Changelog Interviews – Episode #577

Taking on Goliath

with Nadia Odunayo, Founder and CEO

All Episodes

This week on The Changelog we’re talking with Nadia Odunayo, founder of StoryGraph. Nadia started out as a one woman dev and product team — she’s had to adjust and maneuver along way to becoming the Amazon-free alternative to Goodreads.

We talk about the importance of customer research, the iterative nature of customer research and what it takes to synthesize and analyze the findings to guide product development, the technical challenges and learnings she faced while building StoryGraph, for example at several points they’ve faced challenges in handling an influx of users and had to re-architect the system. We also talk about the business model of StoryGraph and how they generate revenue through Plus subscriptions, and partnerships with publishers for book giveaways.



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Notes & Links

📝 Edit Notes


1 00:00 This week on The Changelog 01:33
2 01:33 Sponsor: Vercel 02:44
3 04:18 Start the show! 00:56
4 05:14 Goodbooks killer (alternative?) 04:54
5 10:08 The importance of customer research 05:46
6 15:53 Effective customer interviews 01:39
7 17:32 Open ended questions 06:09
8 23:41 You're doing this solo? 00:38
9 24:15 Close to everything 01:16
10 25:31 The growth story and challenges 09:53
11 35:24 Feeling stuck 02:33
12 38:10 Sponsor: CIQ / Rocky Linux 03:50
13 42:00 The business plan 05:11
14 47:13 Who's on "Plus" 00:37
15 47:44 Exploring the potential of book clubs 09:00
16 56:45 Active userbase and revenue streams 00:46
17 57:31 Finding the common problem 03:20
18 1:00:51 What's the best use of your time? 00:56
19 1:01:47 How to choose what to work on 05:47
20 1:07:34 Are you talking to your "Plus" users? 01:08
21 1:08:42 What does success look like? 02:14
22 1:10:55 Adam has an idea!! 05:23
23 1:16:34 Sponsor: Read Write Own 01:22
24 1:17:56 Do you want to be acquired? 10:22
25 1:28:18 What's the infra of StoryGraph? 10:08
26 1:38:26 Are you having fun? 04:56
27 1:43:22 Disrupting Oprah... 03:48
28 1:47:10 I would be SO motivated 03:02
29 1:50:12 Up next! 02:57


📝 Edit Transcript


Play the audio to listen along while you enjoy the transcript. 🎧

We’re here with Nadia Odunayo, founder and CEO of StoryGraph. Welcome to the show.

Thanks for having me.

We are excited to have you. Not just founder, not just CEO, but pretty much solo dev, right? One woman dev shop building this, what I will describe as like a Goodreads competitor, or… A killer? Let’s call it a killer, shall we? [laughter]

She wasn’t ready for that one.

She’s like “Whaaa…?”

But it sounds good. Let’s go with it.

We tend to say alternative. That’s the first time –


That’s because we’re being polite.

Yeah, very British of me.

Very British. This is a really cool thing… Before we get into the details, I like this idea – this might not be your idea, but I like it anyways… Which is, there are cool web products that people love, and then they have so much success that they eventually get purchased by big tech, and then over time people love them less. Let’s just say that that’s a trend… Of which Goodreads seems to be an instance of the trend. And I just feel like that’s a place where entrepreneurs can just look at that situation, and then be like “Hmm… What if there was something like this, but good again?” And you could have a bunch of founders just go after that. Like Just throwing that one out there. But let’s talk about you, let’s talk about StoryGraph. I’m just thinking, somebody should disrupt That’s my point there. But… Is that you were thinking with Goodreads? Like “Oh, I used to love Goodreads, and now I don’t anymore… And so let’s build something.”

It’s actually pretty funny, because it wasn’t like that at all.

At all? Okay…

In fact – okay, maybe “at all” is a bit far. Stretching it.

[06:18] Okay. Maybe a little bit like that, but mostly not.

A little bit. But I purposely, for a long time, I even fought the notion that I was building a Goodreads alternative… Mainly because when I first – so I had used Goodreads since 2012, and I loved it. There was a time where it was my favorite app. The thing is, I didn’t use a lot of – I was very simple with my usage. I found the book I was reading, I marked it, I added a star rating. I rarely even added text in my reviews. So for me, Goodreads did everything I needed. When I got into tech - so I went to a software bootcamp at the end of 2013… So as I was becoming a developer and getting more immersed in the tech world, I did start to notice, or think, “Wait a minute… Goodreads has not changed once since I’ve been using it.” You know, when you get into tech and you learn about how websites and apps are developed, and you notice with other products that you use “Oh, that’s a new design. That’s a new feature.” I would pay more attention to release notes, things like that. There was never anything with Goodreads. So I do remember thinking “It’s a bit strange that it’s not developed at all, especially since it’s owned by Amazon.” Like, I would think that, but I wasn’t angry about it, I wasn’t mad about it, because it did what I needed it to do.

And then fast-forward to 2019, when I started working on this product in earnest… Originally, it was just one of my side projects. And it wasn’t even a Goodreads alternative. It was a Goodreads companion app.

So I was hooking into the Goodreads API to basically create a nice dashboard of all of your shelves. And you could see your percent through of how much you’d read of each of the shelves. That’s what it was, because Goodreads didn’t do that. So it wasn’t even meant to be an alternative. But then when I started doing customer research, because I was having such a blast, and I was like “Oh, I’d love to build something in books full-time. Let me see if there is a need or a pain point”, all of the pain points I was getting from the people I was speaking to were all Goodreads-related. So now I’m putting together “What would I need to build?”, and it starts looking a little bit – originally, just a replacement of the recommendations portion, and then eventually a more fully-fledged alternative. But for the longest time, I told myself, especially because throughout the first year I was genuinely solo. My co-founder, Rob, hadn’t come into the picture yet. So I was genuinely solo. And I thought to myself “Don’t just change the project or product to be a Goodreads alternative”, for several reasons… One being it’s very easy to get intimidated by that, especially when I’ve got nothing right now, and it’s just me, and I’m building an alternative to an Amazon product, that’s huge and has dozens of developers, if not more… So that’s one. Two, it’s going to end up being very limiting for my product vision, because I would just end up looking at Goodreads and trying to do what they did, but better, which isn’t compelling enough.

And so I wanted to look at it as “I’m building a new product in the book space, for avid readers, or maybe to get people into reading”, and I will follow the pain points and see what comes out of that. And it wasn’t until we got to a certain size that it made sense to be like “We’re a Goodreads alternative.” Because at that point, it was like the core of the product. We had our niche, which was the moods and the pace, the core of the product had been fleshed out… And so at this point now we need to advertise ourselves as a Goodreads alternative, so that people see it and go “Oh yeah, I don’t like Goodreads. I’ll try this thing.”

[09:59] A lot of directions we can go there… Especially with the alternative section of it. I’m curious about the – and I do want to dive into that as well, but I’m curious about the customer research aspect… Because in the pre-call you mentioned you’d like to skip that part. And I know that I’m definitely one of those people, because I just want to get to the thing, right? I want to microwave this product into existence, and suddenly be hitting product-market fit, and being amazing, right? That’s what we all want. Can we get just get to the millions quickly…?

Yes. [laughs] Please.

And that’s not how it works. And sometimes, I think even with what we’ve done here with the Changelog over the years, we’ve just found our way by finding what we love about what we want to build. And we don’t know that until we talk to the people that we intend to serve. A product isn’t just simply you creating something and people are loving it. It’s you understand what they want, and giving them what they want. So how did you find out how to give them what they want?

So I was super-lucky in that my first and only real job in software was at Pivotal Labs. And so I worked there for a year and a half, and I met people who were at the top of their field in software engineering, but also product management and design. So from that, I had already picked up the importance of customer interviews, approaches to do customer research, things like that. So I already had a base there. And then I’d also read the standard – I’d read “The Lean Startup”, I’d read “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick… So I’d also read a few books that helped me be very cognizant of the need and importance of customer feedback and iterating on that, but also the pitfalls that people fall into.

So when I had that first week of working on my side project and loving it – oh, sorry. Also, before that, I’d also had experiences of when customer research was not done well in prior products… Or - I ran a business for a year and a bit before starting this, and I saw what happens when customer research isn’t made important, or when the whole team is not bought into that. And so I remember that when I was getting excited about building something in the book space, my first thing was “Stop, pause, gather everything you know about customer research. This has to be important.” Because the worst thing, especially because I didn’t have a full-time job, and I was just living off of my savings - I had five years of runway; at the point at which I started this I had four years of runway. So it was very vital that I didn’t waste my time. So from the beginning, I had to fight the urge to just build it, and hope that everyone would love it. So I immediately was like “Right, I need to do customer research.”

And the things that I knew then were a need to have a clear hypothesis of what I’m doing, I need to have a script, because a script is what stops you from going off on tangents, accidentally asking leading questions, things like that. You before you go into it that if you get the answers to your questions, then you’ll be able to figure out the results of your hypothesis. And I knew that I needed to have effective synthesis methods or a way to analyze what I’d heard.

And so my first round of research I did… The very first round was demoing actually the product that I’d already built… Which since then I very rarely do product demos and interviews now, because I just think it’s kind of leading; you’re showing someone something and you’re kind of like “Would you use this? Do you like this?” And actually, it’s very easy for people to just say “Yeah, sure. I would.” And actually I was like “That’s what basically happened in the first round of interviews I did.” And through my learnings from The Mom Test, I learned that that was people being polite, and actually I needed to put a product aside and just figure out pain points with avid readers.

[13:54] And so my first round of research was – well, I think it was just more a discovery phase of “Do avid readers have any pain points?” And after I’d interviewed about, I don’t know, five to six people or so, I was able to go through everything they said… I record all my interviews; I watch them back, I take out snapshots of thoughts, phrases, things like that, and group them into themes. And there was a key theme of “I don’t have one place to get consistent, high-quality recommendations. So then I take that piece and I think “What’s the next round?” And the next round is trying to figure out how people currently find books, or what are their current pain points with recommendations now? So then I do that round.

And then I basically get to the point, after doing a few rounds of – ultimately, people want to find books based on mood, sentiment, vibe, and there’s no way to do that. And it’s like, then I keep going until I get to the point where I’m like “Here’s a very basic feature set. And this basic feature set is people can key in the mood that they’re looking for, and then they get a book recommendation.” So I built that very basic version. And then I let people use it – I go back to the people I interviewed, I put it in front of them, and then a week later I book in calls with them again and I ask them, “Did you log into this app? Tell me more about –” So I just try and ask questions about their behavior, as opposed to “Did you like it?” Just really trying to basically treat it quite scientifically as much as possible.

