How to save my startup?

Jan 23
Ken

In mid 2020 I started pursuing a dream project of mine. I’ve always been fascinated by knowledge transfer through good writing. I’ve worked in academia for about a decade, but I was frustrated with how slow and bureaucratic the publishing process there was.

Experience exchange

As a small team we built Ken, an exchange for experiences that connects learners directly. It leaves out the middlemen, such as universities and publishers. On Ken anyone can write, read and review.

Rather than scientific publications, experiences are shared. Because I am convinced that everything the human mind has created (including science) is ultimately subjective. Ken embraces that fact, rather than fighting it.

We officially launched on September 1, 2021 with initially 10 publications.

Community-reviewed

In my experience, the internet is full of biased news and articles that have a political agenda, or are written to pave the way for selling a product.

When a writer submits a piece to Ken, it will be reviewed by a qualified member of the community. You’ll receive feedback on your text as well as corrections. While this is very valuable to writers, a nice side-effect is that the platform stays clean and the content high-quality.

The business model

Good writing has enormous value. And I was convinced that writers should be paid directly, rather than the current practice of offering content for free to readers and capitalising on them in some other way later.

How much content on the internet has intrinsic value, rather than being a form of marketing?

So we designed Ken as a marketplace. As a reader you purchase a publication for a small amount, and you’ll be able to access it lifelong. The bigger part of the money goes to the writer directly and a fraction of it is used to fund the platform.

Chicken or the egg

We were facing the typical platform problem. We needed many writers on the platform in order to attract readers. But it’s hard to motivate writers when there aren't many readers around.

I was betting on the compound effect to solve this. If we only had high quality content coming in at a certain frequency, over time one or another piece would go viral and the platform would gain traction. It may take a few months, or even a few years. But it would happen eventually.

However, there were more problems, which were painful for me to realise and led me to rethink many aspects of the concept.

Advertisement

One part of our growth strategy was to use ads to promote individual articles. Retrospectively, I was very naive here. In E-commerce terms, we had a pretty low Average Basket Value. For a 5 € article in order for a campaign to be profitable we could spend 2 € max for ads per sale. Even if I had a really low click price of 0.3 € we’d need a conversion rate of 7%. This couldn’t work. At least not at a small scale.

Note to self:

Don’t try to advertise one-time purchases of less than 50 € value.

Weirdly, this realisation was also a relief for me. I never liked ads, and preferred discovering stuff the natural way. Now I’d be forced to come up with a purely organic way of growing.

Being found on Google

Technically we did a good job making our pages discoverable by Google and Co. But when I started trying to optimise existing articles, I found it almost impossible to improve the rankings.

From what I understand now, there are really only two strategies:

  • Write for Google: You do your keyword research first, then write a piece that gets you high-ranked.

  • Write consistently and regularly: You don’t care about Google and write and publish new pieces over a long time period. Sooner or later one of your texts will match a trend and be highly ranked on Google.

I definitely favour the second strategy. Maybe tweaking a title here or there makes sense, but to me what you write should be what’s important for you, without the cognitive barrier of “pleasing Google”.

Writers facing pressure

Writing is hard. It particularly gets tough if someone (like me) wants you to put a price tag on it. I couldn’t really see this with my original enthusiasm, but some of my early authors really struggled. While they found it natural to share their experiences, as their story, they found it really hard to offer valuable insight to readers, so they feel it justifies the price.

My goal was to encourage people to start writing about their experiences and enjoy the process. I feel sorry for putting that kind of pressure on them. I want to do better!

Goodbye paywall

At the end of 2021 I had to face a reality: I wouldn’t be able to sustain Ken development over the coming months. After a phase of doubt, I concluded that Ken is still a very valuable concept. It’s just not meant to be monetised in the way I intended. Not yet.

After a lot of reflection, the best way forward for me was to turn Ken into a free product. It would still serve the purpose that I created it for. And it would free up a lot of my time from running it as a business, getting rid of invoicing, payments etc. It feels relieving.

Today Ken turns from a marketplace into a free to use publishing service. What’s unique about it is that it’s all about the exchange of personal experiences. Writers and readers can connect by starting a conversation and helping each other with their work.

Write for yourself, not for others

While writing, I too feel the pressure of saying something meaningful and utterly important. A few weeks ago I tried something different. I posed a few questions that were on my mind regularly and started answering them for myself in short pieces of writing. It was self-talk on paper. When writing “you” I meant myself. The goal was no longer external, like sharing something “insightful” with others, but rather “making sense” for myself. I found that quite liberating. I write with the aim to convince myself, not others.

Now if I’m happy with my conclusions, I share my text publicly. If not, I keep it for myself. I will further explore and advance this kind of writing style.

Going international

Ken’s primary language is now English. Originally Ken was German, as we focused on Austria, Germany and Switzerland. We did this mostly because, as a small team, we didn’t want to run into the complications of doing business internationally. But now that Ken no longer has a commercial component, it makes sense to cover the whole globe.

And the business?

For the foreseeable future Ken won’t generate revenue. I will fully focus on building a community, and testing the product with authors. I want to do this in an organic way, as I encounter interesting people in real life.

Ultimately, I want the community to own Ken, so it doesn’t depend on my person anymore. In my wildest dreams Ken would grow into a huge network where real friendships and partnerships are made. I’m sure we will be able to implement a fair sustainable business model, once the concept has been proven successful.

Revised on Sep 10