How Honeybadger Creates Content
The guys talk about creating content for Honeybadger and the difficulties switching back and forth from writing prose to writing code. Starr channels his inner Anna Wintour and describes his latest initiative recruiting developers to write guest posts on the blog. Josh talks about his process for writing evergreen content for the newsletter.
The Devil Wears Prada
Mastering Ruby Exceptions eBook
Announcer: Hands off that dial. Business is about to get a whole a nerdier. You're tuned in to FounderQuest.
Starr: I'm blaming a lot on the internet these days, Josh. So one more thing, we'll just throw it on that pile and we'll get a volume discount on that.
Josh: I love it. Yeah.
Starr: Take that to town.
Josh: Internet's pretty much responsible for all the ills in the world. I think.
Starr: Yeah. Yeah. I mean there's a few goods. A few goods. It allows me to ride out the ills in relative comfort, but ...
Josh: Right. You never have to leave your house.
Starr: No, I never have to leave my house. Yeah. So I guess we should explain. So if the astute listeners haven't noticed, Ben is not with us today. And the reason for this is very convoluted. We had originally planned to record this episode on a Friday and we had been ... We had Josh and everybody ready to go and then this truck pulls up outside my house and starts sawing down this gigantic tree, chipping it. And there was just no way that was going to happen. So we canceled. But then Ben has all sorts of travel plans because he's an international Ben of mystery. And so yeah, so it's me and Josh this week.
Starr: So we're going to be talking about something that Ben usually doesn't get involved too much in, which is content creation, like blog posts and email newsletters and all that stuff and ...
Josh: Something that you happen to be actually working on lately.
Starr: I am working on it. Yeah. Right now. I don't know if our readers remember or listeners remember, but a couple of weeks ago I put out a call for writers for people to contribute to our blog. And we actually had a lot of people respond to that. It was very successful. The only issue is now I have to go through all of them and kind of manage that process and chat with them about what they want to write.
Starr: And I think it's all going to turn out really well. But this whole having coordinating things with 15 different people over email and having all of them at a different stage in the process, that's the type of thing that is designed to make my brain just fall apart. It's just something I'm apparently not good at.
Josh: It sounds like you're a kind of like a magazine producer or something now or editor.
Starr: It is, yeah. I'm kind of like an editor in chief. It's pretty cool.
Josh: We could give you a title of editor if you want, business cards or something. Or desk, one of those little desk nameplates.
Starr: That would be nice. I'll take it. I'll take whatever form of recognition I can get.
Starr: So Evie and I watched The Devil Wears Prada a couple of days ago. So I'm all ready, I'm ready for my role as a big time magazine editor. If you haven't seen that ... Have you seen it, Josh?
Josh: I have. Yeah. It's been awhile, but I think, yeah, I saw it a while back.
Starr: Yeah, so it was all about, what is it? A thinly disguise fixing fictionalization of like Anna Wintour's Vogue or something. Anyway, this lady who ran Vogue and was very mean to her subordinates or something and imperious. That's what I'm working towards.
Josh: And then in the end though, doesn't she have a change of heart in the end or something? I don't want to .... Spoiler alert.
Starr: No, there's no change. It was very confusing.
Josh: Oh, okay. I thought there was. That's too bad.
Starr: Yeah. So at the end, it's like the movie simultaneously celebrated this woman, this young woman who sort of rejected it all and went off to do her own thing, while at the same time sort of glorifying the sort of people who stayed in the magazine and devoted their lives to it even though their lives were falling apart.
Starr: It's like, I have no idea what the moral of this is. Pick one.
Josh: I have faith in you in as the editor of the Honeybadger blog that you will see the light in the end.
Starr: I'm not sure how many divorces I'm willing to have to make the Honeybadger blog a success though.
Starr: So, yeah, I was honestly super pleased with the quality of people who applied. Just like some really good writing going on out there. I consider myself a pretty good writer. I'm like, "Oh man, these people might be better than me so I've got to get them on my team."
Josh: Yeah, they must be pretty good. That's cool. I can't wait to read what they come up with. Are you kind of directing the topics or what's your process for kind of figuring out what each person is going to work on?