And so it’s just through this iterative process of always having a hypothesis or a key question that I’m trying to answer, interviewing about five to eight people, synthesizing that, breaking down their learnings, and just using that to guide the next step, and just continually doing that - and I’ve continued to do that to this day - is a big factor of our success, in that we are building what people want.

Those questions you answered or asked seemed very open-ended, versus closed. Do you like it as yes or no? You can just get a yes, or a no, or some version of politeness, right? But if you say “Explain to me how you feel when you do x”, you get an explanation, not a yes or no. Which - even with a demo, I wondered if you felt like you were almost kind of selling it. Because you’re demoing it, it’s almost like “Would you use this?” That’s kind of damaging to the process, because they probably feel like you’re done, and you’re looking for users, not feedback… Unless that’s actually what you asked for. But the open-ended questions makes a lot of sense, because you’re gonna get a lot more from that, versus simply a yes or a no close-ended kind of question.

Yeah. So after that first interview with the demo, I’ve stopped doing demos. And I would say that the questions are – the power of having them be more open-ended. So I would say they’re kind of the middle ground between yes and no and completely open ending, like “How do you feel?” I guess it might be like “How would you describe this product?” Or “What’s your biggest pain point?” And they can say anything. I think that’s why when you do a synthesis, and you break down how did each person answer this question, and despite them saying, different things, if you can say “Wow, these three people ultimately said the same thing”, that’s a key insight. Because the question was open, and yet they all expressed a pain point with recommendations. You know what I mean? And that’s why you gravitate towards those things that a handful of people have all said the same thing, despite the question being very open.

With questions like those, small sample sizes, five to eight people per round… I was thinking like “How do you synthesize open-ended questions?” Because I have a similar situation, not on a product, but on a survey we do for Frontend Feud, where we’re trying to get open-ended questions. This is like Family Feud… So the question is like “How do you feel about AI?” Well, we want to be able to categorize those, and actually synthesize them down into groups. And we can’t put multiple choice, because that ruins the whole game. You have to guess what the audience was gonna say… And so it’s a text input, but I’m trying to Group By in MySQL query eventually… And that’s difficult.

[18:12] And so I’ve learned tricks, like say “In a word, how do you feel about this?” And now they’re gonna give me one word, and I can actually work with that better. But this is a sample size of 100 to 200 people. And with five to eight, I think you can just read them, and in your brain be like “These are actually saying the same thing”, so you don’t have to actually do any data normalization. But I wonder how you handle biases in participants? Is it always somebody new? I mean, because if you’re asking the same person, they’re the easiest person to go back to, because they already know the process, and maybe they provide a good feedback… How do you handle that? Because small groups – especially when you’re starting, there’s very few users, or it’s all your friends… This is the hard part with questions like “Would you use this?”, because your friends want to have your back and be like “Of course I would”, but that may or may not be true. How do you deal with that?

Yes… That’s actually a key part of the process, which I neglected to mention… Part of when you’re setting up a round is also deciding who I’m interviewing; what qualifies them. The first rounds were just friends, people I knew. But to mix it up a bit, I also cold DM-ed book bloggers from Instagram, just to have some strangers, and things like that. So I did that. So the earliest rounds were a mix of friends and strangers from the books community. So that was kind of adding some variety.

Plus maybe a little grassroots marketing, right? You get some enthusiasts to know about the StoryGraph through that.

Yes. And then I had people obviously following the account as well, which I was just building up… And again, no product. I was just posting my own book reviews of what I was reading, and then DMing people, saying “I’m actually working on a product.” There was a lot of that in the early days, lots of Twitter and Instagram DMs. So that’s one. But then I also had this landing page up, where I said “We’re building a tool for avid readers”, and I put a subtitle being like “If you read 52 books a year, and you’re interested in this, put your email here.” And the reason why I said that is because I thought the longest I’d want to wait for feedback on anything, like a recommendation, is a week. So if I’m getting someone who’s reading 52 books a year, if I recommend a book to them, they’ll hopefully read it in a week, and then I can interview them, or just check in, send them a survey, “Was this actually a good recommendation?”, to see if the product was working.

Since we’ve been bigger, depending on the research round, I have different criteria for who I want to interview. So for example, there was one point where I felt stuck in product development, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. But I was seeing now and again people tweeting and saying things like “Oh, I love StoryGraph, I use it every day.” And we have not built the app to be used every day. So I was like “What is it about these people who use it every day? What is StoryGraph doing for them? What are their behaviors that make them use it every day? And can we use that to learn about what are the most compelling parts of the app?” And so I just did a tweets and Instagram post saying “We’re looking for people who log into the app at least once a day.” And that was that.

At the end of 2022, I was doing a big redesign. And so now I need to make sure that the redesign works across desktop and mobile, but also, I needed to make sure that it handled all of our common UX pain points that made people drop off or struggle to use it, but also didn’t upset the people who were happily using it, and had a great time. So I actually had six cohorts, and it was across… The matrix was desktop and mobile; predominantly desktop, predominantly mobile. And then it was “Use it very happy, no issues”, “Use it, but struggle”, “Stopped using it because I couldn’t figure out the UX.”

[21:56] So I had six groups, and I sent out a Google form. And I put that everywhere. I put that on Instagram, I put that on Twitter, I put that in my newsletter… And so then when I was sorting out my research rounds, I would just filter that and be like “Right, I’m trying to test the mobile design now. So mobile etc.” And we made sure that basically, by the time we implemented the design, it had passed the research rounds for all those categories.

So a key, key part of customer research is talking to the right people. And also, another thing is at the beginning of my scripts I always start by saying “I’m doing a customer research. And for this round, I’m speaking to *insert identity here*”, because it always gives the person a chance to go “That’s not me.” So in case for any reason they click the wrong box or whatever, it’s just like a no.

I sometimes get people reply to my asks and say “I don’t use the app every day, but I would love to talk with you for half an hour.” And I’m like “Yeah, I’m sure you would… No.” [laughs] Because I really stress, “This is who you must be.” I haven’t actually had a case of someone yet book in and say “Oh, I’m not that person, but I want to talk to you”, but I have had people email to check, to be like, “I’m not that person, but can I?” And I’m like “No, that’s very not useful to me.” And I will end an interview – actually, I think I have ended an interview maybe once or twice where it’s kind of been “Oh, I don’t think this will be valuable for either of us.” So I rarely interview the same person twice, unless they’re part of a specific – I had specific, very structured alpha and beta rounds. But beyond that, it’s always different people.

Mm-hm. You’re doing all this yourself?

Mostly. More recently, I have Abi, who works for us part-time. I kind of taught her or showed her how I did my synthesis, and kind of passed that onto her. So she has been helping me with the synthesis now, but I still do all the interviews… And I’m probably at the point where – especially because it is a script, I will probably get to the point where I’ll be able to hand that off to Abi, but there’s no need right now. And I think, as I’m the dev, it’s working very well for us that I’m so close to our customers and so close to the research.

And so close to the social media, and so close to… Everything. You’re very close to everything.

[laughs] Yeah. I’m Instagram and Twitter, and the funniest comments I get – or I get comments in Apple, the Play Store reviews, and it will be people like “The founder’s so nice. Sometimes she comes on Instagram and does an Instagram story.” And it’s always me, it’s just that sometimes I’ll do a video, and I’m gonna be like “Hi, everyone. What’s happening?” But it’s always me.

The other funny thing in the dev side is people who assume I’m like just a social media person, and they’ll say something, and they’ll say “Pass this onto your dev team.” But they’ll talk at me, and they’ll often be a dev themselves, and then they’ll try and explain something to me as in “This person probably will not understand what I’m saying. So let me explain it very clearly and slowly, so that then they can pass it on to the dev team.” Or they’ll say, “Can you pass me on to someone who can explain this thing?” And I’ll be like “Oh, I can explain it, because I’ve built it. So go ahead.” And they’re always very surprised.

Well, it is surprising to have one person do all that, that’s for sure.

Oh, it is.

Yeah, for sure.

How long have you been doing it, and how often do you do it? And tell us a little bit about the growth story, because this started as a side project; it seems like very successful growth So far. I mean, many of us solo devs are probably envious of the traction that you’ve gotten, because it’s enviable. Tell the folks how it’s been going.

Yeah. So I started this - 2019 was that year where it was a side project. So I entered January of 2019 with four years of runway… And I’d always been entrepreneurial, and always wanted to do my own thing. And I was coming off the back of two failed co-founder partnerships… So I was like “I’m just gonna code by myself. I don’t need anybody. I have runway, I don’t need to get a job. I’m just gonna build stuff.”

[26:16] And so I just started working on that. I explained how I got to the point where I was like “Right, this is interesting to me.” That was the founder-product fit side. So I got the founder-product fit very early, and that’s what made me say “Let me do customer research properly. Let me start up an Instagram account. Let me see what I can do here.”

So after three months of just customer research, so after I first showed that demo to people, and I thought “You can’t be showing a demo to people. You need to do this properly”, I put the product away, I spent three months doing customer research; that was just talking to people. And I got to the point where I said “Okay, I have enough to build an alpha.” And the alpha was literally just a personal recommendation service. And so it was a whole basic Rails app, but all it was was really sending emails to me, and I would like send emails back, essentially.


So someone would fill out a form, and it’d be like “Your recommendation will come soon.” I’d get an email saying “This person needs a book that fits this, this, this.” I’d spend however long it took trying to find a unique find, and then I would do something in Rails admin, or on the console or something, to just generate an email, being like “Your recommendation is ready.” No, actually, I think I had a backend in the app where I would put it in, and then it would send an email to them to check for their recommendation…

So that was that. And then I did that for about a month or two, and then I felt like I had exhausted all of my learnings from the alpha. And here’s the thing - remember how I said I was looking for people who read a book a week, because then they would read the recommendation? Well, what happened? I check in with the people and they’d say “The recommendation you gave me looks great. Unfortunately, I’ve got to finish the book I’m reading right now, and then I’ve got this stack by my bedside table” tc. And that’s when the pain point transitioned from “I need a recommendation” to “How do I know what to pick up next? Because actually, I do have a lot of choice, and I want to make sure that I’m always picking up the next best book for me.” And that’s when I realized “Okay, I need to build a more fully-fleshed-out app”, because just the recommendation service on its own is not going to stand… Because people - they get the recommendation, but they’re not going to read it for months. And really, they need help getting through that pile that’s been sitting by their bed for months and months.

