Some small lessons from accidentally doing citations for 16,000 people

15 March 2017
15 Mar 2017
West Lafayette, IN
7 mins

I might be a working folk now, but just a year and a half ago, I was a high school sophomore, on the brink of summer break. And as all try-hard sophomore academics do, I hated doing citations at the end of papers.

I despised it.

I despised it so hard, I do it for other people now. 16,000 other people. Every single week.

(Note from future Linus: I sold Apogee as I left high school, but at its peak Apogee had around 125,000 average weekly users.)

But why?

Excellent question.

One day, on a bus ride home in April 2014, I decided to do something about this citation mess — I grabbed a scrap of paper and a pencil from my pocket (which, of course, was in my pocket because who doesn’t carry pen and paper in their suit pockets? Did I mention I was in a suit? I was coming back from a debate tournament.)

I grabbed a pen and paper and started thinking. But I didn’t know how to sketch user interfaces or draw diagrams or any of that stuff I pretend like I do now. I only knew that this would be an app to automagically make up an MLA citation for me from a website link. So I just wrote down a nice name for it:

Apogee. Citation Creator.

So that kind of stuck — never mind that “Apogee” is an incredibly awkward English word, I liked it.

The idea itself really got lost in the craziness of the April-May rush of school after that, but by the time August came around for another school year, I had something of a working version. At that point, it was mostly designed to just work for me, and myself only. It only worked on a handful of websites, but whatever — I can’t make iPhone apps like the cool guys, so I just made a Chrome browser extension, and it sorta-kinda did what I wanted. I put it up on the Chrome Web Store a couple days later.

Lesson 1: A Hockeystick this is not

If I recall correctly, it took me three weeks to get three users. And I was ecstatic.

Getting a first user is always a big deal, because it means there’s at least one person who’s willing to put up with whatever bug and problem you’ve put into the thing you made because the thing is a thing they wanted in their life.

And having strangers download my Chrome extension and keep it and not complain about the hundred times it didn’t work for the one time it did, really made me quite happy.

But it took a few months to get to around a hundred users. By the end of the year, almost nine months later, I had around four thousand people copy-pasting from Apogee instead of Easybib. As they say, there was no overnight success.

However, there was an overnight drop. As the summer break began, the almost-five-thousand dropped to two thousand in a matter of a couple of weeks. Bummer. I had to build that up again next year, and thankfully, with the established base of users, it was a little easier the second time around in the 2016–17 school year. I reached around 13,000 people by the start of 2017.

Lesson 1.5: People really hate citations

Reading the reviews, it’s hilarious how many people feel this way. It’s pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t beat this dead horse too much here.

Thank you so very much! This is worth 5 STARS absolutely! It is completely up to date with MLA 8, which we now use in class. I can’t thank you enough. I will now have more time w/ my family because of time saved using Apogee!

Apparently I run a pro-family product.

WHERE WAS THIS WHEN I WAS IN UNDERGRAD Such a great extension. To the creators, please take a bow, you have done the academic community a huge service. Great job, and more importantly, THANK YOU!

In which I served the academic community (…poorly).

I absolutely love this extension! Citations have always been a hassle but now I never have to worry about it. I would definitely recommend this if you are a student using MLA format!

Are you a student using MLA format? I have a message for you.

Thanks for those reviews, by the way, all 32 of you. Great reviews are the life force of all entrepreneurs.

Lesson 2: Making something good works.

By that, I mean that no matter how much effort you put into marketing or ads or paying celebrities (none of which I could do, because I was as broke as a sophomore in high school with no job), the best way to get people to use a thing I made was to make a thing that worked really really well, and solved a problem people had.

Jumping back to my point in the previous section, doing citations was a problem that people had. And there were already solutions out there for those people: EasyBib is the biggest one, but another one a lot of my users bring up often is RefMe, whose CEO I briefly kept in touch with. RefMe was cool, and had some really unique features like barcode scanning for citing physical books, but it was recently acquired.

I don’t publicize my other Chrome extensions as much, but I have three other extensions also on the web store with a combined user base of around 140. I’m not disappointed by those, though, because none of those solve problems as ….. dire (?) …. as the citation situation for students.

The biggest takeaway from making and giving away Apogee is that the best way to sell something to people isn’t to invest in marketing or write great code or have a tenured designer in my process; it’s to make something that works really well to solve some real issue, however first-worldly it may be.

Lesson 3: It’s about the people

My code is terrible. My design job is amateur. Apogee isn’t an amazing product, but people use it, and more rewarding many times, people leave me reviews!

A great 5-star review for an app or a product is the equivalent of an applause at the end of a performance. It doesn’t really matter how many people show up for a concert, as long as there’s some people there — what matters more is whether they like it. I think it’s the same deal with building products (albeit free in this case). Trying to grow the user base really isn’t a primary goal of mine. Instead, I found myself asking how to respond to reviews or add in new features that people were asking for.

These days, I don’t get to work on Apogee often, but when I do, I ask myself not how to make a better product, but how to make Apogee work better for the people using it. And it’s a subtle difference, but I think the mindset change completely changes how I think about adding / removing features and priorities in my development.

Apogee is now the second oldest programming project I’ve ever worked on that’s still alive, second only to my website and blog. And it’s also the most widely used — more people use Apogee in a week than reads my blog in a month. Now, people aren’t dying to read my blog the same way they apparently are dying to not make citations; but I find it both really interesting and really empowering that the vast majority of the time, the success of our work in the big bad world has very little to do with how we make stuff — the code, the design, the investment, by themselves — and very much to do with who wants to use what we build, and how we respond to them and connect with them.

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