1 comment | Posted: 8 September 07 in Interviews, by Robert Evans
Geoffrey Grosenbach is a programmer, podcast host, teacher, and entrepreneur. He has been involved in the Ruby/Rails community for quite a while and is eager to help those out who are starting out programming in Ruby.
In this interview, I talked with Geoffrey about Peepcode, his company that has been putting out extensive and quality screencasts. We also talk about Geoffrey’s newest venture, Publishing PDF books under the Peepcode name.
First, on behalf of all of our readers, here at Godbit, thank you for taking the time to answer a some questions about yourself and your business.
Thanks for the opportunity!
For those who may not know who you are, could you tell us a bit about yourself and what you do and what you are involved in?
I run a multimedia publishing company. We sell PeepCode Screencasts which are hour-long video tutorials for web programmers. I’m also starting a PDF publishing endeavor dedicated to making maximally useful, awesome looking PDF minibooks on current programming topics. The first book will be released later this month at PeepCode.
I know you’ve been doing PeepCode for quite a while now, almost a year right? What important lessons have you learned doing this startup while you are working another job?
This month marks a year since I started PeepCode. It was going to be a fun side project that I hoped would make enough money to fund one or two days of work per week. Instead, it has been very well received and has turned into a fulltime job.
The client I was working for at the time was very understanding and supported the project. I was able to reuse skills I learned for their project as well, so I think it was beneficial for both of us.
I’ve learned many things, both technically and business-wise.
- Start with an idea, and just do it. I started out using blog
software with third-party payment processing and download services. It was inefficient in many ways: unreliable shopping carts, server downtime, high payment processing fees. I’ve since built my own system from scratch which is much more reliable and costs much less to run. I could have saved a few thousand dollars if I started that way, but on the other hand, it would have taken months to develop. So it was better to just try the idea and refine the process after I knew that it worked.
- Don’t announce release dates! I was working for a client 3 or 4 days a week, so I wasn’t always able to publish a new screencast each month. Leaving it open kept my stress level down. Now that I’m working fulltime, I’m able to publish 2 or 3 new products every month.
- Advertise creatively. I started with a very specific community that I already had a voice in (Ruby on Rails). In order to promote, I approached a few respected developers (Dan Benjamin, Jamis Buck, Chris Wanstrath) and bought ads on their blogs (even though they weren’t running any kind of advertising system at the time). It feels good to help fund great blogging and get the word out about my company at the same time.
Mostly, I just tried to build the product that I would want to buy. It turned out that other people liked some of the things that I like, too, so I’ve kept that strategy for other upcoming products. It would be hard for me to just choose a random market and build a product for it, so I feel much better working in an area that I know and am excited about.
That’s a pretty good point about not announcing release dates – same philosophy as 37signals. I’m sure this has helped, knowing you don’t have to push something out by X time, when it comes to focusing on the quality of your screencasts.
Initially it helped because of time constraints while working on the backend of the site as well as producing the content.
It also helped because I’ve been able to put effort into whatever I’m inspired to write about at the time. I usually have 3-4 projects in process at once and may be waiting on feedback from technical reviewers. So it gives me the flexibility to work on projects more naturally and publish only when I’m confident about the quality of the screencast.
So, you’ve been doing PeepCode for a year now, how long did it take you to really build your customer base to the point that you started to think about doing it full-time?
People were very supportive of the project right away, but on January 1, I deployed the new shopping cart and digital delivery system I had written. It also gave people the opportunity to buy 5 or 10 screencasts at a discount, which helped a lot. I probably could have gone fulltime right after that, but I waited until May to be sure.
It turned out to be a good idea to wait a few months. There are many expenses with running a legitimate business, so if you want to pay yourself X dollars, your business needs to make twice that. There are taxes, accounting fees, hardware and software, etc. It adds up quickly when you’re paying $1,000 or $2,000 each time you need to buy Final Cut Pro, the Adobe suite, office furniture, etc.
But the biggest thing was the emails and reviews I got from people. From the beginning they were saying “These things are great! Make more!” So I had confidence that there was a demand and that people were willing to put money down for them.
What has been the biggest challenge so far with running PeepCode?
The hardest thing has been juggling multiple roles at once. I write and produce the screencasts, I design and develop the site, I do customer support, I think of new products to make. My wife has been an awesome partner in this venture and works on the financial and logistical side of things.
A few years ago, my greatest fear was learning to write a webapp that handled money. Fortunately, that has gone quite smoothly and I integrated the site with PayPal in January. I’ve also written a GoogleCheckout library (nearly) from scratch. I could never have done it without the principles of test-first development, which have made my software more reliable and have improved my workflow as well.
You briefly mentioned that PeepCode will be offering pdf books, in the future. There are several other pdf only publishers, O’Reilly, Pragmatic Programmers to name a few. Could you explain to the readers why you starting this?
I have a lot of respect for the Pragmatic Programmers and I’ve bought many O’Reilly books over the years. I’ve contributed to a book for the Pragmatic Programmers on “Rails Deployment” which is available in beta right now. But I think there’s room for a different kind of product that neither of them are selling.
I want to make PDF minibooks that look fabulous, teach things that developers want to know about right now, and pay authors well. Most PDF books are pushed through a stock template without any attention to basic typographic principles. There are many topics that people want to know about now, but it will be months or years before they are covered in a book.
The result is that developers are generally lost and have to piece
together 20 blog articles in order to learn about a topic in depth. So I want to be the one to read those 20 articles, struggle through the oddities of a topic, and unravel it for people in short books of 40 pages or so. And of course, I want to make it profitable enough for other people to do the same thing and sell them through PeepCode.
In order to do that, I’ve developed a workflow that starts with simple Textile or Markdown text, so developers can write in an easy format that they already know. It’s targeted at computer programming related content and brings together technology and typography without requiring specific knowledge from the author. I’ll be enhancing it with technical diagrams and graphic design, not to mention access to thousands of existing PeepCode subscribers.
How hard has it been to attract writers to come aboard and work with you on new books? Was there anything you did to help entice prospective authors?
Many people were interested right away and there are several books in process. I’ve decided that the best way to get things started is to “eat my own dog food”, so I’ve written the first book. It helped me to work the bugs out of the system and revealed which features needed to be added. I’m hoping that it will also give people a better idea of what the final product looks like.
Having started a business while doing client work, I understand that my authors are also in the same situation. Once I’ve published the first book or two, I’ll have a better idea about how that should work.
One question of a Godbit member is: Any recommendations on balancing work/life issues?
While I like the ideas, I’m not a strict follower of GTD or any other task management system. Strangely, one of the best things I did was to take a two week vacation and realize that the business wouldn’t fall apart if I stopped checking my email every 5 minutes!
I try to minimize distractions from instant messaging and IRC. I try to stop working at least by 6pm every night and take the weekends off. I’ve also tried to spend more time on hobbies that keep me away from the computer, and have started running 10 or 15 miles a week (which I haven’t done consistently since high school).
Starting a business on your own takes a lot of effort and I’ve turned down several once-in-a-lifetime opportunities just to keep my stress level down. The difficult thing is that it’s not enough just to keep your business in financial shape and your website in technical shape. You’ve also got to keep yourself up physically, nutritionally, spiritually, relationally. I’m still working on all those!
Again, I want to thank you for taking the time to share with the Godbit readers about your business. I know many here really do appreciate you sharing your insight.
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