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The story of Write500 so far can be best summed up in this commit chart from Bitbucket:
The project started in December 2016, with the intention to create a tool to help writers write every day. At the time, I was pretty optimistic about my ability to retain focus:
…if I can finish this off as intended, I’ve got some other feature ideas to throw in. But right now, I shouldn’t get distracted 😉
I wrapped up and launched the first version before December drew to a close, and I was able to open registrations on 1 January 2017 – ringing in the New Year with a new project.
I then engaged the marketing engines, trying out a few different formats, and it wasn’t long before I reached the 500 subscriber mark. That, too, was hugely motivating – and it was less than a week later that I created the write500-app repository, starting work on the “real” version of Write500.
This was going to be the web app that I had originally envisioned, plus a ton of new ideas that I had picked up over the first few weeks. It was going to be an all-in-one of sorts: Writing and statistics, a built-in social feature, built-in community, and enough features to support two pricing tiers.
At the time I wrote my 28 January update, I had not actually done any creative writing since the 13th (about the time I started planning out the full app). I figured it was okay to let that lapse, since I was focused on building something that would eventually help me get back on track.
That momentum carried all the way through into the first two weeks of February, which is when the inertia set in. It’s pretty clear from the chart above: my code commits to the project simply fell flat. Looking back on it now, there were two main reasons:
Too much, too early. I had actually managed to build up (at least, in my head) a beast of a system, but for every new feature I added, it felt like more features were missing. Pretty soon, the lists of things I planned on implementing had eclipsed the intention of the project itself (seriously, I was reinventing activity feeds towards the end).
I could actually start to feel the drift: More and more hours were being spent productively, but it felt like every new commit was pulling me further away from launching a usable product. Worse, it was getting harder for me to justify why the code I was working on, would actually help writers write more.
In the space of a few weeks, Write500 turns from an exciting project, to something resembling dread – towards the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to open the IDE and carry on working. I was firmly in the Abyss.
I had stopped writing every day – the irony of which does not escape me. At some point it became more important to me to work on Write500, than it did to actually write every day – the very problem Write500 purports to solve.
As the necessity to write every day started to wane, so did my motivation for solving the problem. It was a spiral I managed to trap myself in pretty effectively – as the scope of the product expanded, and my capacity for daily writing diminished, I thought I could solve the problem by designing extra features.
I had lost sight of trying to solve the problem for my hypothetical users in the simplest way, and was instead trying to solve a problem that existed entirely in my mind.
With the marketing campaigns long-expired (and subscribers only trickling into the free list), and my own capacity for writing eaten up by software development, that vicious cycle finally ground me down to complete ineffectiveness around mid-February.
It’s usually around this point in my projects where I just give up – I decommission, archive, and shelve, chalk it up to my inability to stay on-target, and move on. And I came close to doing that several times.
How is Write500 different? In the end, I think it had everything to do with this chart:
After almost 5 months on the daily list, less than 25% of users had unsubscribed. More than 600 people were still getting value out of those daily prompts.
That chart gave me a different perspective on the problem entirely. Where I had been trying to solve problems with introducing ever-more-complex features, most users to date had simply been carrying on with the free list.
Maybe I was over-engineering it? That thought only occurred to me around mid-April. Maybe it would be possible (even, desirable) to throw away everything except the core experience (getting a new prompt every day), and basically start over.
The Great Purge
And so on 11 May 2017, I started doing just that.
I gutted the entire project – all the controllers, views, models, migrations, resources, assets, most of the configuration, most of composer.json. And then I started over.
By the end of the first day, I had re-implemented the basics – authentication, prompts, the basic writing interface, the streak display. All perfectly-functional components of the behemoth project, brought over more-or-less intact.
The remarkable thing here? In the old project, those exact same components felt like smaller by-products of a larger vision. In the rebuild, with a fresh perspective, they actually felt like core components again. I found myself able to chart a much clearer path between the code I was writing, and the value I expected my users to be able to get out of this.
A week later, I had the subscription mechanism and Paypal integration restored, and documented better than before. I added a new Statistics mechanism, which now tracks and records wordcount and speed pretty much in realtime. I added the export options which were initially high on my list of priorities, but had fallen by the wayside.
This purge-and-refactor process brought back all the motivation I had lost before. Write500 transformed again – from something seemingly without end, to a project I could conceivably finish.
All the commits from the 21st onwards were mostly cleanup and polish – fixing typos, rearranging screen elements, testing in Browserstack (unbelievably useful) for the major mobile devices, adding a streamlined migration onboarding path from the free list service, and so on.
This past Sunday (the 28th) I rounded it off by adding the Terms and Privacy pages (TermsFeed.com was enormously helpful for the former), and finally pushed the v0.3.0 tag. I did this while sitting in a hotel room in London, having just landed a few hours before.
On Monday (thankfully, a bank holiday in the UK), I was able to refine and run the new dispatch system, and gave it a full day to test. And today, I completed the migration of all users from the free list service to the new version of Write500.
Less really is more
There’s an excellent quote – the origins of which I have long since forgotten – which I routinely forget to apply to my own work (and I’m paraphrasing a bit):
Every project eventually exceeds the developer’s capability to maintain it.
Write500 outgrew my ability to maintain it even before it had made it out of my dev environment – which is not smart, and is the reason I failed to launch it in the first place.
With limited time and resources, the smartest approach is almost certainly the leanest one. The version of Write500 I have deployed right now (0.3.5) is a far cry from the vision I have for it, but it has one compelling thing in its favor: It exists.
It exists, but it’s also only getting started. The real test is whether or not there is actually a market for this. I’m happy with the way the free list has performed – there’s clearly some demand out there for tools that make consistent writing easier to achieve.
Is there enough demand, though, to turn this into a paid product? I guess only time (and marketing!) will tell.
At the very least, I’m glad to have been able to make this amount of progress. Write500 is the first project that actually came back from the Abyss of Reluctance, and made it into production.
Which, right now, is enough for me!