Amal & Nick are joined by Saron Yitbarek (developer, podcaster, community leader & serial entrepreneur) to catch up and discuss her latest project: Not A Designer
We discuss all the ins & outs of tech entrepreneurship & the challenges of building something new in today’s saturated market. Tune in for a behind-the-scenes look at how she does it & get a sneak peek on what’s possibly next! (Spoiler Alert: we brain stormed it here)
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- Changelog Merch (re-stocked)
- Not A Designer
- Code Newbie
- Code Newbie Podcast
- Base CS Podcast (via Code Newbie)
- Command Line Heroes Podcast (via RedHat)
- CodeLand Conf
- Forem (now parent company of Dev.to)
- Beehiiv - the newsletter platform built for growth
- Substack - a new economic growth for culture
- ConvertKit - the creator marketing platform
- Y Combinator
- Baz Luhrmann - Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen (aka Amal’s “favorite song”)
|Chapter Number||Chapter Start Time||Chapter Title|
|1||00:00||It's party time, y'all|
|4||05:48||Getting to know Saron|
|5||14:38||A timing problem?|
|6||18:12||Not A Designer|
|7||25:51||The elevator pitch|
|9||33:58||Social media proliferates|
|12||43:05||The grand vision|
|13||44:52||Obligatory AI chapter|
|15||54:32||Being in the driver's seat|
|17||59:55||Connecting with Saron|
|18||1:01:23||Next up on the pod|
Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧
Hello, everyone. It’s me, Amal Hussein. If I sound different, it’s because I’ve lost my voice. Two and a half weeks in Europe means I can’t be doing a lot of talking loudly… And I haven’t had a chance to get a travel mic either, so please bear with my audio; forgive me forgive me… But it’s okay, because we have an amazing guest who’s going to make up for my crappy audio and crappy voice.
With me on the show today is Nick Nisi. Welcome, Nick.
Hoy-hoy. Hi, Amal. How’s it going?
Hi, how are you? Are you excited about today’s topic?
I am very excited. And for the record, I think you sound great.
Oh, you’re so sweet. Thank you. This is like my Steven Seagal voice, you know? It’s all husky, and… But anyways, so our guest today is Saron Yitbarek. Hello, welcome, Saron. We’re so excited to have you.
Hello, how are you? Thanks for having me. Super-pumped.
Yeah. I feel like you need no introduction, because you’re like internet famous, and I don’t know, I’ve been a fan girl for a long time. I remember the first time I actually met you in person was – the first and only time I think I met you in person was at All Things Open a few years ago, and I was just like “Oh my God, wait a second… You’re East African too?” Because my parents are from East Africa… And I immediately was just like “Okay, what’s your story?” I just totally got up in your face, and I wanna apologize for that on air.
[laughs] That’s okay.
Not every day you meet another East African woman who’s kicking butt, you know? Anyway, so for folks who aren’t familiar, Saron, why don’t you tell us about yourself?
Sure. So I am a developer, podcaster, founder… So I got my start in coding about 10 years ago, learned how to code on my own for a couple of months, then went into a boot camp, went to the Flatiron School, graduated from that, and when I did that program, for me it was really eye-opening, because what I really gathered from that is just the power of community and how incredibly valuable it was to learn to code with other people. And I realized that if you want to learn how to code and you didn’t do a boot camp - because bootcamps are expensive; back then it was $11,000 for me, and now I look at tuition and it’s like 15k, 20k, sometimes 30k dollars [unintelligible 00:06:24.02]
It’s really pricey. And back then there were no payment plans, there were no loans… You had the money or you didn’t. And even I didn’t have the money; I had to borrow some of the money from my mom to help me pay for that program. And so I felt like if you didn’t have a bootcamp, it was really hard to find that support system that to me was so crucial to me learning how to code. And I wanted to create a community for people who were learning, and so I started doing these Twitter chats; this was back when Twitter chats were all the rage, everyone had one… And you’d pick the hashtag, or hashtag was codenewbie, and I would tweet out questions every Wednesday night at 9pm Eastern Time, and I would ask “What are you excited about? What are you learning? What are you stuck on?” and people would respond, and kind of talk to me, and really talk with each other and get to know each other. And there’d be a lot of just this love in these Twitter chats, and this support, and just really good vibes all around.
And I did that week after week, and after about six months of doing that, I said “I think we have something here, but I really want to dig deeper into the stories. I really want to focus in on these developers and inspire people in a deeper way.” And I thought “Podcast. Audio. That’s the right way to do it. That’s a great medium for that.” And so we launched The Code Newbie Podcast. And I think it was maybe two months into doing the podcast, that I got an email from a company who said “Hey, I’ll give you 200 bucks if you run an ad on your show”, and I was like “Whoa, I can make money from this?!” So that was really the first time I started thinking of it not just as this fun side hustle I was doing while I was a developer full-time, but actually had the potential to be a sustainable business.
[08:04] So that launched just – my thinking shifted from that, from “How do I make this into a media company?” It’s kind of funny, because I guess content creator was the right term, but I never thought of myself as a content creator, because my content was never centered around me. It was never about me being in front of the video camera, or me talking about my opinions. I wasn’t trying to be a thought leader. It was really about shining a light on other people and bringing people together. So I thought of myself as more of a community/media company than a content creator.
And so we did the podcast, and then over the years launched another podcast called The BaseCS Podcast, which was me and a good friend of mine, Vaidehi Joshi, who did this series on computer science, and we basically turned her blog posts into an audio format, into a podcast. And that went really well, that got really popular. We launched a conference called Codeland that we do every year, we had meetup groups all over the US… And so just trying to listen to the community and figure out what’s needed and what people wanted support on, and trying to turn those into some type of content, some type of product to help people has been kind of the name of the game.