So that’s when I spent a couple months just heads down building a beta. Still just me, completely solo. And at the same time that I said “I’m going to start building a beta”, I started a newsletter. Because my worry was I’m going to spend two months building a more fully-fleshed-out product, and I’m not going to talk to anyone, and I’m going to lose all the momentum from all the people I’ve spoken to over the last nine months… And I also don’t want to build something and then have nobody ready to try it when it’s ready. So I started a newsletter, and it was 100 people who I’d basically interviewed, or had heard of the product, or something like that… And I just started sending a weekly – it was like a weekly… As one of my friends said, “It’s like it’s your weekly stand up, and you are just like sending out the email, because it’s just you doing the stand up.” And I was like “Yeah, it’s holding me accountable, but it wasn’t keeping up momentum.” Like “This is what I’m doing this week.” And also, it was a bit like “I have to send this email every Monday. I can’t get to next Monday and have done nothing.” So it really kept me accountable to just keep doing stuff each week, so I had something interesting to say.

So two months, launched the beta, and that was just general, like, sharing it on Twitter, things like that. We got to 100 users at the beginning of Jan 2020. Then I was talking about it more… Some Bookstagrammers got started talking about it more… When I say Bookstagrammers, it’s the term of like book bloggers on Instagram. It’s called Bookstagram.

[30:04] Bookstagram?

Yeah. And so Bookstagrammers would talk about it. And we got to 1,000 users in June of 2020. Also, we’re in the midst of a pandemic; there’s a whole story there. I live alone as well, so there’s a whole piece of like going through this product, growing and growing, and just like in the midst of a pandemic stuck in my flat, just doing this thing. Actually, you know what? It was actually – obviously, the pandemic was not great. I don’t wish that we had a pandemic. But it worked out really well for me, in terms of that I didn’t have to – I listened to a lot of “How I built this”, and you always hear stories of people saying “I became such a bad friend. I missed weddings, I missed parties, I canceled late all the time…” And that really – even though I’d never had any sort of success like that, it really freaked me out, because I pride myself in being super-reliable; I’m always there, I’m always on time… And the thought of “Would I ever have a product that meant that I would cancel on people, or be flaky, or whatever? I hope not.” But we did all of our exploding in 2020. Some of the biggest parts – lots of it was in 2020. There was nobody to cancel on, no being out and pager duties going off… I didn’t have to deal with that, which was nice. I didn’t have to let anybody down, or anything like that.

So what happened was mid-2020 there were some viral tweets… And it was funny, because the people who tweeted weren’t anybody famous or well known; they literally have about 200 followers. But the tweets just hit, they just resonated with a bunch of people… Because essentially, they were calling out a bunch of factors. The main tweet that kicked everything off - it essentially like hit on a key points that were very salient at that time. So one was it appealed to the book Twitter community. So it was calling out to book Twitter. And it basically spoke about “We all hate Goodreads. It’s so annoying.” And it said that there’s a great independent alternative.

It referenced the fact that it was run by a black woman, which - this was like a week after George Floyd’s murder… So at this time, there was this big push to support black creators… So that was mentioned, and that was jumped on. And then also, it was mentioned the fact that Goodreads owned Amazon. And at the time, in the pandemic, there was a lot of anti-Amazon sentiment, because I think Amazon’s profits had been released or something, and everyone was struggling in the pandemic, and it was like “Ah, look, Jeff Bezos is still rich, and getting richer.” And in general, in publishing, there was a lot of anti-Amazon sentiment, because they have a monopoly on huge swathes of the industry.

So this one tweet, which had all of this packed in, just exploded, and we had thousands of likes and retweets. And I’m minding my business, cracking on with some code, and I see these emails coming in… Because back then, I got an email every time somebody signed up and kicked off a Goodreads import. So at the time, the maximum we’d ever had was eight… And I’m seeing eight emails, dozens of emails coming in… I’m like “What’s going on?” Going to Twitter, seeing what’s going on… This system was not made to handle more than about eight at a time. And it was actually – with over three days, we got tens of thousands.

And the other thing was that the email said “Your Goodreads import is underway.” But to 20,000 people, this was a lie. 20,000 people going email, saying “Your Goodreads import is underway.” It was not underway. It was in a Sidekiq queue, and I – this was the first time I had to deal with a Sidekiq queue that had… The queue never had anything in it.


And now it had –

Lots of stuff in it.

[33:54] 18,000-20,000 things in it. Oh…! So we also had to stop the imports. At this point, my co-founder, Rob, had joined me, and we had to stop the imports, because we needed to rearchitect everything. He was managing some servers on his side, so he needed to rearchitect all of that. I just needed to sort out my code, because it was not ready to handle lots of – it just wasn’t performant. I can’t even remember some of the stuff I was doing. But some of the loops - it just was not ready for this scale. So that was that. And it took two weeks to get the app back up and running again. But from that time, we just kept on growing by at least 1,000 users each day, signups…

And then since that time - so that was 2020; so from middle 2020 to now, essentially it’s been steady growth, with the odd spike when some social media, especially a book influencer, makes a YouTube video about us, or a TikTok pops off… And then we’ve had the odd media… So we had an article in the New Statesman, which is a newspaper over here. The headline was “Why Goodreads is bad for books”, and so we were mentioned as an up and coming alternative; that brought in thousands of users. And yeah, we’ve just been steadily growing since then, and behind the scenes I’m still sticking with my customer research-focused approach.

Love it.

That’s intense. Very intense. The queue would have – it would have crushed me.

You just said something that reminded me of a point I wanted to hit on… When you asked me the last question, you said “I was in an enviable position.” And actually, there’s a key part of this story… So I always felt was entrepreneurial, and I always wanted to have something successful. And I remember, following all the indie developer forums and things, I was like “I need to start a b2b company, because that’s how I’m gonna make money fast. I can start charging from day one…” It suits not getting venture capital… There was a time in my past where I was all about – when I was younger, I was all about “Yeah, VC, venture capitals…” And then over the years, reading more about it and seeing certain stories, and just understanding more about that world, realizing that’s not the type of company I wanted to build… So I was like “b2b is the way.” And so I always thought I fell into a b2c company. Because a freemium b2c company used by millions of users is not what you want as a solo dev who doesn’t want funding. It’s just not what you want. And I remember when we had that first initial spike, when we had those tweets, we had all these tens of thousands of users try to use it, I felt stuck for a while. I didn’t know what to do. I just didn’t know what to do with my code, and I was worried… And I remember – I had to take a step away from my computer, I remember going into my dark bathroom, and like sitting in there, and literally saying “I thought I wanted this… I don’t want this.” And also saying to myself “Is this it? Are you going to die now, because you actually got the users you wanted, and you can’t handle it, so the other product dies?” And also, I always say that I never actually said this, but I felt like it was on the tip of my tongue, to just be like “Oh, I can’t do this.” But I wouldn’t allow myself to actually say it. So I remember saying “Nope, that’s not you. You’re not gonna say that. You’re gonna get out of this bathroom and you’re gonna go back at your desk and you’re gonna fix it.” But for a while, there was a period of time where I thought “I don’t want this. This is awful.” [laughter] “How do I end up in this situation where I’m building a company that’s not making me any money? …so I can’t survive like this, and I don’t want to get VC funding.” And I felt like I was trapped in it. And we’re all profitable now, which is great… But for years though, especially as it was growing, I was like “I feel like I’m stuck. What am I going to do? Because my money is going down, and the costs are going up…”


Break: [37:58]

Did you have a business plan though? I think you have alluded to quite well that you’ve had a product plan…

And a product plan is not a business plan. So did you think about the business while building the product?

I did. I did think about the business while building the product. And pre-building the product, my plan was always “Oh–” Because I was still like “How can I make this b2b somehow?” So I said “Oh, what I’m going to do is publishers - I’m going to give publishers a platform to connect to their readers, so they would have a space on the app.” And also, maybe there’s a way that I can do these reports, like these industry reports or reader reports, where it’s like all anonymized data, but publishers can see trends of “Everyone is looking for a dark fantasy romance. Commission more dark fantasy romance books”, and things like that, like insights. And because we have the moods, which no one else had, we would have different insights, unique insights to specific things that people were looking for.

But two things. One is I wanted to kind of avoid anything that was user data, even though it would have been anonymized, and would have been more trends… But two, I had a chat with a friend, a colleague, kind of sometimes mentor, [unintelligible 00:43:38.21] and he said to me “The best businesses always make money or get value directly from their customers. They don’t have a middle person, a middle entity. And if you’re going down this publisher plan, you’re gonna have a middle entity. It’s not direct.”

Oh, sorry, the other thing is I didn’t want to do ads. That was another thing. If I could avoid ads, that would be great. One of the things that people hated on Goodreads were the ads. So I was thinking “Okay, maybe it’s freemium then.” And so really, the thing that made us start to build out the paid plan was just our costs. We were spending thousands of dollars a month to keep everything running on the highest Heroku plans… And the database - every time we had a spike, we needed to upgrade to the next database. We were getting to the highest tier. What happens when the highest tier runs out? What do we do? And it felt like every time we got an influx of users, our costs went up, so we needed to do something about it.

And so that’s when I just made up a paid plan. Like, I literally made a page… It didn’t exist. I said the “Plus plan coming.” At this point it would have been 2022 – it was in 2021. Oh, wow. I’m like, is it 2021 or 2022? It must have been 2021, because we became profitable in 2022. So in 2020, at the end of 2020, October, I made a page, that And I said, “Hm…” And I went through and I looked at the features we had, and I thought “How can we enhance these?” Okay, similar books… We’re gonna give you personalized similar books. So you have a unique page just for you, that takes into account your unique preferences, your unique themes, topics and tropes that you’ve told us you liked, and shows you the books similar to this one, but also highlighting the ones that have the things that you like. Cool.

And then it was stats. Everyone loves the stats, but what if you could compare two of the stats pages side by side? So I was just taking the features we had, and just like made up a list of features. And then I said “We’re also going to have a public roadmap on which you can vote, and post. You’re going to get priority support, so we’re gonna [unintelligible 00:45:53.27] And I said, “Pre-order now, it’s $30. After that is $50 [unintelligible 00:45:58.24] And we got over like three months, we got 1,400 pre-orders. 1,400 people paid $30 for something that didn’t exist.

