Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots

462: StoryGraph with Nadia Odunayo

February 16th, 2023

Nadia Odunayo is the Founder and CEO of The StoryGraph, a new website and app for avid book readers because life's too short for a book you're not in the mood for. The StoryGraph helps you track your reading and choose your next book based on your mood, favorite topics, and themes.

Victoria talks to Nadia about coming up with a product based on the concept of mood, what you're in the mood for to read, i.e., this book made me feel this way. How do I find a book that makes me feel similar? They also talk about keeping yourself open to feedback, the ability to flow and change direction, and developing a reviewing system that keeps biases in check.

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VICTORIA: This is The Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots Podcast, where we explore the design, development, and business of great products. I'm your host, Victoria Guido. And with me today is Nadia Odunayo, Founder and CEO of StoryGraph, a new website and app for avid book readers because life's too short for a book you're not in the mood for. StoryGraph helps you track your reading and choose your next book based on your mood and your favorite topics and themes. Nadia, thank you for joining me.

NADIA: Thank you for having me.

VICTORIA: And you are a repeat guest at Giant Robots. But for those who missed that episode, tell me a little bit about your journey. And how did this all get started?

NADIA: Okay. Yeah, so that first time was in 2015, and that was not too long after I had just got into tech. I did a bootcamp in London in 2014, Makers Academy, and that's where I learned to code. My degree was in philosophy, politics, and economics, so rather different. I worked at Pivotal for about a year and a half after I graduated from Makers Academy. And during my time at Pivotal, I got into conference speaking, and my first talk was around game theory.

So I took my favorite topic in economics, game theory, and I combined that with distributed systems because that's what I was working on at the time in Pivotal on their Cloud Foundry PaaS. I think I gave it at RailsConf, and I think someone there recommended me to Giant Robots. And so Ben Orenstein interviewed me, and it was all about different types of conference talks and that kind of thing.

So after Pivotal, I left and started a hybrid kind of consultancy/product company with a colleague, did that for about a year, left that, worked for about a year with my friend, Saron Yitbarek, on her company CodeNewbie. And then, when that partnership ended, I essentially had five years of runway from money that I got from the company that I started after Pivotal because we did some consulting with a bank.

I'd always been entrepreneurial. I'd been doing various entrepreneurial things since secondary school, actually, high school. It was time for me to just have time on my side projects. And so I started hacking away on one of my side projects at the beginning of 2019 in January, and I haven't stopped since. That's what the StoryGraph has developed into.

VICTORIA: Wonderful. And yes, I saw that the very early stages of StoryGraph started as a creative writing e-publication. Is that right?

NADIA: So what happened was when I was at university, I started a creative writing e-publication, came up with the name The StoryGraph. Because we had won or we were going for some grant funding or something like that, I set up a corporate entity. And when I stopped working on that e-publication, I remember my mom saying to me, "Don't shut down the entity. I really like the name. I feel like you'll use it for something," that was in 2012.

And so fast forward to 2019, and the side project that I was working on was called Read Lists. And it was very specifically focused on tracking and sharing progress through reading lists on a dashboard. But when I was doing customer research, and the scope of the project grew, Read Lists didn't fit anymore. And that's when I realized, oh, I can use The StoryGraph thing again. And so it's basically had two different lives or two different forms, the StoryGraph company.

VICTORIA: That's wonderful. And I'm reading about StoryGraph and how it's an Amazon-free alternative to Goodreads. Can you talk a little bit more about the product and why people would want to use it?

NADIA: So, as I said, it started life as a very specific focused side project. And I just had so much fun working on it and working in the book space. I'd always been a reader since I was a kid such that I said to myself, I need to find a way to make me building a books product a full-time thing. And so that's when customer research came in because the only way that you're going to make sure that you don't build something that people don't want is by talking to people.

As I was doing customer research and figuring out, are there pain points amongst readers, people who track their reading? What would happen was the pain points that came up drove me towards building a more fully fledged reading, tracking, and recommendations product. It actually started as a very focused recommendations product. And then, we got to the point where we needed to build more around it for it to be a compelling product.

And as it was growing, we never advertised ourselves as a Goodreads alternative or as an Amazon-free alternative to what was out there. But that was clearly a pain point in the market. There were tweets about us saying, "Finally a Goodreads alternative. It's small; it's independent; it's Amazon-free. And so thousands and thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have come to us because of that.


