February in Review: Life Tracking, Major jMockups Updates, and Preceden’s Best Month Yet

In December I announced a $4K/month challenge, where I try to reach $4K/month in profit from my web apps by the end of 2011.

In this post I’ll give an overview of what happened in February. Click here to see January’s report.

By the numbers:

1) According to RescueTime, I spent 121 hours working over the course of the month, which equals about 30 hours/week or 4.3 hours/day. (Not including day job.)

2) 10,578 people visited Preceden. 529 people signed up for an account. 20 people upgraded to a paid account. Revenue: $580. Total time spent working on Preceden: 0 hours.

3) 5,303 people visited jMockups. 302 people signed up for an account. None upgraded. Revenue: $19.

4) 9 blog posts:

Three on this blog:

jMockups and Preceden January Review – 5 Feb

Seeking Alpha Testers for jMockups Import Tool (cross post from the jMockups Blog) – 6 Feb

Launch! jMockups Website to Mockup Converter – 19 Feb

Five on the jMockups Blog:

New Keyboard Shortcuts to Make Designing Mockups Easier – 3 Feb

Seeking Alpha Testers for new jMockups Import Tool – 6 Feb

New Homepage Design, Some A/B Testing, and Why Data Can Be Misleading – 11 Feb

Website to Mockup Converter Launched – 19 Feb

Reengineering jMockups for Optimal Performance – 26 Feb

And one as a guest post on Sebastian Marshall’s blog:

Nine Tips for Getting Started with Life Tracking

Overview:

In terms of progress, February was a huge month for jMockups. For a good chunk of December, January, and early February, I was busily building and preparing for the launch of the Website to Mockup converter. The official launch was on Saturday, 19 Feb while I was in NYC with Chris Conley and Mike Nicholaides. All in all, it went fairly smoothly, though there were some issues rooted in the slowness of the jMockups editor. The week following the launch I reengineered the editor to eliminate the performance issues. Today was another huge update: the launch of the redesigned mockup editor. In a nutshell, compared to a month ago jMockups has a sexier design, an improved user interface, vastly improved performance, and one major new feature: the Website to Mockup converter.

Meanwhile, Preceden had its best month yet. 20 paid signups resulting in almost $600 in revenue. Long term I believe that jMockups has much more potential than Preceden, yet it’s a little unnerving that the thing I’m spending so much time on is hardly making any money and the thing I’ve ignored for the last seven months is growing and bringing in decent revenue. Rather than spend 100% of my time on jMockups and none on Preceden, I’m going to aim for a 85/15 ratio in the future. I keep saying it, but a few A/B tests, SEO, and target AdWords campaigns could have a huge affect on Preceden’s revenue so it’s time to start doing something about it.

Finally, I’ve been doing life tracking for 2+ months now and have had some great results from it. Tracking + slow, incremental improvements go a long, long way. Check out my post on Sebastian’s blog for more details.

One last thing: I really enjoy talking with folks about their startups and poker bot work, so if there’s anything I can help you with or you just want to say hey, please shoot me an email.

Thanks for reading — Matt

jMockups and Preceden January Review

As promised in my 2010, 2011, and a $4K/month challenge post, I’m going to do a quick recap each month of the progress I’ve made with towards achieving that end.

Here’s what happened in January.

Preceden

Total Sign Ups: 510

Upgrades to Preceden Pro: 18 (3.5%)

Revenue: $522

Progress: I spent a total of about 5 hours working on Preceden in January, which was split between reverting December’s pricing plan changes and with integrating Mixpanel last week to start getting better insights into how people are using the tool. To date I haven’t spent any time trying to optimize the conversion funnel, which gives me high hopes that I can at least double it with some calculating A/B tests.

jMockups

Total Sign Ups: 135

Upgrades to jMockups Pro: 0

Revenue: $19

Progress: I spent a lot of time working on jMockups in January, with a focus on improving the user experience, fixing bugs, and making progress towards launching the new website import tool later this month.

Most of the major changes were covered on the jMockups Blog:

In early January I began working with a talented San Fransisco-based JavaScript developer on jMockups with the intent of eventually bringing him on as a co-founder if the partnership went well. We got along extremely well and I was thrilled with how quickly he was picking up the code, but personal circumstances prevented him from continuing. So back to one.

jMockups is somewhere in the trough of sorrow right now:

And there’s even been several crashes of ineptitude thanks to some poor QA practices…. so I’m on my way :)

My primary goal in February is to launch the new website import tool, which will let you import any existing website into jMockups, allowing you to redesign and share it in seconds.

