There’s something foolish about venturing into seemingly new territory.
Today, we’re launching Airstory.
We’re venturing into the land of Software.
To some people, it will look like a copywriter is trying her hand at SaaS. And all the head-patting that comes with that. Oh, Lord, why don’t we just stick to our knitting? Because, to paraphrase the great Vanilla Ice:
If there’s a problem, yo, I’ll solve it –
especially where writing and marketing are involved
Airstory is a natural extension of Copy Hackers.
It aims to solve the problem Copy Hackers aims to solve. Just with a different how.
While Copy Hackers teaches you to write copy that converts, Airstory helps you write it. It’s a drag-and-drop document builder. It is to documents what LeadPages and Unbounce are to landing pages.
Drag and drop your deliverable together, like so:
So what’s the problem with the document platform – or writing software – you’re using today?
Honestly, what isn’t wrong with it?
You do so much of your day-to-day work in a document. But none of the writing tools that are ubiquitous in businesses worldwide actually help you fill the page.
There are solutions to help you do all sorts of stuff around the page: find keyword phrases (Moz), plan your content (Trello, CoSchedule) and find reference material (Buzzsumo, DeepDyve).
And once the page is filled, you can invite people to collaborate with you on it (Google Docs, Dropbox Paper), design it (Vellum, Venngage), publish it (WordPress, Medium), promote it (Facebook, Twitter, Edgar, Mailchimp, Drip, ConvertKit), test it (Optimizely, VWO) and measure it (Ahrefs, GA). I’m only just scratching the surface. Marketing tools are everywhere, in every color, shape and size.
But how do you go from blank page… to filling page… to filled page?
How do you execute on the idea?
That’s the ginormous gap Airstory fills.
The Actually-Write-the-Thing Gap.
We Built Airstory Because We Needed It, and So Did the People We Interviewed
Almost two years ago now, I interviewed a content pro named Ginny, who was writing content for HubSpot. She walked me through her decidedly convoluted (said with love) process for going from idea to ready-for-review, something she had to do every day because her publishing schedule demanded a daily share-worthy post.
Her process had a lot in common with the decidedly convoluted (said with love) processes of the teams we interviewed at Moz, Unbounce and a half-dozen other fave tech companies. They all:
- Relied on gathering multiple pieces of information from other sources
- Involved private, concentrated writing time
- Had an outlining process, whether light or intense
- Required team input, reviews and approvals
Not a single process was linear. You don’t just sit down, open a document, start writing and keep going until you don’t stop. Sure, there’s a cool app for that if you’re a novelist. But writing for work isn’t about stream of consciousness or losing yourself in a scene. The process is more like this:
- Get an idea or get assigned an idea
- Go off and think about it
- Open a document
- Stare at it
- Jot down whatever you can, just to feel like you’re making progress
- Find yourself editing the thing you jotted down
- Go off and think about it
- Paste something from the web onto your doc
- Repeat steps 7 and 8 indefinitely or until a few hours before the deadline
- Copy, paste, copy, paste
- Stitch together all the stuff you’ve thrown onto the page
- Copy, paste, copy, paste
- Get coffee
- Smooth off the rough edges
- Revise your hook / headline
- Invite someone or several people to review your work
- Rethink everything you wrote the second you know it’s in someone else’s hands
Does that blinking cursor on the blank page help you with anything other than Step 3?
Does it care that the above 19-step process is extraordinarily painful, clunky and outdated?
Worst of all, that process is just for writing a piece of content, like an ebook or blog post.
What about when it’s time to write a series of sales emails?
Once again, it’s you vs the page. But now you’ve got the added burden of getting inside your reader’s head and nudging them to the point that they convert. Not easy.
I know how it feels, of course. I’ve spent nearly 15 years struggling through that pain in an environment where writing is supposed to come easily to me because, after all, it’s my job. But it’s a fatiguing process.
That’s why we made Airstory.
Because, frankly, fuck starting from scratch. It’s 2017. I don’t do anything on my own. The next car I buy is gonna self-drive and plug into my wall. Groceries arrive at my doorstep with recipe cards attached to them. Why should I try to write a job description or a contract or a long-form sales page on my own? Why should I settle for a glorified typewriter?
I shouldn’t. And you shouldn’t, either.
You can check out Airstory here and you should check it out if you’re in marketing or content creation. We’re also on Product Hunt today.
We’ve been working on Airstory for nearly 2.5 years, or half the life of Copy Hackers. Crazy, right?
The reasons we shouldn’t be doing this include:
- People think their writing software is fine because people think writing should be hard
- Everyone’s already using a writing tool
- People look at Airstory and go, “What do I do?” because they’ve never thought about actually having help putting their ideas on the page
- We make a great, low-stress living with Copy Hackers – why complicate things?
But the reasons we do it are much, much bigger than those.
They’re much harder to shake.
