Yo! Podcast #001 – @AJLKN – Founder of Carrd, Pixelarity, HTML5 UP!
AJ – more famously known on Twitter as @AJLKN is a mysterious dude. No one knows his full name and his social media accounts all display the infamous Johnny Mnemonic helmet shot image.
What we do know about AJ is that he ships product like a bat outta hell. In 2008 he starting HTML5 UP!, a free website template resource that just clocked 12 million downloads. A few years later he launched Pixelarity, the premium version of HTML5UP offering almost 100 website templates, all attribution free, for only $19. This paved the way for his biggest project to date, Carrd – an online website builder allowing anyone to create a simple One Page website for them or their products – completely free.
I wanted the Yo! Podcast to spotlight people who are contributing to a better web and there is honestly no one I’d rather kick things off than AJ. We rap about the dangers of complacency, the good corners of Twitter, his unexpected KPOP community, pricing a SAAS service and the importance of being offline.
What is Yo!??? Yo! is a celebration of great design and development online. The Yo! Newsletter curates quality new resources each week while the Yo! Podcast spotlights the incredible people building these resources. Subscribe on your favorite streaming platforms:
- @AJLKN Twitter
- HTML5 UP!
- Carrd on Product Hunt
- Carrd Changelog Tweet
- The Making Of Carrd micro site
Audio-to-text transcription by Speechpad <3
Rob: Yo AJ! Welcome to the first episode of the Yo! Podcast, where you calling from man?
AJ: I am calling from Nashville, Tennessee and the United States.
Rob: So what's it like to build things online from over there? Is Nashville a rad place to live?
AJ: I mean, I'm enjoying it here, I guess it's like building from pretty much anywhere, especially in the age of remote work.
Rob: I tried to look up Tennessee, and all I got was country music, Batman Building, Hot Chicken and Johnny Cash. Is this a fair representation?
AJ: I think you've pretty much summed up the entire city in found phrases. So yeah, that sounds about right. But it's a great place man. It's fine.
Rob: So if my research is right, you went to college over the and study computer science, maths and psychology?
AJ: That was mostly just to fill out the the hours so I could graduate. It was fun though. It was fun.
Rob: And was this were you started to dabble in the Web?
AJ: I started doing miscellaneous things online that made money, like I started out doing template stuff really early on and I sorta rode this wave where, that was kind of big back then. I mean, I started in college and it started making money, and I was pretty much like, well, when I graduate, I guess I'll just keep doing this. And so that's pretty much what happened and I pretty much just been doing self employed type stuff ever since then.
Rob: Okay, so you were dabbling in the template world and is this around the time when HTML5 UP! came to life?
AJ: Ah, yeah, that came a good bit later, after some other stuff started waning, and I just need to kind of reset a little bit, I learned some of the more modern technologies, because for a while there, it was pretty much riding this wave of the older way of doing things. And I let my skills wane, and I think you get complacent when things are going well. And so that's pretty much what happened. And then around 2012-ish when I was like, I need to really get my shit together. So I did. And I learned and taught myself responsive design, which I had never done before. And that's pretty much where HTML5 UP! came from.
Actually the very first template on there, which, if you scroll all the way down, which looks extremely dated, is literally the first responsive design I've ever done.
Rob: So I guess, this is a good segment into my first real interview question. How did you sleep at night owning a dot net domain man?
AJ: Yeah, ha, it wasn't obviously my first choice.
Rob: But I mean, was the dot com taken?
AJ: The dot com was taken, someone was just squatting it. And what happened, maybe two years later, I think it may be even longer than that. I just looked it up and, I guess whoever was squatting it decided screw this this, this is not worth keeping around. And it was available. So I bought it. But because, SEO being what it is, html5up.net already had all the links and everything. So, yes, I ended up just having the dot com forward to the dot net - which feels kind of dirty, but at least I've got both now.
Rob: So you started spitting out these HTML templates and then launched a sister company called Pixelarity. This offered support, PSDs of the designs and the attribution-free versions of the templates. I want to know if this was more play to slow down the amount of support requests or more a move to start making some proper money?
AJ: I mean, a little bit of those things, but because what I was doing, even with the free templates, was if people emailed me asking, "well how do I do this?", "where is this thing" or they didn't understand how some of the code works - I actually help them out over email. I didn't mind.
But it started getting to the point where as traffic picked up on the service, I started getting a lot of those. So - I don't mind giving help for free - but this is taking up a lot of my time now. Maybe there's a better way to do this. And so I was sort of like - how can I put together a service that kind of takes care of that, rolls in the attribution-free stuff because people were asking, "Oh hey is there a way I could pay you money so I don't have to link to you?" and you know, Creative Commons. I was like, OK, well, let me figure something out.
So I put something together that address those things, and then the additional value add was, well, maybe I could just do some premium templates that you can only get through Pixelarity. So that's kind of where it came from.
And then the service launched and actually did pretty well. So pretty much kept me going for a few years there until the more recent project, Carrd.
Rob: So having spent some time in the WordPress theme game myself, I know how much of a nightmare support can be. Now you have this new bunch of premium or I can say, priority customers, how many hours a day were you spending on email support?
So if someone has a question like, "Why can't I do this or how do I do this on my own?" Just do this. So it takes very little mental bandwidth for me to really explain how that stuff works. So I don't have to actually dig into it again. I could just remember how I put it together.
