Introducing the Thunk Podcast: Finding the Net

Danielle Messler
January 26, 2021

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The TL;DR

  • The main problem we’re talking about this week is how we even begin to communicate the benefits of Thunk to the people we made it for.
  • We’re solving it by getting a positioning hypothesis in place to test out, using a framework from April Dunford’s book, Obviously Awesome.
  • We explain the major benefits of the writing method that inspired Thunk, from the book the Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron— and why she’d be firmly against the idea of digital morning pages.
  • Andrew tells the story of how he came up with the idea for Thunk’s core feature to solve that problem, and how he leveraged his product design skills to bring it to life in just a few months.
  • Through the community at Ness Labs, Andrew was able to get a ton of early customer interviews that helped shape the product, and will be our first beta invites this week.
  • Using the interviews, Danielle walks through the starting point for positioning, and how to leverage the beta program to get actionable feedback.
  • Try out the beta: podcast@thunkjournal.com
  • Follow us on Twitter @nalband and @danielleismessy

Episode Transcript


Andrew

I'm Andrew and I'm the CEO of Thunk. I'm a product designer, and I'm working to create a world with more joy, beauty and delight in it. Right now Thunk is a journaling tool that we're making to empower creators. So this podcast is the story of building an app and business from the ground up. I've been working on this writing tool called Thunk, which is a journaling tool for creative people. And recently, I came upon an issue; I've been trying to get our first 1,000 paying customers, and I realized that I needed some help doing that. I reached out to my network, and I got connected with Danielle. Danielle is this amazing content marketer. She's based here in Boston, where I also live. And she built this brand from scratch called Boston Brunch Guide. She's also the head of audience growth at a startup in town. And after a couple of conversations, we really connected, and I knew that she was the right person to help me reach those first 1,000 users. She suggested, "Why don't we do a podcast? We can talk about what we're doing, we can really build this thing in public, and we can really share kind of a behind the scenes look at how we're getting there." So that's what this podcast is. And each week we're going to talk about the road to getting those first customers and how Thunk is working for them. And hopefully we're also going to address some common issues that creative people have because that's sort of the core customer that we're addressing with them.


Danielle

That was a great intro. And I don't have a whole lot to add, except I'm Danielle, a self-conscious creator and content marketer. I started my career in finance and found myself really missing a creative outlet. So I combined two of the things I loved, brunch and photography, and worked to build a platform for Boston Brunch Guide, and eventually ended up leaving finance to work as the director of content and social media for a small media company, where I realized that I really loved building an audience and finding ways to engage customers. So when Andrew and I got connected, I was really excited to join him in working on something that I would more than likely use as a consumer myself, and our conversations about getting your first 1,000 customers have been really interesting. We hope that they help anyone starting to launch a brand and give them some insights into how you can start framing your own questions, challenging your instincts, and creating something that can withstand the test of time. In this episode, I asked Andrew about how Thunk came to life, where in the development process the app is, and we dive into the way we're approaching our beta test that starts a week from this episode recording. So, let's dive into Thunk the app because it's awesome, and I feel really privileged to have seen it and seen a couple iterations on it. Why Thunk, Andrew? Why are you building this and, you know, where did the idea come from?


Andrew

I was in the middle of running a gaming division at a company, and I had a couple of employees working for me, and we were building this game. The company, like many companies this year, decided they were going to make some changes and shut that project down. So I suddenly found myself as a free agent, and in the middle of a very strange world with not a whole lot of coffee shops or places to go eat or other things to distract me. So I was digging around and sort of revisiting some old books, and I came across "The Artist's Way," which is this book really about kind of unlocking a kind of creative block. And it has this core suggestion in it called morning pages where you write three pages of just a stream of consciousness writing, as a way to just kind of get yourself getting it all out in the morning -- just stating stuff and really putting it out into the world. I started doing this practice, and I found that it was kind of useful. It's really not about trying to write anything particularly good, but just trying to write for a little while. And I think a lot of people, especially people who are trying to create things or make things, struggle with this thing of just kind of getting started. And that's what the practice is kind of all about. And as I was thinking about what I wanted to start spending my time doing, I also sort of saw, you know, people who are creating stuff, that's who really interests me -- I think -- deeply. That's kind of the person that I want to help; somebody who's out there trying to make stuff, trying to put stuff out into the world. And I tried, you know, doing these morning pages doing this writing on paper, but I think like a lot of folks my life is kind of digital now. You know, I don't tend to have a notebook as frequently as I might have a phone or a computer in front of me. But the irony or the funny thing about me saying this is that in this book "The Artist's Way," the author Julia specifically suggests that you should not type morning pages, and she gives a couple of reasons for this practice. One of the reasons that she gives is that there's a tendency to, while typing, kind of go back and reread and maybe add a line. And that's really contrary to the point of morning pages, which is just to write a steady stream of consciousness. So I'm a nerd, I've been working in tech for a while, I've been making apps for 10 years. But in my sort of work trying to figure this out, I thought, well, what would happen if as you're reading the text, to sort of discourage you from editing, we had it just disappear, we just had it sort of fade into the white oblivion of the screen? "Oh, maybe that's interesting?" We can kind of reduce distractions, maybe that can help you stay focused, maybe you can get this stream of consciousness and kind of stop yourself from editing a little bit. So I prototype that out, and I started trying to use it. And I thought, hey, this actually is kind of useful, you know. This kind of does solve that core problem, this core issue of editing yourself as you're writing, and I found myself wanting to really use it. So in October of 2020, I went out and started finding some developers. And now we've got a team of three folks who are working to build this thing, trying to figure out how to make more people feel good about journaling, and writing.


