Davis

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Founder Interviews: Marc Köhlbrugge of WIP

Marc Köhlbrugge at a WIP meetup

Learn how Marc took a Telegram group chat and turned it into a thriving community of founders and makers, generating over $40,000 in annual revenue.

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

👋 Hi! My name is Marc Köhlbrugge, 31 years old. Born and raised in the Netherlands, but now traveling the world as a digital nomad.

I’ve built dozens of products, but am probably best known for BetaList, and recently WIP and Startup Jobs.

BetaList is a place for early adopters to discover up-and-coming tech startups. In the 8+ years we’ve been in business we’ve seen many startups come and go. Some of the most notable examples are Pinterest, IFTTT, and Airtable which we all featured pre-launch before they were widely known. Revenue (advertising & expedited reviews) is just over $100,000 per year.

WIP (or Work in Progress) is a community of makers shipping together. In a group chat and website we publicly share the tasks we’re working on to keep each other accountable. I started it about 15 months ago. Revenue (memberships) is about $40,000 per year.

Startup Jobs is a search engine for all startup jobs. It features over 30,000 job openings at any given time. Revenue is five-figures a year and fluctuates quite a bit.

What motivated you to get started with your company?

“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.” — Steve Jobs

I’ve always been fascinated by seeing people’s work in progress. Whether it’s an artist’s sketchbook, a developer’s prototype, or a musician creating a song. There’s something empowering about seeing creatives turning their ideas into reality.

This led me to the idea of being able to virtually peek over the shoulders of other makers. Seeing what they are working on. What obstacles they struggle with and how they overcome them.

At the same time I also started noticing something interesting about my own productivity: if I would share my work early in the process, it would be much more likely to be successful than when I waited for it to be done. This is why I believe in the importance of releasing a beta version of your product as soon as possible. That lead to BetaList in 2010 and then later to WIP as well.

I’ve built dozens of products over the years that in hindsight can be seen as early WIP prototypes. There was a Campfire chatroom for founders (this was before Slack existed), a daily email for makers to share what they worked on that day, and something akin to a Facebook for makers.

Prototype of a maker community based on public todos. Never shipped. (2014)
Similar prototype for iPhone app. Never shipped either. (2014)
You can’t really tell from this particular screenshot, but this was part of a social network for makers. Shipped a prototype but over-engineered it, so didn’t work with the limited number of beta testers. (2015)

Many of these products were overly complicated and never shipped to more than a handful of people if any.

WIP is an incarnation of that same idea that finally clicked…

WIP Homepage (january 2019)

What went into building the initial product?

WIP was probably the simplest prototype ever of all my products.

Back in September 2017 I was talking to Pieter Levels and he suggested I start a Telegram group chat for BetaList. I was resistant to the idea at first because all the community group chats I previously tried felt too distracting. I want to do the work, not chat.

At the same time I figured, what’s the worst that can happen? I already use Telegram all day so starting a group chat literally takes a few seconds. Deleting would be just as easy. So I created the chat group and shared it on Twitter:

I’m fortunate enough to have grown an audience on Twitter due to my years of working on BetaList. So when I tweeted about the chat, and some other people like Pieter retweeted it, a few dozen people joined the chat all on that first day.

WIP was truly born when I added a chatbot. I figured it would be interesting for people to tell what they would be working on, rather than just chitchat.

I happened to have built a failed Telegram bot a few weeks before. I copy/pasted that code and modified it such that people could share their todos by typing /todo redesign pricing pagewhich then would be added to an automatically generated profile on a website.

That worked REALLY well and I believe it’s the reason to WIP’s success to date. If it was just a website where people could publicly share todos it would be very difficult to get off the ground. However, the chat delivers immediate value to new members and once you see others completing todo’s using the bot you’re inclined to give it a try yourself and pretty soon you’re hooked.

How have you attracted users and grown your company?

It’s pretty much all word of mouth. As the maker I talk about it on Twitter, and the members love the community so they invite their friends as well.

I haven’t done anything to strategically grow WIP.

The problem with communities that grow too large too quickly is that they lose their identity. They start as a vibrant community of people with shared values, and end up as a large group of individualistic people without a sense of belonging.

We’ve all seen this too many times. Especially when VC money is involved. I want to protect WIP from that same faith.

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

WIP was completely free at first, but pretty soon members started asking if they could financially contribute. They wanted to ensure WIP stayed around for the long term.

So I created an optional “patronage” plan at $100/year. It would allow members to financially support WIP, and they would get some fun perks such as “dark mode” in return.

As word of mouth kept increasing and new members joined the chat every day, I realised this wasn’t a viable way to grow the community. So many new members each day was disruptive to the chat, so I made the “patronage” plan mandatory for new members.

Over time I needed to increase the price to limit the number of signups. Right now we’re at $20/mo which seems like a good number to 1) attract makers that are serious about building a profitable business, and 2) makes for a healthy monthly revenue which allows me to invest more time into WIP.

What are your goals for the future?

WIP’s mission is to help makers build profitable businesses.

The biggest challenge for makers with a tech background is to take small steps. We’ve all been thought to think big, but what ends up happening is they over-engineer their first version and they are locked into a direction that is unlikely to be the right one.

A more productive approach is to ship something basic and consistently iterate based on actual customer feedback and behavior. I’ve heard from many members they have actually started doing that since they joined WIP because the community and platform stimulate that approach.

My goal is to continue to tackle this challenge, but also help with some others such as figuring out what to build, spending enough time marketing (versus only building), and overall taking a more strategic view to building your business.

I personally don’t have all the answers, but we have a lot of expertise in the community. By facilitating the right exchange of information and enticing the right behavior, I believe WIP can empower the next generation of bootstrapped startup founders.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome?

The biggest challenge for WIP right now is allowing more people in without disrupting the social dynamics of the chat. There’s only so many people you can have in one group chat before things become too busy. If we would double in size over night that would be a problem.

The solution will be a combination of having multiple chat groups (we already experiment with this), and improving the website so it can play a more dominant role.

Prototype of WIP Groups (january 2019)
Some of the more in depth discussions are moving to the website. (january 2019)

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Building a chat-based product for makers has proven to be an insanely useful way to speed up the build-measure-learn feedback loop.

I can see people using the product in real-time, discuss the product, ship some changes, and get their feedback instantly. This takes out all the guess work of building something people want.

I think that’s the single reason WIP has been the fastest growing product I’ve built to date.

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

Only once you’ve shipped something, anything, will you be able to learn what kind of product people actually want. So my advice is whatever you consider making, ask yourself how you could build a basic version today, and then ship it.

Where can we go to learn more?

🚧 You can find me and hundreds of other makers shipping daily on WIP.
🐦 If you want to know what I’m thinking or chat you can find me on Twitter.

Happy to answer any questions below 🙌

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