NADIA: And so it got to the point...mainly when we launched our payment plan, and we were trying to figure out the reasons why people were pre-ordering the plan, it was at that point where we decided to lean into the Amazon-free Goodreads alternative because that was what the market wanted.

VICTORIA: Was that surprising for you? Or were there other things that came out of your research on your marketplace that kind of were different than what you thought it would be going in?

NADIA: I think the most interesting thing about the product development journey was that I at least originally felt like I was building a product that wasn't for me. So what I mean by that is in my earliest rounds of research, what I was finding was that people still didn't think that they had one place to get consistently good book recommendations. And so then I started to explore, well, how do you even give somebody consistently good book recommendations?

And one of the factors that kept on coming up was this concept of mood, what you're in the mood for. This book made me feel this way. How do I find a book that makes me feel similar? And so it got to the point where I said to myself, oh wow, I'm building a product for mood readers right now; that seems to be the gap, that seems to be the thing that nothing out there yet had properly attacked. And I had never considered myself a mood reader. I just thought I'm a planner. I'm an organized person. I typically decide what book I want to read, and then I read it.

And so there was a point where I was concerned, and I thought, wait, am I now building something that is not for me? But then, as I started to work and do more research and talk to more and more people and thinking about my reading experiences, I developed the hypothesis or the viewpoint rather that I think everybody's a mood reader; it's just the scale. Because there are probably some books that I may have rated lowly in the past that if I had read it in a different frame of mind, or at a different time in my life, different circumstance, it probably would have resonated with me a lot more.

Now, that's not to say that's true for every single book. There are some books that are just not going to work for you, no matter what. But I do think we're all on the scale of mood reading. And sometimes we say a book is a bad book, but we just read it at not the right time. And so I think the most surprising thing for me is going on that journey of realizing that, oh, I am a mood reader too.

VICTORIA: [laughs]

NADIA: And I ended up building an app that's a lot less focused on just the pure ratings. I was someone who, on Goodreads, if it had less than four stars, I'm not interested. And the ethos of the product is more about, well, hang on; these ratings are very subjective. And someone else's two, three-star could be your next five-star. What are the factors that really matter? Do you want something dark, adventurous? Are you looking for something funny, light? And then what kind of topics do you want to discover? And then it doesn't matter if the five people before you thought it was average; you might think it's excellent.

VICTORIA: Yeah, it reminds me thinking about how bias can come in with authors and writing as well. So a simple five-star system might be more susceptible to bias against different genders or different types of names. Whereas if you have more complex numbers or complex rating systems, it might be easier to have different types of authors stand out in a different way.

NADIA: That actually relates to what was going through my mind when I was developing the reviewing system on StoryGraph. You can just, if you want, leave your star rating and say no more, but the star rating is lower down on the page. And up front, we say this book would be great for someone who's in the mood for something...and then you've got checkboxes. And how would you rate the pace of the book?

And if it's a fiction book, we ask you, "Are the characters lovable?" Is there a flawed narrator? Is it plot-driven or character-driven?" Questions like that because the thinking is it doesn't matter whether you are going to give the book two stars in your own personal star rating. You can still help someone else find a book that's good for them because they will be looking at the summary on the StoryGraph book page, and they'll go, "Oh wow, 80% of people said it's lovable. There's a diverse range of characters, and it's funny. So the topics fit things I'm interested in, so I care less about the average rating being like 3.5 because everything else seems perfect. Let me see for myself."

And actually, we've also had a lot of feedback from people saying that "Oh, normally, I never know how to review a book or what to say. And this system has really helped me, almost give me prompts to get started about explaining the book, reviewing it for other people to help them decide if it's for them. So that's great."

VICTORIA: That makes sense to me because I read a lot of books, maybe not as much as I would like to recently. But not all books that I love I can easily recommend to friends, but it's hard for me to say why. [laughs] You know, like, "This is a very complicated book." So I love it. I'll have to check it out later. It's been four years since you've been full-time or since 2019, almost five then.


VICTORIA: If you could travel back in time to when you first started to make this a full-time role, what advice would you give yourself now, having all of this foresight?

