Field Notes / Whoops, I started a tech company 🤦

Whoops, I started a tech company 🤦

An unexpected update from the trenches, plus 7 hard-earned takeaways


Writers will do anything to avoid writing, and this quarter I outdid myself.

Instead of finishing the book I’m supposed to be working on, I…

Launched a new TikTok account and grew it from 0 to 20k followers;
Booked three consulting projects that swallowed me whole; and
Started a software company

Last we left off, I had just achieved one of my goals of signing with a literary agent. That process had taken months, and the high I was riding was incredible — unmatched, I suspect, save for the rush of crossing the finish line at the Tour de France or defeating an uninjured Rafael Nadal on clay.

So what happened? 

Well, nothing — yet. 

My agent and I are still waiting to hear back from editors. I thought I’d know one way or the other by now, but the jury’s out and the wait continues.

Live shot of me waiting to hear back from editors

In the meantime, I’ve been told the best thing I can do is focus on growing my author following on social media.

Enter TikTok. 

[Cue creepy déjà vu music]

For those who don’t know, I dabbled in TikTok last year and grew a pretty sizeable audience (60k followers). So now that my agent wanted me to focus on author jazz, I already knew what to do and could hit the ground running. 

And here’s the dirty secret: social media is a numbers game.

In other words, you need to put your pride aside, forget about production quality and polished content, and start posting. And posting. And posting. 

If you post 100 times, you will get enough feedback to find your audience and know what content hits. So I started posting, and wouldn’t you know it, things took off like last time. 

After 20-30 failed content attempts (funny book reviews, Stephen King trivia, horror AMA), it turned out the audience loved 3 things:

1. Grammar quizzes
2. Tactics on how to make money as an author
3. Writing tools & apps

Now. If you’re a perpetual business schemer like me, you’d look at this list and say, “Huh. This stuff is super popular. How could I make $$ other than just selling books for razor-thin margins?”

And that, ladies and gents, is how I accidentally started a tech company.

WTF you started a tech company? How?

Again, it all started on TikTok.

On February 22, I posted a video that explained how to improve the rhythm of your writing.

The original video that led to launching a tech company

Thousands of people saw it and wanted to know what tool I was using to highlight and analyze the text in the example.

But there was no tool. 

It was editing trickery, and when people found out, they were disappointed.

So I issued a challenge: if folks wanted a tool to improve the rhythm of their writing, I promised I would build one — but only if the post got 1,000 likes. Needless to say, the goal was swiftly smashed and, after several long nights alongside a software developer friend who’s nothing short of this application’s patron saint, Writhm was born.

My newest baby. Check it out at Writhm.io

What a home birth it was! By involving the community on every decision, from picking a name to choosing a logo, a prototype emerged from the primordial soup of social media and the kindness of the aforementioned developer.

And the traction was crazy. In less than a week, over 1,000 people signed up, and now it’s almost double that. It’s been great for building my email list, and, in the event the US bans TikTok, I now have enough of an audience that I wouldn’t be starting from zero elsewhere.

So yeah, that’s how the thing came to be.

Who knows what’ll happen next. If it really takes off or people want more features than I could hope to put out on my own, I’m not ruling out a Kickstarter or something similar, but as like everything else with this project, it’ll be up to the community.

There you have it. The silly story of how I became a “tech founder”.

Here are 7 takeaways from the process to help with your own side hustles.

Top 7 takeaways from the process

Takeaway 1: The only way is the honest way

I’ve built big social media followings before, but they were always based on what I thought people wanted, not what I wanted — and they fizzled out.

It might be easier in the short-term to niche down and only talk about certain topics you think are popular, but those rarely work.

The only way to build a creator brand is to lean into what you’re genuinely interested in. The content should be the “exhaust” from whatever you’re already doing / passionate about, otherwise you’ll lose steam and the channel will die off.

Takeaway 2: I want to build a creatively filling cash machine

Something’s been missing in my creative pursuits. I like writing, but it’s unlikely it’ll ever be as financially rewarding as my exec career.