And we’re not alone. Not at all.
Nearly two years ago, I sat in a small group with Nathan Barry and a few awesome folks. We were at Microconf. At the time, the email marketing platform ConvertKit wasn’t quite the name it is today. It was struggling to find its place, which I don’t think Nathan (its founder and CEO) will mind me saying. But actually let me clarify: from the outside, it looked like ConvertKit was struggling to find its place. That certainly wasn’t the feeling among Team ConvertKit. They knew they were onto something.
I vividly remember one thing Nathan said in that huddle.
And my memory is absolute shit, so what he said had serious sticking power.
Someone asked Nathan if he was going to relaunch his books or get a new course out.
He said no.
“I’m going all-in on ConvertKit.”
You can read Nathan’s revenue breakdowns in his 2015 review and 2016 review, but let me give you the short version: at the time he told our little group he was done with his old business – the business that was a sure-thing, from a revenue-generation perspective – ConvertKit was making about $10,000 MRR.
He could have made twice as much just staying the course with his course business.
And he would only have had to pay his salary – not his and a handful of employees’.
It wasn’t about the money.
Because it isn’t about the money.
I think the reason – or one of the reasons – a lot of us get offended by those Facebook video ads where some “online coach” is walking through his huge garage of Lamborghinis and flashing his gold watch is this: it reduces the whole entrepreneurial experience down to the money you make. And the stuff you buy with the money you make.
Most of us are here for other reasons.
Bear with me while I launch into the “why we’re entrepreneurs” paragraph of this post…
We’re entrepreneurs because we love building things and growing things. And part of growing things is, of course, having the things you grow bear fruit. And that usually looks like money. But the goal isn’t to cash out. The goal isn’t to harvest. It’s to see the fruit for the seeds (to wring this analogy dry, with my apologies) and to replant. Keep building. Keep growing.
That Nathan Barry was going all-in on a risky thing was hugely inspiring for me.
He’ll never know how inspiring.
Even when he reads this, he won’t know.
I’ve made really great money at Copy Hackers. But my wardrobe doesn’t show it and my garage doesn’t show it and my non-existent watch collection certainly doesn’t show it. I don’t see a future where I’m launching and relaunching courses. That’s a perfectly good living and life. But it’s not MY life. Not forever.
I still want to teach.
And I still intend to teach.
But the problem with teaching and only teaching is that it’s so rare to see someone actually execute on what you teach them. Teaching can be frustrating. That Airstory will help people put into practice what I teach means I can keep doing what I love (i.e., teaching, writing, marketing) and also see people get better results.
And here’s why I’m in a better position than ever to commit to Airstory’s growth:
Because This Isn’t Our First Product or Startup
I totally get the purists out there.
Those fine folks that believe the only real founders are tech founders.
I’m not a developer. But neither was Steve Jobs. And if you roll your eyes at that, fine, I would too. So here are a handful of other non-technical cofounders / founders to quash the purists’ concerns:
- Tim Westergren of Pandora
- Tim Chen of NerdWallet
- Nirav Tolia of Nextdoor
- Jessica Scorpio of GetAround
- Sean Rad of Tinder
- Micheal Dell of Dell
- Brian Chesky of AirBnB
- Walker Williams of Teespring
So programming chops are not a requirement.
But perhaps experience is. Perhaps. If so, I got you.
We’ve gone to market with two different products before this one:
- 2008, Realtor Rating Site: Our first product idea came to us while Lance and I were lounging on Kaanapali Beach in Maui nearly 10 years ago (back when vacations were common things for us). We both had great jobs in marketing at tech giant Intuit, yet we got this crazy idea to start a realtor rating site. We engaged a coworker named Steven Luke as our technical co-founder, and together we made What-Customers-Say.com. We launched and immediately got on the local and national news in Canada, which was pretty crazy but press releases actually worked at the time and you could call a journalist because newspapers still had those. When the realtor association got their backs up, the Canadian government ordered us to shut down. For real. I haven’t liked realtors since.
- 2010, Book Rating Site: The three of us – Steven, Lance and yours truly – launched Page 99 Test, a site where you would read page 99 of a book and then state if you would or would not turn the page to keep reading. (Book nerds in the room will be familiar with the page 99 test, even if you’ve never read Ford Madox Ford.) We got instant media coverage – damn, we’ve been lucky with that stuff – including an article on The Guardian and an interview with the New Yorker, which never made it to print. But Page 99 Test was a marketplace. And marketplaces are hard business. And we were all very well-employed and well-compensated by Intuit. So we gradually stopped working on Page 99 Test. And that little hobby site fizzled.
In the years since, Steven and I have emailed back and forth with ideas.
And Lance and I have worked on – then shut down – other ideas.
But it wasn’t until last winter that the stars, at last, aligned.