NADIA: Have patience, trust the process because I can sometimes be impatient with, ah, I want this to happen now. I want this to pick up now. I want these features done now. I'm a solo dev on the project. I started it solo. I have a co-founder now, but I'm still the solo dev. And there were so many things, especially now that we've got a much larger user base, that people complained about or say is not quite right. And that can be really tough to just have to keep hearing when you're like, I know, but I don't have the resource to fix it right now or to improve it.

But I think one of the things is, yeah, having faith in the process. Keep going through the cycles of listening to the customers, prioritizing the work, getting the work done, getting the feedback, and just keep going through that loop. And the product will keep getting better. Because sometimes it can feel, particularly in the first year when I was so low, you sometimes have moments of doubt. Or if a customer research round doesn't go super well, you start to wonder, is this only a nice-to-have? And is this going to go anywhere? And so that's one piece of advice.

And I think the other one is knowing that there are several right paths because I think sometimes I would agonize over I want to do the right thing. I want to make sure I make the right choice right now. And, I mean, there are some things that are not good to do. You want to make sure that you're setting up your customer interviews in a non-leading way. You want to make sure that there are certain standards in the product in terms of the technical side and all that kind of stuff, so there's that.

But I think it's understanding that you kind of just have to make a decision. And if you set yourself up to be able to be adaptive and responsive to change, then you'll be fine. Because you can always change course if the response you're getting back or the data you're getting back is going in the wrong direction.

VICTORIA: I love that. And I want to pull on that thread about being open to changing your mind. I think that many founders start the company because they're so excited about this idea and this problem that they found. But how do you keep yourself open to feedback and keeping that ability to flow and to change direction?

NADIA: I mean, I didn't set out to build a Goodreads alternative, and here I am.

VICTORIA: [laughs]

NADIA: I just wanted to build this specific side project or this was a companion app, in fact. Like, the first version of the thing I built, the first thing you had to do was sign in and connect your Goodreads account so that we could pull in your shelves and start creating the dashboards. So as a solo bootstrapping founder, building a Goodreads alternative was not something that I thought was going to lead to success.

But through years of experience, and just hearing other people's stories, and research, I just learned that it's such a hard space just running a startup in general, and 90% of startups fail. And I just said to myself that, okay, the only way I can kind of survive for longer is if I am open to feedback, I'm open to change course, I'm patient, and I trust the process. These are the things I can do to just increase my chances of success.

And so that's why I kind of feel it's imperative if you want to go down this route and you want to be successful, it's vital that you're open to completely changing the product, completely changing your direction, completely going back on a decision. You'll either lose customers or you'll run out of money, whatever it is. And so yeah, you've got to just basically be quite ruthless in the things that are just going to minimize your chances of failing.

VICTORIA: That makes sense. And now, I have a two-part question for you. What's the wind in your sails? Like, the thing that keeps you going and keeps you motivated to keep working on this? And then, conversely, what's kind of holding you back? What are the obstacles and challenges that you're facing?

NADIA: I think this kind of I'm like founder, CEO, and developer. In general, I think I thrive under pressure and pushing myself, and trying to always be better and improve. So I'm always trying to be like, how can I improve my productivity? Or how can I run the company better? All these kinds of things. So I feel like I'm getting to explore maximizing my full potential as someone in the world of work through doing this. So that just intrinsically is motivating to me.

I love books, and I love reading. I think it's such an amazing hobby. And the fact that I get to make other readers happy is awesome. So even just as the product has grown, the messages that we get about if someone got a perfect recommendation from StoryGraph, or they hadn't read for years, and now an easy form of, you know, what are you in the mood for? Check a few boxes, and we'll show you some books that fit, whatever it is. That's just's so awesome just to be able to enhance readers' lives that way in terms of the things they're reading and getting them excited about reading again or keeping them excited.

So those are the things that keep me going, both the personal nature of enjoying my work and enjoying trying to be the best founder and CEO that I can and building a great product. It's always great when you build something, and people just enjoy using it and like using it. So I'm always incentivized to keep making the product better, the experience better.

I'm currently mid a redesign. And I'm just so excited to get it out because it's going to touch on a lot of repeated pain points that we've been having for years. And I just can't wait for everyone to see it and see that we've listened to them. And we're making progress still like three and a bit years on since we launched out of beta.