And so I ran that for three years part-time while I worked as a developer, and then three years full-time, and then I sold it a couple years ago to Dev.to, which was renamed Forum, is the official company name… But they run the Dev.to platform. And after I sold that, I thought “I think I want to stay on the business side of things. Let me go to business school, so I can learn business things, and I can learn the proper way to do business.” And I got into Colombia and did the Executive MBA program for two years, and I think it was like six months into the program I was like “I think I just wanna start another business.” [laughs] And so after spending a ton of money on this degree that I didn’t really need to start a business, I ended up launching Disco as part of a class that I took, this entrepreneurship class. And Disco was meant to be audio courses. So it was taking my love of podcasting and my love of audio - and audio at that time, if you remember, Clubhouse was poppin’. They raised like billions of dollars…
Yeah, bagillions of money. I don’t know where it went, but they raised it, and they had it… [laughter] And so I was really kind of [unintelligible 00:10:19.13]
They bought really expensive headphones, you know? [laughter] $10,000 headphones for every employee, you know? That’s where it went.
Oh, my goodness. Is that true? Is that really what they did with it?
Okay, they probably did that. [laughs] I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know where it went, but it went somewhere.
Yeah, I’m just trolling. I’m just trolling though, seriously.
But yeah, yeah. And so I was riding the wave of audio, and really believed that audio had a future in education, and in leveling people up… But I wanted to test the idea; I wanted to make sure this was kind of the right move, and so I did a preorder. So I had a landing page, and for three weeks I sold these courses at a slight discount, and just wanted to get a sense of “Are people into this? Are they interested? What do they think?” And so I launched it, and I had almost 500 people sign up for it…
…in a couple weeks. And I thought “Great. That’s great traction. Good, solid early sign. Let’s get to work. Let’s build this.” And to build it, I needed to raise some money, because I needed to hire producers to help create all the content… Luckily, since I’m a developer, I could build the web app, but I needed some help with mobile, so I wanted to hire mobile developers… So I needed some cash. So I thought, “Let me raise like a little pre-seed round, $500,000.” I gave myself three months to raise it. And then within about three or four weeks, I raised – I had commitments of over 3.4 million. And I was like “Okay, people are into this. People are serious, investors are excited.” But the way that investment works is you can’t necessarily take all the money that you get offered, because then you have to give up a ton of equity. So I negotiated with our lead investor and ended up taking a little over $2 million, and took that and got to work. I hired producers, I hired mobile devs, built out the app, built out the content, took a couple of months, launched it to our eagerly-awaiting customers, and then I heard crickets. No one hit play, no one logged in… A few people did, but basically no one did.
[12:19] And I was confused, because we had all these people, and a lot of them were actually paying every month as a subscription, because we sold a subscription to our future library of content. And no one was canceling; no one emailed me to say “Give me my money back” or “Cancel my account.” They just weren’t using what we were producing. And it was very confusing and very discouraging, and I interviewed about 100 of our users, and I said “Tell me what’s going on. Why are you doing this? Or why are you not doing this? Why aren’t you using the content?” And basically, it came down to the simple fact that we weren’t solving a pain point. We weren’t solving a problem for people. We were a gym membership; we were a nice-to-have, we were an aspirational product. People loved the idea of what we were doing, people liked the idea of taking audio courses, but at the end of the day they didn’t need us.
And what topics were you covering in those audio courses?
Technical topics. So we did like a lot of machine – so this was before ChatGPT and all that popped off, but we did –
I remember the machine learning courses. Yeah, I remember those.
Yeah, we did machine learning; it was one of our big ones. And then we transitioned to some leadership-type courses. So like conflict resolution, and management style, and how to have one on ones, and those types of professional topics that weren’t necessarily technical, that we thought would be a little bit easier to consume via audio. And so we did that, and so when I realized that it wasn’t working, I said to my investors, “I don’t think this idea is going to blow up, because if people who already paid for it aren’t using it, then that’s kind of it.” And I asked for their permission to pivot and to try out other ideas, and they were fine with it. So for the next two years I’ve been heads-down trying to find the right idea to work on that is validated, that has legs. And so I’ve gone through over a dozen ideas, I’ve done so many landing pages, interviewed hundreds of people, just really trying to do my due diligence… Because to me, the opportunity to raise money, especially as a black woman, is unheard of. And so I really take this opportunity very seriously, and I take this money very seriously, and I want to use it very wisely, and I want to make sure that whatever I build is validated and I have conviction over it. So I’ve been just really meticulous about figuring out what to build, how to build it, and making sure I’m in the right space. So yeah, that’s what’s been going on.
Yeah, no, I mean, oh my God, girl… Whoa. Alright, so we’re gonna have to like unpack all this awesomeness. [laughter] Can we just start with just like acknowledging that, okay, you’re clearly a serial entrepreneur, and I really loved the approach that you took initially around “Let me gauge interest before I invest.” And then I think that’s kind of unfortunate that you did the due diligence of like making sure that people wanted this thing…
I thought so…
…and then you went and built the thing. I have to wonder though, because the past few years, as you’re well aware, it’s been kind of a crapshoot on many layers, especially people’s behaviors changed so much… So I’m just wondering how much of this do you think was actually a timing problem for you?
It’s interesting, because I feel like I raised money – I had the right idea for the right time. Because I think that people were interested in Disco and the audio course idea for two reasons. Number one, because it was audio, and a lot of investors who weren’t in on the Clubhouse round were looking for their audio play. I had so many investors say to me “I’m bullish on audio.” That was the line. “I’m bullish on audio.” And so there was a lot of interest on “I didn’t get in on the Clubhouse round. I need something in my portfolio that says audio.” So I think that the timing – I don’t really know why audio was so popular during the pandemic, or at least the first part of the pandemic, but it really was, and I think that me being kind of on trend made me just a very exciting investment to invest in. And then two, the fact that I’d already sold a company, and already kind of proven myself as an entrepreneur made it an easy yes for a lot of investors.
[16:10] Oh, absolutely. The Columbia MBA - I don’t know whether you finished it or not, but that doesn’t hurt either.
I did, yeah.
That doesn’t hurt either, you know what I mean?
No. Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. It was actually funny, because I raised the money during my MBA program. I was in the second year, and I remember – we had a block class, which is when you have class from 9am to 6pm Monday to Friday; it’s just a one-week-long course. And I remember because the pandemic, it was all Zoom calls. So I was in Zoom University on one screen, with my professor going, like, taking investor pitches, and going through my pitch deck on another screen, trying to like multitask, and do it all… But I do also think that the timing of the pandemic worked in my favor, because all pitching became remote, which meant I could do 20 pitches a week. You can’t do that before the pandemic, because I would have had to fly to San Francisco, get a hotel, spend my money on that flight, seeing maybe one investor per – you know what I mean? It would have been just highly inefficient. But because everyone was not expecting that, and people were doing pitches, and were raising rounds over Zoom calls, I was able to raise a round very quickly. I pitched over 100 investors in two months. You can’t do that if you are not in a remote world. So I think that the timing of that really worked in my favor.
