How We Started a Personal
Analytics App To Track Daily Activities
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! My name is Josh, I’m the co-founder of Hello Code, a small software company in Melbourne, Australia. We make Exist, a personal analytics app to track everything about your life in one place and understand your behaviour.
We take in data like activity, sleep, health, productivity, and social media stats to try to uncover relationships between these different aspects of your life, and help you figure out what makes you happier and healthier.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
My co-founder Belle was on holiday in France and wanted to keep track of how much she was walking while she was exploring Paris and visiting all the different touristy things. She downloaded an app that tracked her steps on her phone, and got addicted to making that number go up — remember that this was right at the start of the trend of step tracking, so this was still a fairly novel idea. But it wasn’t very long until she got bored of just seeing a basic number of steps, and it failed to motivate her any further.
Talking about this, we got excited about the idea of taking quantifiable numbers that people already tracked like steps, weight, and anything else we could find and building more context on top of that.
It seemed obvious to me that you could do more with those numbers than simply showing a daily count or a long-term graph — things like celebrating your best day for a while, or comparing your count today to your recent average for that day of the week so you could see if you were getting more or less active. And once you had multiple quantifiable attributes about your life, you could use correlations to see how they affected each other!
We had a hunch that this extra context was something that people would find really useful as the Quantified self movement started taking off.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
We’ve built a business that relies on other companies, which can be really tough. We’ve had integrations come and go because companies die (e.g. Jawbone), or they change who’s allowed to access their APIs and how (e.g. Instagram cut off access this year). We’ve also found the quality of APIs, documentation, and the data itself varies between services, so the same data in Exist can be more or less problematic depending on where you’re syncing it from.
All of this has made our work frustrating at times, because in a lot of ways we’ve ended up doing customer support for these other companies, as our users struggle to get their accounts and devices set up in the way they want, and come to us when the data in Exist reflects an issue in the original service.
We also have an ever-growing list of integration requests from our users for services that don’t make their users’ data available via an API. We spend a lot of time explaining to our users that if the developers of another device or app don’t make it available to the user in this way, there’s nothing we can do. Some apps only allow whitelisted parties to access their API, and we’ve had applications for access ignored over and over with no explanation.
This sort of thing can be tough, but we try not to let it take up too much of our time and instead focus on the integrations that are possible, as well as encouraging other developers to create APIs and other ways for users to own their data. We believe it’s good practice, and beneficial to everyone.
Our best defence against this has been to spread the load, so we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. When Jawbone died and we had to remove the integration, we already had several other integrations that provided activity and sleep data, so there wasn’t a gaping hole.
That’s harder to do with industries like social media, where certain services like Instagram and Gmail have cornered the market, but where possible we try to spread our dependency across more than one service to ease the pressure of relying on other companies for our product’s value.
Who is your target market?
Our market is tech-savvy folks, prosumers or even people working in tech, who already have an interest in tracking data about their behaviour. When we started the market was a lot smaller and mostly growing out of the nascent Quantified Self community.
As the market has matured, trackers have come and gone, but the market has grown and consolidated around a few big players like Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin, so anybody with one of their devices and interest in self-tracking is a potential customer. We have a diverse user base, though, and see a lot of folks of all ages who are looking for a way to track other things like chronic health and mental health symptoms.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
To be honest, we hate marketing and do as little of it as possible — and you can too! But I’ll tell you what we used to do that worked back in the day.
One of the best things we did with Exist was to start marketing before we launched. We made a landing page where people could sign up to be notified when we went live, and we were lucky enough to get some press around the product before launch, which helped our mailing list grow.
We also happened to be in the right place at the right time, as the Quantified Self movement started to hit the mainstream, and we were able to ride that wave. Getting involved then helped us get more interest and press than we would have otherwise, as lots of magazines and websites were looking for Quantified Self-related stories to write.
Since Belle was working in content marketing, we focused on that and started a blog with regular posts about the Quantified Self movement, self-tracking, and related topics like exercise and building good habits. We reached out to sites like Lifehacker and Zapier and were able to get some guest posts on other sites as well as having some of our blog posts republished.
At the time, big content sites like Lifehacker and Fast Company were keen to republish posts from other sites, since they needed to publish a huge volume of content every day. Republished articles always included a link back to the original (as well as an author bio), so it was a helpful way to build our audience and name recognition.