BUT with this whole software journey, I found myself invigorated by having a product that was related to my passion AND could be lucrative. It’s a creatively fulfilling cash machine, and that’s what’s been missing.

If you’re an artist trying to escape starving artisthood, think hard about what potential products could do the same for you.

Takeaway 3: Building in public is AWESOME

People think “building in public” means opening your kimono and sharing your financials with the world, but that doesn’t have to be the case. I prefer the version that’s more about documenting the process, letting customers decide on the roadmap, and being transparent about wins and losses.

By that definition, I’ve found building in public is AWESOME.

When you let your customers make every decision, like I am with Writhm, it forces you to be customer-obsessed, which is all that matters in business. You get better ideas, happier users, and a real community forms around what you’re doing, not just an audience you randomly spam.

Takeaway 4: You’re 100 pieces of content away from your dreams

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: if you want to break free from your 9-5 and chase your dreams, the first step is posting 100 times.

It’s not complicated. It’s also not easy, but IF you post 100 times, you WILL learn what works and get enough feedback to gain serious momentum.

Takeaway 5: One hook can make a whole company

I stole this wording from MFM: “One hook can make a whole company.”

What does it mean? It means if you’ve found something that can capture people’s attention, you can turn that into a very compelling business. Attention is that valuable.

The hook I came up with in the original video (“This is the best writing advice you’ll hear in your entire life”) led to building the app and getting 2,000 customers in 2 weeks and who knows what from here. Be on the lookout for these opportunities and keep sharpening your hooks.

Takeaway 6: Being early REALLY matters

Building on TikTok this time around was harder than the first time I did it.

I only got to 20k followers in 3 months compared to 60k in the same amount of time last year, mostly because it’s more competitive and the videos aren’t getting as much reach organically.

The sooner you are to the party, the more you’ll be rewarded. But also — don’t let that deter you. The best time to plant a tree was yesterday; the second best time is today.

Takeaway 7: Own your audience

I’d be lying if I said the proposed TikTok ban in the US isn’t concerning.

Every good marketer knows you should own your audience (aka capture their emails) instead of relying solely on a platform, but that’s easier said than done. Typically that’s in the form of offering content in exchange for emails, but now I’ve seen that an even better way is to build helpful tools.

That's all for this update!

I haven’t gotten around to updating my goal tracker sheets for this quarter yet, but maybe next quarter. (Does anyone even read them?)

Hope you enjoyed the takeaways, and catch you next time!

Devon

Pictures from the field this quarter

Things I was obsessed with this quarter

>> X-Men ’97. After almost 30 years, the animated X-Men series is back where it left off — and it’s goooood. (That’s not just my nostalgia speaking.)

>> Jason Lemkin content. I’ve always been a Lemkin lemming, but for whatever reason I spent a lot of time last quarter digging into his videos and interviews. So much gold! He’s the king of making complex concepts understandable, and he has the “it” factor entertainment-wise. I’m always slightly depressed when a new SaaStr episode drops and he’s not in it.

>> Margaret Atwood interviews. Every quarter it seems I pick an author and go down a rabbit hole of their old interviews, and this quarter it was Atwood. Her tone and humor and word choices are always hilarious, despite the sometimes-serious subject matter, and if I ever do book tours one day, I hope to make the interactions a fraction as memorable as hers.

>> Tiny Desk’s Sweeney Todd performance. Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford’s Tiny Desk concert is so good I’ve listened to it more times than I’m willing to admit here. One day I’ll get to see Sweeney live. One day.

>> Firebase. If you would’ve asked me 91 days ago what Firebase is, I wouldn’t’ve been able to tell you. But after going through this whole rigamarole of launching my own app, I now know a liiiiiittle bit about it and it’s awesome. Steep learning curve but very cool.

Devon Hennig

Devon Hennig is a writer, marketer, and ex-game-show host. He quit his job as a software executive to make a go of it on his own. Follow along as he tries not to go broke.

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