Yeah. So for me, I have this personal goal of going back to school and getting an MBA from MIT; I want to get their executive MBA… And that’s to help me with that grown-up network. I mean, I feel like I have a huge network within tech, but I don’t feel like a lot of my tech friends are fully grown-ups… [laughter] I just want some more grown-up friends with money, because I definitely want to do some more kind of social entrepreneurship stuff later in life. I have a whole second career that I want to start… And so it’s just very inspiring to see that you’ve taken that route, and that you’ve managed to kind of still keep a foot in this community, of being embedded in the developer space. Fantastic.
And so we invited you here to kind of talk about your next project, which we know – spoiler alert, it’s called Not A Designer. Three or four r’s, I don’t know, on Twitter… But that was smart.
I couldn’t find it. [laughs]
That was awesome. I loved it. On Twitter it’s multiple r’s, but on the internet it’s –
I think it looks so obnoxious, but I didn’t know how else to do it, so…
I love it. I mean, the way I pronounce it is like “Not A Designerrr…” You know what I mean?
[laughs] There we go. A little sass.
Right. But on the internet, it is NotADesigner.io. So for folks who want to follow along. So can you tell us about what this project is, Saron, and what inspired you to create it?
Sure, yeah. So this project is really exciting, and I started it for two reasons. The first is I’m trying to figure out Disco, I’m trying to figure out where to put my eggs, and how to best use this money that I raised… Because you know, because I stopped the audio course venture within four months of raising money, I have most of the money left over. It’s sitting in a bank account, waiting to be deployed. And so I really wanted to be responsible with that money. And so my strategy has been doing a lot of –
Another reason why everybody should give black women money, right?
[laughs] Because we take it seriously.
That’s so not the move, yeah.
This is not a game! [laughs]
That money would have been so gone for anyone else… You would have been raising like four more rounds before you decided to kind of –
Yeah, honestly, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of, is how responsible I have been with the cash. And all my investors were shocked that I had any of it leftover after four months. And I was like “It’s only four months. You should have a lot of leftover.”
They’re like “What about your foosball tables? Your $10,000 headphones…”
Exactly. [laughs] I need my headphones. I’m an audio company, I need my headphones.
[19:54] But yeah, so I really wanted to be responsible with it. And so I had been doing a lot of user interviews, a lot of just talking to users… Because my big thing now is I want to make sure I’m solving a problem. That’s the lesson I took away from the first time, that’s what I want to get right the second time. And so in the process of doing that, I feel like doing user interviews has been an extremely draining process. I’ve cycled through being extremely hopeful and optimistic to being super-depressed, and just very frustrated with the whole process, and burning out, and then getting optimistic again, and then getting really burnt out… And I’ve just been riding that rollercoaster for the last two years. And I decided to do something different this time, where I said “Instead of me trying to get to know my user through customer interviews, and through talking to them, what if I became my user? So what if I picked an area that I’m interested in, picked a user base I’m fascinated in, and I just did the job, and learned firsthand what my pain points are?”
And so newsletters is an area that I’ve been really interested in for the past year or so, and one of my biggest regrets with Code Newbie – I mean, it worked out in the end, but one of my biggest regrets that Code Newbie is not doing a better job of having a mailing list. We had our newsletter, but we didn’t really take it very seriously. It was okay, but it wasn’t a focus for us. And when people asked me “How big is your community?”, it was really hard to quantify it, because we have 100,000 on Twitter, we had another 20,000 on Slack, we had another 10,000 on Instagram… It was just all over the place, so we didn’t have a place that we owned, that was our own place. And a mailing list solves that problem, because that’s the only platform that is actually yours; you own that relationship.
And so I really believe in newsletters, we just didn’t do a good job of it. And I always said that if I ever launched a new product, a new company, new content, that I would have a mailing list. I would have a newsletter and really focus on that. And so I really believe in the newsletter format. I think it has a ton of potential. And I’ve seen over the past four or five years, it’s gotten really popular, especially with Beehive, and ConvertKit has been around for quite some time… Substack popped off I think in 2018, 2019… And so I’ve just been really interested in that space.
And so I said “Instead of trying to go out and interview newsletter creators, why don’t I just start a newsletter?” And so I said “Let me pick a topic that I’m actually passionate about, that I would actually want to write about, even if no one read it.” What’s the thing that you would do when no one is looking, when no one’s paying attention? And I’ve always loved design. I’ve always been fascinated by it, but I’ve never taken a formal class, I’ve never been trained as a designer, but I’ve always wanted to be better at it. It’s always been a topic and an area that I wanted to just be good at. And it’s the one thing that I would do for free, just for fun, because I just really enjoy it. And so building landing pages on my own ideas has been probably my favorite part, because it’s just fun to build landing pages.
And so I thought “Well, what if I teach design to developers as a student myself?” So it’s me going off, spending 20-30 hours, learning on a topic, leveling up on a particular thing, and then turning what I learned into a step by step breakdown, a walkthrough, and then taking that and writing a newsletter and targeting it to developers who also want to level up when it comes to design? So that’s the topic of it. So it’s called Not a Designer because I’m not a designer, I’m a developer trying to learn design skills, and that’s what the focus of the newsletter is on… And it’s been amazing. It’s been such a great way to learn things myself, and actually be a better designer, which is one of my main goals, but it’s also been a really great way of surfacing problems that newsletter people face in terms of growing a newsletter, writing… And I have a marketing person that helps me, and together we’ve gone through and written out all the different problems that we face, all the different issues we have, and trying to see “Is there a product for newsletter creators that we can turn our problems and our issues into?” So it’s worked out really well.
That’s fascinating. I feel like this is such a pragmatic approach to creating a business. I feel like there’s some something here that we should coin; I don’t know what it is, what the term is… It’s like the scientific method for tech entrepreneurship, you know… Something like that.