Starr: Well, like most things I do in life, I'm just kind of making it up as I go along. Basically my plan was to sort of see what people wanted to write about and see if I could make that sort of fit with the theme of our blog. And at least the initial contracts you do with people are probably just going to be stuff that they want to write about, which I think is great because they probably already know about it and are excited. As time goes on, maybe I will jump in there and suggest things. I'm really, really hoping to have a sort of collaborative relationship with these folks. Not just assign them something and then they produce a deliverable and then I sign off on it and then they get a check at the end. I'm kind of hoping it'll be this personal little, I just get to be the den mother of the writer's room and just make everybody cookies and just as long as they keep producing that content.
Josh: We talked about I think doing a series of posts kind of around a central theme or central topic or something. And I imagine you could have some opportunity to kind of take the initial topics and develop them, suggest areas that you could go deeper on for future or subsequent posts and that sort of thing.
Starr: Series are sort of my attempt to sort of do double duty because we found that we have good success with this ebook that I wrote a long time ago based on sort of blog articles. It's about Ruby errors and stuff. And we have a lot of people download that. And so I was like, "Well, if we have more eBooks that would be nice." But the thing is, it's like if you just kind of assemble eBooks from haphazard blog articles, it's really difficult. I basically had to rewrite everything in that book. I couldn't just compile articles and have it be read as a book because they were all, there was no planning behind that.
Starr: So my thought with series is that each blog post can be maybe like a chapter in an ebook or something. And so then we can sort of publish this in lots of different ways and hopefully that will provide value for people. For my own writing, I find it hard to context switch. So if I can spend two months writing many articles about the same topic, more or less, that's going to be way more efficient than switching around all the time for me.
Josh: I was going to ask about that. Actually, I made a note before this call because that's one of the things that I have too. Right now, because as you know, my contribution to the whole content thing over the past year or so has mainly been in the form of getting our email newsletter and our email content going.
Starr: What's that called? It's Leveling Up, right?
Josh: So yeah, we have an email ... Our newsletter series is called Leveling Up. It's basically a newsletter you subscribe to and we send out. I think it's a couple emails a month right now goes out. I think it's every ... Pretty sure it's every Tuesday. Just covers topics of more general interest. Some of them are technical development things and other things are kind of just of general interest, to like web developers and with a specific idea of advancing your career, leveling up as a developer.
Starr: Level up your career as a web developer. Subscribe now.
Josh: That's it. Actually, if you do want to subscribe, it's a honeybadger.io/leveling-up, I believe.
Starr: If it's not that write a script on fuzzy URL.
Josh: Or just go to our blog and there's a signup form.
Starr: That's probably easier.
Josh: Yeah. That's probably what I should have said.
Starr: I remember when you came out with the sort of idea behind this newsletter. There was some sort of high level business-y ideas happening around ... What were you trying to accomplish? Was this an outgrowth of you attending that Seth Godin seminar, maybe?
Josh: Yeah, maybe a little bit. I think it was just more a way to come up with content that developers would care about and that would actually be a valuable source of education or learning. I wanted to cover maybe a little bit of the overlap between the business end of things and maybe the marketing end of things and development. So it's got a little bit of a flavor of FounderQuest, indie hacker type stuff that we talk about on here. It's probably a little bit more on the technical end.
Starr: Yeah. But you managed to do it in a way that doesn't really require a ton of updating. Right? It's kind of ... It's more evergreen than a normal tutorial blog post.
Josh: The name that the marketing people these days use for the type of newsletter, the way it's set up, it's called an evergreen newsletter. So the idea is that instead of a traditional newsletter where you're like, you have come up with content every week or however often you're sending and you're basically on a constant schedule to send the next newsletter. With an evergreen newsletter, people subscribe to it at as they over time, but they're basically subscribing to, it's more of a sequence. So everyone starts at the beginning, gets all of the past emails that have been sent, and then when they reach the end, they start to get any new content that you're adding to the list.
Josh: So it kind of gives you a way to get off of that hamster wheel of content production and kind of produce really good content.
Starr: We should have figured out a way to do that with this podcast.
Josh: That's kind of built in. Maybe we could just tell people to start at the beginning instead of ...
Starr: Oh yeah, there you go.
Josh: If you just subscribed, just go all the way back in time and start at the very first one and that's basically an evergreen podcast.
Starr: And if you get to the last one, just start over. These episodes have depth.
Josh: I'll do that. With a really good podcast, I'll listen to some past episodes that go back and refresh myself.
Starr: When I get into a podcast I love though I listen to the whole catalog. There's no stopping me.