[46:12] So then it got to the point where I said “Okay, well, we have to build this thing now, because I don’t wanna give all this money back. We have to build it.” And so I spent a month building it. I remember – because we had January, which was a big – January of 2021 we hit 100,000 users… And then I remember saying – I told these people, early 2021… I don’t want people starting to get mad and say “When is this coming out?” So I just changed it to say February 2021 [unintelligible 00:46:41.19] And it came out. It’s funny, I was up – that February was wild. But it came out. It was March 1st in the UK, but for most of America it was February 28 or 29th. I can’t remember.

There you go. It was February somewhere.

It was February somewhere. That was the title of that week’s newsletter.

Oh, nice.

So the next week’s newsletter, “It was February somewhere.” That was what it said. [laughter]

Love it. Love it.

That’s awesome.

What percentage of your user base is on Plus?

A small percentage. I’m saying “Um”, because we’ve just had a big spike, and I haven’t done the math again… But normally, it’s less than 1%. I think 0.01%, or something. We have right now 10.5k Plus users, and 2.3 million, almost 2.4 million registered users. So it’s like - what’s that? Like, 0,0…

It’s small.

You mentioned businesses, though… And the next best thing to a b2c would be a b2g, business to group, right? Like, book clubs are super-popular. And a team of people paying X dollars a month is totally plausible, because they’re buying wine, they’re hanging out, it’s groups… How does Plus factor into book clubs? Those are super-popular. I had to message my wife, because my wife is a book club leader. She’s very good at it, and she’s got some serious friend groups from book clubs. And so I said “Hey, have you heard about this, babe?” And she’s like “No.” So asked her for some feedback, and I could share that with you in this call… But I’m curious what you think about b2g, business to group kind of thing. I think you have a book club feature, but how fleshed out is it? Oh, my gosh… You laughed.

Yeah, I’m triggered right now…

It’s a fake feature. Is it a fake feature?

No, I’m [unintelligible 00:48:41.02] because book clubs were meant to be out by December 31st of… 2023. My years are a mess.


So they didn’t come out. So I said “They’ll come out in the first week of January.” We had a wild January. Two weeks of downtime, we couldn’t handle the demand… There’s a whole thing there. We had to rearchitect a bunch of things, and we still have some plans for rearchitecting how our database works. I don’t think we’ll have time to get into that in this conversation, but… So I have only recently been able to pick up book clubs again.

I think in one of the ideas that I was throwing around there was a plan that – essentially, I felt that Plus users would be able to host book clubs. And my thinking was that – I didn’t think you could have a model where every member would pay for a book club, because people can run book clubs for free on several other platforms. But I thought “Oh, if we have it such that Plus members could host book clubs, that would be great.” However, my customer research revealed to me a few things. And this is customer research of people who use Plus, customer research of people who have book clubs… All these things. And what I learned was Plus is not working. We have product-market fit with the free product, we do not have product-market fit at the moment with Plus. Why? Because today, two years later, the Plus plan is still that grab bag of features that I made up. And so what happens is most people who take up the Plus plan, it’s because they want to just support an independent alternative to Goodreads… And they probably have one of the eight features that they use. And most of them gravitate towards the stats features.

[50:28] And so I did this whole customer research and I said “We need to completely change how the Plus plan looks.” So I’m currently in – I say currently… It’s been on pause for a while, but I should be picking it up in February… I’m currently in the process of completely changing the Plus plan to be an advanced stats plan. So all it’s going to have is going to be just all the extra charts; you’re going to be able to create your own charts… Because I discovered through my research that the power users are the ones that care about the stats. They have their own Excel spreadsheets.

Separate to that, I’ve been doing customer research with book club people, but also just thinking about the vision for the product and what works well. And it’s far better, because there are a bunch of features within the Plus plan right now around buddy-read book suggestions, where you can put in the user names of people that you want to read a book with, and we have a machine learning thing that will tell you the best books to read for this group, which - obviously that will be included in our book club feature. Those features, in terms of like network effects - it’s better that those are free, and that actually more people can use them and come on board… And then maybe the power users in the group, or the ones that care about stats, might upgrade their accounts to Plus… But now, the group – and no one’s stopped from joining. Because the other thing I realized is that with that Plus plan, someone might be into stats; someone else is into running a book club. Someone else is into running a buddy read, or whatever it is. So I definitely need to separate out the identity – the identity of the Plus user is going to be the advanced stats power user, and then book clubs, buddy reads, read-alongs, all our social features, you can opt in; it’s all free. If you’re a Plus user, you will get advanced extra stats, insights into any of the things you do. That’s going to be the core of Plus, but it will be free to run your groups. And I had to change the estimate to end of January, but it’s 31st of January. There’s a reason I chose to do this interview on the 31st of January in my evening. I thought by this point I have everything done that I wanted to get done. It’s still not done…!

Oh, no…!

So you’ll have to check it out again when book club’s out. [laughter]

I’m sure she will. The one thing she did say though was that “Goodreads–” And my wife is a designer; an interface designer even. She says “Goodreads has a terrible UI. It’s clunky and not very intuitive.” She says “We’d like to make a group in Goodreads and then suggest books to each other. I like AI, but I still like people, too.” So I know that a lot of things that she does is around this group of folks she’s with, and they’re always talking about what book’s coming next… Which is like core to the help you give to an individual, but then you kind of move that to a group.

I mean, I’m not designing your business, but I just think there’s maybe some fruit there with – because groups tend to be more invested, right? An individual will just be - not so much not invested, but groups tend to invest further, emotionally, into a product, and be daily active users, or at least monthly active if they’re a monthly book club. And she’s been doing this for multiple, multiple years. Like, these friendships are deep, and they are super-meaningful to her, and being a leader of this group is super-important to her… Because it’s her friends. It’s not just people, it’s her girlfriends. And so I just wonder how much deeper you can go there, if that’s where the crux of the business is.

[54:04] I don’t know in terms of – oh, sorry… Something I didn’t mention - when I did my customer interviews with the book club hosts, I asked money questions, to say “What do you spend money on? Are there any membership fees? Do you pay for the tool that you currently use?” And basically, there’s nothing there. That’s not to say that there won’t be something in the future, but I think that I’m trying to focus on kind of what you said, which is giving people a digital space to host their book club, which is an all-in-one solution.

For example, I’m so excited for the – when I did my research round… Normally, I mentioned how I speak to very specific groups of people, but this time on Instagram and Twitter I asked for anyone who wants a book club, and I asked them to tell me “Is it remote or in-person? How regularly do you meet? Is there a theme or not?” And then I said to Abi, “Can you go through and choose ten people who are as different as possible?” So I want small, remotes, large, in-person… And I wanted to start there, because I said to myself, it might not be possible, but if based on these interviews, and interviewing wildly disparate styles of book club groups, if I can build a feature that helps all of these, then that would be awesome.

So I have developed a feature set that will cater to whether it’s an in-person, whether it’s a hybrid, whether it’s virtual, in that you’re going to basically be able to invite people, you’re going to be able to have StoryGraph help suggest books for the poll, to have the community vote on what shall we read next… But also, the host can just choose if that’s how they currently do it. You’re going to be able to have an agenda where you can add photos from the meeting; you’re going to be able to add links, and everyone’s rating will show up, and all that kind of stuff. Then that will be fed into having this journal, this digital journal that has the history of all your meetings, what was said, the photos, whatever. So it’s like a digital journal. You’ll also have a leaderboard for your club, where it’s like “Oh, these are the top ten books that we’ve ever read.” So even if someone joins, they can go back and say “Oh, this is what this club likes. Let me go and read these in the times when I’m not reading the book club pics.” You know, just so that you have that history as well. And we want to look into actually being able to host the meetings on the app for the digital ones as well. So basically just having this one space. So we are really looking at trying to create a space where people feel like “Ah, finally, my book club has a home on StoryGraph.”

You said you have 2 million users?

Registered users.

What’s the activity of those 2.4? Is it like half of them are pretty active, a quarter of them are pretty active?

I need to review it. Around this time it’s really hard, because we have this spike, and it kind of needs to settle down again to see where we even out… But historically, we tend to fluctuate between 25% to a third typically are active. And we look at monthly active users, because most people read a book on average a month… And we look at checking [unintelligible 00:57:14.07] doing something to a book in a library… I have a list of key actions that classifies you as active. And so we typically have about a quarter to a third active users.

Well, as I was sharing with you about this whole business to group idea, I was biting my tongue because I’m like “Gosh, there’s 2.4 million people that have a problem, that have already given you their opt-in. Why just focus on the groups in terms of like discovering your value to that many?” Because you obviously have a value to individuals. I mean, with that many users, what problem do they all have? Versus just the groups who decide to meet together and share their fascination with their books. A lot of people are just like introverts, and don’t share – aside from the folks that are blogging about it, or Bookstagrammers etc, they’re the ones that are sort of being extroverts with their process and what they read.

[58:12] You probably have a lot of people who are just like “I just want to organize how I read better, and have my own personal journey, not my collective journey.” So I was kind of biting my tongue on suggesting that you should dig into groups, when it could be more just like “You’ve got 2.4 million… What do they all have in common in terms of a problem that they would pay to solve?”

And there’s two in this. One point is to say “We haven’t yet done this transition that I believe will accelerate the adoption of Plus.” So I feel the reason why the adoption of Plus – right now what you see people saying is “I don’t even need to get Plus, because the free product does everything I want, and it’s this grab bag of features that adds little enhancements to a whole range of features”, of which most people are not interested in all of them. And so what I’m curious to see is when we transition it to - you can literally create your own charts, you can create your own… Let’s see what adoption looks like them.

But we also have another revenue stream, which is giveaways. So publishers and authors pay to list competitions for their books on the app. And we’ve got two tiers there. We’ve got a standard tier and a premium tier. And with the premium tier, your book is on the homepage, and there’s a link – everywhere your book shows up, there’s a clear, gold link of like [unintelligible 00:59:28.29] and things like that; there’s extra features. You can get a custom notification, so you can – because you would have like tens of thousands of entries, so when the giveaway ends, your personalized message gets sent to all of those entries… And essentially, this is a win-win-win, because it’s a win for the publishers and authors, because they essentially have a way to advertise their books to our community, millions of users… It’s a win for the users, because to them it’s not really ads, it’s a chance to win free books. And then it’s a win for us, because it’s another revenue stream. And right now we’re getting more revenue from Plus, but I do see a world where, depending on how it goes, the giveaways overtakes that. We’ll have to see; it’s hard to tell right now. But we do have that other revenue stream, which is our kind of b2b kind of –

Do you know how many users Goodreads has?

