I was 18, and one day these Mucky Mucks - as my father likes to say :) - were touring the Chicago Park District courses where I worked. They started at one, played a round of golf, then moved onto the next. Their last round was at the course I worked at: Robert A. Black.
Well as the group got ready for their last round, a guy came into the pro-shop and told my boss that he screwed up. He left his car at the first course, and hoped someone could pick it up and drive it to him. Here were the keys to his BMW.
My boss was busy hosting these VIP’s, so he smiled and handed me the keys. He trusted me. He also knew I would love driving this car.
I was driving a 15-year-old Oldsmobile Toronado, a Flying Bull. It had no horn. No air conditioning. No speedometer. Which is really fun on lonely highways when cop cars pull alongside. The real interesting bit was that it had no reverse. Yes. You couldn’t drive it backwards. I had to get out and push it. And I did. Often.
Anyways, more stories about the Flying Bull another time.
So I hitch a ride from an employee going home, and she drops me off at the first golf course. I locate the BMW. It’s awesome. I get in. Put the key in the ignition. And…
It’s a stick shift. I don’t know how to drive stick shift.
I mean, I know the concept. There was a manual transmission lawn maintenance car with a clutch and three gears I’d drive at the golf course, so I’m familiar with a clutch. But I’ve never driven a real car using a manual transmission.
I’m not one to give up. There’s also not an easy solution. My boss is busy with the important guests, and there’s no one at work who can drop everything and pick this car up.
So I try my best.
And it stalls. It stalls a lot. I’m having a really hard time getting the car to drive in first gear. What the hell!? I thought I understood a clutch, but it just keeps stalling.
Then, someone, seeing my constant stalling, taps on the window of the car, and helps with some advice. Really nice of him, but I’m still having trouble.
This gentleman offers to jump into the driver’s seat and show me. In my predicament, I thought maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. I even had the door cracked open an inch. Then, common sense started trickling back into my 18-year-old brain.
One, this isn’t my car. Two, I now realize this man is homeless. The golf course I was at had a sheltered clock-tower area where homeless would often sleep. And not that I distrust a homeless man, but he might have a stronger incentive to take this car than most, and if he did drive away, how is anyone going to find him again?
But like magic, I get the car into first gear and I’m rolling. I yell thank you and goodbye out the window to my helpful new friend. Then I had it in second gear! And then I got onto Chicago’s Lake Shore drive, an 8 lane highway, where drivers treat the speed limit of 45 MPH as a minimum.
Don’t worry. It’s not fast driving that’s going to be a problem for my new BMW… it’s rush hour traffic. And so with the traffic, comes back my constant stalling. I’m sweating like crazy. My shirt is soaking wet. I can’t deal with the stop and go traffic and my stalling. So I get off at the first exit. Pull into a bus stop. I don’t even want to try and parallel park the car into a proper space. I run across the street to use a pay-phone.
I call my Dad.
I’m pretty sure he was settled in his favorite chair, relaxing at the end of the day. I heard a grunt as we ended the phone call. But 30 minutes later, here he was with a smile. We switched cars and headed back to Robert Black. That was it. BMW returned. And we didn’t tell anyone at my employment what happened that afternoon.
This is a thank you for all the fathers who keep finding themselves comfortably doing what they wanted, but drop everything to help their kids when they’re in trouble. Of course, we don’t say thank you enough, but we never forget these moments.
I wish you all a Happy Father’s Day this weekend. You deserve it.
Two years ago I crashed and burned at Y Combinator’s Demo Day. When I realized what I had done wrong, I endeavored to build Draft, a new way to improve people’s writing, without repeating my mistakes–and I think it’s working. Here’s what I did differently.
I introduce Draft and a process I’m using to try and build something innovative to help people write better, while avoiding more technology for technology’s sake. Also, how I met Ashton Kutcher :)
They created a style of text (Markdown) that can be easily understood as a task/todo list in plaintext, while remaining easily parsed by software. I want this to spread. So Draft now supports Github-style Markdown todos.
Create a todo list like this:
- [ ] Write the documentation
- [ ] Get tickets
And when you’re viewing a document it will look like this:
If you check one of those boxes or labels:
your document’s text will automatically be updated with an ‘x’.
- [x] Write the documentation
- [ ] Get tickets
I keep multiple Draft tabs open now, with one of them being a Draft todo list.
There’s also a shortcut in the action menu:
Which creates a new todo for you.