Before I launch it (and it’s 95% ready), I want to fix a few bugs, improve a few existing features, and set up some more in depth analytics to prepare for the potential influx of visitors after I launch it. There’s nothing worse than launching an amazing new feature only to have 50% of the new visitors run into a bug that sends them away with a poor taste in their mouth…. except for never launching it at all, I suppose.

According to RescueTime, I spent 120 hours working in January, or about 27 hours/week.

Life

January was kind unique month for me because of how much time I spent on the road for my day job: 11 days completely away from home and another 6 partially away. 27 hours/week is a bit high for me — average is about 20 to 25. The extra hours were only possible because I was traveling and did not have anything else to split my time with.

On New Years Day I began doing daily life tracking, which was inspired by several posts Sebastian Marshall has written on the topic. I’ve been tracking how much I eat out, how much I exercise, how much I spend, my finances, sleep schedule, etc. This deserves its own post, so I’ll save the details for later, but in a nutshell it’s given me some astounding insights into my life (positive and negative) and by making a few minor changes I’ve already had incredible gains from it. I highly encourage you to try it out if you’re looking to improve some aspects of your life (start with Sebastian’s posts).

With that, back to coding.

I Eliminated the Free Plan from my Web App for a Month: Here’s What Happened.

Background

In January 2010 I launched Preceden, a free web-based timeline tool. In May I migrated to a freemium plan, where users could add a certain number of events for free but had to upgrade to the pro plan in order to create more than that. After some experimentation with different limits and prices, I settled on 5 events for free and a one time payment of $30 to upgrade to the pro plan.

In June I started working on jMockups, a web-based high fidelity mockup tool. From June until the beginning of December I hardly touched Preceden. At the beginning of December I started reviewing Preceden’s stats and realized Hey, this is actually bringing in some decent money so I decided to start dedicating some time each week to working on it. (For a more detailed explanation of why I wasn’t watching it closely, read my 2010, 2011, and a $4K/month challenge post.)

Removing the Free Plan

Looking over the revenue figures I wondered: What would happen if I completely removed the free plan? Instead of a user being able to create 5 events for free, new users would have to pay first to use it.

After about three minutes of planning, I decided to go ahead and implement the change.

Additional Changes

I wanted to change as little as possible so that the results of the experiment would be accurate. After all, you can’t change several variables at once and then attribute the changes to only one.

That being said, I made a few small changes to the site which may have affected the results.

1) I dropped the price from $30 to $29

2) I changed the background color the header from #112a40 (dark blue) to #244386 (a lighter blue) and reduced its height

3) I made some layout and copy changes on the homepage

4) I removed the reCAPTCHA form from the sign up page

I shouldn’t have made these changes, but at the time I was more focused on the potential increase in revenue than on running a proper experiment.

Before and After Screenshots

Click to view full size:

Homepage

Sign Up Page

Notice at the top of the new sign up page it indicates what step of the process you are on (1. Create an Account, 2. Checkout, 3. Create Timelines). I also changed the copy on the button from “Create my Account” to “Create Account and Proceed to Checkout”. The wording will come into play later.

Checkout Page

(Only present on the pay-first version)

Results and Analysis

Notes

  • The number of homepage and sign up page visitors was taken from Google Analytics by looking a the number of new visitors to those particular pages.
  • Promotions refers to users I upgraded because they are bloggers and bloggers can get upgraded to the pro account for free.

Analysis

From Nov 1 – Dec 4, 3287 new visitors came to the Preceden homepage, 894 visited the sign up page, 567 created an account, and 22 upgraded to a paid account. That’s a 0.67% conversion rate from new visitor to paid user.

From Dec 6 – Jan 1, 3343 new visitors came to the site, 528 visited the sign up page, 210 created an account (oops), and 5 upgraded to a paid account. That’s a 0.15% conversion rate.

Users who were able to test Preceden before paying were 347% more likely to upgrade to a paid account than those who weren’t.

