ProWritingAid. Bootstrapped to 1 Million Users.
I've been using ProWritingAid for nearly two years. It's not just been a great tool for editing and proofreading but it's really helped me to improve as a writer. The real-time analysis helps you find incorrect spellings, repeated words and grammar mistakes. It also helps improve grammar and readability. When I was asked to write an article about how and why we use ProWritingAid, I was only too happy to oblige (you can read that article here: bit.ly/32q7YYo).
With this in mind, imagine my excitement when I got the opportunity to interview ProWritingAid's founder, Chris Banks! Chris is a big inspiration to me because he's built his product as a non-technical founder and with limited resources. Towards the end of last year they hit the 1 million user milestone and they don't show any signs of slowing down.
We use ProWritingAid in the office, and we love it. Like so many applications that make life easier, it seems so simple, but that’s only because someone has already created it! How did you come up with the initial idea for ProWritingAid?
I was trying to edit a novel I was working on, and I thought about how I had learned to write initially. I went over all of the advice I'd ever been given. I felt that I had learned the most when I got specific feedback from mentors on something I had written. They had pointed out areas where I was going wrong and shown me exactly how to improve it. But I was lucky to have that experience. It was a huge investment of their time and not everyone has that mentor available. I needed something that would highlight potential issues over and over again, on everything I wrote.
I looked to see if that kind of software existed, and there were lots of good tools, but nothing with the depth I was looking for. So, I decided to see if I could make something myself.
How has ProWritingAid grown since you founded it?
In 2014, it was just me and my laptop trying to figure out how to build an app. Quite early on, I found an amazing freelance developer who helped me create the first version. Not too long after that, I asked a friend with a marketing background, Lisa Lepki, if she would help me get the word out. At the time we had about 30,000 users. Lisa is now our Head of Marketing, and this past September we had our one millionth user sign up.
One area where we have really grown is in AI and natural language processing (NLP). I find the whole field fascinating and I wanted to focus on that to make the software as effective as possible. We now have six NLP experts working full time on improving the algorithm in the tool.
Because we are all about writing skill development, we also wanted to create a resource for writers to expand their skill base. We now have hundreds of articles on our blog and a team of writers, editors, and designers who are constantly creating practical, useful content to help writers improve their craft and get published.
We have also found specialists who helped us develop our integrations for MS Office, GoogleDocs, Scrivener and our Chrome extension. Each integration has its own challenges and calls for a different skillset.
In 2017, we managed to find a hugely experienced CTO to help us run a growing, diverse group of developers. He provides essential oversight into the whole technical department so that we always know exactly who is doing what. On a personal level, he has freed up a lot of my time so that I can focus on growing the business.
The most recent member of our management team is our Head of Client Success who has been helping us diversify into B2B. The business sector is a whole new world to us and he is helping us chart a course through these new waters.
All together, there are around 35 people on the ProWritingAid team: some are full-time and others are regular freelancers. This group of people is one of my proudest achievements as an entrepreneur. Every one of them is contributing something essential to the company.
ProWritingAid’s growth has been fantastic, and there will be many entrepreneurs out there who would love to achieve similar success. How have you been so successful at growing ProWritingAid?
From a team perspective, our fully remote culture allows us to hire the very best people from all over the world and the flexibility allows them to deliver their best work. It's not always easy, but we are constantly trying to improve the way we communicate and work together.
From a marketing perspective, we have focused on creating great content that provides value and that our readers will want to share. We focused on building a community and working with companies with similar aims, not just spending money on YouTube ads.
Within the writing industry, I think it’s fair to say that you have a huge amount of support. I’ve seen hundreds of recommendations for ProWritingAid on forums and blogs. What strategies have helped you to build such a loyal and supportive community?
Our mission is to help people share their ideas through better writing. So, we've always focused on supporting and engaging our users as much as possible. We produce a weekly newsletter that's full of useful content to help our users become better writers and we are working on our tenth book for our Writing Resources Library. If you help people then their natural inclination is to help you back. We've even had writers who've sent us copies of their books with dedications to ProWritingAid. That's a wonderful feeling and makes all of that hard work seem worth it.