What's tough? Previously, what's been tough is navigating, remaining independent, and bootstrapped with just personally trying to make money to just live my life. So I had five years of runway. And it was this tricky situation about when I had a couple of years left, I'm thinking, wow, I really like doing this, but I'm going to need to start earning money soon. But I also don't want to get investment. I don't want to stop doing this. I can't stop doing this. We've got hundreds of thousands of customers.

And so kind of trying to balance my personal needs and life situations with the work I've been doing because I've been working so hard on it for so long that in the last couple of years, it's gotten to a point where it's like, how do I craft the life I want out of a product that is very not set up to be an indie bootstrapped product? [laughs] Typically, you want to do a B2B. You want to start earning money from your product as early as possible. And I feel like I've landed in a product that's typically funded, VC-backed, that kind of thing. So kind of navigating that has been a fun challenge.

There's not been anything that's kind of demoralized me or held me back, or made me think I shouldn't do it. And it's just kind of been a fun challenge trying to...yeah, just navigate that. And we've been doing things like we're currently in the process of transitioning our...we have a Plus Plan. And when we launched it, it was essentially a grab bag of features. We're completely changing the feature set. And we right now have six and a half thousand people who are on that plan. But we don't have product market fit on that plan, and I can tell from when I do certain surveys the responses I get back.

And so we're completely transitioning that to focus in on our most popular feature, which is the stats that we offer. And so that's kind of scary, but it's part of making that Plus Plan more sticky and easier to sell because it's going to be for your power users who love data. So they want all the data when they are reading.

And then the other thing is, okay, what kind of business avenue can we start which fits in with the ethos of the product but brings in more revenue for StoryGraph? And so, we launched a giveaway segment in our app where publishers and authors can pay to list competitions for users to win copies of their books. And it's essentially a win-win-win because publishers and authors get another channel to market their books. Users get to win free books, and readers love winning free books. And StoryGraph has another revenue source that helps us stay independent and profitable, and sustainable in the long run.

VICTORIA: That's wonderful. And there are two tracks I want to follow up on there; one is your decision not to seek funding; if you could just tell me a little more about the reasoning and your thought process behind that. And you've already touched on a little bit of the other ways you're looking at monetizing the app.

NADIA: Since I was a teenager, I've always been interested in business, economics, entrepreneurship. I've always felt very entrepreneurial. I've read so many founder stories and startup stories over the years. And you hear about venture capitalists who come in, and even if it's fine for the first year or two, ultimately, they want a return. And at some point, that could come at odds with your mission or your goals for your company.

And when I think about two things, the kind of life I want and also the nature of the product I'm building as well, VC just doesn't fit. And I know there are so many different funding programs and styles right now, a lot more friendlier [laughs] than VC. But I'm just focusing on VC because when I was younger, I used to think that was a marker of success. VC funding that was the track I thought I was going to go down, and that was what I kind of idolized as, oh my gosh, yes, getting a funding round of millions and millions and then building this huge company. That was how I used to be, so it's so interesting how I've completely gone to the other side.

That idea that you could have mismatched goals and how it's ruined companies, once you take the first round of funding and you grow and expand, then you've got to keep taking more to just stay alive until some liquidation event. That just doesn't appeal to me. And I just think there's something ultimately very powerful and valuable about building a product without giving up any ownership to anybody else and being able to make it into something that people love, and that's profitable, and can give the people who run it great lifestyles. I just think that's a mark of an excellent product, and I just want to build one of those.

And then I think also the nature of the product itself being a book tracking app. I think the product has done well because it is run and built so closely by myself and Rob. And so it's like, people talk about how, oh, you can tell it's built for readers by readers by people who care. And I run the company's Instagram, and it's not just me talking about the product.

I'm talking with a bunch of our users about books and what we're reading. And it really feels like it's just got such a great community feel. And I worry that that can get lost with certain types of investment that I've previously thought that I wanted in my life. And so, yeah, that's the reason why I've kind of strayed away from the investment world.

And then it's gotten to the point, like, now we're at the point where we don't need funding because we've been able to get to profitability by ourselves. So we don't need any type of funding. And we're just going to try and keep doing things to keep making the product better, to convert more people to the Plus Plan.