Rob: So would you say 10% of your day was support and 90% building?
AJ: Pretty much. I mean, you could say that that's kind of the same model that carry forward to Carrd as well. But with Pixelarity that's really where I learned the benefits of knowing all your stuff, like back-to-front, in-part because you built it yourself.
John: (Intermission) Hey guys, this is John from Ghost telling you to smash that subscribe button. Why? Because I'm sitting down with Rob in Yo! Podcast episode #002 - stay tuned and back to you, Rob.
Rob: So it's early 2015. You've got Pixelarity on subscription at $19 for 3 months, $29 for 6 months or $49 for 12. Was this covering the Nashville lifestyle?
AJ: Oh easily. I actually have a pretty sizable Twitter thread from a while ago, where I try to explain to people: Look, don't look at what I'm doing and what I'm charging as like a metric for how sustainable running something like this may be for you. Because before I did even HTML5 UP!, I made decent money online, with just random websites that had ad revenue and things like that. Those are all long gone.
But I made some good financial decisions and I also had a good head start because my parents didn't mind me staying a little bit longer at their house before I moved out (laughs) when I started doing this stuff. So I could save a lot of money. My living situation was good. I had things lined up really well for me. So it's not like Pixelarity was the only money I had. I had a good butt saved even prior to that. So again, we need to keep it in perspective, because that way I don't want people thinking: "Oh, wow, so I could just charge 19 bucks a year and live a very comfortable lifestyle".
Rob: Understood, man. So that sets up the deeper question quite well. So you're chilling in Nashville, more than enough income to order some hot chicken at a country music gig. And in my experience, that's quite a dangerous place to be. Did this complacency kickoff the challenge to tackle something like Carrd?
AJ: Interestingly, no. Because what happened was prior to HTML5 UP! even, when I made all the money off like Ad stuff and whatnot. That's when I actually had my little streak of being complacent for a couple of years when I was just kind of coasting. It's just like, "Well, money's good, good enough at least. I don't have to work very hard". You know, It was like the only work I had to do was just keep the momentum going, which, if a balls rolling downhill, you don't have to really do much to it.
The problem was, when that ball reaches a plateau or starts hitting uphill parts or it stops rolling on its own. Then you start having issues. So for two years, I didn't have to deal with any of that. Things kept going well, and I just kind of sat around, did fuck all pretty much. (laughs) You think it it sounds like a great thing. Like, "Wow, so I'm making good money doing pretty much nothing".
Rob: Man, it's so classic because you look back on those easy money years and those weren't your best years at all?
AJ: No, because you feel like shit because you're not being productive. You're just kind of like: "Well, at some point, once your basic needs are met, I guess there are only so many video games you can play. And I wasn't playing competitively. I was just darping around. So what value was there in those two years? Maybe three years.
Rob: So what kicked off the motivation for Carrd then?
AJ: Well, having been through the whole, being a moron who was complacent, as soon as Pixelarity kind of reached the extent of where I wanted to take Pixelarity at the time. I was like: "Alright, now it's time for something else". So it wasn't really even a period complacency. It was "Alright, what next? How can I push to the next level?".
Rob: Okay dude, lets intermission into a section I plan to call True. False. Maybe.
Rob: All you need to do is quick-fire back either of those three.
AJ: Sure. What if they're all maybe?
Rob: Well, then it's going to suck. (laughs) Are you ready?
Rob: Your Twitter handle is @AJLKN?
Rob: AJ is not an alias. That's your real name?
Rob: ...but the LKN and stands for Leading K-pop Networker?
AJ: False, but damn, that's good. I need to lean into that.
Rob: You work more than sixty hours per week?
Rob: Photoshop is superior to Sketch?
AJ: Maybe. I mean, we could get into this later, but I'm not at all a tool purist or zealot or anything. Use whatever the fuck you want, man. Like, if it works, it works. I'm using Photoshop because I have decade plus of muscle memory, and I can't undo that. So that's why I use it.
Rob: Your favorite film is Johnny Mnemonic?
AJ: Not my favorite, but it is up there.
Rob: Your favorite band is Daft Punk?
AJ: Not my favorite, but up there. So, maybe...
Rob: #666 is your favorite color?
AJ: Oh, maybe. It just sounds so immature for me to go: "Yeah, man. isn't that awesome... hashtag 6-6-6. I'm so edgy".
Rob: The world needs another JS framework?
AJ: True. Why the fuck not?
Rob: Twitter is your favorite social network, but Deviant Art will always be your first love?
Rob: You signed a six-figure book deal to release a hardcover in 2020 of your Top 50 motivational Tweets.
AJ: Oh, if only. False... but (laughs) who the fuck would buy it?
Rob: You've been on a roll, man.
AJ: I guess... sometimes.
Rob: And last question. True or False. If someone said here is US$50k cash, but you cannot use Twitter ever again for the rest of your life, you wouldn't take the deal?
AJ: True. I actually do get some significant value out of using Twitter. I mean, it's not true for everybody. I'm still not sure if it's a net positive in every area, but I know within our space, with what you and I do, it's a huge positive. So yeah, I wouldn't trade that.
Rob: What is it about Twitter man? I personally love it, but it gets such a bad rep, I can only think people aren't using and right?