It’s rumored around 80 to 90 million, I believe.

So I was doing the math… 10.5k on 2.4 million is 0.4%. Do you know what typical is on freemium? I would expect 1% in terms of upgraders.

It is about 2%, or something. In terms of converting?

Yeah, like a typical conversion – I feel like 0.4% is low.

Yeah, it’s low. You’re looking at 2% to 5%, or something like that. I think that’s the standard rate.

Yeah. I’m just over you’re thinking what’s the best use of your time - cranking that percent up, or just trying to get to 80-90 million? Because a small conversion rate on 80-90 million is still a lot of money, or converting that rate… Obviously, we can walk and chew gum at the same time, but if you’re a solo dev, you kind of can’t, right? You’re working on one feature or the other.

Yeah. And our intention is to keep the team small, because it has a lot of benefits… Because the other thing is what 80-90 million users look like in terms of customer support, in terms of… You know what I mean?

Right. Cost. Operation.

Mm-hm. So there’s that to keep in mind. I would hope that part of the reason why we can – if we could grow to 80 to 90 million it’s because a lot of the UX pain points have been sorted out, everything’s super-intuitive, we’ve got a very helpful help base or whatever… Things like that. So it’s hard to tell.

Yeah. So how do you pick on what to work on then? How do you choose?

[01:01:50.27] I’m currently working on getting that percentage up. That’s what I’m currently working on.

Well, how did you decide that then? Versus the other stuff.

Honestly, before we became profitable – this is actually what happened… It was more about me and being like “I don’t have a salary, and I’m on my last year of runway”, right? So it got to the point where I’m like for StoryGraph to not get funding and for it to stay independent, I need to start getting a decent salary from StoryGraph. Rob needs to start getting a decent salary from StoryGraph. I’ve always been paying Abi a decent salary from day one. And we were like “What can we do?” So this is pre-giveaways… Plus was there, but it was kind of just 0.01% at one point. And so I was like “Could we do ads in a smart way?”, because of all the page views we have. And the thing is, even when if we thought we were being smart about it, we always just came out at – even if we weren’t sending any user data to publishers, if it was just a behind-the-scenes matching process, that the publishers had their inputs and then we matched behind the scenes to make sure that users were seeing relevant ads, even just the thought of users thinking we’d given their data to publishers just didn’t sit right with us.

So there was this one series of formative conversations with Rob, and with Saron, my friend Saron, his wife, where I was okay, “Okay–” that’s where I kind of thought, “Ooh, giveaways. That’s how we get another revenue stream.” And then I said, “We don’t have product-market fit with Plus. How do we get product-market fit with Plus, so that that percentage goes up?” That was kind of the journey to just choosing to do that.

Yeah. It makes sense.

It came from a personal – like “Well, my runway runs out in two years… So something needs to change.”

Right. I like the giveaways idea. I think it can be more of a win/win, because there’s something there for the user. Not just “Hey, look at this book”, even if we vetted the book. And it’s like “Well, we’ve vetted the book, the person is paying to promote it, but here’s a chance at a free copy.” It’s like, everybody likes free stuff, so… That’s a good idea. It’s a good way of doing it, so that it’s not a win/win/lose for the end user… Which ultimately drives down enjoyment and satisfaction, right? And drives people away if it becomes egregious. Less so, I think, if it’s a really good fit. I mean, we are an advertising-based company here at Changelog. We are sponsored. We also have a membership, so you can opt out of that… I don’t know, Adam, 1%? What do you think’s our percentage point? 0.001%?

It’s pretty small.

We don’t know what it is. It’s pretty small.

Yeah. But that’s not what we’re optimizing for either, at least now.

No, it’s not. But the point I was getting to was that we are very intentional with the sponsors that we work with, and the way we produce the ads, and all this kind of stuff, so that we think it’s a decent trade-off for keeping the podcast free for everybody… And our listeners, even sometimes ones that sign up for Plus Plus are like “Can I sign up for your–” Sorry, it’s better than yours, Nadia. Yours is Plus, ours is Plus Plus, so it’s slightly better…

[laughs] Oh, it was actually Plus Plus?

Changelog Plus Plus. You now, because we’re nerds, and so we like to increment things.

[laughs] I love it. Plus Plus. I love it. Yeah.

Some people sign up and say “Hey, can I keep the ads in there? Because they’re valuable to me. I enjoy it.” Because we’re exposing them to new things. So if done right, I think you probably could crack that nut. But if you can figure out even more interesting ways, like giveaways, of doing the same thing, then more power to you.

When we were sketching out what introducing ads to the platform would look like, I said to Rob “What we should do is have it such that if you pay for Plus, you can turn off the ads, but I want it such that most Plus people do not turn off the ads, because they’re that good.” That was like the goal. That was literally what I said.

That’s kind of how we think.

That’s great.

But then of course, we do have people who say “I signed up because I don’t want the ads anymore.” So there you go. I mean, it’s not like everybody – but they’re good enough that some people find value in them, and so that we treat them like content as much as we can… Which is – it’s a lot of hard work. So I’m sure giveaways are probably some hard work as well, at this point.

[01:06:09.29] Yeah. It’s a whole other product that I’m building, basically…

Yeah, exactly.

It’s a whole other platform, because there’s a whole backend dashboard to that. And it’s still in beta, because there’s still some manual parts of the process… And I really hope that we can make it live today. Just on the Plus thing, a couple of points that I want to mention that I think are cool, but they could also factor into lower numbers in there… Actually, not really. Anyway, the point that I want to make is we don’t take any payment details when you sign up for the trial. And also, the trial is 30 days. And so on one hand, I think the trial is quite long, and that it’s very easy in 30 days for someone to like not feel the pressure to use it; then they kind of don’t use it, and then when it comes to try and sign up, they’re like “Oh, I didn’t really use it. I guess I don’t need it”, and so they don’t. Whereas maybe if it was shorter, they might immediately try and explore all the features, and then sign up.

But the cool part of all of this is knowing that when we look at our subscriber number, when I look at that 10,570-whatever it is, knowing that every single one of those people, their free trial expired and they actively came back on and said “Yes, no, I want this”, and they put in their card details - that’s really cool. No one’s a mistake there, because it’s just not possible.

Right. You have a lower churn that way, because people are very intentional about signing up. Yeah.

How many conversations have you had with those 10,500 folks to make Plus better, to give them more value?

Dozens, I would guess… No, dozens – yeah, probably dozens, up to 100, because I’ve done a bunch of over the years, a bunch of… Some were conversations, so I’ve had research rounds where… There was one where I figured out, “Oh, no one really cares about Plus. They’re just paying to support.” “Oh, what do people have in common, the power users? Oh, they love stats.” Things like that, which helped me get to the advanced stat transition. But there’s also been surveys and stuff over the years, too; not always direct conversations. Sometimes I’ll send out a survey of checking in, maybe testing the waters for a particular feature I’m thinking about, things like that. So I’ve spoken – every single Plus user… Well, not the 2000 who joined in the last month; that was great. But the 8000-whatever - they’ve heard from me in some shape or form, whether it’s just a form or a survey saying “Hey, we’re thinking of doing this. How do you use this currently?”

What does success look like for this for you? Like, do you have some sort of thing jotted down where you’re like “If this gets to some point…”? Because you want to stay small, so it doesn’t sound like total world domination is what you’re after necessarily… Or maybe you are, but just with a small team?

[unintelligible 01:08:57.14] No, so it is definitely not world domination, but I think I would love for us to be almost the default place that people, when they’re thinking about book recommendations, or finding a book, we’re like the default place to go. People are just like “Oh, check it on StoryGraph. I’ll go to StoryGraph.” I guess one other measure is whenever we have a spike, like a big spike, we end up getting to like, the highest we’ve ever – number two. So we’ve been number one in the app store once, but we’ve hovered between two and five in the books category. And I think Goodreads is basically entrenched at number one, pretty much, apart from that one time when we were briefly above them. That was when we basically launched the apps, and then this TikTok went viral. So I would love basically – I’m imagining us being up there, entrenched, just being there, and being known as the kind of default main place.

[01:09:58.14] Personally, feeling like – I do see StoryGraph as my life’s work. Assuming things kind of continue, I would just keep doing this as long as it stays fun, and I feel like that is a possibility that I keep doing this… In which case it would need to get to the point where I feel like I can get a salary that would support whatever life choices I want to make, whether that’s relocating, whether that’s having a wedding, or whatever it might be… Because right now I don’t feel like that. Like, I’ve got a decent salary now, and Rob has too, but for me it’s not enabling my savings. The savings that I drew down over the last five years - they’re not going back up right now.


So it’s things like that. There’s a personal lifestyle where it’s like “Okay, Storygraph is supporting me and my lifestyle, and any future changes that might come to that lifestyle”, and also we’re just known as like the de facto default “You want books? Storygraph.”

I have an idea for you.

Oh, yes, please.

I don’t even know if it’s good… Just thinking out loud here. [laughter] You know, I love problems. I love problems.

I could tell, you’ve been stewing away. Even with the groups things… I could just see your face. You’re like “Hm…”

Well, because there’s no right way to success. Even as Jerod asked that question, you really have - not struggled to describe it, but it just seems like “Just don’t die” is your success. Like, “Just don’t die.” And if you can really succeed well, that’s obviously a plus. No pun intended. But I wonder if you want to be the default for a good book recommendation, then don’t put it behind a signup. Give somebody someplace to go, ask them three questions, give them a result, and they’re gonna love you. Immediately. I don’t know how your recommendation works, so take this with a grain of salt… But what if that recommendation was so compelling that they were like “I have to sign up afterwards”? Or maybe you really don’t struggle with signups, but if you want it to be the default, find a way to give them a result that’s worth their attention, without any friction in the process.

The signup process is always pushy, because you’re like “What am I signing up for?” And then you get a form to fill out to give somebody some information… And maybe the thing they came from, like the TikTok video, or the YouTube video, or - maybe that was the compelling artifact that doesn’t make that part of struggle for you. And I don’t know. But if you want to be the default, you have to kind of give that thing away ad nauseam for free. Just give it away for free, and everybody’s like “Man, this is the place to go”, and they have no problem with giving you more keys to their kingdom.