Danielle

It was kind of a bit of serendipity when we started talking, because this book, "The Artist's Way," had come up in a bunch of different conversations with different people in my life. And I was kind of like, "Okay, I'm going to check it out," because it's come up a bunch of times. And I had also started a new job in March, and you know, that ended up being really good timing, given everything going on in the world. Obviously, couldn't go to a lot of brunches anymore, and really wanted to spend, you know, a good part of that year focusing on writing specifically. And when we started talking it ended up being the perfect way to connect because I had started doing morning pages digitally, and I was kind of judging everything I wrote. It was this, I call this "blank page syndrome," where you look at it, and it's so clean, and you have this vision of what it's going to be and even in the book, she says, morning pages aren't even really writing, they're just a stream of consciousness just to get it out of your head and kind of uncover these subconscious things. But I was approaching it very much like I was writing and I was, you know, having to say all these profound things in my journal, like I was, I don't know, Alexander Hamilton, or another Founding Father that wrote with quill and parchment. Just kidding, that was Harry Potter. I was really just judging myself. So you just end up with a page that was completely marked out. So seeing Thunk come together was actually very, very cool because it helps you get into that mindset without self editing. We've talked a bit about how Thunk was inspired and the technical team, so let's talk about where we are in terms of the app build features and our current usage.


Andrew

Yeah, so we have built what I would kind of call the MVP -- sort of the initial build. And what that consists of currently is the disappearing text, the ability to kind of read what you wrote, almost dark mode, and what is sort of a nascent idea about connecting ideas in your journal. So we're starting with people to try to help you see patterns in your writing, we have this tracking that we do where anytime you write about somebody, we create a page, and we save whatever you wrote about them to that page. And so you can navigate there and you can see over the course of all your journaling what you wrote about that person. It's a simple way to start to identify some patterns in your writing and your thinking.

Where we are in terms of usage is we've got about, say about 40 folks on a kind of waiting list, ready to get into the app and start telling us everything that we need to improve about it. And we're looking to sort of launch our beta program next week. So that's going to run for about a month, and we're gonna use that to gather feedback about the app, and to gut check, or maybe, maybe not gut check, but to actually check our gut to see if we're making some of the right decisions and if there's anything we need to change or improve. For those folks, we've played with a bunch of ways to try to figure out what I would call kind of allowing you to see patterns.


Danielle

One of the larger visions of Thunk is being able to find those connections a bit more easily. And I think that that's just a really beneficial piece that is really missing in the market right now too.


Andrew

And like, you know, you're putting out an incredible example of something that I've heard from people through interviews. "Oh, I look back at what I wrote, and I saw this incredible pattern that I didn't even know." I was talking about something that similarly to the way the technology might be able to help us, you know, stay in the stream of consciousness, it should also be able to help us see these kinds of patterns. Frankly, that's one of the things that technology should be quite good at. And so that's really something that I'm interested in and passionate about, and I'm trying to figure out ways to make the tool do that better and better. One of the tricky things, when you get into this sort of area is emotions. And, you know, obviously, that would be one of the most interesting things to see, "Oh, look, I'm angry a lot in this particular scenario, or I'm upset or I'm worried, I'm stressed." That's a tricky area, because again, to computers analyzing emotions, while they tend to be pretty bad at that, we've been working on ways to try to figure out how to let you discover those feelings and emotions without telling you what they are. Willingness to tolerate a failure rate on a piece of technology telling you your emotions is fairly low. If it gets it wrong even 50% percent of the time, it's pretty bad. If your journaling app is telling you you're feeling good and you're reading something that is clearly negative, it's really a jarring experience. So we've kind of moved away from trying to be smart about your emotions, and more towards showing you the patterns, which computers are actually good at, and letting you draw your own conclusions.


Danielle

I think that's one of the challenges we have and why we're starting where we are, is because we've just been talking about all these amazing benefits. And, you know, we can't get someone to always listen to a 30 minute podcast. So that brings us to positioning, which is something that I'm really focused on. So I turn to April Dunford, she is the expert on positioning, she literally wrote the book on it called, "Obviously Awesome." And she said something that really resonated with me. A really important way to look at positioning in general: it really is the foundation, and you build everything else on top of it, from sales to marketing, it all starts with that strong positioning. Setting that properly or improperly has a huge impact on whether you succeed or fail. So, you know, if we're saying this is the diary app, get your feelings out, that sets a certain set of expectations in people's minds.