Draft has a number of native publishing options: MailChimp, Tumblr, Wordpress, LinkedIn and Twitter. And I keep getting requests for more. So to help that effort, I’m releasing the ability to create your own WebHooks.
WebHooks integrate themselves into the Publish button of your documents. When you publish to your WebHook, Draft will send the WebHook url a JSON payload of your document, so you can add Draft publishing to whatever you want.
And finally, at the time of writing, Draft is managing over 78,295 documents. Thank you for all the continued support over email and Twitter. I’m working my butt off to keep improving Draft and make it more useful. Thank you so much for the help you’ve given me to get to this point.
If you need me, my Twitter account is a great place.
Just released an API and WebHooks for Draft. TechCrunch covered it and some other publishing features I’ve released recently.
The one-man team of Nathan Kontny has just introduced a new REST API that’ll let any news outfit or other publishing organization connect Draft to the other software it uses. If you’re Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post* or another media company with a big mix of full and part-time writers, you could use the API to let writers and editors work through versions together in Draft then publish straight to your custom content management system.
Twelve years ago I began creating my first software product to sell: TinyDBA, a mobile app to help database administrators. I went to a networking event hoping to find my first customers. I had business cards (really crappy ones). But I didn’t have a single thing to demo. I never had a single thing to demo. After months of talking about this “business” and fooling around with some code on nights and weekends, I never shipped anything.
This is an answer to: What tools do you use at your startup?
Have you ever looked inside a handyman’s toolbox?
My father is super handy. He did a ton around our house growing up. He built a beautiful fence around our yard. And he finished our entire basement. Multiple rooms. One room for homework, another for games like darts and pool.
I helped him with a lot of those projects. Hammering things. Painting. But mostly I did cleanup. Washed the paintbrushes. Put the tools away.
I remember vividly how old his tools were. The same old saws. The same hammer. He rarely bought anything new.
Today you can buy a laser level to help make things straight. I have one. It’s been handy a few times. But I’ve needed a traditional straight edge level with a ruler on it.
I stole my father’s. This thing must be 30 years old. Covered in spackling and paint. But when I need to make something straight, it’s the first tool I reach for. I’ve never given it back.
A friend of mine is always telling me about his latest project. But nothing ever seems to ship. Each time he mentions a new project, it coincides with “Oh man, now I’m learning Ruby on Rails.” A few months later it was “I just picked up Python and I’m using Django for this latest thing.” And eventually, “I’m going to start this new project and will learn AngularJS!” And he gets frustrated with his lack of traction.
A couple years ago, when I was considering a new startup, I wanted to see if I could create my own version of Bejeweled, a popular online game where people match images of jewels. I wanted my version to be able to have customizable images, so we could go to a client like The Gap, and say, “We’ll take your logo and images from your store, and put them into our game. People will play with images of your stuff for hours.”
I just went with what I already knew. I built my own version of Bejeweled (which I called Beawesomed) in about 2 days and immediately sent it to people. You had to email us the images you wanted to use. No fancy admin screen. I built a dozen other games that way using tools I already knew with very few bells and whistles.
We ended up deciding to shut the games business down. But not from a lack of data or customers. In a few months, we quickly built a prototype used by a dozen clients, and over 10,000 people playing over 2 hours a day.
To figure out the next thing after branded games didn’t work out, I went even deeper into my toolset for really old tools to test out ideas. Just a simple Adwords ad and a Wufoo form. When I needed to upgrade that, I reached for Wordpress and a WooTheme.
I’m not against learning new technologies. But I only introduce them when I reach an impasse the simplest tool in my toolbox can’t fix.
With Beawesomed, the code worked well for months. Eventually I bumped into a problem I couldn’t fix with Rails, and finally had to reach for something a little more cutting edge: Node.js. But only after we had lots of people already using our games.
Today I’m blessed to get feedback like this on Draft, a project I’m running by myself:
@natekontny dude, how do you release such big features so fast? I’ve never seen anything like it from another startup. It’s just you right?!
I was reviewing an online shoe store the other day. The landing page had this beautiful graphic of all these shoes. Gorgeous looking site. And then I clicked on another link, and saw this photo of food. That’s weird. This shoe store has a dietary help section?
It wasn’t a shoe store.
I finally figured out it was a web designer’s portfolio. These were examples of their photography.
I’ve been helping with a lot of website critiques lately. Here are three mistakes I myself have made and see over and over again.