What challenges have you encountered along the way? How did you overcome them?
Every day brings new challenges. We want to build the ultimate AI-powered writing coach. There's no roadmap for that, no pattern to follow, so deciding what to do next and what to focus on is one of the biggest challenges. Sometimes we have to experiment and take risks to see if something will work. The key has been to do the smallest amount to prove a hypothesis first, to double down on things that are working, and not be afraid to admit when something we were excited about turns out to be a flop.
We're a bootstrapped company so we don't have bags of cash to throw at problems. We need to be smart with hiring the best people, pointing them in the right direction, and making sure nothing gets in their way.
We were hugely impressed to read that you created the first version yourself without prior coding knowledge. What advice do you have for anyone that might be struggling to turn their concept into a viable product?
I think my biggest asset is that I'm not a perfectionist. When you've got an idea, you just need to get it into the hands of people; it doesn't matter if it's not perfect. Define the minimum useful features of your product and get people using it. It doesn't even have to be coded. If you're building a flashcard app, just create the cards from paper and get someone using it. Nobody can create the perfect product straight away. Building a product is a journey and you'll learn so many things along the way. You'll always be surprised by how people react and you can learn so much from their reactions. You may even end up with something ten times better than you imagined.
Before ProWritingAid, I built another app. In the end I threw it away because I realised that the idea would have required too much money to get going. But I learned a lot from the process. The first version of ProWritingAid looked pretty amateur, but someone still bought it. That proved it was useful. You can always focus on making it look pretty later. Now, we release improvements to the software every few days: some are big changes to the UX, others are small iterations. Every release is another step toward our ultimate goal, another lesson learned.
What does the future hold for ProWritingAid?
When we started, we were focused on people who wanted to be professional authors. Now we want to help everyone who writes—that's a big market. Anybody who says they have nothing to learn about writing is kidding themselves. Even the best athletes in the world have a coach. We're expanding our tool to help businesses with their communication, to help students write better papers, and to make teachers' lives easier. Our Chrome Extension and other add-ins means that ProWritingAid can be available everywhere you write, giving you gentle encouragement and advice. In terms of the application of Artificial Intelligence to writing, we are just at the beginning of that journey. There is so much more we can do: I find it thrilling!
If you could go back in time to the beginning of ProWritingAid and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
I've never particularly enjoyed promoting myself or the product. I love solving technical challenges and helping people, but I don't enjoy the marketing side of things. I was lucky to hire a great Head of Marketing quite early on, but if I'd done it right at the beginning then I think we'd be even bigger now. So the advice would be to recognise your weaknesses and invest in the right people to fill those gaps. Don't just ignore them.
Building a business from scratch can be really tough. Is there another entrepreneur that has helped inspire you on your journey?
I think that reading is the most important thing you can do, both to become a better writer but also to become a better entrepreneur. I'm constantly reading books on everything to do with running a business (as well as fiction). You have to be selective about the lessons you apply and how you apply them, but I think the stories can be inspiring. When you see someone who is a hundred times as good as you at something, it really drives you to be better.
Is there an author who you would love to be a user of ProWritingAid?
When I first read 100 Years of Solitude I really didn't like it, but now it's one of my favorite books. More than anything I would love to understand the process that Marquez used when he was writing it and be able to integrate that process as a feature of ProWritingAid. He'd be the perfect candidate for our Product Manager role.
Finally, can you give us a rundown of a day as founder of ProWritingAid?
I try (often unsuccessfully) to keep the mornings as free as possible so I can focus on whatever my key task is at the moment, pulling the biggest lever I can find. The afternoons are mostly calls and troubleshooting, trying to make sure that nothing is stopping the team moving forward. Fridays I like to "sharpen the axe," by which I mean that I take a step back from the day-to-day business and focus on the bigger picture. I read, reflect, and see how we can improve our processes. It's easy to spend a lot of time achieving very little by chopping away with a blunt axe. It's important to take time to make sure you're not wasting time.
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