Starting Over - Lessons Learned From Building Brooklet

Brooklet was my first serious foray into building a side business. It is a passion project born out of an interest in understanding and improving myself. Even though I had tried things in the past, Brooklet was the first project where I actually had the skills to make it work and had the will to see the project through. But it was also very much a learning process for me. I learned about my technical, business, and marketing limitations.

Fail Fast, Learn Fast

I started building Brooklet in mid-2018. It was released to the iOS App Store and Google Play in February 2019. I started charging for it on January 1st, 2020. This work led to around $75 in revenue. Needless to say, the project has not led to the financial outcomes I had hoped. It took almost 2 years to learn that.

I believe it's natural for a beginner in business, like myself, to be cautious about putting their work out there. It's scary. What if it's not good enough? What if it fails? With this mindset, you will be stuck without feedback until you resolve to put your work out there.

For example, I waited an entire year to start charging for features. If I had offered the subscription earlier I would have learned how few people convert to paid users and could have either focused on improving conversion or dropped the project.

If I did it again I would have put my work out there as early as possible so that I could have identified issues before I invested too much time or money. Fortune favors the bold because they fail faster and get to try more things in their life.

Focus on Marketing

With a background in software engineering, I was not prepared for the challenges of marketing. Here's what I would do differently.

Identify A Target Market

Brooklet was designed to be useful for a wide variety of use cases. From parenting to mental health, to fitness, to chronic pain, etc. People use Brooklet for all these things and more. One user looks nothing like the rest. This is a problem when it comes to marketing.

When it came time to pour energy and money into marketing it was not clear where I should focus. My Twitter account was filled with content on the benefits of tracking. Unfortunately, the only audiences interested in that sort of content are psychological professionals who don't look like the users who were engaging with the app and the quantified-self movement which is far too small of an audience to be valuable. Later, I tried advertising to students on YouTube. This led to many sign-ups but low retention and conversions. I was not solving any important problems that students have.

If I did it again I would have planned which specific market to serve in advance. Then I could have built features that scratched the itches they have. For example, if I had focused on students I may have built grade tracking, a homework schedule, and social accountability.

If I had focused on a specific target market, the effort that I put into social media and content marketing would have been more effective as well. It's much easier to create content for a smaller group like "students" than it is to create content for "anyone who wants to track things". People act on things that bring value to their lives.

Create Viral Opportunities

Ads bring a temporary boost of signups but don't create sustained growth. With subscriptions, there will always be churn or users who stop using your tool. Your marketing efforts need to attract more users than your churn rate. I was using paid ads to attract people, but it was not cost effective to surpass my churn rate.

This is where viral marketing can really help. If you do things like reward users for inviting others and adding sharing features, you can create a free source of new users for your business. That's much more valuable than paid ads.

If I were to start Brooklet from scratch I would spend more time building social features into the app to encourage viral growth.

Don't Get Distracted

When I set out to build Brooklet I wanted to create a small sustainable business that would provide a healthy side income for my family. A couple times along the way I got distracted from this goal.

I had the opportunity to talk with several potential investors about Brooklet. They provided some really interesting advice but the exercise sent me down the wrong path. I poured energy into planning how to turn Brooklet into a huge company involving wild plans such as allowing users to sell their own data and entering the wearables market. That's fun to think about but my time would have been better spent focusing my product not widening its scope.

I got the advice to focus on building an audience instead of focusing on charging for the tool. This turned out to be bad advice since it delayed the feedback I needed on the financial viability of Brooklet.

If I started again I would avoid the advice of venture capitalists. Especially at this early stage. Their motivations are different than that of a bootstrapper/indie hacker like me.

Fast and Focused

To sum it all up, if I started Brooklet again from scratch I would start by focusing intently on identifying who I'm serving and what problems I'm trying to solve for them. Then I would release the tool to those users in a matter of weeks or months instead of years and start charging for the product right away. I would spend more time on marketing from the get-go and build in virality earlier as well. Finally, I would avoid the tempting distractions of the venture capital investment world because they run counter to my goal of creating a small sustainable business.

I'm not going to rebuild Brooklet anytime soon, but I hope to apply these learnings to new projects this year. Maybe the article I write after my next project will be a list of things that did work. I sure hope so!



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