1. You’ve buried the lede.
Age old wisdom for writers: “Don’t bury the lede”. But web designers ignore it. In my example above, you had to read deep into their page to figure out this was a portfolio, and they’d like you to hire them.
Use a single H1 tag on your landing page to state very clearly what you do. It doesn’t have to be the default ginormousness of an H1 tag, but it should stand out on the page.
Basecamp has a great homepage. Right away you can tell this site is about helping me manage projects. There’s no confusion that this could be a website consultant or a shoe store.
Bonus: Search Engine Optimization
Google wants to know what your site is about too.
I used to think SEO would just take care of itself, if we made a great product and had people talk about us in articles. Inkling, my first successful business, was deep on the second and third pages of search results for “prediction markets”, an important term for our business. But when we started telling people clearly what we do in H1 tags:
Use prediction markets to transform how you forecast, measure risk, and make decisions on projects.
We quickly went up to #4 on the first page.
2. You pretend no one says anything nice about you.
I went to a golf tournament once. I like playing golf, but I’m not that interested in watching other people play. I just went for the free food that came with the ticket.
But as I was walking, I saw a large group of people. I had to go see what they were looking at. As I nudged in, I realized why. Bill Murray was carrying the golf bag of one of the professionals. Everyone wanted to see Bill and shout their favorite quote from Caddyshack.
When you see a bunch of people paying attention to the same thing, it’s hard not to also pay attention. That’s why testimonials work.
Ecommerce stores use them to get more people to shop. Political campaigns use them to get more donations. Even my wife has used testimonials in writing a cover letter to get more interviews.
Someone somewhere is saying something nice about you. It doesn’t have to be someone famous. Start with your mom or some friends.
For Draft, I started with a single testimonial from a stranger I asked to user test. As they were testing, they said something really nice, and I asked if I could use it on my website. You’ve never heard of them. They didn’t have a website or Twitter account to link to when I asked. But that single testimonial next to a signup form helped me gather thousands of Beta testers. And I leveraged that single testimonial to help get many more testimonials from people you have heard of.
3. You’ve hidden the most important thing.
What’s the most important thing a visitor can do on your page? If you’re a wedding photographer, it’s probably contact you for work. If you’re a website designer, same thing.
But we hide these contact links. We make them blend in with all the other links. Or worse.
I was reviewing a beautiful long scrolling design the other day. There’s a neat parallax effect where the background shifts as you scroll. Gorgeous. And then, at the very bottom of the page, there was a way to contact this company.
I’ve mentioned before how broke I was in college. That was a guiding influence to find a co-op opportunity. A co-op is a job where I could go to school for a semester, and then work for a semester, then go back to school, then back to work, etc. The making money part was very attractive. So was the awesome experience.
As a Freshman, I interviewed for a co-op position with 3M, well known for Scotch Tape and Post-it Notes. To prepare, I read some pamphlets about what 3M does and how innovative they are.
I sat in that interview, inexperienced, naive, using standard cliches like, “I work hard.” And now I’m blabbering on about how important “innovation” is.
The two interviewers got sick of me saying that word so often. Innovation. Innovation. So one of them asked me, “What does innovation mean to you?”
I was just a college Freshman. When I wasn’t working my ass off, all I wanted to do was go to a house party, or drink Popov Vodka in my dorm room. My roomate and I invented a drinking game using the card game War. Invented. Who am I kidding? You play War. When it’s time for a war, you drink. And now here I am in this interview without any real idea what innovation is.
But I immediately blurted out something like, “Innovation is two things. First, you obviously have to spot something that people aren’t doing yet. But second, most importantly, you need to have the courage to do something different than what you’ve grown comfortable doing.”
I have no idea where that came from, but somehow it impressed them. The two interviewers eyes opened wide, they looked at each other and smiled.
I got the job offer to co-op for 3M.
I talked it over with someone advising me. We were both clueless how opportunities like this work, and thought I could play the field a little more. Maybe even make a little more money.
As I tried to see what else was out there, the offer time-bombed, and it was rescinded.
We got greedy and I pissed the chance away.
In 2005, I applied to Y Combinator (YC). They provide seed money to get fledgling technology businesses off the ground. I had wanted to start my own business since college. My first attempt at creating a software business was database administration software for mobile devices like the Compaq IPAQ. I never shipped anything. Other attempts at starting a business had similar results.
So applying to YC seemed like a pretty good next step for me. We got an interview.
