Founder Interviews: Dmitri Tcherbadji of Analog.Cafe

Learn how Dmitri used a Kickstarter campaign to validate and launch Analog.cafe, a blogging platform for film photographers

Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?

Dmitri Tcherbadji: My name is Dmitri, today I live in Vancouver. In the past, I’ve been a Thai expat, a long-time visitor to San Francisco, a 15-year veteran Torontonian, and a Moscow kid. Both of my parents have a theatre education, although after we immigrated to Canada they had to pick jobs that could make them money more efficiently. I’ve always loved art and leaned towards creative tasks, though as I did that I’ve taught myself how to code, starting with HTML and CSS, moving to ActionScript, then PHP, and, finally JavaScript as I am now hacking together interfaces in React and do some light Node development.

Analog.Cafe, the consequence of the above inclinations and experience, is my passion project. Analog.Cafe is a community-driven web magazine that features photo essays, reviews, and guides about or through film photography. Most people don’t realize this yet, but the practice of taking images via chemical emulsion on film rolls hasn’t disappeared. In fact, it has grown considerably in the past few years; even Kodak is beginning to bring back some of its old stock from the dead. It’s never going to be the same as it was in its heyday, but the medium has got a growing, passionate community of about a million+ users around the world.

The website has been launched just over a year ago with no funds allocated towards advertising as a result of a small Kickstarter campaign. Today it’s growing at a rate of about 80% per month with 38 authors having their work published or scheduled to be published as of September, 2018, and article release schedule booked for seven weeks ahead.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

I started working on Analog.Cafe at the very beginning of 2017 as a way to dedicate my time to a creative side-project during the fourth year as a CTO at a small business intelligence company. Chiseling away personal ideas while earning stable income elsewhere has been the routine since the university years. In a way, this practice has taught me at least a third of everything I know about business and building robust web applications today. I should probably add that every creative project I’ve taken on involved some kind of technical solution.

I’ve been passionate about photography and to some degree film photography for years prior as I ran another side-project, ArtSocket, an online store that attempted to sell prints. Although I’ve made a decision to end the support for that property, I wasn’t yet ready to leave photography behind. In fact, I wanted to dive deeper. At that time, my most impressive collection of work on ArtSocket came from a Japanese film photographer, Chi, with a few more works of superior quality coming from folks shooting analogue cameras. So I followed the art and took the time to get to know the community behind it better, as well as the craft itself.

To test how valuable a community-run film photography publication could be to folks other than my mom I ran a Kickstarter campaign. This was the first time I’ve had a fair amount of strangers contribute their personal funds directly to me, which, of course, felt good and was ultimately the green light I was waiting for.

What went into building the initial product?

I raised about 1,500 Canadian dollars to build Analog.Cafe, which wasn’t nearly enough. Even in Thailand where I lived as an expat (a beautifully-warm country with delicious $1 dinners) this sum was insignificant. A few hundred dollars went into producing the rewards for backers and all of the remaining money went immediately to a small team of local developers who helped me create the headless CMS API via Node/Express and Mongo. Undoubtedly, I had to pay most of the remaining fee from my own pocket.

To build an experience I wanted: a Medium-like composer interface, offline editing with Buffer-like scheduling, easy sign-ins via Passport.js, pixel-perfect design, and zero bloatware — everything had to be coded from scratch.

I spent the first few weeks at the office with the developers, scoping out a path a user would take from visiting the website to creating a submission, sending it in and my role as an editor from changing the content to making sure it goes out on time. Some of these features were entirely new, such as allowing users with no account an offline access to the editor locally (which is possible with help of localForage). Others, like the ongoing battle with the browsers’ native <ContentEditable /> were being fought by a team of open-source developers at Slate, my inspiration to contribute virtually everything I build back to the community.

Prior to getting started with this project, I waded through the storm of all the build scripts, decisions and the seemingly-infinite options when it came to JavaScript tooling. The prep paid out (with a huge thanks to Create React Appteam). Weekly builds are as easy as making a commit and running yarn deploy — which proved to be invaluable as I worked hard to balance all of the above with the new editorial duties for the magazine and, of course, the full-time CTO duties which paid the bills.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

Analog.Cafe’s users are authors and readers. The first cohort of readers and writers are the same people who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and their immediate friends and families. I spent two weeks online scoring the web for bloggers who also shoot film. These are the people who mattered the most since, unlike my personal friends and family, their interests aligned with what I am doing, rather who I am.