And, hopefully, our giveaways platform grows in the way we want such that our goal is to just stay profitable and independent forever for as long as possible. And we think that way, we're going to have the most fun running the company, and the product is going to be the best it can be because there's not going to be competing incentives or goals for the product.

VICTORIA: That makes sense. And it sounds like, in reality, in the real case, you had a team, and you had the skills yourself to be able to move the product forward without having to take on funding or take on additional support, which is awesome. And I actually really like your background. I also have a degree in economics. So I'm curious if the economics and philosophy, all of that, really lends itself to your skills as a founder. Is that accurate?

NADIA: I don't think so.

VICTORIA: [laughs]

NADIA: I love my degree. I get sad when I meet econ grads or econ majors, and they're like, "Oh, I hated it. Oh, it was so boring," or whatever. I'm like, "No, it was so great." I'm a big microeconomics fan, so I was all about...I didn't like macro that much. I was all about the game theory and the microeconomic theory, that kind of stuff.

I don't think there's anything that really ties into my skills as a founder. I feel like that's more to do with my upbringing and personality than what I studied. But, I mean, one of the reasons I did love my degree is because there are elements that do crop up. It's such a widely applicable...the subjects I did are so widely applicable, philosophy, different ways of seeing the world and thinking and approaching different people.

And then, obviously, economics that's essentially behavior, and how markets work, and incentives, and all that kind of stuff. And when you get to pricing and all those sorts of things, and business, and then politics as well, I mean, everything is politics, right? People interacting. So there are definitely things and conversations I had at university, which I see things crop up day to day that I can tie back to it. But yeah, I think it doesn't specific degree, I don't think it's made me a better founder than I would have been if I'd studied, I don't know, English or Math or something.

VICTORIA: Right, yeah. I think economics is one of those where it's kind of so broadly applicable. You're kind of using it, but you don't even realize it sometimes. [laughs]

NADIA: Yeah.


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VICTORIA: So what made you decide to go to a bootcamp right after finishing school?

NADIA: So I'd always been entrepreneurial. I remember...I don't know where exactly it started from, whether I got it from my mom. I know she's always been very entrepreneurial and into business. The earliest memory I have of doing something that was very specifically business-oriented was in what we call sixth form in the UK, which is essentially the last two years of high school before you go to university or college; we had this scheme called Young Enterprise.

And essentially, you got into teams of people, small teams, or they could be quite big, actually. It could be up to 20 people. And you started a business, and there were trade shows, and pitch meetings, and all that kind of stuff, so I remember getting involved in all that sort of stuff at school.

But I'd always been on the investment banking track because when I was my parents...we come from a poor background. And so my parents were very much like, you know, try and find high-paying careers to go into so that you can pay for whatever you want and you have a much better lifestyle. So I had gotten onto the investment banking track from the age of 14 when I went with a the school, I went to, there was a Take Your Daughter to Work Day.

My dad said, "Oh, you want to go to try and find someone whose parent works in an investment bank or something like that. That's like a great career to go into." And so I went with a friend's dad to UBS. And I remember being blown away, like, wow, this is so fascinating. Because I think everything seems so impressive when you're 14, and you're walking into a space like that, and everything seems very lively. And everyone's walking around dressed sharp. They've got their BlackBerries.

So from the age of 14 until 20, it would have been, I was very much I am going to work in an investment bank. And I did all the things that you would do, like all the schemes, the spring programs. And it got to my final internship. And I just remember at the internship being rather disillusioned and disappointed by the experience. I remember thinking, is this it? I was studying at Oxford, and I put so much into my studies. And I remember thinking; I'm working so hard. And this is what I come to? Is this it?

And so around the time as well, I was also meeting a lot of people in the entrepreneurship space, social enterprises, people doing their own ventures. And I just remember thinking, oh, I feel like I've got to go down that track. And I ended up winning a place on a coding course. It was set up specifically to help more women get into tech. And it was called Code First Girls. I won a place that was just part-time.

What I did was I actually...I got the banking job from Deutsche Bank, it was, but I decided to turn it down. It was a very risky decision. I turned it down, and I stayed in Oxford after graduating and worked in the academic office for a while. And then, twice a week, I would go to London and do this coding course. And during it, on Twitter, I remember seeing a competition for a full-paid place at this bootcamp called Makers Academy. And I just thought to myself, having tech skills, I'd heard the feedback that it's a very powerful thing to have.

