02 Dec 2019

What we did right with Exist

Things have changed a lot since we launched Exist more than five years ago. Beyond the product, and the world as a whole, the way the two of us work on Exist has changed a lot.

When we started Exist, I didn't know how to code at all, and Josh was a seasoned web developer. I had experience working in content marketing, so it seemed like we were a good match to launch a product together.

These days I'm an iOS developer, and I do very little on the marketing front. We don't record podcasts or blog very much anymore, and neither of us is very visible on social media.

I think some of those things we've stopped doing were key to getting Exist off on the right foot, so I want to go over them to remind ourselves, but also to share with you, what I think helped us get this far.

1. We talked about Exist a lot before launch

As is often the case, Exist was alive for months before it was launched. It lived as a private work-in-progress for a while, then as a private beta, and eventually we launched it to the public. During the period we were building Exist, we didn't keep it a secret. We talked about what we were building online, we wrote blog posts about it, and we even got some press before we had anything launched.

The attention we got prior to launch gave us the inkling that we'd hit on a good idea. We still had to execute it, but we at least knew the idea itself was fascinating to people, and might lead people to sign up just to give it a go when it was public. This helped our mindset by confirming our hunch that this was an interesting space to work in, and increased our motivation to deliver on the idea that was capturing people's interest. It also meant that when launch day came, we weren't nobodies. We already had an audience, and we had press to point to.

2. We built up an email list before launch

During this period of building Exist and talking about it, we also created an email list anyone could sign up for to be notified about the launch. Anyone who heard about us in the press, or found us online somewhere, and visited our website, would see that we hadn't launched yet but they could sign up to get an email when we did.

And quite a few people did. We had over 1,000 people on that list when we launched Exist. It wasn't millions, but it was a lot better than having nobody waiting on launch day. Those people helped us get our first public signups and get the ball rolling once Exist was real and available.

3. We stayed visible

We were both a lot more active online when we started Exist. These days, we're essentially hermits; rarely blogging, rarely tweeting, and generally keeping our heads down and working quietly. I think there are two reasons for this:

  1. We've become increasingly cynical about the world, and the tech industry in particular. We both deleted our Facebook accounts, and I've deleted (and reinstated) my Instagram account a couple of times. Neither of us trust social media companies with our data, and we're cynical of the amount of trolling and negativity on social networks.
  2. We've become increasingly isolated as Exist has grown. Josh stopped working his part-time job several years ago now. I worked part-time for another couple of years after Josh, but since the beginning of our Exist journey, I'd been working remotely, and my contact with the outside world diminished slowly over those years. Now, neither of us have colleagues, we both work from home, and we spend a lot of time together or alone. I think this has contributed to our increasing silence online, as well.

Compared to when we started Exist, we were practically loquacious back then. We both tweeted more, and I used to blog a lot more often. For the first few years of Exist's life, my day job was content marketing, and I used those skills for Exist as well, but the more development I did, the more I found I prefer spending my time that way and now I'm a classic marketing-hating developer.

We also used to interact with others online more often, and we got to know other indie developers. That helped us with a feeling of community, but it also helped Exist be more visible, simply because people knew us, and they knew that's what we worked on.

4. We stayed small and personal

This is one thing we are still doing, but it's worth mentioning how it helped us early on. Although for a short period we thought we wanted to get VC investment and grow Exist to be a huge product, we gave up on that idea fairly early on (you can hear more about that in this podcast episode). Mostly because I was terrible at meeting with investors, and shocked at how rude they were. But these days we're glad that path didn't work out for us.

We're running a small, sustainable business these days. And we love that. We're happy to not have employees, or an office, or investors telling us what to do. We're happy to be the ones making decisions, and the ones building the product, and the ones responding to customers. Most of the time, anyway.

Because it's just the two of us, we personally handle everything, including speaking to our customers. And this has worked in our favour, because we've been able to get to know some of our long-term customers, and build relationships with them as Exist grows and evolves. We've got some customers who are great fans of ours and always cheer us on when we make big improvements to Exist. These kind of relationships make Exist feel more personal, and give us names and faces to keep in mind when we're coding or considering new directions for the product.

It also means our customers know our names and faces. Many of our customers know that I work on our iOS app, especially if they're beta testers. Customers know that they'll talk to Josh if they want help with Android or our web app. Many even know our voices, from listening to our podcast. All of these things make us more human and personable to our customers, and for a small, indie business, that's a great bonus.

I started this conclusion by writing "Exist is no huge success", but immediately deleted it. By some standards it's not a huge success, but it honestly is by ours. It sustains two of us so well that we're now planning our first holiday in over five years, and we're both able to work on Hello Code full-time, with almost all our income coming from Exist. We're incredibly lucky to have come this far, but we also made some early decisions that pushed us in the right direction, and it's worth remembering those.