A few weeks after sending out the rewards and pushing v0.0.1 to the web, I’ve launched a Product Hunt campaign which yielded a significant first bump of interest and submissions. Being featured came as a very pleasant surprise: there are plenty of people in tech who love to shoot film, too! After the bump, however, the traffic declined significantly. It’s worth noting that launches, although exciting, are not a sustainable way of building clientele.

Stats from the Product Hunt launch

Fortunately for me, running Analog.Cafe, a static React app hosted on S3 with minimal Dyno setup on Heroku, and a sandbox version of Mongo in front of Redis server never cost more than $30/month. My runway never depended on visitors or submissions and I had time to build, experiment, break stuff and learn as the readership naturally grew along with the positive market trend in my niche. Up until the last couple of months, however, the growth felt incredibly slow as I tinkered with design, stability, features, and, most importantly, learned to create better content and consistently engaging with the community via social media.

The next breakthrough for Analog.Cafe came in the form of ass-kicking via the deliberate, structured, and directed stream of advice at the Y-Combinator Startup School program. The most significant of which was to do things that don’t scale, which is exactly the reason I was able to get crowdfunded in the first place; by reaching out to a list of people who may be interested with personal messages. Being a fairly sensitive person I typically react badly to being ignored, which is the most common type of rejection online. But with time, I chose to take it less personally and concentrate on acquiring a list of potential talent who do have time and interest in what I do. Which is 100X more effective than waiting for Google to send someone my way or dumping dollars on ads.

During the past few weeks, Analog.Cafe has gained enough submissions for me to start redrawing the publication schedule to be more frequent and receiving requests for a search field. These pieces of content, a key metric of diversity, external interest, and validation of the entire platform premise made their way to my inbox because I went and asked for them, and maybe, made something that people want.

What’s your business model?

Analog.Cafe is a passion project. As such, I feel it would be ridiculous to clutter the user experience and infringe privacies with ads. Ev Williams didn’t allow it on Medium, neither should I; as long as I have a runway. For now, I am working on building content worthy of attention, interest, participation, and support.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I think it’s worth reinstating in this context as well: taking the time to create the right environment and a set of technical principles before writing any code makes an enormous impact on the future of a business. Because I’ve decided to build most of the solutions in-house with full control over the architecture I am able to pay less and focus on growth. Although this may not be the right strategy for everyone.

What are your goals for the future?

As proud as I may sound for building something that isn’t expensive to maintain, that too will change. As growth is happening faster than anticipated, there needs to be some thought put towards funding; I am still carefully considering the options.

As for the fun stuff, a few planned enhancements are: inviting editors from the community, creating a more predictable and compelling publishing schedule, weekly software updates, and producing analytics reports for the contributors.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Building a tech stack from the ground up to serve what practically is a custom blog has long-term advantages, but it’s also a major setback in terms of an ability to create content and interact with the audience. In retrospect, it probably would have been a better idea to involve more people in this project, focus on content and raise more money.

New authors pay attention to the diversity of authorship — a clear signal to openness and acceptance of the publication. Analog.Cafe is meant for the film photography community, not just Dmitri. Should I have realized that earlier and worked harder on recruiting writers, rather than publishing my own, I’d have at least 3x the attention and participation on the website today.

What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?

There’s an abundance of knowledge on the internet, and answers to practically any questions that one may come across while building a product. But even if you know exactly what needs to be built, the choices going forward beyond technicalities are often uncertain. To make them smarter I highly recommend finding some guidance — and it has to be from a person or organization that you trust. Once you do find them, maybe after reading their answers on how to build certain tools or listening to their lecture online, consider taking a course that includes them or they have constructed. It’ll expand your expertise and give a better perspective on what could be done to build better products.

For my creative and/or highly technical friends: keep an open mind. From the production chambers the chatter of business folks may sound like a complete waste of air; in many cases it is. But it would be a mistake to shun from that world, especially if you want to build something of your own.

Where can we go to learn more?

Analog.Cafe is the website; if you’ve dabbled in film photography or know anyone who has — head to Analog.Cafe/Submit and share it with your friends. We’re also on Twitter and Instagram, posting new photographs every single day.

Of course, I would love to read your feedback, questions, or objections in the comments below. AMA!

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