And I remember thinking I should go for this competition. And I went for the competition, and I won a free place at the bootcamp. If I didn't win a free place at the bootcamp, I'm not sure what would have happened because I'm not sure whether at that point I would have thought, oh, paying £8,000 to go to a software bootcamp is what I should do. I'm not sure I would have got there. So that's how I got there, essentially. I won a competition for a bootcamp after having a taste of what coding was like and seeing how freeing it was to just be able to have a computer and an internet connection and build something.

VICTORIA: Oh, that's wonderful. I love that story. And I've spent a lot of time with Women Who Code and trying to get women excited about coding. And that's exactly the story is that once you have it, it's a tool in your toolset. And if you want to build something, you can make it happen. And that's why it's important to continue the education and get access for people who might not normally have it. And you continue to do some of that work as well, right? You're involved in organizations like this?

NADIA: Like Code First Girls? No. I did some years ago. I would go and attend Rails Girls workshops and be a mentor at them, at those. And while I was at Pivotal, I helped with events like codebar, which were essentially evenings where people who were learning to code or more junior could come and pair with someone more senior on whatever project they wanted to.

So I did a bunch of that stuff in the years after leaving Makers Academy. And I was even a TA for a short time for a couple of weeks at Makers Academy as well after I graduated. But in more recent years, I haven't done much in that space, but I would love to do more at some point. I don't have the bandwidth to right now. [laughs]

VICTORIA: And you're still a major speaker going and keynoting events all around the world. Have you done any recently, or have any coming up that you're excited about?

NADIA: So before the pandemic, my last talk, I keynoted RubyWorld in Japan. That was in November 2019. And then the pandemic hit, and 2020 June, July was when StoryGraph had some viral tweets, and so we kicked off. And amongst all of that, I was being invited to speak at remote events, but it just didn't make sense for me. Not only was I so busy with work, but I put a lot of hours into my talks. And part of the fun is being there, hallway track, meeting people, being on stage. And so it just didn't appeal to me to spend so much time developing the talk to just deliver it at home.

And so, I just spent all the time on StoryGraph. And I remember when events started happening again; I wondered whether I would even be invited to speak because I felt more detached from the Ruby community. Most of the conferences that I did were in the Ruby community. StoryGraph is built on Rails. Yeah, I just thought maybe I'll get back to that later.

But all of a sudden, I had a series of amazing invitations. Andrew Culver started up The Rails SaaS Conference in LA in October, and I was invited to speak at that. And then, I was invited to keynote RubyConf, that was recently held in Houston, Texas, and also invited to keynote the satellite conference, RubyConf Mini in Providence, that happened a couple of weeks earlier. And so I had a very busy October and November, a lot of travel.

I developed two new talks, a Ruby talk and a StoryGraph talk. It was my first ever time giving a talk on StoryGraph. It was a lot of work and amongst a lot of StoryGraph work that I needed to do. All of the talks went well, and it was so much fun to be back on the circuit again. And I'm looking forward to whatever speaking things crop up this year.

VICTORIA: That's wonderful. I'm excited. I'll have to see if I can find a recording and get caught up myself. Going back to an earlier question, you mentioned quite a few times about market research and talking to the customers. And I'm just curious if you have a method or a set of tools that you use to run those experiments and collect that feedback and information.

NADIA: Yes. So I remember one of the first things I did years ago was I read "The Mom Test" by Rob Fitzpatrick. And that's great for just getting the foundation of when you talk to customers; you don't want to lead them on in any shape or form. You just want to get the raw truth and go from there. So that's the underpinning of everything I do.

And then, I learned from friends I made through Pivotal about how you put together a script for a customer research. You can't just have bullet points or whatever. You should have a script. And the foundation of that script is a hypothesis about what you're trying to find out in that round of research. And once you figure out your hypothesis, then you can put together the questions you want to ask and understand how you're going to measure the output.