My partner, Adam, and I travelled to Boston for the interview, and the night before, we went out for Indian food. As we were finishing up, Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, and Aaron Swartz walked in the door. Paul and Jessica are two of the founding partners of YC. Aaron, one of their first investments.
Adam and I thought we should introduce ourselves, in order to hopefully leave a good impression for our interview. We walked up, before they ordered, and introduced ourselves and our company. Paul blankly stared back at me like he had no idea who we were. Jessica, though, recognized our names and introduced the group. That was it. We told them we looked forward to chatting tomorrow.
Pretty sure we weren’t on Paul’s list of startups he was looking forward to investing in.
My feeling was further confirmed, when we showed up for our interview. Here I am, now a naive software engineer, telling these investors we were going to build this business better than those who had come before us, but I sensed Paul knew we had no idea what we were doing.
However, later that day, we got a phone call that they wanted to invest in us. Another time-bomb.
Lots of fear, uncertainty, doubt and greed crept in. Are we giving away too much equity? Is the opportunity cost too high of leaving my job? Can I stand being away from my home for 3 months? Will I get along with my partners whom I barely know?
But I’ve been here before. I’ve screwed this up before.
We called them back in a few minutes and agreed to their offer. Inkling was going to be a company.
Somehow we convinced YC to take a chance on us. And that chance turned into a business. And that business has now been around for over 7 years. It’s paid a handful of people good salaries and I’ve been working for myself ever since. It’s been used by dozens of Fortune 500 companies and the US Federal Government.
Even 3M has used Inkling.
It wouldn’t even exist today, if YC hadn’t taken a chance on us. It wasn’t about the money. They gave us $17,000, which we could have pooled together ourselves with the good paying jobs we had at the time. But their buy-in was the activation energy we needed to believe in ourselves, quit our jobs, and commit to the business full time.
Fast forward to 2011. Inkling had matured as a product, and I wanted to try something new. And YC gave me another chance.
It’s taken me a couple years. A few false starts. Took a 6 month break to regroup. But I was finally able to take another of YC’s chances and turn it into Draft. It’s still early. It’s impossible to say how things will turn out. But I can say, that a lot of people really love Draft. They are paying me for it. The numbers are growing. And I have never had this kind of momentum before.
None of this would have been possible without those chances and a hell of a lot of hard work. And maybe?
The courage to stop doing what I’ve grown comfortable doing.
A few years ago I had to give a speech about Inkling, the company I co-founded, and what prediction markets were all about. I’ve given talks on stage before, and I practiced this one at home at least two dozen times.
There were other speakers and after our talks we were supposed to stand at these tables, off to the side at this networking event, and answer any follow-up questions people had.
I gave my speech to a hundred or so people and thought it went fine. Then, I went and stood at my table.
No one ever came over.
That sucked. It’s not a pleasant feeling, pouring yourself into something you care very much about, and no one shares any interest.
It didn’t seem like it was because I was generally poor at public speaking. In high-school I was in a public speaking club and even won awards at it. I’m a trained actor too. I’ve gotten some nice compliments from strangers coming up to me after a performance.
Why weren’t people interested in this? Why didn’t anyone come up after this talk to chat?
And there have been other talks and articles I’ve written that went very similar to this. I’ll spend a huge chunk of time writing about something I care about, and it’s crickets in my web traffic logs.
So how can I make what I’m writing or talking about more interesting?
As I examined this question, it’s become clear that the most interesting people tell better stories.
The most interesting entrepreneurs are good storytellers. The most interesting teachers are good storytellers. Have you seen Richard Feynman teach or speak? It’s story after story. Even people I’ve interviewed or hired had better stories in their cover letters or interviews.
So one thing I’ve been working on over the last 18 months is simply becoming a better storyteller. I’ve read a ton of books about storytelling. I’ve even been to a short class taught by Lea Thau, who was the Executive & Creative Director of the storytelling organization The Moth, and followed up with Lea to get even more book recommendations.
There’s one common thread that comes up over and over again, and I think Kurt Vonnegut teaches it best:
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger.
Start with a plot. Start with a conflict. Share something troubling or challenging or painful and tell a story about how you are trying to get or have already gotten through it. People stick around to see how stories turn out.
I’ve practiced becoming a better storyteller, especially here on this blog. And it seems I’m improving.
