Interview with Nathan Kontny(@natekontny)
It is good to be back!
Today's interview is with Nathan Kontny. Nathan is the founder of Draft, a word processing service. This web app is beautiful and awesome to use! I absolutely love it.
If Nathan had to describe himself in five words they would be: "Trying a lot of things."
Here is our interview.
Finish this sentence. The best part of the internet is__________.
How easy it is to make new stuff.
I didn't appreciate the internet much when I was in college in 1999. I saw the potential, but I was a Chemical Engineer and that pretty much consumed my life as a student.
But it was when I did a summer internship at a uranium processing plant my perspective changed.
First of all, working at a uranium processing plant isn't as glamorous as it sounds. :) Sometimes you have to wear things like acid proof suits. You definitely can't leave your gas mask behind. And you have to walk through a geiger counter out the door everyday.
That summer I broke my ankle playing basketball. Management wouldn't let me in the plant anymore because of the risk of my cast getting contaminated with uranium and the cast not being very removable. So they gave me responsibilities contained in a trailer of offices the engineers worked in and gave me a computer. All I did the rest of that summer was work on that computer.
I programmed things like Excel macros to make the plant manager's life easier with data consuming him. And helped another engineer with some design of a GUI to control a chemical reactor. I loved it.
And now that I had all this time with a computer, I started making my first website on Geocities. It had me hooked. I couldn't believe how quickly I could make something and start sending people to it. Everything was in bits. I didn't have to worry about some weird physical properties of some chemical reaction no one understands. Or completely sweating through my clothes because I'm wearing the acid proof suit in 105 degree heat.
So when college was over, that's what I devoted my life to. And I've never regretted making the change.
How/why/when was Draft started?
Draft is a creation of a company Cityposh Inc. of which I'm the sole employee right now. Originally Cityposh was in Y Combinator Summer 2011. We were doing some neat things with branded games.
You probably know what the game Bejeweled is - a game with lots of jewels for the game pieces that people try to match. We thought, "What if we took all these popular games like Bejeweled, Sudoku, etc. and let companies add their own images to them. So instead of someone playing Bejeweled for two hours a day, The Gap could have their own version. People would be playing with pictures of their latest winter sweaters, or The Gap logo, etc. all day instead. And they could even win prizes from The Gap."
We had some customers right away looking to do novel things with their marketing budgets. But we didn't see enough repeat business like we wanted, and it seemed like it was going to be insanely hard to convince anyone this was getting them a return on investment. So we shut the project down. My partner went back to running Inkling (the first company we started in 2006http://inklingmarkets.com) full time. And I tried to turn Cityposh Inc. into something.
In the middle of struggling to figure out what Cityposh should become, a friend of mine, Harper Reed, asked me if I could put Cityposh on hold for 6 months and help out at the Obama re-election campaign on their tech team. And that's what I did.
Meanwhile, Dustin Curtis invited me to blog on his new blog network, SVBTLE (http://svbtle.com).
I've been a huge fan of writing stories about my career and sharing lessons I've been learning along the way. But SVBTLE allowed me to make a strong commitment to it. And I loved it.
But as I was writing so much more, I found myself having all sorts of things I didn't like about the writing process. I didn't like that I couldn't see a cohesive old draft of my work. iCloud and Google Docs just save all this arbitrary stuff. So I was dumping individual drafts of my writing into Evernote notes, over and over. That sucked.
And I kept sending versions of my work to my wife to help edit, but then she'd copy it all into Microsoft Word and send that back to me, and I'd have to hunt and peck for what I wanted from her edits. Plus, she didn't always have the time to help me edit.
So after the Obama campaign I fooled with a vague software project of mine that manages todos and notes, but I decided to refocus the software to create an app that I could use to solve all these problems.
Draft is obviously beautiful to the eye. How much of giving a great web experience these days is the UI and design?
Thank you very much for saying that. Hearing that type of compliment is incredible for me. I appreciate that more than you realize.
See, I've never considered myself a designer.
I've been making websites for over 15 years, but I always felt I sucked at web design. So I've always bought pre-made website templates, or found business partners, like Adam Siegel (http://amsiegel.com/) who are really great at design, to help me.
But with Draft, I ended up having to work alone and website templates weren't going to cut it.
So I had to work my ass off really learning how to design something that suited me. I'm not great with illustration or doing a lot with color and shadows, etc. so I stuck to some very basic things I liked. Like Aaron Draplin's Futura Bold with a little spacing between the letters. That's something that I could do too.
I found things that I could do as a designer: typography, alignment, finding and sticking to a strict color palette, etc. And I eventually figured out a way to do "design" that suited tastes and skills I have.
The answer to your question: I really felt the UI and UX were insanely important for this project since I spend so much time in this software to write. It couldn't distract me. It couldn't be laborious to use. It couldn't be ugly.
If this were an application that folks only needed for a few minutes in a day, I could just go with some kind of template or default Twitter Bootstrap design. But this is one of those things I wanted to spend a great deal of my life inside. It had to be carefully crafted to suit me. And I'd hope other people would share my tastes.
What can we expect from you and Draft in the future?
Kathy Sierra is the genius behind what's written athttp://headrush.typepad.com/. She's got an insane number of valuable lessons like:
People are rarely truly passionate about a specific camera -- it's photography they're passionate about, and by extension -- the camera they most associate with allowing them to take kick-ass pictures with might also be the recipient of that passion.
I've got a lot of ideas for Draft that come from a place of helping people write better. I don't want to just make software, because folks are never looking for just software. No one truly cares about version control, or distraction free editors, or real time collaboration. What they really want is to be better writers. So what does that mean? That's the stuff I'm trying to figure out with this project and improve.
For example, a lot of people hate staring a blank page. It intimidates them from even starting to write. So how do I fix that? A lot of folks struggle getting an audience for their writing, so they give up. How do I fix that?
So that's the thing I hope you can expect from me.
If you could travel back in time and meet with your ninth grade self, what would you give/say to him?
I tried out for a school play in ninth grade. I didn't get it. The acting teacher said I auditioned well, but that I didn't fit a role. She encouraged me to keep trying, but I never did. I really regret that.
I've since been taking a ton of acting lessons and doing plays. I love it. I wish I started much earlier with this, and I should have tried harder at it when I was younger. I would definitely try to get that younger me to audition again and again.
Also, I'd tell my ninth grade me to write more. Commit to writing something each week. Whether it's fact or fiction.
Writing something once a week has been one of the greatest decisions I've ever made in my career. Dustin made me promise to do it as part of joining SVBTLE. And it's made an enormous difference. It's forced me to obviously practice more at this. But it's also gotten me to ignore how poorly a particular piece of writing or idea does. If this week's post doesn't seem to get much traffic, there's always next week's, and the one after that. After so many weeks of just automatically doing it, you realize you have this incredible body of work that some people are able to get a ton of value from eventually. They didn't know about you six months ago, but now they do and they go back and read that older stuff.