[24:11] Yeah. Because they always say that the best ideas, or the best problems to solve are your own. Start with your own problems, and figure that out. And I’m like “I’m doing alright. I don’t really have any problems. I don’t have any problems that are tech startup material.” I like the tools I use, I’m doing just fine… So in order to surface the problems, I needed to go through an experience that allowed me to – that exposed me to certain problems firsthand. And so I think that – and this is the advice, because I have a couple of entrepreneurship friends that are kind of in the same boat of trying to figure out what their first product is… And another model that I think is a good potential way to surface other ideas is the agency model, of trying to solve a problem for customers manually, and charging them a fee to solve their problems just on a one-to-one basis, understand what those problems are, understand what your clients are facing, what issues they have, and then seeing “Can you turn that into a product? Can you turn that into a SaaS?” So I think that’s another way to kind of approach the same thing.
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I’ve always really liked that model, because I feel like a lot of really successful – especially on the b2b side, a lot of very successful b2bs come out of people that were solving these problems internally at their company, and their company wasn’t giving that problem enough energy, or love, or space, or they were like “I can solve it better. This could be a standalone product.” Or “We’re solving this big problem here. Let’s create a service and share it out, so other people don’t have to solve this solved problem.” So yeah, it’s absolutely fascinating. So I don’t know, Nick, would you use that Not A Designer? I mean do you have these needs where you’re like “Hey, I’m a developer…” Actually, so we haven’t even – Saron, we’ve talked so much about the inspiration; we haven’t really dug into what is Not A Designer. You’re basically teaching…
So what’s like the elevator pitch?
Yeah, so it’s design content for developers. So each week I pick a particular – a really granular thing. So for example, one week… Last week I did one on color contrast. Accessibility is a topic that I’ve been very bad at as a developer in prioritizing. It’s something that I know I should do, I know is the right thing to do, but for frankly reasons I don’t really know, I can’t really explain, it just hasn’t been top of mind for me, and I really wanted to use the newsletter as an opportunity to dig in and learn more about the topic. So we had – I think I wrote a 2000-word issue on color contrast. And it’s basically me saying “As a developer, I have not prioritized color contrast. Here’s why you should. Here’s what makes it maybe a little bit difficult”, or at least – it’s not even hard. It’s just intimidating, because we don’t know about it. “Here are some examples of what a poorly contrasting graphic looks like for someone with low vision”, and I use a simulator to kind of illustrate those points… And then I say “Here’s the WCAG”, which is the – I forget what it stands for, but it’s the authority on accessibility guidelines.
It’s not the WCAG, it’s like another –
Web Content Accessibility Guideline.
Yes. Yeah. That one.
That’s so neat. So Nick - yeah, back to you now… So Nick, you’re a developer. Would you…?
I feel like you need Saron’s product. [laughs]
I do. Yeah, it’s funny, because I saw this go by on Twitter probably a few weeks ago, and then – it’s immediately appealing to me. And also, it really highlights what I feel is like a big shortcoming… Because I’m primarily a frontend dev, and so I spend a lot of time making designs come to life from Figma… And I can do that pretty well, but I basically am just like “Okay, whatever.” And if I push back, it’s because some tool, like X Developer Tools or something told me to push back. But I really don’t have that design eye, and so this is immediately appealing to me, just because I feel like as a frontend developer I should know a little bit more about it.
[27:58] Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. And then I love the titles of your newsletter… Like, one being “I need my space…” [laughter] “A scientific approach to line height.” I was like “Sign me up for that.” Another one is “Are these colors contrasting enough?” And then like in parens “Probably not.” [laughter] Just all really great – how to pick a font. Or “Is it a typeface?”
Honestly, I don’t even know. I’m so embarrassed to say this –
I learned the difference in that newsletter, so yeah… [laughs]
I’m gonna just say “Thank you, Saron.” I’m so embarrassed. I don’t even know what the differences. Geez, you know?
Exactly. I love that one in particular, because it’s like, yeah, I never know what font to pick, o really – like, I can kind of tell you the difference between like serif and sans serif, and that’s it… But then like –or is it a typeface? And I’m like “What is the typeface?” [laughter]
And I think my favorite newsletter title has to be this one, which is like “When is tighter better? The art of letter spacing?” [laughter] I was like “Okay, Saron. I see you, I see you. I see you.” This fantastic. I mean, this is exactly the kind of like really focused – so first of all, in the information age, in the age of ChatGPT, good content is king, in the sense of that that’s the thing that really distinguishes newsletters… People want focused content from an authority that they can trust. And I feel like you “Check, check, check” on that front. So tell us, what’s that – so this is a new newsletter. I feel like we’re kind of catching you a little bit on the earlier side of your hockey stick, but you have had a decent amount of growth and traction so far. It’s been alright, yeah. It’s been just over a month… I think October 10 was the first release that we had. We have almost 850 subscribers at this point…
It’s a lot.
…which I think is good. Yeah, it’s so interesting, because we’ve been doing – with my marketing person, Areena, we’ve been doing a lot of research on what does growth look like in a newsletter? What are the different ways to get people to subscribe? Where do new subscribers come from etc. And what we have been reading about is that it is truly like all about social media. Like, if you aren’t able to activate a social media following, if you aren’t able to convert them, you’re just gonna have a hard time. That’s where a lot of new subscribers come from. And so what’s been really interesting is with the change in algorithm, it has affected my engagement and my reach so much, since Elon took over, frankly. It was so much easier…
Isn’t it crazy, though?
Yeah, I mean, people with 10,000 followers are having trouble getting likes, or people reading their tweets. I’m just so surprised, you know?
Yeah, I have 37,000 followers, which sounds amazing… And then when you look at my engagement – if I get more than seven retweets on a tweet, I’m having a great day. It’s just – it’s so hard. And I don’t feel like what I’m tweeting is that different. I don’t feel like I was tweeting things that were drastically different from… Well, now I’m just tweeting more design stuff. But even before that, it was – it’s really fascinating to figure out… So now I feel we’re playing this game of “What does the algorithm want? And what is the feed looking for?” And it’s a very – it’s a game I don’t want to play, but I kind of feel like I have to, because how else do you spread the word, you know what I mean?