AJ: I think the problem is, the worst parts of Twitter get the most attention. Or maybe not most, but the controversial and divisive stuff always gets the most attention. But it's like the old days of IRC, where they're different channels and stuff. It's like on Twitter, there are different sub-Twitters, that no one knows about. And if you're only engaging in negative stuff that just makes you feel like crap all the time. Well, then you're gonna have that view of Twitter. But if you do what we do, like the people I know on Twitter in our little space - it's great! I learned so much from these people who are just out there making stuff, starting their own businesses, because I'm still learning. I'm not, some kind of genius when it comes to this stuff. I've gotten so much value out of Twitter over the last few years.
I mean, part of it also is the fact that I actively avoid interacting with the parts of Twitter that I don't like. Beyond that its been great, and I think people need to look at Twitter as an opportunity to get deeper into, a specific subculture or niche or something that they're interested in, rather than like this general tool. Like social media tool like Facebook. Because Facebook - the product - I had no problem with for a long time. But it's what it inevitably evolved into. Because you have a bunch of people on there, all like scattershot on what they're talking about. It's not really focused. But if you get into something that is focused, there's a lot more value to it, especially if it's something you actually care about.
Rob: I mean, for me, I'd been refining who I follow, over the last few years and I can log on any time of the day.... and there's someone shipping something. I can see in the comments on the Tweets, encouragement from others. Sure, there's the odd troll, but overall I think people are maybe just hopping on Twitter, waiting for good news?
AJ: ...or waiting for bad news. I only follow people who genuinely put out stuff that contributes with the goal I have for being on Twitter. Which is: get a nice stream of inspiration for the type of work I'm doing, learn what's going on in the so-called maker-sphere... products-sphere, whatever. And every day I get value out of it. So if I had to pay for Twitter, I'd happily pay for Twitter. I wouldn't mind.
Rob: So for those not on Twitter, AJ has ~50k followers and possibly the biggest product changed log tweet ever. He tweeted on 17 March 2016 "Done!" and launched his website builder Carrd. And every time he releases a new product update, he simply adds another Tweet to the thread, resurfacing the original launch Tweet and gets a few more reTweets and likes to the original. Kind of genius. Was this intentional or just a lazy change log?
AJ: It was a little bit of both initially. Before I had like, the actual changelog, which you can now see on the Carrd site, this was the easiest way for me to announce new features for the most part. Recent months, I'm only really using it to put out changes that are kind of significant, like significant new features. Early on, I used it for...yeah, I had to pretty much tweet any change I made or any fixes and stuff like that. But the idea was not mine. I can't take credit for that. I think the first time I saw it...actually, I think I've seen a few people, one of whom was Ryan Hoover, Product Hunt.
And I noticed that I think he would routinely reply to a tweet but I just remember seeing like, "Oh, wow. Look, it's resurfacing that original tweet and, giving a lot more context to recent stuff." So I was like, "Well, this makes sense because if I just tweet out of nowhere, 'Oh, fix this bug or added this thing,' I'd have to also give, use up the limited characters you have on Twitter to also explain 'Oh, by the way, this is for Carrd this is this...you know, and Carrd is this thing.'" It's like, well, I could just reply to the original tweet, Twitter will resurface the original tweet as well as show what I just put up. So, works out really well.
Rob: So Carrd turns three on the 7th of March and I once read that businesses should aim to profit by year three. Why do I have this feeling that you are making profit from the get, from being a one man show with low expenses?
AJ: Yeah, and that is exactly right. I mean, it wasn't making a lot of money when it first started. But it was...I want to say after the first couple of months, already paying for it's server bill, which was pretty low at the time. So I mean, it was already in positive territory. And ever since then, it's been that way. But I mean, again, you just said it yourself, being a one man team, it really did keep costs low, but that's not...if I factored in how much it would have cost to pay a developer, a designer, or, all the requisite pieces of a team to build a product like this, you would have been in the negatives to begin with.
Rob: It's so crazy to think that if you think took on investment in the beginning, hired a bunch of people, let's not ever talk about having a physical space. How different the pressures would have been for Carrd? And I know this word gets a lot of flak in maker circles. But being a solo founder, would you call Carrd a lifestyle business?
AJ: I mean, to an extent in that, now that Carrd is pretty much my full time thing. You know, people who have to, they get investments and then they have a burn rate and all this stuff, it's like they're...I guess how you get started with a business...and again, I'm no professional on this. I can only speak from my own experience.
There are just different ways for you to get to that starting point. And if you do the solo developer, founder, or whatever thing, where you do literally everything from scratch or if you have, even a partner who's willing to eat the cost of their time, not be paid for their time and they're basically donating their time to this project that may or may not pan out, that's certainly one way to go.
But as is...and I don't have necessarily a problem with people who choose to not do that and also have, investments and then, hire people and whatnot. It's just a matter of how you start and get to that point. They all come with their own pluses and minuses. When you have like, I guess with the traditional approach where you get an investor or, VC or whatever, you have the benefit of actually offloading a lot of tasks to different people.
You're not doing it all yourself, you can launch a lot faster, you can cover a lot more ground. You as by not doing the solo developer thing, are not saddled with doing mundane type stuff, at least from your perspective. So like, recently, I've been writing documentation for Carrd, hasn't taken that long to do and I've been doing okay on it. But it's not like, it's not as exciting to me as, adding new features, right?
AJ: So that's a trade-off you have to make if you do the solo developer thing. If you've got a team, well, you can have someone who can do that for you, someone who's, really good at copy can work on it. So, pluses and minuses on both sides.
Rob: So where are we now with Carrd you know, user and site wise?
AJ: Close to 300k sites now and about 200k users. I don't give an exact number there yet because some of those sites are, what I would consider just test sites. You know, people have a habit, when they start using a service, they'll just like build something that just says test, and then they never come back to it. So I actually have a kind of a semi-automated way of flagging all that stuff.
Rob: So something like monthly active users?
Rob: So not to discredit these figures, but a lot of listeners not following you on Twitter don't know that Carrd absolutely blew up last year within the K-pop community. So if you search "Carrd" on Twitter, that's Carrd with two R's, you'll likely see someone in the K pop community tweet, "Hey, check out my Carrd." How wild was this man?
AJ: So it actually has been going on a little bit longer than that. I think mid-2017, I think is when I first started seeing the first sites that looked kind of like that, where it was more probably like, people in like their late teens, early 20s, even beyond that setting up kind of more personal oriented sites. And not personal in the way I originally anticipated which had been like, "Oh, I'm, a software developer from blah and I've, these are links to all my stuff." It's actually more just like, "Hey, I'm this, I'm into this stuff and blah, blah, blah."
And I was like, "Oh, that's pretty cool." And then I noticed, there was more anime and K-pop theme stuff started kind of popping up from that. And I think it's just...it kind of went semi viral among that specific community. And then here we are today, which kind of blew me away honestly. And again, it took me by surprise because if you go back to my original intent for Carrd, it wasn't necessarily to go after this. In fact, quite honestly, I don't think I had a very specific goal for what it was supposed to go after. So maybe that's what helped. But, yeah, man, it blew up. It's kind of funny in a good way. Like, I actually do appreciate the product is useful beyond just the groups of people that I thought it would cater to.
Rob: So from a business point of view, do you question what the product is best for? I mean, this would have messed me up a bit. I would have been overthinking this to death. Is this a quality problem or a problem with the potential quality of the actual platform?
AJ: To an extent. I mean, that was always a concern like, is this all Carrd is supposed to be? Basically, a site for people to put up sites like this? Which it can be, that's fine. But I think I figured out a while back is that, it's important to not look at, a trend like this because the reality is, it's popular among that particular circle of people or niche or whatever you want to call it right now. But that doesn't necessarily carry on into the future. So I don't...you know, I'm not exactly going to pivot the entire business on, to cater to this market. If that makes sense.
Rob: So what about making a dedicated K-pop landing page in just say, a South Korean language and just try and get the most out of the trend?
AJ: I mean, that's the thing. It's like, I don't really want to do that. Because, again, if it's something that only lasts all of, it's...okay, so, it's been going on for over a year at this point, and so far, it hasn't slowed down. So maybe it's kind of reached to the point where it's established as a thing in that community. But I'm not going to specifically cater to that community just because I don't know if it's going to be around forever. And also, it's not super profitable yet.
I'm also not going to be, dismissive of it because, this is still a valid use case for the product. It may not have been one I anticipated but I'm not going to dismiss it. So all I've done really is, I've looked at it and kind of seen, okay, what are some features I can build that would not only encourage some of these users to upgrade to like a lower tier pro plan or something, but also features that will work for other potential markets, not just theirs. So, a lot of things that come out of that. So it's been actually kind of a beneficial thing in that regard.
Rob: So I'm going to link to the Building Carrd microsite you published, but I want to talk a little more in depth about pricing a SaaS service. There are essentially five tiers to a Carrd account, one being free, and four being pro-tiers with different feature offerings. Did you craft these tiers over time based on feature requests or thumb sucked what you thought was best?
AJ: A little bit of both, I'd say. So when Carrd first launched, it had a...well, and this is...anyone listening who's about to launch a product that's free and you want to make money off it, make sure it always launches with the paid plan or something already built in. So you launch on Product Hunt or any place and you get, your initial blast attraction. You don't want to miss the opportunity of having people convert to Paid right off the bat because otherwise, you kind of lost an opportunity there.
Having said that, Carrd launched with the free tier which I can get to a little bit more later, and then also one pro plan which is the...it was just called pro and it was just $19 bucks a year. And it gave you sort of, I guess you could call it like more business-y features. I mean, you could use a custom domain, you could use forms and I think a few other things that, I guess free users typically wouldn't need but people who ran businesses or, wanted a little bit more of a professional presence online could use a custom domain and whatnot. So, launched with that.
Rob: When looking at other online website builders like Squarespace, Wix, and Weebly, they all have four to five pricing options. Is this really where product makers should aim from the start to, for the lack of a better word, milk the most of their users versus the traditional one tier plan?
AJ: The plans that came about after launch and we had just that single pro plan, those came basically when I started having feature requests, and I was starting to look at them and think, if I keep adding all of these features to pro...pro originally, like when I priced it at $19 bucks a year, that felt like the fair price for it. And there's a little bit in that making of thing where I explain my reasoning behind it. It felt fair at the time. But if I kept adding significantly more powerful features to it, at least from my perspective, the $19 bucks a year would feel a little too cheap.
Realistically, it would be almost unfair to my end to offer that many features for just $19 a year. Now, I don't have a problem with a $19 a year plan. So instead of raising...and also, I didn't want to really raise the price of it, because the $19 felt like a good entry level for a lot of people. So I was like, "Well, how about I just come up with another planned tier?" And so that's where...sorry, especially, I think this was in mid to late 2017 is when I really started dicing up the plans a bit more. So that's where Pro Plus came from, which is $49 bucks a year and it has a bunch more advanced features.
And then the Pro Max Plan, which is $99 bucks a year, which is basically Pro Plus with a bunch more sites, that plan I'm going to probably rejigger into a more official kind of agency level plan, now that Carrd is at that point where people are using it that way. And then in the last year, I actually came up with the Pro-Lites plan, which is just $9 bucks a year. And that was to speak to what I said earlier about, the K-pop users and all that stuff. That plan was actually built almost directly for that market or markets kind of close to that, where you have people who are content with the kind of the free experience, but they wanted some of the limitations removed. So I was like, "Well, why not just offer something that's cheap enough? Because they're never going to need forms or a custom domain or these kind of more business oriented features. But at the very least, I can offer something that's like a Free Plus experience, if that makes sense.
Rob: So I know you're pretty big on transparency. And in the past, you were sharing a lot of numbers as Carrd was growing. But you've slowed down recently and I'm wondering if you think that it's still necessary to share numbers once a platform gets to a certain level.
AJ: I'm comfortable with sharing like a good chunk of like the process of building Carrd, running it, just challenges I run into. Sharing raw numbers though, I think past a certain point...I don't know like, because now Carrd is at the point where it's pulling in, a decent amount of money each month. It just feels like when it gets to a certain level, what it's about...doesn't change a whole lot. Like there's not a massive jump or anything. It doesn't feel super necessary for me to do that. I know some other people choose to do so, I have no problem with that. It's just in my particular case, it just doesn't feel right.
Rob: (Intermission) Hey, friends. I'm chatting to you from the edit and yo, I'm really digging this so far. I'd love your feedback. If you want more interactive sections, like the intermission with music, or you prefer that long, drawn out, deep conversation, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org or at twitter @robhope. I'd love to hear from you, let's get back to the interview. So sometimes you spend 40, 60, even 80 hours a week, coding away in the matrix. How do you reset and recharge to avoid burnout?
AJ: Yeah, having spent so much time in front of the screen just to do work, I find that the best thing for me to do is spend my free time away from screens as much as possible. So it's a little hard for someone who enjoys doing, computer type stuff, I do enjoy playing video games, I have nothing against that. It just doesn't seem healthy for me to spend so much time working in front of a screen and then immediately turning around and playing video games in my free time also on a screen.
So, I've been having to like come up with new hobbies in a way, that take me away from the screen and get me outside especially and, it's just good for the health overall. So, it's really...it sounds kind of boring and mundane but I mean, I'll go walking a lot more, biking a lot more, just kind of forcing myself to go outside and just, see the sun which, we don't see a whole lot. So it's working out pretty well so far.
Rob: It's good to get a little sun every now and again, dude. So are you listening to any podcasts?
AJ: I mean, not really. And it's not that I have an issue with podcasts. Obviously, I'm on one right now. But it's just trying to keep the separation because when you, when you work for yourself, there's sort of like this, things aren't as...like your free time and your work time aren't as divided or separated as you would otherwise want. And I know that sounds strange because some people are like "Well, working for yourself sounds great. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want." But there are a lot of pitfalls from that that I don't think a lot of people are aware of.
Rob: Yeah, man. I've really struggled with podcasts in the past. You know, I don't have a commute to work, I assume you don't either. But only recently I've identified what kind of work I can do while consuming them. And, when I'm problem solving or coding or even emailing, I can't listen to someone else speaking. So now I just try and align it with, Photoshop work when I'm creating long scrolling screenshots for one page love. And I guess what's great about them is it's sort of a passive consumption like when you're hiking or driving. But when it comes to gaming or watching movies, we have this sort of opportunity costs where we could just be working on that screen time.
AJ: Right. I mean, that actually, that's exactly kind of what I was saying. It's like, when you work for someone else, you have kind of, for the most part, either a fixed time where you have to be somewhere and work, and then the rest of the time it's yours to do, what you will with it. Or even if you're working kind of on a project basis or something, there's kind of a definite start and stop to what you're doing. You know, again, there's like more of a partition between work time and non-work time.
When you're working on your own products or, even if you're just working for yourself period, there's a good chance there's not that same separation, or at least it's not as obvious. So you have to kind of force one into place yourself. And that's not easy at all because even when you're, in your free time, even when I'm out biking or something, I'm thinking of work and I have to consciously remind myself, try to avoid doing this as much as possible. And actually, there are benefits to that when I'm doing a mundane task sometimes it kind of, a problem I had been working on, suddenly gets shaken loose and I kind of see the solution very clearly.
But at the same time, it's like, "Ah, now I'm working again." You know, it's not easy. Not to be whiny about it because, when you also work for yourself it is a huge blessing in many ways, but there are always...you know, nothing is perfect. And even something like this, you're going to have issues where you just lose that separation and your life ends up becoming just all work or you end up just kind of burning out and being like, "Fuck this." And then you just don't work at all for a period of time and then that's really bad for you too.
Rob: So do you have a rule about checking email away from the office?
AJ: It depends on what's going on. Like, if I'm expecting a an important email I'll be a little bit more, I guess, aggressive about checking it. Like, when I have my...on my phone but like, no, for the most part, I'm pretty good about only checking my email maybe like three or four times a day but when I'm actually at my computer working. Especially like, in the mornings for instance, I always...the first thing I do is actually check my email because I have to handle support stuff. And since I still handle that through email, that's the first thing I work through, clear out my inbox, and then I'll check it again probably a few hours later and then a few hours after that and then probably one more time before I hit the sack.
Rob: How many emails are you getting a day?
AJ: Oh, probably about 50 or 60. But, some of those are just general questions about things. Because, even though Carrd is kind of my main thing right now, I still get support inquiries for Pixelarity. So I have to handle those too. And it's interestingly, like it's actually gotten so much easier since I put that documentation up on Carrd. A lot of the questions I used to get all the time are now...well, I just don't get them anymore, which is really awesome. I guess that's the whole point.
Rob: You can just send them a link to the documentation page.
AJ: For the people who I guess they just didn't have...take a moment to look it up in the documentation, which is fine, because I do that sometimes too with other services I use. But yeah, I can just send them a link. But for the most part, people, I think just have taken to looking at the documentation and kind of immediately getting the answers that they want, you know. Who would have thought documentation would be a good idea? It is really obvious, but don't wait 3 years to put up documentation for your product.
Rob: So what's your primary email client?
AJ: Oh, I just use Gmail.
Rob: And is that for everything? I know I've emailed you to at least three or four different email addresses.
AJ: They're all just aliases for like just my main email. So if you email me, email@example.com or whatever.
Rob: And that handles the support for HTML5 UP!, Pixelarity, and Carrd, one inbox?
AJ: Pretty much one inbox, yeah.
Rob: Oh, respect. So dude, I'm pretty sure I subscribed to all your email lists and you send about three emails a year, text only.
AJ: Yeah, it's not it's not something I make a habit of, let's just say that.
Rob: So what are you using to send these email blasts?
AJ: Well, right now, and it's going to have to change, pretty much I've just been using Amazon SES because I also use that for transactional emails. I have a Mailchimp account for the HTML5 UP! mailing list, which the only time I ever use that is when I'm sending like a new template thing. Everything else though, yeah, I still use SES, with a custom solution to just email everyone when I need to email them. But not really. That doesn't scale.
Over time, that's just not going to scale very well. And I think if there's one theme for the last two years for me, well, especially with last year is that, scale changes a thing into something else entirely. Like, it's not just more of something, it's a completely different ballgame. And, where I was three years ago, almost exactly three years ago when I launched Carrd is certainly not where I am today. And not in a negative way, it's just that the time and growth of something just...wow, it puts you in a completely different place with completely different things that you have to think about, completely different roles and it's just...the mailing list thing is just one aspect of it. It used to be that the SES solution worked super well.
It was just really, it was just an afterthought. So, yeah, of course, why not? Now with the number of users I have it's like to send an email through SES to that many people, that could be an issue because, you have sending limits and whatnot and I'm like, "Wow, what if this interferes with the transactional emails I send out?" Like, if I hit my cap or something? So again, I just, I have to think of a different solution because the scale has just put me in a different place.
Rob: I can fully relate, man. You know, thinking back to a time with a One Page Love newsletter where, in way smaller numbers, but it was around about 14,000 subscribers. But the open rate and engagement rate was so low. So I did a bit of investigating and found out that, since the list was started in 2008, there were loads of old email addresses not used. So I simply said, "Fuck it." And I pruned the email list, anyone who hadn't engaged with the list, who hadn't clicked a link I think in the last 6 months or 3 months, I removed them completely from the list. And I took the list down from 14,000 to 2000.
AJ: Oh, wow.
Rob: And all of a sudden, open rates just rocket. I'm only paying for 2000 subscribers. But, the engagement was so high and I just feel like it was a much better play.
AJ: I never thought that. Quality over quantity though, right? That makes sense.
Rob: So why send text-only emails and not use the email template? Is it because you got way bigger fish to fry?
AJ: Pretty much. And also just, man, people who do custom like email templates man, God bless you, man. That is some rough shit right there. Like, just, it's like...
Rob: It's so dark.
AJ: I know. It's like what happened here? It's like the rest of the web moved like so far ahead. You can do all kinds of cool shit like, what we're using right now to record this podcast. And then email it's just like, welcome to 1998. It's like, "Jeez, dude." Yeah, and I just don't really have the mental bandwidth. Like, when I just need to send out a message, I'm like, I'm not going to spend a week crafting an HTML email that looks perfect. I'm just going to send out text. Which to an extent, it almost seems like that's been pretty effective because I can get right to the point. It's like, "Hey, running a sale right now. Here's a coupon code. Have a nice day." And then I just kind of back the fuck off.
Rob: I guess you don't have a content network and you just drop these product bombs in emails saying, "Hey, here's a new freebie. Check out the demo. Here's the link."