Josh: We're selling this pretty hard.
Josh: But you have to when you're hustling.
Josh: I don't know. I wanted to talk about the whole ... I think you mentioned the mental context switching thing. It's easier for you to sit down and write for a month versus trying to write a bunch of stuff in between other things that you're doing.
Josh: I get that too. Right now, I was working on newsletter content pretty much exclusively when I was doing more marketing things. Now I've been like, I've taken a detour back into development stuff and it's like the content and writing side has dropped off a little bit just because it's so ... It takes a lot of brain power and focus to actually do good writing, write a good article that people are going to care about. It's almost like it's a full time job.
Starr: Yeah, pretty much. And I don't know. I find that it's a different kind of brain power than programming. And also you have a lot fewer kind of incremental deliverables. Right? Because you may write something but then the next day you may just delete it. It's not like you're just sort of incrementally pushing these little units of work. So at first that really bothered me at first because, I don't know, it's just I felt like I wasn't getting anything done, even though I was obviously sort of getting stuff done.
Josh: It seems it's definitely more of a creative process where you're kind of formulating, even if you write the first draft and delete the whole thing because it's just not where you were going, it probably helped you figure out what you actually need to write.
Starr: Oh, totally. Can I share with you my writing process, Josh?
Josh: I would love to hear your writing process.
Starr: Okay. So it centers around the fact that I find it difficult to read things unless they're really simply written. And so basically I write something and then I come back the next day. I'm like, "I can't understand that. What am I trying to say?" So I rewrite it and then I just do that for about a week. And then eventually it's about as simple and compact as it will be.
Josh: Yeah. You end up with a couple paragraphs and ...
Starr: Yeah. So the take away is that it's hard to be able to write dense texts very easily.
Josh: Well, you've edited my writing before so you know I tend to ramble along and then come back in and pare it down and ...
Starr: Yeah. Always a rambler. Yeah. You're a rambling man.
Josh: I know. But yeah, that's something I've had to learn too is to come back and condense and try to say things as briefly as possible. It's definitely helped my writing.
Starr: I'm going to be writing more for the blog after I get all this stuff set up with the other writers. I'm going to contribute myself, but also I kind of want to make it so that I'm not sort of the main person driving the content of the blog. I would like my efforts to be kind of supplemental to it so that if something happens to me or whatever, all you have to do is keep having the same people write good content. I don't know. That's the dream at least.
Josh: Well, not the something happening to you, but making the blog sustainable.
Starr: Yeah. I'm-
Josh: I hope nothing happens to you.
Starr: There's totally not in my Google search history searches about having yourself disappeared mysteriously.
Josh: Yeah. Mysteriously. Yeah. Well if you ever, yeah, just vanish, I won't ask questions.
Starr: That'd be a good marketing stunt for us. You could run ads and be like, "Where's Starr?" Who's that?
Josh: Ben and I will just do the podcast. We'll turn it into a true crime podcast where we're investigating your disappearance.
Starr: Oh my goodness. And it's going to turn out that you were the murders after all and you did it so that you can make a true crime podcasts out of it.
Josh: You just gave away the ending though.
Starr: Oh damn. Sorry.
Josh: We'll cut that out.
Starr: Yeah, we'll cut that.
Josh: One thing I'm looking forward to with having more a variety of content on the blog, at least from an email standpoint is that it makes my job as just writing emails a lot easier because I can just write emails about the content and kind of just promote the content that other people are writing versus having to produce it all myself.
Starr: Yeah, that makes this much easier.
Josh: That'll be nice.
Starr: Honestly the main thing about hiring people, about having other people create content is that one of the hardest things for me isn't necessarily the writing. Writing isn't that difficult for me, but what's hard is after I exhaust my well of topics that I know about right away and trying to come up with new topics ... A long time ago, a couple of years ago, my goal was write a new technical blog post every day. I didn't quite meet it but I came close. And we saw a lot of good results from that. But I eventually sort of quit because it was just impossible to keep up because I felt like I had written about everything I could possibly write about without setting out and exploring new frontiers of knowledge that ...
Josh: Yeah. You covered a lot.
Starr: Yeah. And once I started doing that, once I started trying to cover things I didn't know, then it became super hard because now, well, I think this is going to be an interesting topic. And so I spend a day or two researching it and doing little blurbs about it. And then I realize, oh shit, this is actually not the way people do things anymore because I didn't understand that because I didn't really understand the topic. So that time is wasted. And then I don't know, I felt like that was ... That's really what kind of made it impossible is just having to have this breadth of topics.
