Building a startup on the side while having a full time job - Interview with Matt Kandler, founder o
Matt Kandler is the founder of HappyFeed, a iPhone app to help you practice gratitude and become a happier person. Matt has been building HappyFeed for the past 4 years while freelancing as a software developer. Let's find out his story.
Matt, tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m currently working as a freelance software developer and living in Brooklyn, NY. Over the past few years, I’ve built dozens of websites and apps for clients ranging from larger companies like Casper and Spotify to small startups and brands.
Before New York, I lived in the San Francisco Bay and attended Stanford for my master’s degree in mechanical engineering with a focus on design. I think my background in engineering and design impacts how I approach products - striving to keep things simple and efficient while addressing a clear user need.
What is HappyFeed?
HappyFeed is a digital gratitude journal app available for iPhone. The concept is based on a popular practice in positive psychology: by recording 3 things each day that you are grateful for, you can become a happier person. Essentially you rewire your brain to focus on positive moments as you foster this habit. By adding photos and locations to your posts, you build an interesting feed of happy, personal moments. I like to think of HappyFeed as micro-journaling because the habit is so much more accessible than traditional journaling.
Why did you start HappyFeed?
I started HappyFeed shortly after shutting down a startup I co-founded after grad school. As the designer/business person, I was worried I didn’t have enough marketable skills for a larger company, so I wanted to design and build an iPhone app to expand my skill set.
As my previous startup was coming to an end, my stress levels were crazy. I started reading positive psychology blogs for tips to de-stress and used a Word Doc as a gratitude journal. A digital gratitude journal seemed like the perfect project choice. It was something I wanted to use and it had a simple feature set - account creation, data entry, and viewing past entries.
How did you start HappyFeed? Did you have any previous experience as an entrepreneur?
I started out with no idea how to build iPhone apps. I actually didn’t even own an iPhone - I was an Android guy back then. Luckily, Stanford offers a free, open course on iTunes on how to build iOS apps. My days were split between watching lectures, testing out homework assignments, applying for jobs, and sketching out early designs for HappyFeed.
The last product I designed had suffered from a pretty severe case of feature-creep, mostly because of my inexperience as a founder. That was a mistake that I worked very hard to avoid with HappyFeed. It was simple enough to sketch out on a single sheet of paper, though I went through at least a dozen sheets trying to doodle the perfect smiley face for the logo.
How did you validate your idea?
HappyFeed started out as something I wanted. When you build something you want, you have a simple test when considering new features. You just ask yourself if it’s something you really need. Sometimes I would build a new feature and end up throwing out the code if I didn’t find it especially useful during testing.
I did a lot of casual in-person testing as well. I’d ask a friend to download the app and try adding their first post. Watching them was by far the best way to notice little problems and refine the user interface.
How did you finance your project?
For over 4 years I’ve been self-funding HappyFeed. Most of the services were in free tiers until our user numbers moved into the thousands range. We actually just added a subscription option to HappyFeed at the beginning of May. It hasn’t quite gotten to the point where all our costs are completely offset, but it’s been growing steadily.
How did you market and promote HappyFeed when you were launching?
Before HappyFeed was ready to launch, I landed a job at a startup in New York. The app was almost finished but needed a few weeks of “night and weekend” work to prep it for launch. Having another job actually made it easier to focus - I wasn’t stressed about “the perfect launch” and had to be efficient with my limited time. It took months just to reach 100 users, but version one was so basic it didn’t even have photo uploading.
What has been your results so far?
HappyFeed now has over 25,000 registered users and around 3000 weekly active users without any marketing. My focus over the past year has been to get a small group of users who really love the app before going all-in with marketing and growth tactics. Once the subscription service conversions numbers look good, we’ll start on efforts to grow much more rapidly.
I’m a strong believer that product-market fit should be achieved before growth. Too many startups start spending thousands of dollars on marketing before figuring out their product. It’s easy to convince new people to use your product but it’s almost impossible to convince someone to come back if it sucked the first time around.
If a new entrepreneur is looking to build a mobile app,what would be your advice? Where should he or she start?
Just start. If you are technical, I’d suggest watching the same (recently updated) Stanford lectures I used on iTunes. You’ll absolutely learn the most from building and watching customers use your product. I get a dozen or so feedback emails from users each week - it’s the perfect opportunity to learn something and figure out a couple little ways to improve the product. There’s also no better motivation than knowing that some set of people (no matter what size) use your app every day.
You are currently running an activity as a creative technologist helping clients bring their ideas and at the same time building your own product at HappyFeed. It's not always easy to work full time on a day job and build your startup part time. How do you organize yourself to get things moving at HappyFeed without burning out?
It’s not easy at all. Freelance comes first right now - I need to be sure that I’m working enough to pay my expenses, keep clients happy, and continuing to get more projects coming in. Sometimes I’ll have 5 or 6 projects at once. It’s hugely helpful to get one or two ongoing clients - someone you can set-up a long term agreement with to work X hours per week.
When you are billing at least 40 hours a week on client work, there’s not much time to devote to side projects. I try to maintain the habit of waking up early to do an hour or two of HappyFeed work each day. After dinner, there are too many distractions and your brain is craving a chance to rest. I tend to use Sundays as a buffer day too, but it can be a challenge to say no to weekend plans.
When do you plan to switch full time on HappyFeed?
My goal has always been to get HappyFeed profitable before being able to switch full time. I don’t expect to make as much income as I might with freelance work, but when I can cover my living expenses, I’ll make the move. Hopefully that happens sometime before the end of the year.
What do you like most being an entrepreneur?
I once heard that you are either building your dream or you are building someone else’s. It sounds really cliché but I love the feeling of being in control of the things that I’m creating. When you’re someone else’s employee, they ultimately make the decisions and set the limits on how much impact you can have. Having your own product also lets you have a little more fun with product decisions. I enjoy writing goofy push notifications to my users, or adding an animated GIF to an email. I think I’d be more hesitant to do that at a larger company.
What has been your biggest challenge/failure as an entrepreneur?
You hear a lot about 20 year old CEOs raising money and building amazing new products, and it can be disheartening when you’ve been working on something very slowly for over 4 years. I think there have been a lot of opportunities to move faster, and it’s been challenging to say no to that pressure.
Apart from that, I’ve spammed all my users on several occasions, pushed an update that made it impossible to login, and a few other odds and ends. At the time each felt like the end of the world. It’s important to really savor the small victories, because there’s always going to be more mistakes and they always suck.
What are your business goals for this coming year?
I’d love to have 10,000 monthly subscribers to HappyFeed by the end of the year. It’s a long shot but it’d easily allow me to go completely full-time and hire on more help.
What's your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Start by building something small. Try to pick something you want to build and that you can learn from making. Maybe you want to try a new programming language or design tool. Maybe you want to get better at user testing. Then even if your product fails, you’ll come out of the experience better.
Too much press focuses on the big “overnight” success stories. You can build impactful products from small beginnings. Craigslist started out as a simple email list, Amazon started out only selling new books, and Airbnb started out with airbeds. Starting small and persisting can produce massive results.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
When you are the sole founder of a consumer app, you don’t have many hard deadlines. I find that creating artificial deadlines whenever possible is crucial for being productive. Sometimes I’ll base these deadlines on an opening in my freelance work, and other times I’ll just force myself to work until 2am to get a new version released. I haven’t mastered this yet.
What's your favourite quote?
"If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit." – Banksy
To learn more about HappyFeed and test the app, go to their website at : www.happyfeed.co
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