AJ: Right. And I think it's just...I think the problem a lot of people have in really everything, is that, I think they over optimize a situation. So, like they're sending out...and, again, I'm not an expert on this, so I could be 100% wrong. But if you're just sending an email to let someone know that there's like a new template on your site, it's like I don't think you need to include, pages of text or shit they don't care about, that just runs the risk of that email getting flagged and, thrown in the spam folder. You know, you just stick to the point, you probably increase the odds of someone opening your email and, there you go.
Rob: Let's chat about domain names quick. You seem like a dude who doesn't care much for dotcoms. You know, you own html5up.net, pixelarity.com, carrd.co and aj.lkn.io.
Rob: In 2019, do you think dotcoms matter for the success of an internet business?
AJ: Well, I try to be as trendy and edgy as possible. And, dotcom is just so mainstream. I can't do that. But in each of those situations, there was a reason why I ended up without a dotcom. Like, HTML5 UP! we already went over, the dotcom was being squatted until I was able to acquire it later on. Carrd, that was...there's a bit in actually in the making of thing. Coming up with a name for Carrd or just that service that became Carrd was like probably one of the hardest parts of that project. And I know I'm not alone when I say that, like naming something you make is such a pain in the ass.
And I had so many more parameters on top of that with Carrd because the URLs for user sites would also include the domain name. So it had to be kind of generic enough. So it didn't like stick out too much, and it also had to be short, and you know, it had a whole lot of...it took me forever to figure something out. And then I landed on Carrd, it felt good and so I went with it. The downside was, the dotcom was taken. So I ended up just making a calculated decision "Yeah, I'm just going to deal with it."
And hopefully, whoever owns the dotcom doesn't try to dick me over later. Which it turns out the person who owned it was actually very nice. I was able to buy the domain from them for about $2,000 a while later. And then it's just set up as a Ford. But as far as like, why didn't I just switch to the dotcom after I acquired it, the .co feels...I don't know, just almost like...I mean, l'll be honest, it just feels cooler. As lame as that sounds, it just seems trendier than a .com. And also, I guess having one less character.
Rob: So why carrd.co and not carrd.io?
AJ: Actually, I also go into that in the making of thing. Because if you say, carrd.io, you can see why there's a problem there. It's like that doesn't seem to fit with what the product is all about. Like, if it was a fitness app, sure. But, that's not what it is.
Rob: Okay, a second last question. What is it about One Page websites, man? You and me both have businesses built around this niche?
AJ: Well, so several things actually. I think the first of which is, so I've been doing the template thing for, even longer than HTML5 UP! And I noticed when I would see the sites people would build on templates, I would look at it and be like, you don't need eight pages for this. I mean you could have gotten away with like two or three or maybe in some cases even just one. And so I was always kind of, you know...and you would see this yourself. You go to someone's website and you click like their about page and it's like this massive like page design, and then you have like, three lines of text right in the middle.
And it's like, shit, you could just put this on your landing page, and more people would see it. So I mean, just over time I saw that and it, always stuck with me. And then on HTML5 UP!, I think, I can't remember exactly which one I did, but I did a few one-page templates. I think, starting with maybe...I forget which one. But anyway, it ended up getting like a lot more downloads initially than I expected. Like, it was very popular. And I think maybe there was even a kind of a demand or an untapped demand for just simple one-page templates that just got right to the point.
You know, not some crazy expansive thing, with like a shitload of extra page layouts or anything. It's just one-page, stick your shit on there and you're good to go. When I noticed that pattern, I started kind of like, "All right, I can lean into this start doing more stuff in this area." And quite honestly, if I'm just being, you know...it's just easier doing a one-page design. Like, you're not having to screw with like a secondary page layout, or a tertiary or, whatever you wanna call it, you just do one-page and you're done.
Rob: Remember when we talked about the darkness that comes with email template design?
Rob: Have you ever had the pleasure of designing and coding threaded comments in a WordPress theme?
AJ: I have not. That's actually something I have largely avoided in my web design development career. So, my condolences to anyone who's had to deal with something along those lines.
Rob: You know, without the threaded comments and, all the blog posts, I feel like a one-pager is just a perfect canvas to tell a simple story.
AJ: Well, on that point though, I think...and this is not...again, I am not like some startup like genius or anything but I think, why Carrd has been, doing as well as it has been is because really the one-page thing is...you know, the example I used before, a website with an about page with three lines on it, but you have this massive design surrounding it that, that it was kind of unnecessary, almost kind of abandoned in a way.
Most people, I think...okay, maybe not most, but let's just say like, put a number on it. Like, 80% of people need...you know, if they need a website, one page is oftentimes going to be enough for them, for what they want to do. I guess that ethos, if you carry that on to other things, like just do the 80% that most people want, and you'll end up like saving yourself...I don't know some arbitrary percentage of time. Implementing like, minutia features like threaded comments and other things like that because most people don't need that.
So why not just put your effort into focusing on that 80%. Doing a really, really good job on that 80%, lean into it and just make it super nice. As opposed to spreading out your time worrying about styling threaded comments or, all that other stuff. Again, nothing wrong with that, there are people who need that stuff, but not the 80% who need a website.
Rob: I'm also fascinated how if you give a user two to three pages, they'll fill those things up. But if you give them a small allocation within a landing page for the about, they're forced to cut down that three to four paragraph about and get straight to the point. And that's exactly what a visitor wants to read.
AJ: This isn't an original thought, other people have said this too or variations of it, but constraints really do kind of bring out your creativity. So like, if you're given, if you're drawing something, but you're only given like three colors to use, you're going to come up with kind of a creative, more inventive way of drawing something that is actually really cool that you didn't think you could do.
But if you have like, all the colors and all the tools and everything else, well, you might end up just having too many choices at your disposal, you wouldn't know where to start, because then you don't feel like...you wouldn't feel like you're using the right tool to do the thing you're doing. But if you can see right in front of you just the three or four things that you can use, well, then I don't...for some reason that just makes it easier for you to do something interesting.
Rob: Okay, brother, let's wrap things up. There are a bunch of people listening out there who are itching to take the leap, quit their job and do their own thing. What little nugget can you part ways with for anyone who wants to start their own Carrd or online business?
AJ: I would say the thing to do is start small. And start with something that...and actually I tweeted something to this effect, but start with something that even if it's stupid, even if it only serves a purpose for you, and like no one else, and you may not even make money off it, do it, just do it. Like, make something that you would be proud of. Like, you really want to get that momentum going that you can actually do this. Which you can. The tools are out there now to where you can make incredible shit, even without code. I mean, there's a whole like no code movement now.
So just think of something that you would be interested in, that maybe solves a small problem for you. And then just go out there, look for what tools are available and just jump into it and see what you can come up with. And then I think as soon as you do that, you will feel a little bit different after it. Like, you'll feel the strange sense of empowerment that like, oh, yes. I can actually make my own things to solve my own problems and maybe even potentially solve other people's problems to the point where they want to pay me money for it. How's that?
Rob: Whoa. That was solid. Bro, what's next for you and Carrd?
AJ: Carrd is growing on its own momentum for the most part. But there are big kind of areas that I want to start getting into. One of which I think is commerce. And I know a lot of people ask me about that along the way are you're going to support, being able to open your own store and all this stuff. And I'm like, "Yes, to an extent." I think if I tackle commerce next, I want to put my own kind of Carrd spin on it.
So you're not going to see...I mean, I can't get into the details of what I've kind of come up with so far, but let's just say you're not going to see, a clone of what...you know, like a Shopify or anything like that, because I've said this in other ways before, I can't, out Squarespace Squarespace. Squarespace does a fine job of being Squarespace. Shopify does a fine job of being Shopify. Whatever I come up with for Carrd has to be kind of a Carrd oriented solution that fits kind of the whole ethos of what the platform is about.
Rob: Gumroad really comes to mind as a single product commerce solution.
AJ: Well, I'm kind of envisioning as sort of like, not exactly what they do, but sort of a kind of people who want to set up when I come up with features, I don't think of like the individual feature. I think of like, well, how does this solve a specific problem? And I know people who are like, "I just want to put up a page where I can just sell like a freaking PDF, man. That's all I want." I'm like, "All right, that's good enough for me. I'll figure out some way for you to do that." And so that's kind of like, or like...I want to just sell a T-shirt, man, just a thing that I've made myself or some trinket or something.
I just want to put up a page where people can pay me and then I just, I ship it to them, you know. I don't expect to get a, thousands of orders, maybe like a few here and there. And I think there's a huge market for that because I don't think everybody is running like a massive huge scale operation where they are, shipping out thousands of products. You know, oftentimes it's just like, "Yeah, I might sell a dozen a month or something."
So I want to be able to build a...and I think that fits right in with the, the whole...you know, the 80% of things that people actually need, I think that's within that realm of the 80%. As in someone who just wants to sell a thing or a couple of things, a few times a month, and they want an easy way to just set that up without having to like, fuss with like, setting up whole shopping carts, oriented site with all kinds of crazy stuff. So maybe I can do it.
Rob: I can't help but think on this level and how massive email is on a commerce level and how complicated the build could be to cater for those requests from users who want, failed shopping carts, reminder emails, automated coupons, and all that noise that comes with commerce.
AJ: Right. I mean, that's pretty much it. Like, I have...and this has been a kind of a theme for a long time is that, look, I have no problem with you. Like, if you say, "You know, Carrds is not for me. I need more features. I need, like the features of, a Wix or a Squarespace or whatever." I'm like, "Well, then use them. That's great." Like, there's so much room in so many markets for different competitors who hit different niches and different combinations of features. Because, everyone is different, everyone's needs are different.
I think it's perfectly fine to have such a huge range of products that you don't have to necessarily...and when you're making your own product, you don't necessarily have to cater to everyone. Cater to a niche that you can serve well, and if that person ends up growing beyond the niche that you serve, maybe you try it. Like, if there are features that you can add that would add to the value of your platform, but don't necessarily take it in a completely different direction that kind of, compromise what it's supposed to be, then add those features. But otherwise, be willing to tell them, "We can't do that. But I know someone else who can."
And then, make the referral. So I've recommended using Squarespace and Wix to countless people because, well, I don't actually...like, I'm not super familiar with their platforms because as I've mentioned to other people, I kind of avoid looking at my competition. I do know generally that they do pretty much anything you can imagine. So if that's what you need, I will happily refer you to them because they can, give you what you want.
Hope you enjoyed the Yo! Podcast interview!