One other thing that works well, but that we have absolutely no control over, is getting an organic mention from someone with a big audience. Merlin Mann mentioned Exist a couple of times on his podcasts, and we got a big influx of signups from that. We also got a mention in a blog post by Wil Wheaton, which sent us a lot of sign-ups. We never reach out to influencers (except to say thanks afterwards), so it’s always a nice surprise when something like this happens.
The one thing that never worked for us was reaching out to press directly. We’ve been lucky to have a few journalists reach out over the years, particularly early on, and we’ve ended up on radio and in print magazines in various countries. But anytime we reach out directly to the press it’s failed, so we’ve stopped wasting our time with that approach.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We’re keen on working openly and transparently and listening to our users. We maintain a public roadmap for Exist where users can vote for their favourite suggestions and help us prioritise what we work on. The roadmap helps us find out what our users are interested in, but also helps us communicate our plans and what we’re working on right now. We also enjoy chatting with our users in Exist’s private forum about their suggestions and the things they’ve built on our API.
We’re open about the fact that it’s just the two of us, and try to communicate in a personal way rather than pretending to be a big company. We think this works to our advantage by building a personal relationship with our users. All welcome emails, payment receipts, and email support come from the two of us, and we have manual processes in place to do things like extending free trials partly because we want to be involved personally.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
It’s just two of us, so the culture has developed out of our personalities and how we work together without us needing to formalise it so far. We share the same personal values and our work culture is an extension of that, so we haven’t needed to worry about it.
We both work when we want and don’t care about formal hours, but check-in regularly and plan all our future work together so we’re on the same page. Because we’re both co-founders we have equal say in big decisions and changing anything that’s not working.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
We use Stripe to process our credit card transactions, and we also let Stripe handle our free trials, which means users have to enter a credit card to create an account. This definitely makes the barrier to trying the product higher, but it also means people are more likely to convert to paying users. It’s a trade-off that means fewer sign-ups, but higher-quality sign-ups, and so far we’re happy with that compromise.
We use Help Scout to manage our support tickets, which was the best small-business option out of those we tried. Otherwise we try to keep it lean and minimise our overheads, so we have as few external tools as we can get away with.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
Start marketing your product before you launch. This will help you validate the market, boost your confidence while you’re working on your first version, and will be a great help when you’re ready to launch. And later, if you find a marketing channel that works well, stick with it. It can be really difficult (and a big time- and money-waster) to figure out which marketing channels or approaches will work for your business, so don’t squander the ones that do seem to work.
Building a business on other access to users’ data from other apps is precarious, and although we’ve been lucky, I think it’s a risky model to pick because you are reliant on those apps’ developers to continue to do the right thing by their users, which isn’t always the case.
Being open and transparent is really valuable and I would take the same approach with any future business. There’s so much benefit both for us and our users.
We’ve also found dogfooding (i.e. using the product ourselves) has been really important. It not only helps us catch bugs and improve the user experience, but it helps a lot with developing our vision for the product and having the confidence to turn down feature requests that aren’t in line with what we have in mind. Making something we get value out of helps guide us so we don’t fall into the trap of adding every little feature one of our users suggests, but make more considered decisions about how new features fit into the product overall.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The freedom to do things your own way, for sure, and it’s the reason I wanted to start my own business in the first place. You can choose what values you operate with, how long to work and when to work, and make all the decisions about how the product is built.
If you don’t have investors, you don’t even have to care about big profits if you don’t want to — there’s nobody forcing you to run your business a particular way. If you find capitalism distasteful you have the freedom to choose the limited ways in which you are a part of it.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Taking responsibility! There’s just nobody else to do the hard things, particularly when you don’t have the means to hire others, so it means being the person who’s in charge of devops, even when you don’t really know what you’re doing, or being the person who writes the marketing copy, even when you hate marketing. The freedom to do things yourself is both a blessing and a curse.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
We’re more interested in building a product we care about than the art of running a business, so we don’t really read anything in this space! We just try to act according to our values, which I’m sure means we’re missing various tips and efficiencies we could be putting in place, but also keeps it feeling less like a day job with a rigid business culture.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
We’re happy working on a business that sustains the two of us and don’t have any plans to grow it beyond that. We don’t plan to take investment or hire anyone, but we’d like to continue exploring new ideas and trying new ways to make Exist useful.