I Fooled Around and Fell in Love
For the first 1.5 years of Airstory, I was partnered with someone who’s no longer involved in Airstory.
We’ll call him Jim. Because that is his name.
Like all partnerships that fail, things started out great with Jim. Warm feelings. Excitement. Possibilities. Naturally, I made all the mistakes they tell you not to make. Naturally, I kept telling myself they weren’t really mistakes – those rules didn’t apply to me, and I was, of course, the exception.
It wasn’t a problem, I told myself, that Jim and I had never worked together.
It wasn’t a problem that we lived on opposite sides of the continent in two different countries and had never met or been on video Skype together.
The bad things that happen to people in these situations happened to us. I won’t get into them because I can offer nothing to the conversation that hasn’t already been told in a thousand cautionary tales; suffice it to say, I fucked up and he did too. Communication problems. Vision problems. Planning problems. Execution problems. Yup, all the problems. And the impending doom of financial problems: Jim was going to commit to Airstory full time in January 2016, and I was going to pay him a salary so he could.
I talked to my friend Amy Hoy about it. She used expletives.
I talked to my friends in a mastermind-type-thing. They told me to get out while I could.
But I was so far into it.
(I know, I know – sunk cost fallacy. I live in the world of persuasion, but that doesn’t mean I can outsmart it.)
By October of 2015, when our partnership started to unravel big-time, Jim and I had already:
- Conducted nearly a dozen jobs-to-be-done interviews with bloggers and marketers
- Conducted dozens of interviews with traditional writers, editors and literary agents
- Spent more than a year building Airstory
- Spent thousands on UX and UI design
- Spent thousands on the development of an iPhone app
- Done several rounds of beta testing
- Invested 500+ days of time and energy
- Gleaned extremely valuable insights into how to make a solid product a great one
So yes, the sunk costs were real.
I started thinking about ending things. Not Airstory. The partnership. Jim was going to cost me the equivalent of $200,000 CAD / yr once he went full-time, and I had good reason to believe that, as soon as I had him on payroll, I’d only be further tangling myself in a relationship that was ill-fated at best.
But I believed in Airstory. For all the reasons above and more.
So I did what any reasonable person would do: I looked into how to get out.
I emailed Steven Luke out of the blue. I asked him – very bluntly – how much it would take to get him to leave his extremely cushy, high-paying job as a full-stack staff-level engineer at Intuit and work with me full-time on a little SaaS project, which I then pitched to him. He wanted to build something great – it wasn’t about money for him.
I summoned the courage to break up with Jim.
He kept all the code. I kept the name.
In February 2016, Steven became Airstory’s cofounder and my business partner.
His reason for joining: “I want to wow people.”
Our Goal: To Wow You with Usefulness
Over the course of the last 365 days, we have built from scratch everything about Airstory except the idea, the name and the research.
We hired a design agency to redo the Airstory UI. That… failed. We persuaded our favorite UI designer Jane Portman to reinvent the UI. That succeeded. We hired our go-to graphic designer Lesley Pocklington to visually realize our brand. That succeeded. Lance suddenly became available, and now we had a full-time product pro on staff. That succeeded, too.
We did a demo of a first-draft of Airstory for my copywriter mastermind. That failed.
We tried to get a beta ready to coincide with my interview on the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast in July. That failed.
We sent fun mailers to marketers we love at companies we love. Those failed.
We’ve seen 1600+ beta users in Airstory over the last 3 months. Based on what we’re seeing in the data and hearing in interviews… we’re succeeding there. We’re succeeding with the Airstory product. We’re starting to wow some people.
There will be countless people for whom Airstory is not the right solution.
If you spend fewer than 2 hours a day in a document, stick with your current solution. If you don’t write longer content ever, stick with your current solution. If you don’t rely on templates, frameworks, formulas and/or research to make your writing kick-ass, stick with your current solution.
For everyone else, there’s Airstory.
It’s live today.
And if you can’t imagine needing to fix what’s broken in your writing tool, I’ll leave you with this Stewart Butterfield quote, which Lance added to the Airstory project where I’m writing this:
We know that we have built something which is genuinely useful: almost any team which adopts Slack as their central application for communication would be significantly better off than they were before. That means we have something people want.
However, almost all of them have no idea that they want Slack. How could they? They’ve never heard of it. And only a vanishingly small number will have imagined it on their own. They think they want something different (if they think they want anything at all). They definitely are not looking for Slack. (But then no-one was looking for Post-it notes or GUIs either.)
Just as much as our job is to build something genuinely useful, something which really does make people’s working lives simpler, more pleasant and more productive, our job is also to understand what people think they want and then translate the value of Slack into their terms. (Source: Medium)
We’re still 100% involved in and loving Copy Hackers.
But we’re all in on Airstory, too.
The two go hand in hand. And both, we believe, are genuinely useful to marketers like you.
~ Mark Twain