So here’s the thing… We have – so pre this current spike we had about two million registered users, but we were getting 4 million unique visitors every month. So there’s double - just, someone’s linked them, it could be a giveaway page… Which - you can view the giveaway pages without signing up. We also have – you can view all the book pages, too. Sure. We also have a browsable Books page, which have a filter menu. It’s not like the recommendation engine, where you actually put in your preferences, but you can say “Oh, I want something funny, fast-paced, whatever”, and you can order by Last Updated, or Page Size, or whatever it is. Sorry, book size. But there is a feature that we released recently, that we have been talking about and saying like “Can we make this free?”, as in such that you don’t need to sign up… Which is that we currently have something called StoryGraph’s personalized preview. And essentially, it’s an AI-generated summary of, you know, readers the book would be good for, and also if you have the personalized version, which is currently Plus, because originally we thought it was going to be too costly to offer it to everybody… The personalized version tells you if we think the book is going to be good for you. And it’s a [unintelligible 01:13:51.15] solution. And there was a world where we’re excited for it to be free to everyone, because then it’s like “Wow, even if your main tool is Goodreads”, if you’re in a bookstore, you want to be looking at it on StoryGraph, because we’re the only players that are going to tell you, “Oh, given your interest in so and so themes, blah, blah, blah, you might like this book.”

[01:14:17.28] But what we also do is if you’ve specified any type of thing you don’t like reading about… Like, if you don’t like reading sad books, or if there are certain triggers and things you don’t want to read about, we’ll alert you too, saying “Be warned. It is deals with themes of blah, blah. So be careful, proceed with caution.”

So this is this new feature which we’re hoping to make free for everyone, but we have discussed, is it possible to just have this be on the pages? And we need to talk about it some more, because there’s something about - whether it’s to do with AI opt out, or whatever… We need to like discuss; we need to just look into the implications, cost-wise, resource-wise… Because we’re getting 4 million users a month, and just check – yeah, just like review if that is actually a possibility… But that would get at what you’re talking about, which is giving people a result without needing them to sign up.

So I don’t have the answers, obviously, because I’m not deep in your team, and I don’t know what’s required to give this thing away, but I just wonder if that could be compelling… Because if anyone could go to a nonfiction page and get some value, then they’re willing to give you more of their attention in time. It’s just my rough thought on that. And that could be plausible, it could not be plausible for you to accomplish… But if you want to be the default, you kind of have to give somebody a taste of what the goodness is, right? As some sort of tantalizer to get in. It could be a landing page, it could be an A/B test. It doesn’t even have to be to everybody, it could be “Let’s test this out on an ad campaign that we do, or some way we drive and funnel folks to this one page, that tests out this theory in a 20,000-person spectrum, versus a 200,000-spectrum”, because you’re getting 4 million visitors a month, or whatever the number is, where you really can’t spend the money on that… And say, “Okay, wow, what was the conversion on 25,000 folks? Does it make sense to scale that? Does that really bring us in high-quality people who really love to read, and really can find value, not only in our platform and the recommendations, but then are a high candidate for whatever Plus evolves into?” That’s how I think of it.

Yeah, it’s definitely something to think about.

Break: [01:16:19.11]

Here’s something to think about, Nadia…

Yeah, let’s go.

Have you entertained, or would you entertain an acquisition?

The answer right now is no.

Like, no you haven’t, and no you wouldn’t.

The thing is, just in general with life, I’m wary of never saying never, because I don’t know what’s gonna happen in five years, ten years. Am I still gonna be having fun? I feel like I’m pretty good at looking after myself. Everyone’s always worried about my well-being, and I’m like “I’m so far away from burnout.” I really look after myself. So the answer right now is no, definitely not. But I’m not gonna say never, because life is long, hopefully, and so… Yeah, but the answer right now is no, and that is not in my plans, and it’s not my intention. My plan is to continue running and owning diagraph forever. But…

Let’s assume success, then. Let’s go down the road five years; maybe ten, but let’s at least go down the road five. And say that StoryGraph has displaced Goodreads in the zeitgeist of human knowledge, and you’re number one on app downloads, and you have more users than you know what to do with, and everybody loves the product, and here comes Amazon knockin’…

No, Amazon’s a no-no.

No, let’s not make it Amazon. That’s too easy.

Yeah, that would almost be like betraying our users. Adam has an opinion though… Like my dad. [laughter] My dad has an opinion on that.

Yeah, I bet.

Alright. Amazon doesn’t come knocking, but somebody else does, who has goodwill in heart. Then you’re thinking about it? Then you’re maybe like “Well… Sell”?

If it’s going well and we’re running it, then no reason to sell.

Alright, alright… I like it.

I think right now I would say that the only –

No, because again, we’re profitable now, so why go on that VC train? I feel like it will only bring bad things. The focus – because once you bring VC on, it’s almost… What’s the word - a race to acquisition or IPO, and I would hate to feel pressured to do either of those things.

Yeah, because you usually get paid at an exit. Unless it’s a venture capitalist that comes in at a profit share, versus an exit share. That’s a different venture capitalist. There’s lots of people who would invest based upon their return over multiples based upon trends… That’s plausible.

Yeah. But then - so you’re talking about an investor coming along, what would be…

Aligned. Yeah, that kind of investor would have to be not only money, but smart money. Like, connected, networked. It would have to add value to the giveaways. You know, “Can you help me connect with better publishers, have deeper relationships with publishers? Have longer contracts, more reliable revenue, etc?” That’s how I would view that kind of investment.

Or like the – who’s the most famous… Who’s the Oprah of Bookstagram, you know?

Ooh, dang. Yeah.

I know, but the way we’re growing, it’s like –

What if Oprah comes along–

Truth. I like this, Jerod. Keep going. Yes.

…you know, because she’s got a book club that’s pretty good…

I always talk about Oprah to Rob. I’m like “One day, Oprah will notice us…”

Do you? Okay, so I’m hitting on something here. Well, because I just think of Oprah’s book club. I was kind of thinking like Nadia’s book club - what if you did that? Because you could grow that audience, and maybe have your thing be the new Oprah’s Book Club eventually.

It’d be fun.

But if Oprah did come by and was interested… That seems like – I don’t know about spiritually aligned, but at least in terms of product and things she’s good at… She obviously has that money; maybe that would be a – she could value-add, is just my only point. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but…

[01:21:50.10] She could just interview somebody, or mention it, and that’s great. That’s what we need. We don’t need money… [laughs]

Yeah, she literally just mentioned it…

Let’s put it out there… Oprah, if you’re out there, and somebody listened to this in your network, get in touch.

If you’re Oprah’s software developer IT person, and you’re listening to this…

That’s right, Jerod. Good job. Yeah. If you’re handling Oprah’s DNS… [laughter] Right?

Yeah, exactly.

Next time she asks for a book link, send a StoryGraph one.

That’s right. I like that idea. I mean, if I were you, that’s how I would align it… Because I would not sell out to the other Goliath, like an Amazon. Or even an Amazon competitor. Because like you said, you’re profitable. And for now you’re enjoying it, right? You said you’re not sure in five years or ten years how you’ll feel… Because none of us do. But you assume you will…

And so [unintelligible 01:22:39.29] the gymnasts who are on the walking – like a plank kind of thing, whatever that is. To stay on the bar. Don’t fall off. Don’t down.

The balancing beam. Are you talking about the balancing beam?

You make it sound like it would be stressful…

Like it’s tenuous. Like you could fall off and die.

Exactly. [laughs]

Well, it’s just a few feet. There’s no sharks down there, and…

It’s all a walk in the park, no…?

It doesn’t feel like that. It feels like a walk in the park for you?

Oh, not right now… But I see the future of it being like a walk in the park.

Oh, in the future. Right.

Hang on a second… There’s this idea that Jerod just mentioned, that I think has legs. What if there’s a book club for everybody?

What do you mean?

That’s just there to join? Groups to find, in a way.

Oh, like premade book clubs?

Well, the Nadia Book Club is there, that you’re like “Hey, everyone’s welcome here.” And then – it’s like the bees and honey kind of thing. It’s sweet, so you come, and then “Wow, there’s a recommendation engine here.” You want to be the default of that. So rather than say “Come get recommendations”, it’s more like “Come find your group. Maybe this is the group for you.” But something where everybody’s invited.

Yeah. Pretty funny, because we launched a read-alongs feature at the end of last year, where you can read a book with up to 1,000 people… And it’s basically for people who don’t want to be in a regular book club, but they can opt in and you can choose a book. And I was running it from the StoryGraph account, but it was clear that Nadia was running it… And we had 1000 people join, and we all read Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, and it was awesome. And at the end, I made a forum that was like “Share your feedback on this feature, given that it’s new.” And one person wrote something like “I feel like running one of these is not for me. It’s more for influencers, like Nadia” and I just remember laughing. I don’t see myself as an influencer… [laughs]

But you are…

I think you are…

Here’s a different angle. I would be friends with somebody based upon particular books I know I’ve read that I’ve enjoyed, and if they’ve read and enjoyed these books, then I can be better friends with them.

Oh, I see.

As a matter of fact, that happened this week. I like Nick more because I know specific books he and I’ve read together, and we shared similar likes and dislikes with the book… And so I feel like “Man, if I was Nick’s neighbor…” I’m talking about Nick Nisi from JS Party, by the way…


If I was Nick’s literal neighbor, I would – I mean, not that I’m not his friend, because we’re far away, but I would be more willing to hang out with Nick, because I know he’s read The Bobiverse quintology book, or whatever. That series. Or because he would take a recommendation. So the find your group people, or the find your friends in the world of the internet is similar likes, and that similar likes kind of comes from a book.

So this is a whole new direction for you, Nadia. It’s like Tinder for book lovers, you know?

Oh, don’t get me started on the Tinder for book lovers. As a single person who has been dating for years, trying to find somebody, the number of times people have said “Oh, have you thought about a dating app spin-off?” And I was like “I wish I had the bandwidth for a dating app spin-off”, because it would be incredible to find a man who loves books, and that we can bond over that… So it’s come up a few times over the years, this dating app spin-off.

This was why you take money in, you know? You hire a dev, they’re working on that, you keep working on Plus, and then good things happen.

[01:26:09.29] That’s true.

It’s called lack of focus, is also what you call it.

And then it’s that dev that ends up being my husband.. Oh, that’s so sweet…! [laughs]

Oh, my goodness!

Now we’re on a Hallmark movie. Oh, my gosh…

We’re like matchmakers. Look what we’re doing for her.

Nadia, are you a Hallmark fan, by any chance? Are you a Hallmark movie junkie during the holidays?

No, but I know the reference.

Okay. You laughed really hard, so I was thinking maybe you were. I was like “Wow, not only–”

Well, I kind of was part of one last year… I was part of one that was basically like a Hallmark movie… But it didn’t end the way a Hallmark movie ends, so…

Oh… [laughter] There’s that.

I get sucked into them. There’s a framework to every one of those movies… I get sucked into them. My wife watches them sometimes; she has friends over and I’m watching them with her, just because I’m in the room… Then I’m the guy who’s like “Don’t do that – oh, my gosh.” I’m like in it. Somehow I get invested in this Hallmark story…

You’re the husband at the back who’s like “I’m not watching this…” Oh, but you’re watching this. [laughs]

But I am watching it, yes. That’s half the reason I’m like “Don’t turn anything on.” Because if you turn it on, I will watch it, and then I’ll get invested, and then I’ll be one of the girls.

You’ll have a scooted your way in the front, crocodile tears…

Got my tissues out, and stuff like that… [laughter]

Crying… [laughs]

“Can you believe how he treated Sally? She did not deserve that…”

The point is though, is we all bond over stories, right? And I was just thinking, going back to the default - maybe the way to being the default isn’t to put the default out front. So maybe my recommendation was incorrect. Maybe it’s just helping people find the platform, and then “Wow, there’s this recommendation engine, that should be the default for everybody, and I just want to tell everybody I know, or five more people that have read the same books I’ve read.”

This is why, by the way, I think it’s very important that all the social reading features like Buddy Reads, like Read-alongs and book clubs are free… Because you get people who don’t even intend to move, or use a book tracking app, but their book club host says “We’re trying this for this meeting”, or “We’re doing this one thing.” And then they try it, and then they say “Oh, what is this thing? That was awesome. I want to do this again. Oh, it’s just easier if I have all my stuff on here.” And we have seen that journey a little bit, but there’s definitely more that we can do in that space.

Is there any more technical stories you can share with us? Like your queues all jacked up, how’s your servers doing… What you’re doing for observability… Do you do observability? What’s your SRE stack? How do you deploy?

We’re off Heroku now. That’s a big story. We migrated. Rob manages all of our infrastructure. So we were on Heroku, we were on the database plan that was costing us like $8,000 to $9,000 a month, on top of all the other costs…

Oh, my gosh.

And at this point Plus is like - you know, we have a few thousand users; it’s not enough. And so Rob, who had 15 years in infrastructure experience, said “Hey, Nadia, I think we should move off Heroku.” Me, who was a bootcamp graduate, all I know is Heroku. What do you mean, we’re moving off Heroku? No, no, no. And he did all the research, he laid everything out for me, he answered all of my questions… It was a month-long process of “This is the way to go.” And so eventually, we did this big migration in the beginning of 2022, January 2022. It was like months and months of research, lead-up, planning… We told everyone we’re going to have – it was one of those “We’re going to have scheduled downtime from this time to this time. We’re going to be down for five hours”, moving everything over.

So we did everything, we followed our steps, we turned the app back on, everything’s working… And then the emails start coming in to support. “Account deleted. My account’s deleted.” We were like “Oh, my –” My heart sank. It was awful.

[01:29:52.15] Eventually, we realized that what happened was in the process of the upgrade, everybody had been signed out, and some people had not had to sign in for like three years. Lots of people had two accounts, or something, some people had two accounts, or they just couldn’t remember their login details, or they didn’t realize they weren’t signed in… Basically, we were able to get every single person back to an account eventually… But it was very – that initial minute of when we turned it on, and then the emails started coming in “Well, my account’s deleted now”, that was scary. We had backups, but you don’t want to be dealing with that.

You’re like “I trusted you, Rob. No…!”

Yeah, so that was that. That’s one story. There was – we had so many issues with search… And I started the app with PgSearch, and it was just – searching for a book took like 10 seconds. It was awful. And I would tweet out saying “What can I do?” A lot of people – it eventually got to the point where I was like “I feel like we need something like Elasticsearch.” Even just working it out with Elasticsearch - that eventually had its own performance issues, and I realized, “Oh, I need to shard now?” I just learned things [unintelligible 01:30:54.06] when we have problems, and it’s like “Oh, now I need to shard. I need to index it this way.” Like, I’m just learning on the job. One day, our Elasticsearch, the server running our Elasticsearch just died, or something. It was a managed – we were still in Heroku at this point. And it just – we were using like the Elastic plugin, or plan, and suddenly just search wasn’t working… And it’s very key for search to work. Search nowhere was working. You couldn’t search for books… And we were like “What’s going on?” We couldn’t see anything… And we emailed the support… And we were paying; we were on their, like – what’s the word for the opposite of penultimate? i.e. the second from the highest.

Um, I think it’s just called second. [laughter]

Penultimate is one of my favorite words to use…

I do like that word, yeah…

So whenever I say in conversation, everybody always says – you know, my friends, they’ll say “Oh, penultimate…” And I’m like “But you knew exactly what I meant.” And it’s like “Yeah.”

I feel like everybody knows it. Yeah.

Yeah, exactly. Everyone calls it out as a fancy word, but you know what I mean. So I just was hoping that there was another word…

There might be.

But actually, second-highest plan…

Yeah, exactly. Second.

And the support was just like “Oh, yeah, it looks like that server just failed. We can spit it up for you again, but it’s gonna take like X hours.” And we were like “Right, we’re getting off of Elastic. We’re going onto Bonsai.” That was a wild day, because it was like eight hours of – well, not quite eight hours, because we were slowly indexing the millions of records again… But it was like – that was one thing. And I guess one of our biggest kind of tech learnings, was - when we had the first initial spike… You know the response time graph on Heroku?


We’d be like “Okay, okay”, and then Bam! It would spike up. And we tried so many things. We rearchitected bits of code… We even at one point – my friend Andy Cole, he texted and said “You’re very write-heavy. Which database plan are you on?” And at this time, I was on the $50 database plan. And Andy said “Well, that’s never gonna work. You need to upgrade. This is actually a case of throw more money at it.” We upgraded to the $200 database… That felt, at the time, “Oh my gosh, $200 a month on the database.” That felt very wild. I mean, especially because at this time it’s money from my pocket, and eventually Rob’s as well.

It got to the point where even when we upgraded the database, it worked fine for a time, and then bang, we had the response time issues. We were looking at the logs, we were trying to go through everything, and that’s when we learned about IOPS and burstability. We didn’t understand, we didn’t know about any of this stuff. So we were like “Oh… Now we see what’s going on. Our write IOPS are over what the database can handle. So we now know we actually need to upgrade to this plan”, whatever that plan was. Also, the reason why it worked for a time and then failed is burstability. It’s basically giving you “You can go this amount of time, going over your IOPS rate, and then we’re going to say no.” So that was another – you know, so many learnings over the years, of like technical… Like I said, sharding with Elasticsearch. IOPS on the database. Even just setting up Elasticsearch, and optimizing that. And… Yeah, it’s been a real amazing technical journey for me.

[01:34:30.03] When I was at Pivotal, I always had my pair, and so I could always – there was always someone… And even though I came straight from a bootcamp, there was always somebody who knew more than me, sitting right next to me. Or if they didn’t know more than me, they would kind of have a sense of what to look for if we were stuck. And a lot of this is just like figuring out while you’re putting out the fire… So yeah, there could be a whole other episode on the technical fires and learnings, and…

Well, we might have you come back at some point and tell us all these stories… Because we didn’t dive into the technical very much at all. Go ahead.

I was gonna say, we’re on the verge of something that I’m scared of, but I’m less scared of now… We’re going to go for a distributed database. Because we had all these issues at the beginning of this year, and we thought having a replica would be the solution… But given the write-heavy nature of the database – because essentially, when we have a spike, it’s also a spike in Goodreads imports. So when we have 10,000 users on the app, there are about 8,000 people that want to import their Goodreads. And we need to do that relatively quickly, while they’re excited, while they’re interested.

How long does a standard Goodreads import take? Are we talking seconds, minutes?

Minutes. But we had people waiting for weeks this January.

Sure. Well, because you had a backup. Yeah.

Yeah. We had another 20k – I said to Rob, “Wow, haven’t seen this these queue numbers since June of 2020.

And are there API limits slowing you down there as well? Can you hit Goodreads just as fast as you can, or they limit you?

We don’t touch Goodreads at all. We don’t touch Goodreads at all; it’s all in-house stuff.

How do you do your imports then?

Now we’re going into the secret sauce…

Oh, gosh…

Oh…! She can’t tell us.

She puts her mask on. “You can’t see me.”


Are you scraping?

[unintelligible 01:36:13.16] We’re not touching Goodreads at all, no scraping at all.

Okay. I want to know how you’re doing it… Would you reveal it for our Changelog Plus Plus listeners’ ears only?

No… Not telling anyone. This is –

You’re not telling anybody.

We’ve got a lot of secret sauce stuff.

Okay. Alright.

It’s Mechanical Turk, behind the scenes, making a phone call to Goodreads support, acting as the user.

[laughs] Surprise! It’s Adam!

I’ve been making the phone calls. “Hey, I need my import list… Can you help me with that, please?” Then they get it emailed, and I upload it.

“My name is Sally… Yeah, and I would like to export…”

I can talk about a decision I made early on, actually, which was that - I remember when I started, I never used Goodreads API. Because I always said to myself “If this thing gets big, they could just take away API access, and then no one can import.

They’ll cut you off, yeah.

So from day one, I said “Export your data from Goodreads. Here’s the steps. Give me the CSV, we’ll sort it out.” And I remember at the beginning people would complain, and say “This is very clunky. Other apps do it this way.” And what happened two years ago or a year ago? Goodreads said “We’re shutting down our API now.”

That’s smart. So that is how you do it to this day, is CSV import.

Oh, yeah, it is a CSV that we’re given. Yeah.

Okay. That makes sense. And then you hold on to it for a few weeks, and then eventually you do something with it. [laughter]

[unintelligible 01:37:45.21]

That was a burn, Jerod…

[01:37:51.08] It was just funny. I’m just messing with you. I would love to have your problem. I mean, you’ve got serious problems, technical problems… Let’s not discount them… Those are the fun ones. It’s baptism by fire, because you’re having success, and you’re having to learn, and adjust, and scramble… And a lot of us - we just put our stuff out in the world and nobody ever uses it.

We’re just htoping, looking at our CPU doing nothing. We’re like “Come on now…!”

That’s why I said it’s an enviable scenario… Even though at first you didn’t really necessarily want it, because you were not aligned, you thought, with your original goals… But - I mean, you’re having fun, right? It seems like you’re having fun.

Oh, overall I’m having the best time. I love my life. How amazing is this, that I had this idea – I had this little dream… Do you remember when I said it would be quite a stretch to say that I never thought about a Goodreads alternative? In the early months I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m not building a Goodreads alternative, but imagine if [unintelligible 01:38:50.08]

But we’re not. Right.

[unintelligible 01:38:56.02] So the fact that we are now like the main alternative to Goodreads, the team is so small… Especially me being like a bootcamp grad, right? That’s something else that I always like to stress, actually… Because I’m a bootcamp grad. I started coding when I was - what… I’d just graduated uni, so I was 21, 22… Actually, that’s wild, because I’m 32 now. So that’s like a decade.

Yeah, you’re a senior dev.

Yeah, that’s wild. Oh my gosh, 2013. I’ve passed my 10 years of actually learning to code. That’s wild. Completely escaped me.

You’ve been too busy.

I’ve been too busy. I didn’t even realize I’d passed my 10 years of being a dev. Anyway…

You’re a Senior Dev, for sure.

Wow. But I always like to stress that I’m a bootcamp grad. My degree was in philosophy, politics and economics. I was going into banking. I haven’t been coding since I was young… So my point is, anybody can do it. You know what I mean? If you want to do it, you can do it. It might take you a long time, but you can do it. It is possible. And you don’t have to – you could be listening to this and not even know how to code yet. And still end up building something in some years that –

I think you represent more than just “You can do it as a bootcamp graduate.” I think you represent that you can accomplish an idea, and speak to real people, and solve real problems, and scale and be profitable. Not just bootcamp graduate. I think you represent way more than that.

Yeah, I think so too, but I don’t want that piece to be missed. It’s not like I did computer science. I always – I hear that, too… There is a lot more that I represent.

I wanted to add some major credits there that you did not. Even though.

Thank you.

I think you’re amazing. I think what you’ve done is awesome. I think, like Jerod said, you’re solving cool problems. I said it while we were all talking, but I said some of us just htop, looking at our CPU doing nothing, and we’re just inventing problems so that we can make it spike temporarily… You know? [laughter] “Please, let me break it so I can fix it” kind of thing. And you actually have code in the wild, you’re solving problems, and you’re happy doing it. And you’re learning along the way. You’re in the journey. That’s the fun part. Don’t forget.

Yes, thank you.

One day, you’ll look back and be like “Those were the days.” What does your wife say, Jerod? These are the days?

These are the days, that’s right.

These are the days. I’m a big fan of that. These are the days. And this is why I always make sure to make sure I’m enjoying myself, both within work and outside of work at the same time. So lots of people say to me “Oh, you must be doing all nighters all the time, you must be this…” And I’m always like “Actually, no. I’m pretty strict with my sleep.” And one of my main hobbies apart from reading is dance. I’m in dance class a few times a week, having lunch with friends, and I’m out. Sometimes I think, “Am I working enough?” Because I’m enjoying myself, you know?

[01:42:01.14] One thing I do want to say is in those earliest days, when I was doing that customer research, I was also – I told myself to be prepared to walk away. So I told myself “If these customer interviews don’t reveal that there is something here, Goodreads exists, other apps exist. Don’t waste your time. Be prepared to walk away.” And I think that’s very important. I just thought of it now, when you were talking about inventing problems… I said to myself “I don’t want to invent a problem where one doesn’t exist”, because then I end up eating up years of my runway, and having nothing to show for it at the end, beyond an app that nobody uses.

Well, if you’re the most notable Goodreads alternative, I think that you are definitely not inventing the problem.

We’re actually going back to the beginning of the conversation. I think that that pattern that I put out at the beginning I think is actually a very good way of not inventing problems, is like seeing something that was wildly successful/loved, reached a point where it did sell… Now it’s languished in the hands of a giant, and people don’t like it anymore. I mean, there’s more things than just Goodreads that are like that. That’s a pretty rife place for innovation, I think. I think that’s a way of not doing something; you know that people love that thing one time, and so something like that, that fills similar needs in a unique way that’s not languishing - that’s a good way of not just inventing problems.

A hundred percent.

Cool, Nadia. This has been awesome. I will be there for your book club, even though I don’t read very much… But I think you should definitely – yeah, I think Oprah needs to be disrupted at this point. Right?

Should I run it as StoryGraph, or should I run it as Nadia? Which one should I do? Since you’re giving me all the advice…

Do you want to be successful AND famous, or just successful? Because if just successful, do it as StoryGraph. Some people don’t want the fame…

I like the idea of being known, of like “Oh, that’s the founder of StoryGraph”, but not in a way – I need to be able to go on the tube and go on the bus and nobody talked to me.

Alright, do it as StoryGraph then. Do it as StoryGraph. Because they’ll be coming up to you “Hey, what books are you reading?” and you’re like “Oh, no…! I’ve created a monster.”

I’ll be like this with my book. [laughs]

Yeah. Wearing a beard, you know…

Yeah. Just to disguise all the time.

Right. So if you don’t want that, then maybe just do it as StoryGraph.

Because I have actually thought about running my own book club. Because running the read-along was fun, but I might just do that - keep running the read-alongs on Storygraph, and everyone looks forward to “Wow, every other month StoryGraph does a read-along. It’s run by the founder.” You know what I mean? I might just do that instead. And then if I miss a month, or… Even though I’m always like, once I start something, I’m like, it has to be every week, or every month.

But you could also eventually replace yourself with somebody who’s good at it, and it could still be the StoryGraph right-along, you know…?

Are you saying I’m not good at it?

No, somebody else who is good at it.

Oh, okay. I thought you were saying “Someone who is ACTUALLY good at it, not just de facto running it…” [laughs]

No, no, no, no. I’m saying, by then you built into something –

[unintelligible 01:44:57.29]

Yeah, somebody else… Well, I added that because of course, as the person who created it, you might think – I have a problem like this, like “Nobody else can do it like I do it.” But then there’s other people - like, they can read and talk about a book, too. But not like you can. I mean, it won’t be the same.

No, but you’re like “Let me make it better.” Not like you can. There’s no like you.

I’m digging out. I’m digging out. [laughs]

You haven’t seen me run one, so you don’t know whether I’m good or not.

It’s true.

One day…

Time will tell.

…you can join the read-along.

I’ll have to be there for the first one. Yeah.

For sure. That’s like the conference, too. There’s an opportunity there too, where you can collect people with not just a book club, but then now you go on the road and meet people that read the same book, and gatherings. StoryGraph gatherings. There’s so much – because I mean, if you’re optimizing for deep enjoyment and community, you kind of will get famous along away naturally, just because as your friend group grows, so does your fame grow. But that’s an angle that Goodreads is definitely not doing. They’re not meeting people, right? They’re just providing software.

[01:46:06.14] Honestly, that’s what they are doing – since we started it, we’ve only seen them announce that they’re taking away features. And there are some things that I do wonder why they haven’t added them, because people want them… And I guess the only thing I can think is that the tech debt is that bad that it’s really hard to add new features at this point.


I mean, it could be just a symptom too that somebody really is in charge. No one’s really in charge of the product, and so it’s just like “Just keep it alive. And maybe kill some things along the way, and cut some costs.”

Yeah. The original founder of Goodreads finally stepped down. I say finally in that most founders don’t last that long, I think, after the acquisition. So he stepped down in 2020 or 2021. And he was replaced, because they have a CEO of Goodreads. And this woman replaced him, and I thought “Oh, maybe there’s someone fresh, and maybe now we’re going to start seeing some changes”, but literally nothing… Yet.

I would be so motivated if I were you, based on this information. I’ve not dug into Goodreads and their pulse, so to speak… I would be so motivated. Because you got a Goliath asleep at the wheel, and you’re on fire, right? Great place to be in.

You’ve got some smooth stones, you can just knock that Goliath out.

That’s right.

Honestly, I don’t reshare anything where people are very anti-Goodreads, or Amazon, or Jeff. That’s not the strategy I have. It’s always very positive. I also don’t like when – I know that people mean well, but I don’t like it, where supporters of us will comment on other people’s posts, and they’ll say things like “Ewgh… Goodreads? You should be using StoryGraph.” And I hate it. Because I’m “No, you’re introducing our product to this person in a very negative fashion.” And this person was just celebrating that they reached their Goodreads goal. Like, it’s meant to be celebratory. Do you know what I mean? Stuff like that.

So I never expect anyone, any of my friends, anyone in my life to use StoryGraph, I never ask them to, I never tell them to. It will just be, if anything, like a joke we just had now. But yeah, it’s funny because I do have – I’ve been on dates with someone or whatever, and they’ll say “Oh, I use Goodreads. Does that mean –” And I’m like “No, I don’t care. You use what you like.”

No, not at all. It was also just a joke, for real, because I was gonna pull up my – the next best thing to Goodreads, I suppose… If I’m pulling out a list, it’s my Audible list, because I’m more of an Audible listener than a book reader. And my list scrolls for a very long time, and I also have literally every one of their badges…

Except for two. I’m only missing the bottom two.

What are those two?

Mount Everest. That means “This epic award is given away when you listen to something as long as a day.” So I have to listen to a book that’s 24 hours.

I just finished one that’s 24 hours. Listened.

You’ve got Everest, if you’re on Audible.

No, I’m not. I actually never was, because I only started listening to audiobooks 2021, and a big driver was “Oh, I need to connect with all the audio listeners, because I don’t really understand their pain points.” And now I do.

The Watchtower one says “Look at your stats. Attention must be paid. Do it a lot, and you’re well on your way.” So if I look at my stats often, which - it does tell me like listening time; daily, monthly, total… I guess I’ve listened to three months, 28 days, and 46 minutes’ worth of books. I don’t know… I’m a master listener level. I’ve got them all. I’m all the way up there. Like, I’m a master according to Audible, and I have all the badges. That’s kind of fun.

But you haven’t told me – see what he did there? He was like “Look at all my amazing Audible stats.” He’s still not telling us the type of books he listens to.

Well, I was saving it for Plus Plus. Show’s over. Bye, everybody.

Bye… [laughter]



Our transcripts are open source on GitHub. Improvements are welcome. 💚

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