Speaker spotlight: creating an app on a shoestring budget with Chris Armstrong

How did you come up with the idea for Niice?
It was a standard 'scratching my own itch' scenario: like all creatives I spend a lot of time looking for ideas and inspiration on sites like Behance, Designspiration and Dribbble, and the initial idea was just about having all that in one place. We designed and shipped the first version in a week, and it just seemed to resonate with people. 

Niice took off and we got a lot of traffic: over 50,000 hits the first month, about 100,000 the next. The surge of interest made me think "okay, we might be onto something here. Maybe we could make a business from this". 

How has it evolved since the launch in 2013?
It's grown a lot. The initial idea was literally just ‘a search engine with taste’: the goal was to help people get ideas. As we talked to our users we were able to figure out what exactly would be useful to them.

We realised that ideas aren't really the main problem for most people: we all have lots of ideas. The main issue with creative work tends to be communication: how you communicate those ideas to one another and how you gather feedback. While inspiration search is still very much a part of Niice, most of focus nowadays is on the Boards feature; improving presentation, discussion and feedback. 

How did you make the switch from design to product development?  
It's always been something I've wanted to do. For the first two and a half years I was still doing a lot of freelance consulting to pay the bills, but there came a point when Niice was really taking all of my focus and I didn't have the bandwidth to take on other projects. 

Initially we were supported by some generous sponsorship from the comapanies like Mailchimp, but turning that into a sustainable business meant getting into selling ads, and it just wasn’t the kind of company I wanted to build. 

I’m interested in building a business where my customers are my users, that exists to solve the workflow problems creatives have. We knew the boards feature was something that was more geared to the needs of our users, so we decided to try charging a subscription for it, even though we weren't sure whether people would pay for it or not. It was an experiment. Thankfully it turned out we had built something worth paying for, and slowly but surely we grew sales to the point where it could cover a basic salary.

Niice Collab Bw

I'm sure you've had offers for investment, or to sell the whole thing, but you are still bootstrapping. Why? 
That was a conscious decision from the beginning. I didn’t start my own business to get rich (though that would be a nice side effect!), I did it to have freedom; to create my own dream job, to work on cool ideas and make great products. ”Success” for me isn’t an exit; it’s making enough money to grow the team and make cooler products.

Once you take investment, you've effectively sold your company. The only possible outcomes are going bust, going public, or selling it. I just felt like that wasn't for me. It felt like getting a boss again. Also, a part of me likes the challenge of figuring out how far can we go just by self-funding this. It's certainly slower, but I feel like I have a lot less stress because of it. So long as you're paying your bills, you can do what you like. 

You've been building up a little team around you, who are all remote. How do you collaborate?
We haven't intentionally chosen to be remote, it's just the nature of it. Most people in the team are local, some are part-time contractors and freelancers. We do have an office so when we need to be in the same room, bouncing ideas back and forth, there is definitely an advantage of that. However, most of the time it doesn't really matter where we are. Actually being in an office together can be really distracting sometimes! When you're in the same location, it’s really good for exploring where you want to take things, but when you just need to get your head down, it's not that valuable. A lot of times, despite having the office, I just go to a coffee shop next door anyway!

Also, we're building a product to help people collaborate regardless of location. So, it's a good discipline for us to experience the pain of remote working as well.

Can you explain a little bit about Niice's underlying technology?
The back-end is Ruby on Rails and we use BackboneJS for the front-end, and Sass for styling. I think if we were building it today we'd probably be using something like React or Vue for the front-end, and Node for the back-end, but no matter when you start building there's going to be developments in the tech industry, and you're going to make decisions based on what's right for the moment. 

As we develop new features—and improve old ones—we’re trying to decouple the back-end into a standalone API, which would make it easier to explore new options for front-end frameworks. I feel like it's better to accept that it's going to keep changing; to architect the stack in a way that allows us to evolve and swap things in and out easily rather than trying to bet on a winner. 


How do you fight churn and make sure that the platform doesn't lose too many users?   
Churn has been a challenge for us; we've brought it to manageable state but there's still a lot of work to be done. 

I was advised once to make it harder to churn by literally hiding the cancel button, which seems ridiculous to me. It'd be like  a restaurant locking the doors so customers can't leave. It's not really going to work out in the long term if you have to force people to stay. Churn is an indicator that we’re not quite fitting into someone’s workflow, so we started asking people why they cancelled and that's been really valuable. It showed us that most people weren't leaving out of anger or out of bugginess; they liked the product but hadn’t used it in a while — it wasn’t mission-critical to their workflow.

We came to the conclusion that we were selling the wrong things to the wrong people. What we had built was very focused on single users and the initial ‘research’ phase of the project, which meant that when that was done, they could just move on and didn't need us for another six months. So people were using us for the research phase of the project and then cancelled. We’d also been targeting the web industry because that was my background, the people I knew best.

What we’ve learned is that there's a lot more value in enabling collaboration, and as we’ve started building features that are useful for teams it has become a lot more valuable and ‘sticky’ in workflows. We’ve also realised that industries like photography, fashion, interior design etc get a lot more value out of Niice than web workflows, so have started to tailor our marketing towards those creatives.

Between making our product more collaborative, and re-targeting it at different industries that find it more valuable, we’ve seen a massive reduction in our churn.

One of the reasons I'm drawn to Belfast is the tight-knit community. Why do you think Belfast has such a good scene?  
I think there's two sides to it: firstly, Northern Ireland has quite a creative and artistic side, there's a great history of innovation and invention here. But we're bad at talking about ourselves, about the stuff we're doing, and we tend to be quite self-deprecating. So there's lots of really great stuff happening but you don't hear about it. 

At the same time, while there's a lot of creative and talented people, turning that into a community is something that takes effort, and a lot of credit is due to the likes of Andy McMillan and Chris Murphy who have helped bring people together. Chris does a good job of introducing students into the professional community, and events like Build, Break, Refresh and more recently Hustle have helped rally people together, which is why I think it's great that Pixel Pioneers is coming to Belfast. It's another event that gives people a reason to come together and get to know each other.

What can people expect to take away from your talk?  
It will be the story of Niice so far and the lessons I’ve learned from bootstrapping, and having to take a slightly different path from the norm. The main takeaway I'm hoping people to get is that—while you can get a lot of advice and a lot of benefit from other people's stories—you always need to be mindful of the context in which they learned those lessons and everyone's story is slightly different. It's not one size fits all.

Pixel Pioneers Belfast on 16 November features 8 talks, followed by a day of workshops with Harry Roberts (Building Faster Websites) and Eva-Lotta Lamm (Sketching Interfaces). Ticket bundles, group and student discounts are available.