Also — and this is definitely my fault — 205 people filled out the sign up page and then abandoned the process on the Checkout page. Why? Most people probably didn’t realize they had to pay before using it. Sure, the Pricing page said “$29 for Unlimted Access” without mentioning a free account and Step #2 of the sign up process was called “Checkout”, but overall the copy didn’t clearly indicate that you had to pay before you could use the app.

Another problem is that the site doesn’t include a demo. It includes examples, but nothing the user can create on their own. Adding a demo section so that new users can get that “Oh cool” moment would have gone a long way.

The good news is that about 4% of the people who created an account converted to the paid plan when they were able to test the product first. Even if the pay-first experiment resulted in better figures, I feel more comfortable letting users test the product before paying. I think this depends a lot on your app and your business model, but for a tool like Preceden there’s no reason not to let people try it for free first. Accordingly, I’m switching back to the freemium version starting today.

Lessons Learned

  • If you run a web app and start building a new product, don’t neglect what you’ve already built. Dedicate some time each week to analyzing your key performance indicators and to making small changes — they’ll add up in the long run.
  • The best way to test this would have been to run the experiment on a fraction of visitors to the site. For example, show a pay-only version to half of the visitors and a free plan version to the other half.
  • Don’t change several variables at once when you run an experiment. Every change you make will affect the results.
  • The time of the year matters. Measuring only the number of paid users would be a bad way choice because a lot of the customers are teachers and I don’t imagine a lot are on the market for a new teaching tool in December. Measuring the conversion rates is better, but there still may be a “Oh I’ll wait till after the holidays to pursue this” mentality among some of the visitors, which could have affected the results. Running this experiment simultaneously would have yielded better results.

Over the next few weeks I’m going to experiment with A/B testing and AdWords to see what’s possible. I’m also going to email the 205 people who signed up during this experiment but didn’t pay; I’m sure they’d be interested in trying it out.

Can you think of anything else that might improve the conversion rates? Leave a comment below and I may test it out.

###

If you enjoyed this post, you should subscribe to the RSS feed for this blog to get future updates. Also, if you’re a web designer or developer I’d love to get your thoughts on jMockups, my new web design startup. Drop me a note at matthew.h.mazur@gmail.com or @jmockups on Twitter. Thanks!

2010, 2011 & a $4K/month Challenge

A few months back with what seemed like two months of work left to do, I publicly committed myself to launching jMockups in four weeks. The number of things I wanted to get done prior to launching was daunting, but I desperately needed to get the product out there and in the hands of actual users to start collecting feedback.

How’d it go? I didn’t launch it in four weeks; I launched in less than three.

Public accountability is a powerful thing. Sebastian Marshal writes about his own experience:

If I hadn’t set this goal and been accountable publicly, to my friend and to everyone who reads here, I wouldn’t have done it in two weeks. Honestly – I’m pretty internally motivated, but I’ve had a lot of stuff going on the last two weeks, it wouldn’t have happened. But it did happen, largely because I was publicly accountable.

This productivity hack that works especially well for me. I’m an INTJ on the Meyers Briggs type indicator and one of our defining characteristics is the value we place on competence. By publicly committing myself to launch, I put my own competence on the line so I did what it took to meet the goal. Practically this meant postponing a lot of the things on my todo list until after the launch, working some long nights and weekends, and taking a week off of work.

Publicly committing myself worked well for me once, so I’m trying it again.

The Scene

I spent most of 2010 building. I launched Preceden in late January and continued working on it through May. In June I started working on jMockups and launched it in late October. My focus in 2010 (and largely 2009 and 2008) was on learning and building. I knew I eventually wanted to make money off of the apps, but money wasn’t my primary goal.

I’ll be with my current job until October 2012 so I can’t pursue this full time just yet. Because I have a day job I’ve never had to rely on my web app income to survive. It’s always been like Oh, I had another sign up. That’s nice. That’s got to change.

October 2010–a mere 21 months away–will approach fast. In order for web app development/entrepreneurship to be viable long term, I have to start making more money. My true passion lies in building things–not money–but without money I can’t spend my time building things.

The Goal

I don’t have exact numbers (which is part of the problem), but Preceden currently makes about $500/month and costs $70 to operate. jMockups makes $24/month (whohoo!) and costs about $200/month to operate (doh!). Taken together, I’m making about $250/month.