Josh: I think that ... So that comes down to somewhat of a contextual problem I think because a lot of times when I'm trying to ... When I actually write something that I really end up liking that is actually really relevant and adds something to the conversation, it's come as a result of maybe I've been reading a bunch of different books kind of around that same idea for a couple of months or something versus going and trying to understand a topic in a short period of time and then come up with something to say. A lot of times I need to be ... Honestly, when I'm actually writing a lot, I'm doing a lot of reading and research and just general exploration behind the scenes. For me, that's where the writing pretty much comes from.
Starr: Oh totally. You need time for that stuff to percolate and you get ...
Starr: Yeah. Also I noticed that when I would try and cover topics I didn't really know that much about, it's like, really all I'm doing is paraphrasing other tutorials at this point. Because I don't really have enough knowledge about this to contribute much to it except in maybe sort of the way I organize the writing or the knowledge or whatever. But really it's like, I've read three or four tutorials or articles about this and now I'm just kind of condensing it into this new article. Which just kind of didn't really seem the most useful thing for the world to have.
Josh: When we were learning Elixir earlier, I guess earlier this year still, you did a blog post or two about some just beginner Elixir topics that just came out of your, as a beginner, learning the language and learning how it does things differently and that sort of thing.
Josh: I thought those turned out really well. But I think the difference there is that you are actually diving into a topic. You had been working with it for a couple of months and you were actually, you were just in the process of learning it and happened to have, happened to see things that you didn't understand as a beginner. But I think in that case, there's a good chance that a lot of other people that are just beginning would benefit from that. If it's actually trying to understand how a concept works or something versus a tutorial.
Starr: Yeah I could see you being able to put out a bunch of content if the sort of premise was that, "Okay, I don't know Elixir. I'm going to learn Elixir and just write about everything." Which is how a lot of developer blogs work.
Josh: I think that works really well if you happen to be learning a new language or something new for a long period of time. I don't know if it's sustainable as an approach to just go and produce content, just go learn an entirely new career as a developer and then use that as your jumping off point to write about. But...
Starr: Well, I mean if we wanted a ton of content about Elixir then it might be a good idea. Frankly, a lot of our stuff is ... We still write a lot of stuff about Ruby people and that's still primarily our main audience. Even if our blog posts cover things other than Ruby, I don't know, at this point there's not much in Ruby that is super surprising and new to me. Although there's still a couple things. Ruby, it's the gift that keeps on giving.
Josh: As they continue to develop it there'll be hopefully some big new things to talk about.
Starr: Oh yeah. But then everybody's going to be talking about that.
Josh: Yeah, that's true.
Starr: So you're going to be writing more emails soon, you said?
Josh: I would like to. Yeah. So I've been trying to figure that out. How do I pace that writing, assuming that I'm going to be jumping between different things that I do? Because I still do development. I still do. I still want to write. I want to do a little marketing, that sort of thing. And all of those things are, they are very mentally exhausting for me. So I have a certain amount of mental resources that I have each day to invest in something. And if I'm investing at all in developing or development or whatever, it's probably going to be at least a couple, a week or two of unwinding from that before I can get into a mode of actually thinking and writing. I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but I might do similar to what you're doing where I just kind of take weeks or months where I focus on a specific area so that I can actually go deep on those things and get fully into that frame of mind.
Starr: Yeah. This is one of the less fun aspects of having a really small company because you end up wearing so many hats that it's sort of a game of whack-a-mole. You can focus on your code, but then while you're not doing the blog, it's going to take you awhile to get used to doing the blog again. But no more. No more. We are professionals now. We're a professional business organization that hires people to do business activities.
Starr: Well, do you have anything more to say or should we wrap this one up? It can be a little short episode since it's just us.
Josh: Oh yeah. I think we can keep it short. Short chat.
Josh: And then Ben will be back next week and ...
Starr: That sounds good. Maybe we can have special branding for this and be FounderQuest Fireside Chats.
Josh: I like that. Next time we'll have to have our apple cider ready and we'll do that.
Starr: All right. Well, I will go start mulling that, I guess. I guess I better go plant an apple tree now.
Josh: You have a lot of things to mull over.
Starr: I do.