So the first ever thing I was trying to find out when I first started interviewing people was just very general. It was just like, are there any pain points? I was just trying to figure out are there any pain points among the avid reader group of people? And then I remember the results from that were, "No place for consistent, high-quality recommendations." And so then I said, okay, how are people finding recommendations now, or what are the factors that lead to people thinking a book was great for them? And that's how I ended up getting to the moods and pace.

But when I do my interviews, I record them all. I watch them back. And I condense everything on sticky notes. And I use a virtual tool. And I try to take word for word. When I summarize, I still just try and use their specific words as much as possible. So I'm not adding my own editing over what they say. Every single interviewee has a different color.

And I essentially group them into themes, and that's how I unlock whatever the answers are for that round. And then I use that...I might have been trying to find out what to build next or whether we should go down a certain product direction or not. And so, depending on the outcome, that helps me make up my mind about what to do. So that's the high-level process that I follow.

VICTORIA: Well, that sounds very methodical, and interesting for me to hear your perspective on that. And you mentioned that you do have a redesign coming out soon for StoryGraph. Are there any other particular products or features that you're really excited to talk about coming up soon?

NADIA: Yeah, I'm so excited about the redesign because we're bringing's not just a UI improvement; it's a user experience improvement as well. So there are a lot of little features that have been asked for over the years. And actually, it was trying to deliver one of them that sparked the whole redesign. So people really want a marked as finished button. There's no way to mark as finished. You just toggle a book back to read. And some people find this quite counterintuitive, or it doesn't quite explain what they're doing.

And so when I came to deliver the mark as finished button, this was months and months ago now, I realized that the book pane was just becoming so cluttered, and I was trying to fight with it to squeeze in this link. And I remember thinking; this is not the only thing people want to see on the book pane. They also want to see when they read the book without having to go into the book page. They also want to be able to add it to their next queue.

And I just said, you know what? I need to redesign this whole thing. And so I was able to luckily work with Saron Yitbarek, who is married to my co-founder, Rob. There's a funny story about all of that. And she helped me do this redesign based on all my customer research. And so I'm just so excited to get it out because the other thing that we're bringing with it is dark mode, which is our most requested feature in history.

And it's funny because I've always felt like, ah, that's a nice-to-have. But obviously, for some people, it's not a nice-to-have; it's an accessibility issue. And even me, I'm quite strict with my bedtime. I try and be offline an hour before bed. In bed by 11, up at 6, and even me if I want to track my pages, I'm like, ooh, this is a bit bright.

And my phone itself is set on adaptive, so it's light mode during the day and dark mode during the night. And even me, I can see why people really want this and why it would just improve their experience, especially if everything else on your phone is dark. So I'm really excited to get that out, mainly for the UX improvements.

And the other thing I'm really excited to do is transition the Plus Plan to being the advanced stats package rather than the random selection of features right now. Because not only will the people who pay us get more complex stats functionalities such that they feel like, wow, the subscription fee that I pay not only does it still make me feel like I'm supporting an alternative to Goodreads, an independent alternative to Goodreads I also get such value from these extra features.

But the other thing is what I found from my customer research is that if you're a Plus customer, there's often one or two of the Plus features that you love and that you don't really use the others. But they're all really great features. And so what I'm really excited about is that we're going to make all the non-stats features free for everybody. And so I'm so excited for, like, we have a feature where if you put in a group of usernames, we look at all of your to-read lists and suggest great books for you to buddy-read together.

Now, there's a bunch of Plus users who aren't social and don't care about it. But there's going to be a bunch of our free users who are so excited about that feature, probably will use it with their book clubs, things like that. We have up-next suggestions where we suggest what you should pick up next from your to-read pile based on a range of factors. It could be, oh, you're behind on your reading goal; here's a fast-paced book. Or this book is very similar to the one that you just finished, so if you want something the same, pick up this one. And, again, that's behind a paywall right now, and I'm just so excited for everybody to be able to use that.

When I remember starting out with StoryGraph, I remember thinking, wow, the way this is going, wouldn't it be so cool if we could just suggest books that would be the next perfect read for you? Because a lot of people have a pile of books by their bedside table or on their shelves, and they're just like, well, which one should I start with? And this tool literally helps you to do that. And so I can't wait for everyone to be able to try it. And so that's why I'm excited about that transition because the Plus Plan will be better, and the free product will be better.

VICTORIA: That sounds amazing. And I'm thinking in my head like, oh, I should start a book club with thoughtbot. Because there are some engineering management and other types of books we want to read, so maybe we could use StoryGraph to manage that and keep ourselves motivated to actually finish them. [laughs]

NADIA: Cool.

VICTORIA: No, this is wonderful. And what books are on your reading list coming up?

NADIA: Yes. I am excited to read...I'm not sure...I'm blanking on the series' name. But the first book is called "The Poppy War." I don't know whether it's called "The Burning God" or if that's the third book in the series. But it's this very popular trilogy, and I'm excited to read that soon. I'm doing a slow chronological read of Toni Morrison's fiction. I recently read "Song of Solomon," which was great, really, really good. And so I'm excited to read more of her novels this year.

I'm also on a kind of narrative nonfiction kick right now. I love narrative nonfiction. So I just finished reading "American Kingpin," which is about Silk Road. And I've picked up "Black Edge," which is about SAC Capital and Steve Cohen and that whole hedge fund insider trading situation. So I'm probably going to look for more of the same afterwards.

VICTORIA: Well, that's very exciting. And it's inspiring that as a founder, you also still have time to read [laughs] and probably because StoryGraph makes it easy and motivating for you to do so.

NADIA: Yeah, everyone thought that my reading would tank once I started the company, but, in fact, it's multiplied severalfold. And a couple of reasons; one is it's very important in general for me to make time for me because I'm in a situation that could easily become very stressful and could lead to burnout. So I make sure that I make time for me to read and to go to dance class regularly, which is my other main hobby.

But then, secondly, I feel like I can justify it as work. Because I say, wow, me being a reader and being able to communicate with people on Instagram and on Twitter about books, not just the product, adds legitimacy to me as the founder and developer of this product. And so it's important that I keep reading. And it also helps the product be better because I understand what features are needed. So, for example, I never used to listen to audiobooks. I'm a big podcast person; I love music. So between those two, when does audio fit in?

And also, I didn't like the idea that I could just be absent-minded sometimes with some podcasts, but with a book, you don't want spoilers. It could get confusing. But I started listening to audiobooks because we had a large audiobook user base. And they would ask for certain features, and it was really hard for me to relate and to understand their needs.

And now that I have started listening to audiobooks as well, we made some great audiobook listeners-focused additions to the app last year, including you can track your minutes. So you can literally get you read this many pages in a day, but you also listened to this many minutes. You can set an hours goal for the year, so not just a reading goal or a pages goal. You can set an hours goal.

Or maybe you're someone like me, where audiobooks are the smaller proportion of your reading, and you just want it all calculated as pages. And so I've got it on the setting where it's like, even when I track an audiobook in StoryGraph, convert it to pages for me, and I just have my nice, all-round page number at the end of the year.

VICTORIA: That's so cool. Really interesting. And I've had such a nice time chatting with you today. Is there anything else that you'd like to share as a final takeaway for our listeners?

NADIA: If you are someone who wants to start a company, maybe you want to bootstrap, you've got a product idea, I think it's honestly just trust the process. It will take time. But if you trust the process, you listen to customers and really listen to them...research ways to talk to customers, and don't cut corners with the process. There have been so many times when I've done a whole round of research, and then I say, oh, do I have to go through all these now and actually do a synthesis? I think anecdotally; I can figure out what the gist was; no, do the research. You don't know what insights you're going to find.

And I think if you just trust that process...and I think the other thing is before you get to that stage, start building up a runway. Having a runway is so powerful. And so whether it's saving a bit more or diverting funds from something else if you have a runway and you can give yourself a couple of years, a few years without worrying about your next paycheck, that is incredibly valuable to getting started on your bootstrapping journey.

VICTORIA: Thank you. That's so wonderful. And I appreciate you coming on today to be with us.

You can subscribe to the show and find notes along with a complete transcript for this episode at If you have questions or comments, email us at And you can find me on Mastodon at Victoria Guido.

This podcast is brought to by thoughtbot and produced and edited by Mandy Moore. Thank you for listening. See you next time.

ANNOUNCER: This podcast is brought to you by thoughtbot, your expert strategy, design, development, and product management partner. We bring digital products from idea to success and teach you how because we care. Learn more at

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