Andrew

Where do you think we sort of start with this positioning thing? How do we get it over the goal line and out of my product head and into your skill of creating content in the world?


Danielle

We're really early in the process, you know, we don't have users yet or anything. So it's, it's kind of a blank canvas. And, you know, it's this recipe testing phase we're in where we have an idea of what the benefits are, we have this hypothesis, and then we use that to figure out what resonates. And then using this foundation analogy just a little further, we start to firm up those bricks that we're building and looking at what works starting the beta next week, which is a really good place to get some of this information. So you had actually done a bunch of user interviews, while you're building this, and I have a very personal connection to what the product is doing, which is both a good thing and also can be a blind spot. So that's something to be aware of. Where I went is through those user interviews, and, you know, found a bunch of patterns. But you know, you were the first person to do them, and you actually talked to these people, I was one of them. So I'm curious what you notice from those patterns and from those interviews. And if there were any things coming up pretty regularly.


Andrew

Talking to a lot of folks has been really interesting and powerful, and I recently joined this community Ness Labs. It's based around this woman Anne-Laure. She's this incredible sort of thinker and writer, and she talks a lot about— kind of this general problem space of creativity, and productivity and kind of making things and getting your thoughts out.

And I joined this community really to take a class that she was offering, and I found myself getting more out of the community. So usually, it's kind of hard to find folks to interview. But I put an intro post saying that I was working on a sort of thinking and journaling tool, and that I would love to talk to anybody. And I think in the first week, I did eight or 10 customer interviews, which is just crazily hard to do normally. So it was really an incredible thing to see. I think I learned a lot about when you have fit between the sort of problem space that you're in, and the sort of group of people that you're asking to interact with that, clearly they were interested, you know, otherwise there'd be no way. Normally you have to give people like, you know, Amazon gift cards or something to incentivize them to talk to you because it's so hard, but everyone was just excited to speak. And through talking to folks, amazingly, everyone who I talked to was sort of already journaling in some sort of way. Some people were using paper, some people were using technical tools, but a lot of people talked a bout the benefits of sort of mindfulness, they talked about wanting to feel calmer and having less on their minds. Certainly this, this idea of patterns also emerged as something that was potentially interesting to them. So those were some of the things that I heard from talking to people


Danielle

Diving into these interviews some of the phrases that stood out that resonated with people, it's not blogging, it's not public, so it's really not, you know, meant to be published. So that kind of helps remove a barrier. And the main benefit has been a clearer mind and having more calm. And those are things that people really want in their lives, especially given the state of the world that we're living in. So those are kind of some of the things that I had pulled out as being potential places to start. The world is noisy, and Thunk is really helping you turn down the volume, it's not blogging, it's not journaling, it's not meditation, but it's really a tool to help you think clearly, feel calmer, and be more focused. And we'll test this in the beta group with our messaging and see how resonates. If it's accurate? And how we're kind of collecting this information to see if you know, you're right, or I was totally off base. And so we came up with a series of questions to ask them to try to to get at how they're feeling about the app and how that might be resonating.


Andrew

We had this onboarding before that has a couple of very simple questions. But really, the only question on this area was really kind of like, "What are you trying to do with this?" And you helped kind of flesh out a couple more questions for the onboarding. I have those here actually I have them in front of me. What are you hoping Thunk will help you with? Which kind of is that first question, but then we have a bunch of others here. Let's talk about writing habits. Which describes where you currently are? And we kind of asked how frequently you're writing whether it's every day, sporadically or really not frequently at all. Then really, what's your biggest problem with writing? So you know, is it remembering it, is it overthinking, getting overwhelmed as an organization? And then, finally, where did you hear about us?


Danielle  

And what we're kind of getting at with those questions is asking for current writing habits, getting a profile of you know, is this really for someone who never writes, maybe writes sporadically when they're inspired, and then also getting to goals. What are the outcomes that they really want to achieve? So we can take, you know, the people that have used it every day and gotten a ton of value, and see what it did for them in an attempt to kind of boil down that value to a way that people can understand because when it comes down to it, when you're, you know, selling something, or trying to get someone bought in to a product you're building, you're really selling them a different version of themselves. This person is going to be more calm, you're going to be more creative. So getting to that value and those pain points and getting there is what we're aiming for with this.


Andrew

So I'm really excited to have some folks filling out and answering some of these questions. And I think, you know, I'm sure talk at some point about interviews that we're doing during the course of the beta and what we're seeing and sort of validating some of those ideas that you've got here. So next week is going to be pretty cool. We're going to launch the beta. And hopefully, we'll get some users to prove out some of these things that we're thinking or disprove some of these things that we're thinking so that we know it's right.

If you're listening and want to try out Thunk, send an email over to podcast at Thunk journal dot com, and we'll get you set up with a way to get onto our waitlist for the beta.


Danielle

We'd love to hear any and all feedback, take questions, and we're both on Twitter, so find us there.


Andrew

Thanks, Danielle. I'm really excited to dig in with you and get the beta into some people's hands next week.

Thanks for listening, and we'll be here again next week talking about the launch of the beta