How We Started a Smart
Flashcard App to Support Learning
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! I’m Matt, one of the co-founders of Harken. Harken is a smart flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to make remembering easy. If you’re familiar with Anki, it’s like Anki but better. If you’re not familiar with Anki and are curious about spaced repetition, you can read about it here.
In short, spaced repetition is a studying technique that lets you memorize things more efficiently and effectively. Harken lets you create flashcards with all kinds of content-rich text, images, code blocks, and more—and review those cards on a spaced repetition schedule.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I currently work full-time as a software engineer. Outside of work, I like to work on side projects, read, and stay active by playing tennis and bouldering. I’ve always found it hard to remember what I learn, which can be extremely frustrating. For example, about a year ago I read The Gene. It’s a great book and has a lot of interesting information—but now, I barely remember any of it.
Last year, I discovered Anki, and it quickly became one of my most-used apps. Anki makes remembering easy—for example, it’s helped me remember more of the books I read and memorize important CSS rules and properties. However, Anki itself is not so easy to use. The card editor is clunky and missing some key features (like the ability to add code blocks and inline code), and the sheer number of settings makes it inaccessible for beginners. After using Anki for a couple of months, I decided it was time to make a spaced repetition app of my own—Harken is the result!
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Before I made Harken, I’d been working as a full-time software engineer for a few years. However, I had never shipped a full product on my own before. There was a large learning curve in figuring out what the tech stack should be, e.g. what services and frameworks to use, how to host the server-side code, etc. Making all those decisions and building the full product from the ground up was challenging, but a lot of fun—I definitely learned a lot!
Who is your target market?
Harken is made for everyone who has trouble remembering what they learn. That being said, there are a few groups of people who find Harken especially useful—students, language learners, and software engineers.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
Posting on Product Hunt and using Facebook ads have been our most effective marketing methods.
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
We just launched, so hard to say. Time will tell.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
The most important thing I’ve learned is to talk to customers early. It’s important to validate whether the problem you’re solving is actually important enough to build an entire company around.
Before having conversations with potential users, I highly recommend The Mom Test. It’s a short read, but extremely useful—it will help you extract objective and actionable feedback from the conversations you have.
For Harken, we did not follow this advice. In fact, we spent months building out the beta before talking to even a single potential user. After receiving some disheartening feedback (no one we talked to had a strong use case for Harken), we launched the beta anyways. We’re now in the process of talking to some of the beta users to figure out who’s using our product and what improvements we can make.
Another important tip is to fill out some accelerator applications (e.g. Y Combinator, Angel Pad) during the early stages of your company. Even if you’re not planning on applying to an accelerator, it’s useful to answer their questions. Doing this acts as a forcing function and makes you think critically about the company you’re starting. For example, these applications ask questions about your proximity to the problem, competitors, and market size—it’s critical to think about these things before diving headfirst into building your business.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
The autonomy, and how much I learn. As a founder, you have to play a lot of different roles. Some days you might play the role of a researcher and spend lots of time in customer conversations. Other days you might play the role of a marketer and set up ad campaigns. And other days you might act as an engineer and actually build out the product. It can be hectic at times, but doing all these things is a great way to learn.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
TWhen you first think of an idea for a company, it’s exciting—there are so many possibilities and so much potential. However, it’s really important to validate your idea before building an entire company around it. Validation can be hard—for one product I’m working on, I have a huge list of people to cold email. Finding these people and emailing all of them (potentially multiple times) is a lot of manual work, and I don’t particularly enjoy the process.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
- The Mom Test: As mentioned above, this is a must-read before conducting customer conversations.
- Indie Hacker podcast: This podcast inspired me to pursue more independent projects outside of work, and hearing from other founders is a great learning experience. https://www.indiehackers.com/product/canny is one of my favorite episodes.
- How can we develop transformative tools for thought?: This article got me interested in the “tools for thought” space, and was how I originally found out about Anki.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
In 2-3 years, we’re aiming to be a true competitor to Anki, Quizlet, and all the other flashcard apps out there. We’ll do this by drastically improving our product—in the short term, we plan on adding an explore page where users can share and discover content, and augmenting the editor to support LaTeX and audio.
Longer-term, we plan on building a content platform on top of Harken. Making cards is hard work—we want to make it easier by hosting articles, books, and videos that have embedded flashcards. For example, if you watch a video with embedded flashcards, you’ll answer the flashcards while watching to verify your understanding. The flashcards will then go into Harken to be reviewed on a spaced repetition schedule.