11 Feb 2018
The way we run Exist
This post originally appeared on the Exist blog, but because it's relevant to how we run Hello Code, we're posting it here too.
Lately Josh and I have become increasingly concerned about the amount of data we're all sharing online, and how that data is being used. We've seen example after example of how online companies don't care about users, our data doesn't belong to us, and the risks we take in sharing anything online.
But our product, Exist, is based entirely around sharing your personal data with us—an online company. Without your personal data, Exist can't do anything for you. It's useless. But maybe you've been wondering if we're any different to the countless other companies you're sharing your data with.
We run our business in a pretty unique way. We've taken many years to build our revenue to the point that it can just barely pay two salaries, so we can both work on it full-time. It took roughly four years, in fact, to get here. But we did it this way on purpose. Though we thought early on that we wanted to get VC funding and grow our company to be enormous and sell it off, we realised quickly enough that we're actually not willing to make the compromises required to go down that path.
Every business owner makes compromises. Ours are just less common. We've taken a lot longer to make enough money for us both to live off because we didn't take funding, and because we're not willing to use marketing strategies that other companies are okay with. Growing more slowly is one of the biggest compromises we've made, but in doing so we've been able to build our business in a way that we're comfortable with. We've also been able to focus more heavily on treating our users with respect, and doing things differently than many other online companies.
Here are some of the things we do differently that we believe are most important for our users, and set us apart from other companies:
We won't sell your data
Personal data about users is one of the most valuable commodities on the web. But we think it's horrendous that this is even considered a commodity. We don't want your data. It's not for us; it's yours and yours alone.
Plenty of other companies have privacy policies that mention they'll be sharing your data with their partners—they may even sell your data, in aggregate or individually, as a way of profiting from you further. (Especially if you're not paying for it—how do you think they can afford to offer that service to you otherwise?) It's a bit paradoxical, given we built a service all about collecting data, but we think this practice is abhorrent. We have a pretty traditional business model by comparison: we sell a product directly to users, charging money for it, so that we can afford to never have to do this.
We ask for your data only to provide value for you as long as you use Exist. And if you ever decide to delete your Exist account, which you're welcome to do anytime, we permanently delete your account and all your data. All we keep are your payment records, which are stored securely with our payment provider. Anything on our own servers is completely wiped. As it should be.
Right now, we don't have an exit plan for Exist. That means we're not considering selling Exist anytime soon. Until now, we've refused every offer or consideration for selling Exist that's come our way. We didn't build Exist to sell, and we have too many plans still to implement for us to be comfortable saying goodbye now.
In the event that we do ever sell Exist, all our users would have their accounts and their data turned over to Exist's new owners, but not until they'd been given a chance to opt-out. When you sign up to Exist, you're trusting us, Hello Code, with your data. We'll never hand your data to anyone else without warning you and giving you a chance to say no first.
You can get your data out of Exist anytime
Just as we let you delete your account and all data permanently, we also let you get your data out of Exist while you still have an account. This is another way we execute our belief that your data is yours, not ours.
You have two options for getting your data out of Exist: an export in JSON format from your account settings page, or using our API as a developer (for free, so long as you have an Exist account).
We believe you should be able to get access to your data whenever you like, and use it however you like. So many apps are great at collecting and importing your data, but don't let you get it out again—too bad if you want to use it for some purpose the developers haven't thought of, or just take it with you when you go. Even though we still have a tiny fraction of the users of some of these other apps, we've spent the time to build a full API that allows any user to export and work with their data. You're not locked in.
We don't have investors who pressure us to make lots of money
I mentioned this earlier, but this is something that makes a big difference in the decisions we make about Exist. For one, we make those decisions. There are two of us running Hello Code, the company behind Exist, and we are the only two involved in the decisions that affect our users, their data, and the direction of our products in future.
Without investors, we've not been forced into aggressive marketing tactics, spamming people, or hideous-and-should-be-banned pop-up newsletter forms. We're not doing a great job of marketing, to be honest, but we're also not doing anything we don't believe in, or anything that makes us feel slimy or inauthentic. Because we're calling the shots.
We're also able to decide which features to build and which ones to leave out; which direction we want the product to go; which users we want to focus on most. These things are often influenced by investors and the need to make a lot of money and grow your company, but for us, making comfortable salaries for the two of us while running a business we're proud of is all we worry about.
Speaking of there just being two of us, there's a lot more work than we can get to—our to-do lists seem to be perpetually growing, even as we knuckle down to work through them. But this also gives us a chance to be more personal with our users.
When you submit a support request or offer some feedback on Exist, you'll get a response from either Josh or myself—a co-founder of the company either way. When you ask for your account to be suspended (a courtesy for long-term users who need a short-term break but want to keep their Exist account), either Josh or myself will do that for you. It's a manual process that takes a couple of minutes, but we do it ourselves.
If your payments start failing because your credit card expired or you forgot to top it up, Josh will personally delete your Exist account when multiple efforts to contact you go ignored and your payments continue to decline.
If you delete your account yourself because you no longer want to use Exist, I'll get an automated email directly to my inbox telling me so.
This stuff can get boring, disheartening, and frustrating, but we deal with it all directly because it helps us build a better product that our users love. We also get the benefits of directly hearing from users who love our product and are excited to share it with their friends and family. Or who've improved their health and wellbeing thanks to Exist. The feedback goes both ways, but in every case a co-founder of our company is the one who hears it.
We're transparent about our earnings
We keep a public stats page for anyone to see, which is updated weekly. It's populated by data coming directly from Stripe, our payment processor. It shows revenue coming in from our two products—Exist and Larder—and the total overall, as well as how many paying customers we have.
When we say we're not earning much, we mean it—and we want you to be able to see that we're telling the truth. We also want to help other business owners see transparent examples of what it's like to grow a company. Our journey won't be the same as everyone else's, but it's one example among few that are public for others to learn from.
We have a public, transparent roadmap
Continuing the transparency, we have a public roadmap for Exist that shows what we're working on now, what we've completed, and lots of suggestions and requests from our users. Exist users can make suggestions, vote for the features they care about, and get updates when something they've voted for changes status.
Making our roadmap public means we open ourselves up to more scrutiny, because it's obvious what we're working on and what we're not. But it also lets us show our users (and potential users) what's important to us and what direction we're taking our product.
Because our roadmap is public to everyone, our competitors can also see what we're working on and what our users think is most important. This obviously opens us up in a way that most other companies wouldn't be comfortable with, but we find the benefits make our transparency worth it.
We don't keep our future plans secret, because they matter as much to our users as they do to us, and we want our users to be able to look forward to what's coming up, rather than wonder in silence.
We don't use analytics in our mobile apps and we limit analytics in our web app
We have two mobile apps: one for iOS, one for Android. Neither of them uses any kind of analytics package. Every year when we send a survey about Exist to our users, we include questions about the features they use most, which they use least, and which ones they like best. We could use analytics to gather this information, but this would facilitate other companies collecting data about our users. Our users haven't agreed to that, and that fact that it's common doesn't make it okay.
In our web app, we use Google Analytics and nothing else. At this stage, we're considering removing Google Analytics as well. Though analytics can be useful in building your business, it's more important to us that we're proud of how we run our business than how big we grow it.
We don't ask for any access to data we don't need
For Exist to work, we have to request access to your data stored in other services, via their APIs. Most services let us choose which data to request access to. In those cases, we only ask for access to data that's relevant and useful to us. Since we don't want your data except to make Exist work for you, having access to extra data we can't use is pointless for us.
In some cases APIs force us to ask for access to data we don't use. For instance, the only way for us to access a count of how many commits you've made on GitHub is to request access to all your GitHub repos. Not only do we not need this much access to your GitHub data, we don't want it! But in this example we've spoken directly to GitHub and been told there's no other way to count your commits without having access to all your repos.
In these cases, we don't blame our users at all if they choose not to use integrations that provide us with more access than we want or need. Unfortunately we can't control how the APIs of other services work, but we always try to ask for the minimum level of access that will work for us.
We don't have any way for your boss, colleagues, or doctor to see your data
We built Exist to help individuals uncover hidden patterns in their own behaviour. It's empowering and useful for individuals, but we've also had people ask us if there's a way to give their doctor, partner, or coach access to their Exist data.
We've also seen other businesses dealing with personal data expand (or think about expanding) into business-related angles such as letting your boss or colleagues see your data, aggregating data across teams, or creating workplace leaderboards based on personal data.
We have no plans for any of these approaches to be brought into Exist. Although some of our users might see it as a downside that we don't have a built-in way to share your data with a doctor or coach, for now we're focussing entirely on a product for individuals. Your data should be for your own betterment, not a means for your boss to track how many minutes you spend on Facebook.
We store our data outside the U.S.
Though lots of the services we integrate with store their data inside the U.S., making this irrelevant for lots of our users, we use servers hosted and owned outside the U.S. for Exist. We're doing our best to avoid National Security Letters and otherwise being vulnerable to U.S. authorities demanding our users' data.
We're probably too small for this to be a legitimate risk anyway, but since we store such personal data, it's important to us that we keep that data as safe as we can.
Exist won't be the perfect product for everyone. And the way we run Hello Code won't suit everyone. But if you're using Exist (or thinking about it) and you care about privacy, security, transparency, and not entrusting your personal data to the care of people whose main goal is to make money at all costs, we hope you'll appreciate that we hold those values, too. Of course we're not perfect, and even if you agree with our values, you might still disagree with some of our decisions, or find that Exist just doesn't work for you all the same. But we'll keep trying to do what we think is right, because that's important.