It’s like the YouTube thumbnail problem. That thing where all the creators have to use the titles that they don’t like, and thumbnails that they don’t like, because they need to feed the algorithm; they know they need to feed the beast.
It’s so sad. It’s so sad. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah. And so I feel like there’s a formula out there for my newsletter, I just don’t know what the formula is. So just trying – and also just taking it… You know, I don’t find social media creation to be the fun part. Like, I really enjoy making the newsletter. I think it’s a lot of fun. It’s really interesting to do all this research, and it’s really fun to turn it into an issue, and I love the writing process… And another thing that I’ve been experimenting with recently is video. So taking – it’s really fascinating how you can take a newsletter that you spent 20 hours writing, and then you can convert it into like three 40-second videos.
Yeah, like really short. Yeah. And so we’ve been experimenting with those, and trying to see if that helps with reach, if that helps with retweets… And we’ve only done like two videos, so it’s still too early to see… But yeah, there’s a lot of just experimentation on figuring out how to grow that has been a lot more – a lot less straightforward than I thought it was gonna be. I thought “Hire a marketing person and then all of a sudden you’ll be fine.” But it’s been – and especially with newsletters, I think that the more people create newsletters, my suspicion is that the more… Not weary, but the more reluctant people are to sign up for new ones. And so I think that there’s – I think you really have to earn a subscriber these days, in a way that maybe you didn’t five years ago.
You do. I mean, you absolutely do. Yeah. Yes, this is fascinating, honestly. I mean, you’re hitting on so many interesting topics, like how to scale an audience in an ever-changing landscape where everything around you is shifting… I mean, that’s really challenging, especially when you’re already kind of trying to find your voice and find your audience in this new business. Like, that alone is challenging. But then not having a solid footing on the marketing front is tough. You have to play like Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. [laughter] Chief Marketing Officer, you know… You have to just be ready to pivot and do all kinds of things.
I also feel like developer Twitter has really gotten hit the hardest, because that’s the one I feel like really has bifurcated into Mastodon, and into Blue Sky, and the other ones as well. It’s just really tough.
Yeah, yeah. How are you dealing with that proliferation of social media? Because you have some audience that’s on TikTok, which has like a growing – like, tech TikTok is growing. And then you have Threads, which I think is like the serious Twitter now. Like, CNN will spend advertising dollars on Threads versus doing it on X. And then you have Blue Sky, which - I don’t even know it. How do you even get an invite to that thing? I don’t even frickin’ know.
I was on it, and then I got a new phone –
And you don’t care enough.
Yeah, that’s how I feel. [laughs]
I personally don’t care enough. I have no interest in finding out –
Yeah. I was excited when they first launched, and then I just really didn’t like my feed, and I just didn’t like what was being posted, and I was just kind of like “I don’t even want to be on here anymore.”
Same. But I love being able to use your domain name as your username. That’s the best.
Yeah, that’s really cool. That part’s really cool, yeah… Because I can just use just my first name, which is really exciting. But yeah, but they like logged me out – I think when they switched from staging to production or something, and then like I just never logged back in. I was like “Well, that was fun while it lasted…” But Mastodon, I just don’t understand. It’s just too much. I don’t even remember if I have a Mastodon account.
I mean, I think you’re just highlighting that the state of kind of social media as far as kind of like the “smart social media”, smart content, not just like Facebook posts - it’s kind of broken right now. I keep hoping that someone will come and fix it, but I don’t know if that’s coming… And so I think businesses have to just adapt to this new world… Which sucks. It’s like a hard pill to swallow.
But I’ll kind of share some insights for what Changelog does… So at Changelog we’re not going to try to get audiences to come to us, we’re just going to go to where the audiences are. So they’ll just like – “Okay, we’re gonna post our podcast, or we’ll post little snippets on YouTube, we’ll post them on TikTok, we’ll post them on Insta…” Which is kind of a lot of work, but I feel like there’s maybe an opportunity here to kind of have a company be that distributor. Somebody needs to sell the shovels in this broken world, and I feel like – somebody please create an app that works well, where you’re not going to get rate-limited, where you post once and post everywhere…
The app that – was it Ryan? Yeah, I think it was Ryan… The [unintelligible 00:36:32.20] that he created, where you send a woof, and [unintelligible 00:36:36.11] the same thing via like phone call, text message, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest… It just sends the same thing to all – and that was like his big idea. It didn’t go anywhere in the TV show, but maybe it’ll go somewhere now.
We need a Woof, don’t you think?
We need a Woof. [laughs]
But yeah, so getting back to kind of Not A Designer, and like this new problem that you’re solving - which, by the way, congrats. 850 subscribers is nothing to sleep at, within a month, in 2023 especially. So congrats. Also, the content is fantastic. So everyone listening, please subscribe; it’s a solid read.
So tell me, what’s the response been like from developers, that are just like “Okay, I’m having like an a-ha moment”?
Yeah, it’s been really good. The thing about newsletters that I’ve learned is that people are not in the habit of replying to a newsletter. So I say in my newsletter, “Tell me what you think, hit Reply” etc. But most people – like, I’ve had people who subscribed to the newsletter, and instead of replying in the newsletter, they’ll DM me, which I think is kind of funny… I’m like “You could just hit Reply. I read everything.” But they’ll DM me instead. But it’s sweet.
But no, I’ve gotten really good responses. I’ve gotten people who said “This is the stuff that I’ve always wondered about, that I never had a chance to learn, or didn’t get a chance to focus on. I’m leveling up.” But the two messages that really made me feel really good, like I was on the right track, were - one, in response to my color contrast issue that posted last week, I got an email from someone who’s colorblind. And he was just so thankful that I shone light on this issue and on this topic, that so many people kind of overlook, or don’t really value, or don’t know about. And he was like
“As a colorblind person, people implementing these changes, and people taking accessibility seriously impacts the way I use the internet, and impacts me day to day… And it’s really great that you’re doing that.” So that was really validating, just hearing someone from the community acknowledge it.