It’s not entirely fair to value the apps in terms of their current profits, but that’s obviously a big part of it. Preceden targets a small niche and has a small goal: be the best timeline tool. jMockups targets a large niche and has an ambitious goal: improve the way people design websites. Long term, jMockups has the potential to be a home run; Preceden doesn’t.

With that in mind:

My goal is to make $4,000 per month from Preceden and jMockups by the end of 2011.

That’s about 16x what they make now. If a public commitment isn’t scary, it’s probably not ambitious enough. And since this is terrifying, I figure it’s a good number to shoot for.

I’ll make monthly progress updates starting at the end of January.

The Plan

Preceden has a marketing problem. It’s is a quality tool that has a lot of happy users, but not enough people know about it. I need to get more people to the site and need more of them to convert to paying customers. My plan with Preceden is to start marketing it heavily (via things like AdWords), perform lots of A/B testing, and optimize the hell out of it by way of extensive analysis. If I can get Preceden to a point where outbound marketing has a measurable positive ROI, I’ll be in really good shape.

jMockups has a product problem. The tool is good, but not great. Trying to change the way people design websites is hard (I probably should have picked a more narrow niche to start with, but that’s another story). I’ve been adding two or three new features a week since it launched in October, but I haven’t spent much time on the other things it takes to create a successful web product. For example, there’s currently way too much friction from when a user arrives at the site and to when they create a mockup that they’re happy with. And it shows in the usage metrics (75% of new users create 1 mockup and never come back). In 2011, I’ll continue working on the product but I’ll place a stronger emphasis on usability, education, and building a community. The revenue should follow from doing these things well.

I have a sole founder problem. But not really. I like the independence of working alone, but having someone else to build with and bounce ideas off of would be great. I’m not going to spend a lot of time actively searching for a cofounder, but if the opportunity presents itself I’d definitely give it a shot. (Interested? Drop me a note: matthew.h.mazur@gmail.com)

###

So here’s to 2011. I don’t know how things are going to turn out, but hopefully with this public commitment they’ll turn out a little bit better than they otherwise would have.

What I’m working on

Preceden is coming along well. After several different pricing and freemium model variations, I settled on a $19 premium account which lets you surpass the 5-event limit for a free account. That seems to have worked pretty well and the site is bringing it a few hundred dollars a month with little work on my part.

For the last six weeks I’ve been working on a new web app called Lean Designs. It started off as a tool for making decision trees, evolved into a web-based diagramming tool, and is now slated to become a pixel-perfect mockup tool.  It’s similar to Balsamiq, except it’s completely web-based and high fidelity, meaning it doesn’t looked sketched. The editor is built on top of HTML5’s canvas element, which makes it incredibly powerful in terms of what it can render. My short term goal is to build a tool that can quickly create website mockups that are indistinguishable from the actual sites. It’s not there yet, but it’s close.

(Lean Designs, unfortunately, is a temporary name and will not be what the final product is called. I found out this weekend that the name LEANdesign is trademarked by a company that produces related software with the same name. New name is TBD.)

Also of note is that for the past two months I’ve been using a site called AccountableTo, which is currently in private beta. The site, which is being built by a Philadelphia based web developer named Mike Nicholaides, helps you stay focused by encouraging you to write a daily log of what you’ve done that day, which other members of your group can comment on (Mike and Chris Conley in my case). AccountableTo asks two simple questions: What did you do today? and What’s the next step?. It’s that second question which is the most valuable because it forces you to think about what you’re going and what you need to do to get there. I’ve found it incredibly useful in helping me stay productive day after day.

Here’s one of my updates from three weeks ago:

What did you do today?

Background work:
* Arbitrary HTML color input
* Drop down color palette (thanks Yahoo)
* Select from previously used colors
* Set background color to none
* Ability to change the canvas background color

What’s the next step?

Need to spend a few hours cleaning up the code, which has gotten a bit unwieldy.

Also, I’m considering focusing on creating high-fidelity website mockups (ie, forget about diagramming). It’s tricky because on one hand, adding the diagramming tools would not be very hard, but, it’s easier to market as a “high fidelity mockup tool” than as a “web based diagramming tool that can also do mockups”–thoughts? A natural step once I had this in place would be for it to generate quality HTML/CSS from the mockups (but that would probably be a few months down the road).

