A Builder’s Mindset: What I learned Building a New Type of Product

I have devised software and hardware products, built a fintech company to teach kids about the importance of financial literacy, and created a website to help people buy rings.

Needless to say, I love to learn and I love to build.

That is why I set myself a personal challenge to create – or learn to launch – a new type of product in the closing months of 2020. 

Unable to leave my home as a result of local Covid lockdowns, I began consuming copious amounts of educational content on freecodecamp, sub-stack, and Youtube in search of what to build next. After mulling my options, I decided to combine three of my passions (writing, researching, and technology) to launch an email newsletter to help people thrive when engaged in remote work.

A newsletter as a service: building a new type of product

When I first discussed this newsletter with my product and engineering friends, I received a tepid response. “Are emails the hot new thing?” one friend asked. Another quipped: “How hard could it be to write and forward along some content?” 

Needless to say, guilding, designing, scaling, and launching a newsletter turned out to be more challenging than anticipated and more rewarding than I could have imagined. 

In this post I want to cover a few key topics:

  1. What is a newsletter? How do they work as products? How is effective communication a platform?
  2. How I built a newsletter product and why you should be aware of the skills I picked up along the way.
  3. How to measure virality as a product success metric and why user feedback matters for creating content.

If, at the end of this piece you know more about the product genre called “newsletters” and you find yourself excited to read some or create one, we can mutually consider this content worthwhile.

What are your guiding design principles and values?

Before creating a newsletter (or bootcamp, or educational PDF), you first need to devise your North Star. What are you hoping to achieve? What is driving your desire to communicate at scale with others?

For me, the answers to these questions were simple. At a time when many are confined to home offices and bedrooms to complete their jobs remotely, I believe that I could help people have better experiences working from home.

I have worked from home on and off for many years and learned important things along the way. As with my writing on this site, I wanted to pass on key learnings and educational insights to help others.

Once you have answered the above questions (what your goals are and how to communicate these with others), you can start to collect data, feedback, and insights from prospective users to deepen and broaden your knowledge of the topics you will write about.

None of this work requires coding skills or a deep sense of technology. We will get to those topics in a bit.

Ask people: what do you want to learn if you subscribe to my newsletter? What are you hoping to get out of it?

When I first asked people these questions, I got three types of replies:

  1. Help me improve the physical comfortability of my office space;
  2. Help me improve my mental health and well being when working without frequent contact with others;
  3. Help me excel as a remote worker and enhance my career prospects.

Fortunately, these categories aligned with what I had hoped to write about. However, by practicing design thinking (which is a holistic way of applying critical thinking to solving design-related problems that matter to people) I was able to peel back the layers and better understand what users wanted to learn and most importantly, why.

The Steps to Learning and Launching

After conducting research and clarifying my own goals, I set to work learning the technologies that make newsletters possible. Simply put, there is more than meets the eye.

Firstly, I needed a tool to write content, include GIFs, and test messaging. Much like with any product launch, data is critical. And I had to collect this data by hand by sending batch messages to small samples of people for feedback. Just like with building any product, friends and family are a great place to start. As it turned out, so are peers and colleagues.

Secondly, I had to evaluate and test different marketing automation platforms and email marketing services. As it turns out, popular providers like Mailchimp and ConvertKit have a few key similarities but also important differences. For example, both have landing pages, contact tagging, and automations. But they different when looking at how subscriber data is stored and email content created.

Thirdly, and of great technical importance, I needed to build a lightweight landing page to collect emails, convey the key value prop of the content, and allow people to better understand how I could help them have better experiences working from home.

Fourthly, I had to collect real world feedback. As soon as I finished writing the content I would ship it. Was I embarrassed at times? You bet. Did that feeling slow me down? Not at all. As with building and launching any other type of software product, speed to market is very important. 

Not because I fear competitors or imitation but because I stand by my product and believe that it adds value to real people in real jobs who are struggling to work from home. And the sooner I could bet the email series launched the sooner I could help those people. Builders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Getting feedback is key to building trust.

Bringing It All Together

It took me two months to go from an idea of a product to actually launching it. In this period of time I tested, iterated, spoke with users, made a small but educational missteps, and got a product together to help others work from home.

The process was rewarding in that it taught me that builders are never done learning and are always seeking to improve themselves. The same is true for this product. However small the product seems, it’s a reflection of it’s builder and what I hope to achieve.

I think back to the jokes my friends made at my expense of the belittling way they asked if a newsletter qualified as a product. In hindsight, the answer is clearly yes. 

When you are learning to code, you are likely thinking of building good old fashioned software (apps, websites, dev tools, APIs, and so on). I would encourage you to think more broadly as well. Perhaps you have a skill or insight that you can communicate to others. An email newsletter is one path to explore. 

You will need to get and retain users, produce a product of value, and find ways to improve over time. If you love to build and want to help others, it’s hard to imagine a better place to start.