And then similarly, there is an accessibility engineer named Todd Libby on Twitter, and he was a really big help in me writing the accessibility issue. He recommended a couple tools for me that I checked out and incorporated in my issue. And I sent him the post afterwards, privately, just to say “How did I do? Did I do right by you?” And he was like “I’ll give it a 10 out of 10.” And it was really validating for him to say that as a newcomer who doesn’t know about accessibility, and learning it for the sake of writing the issue, that I did a good job with that topic, and that I addressed it well. So he gave me some really validating feedback, which was just really good to hear.
Yeah, congratulations, really…
You mentioned you approach this and teach it from the perspective of a student yourself. So I’m curious, do you have like a formula that you go through for these topics on like how you’re going to research and discover the proper things that you want to highlight in the articles?
Yeah, the research process is the longest process. I feel like if it’s researched well, then the writing comes easy. So the research process is very messy. It’s anywhere from 10 to 12 hours probably, on average of just researching… And that depends on the topic. I think the contrast one took a little bit more time, because I really wanted to make sure that I did a good job on that, and that just took a lot more. That one took a lot more experimentation, because I wanted to try out all the tools. I tried a bunch of accessibility tools and picked the ones that I thought would be easy for developers to use and implement.
[40:03] And so yeah, my research process is super-messy. I’ll start with a Google Doc and I’ll just copy and paste just little tidbits of information, with links of where they came from, into this really, really long Google Doc, until I kind of feel like I started forming a picture. And then I’ll kind of let my questions lead the research process.
For example, with the accessibility one, my first question was “What does low vision even mean?” I hear the term low vision, I don’t actually know what that means. What is that? So there’s a lot of research into visual impairments, and how low vision doesn’t mean one thing, it can mean a wide range of things; people can be impacted very differently, and low vision can mean different things to different people. So it was just a lot of just understanding the problem. And then it was “Okay, so contrast is one of the problems that people with low vision have. Okay, what does contrast even mean? What is a contrast ratio?” So then looking up what that means, and what those terms and definitions were, and then saying “Okay, but what does it look like?” Okay, sure, contrast is bad, but as someone who wears glasses, and that fixes my visual impairment, I don’t have an appreciation or understanding for what low contrast – like, how it would affect me; I just have no sense of that. And so I thought, if I’m able to show my readers what low contrast looks, that will be really powerful. So then I looked into simulators, and I spent a good chunk of time just looking up simulators… And that’s where Todd and another developer, Graham, came in handy and they pointed me to a couple of good resources.
And so a lot of it is just me coming up with questions, doing a lot of really, really messy research… And then at some point, maybe halfway through the research, I’ll start writing and I’ll start saying “Okay, here’s my starting point, as a developer. Here’s the question that’s kind of going through my mind. Let me start writing until I realize that I have another question that I need to research.” And then I’ll pause, go back to researching, and then I’ll fill in that blank, write out that piece, then I’ll find another gap in my knowledge, fill that, go back to writing… And just kind of like ping-ponging back and forth until the piece is done.
I love that. I mean, I feel like you’re just kind of doing the hard work that everyone’s too lazy to do. It’s another reason why everyone subscribe, because you’re –
It’s a shortcut.
It really is. It’s kind of like “Okay, well, I’m a developer, and I really should know about these things in order to kind of level up my ability to deliver, I would say, better software, and more accessible software, more just software… And then it would take me basically two weeks to do like a level-up on this one thing. But my cheat is to just like read Saron’s newsletter…” Because you’re approaching it from the perspective of a developer, these are all the questions that people have. People actually have these questions, and so it’s like “Okay, well, let’s go explore them, and then let me explain them to you in a language that you will understand. Let me use analogies that make sense to you.” So I really love it.
So hopefully – I can’t wait to see the hockey stick of Not A Designer continue… But what do you see as the end game for this platform? What’s the grand vision for Saron?
Yeah, so for me, the newsletter is an opportunity to understand what it takes to build a newsletter, and what it takes to be a content creator, and to use that information to build a product for content creators. That’s my end goal. And so I don’t plan on like monetizing Not A Designer, I don’t plan on creating a course, or anything like that… I am interested in partnering with other content creators. I reached out to a couple people who do have design courses, or who have written design books, and said “Hey, I would love to, for free, feature your work and kind of use your expertise to teach my subscribers things that and you know, and then in the process give you some extra views on your course and your book as well.” So I’m definitely interested in partnering with other content creators who might have paid products. But as far as Not A Designer, I plan for it to just – I plan to just keep writing and keep growing it, and just using it as an opportunity to figure out “How do you use social media to market it? How do you use different tools?”
[44:09] The world of social media is very interesting, because there’s a lot of really – there’s a lot of tools out there, there’s a ton, but there isn’t anything that we’ve seen that is particular to newsletter creators. And so that’s a space that we’ve been kind of focusing in on a little bit, is making it – like, we’ve tried using so many of the scheduling tools, so many of the AI writing tools, and figuring out what’s missing from those tools, what do we wish existed, and what could we possibly create that might be better, or at least serve our needs, and then figuring out “Would it serve the needs of other people?” And what would that look like? So those are kind of the things that we’re trying to figure out.
Given the state of everything, and kind of thinking about – GitHub Universe was just last week, Open AI had a big announcement… I’m curious if AI plays a role at all in content creation for you today, or if you see any plans for that, or how you approach that topic?
Positively or negatively, I’d be curious.
Positively or negatively. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. So I’m really fascinated by AI. My husband has actually – he’s chief AI officer at his startup, The Story Graph, which is a competitor to Goodreads; it’s the number one competitor to Goodreads. They have millions of people who use their app to help track their reading. So he’s been exposing me to a lot of AI stuff, a lot of machine learning, a lot of models, and he’s very excited to try out the latest and greatest, and he’s always keeping up to date with this information… So I get a lot of my news from him. But it’s the kind of thing where I’ve tried using it – I haven’t used it to create a newsletter, but I have tried it as to generate just other pieces of content. And what I’ve found is that it has actually been really helpful in creating our social media content. So we will feed it pieces of our newsletter, and give it a prompt, and try to get it to come up with tweets for us to schedule… And we’ll still modify it, we’ll still improve it and kind of –
Give it the human touch?
Give it that human touch.
A little human sprinkle, you know…
That’ll be like the new norm. It’ll be like “It’s not fully AI.” It reminds me of this famous artist who is a potter, and he makes these perfect pots from hand. Like, you don’t even think that a human being made them. They look like machine made. And then at the end, he’ll just put a thumb in it somewhere. He’ll just “ruin” it, and he’s like “Yeah, now it’s got the human touch.”
Now it’s human. Wow.
Now it’s human. Yeah. So I love that. So I feel like we need to kind of like – yeah, AI is just spits out this perfect thing, and then we need to kind of mess it up a little; give it that human flavor. Throw in some punctuation mistakes, and use
the wrong spelling for “here”, and “there”…
Yeah, use the wrong hashtag… [laughter]
Just, you know, something…
I haven’t been doing content creation with it or anything, but one thing that I’ve been using it for, somewhat day to day – not really day to day, but occasionally, is… Like, instead of just asking you to produce something for me, I kind of use it as a way to get around the blank slate that I’m looking at…
Yeah, I just use it as like “This is my end goal. Ask me a series of questions to stimulate my mind.” And then that kind of helps.
“Tell me a story that will make me want to do work.” [laughter]
That would be a good story.
That’s funny. It was funny, because – like I said, I have a marketing person that does social media for me, and I’ll review it and kind of give it a final stamp of approval… And to really appreciate that most people don’t have a marketing person and most are doing it for themselves, I said “Let me try doing my own social media for one issue and just see what that’s like.” It was the worst. I hated it so much. I couldn’t believe how much I hated it. Like, just the – because I’ve already done the work. You know what I mean? I’ve already done the work of writing this amazing issue, that I’m super-proud of… And now I had to like finagle it, and short-form it, and repurpose it… It was just such a chore, and I just hated doing it so much… That really, the way I see AI is using it as a really good first draft. I see it as a good “Just give me something to work with”, because it’s so much easier to edit social media content than it is to come up with it.
[48:27] And even with Areena now, she’ll present me some social media, and I’ll still end up like editing it a little bit, and kind of like freshening it up, or just making it a little bit closer to my voice… And so we used ChatGPT to come up with some of our initial drafts, and it’s just so much easier, and so much – just so much less painful to work with a first draft, even if it’s not a great first draft, than it is to start with a completely blank slate. So that’s kind of how I see the role of AI.
I can’t imagine using AI to write the newsletter. It’s too long, it’s too many pieces, it’s too complex… I just don’t see any time soon of that happening. I can see using it to come up with a title - which I haven’t done yet; maybe I should - to come up with a title, or like a subtitle…
I don’t know, Saron, your titles are pretty great.
We need those humans sprinkles…
Okay, okay, I’ll keep that one. But for social media it has been helpful.
Yeah, that’s great. It sounds like you’re using AI – I mean, firstly, the way I’ve been using it, but also, I feel like – not just because I’m doing it this way, but I do feel like it is the right way to use it. It is an accelerator, it is an enabler… It is not like a takeover. You know what I mean? And it should help us do more with less, especially for a startup such as yours. I mean, it’s not a startup, but it is a – I don’t know, what would you call this actually? An initiative sounds way too boring…
Content, I guess? Project? Yeah, project… I don’t know.
I think you’re building a community though, don’t you? …to some degree.
You know, that’s been the interesting part of figuring this out, is where does the community come in… Because I don’t think that newsletters are necessarily primed for community. I think that when people experience a newsletter, they feel like it’s very much a one-way communication tool, where they will consume that information and they just kind of go about their day. They’re not necessarily – it’s not like Twitter, where there’s a Favorite button right there, there’s a Retweet button right there, there’s a Reply button here… No one sees it. I’m the only one who sees it, so I think the readers don’t know who they are. They don’t know each other.
So community has been kind of a thing that I thought would be more organic, but really hasn’t been. It really has been a broadcast tool more so than it has been a “Let’s get together around this topic”, tool.
That makes sense. So I’ve always liked it when see folks integrate things into their blog, where they’re like “Discuss it”, and then their discussion basically is like a Twitter; it basically starts something on Twitter, you know what I mean? Or I remember back in the day there was that other one; it was like embedded comments that were –
Oh yeah, Disqus.
Remember Disqus? I really liked that. That was kind of pre social media, or early social media days that was popular. There’s something about wanting to talk about it. I get this way with film and television, especially when I nerd out about a show; I’m like “I need to talk about it”, so I will watch the deep-dives on YouTube, I’ll read the comments, I’ll go to Reddit… There is this “I want other people’s perspective on the thing that I just saw.” So I’d say, Saron, don’t fully write off community yet, is what I’m saying.
I think there’s a space there for people to want to say “Oh yeah, I love this newsletter. And what about this? And what about that?” And wanting to kind of have engagement and discussion with you.
[51:59] Yeah, I’m wondering if there’s a certain number of subscribers I have to reach before you get to that critical mass… Yeah, exactly.
I would say yes. Because JS Party, for example - we have tens of thousands of listeners, but the folks who we interact with on a week to week, our fan girls and boys and thems, they are the people that like – they’re not tens of thousands of people, it’s like dozens of people, for example. So it is one of those things where yeah, you might just need to just hit critical mass. I’m looking forward to you hitting that critical mass, hopefully.
Yeah. So it wouldn’t be fair for me to have you on this show and not double-click into entrepreneurship, because quite frankly, you are a serial entrepreneur, and I really do want to hear about those experiences from you… But I want to pass the mic to Nick. Nick, what do you want to know about Saron’s entrepreneurship? Or her serial entrepreneurship, I should say. I think we’re gonna see a lot of things from her, so…
Yeah, definitely. I don’t know, you’ve put me on the spot, Amal.
I know, I know, I’m sorry…
[laughs] This is another thing that’s kind of like the Not A Designer, my perspective on that, in that I feel like I should know more. I feel like I should know more about entrepreneurship.
Maybe that’s your next thing, Saron.
Not An Entrepreneur? Not A Founder? [laughter] Not A Founder… Ah, that’s a good one.
That’s a hockey stick right there, if I ever knew one… So think about it this way - so I’m fascinated by the fact that as engineers, we’re all kind of like one commit away from becoming an entrepreneur, in the sense that –
We do enable businesses. We are the shovels, we are the product, we’re everything. And so the fact that you can be 16 years old, be working out of your parents’ basement, and create something that millions of people can use… I mean, that’s the story that got me into tech, personally.
It was like the ability to kind of make a difference and be – you’re the only obstacle to yourself. Very different than other industries that require certifications, regulations, degrees networks, bla-bla-bla. There is some level of meritocracy in tech where if you’re good, you will make it.
You can’t be a 15-year-old surgeon…
Yeah, that’s true.
Exactly. For good reason. But yes, that’s exactly right, Nick. So it’s fascinating, in that sense we’re all budding entrepreneurs. Not everybody makes the leap… But you did. And so what was driver for you? What drove you to say “Yeah, I want to be on the driver’s seat and not on the creator’s seat”?
So for me, I feel like I’ve been completely brainwashed, to be honest, by YC, and startups, and venture capital, and just that whole world. And I feel like when I think about what is the most exciting, most interesting journey I could
have, I feel like the answer is entrepreneurship. I feel a huge amount of luck and privilege in being who I am, and being born to my parents, and being – because I’m an immigrant, right? I’m from Ethiopia, I was born there. And my dad literally won a literal lottery to come to the US. And then my mom and I followed a year later. And so a lot of my family is still back home.
My mom got her citizenship through a lottery as well. My mom studied here in the ‘80s, she was on a student visa, then we moved to Dubai, which is where I grew up… I was born in New York City, very thankful and blessed to be a first generation American… And yeah, my mom – when we were living in Dubai, she got her permanent – she won the lottery, and that’s how she became a citizen. So I know what that’s like, and it’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal. It’s life-changing.
[55:59] Yeah. And so I feel very – I feel this huge responsibility to make the most I can out of this opportunity. And I feel like the thing that has the most upside is starting a business. Like, if I think about the potential for accomplishment, for achievement, for success, for money, for influence, I feel like being a founder and building a really successful business is the ceiling. There’s no ceiling for what that could be. So even though it is the harder path, even though it is the riskier path, it feels like the one worth pursuing. And I think that a big part of that is just being an immigrant, and feeling like I really want to take advantage of the opportunities that my family didn’t have, my people growing up didn’t have, and just really wanting to make the most of the opportunities I have.
So well said. Yeah, I mean, I feel like we’ve got to wrap it there, because that was like the biggest mic drop, that I’m like “I don’t even know what we can –” What else we could say to top that? Maybe lessons learned. Lessons learned. How about this? We’ll close out with lessons learned. So dear Saron, what lessons have you learned from all the projects that you’ve worked on? And the hardest lessons to learn, I’m curious. The ones that – yeah, you didn’t expect to learn, but you did.
Yeah, the hardest lesson that I learned is that pre-orders don’t mean what they think you mean. That was probably the hardest lesson. I think that excitement over a product and solving a problem are two very different things. And for me, people saying “Oh, this is really cool. I would buy it”, or even – and that was the thing, because I knew not to expect much from people saying they would buy it. But I really thought that if they did buy it, that would mean something… But even that ended up being a false positive.
And so I think for me, the thing I’m really trying to focus on is how do I make people’s lives easier? How do I solve a problem? Versus “How do I get people excited about an idea?” Because excitement - it can be useful information, but it can also trick you into thinking something is going to work when it’s not. But I also do think that there’s part of it where there’s kind of only so much validation can get you at some point, and you do have to just build it and see. And I think the smaller you can build it, the better; the faster you can build it, the better; the fewer resources you can use, the less money you have to spend, the better. But ultimately, there’s nothing quite like giving people a chance to take you up on your offer, to see if what you have in your head actually makes sense, and if it’s going to work.
So well said. That’s like golden advice right there. One of my favorite songs in the world, it’s called The Sunscreen Song; we’ll link it in the show notes. There’s this line – it’s not really a song. It’s basically just like a guy talking to – there’s music in the background, but this is basically a speech. It’s like a speech to young people. And there’s this line about advice, and advice being like recycled nostalgia…
And so you should always kind of take it, in that sense… But it’s also like be careful about whose advice you take… And I take that very seriously, because it’s like, well, don’t take advice – for me, my rule, my personal rule is I don’t take criticism for people whose advice I wouldn’t take. So if I don’t take your advice, I’m not taking your criticisms. But I would say for you, I would take your advice, I would take your criticism… I will take it all, Saron, okay?
So thank you for sharing that priceless advice.
Nick, to put you on the spot again, any final thoughts or anything before we kind of wrap up here with our guest?
I’m just really excited about the work that you’re doing. I look forward to Not A Founder and learning from you… [laughter] But in the meantime, thank you for helping make me a better designer.
Yeah, legit. Legit. Alright, well, with that said, Saron, where can people follow you, get in touch with you? How do they subscribe to the newsletter? Tell us all the things.
Yeah, sure. So the subscribe to the newsletter, it’s notadesigner.io/subscribe. So feel free to check it out. You can check out our testimonials, and our past issues there, and see what we’re all about. And if you like what you see, we’d love to be able to share my contact with you and have you subscribe. As far as reaching me, my DMs are open. Twitter is the best way to reach me. It’s just my first and name last name, @saronyitbarek. That’s probably the best way to reach me. And it’s the same on pretty much all the socials, except Blue Sky, which I’m not really active on, but it’s just @saron on there. But yeah… And if you’re ever in San Diego and want to get coffee, feel free to ping me and I’ll meet up with you.
Yeah. Oh man, that’s a coffee date that I would love to be a fly on the wall for… Alright, well, Saron, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you for gracing us. Best of luck with this project and all your future project. I think it’s like a wild loop that we’re in right now…
A wild loop, I love that.
Yeah, and once you – whenever you do start Not A Founder, just remember, it started here first, everybody… Okay?
Gotcha. It started here first. Gotcha.
Just a little attribution line on the bottom, on the About page.
Okay. [laughter] Deal, deal.
Alright, everyone. That’s our show for this week. Thanks, Saron, and we’ll chat with you all next week. We’ve got a really exciting show. I’ll let Jerod tell you all about it, because I have no voice… Love you guys. Peace!
Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