Of course, telling a better story is still about experimentation. Even Kurt Vonnegut wrote boring stuff sometimes. Not everything is going to be incredibly interesting. There’s still crickets. But I’m seeing more consistency in traffic and tweets and emails about what I’m writing.
A couple weeks ago, I shared a story of someone who emailed me about a job they were applying for and the advice I gave them on their cover letter. Put simply, it was to flesh out the unique story that they were already trying to tell.
I just got an email that they landed the interview.
And on Tuesday May 14, 2013, I published some writing about teaching. I opened with a story in which I was stuck in a gas station trying to get gas but without a method to pay. I was broke. A conflict I didn’t resolve until the very end of the post.
13,665 people showed up to read and share that blog post of mine.
That’s quite a different feeling than the one I had standing at that lonely table.
Draft has some neat and useful improvements to announce:
Audio/video transcription tools
Comments shown alongside changes
More social analytics reports
Set the font color (helpful for dark themes)
Publish to MailChimp and LinkedIn
A shortcut using the Draft browser extension
Audio/video transcription tools
I can’t believe how much of a pain it is to transcribe even a short amount of audio. In order to write better, I’ve wanted to start including more transcriptions of podcasts, video presentations, and interviews in my writing, but the tools are in bad shape. I found myself using iTunes for the keyboard shortcuts, but I’d have to flip back and forth to edit the text I was transcribing.
There had to be a better way.
Now Draft can assist you with your transcription. The “New Document” button has a dropdown arrow next to it to start a “New Transcription”.
You can transcribe Youtube and Vimeo videos. Or file types like .mp4/.flv or .mp3/.m4a/.aac. You can have it hosted somewhere else and use a URL, or upload it to Draft.
Your Draft edit mode will then look like this:
The green buttons allow you to skip back and forward. The loop fields allow you to create repeating loops in your audio/video media (for example, 0:00 To 0:05). Once you get that loop transcribed, the skip buttons will increment the entire loop.
Everything is tied to keyboard shortcuts, so you can quickly write, move the loop, write, move the loop. Click the ? in the media window for more help.
It’s been insanely handy. I used it to quickly transcribe a Vimeo video for a blog post. And people have been using it to transcribe interviews for their books and articles.
Comments shown alongside changes
This is really cool:
When you view changes a collborator made, you can now view some of their comments on that page. If you’re a collaborator and you are editing someone’s Draft document, just make sure to quote some of the text in the document to explain why you made the change.
The comment icon on the edit screen will also glow red, if you have new comments from a collaborator that you haven’t seen yet:
More social analytics reports
There’s a lot more behind that “Reports” button.
You can now parse the social performance of any RSS/Atom feed. Want to find out the most popular time you post to your blog? Or what’s the most popular day on which someone like Seth Godin blogs? Just add any feed you want Draft to analyze. I also added 3 new reports here: post time, title length, and profanity.
Set the font color
I’ve gotten a lot of requests for this in order to support a dark background color. Just go to Settings to change the text color to your liking.
Publish to MailChimp and LinkedIn
I’ve got a small mailing list that likes updates when I post a new blog post. I use MailChimp. MailChimp is a great product I’ve been using for years.
The problem though is: I just want to send out a super simple newsletter with a link to the post in it. But there are so many steps to get that newsletter created, the friction caused me to ignore sending out the newsletter entirely.
So I’ve made it easy to publish from Draft to MailChimp.
Go to Settings -> Places to Publish to add MailChimp, click the Publish menu next to one of your documents, and choose your MailChimp account.
Choose the subject of the newsletter email and the list you’re sending it to. You’ll then get redirected to MailChimp when you click “Publish”, in order to confirm and check on everything one last time. Draft will convert your Markdown to an HTML newsletter, and also include the plain-text alternative.
I’ve also added LinkedIn as a publisher. Publish your status there just like you do with Draft + Twitter. This has been super useful to publish news to ALL my social networks from one place.
A shortcut using the Draft browser extension
People love using the Chrome/Firefox extensions that let them turn any textarea into something they can write to with Draft. This shortcut makes it another step easier.
ALT+CMD+V on a Mac. Or ALT+CTRL+V on Windows/Linux.
Will automatically switch back to the original textarea and paste your Markdown/text into the box. If you forget, just look for the “Paste Back” item in the action menu when you’re using the Chrome/Firefox extensions.
I can’t thank you enough for all the support on my project. I’ve received so many great ideas and notes of motivation. Thank you!
To stay up to date on Draft, my Twitter account is a good place: