Hello ! Who are you and what are you working on?
My name is Marin, I’m originally from Croatia, but moved to Canada to work for Amazon. After a highly productive couple of years, I left to do my own thing: develop quicknews.ai, the smartest news app around. The app uses all the latest advances in deep learning to give you a personalized feed from the highest-quality sources, in real time. It also notifies you about breaking news you wouldn’t want to miss. It’s available for Android and iOS, and is 100% free.
What motivated you to get started with? How did you come up with the idea?
I’m a huge news junkie, and really hate having twenty tabs open and navigating through them. In addition, there were a couple of problems that annoyed me about current solutions: their news were either stale (from hours ago); or not personalized at all; or susceptible to fake news and bias.
I decided to solve all those problems in one fell swoop. This was made possible by all the wonderful new advances in deep learning, which is particularly useful for textual data. And since I was a student of the Chinese tech sector, I knew that there was an app of this sort in China (Toutiao), and that it was a juggernaut. So why not give it a try?
Can you tell us the story of your business from idea to where you are now?
After a lot of thought I settled on the idea I wanted to work on. It seemed exciting, especially since with my expertise in algorithms and distributed systems I never worked on user-facing products. After the idea was set, I quit my job and started working on it. I started by developing the back end and algorithms, as well a really thin client.
I then found a design agency in my native Croatia, as well as an outstanding mobile developer (also named Marin), who’s been working with me on this ever since. We then built the apps (Android first), and put it in front of users (family and friends). We constantly asked for feedback, and iterated on the feature set and the user experience, as well as the core algorithms. We did a Product Hunt launch, and recruited plenty of users (more on that in a moment).
What has been your biggest failure or struggle?
For the biggest failure, I believe it was the decision to do social media logins. This was cumbersome to develop, and users hated it. It was better for us since we could assign some kind of identifier to the user’s account (thus making it reusable across devices), but it was overall not useful, and we removed it.
In terms of struggles, one was definitely the decision to do iOS and Android natively, rather than going with something like React Native or Flutter. However, I believe we made the right call.
And what has been your biggest achievement or success?
People actually use it on a daily basis! We’re also very proud of the great feedback we’re getting on the quality of the sources, the personalization, and the relevance of our notifications.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The product is universal, so leveraging my personal network to get the initial users worked well. And there were many ways to do that: directly recruiting friends and family, as well as my LinkedIn network. Another colorful anecdote is that I’d station myself at a cafe near the Amazon office where I used to work. Unsurprisingly, I’d meet a lot of old coworkers, and use the time to give them an elevator pitch and get them to download the app (including a VP on AWS).
We signed up people attending meetups. And enrolled in Startup School, Y Combinator’s online course, and recruited a bunch of other entrepreneurs I met there. Likewise, posting on Product Hunt, Facebook groups, and basically any such resource you can find.
For retention, the main thing was to select high-quality, relevant articles, as well as doing notifications right. QuickNews’s notifications are personalized and spaced out neatly so they don’t annoy the user.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The beauty of it is that “launching the business” was basically just building the apps and the back-end, and putting that in front of users. Along with the minor detail of incorporating a company in British Columbia, Canada.
Did you use Betalist or PH or other Startup Launching Platform for Launching ? How was that experience ?
I used Product Hunt, and you can find my entry here. It was an interesting experience! Since Product Hunt encourages you to get your active users to participate in your campaign, I did that, both through direct reach-outs, posting on Facebook, as well as (in a neat hack), sending out QuickNews notifications with the PH link.
Though the campaign went well (55 upvotes), we didn’t get featured, which was somewhat disappointing. Overall, it was fun, but I’m not a believer in big launches.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
We don’t have revenue yet, as we’ve only launched in January. We’ll have a free, ad-supported tier, as well as a premium tier. The premium tier will allow the user to enter their credit card into QuickNews, and then access paywalled articles and get billed per click, whereupon we’ll do revenue sharing with publishers.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? What are your goals for the future?
Retention is always a tricky one in consumer apps. But at the same time, it’s a problem that gets attacked piecemeal. We’ve done it through improving the feed quality, and tweaking the notification algorithms.
Our goal is to get to a million users!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re currently focused on acquiring new users, and on making the experience for our existing ones even better. So we’re working on the recommender algorithms, tweaking the design, and releasing cool new features. We’re also encouraging all our existing (happy) users to share QuickNews with their friends.
The future would basically entail everyone using it! Well, an ambitious goal… But at the very least we should have very good internationalization. So if you’re in Brazil and like technology, you should be able to get a mix of English- and Portuguese-language articles tailored to your preferences.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Running a business is hard but also kind of liberating. Another thing I found is that pure software products are actually pretty cheap to build. With all the tools at your disposal it’s pretty impressive what you can do if you either code yourself or have a technical cofounder.
One more important thing: beware of scope creep, and don’t be afraid of cutting features. This is especially important if you’ll be working with people that are part-time (agencies or freelancers). Getting something in front of real users/customers is key.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Well, this is a fun one! For communication we use Slack and plain old emails. Trello for task management. In terms of development, since we do mobile, it’s Android Studio and Xcode. The back end is in Python, and hosted on AWS. We use Firebase to study user statistics, such as retention and DAU.
Who’s your most inspirational CEO or founder?
Lots of options to choose from, but I’d probably go with Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The thing that resonates with me is that they were really exceptional computer scientists who made theoretical breakthroughs, and then leveraged that to solve a major real-world problem. And consequently made a killing. More than any of the other major companies, they just won by having a better product.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m always a big fan of studying the history of great companies, with as much detail as possible. Two books stood out: “Hard Drive” (about Microsoft, from the founding to the nineties); and “In the Plex”, Steven Levy’s chronicle of Google. I’m looking forward to his book on Facebook.
In terms of blogs and newsletters, I’m a Stratechery subscriber and find both the weekly articles and the daily summaries amazing. When it comes to building products, I’m a fan of “The Lean Startup”, which opened my eyes to just how bare-bones MVPs can be. I’m also an Indie Hackers member.
What’s your advice for fellow aspiring entrepreneur who are just starting out?
It’s a cliche one, but find a problem you’re truly passionate about! This is easier said than done. Find a problem that you keep coming back to, and that’s always in the back of your mind. If you yourself are a target user, even better!