I quit a full time job I loved when a freelance opportunity fell into my lap. It was my chance to strike out on my own. Building a web app on the side had been a goal ever since I read Getting Real, and this freelance project would fund it. I decided to design and build the thing myself after having friends and co-founders bail on me at various stages of 4 prior projects. The first version of Knack took me ~2 months to build, spread over 5 months of freelancing. Launch was August 2010. I worked on it another 4 months of the following year, and today I am shutting it down.)
My first year of entrepreneurship was spectacular and melodramatic. It was unlike anything else I have done in my life or my career. I made something awesome. Not everyone can say that.
Throughout the year after launch, I struggled to find users and make sales. I tried every marketing tactic I could afford. I wrote personal emails to bloggers asking for coverage, or at least feedback. I took a stance. (That teachers are unfairly blamed for the problems in education). I lucked out and had a chance to write about my stance for GOOD. My thoughts and writing were a bit undeveloped, but it was exciting. I got a few hundred visits. This was the high point of the year, and came a month or so after launch. It didn’t last long; the traffic stalled. I struggled to get users. I added features, relaunched, redesigned, repositioned. I rewrote the marketing website over and over. I ran Facebook, LinkedIn, StumpleUpon, and AdWords ads. I wrote link bait blog posts. I tweeted. I facebooked. Sent more emails. I offered free subscriptions to every teacher I met.
A few people loved what I had to say, but none of them used my web app. (Almost none.) Over the year I had about 120 free trial sign ups (100 of which I bought with AdWords), and a total of exactly 10 users who paid for at least one month. I lost about $2000 out of pocket, which I easily financed through freelance work. Monthly costs were about $150 total for my Braintree merchant account/gateway, Spreedly, and Heroku. The price in time was more substantial. Knack occupied about 6 months of work stretched out over more than a year. At my standard $100/hr rate, that’s $96,000 worth of work uncompensated. This figure is misleading and even deceptive, so let’s take it for what it is: a number I pulled out of thin air. (I don’t even make that much in a full year, much less 6 months.) That said, it does show how much effort I put into this app.
Knack was supposed be an alternative in an enterprise software dominated market. It would underdo the competition. It would save users measurable time every day. Knack would empower downtrodden educators who are blamed for the problems in the public education system.
My goal was to carve off a niche of young, tech-savvy educators who are passionate about education reform. I’d build an app for them. I wasn’t going to revolutionize an industry. I didn’t need every teacher everywhere to use it or even like it. Just a few.
I focused on building a great app. I reworked UI features until they were right—sometimes 4 or 5 times. I ignored the laundry list of standard features most gradebooks have, and just built what I knew teachers needed. The only blogger who graciously covered Knack called it a “beta version.” That stung, but it was fair. I had launched early on purpose, following the advice of tech industry maxims. I knew I could always fix it up later (and eventually I did).
I charged money for my software. I could not risk freemium and getting stuck with server bills I couldn’t afford for people who didn’t want to pay me. I set the price low—only $4.99/mo. That’s cheap for a web app.
The same month I launched, Learnboost, a funded silicon valley darling, launched too. I felt blindsided. Worried. Then I reread Getting Real and Rework. Learnboost had just validated my market, or so I thought. I put it out of my mind and kept working.
I thought Knack was a viable business. It was the best work of my career, built for people who could reap tangible benefits. The hard truth that it was doomed from the start took that full year to set in.
Before I built the app, I talked to friends and family who are educators. Trying to be supportive, they innocently told me what I wanted to hear. They didn’t know much about business or software. I didn’t know how to get real answers out of them. (Now that I’ve read Running Lean, I do.)
I should have done more research about teachers before I started coding. I thought what I’d learned was enough. There were quite a few online gradebooks that charged money and seemed to be healthy businesses. I had found research that said most teachers spend their own money on their classrooms. I asked educators I knew if they’d pay for a web app. None of this was enough. I didn’t learn about the simple psychology that drives teachers’ desires and purchasing decisions. I didn’t realize there is a stigma amongst teachers—that they deeply resent having to spend money on their classrooms and careers. Many businesses, both online and off, have special discounts and freebies for teachers. This has warped teachers’ sense of value and fostered a sense of entitlement. (Whether teachers deserve free stuff is a different debate. I personally don’t think anyone deserves a free lunch.)
Beyond this, I’ve learned that teachers do not want technology solutions for their everyday problems. Teachers say they love tech. Some blog about it. They tweet about it in #edchat and #edtech. They even coin their own special tech terms. (PLN anyone?) This is a farce. Talking about tech and being on the Twitter make teachers look good to administrators and to the public. They can add “Technology Committee Member” to their resumes and congratulate themselves for being innovative. But using tech to do work requires a small minimum of effort and change, and any amount of these is too much for teachers.
To be fair, teachers are really busy. A hell of a lot busier than you’d expect. Really. Visited a local school lately? Most teachers are busy putting out fires or trying not to get fired. (Or lose their collective bargaining rights.) I feel for them. I really do. But they’re still terrible customers.
Teachers and education are just one online market we ruined by giving everything away for free. I made the mistake of thinking I could carve off a little niche of teachers who were passionate about education reform. I couldn’t. You can’t either. Don’t waste your time on people who won’t pay. They aren’t going to change their minds.
People are going to comment and tell me mobile is our savior. That I should have built an iPad app. Those people are wrong. If mobile proves anything, it’s that technologists have a poor collective memory. We can build apps for every imagined need on every emergent platform. Just like we do on the web. We can create a boring app for every boring aspect of our boring lives, and then pat ourselves on the back just as each lands in the dead pool. We can even create a few good apps, but the majority of consumers will not assign monetary value to them. That’s the tech industry we earned, and it won’t change anytime soon.
(You could write me off as bitter. To be completely truthful, I’m not! I had a blast building Knack. I had to learn some lessons the hard way, but it was the best thing I’ve ever done.)
After a year, I ended up with around 10 Google Docs with variations of the titles “The Way Forward” or “Reboot.” They are filled with ideas of how I could pivot, respin, relaunch, better market, redesign, or add to my app. None of these could have saved Knack.
The way forward is without my great ideas or my selfish audience. The way forward is finding people who are willing to pay for an honest day of work. These people deserve my attention, and I deserve their money if I do a good job. (I’m going to.)
Design's Iron Fist is a collection of essays with advice for both design learners and professional designers. It's been featured as one of the best free design books by the Creative Bloq and the AIGA.
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