That second part — algorithmically exporting to HTML — is going to be fun, though it’s something a lot of developers want and will pay for if done well. Think of it as a web-based Dreamweaver that doesn’t suck. Imagine rendering all the PSD 2 HTML sites obsolete. That’s the long term goal.

I’m also preparing to move to Boston in a few weeks, so my progress of late has been slower than normal. I’m going to wait until I get settled there to launch the mockup tool, so it’ll probably be sometime around October.

Slowly by surely…

On (Not) Emailing Bloggers

Get as many distribution channels as possible – There is some weird sense that if you build something they will just come. That a few “like”+retweet buttons and emails to editor@techcrunch.com will make your traffic explode + grow consistently. It fucking won’t. Get as many distribution channels as possible. Each one by itself may not be large, but if you have many it starts to add up. It also diversifies your risk.

Jason Baptiste

On that note, I had this brilliant idea about three weeks ago: as a reminder to myself to email bloggers as part of Preceden‘s marketing efforts, I would keep track of how many bloggers I emailed on the dry erase board next to my desk.

I started on the 6th; today is the 21st:

It’s not that it’s a very hard or time consuming task; I just find it incredibly mind numbing. Every time I sit down to actually email someone, I always wind up switching over to TextMate within 30 seconds to resume programming.  Jason’s right though: building it is not enough. The internet is a big, big, BIG place and like it or not, you are just a drop in the bucket.

Here’s to the next three weeks.

Adding a Survey to Preceden with Wufoo

Yesterday I added a survey to Preceden so users could tell me a bit more about their experience, and I think it’s going to be one of the best decisions I’ve made.

I chose to use Wufoo, a service for creating forms, rather than rolling my own because a) I hate making forms and b) I heard they make it easy.  It’s free to try and I’ve also heard they have great customer service, which is always a plus.

Patrick’s McKenzie’s post on integrating Wufoo into BingoCardCreator was my inspiration for doing this and I highly encourage anyone trying this to read his post too, as he has a lot of good ideas on incentivisation which I don’t cover here.

Wufoo has a slick web interface that lets you build a form by dragging and dropping controls onto it:

You also have the ability to customize the fields which makes it powerful, though it does so without being complicated. It’s clean, well thought out design is refreshing.

I added six question, which are based on the ones Patrick used for BingoCardCreator:

  • Male or female
  • Age
  • What do you use Preceden for?
  • What’s your favorite thing about Preceden?
  • How can we make Preceden better?
  • Would you be interested in using any of the following web applications? …

When you’re done, Wufoo will generate the JavaScript required to embed the form into your site:

I created a survey action in my home controller, with a corresponding survey.html.erb for their JavaScript:

And then I added a link to it from the user’s dashboard:

Clicking it takes you to the actual survey:

When users submit it, Wufoo sends me an email with the results, plus you can also check it on their website:

You’ll notice on the dashboard screenshot that there’s a small X in the top right corner of the survey notice.

I wanted users who have taken it or who don’t want to take it to be able to close the notice so it doesn’t show up forevermore on their dashboard. To do this, I added a surveyed attribute to the User model, which is set to false by default, but is changed to true when the user clicks that X.  Then on the dashboard I can say:

	
		
New! Help improve Preceden by taking our two minute .
'close'), :id => 'close-survey', :title => 'Hide this notice' %>

In total, integrating it took about two hours and it would have been a lot less if I didn’t want to keep track of who didn’t want to see it.

While there is already a contact form on the site, adding a survey link in a prominent location has already resulted in a great deal of  really good feedback. Here’s a snippet from one submission:

In no particular order :)

* Would love today’s date to automatically be in the ‘start’ box.

* An API so I can interface with our Bugzilla!
– This would boost other people sending data into preceden (hopefully) and raise awareness. Gosh, imagine a facebook app that logged and timeline’d exactly when you were on facebook. Ouch.
– I would love to see some kind of sync from preceden to Google Calendar (which in turn syncs with everything I own). Easier than developing multi-platform synchronization yourself!

This person probably wouldn’t have taken the time to write me an email, but by asking him directly “What do you want?” he opened up with a ton of useful ideas.

With Wufoo, there’s no excuse not to survey your users. For the amount of time it takes to do it and the value you gain from the results, it’s the easiest decision you’ll make all day.