Ethan is the teenage developer behind a really cool web app, KanbanMail, which was #3 Product of the Week on Product Hunt when it was launched last year. If you like Trello or other apps that use kanban, you should check out this product. It's a great way to organise your messy Gmail or Outlook inbox into nice, organised columns. I chatted with Ethan about teaching himself code, learning by making and his plans for KanbanMail.

Thanks for interview, Ethan. Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi! I’m Ethan from Sydney, Australia and I’m 16 years old. My main products are KanbanMail, Code The Web, and Maker.rocks. I currently spend most of my time working on KanbanMail, although Code The Web is still doing pretty well on its own (but I haven’t monetized it yet).

So Kanban Mail is a really cool way to arrange your gmail and outlook like a Trello board. How did you end up making it?

I actually had the idea back in mid-2017, and decided to start building it at the end of 2017. I decided I’d use React, even though I’d never used a frontend framework before, because the whole components thing sounded like it’d be well-suited for a web app. I spent one intense week in the summer holidays (I’m in the southern hemisphere) learning React for the majority of each day, and using that to make a basic KanbanMail prototype.

At this point, I barely even knew how to make HTTP requests from the browser (which you end up doing a lot when your web app relies on APIs). Learning React AND trying to build my first web app AND trying to figure out how the Outlook API worked all at the same time really wasn’t a good idea, and I ended up losing motivation very quickly. React didn’t seem enough like an extension of JavaScript, it seemed like an entirely different language for someone who had never used a framework.

Screenshot of KanbanMail

Later in 2018, I was browsing Product Hunt, and came across Vue Native. One of the reasons I’d wanted to learn React was because I could also use those skills to make mobile apps with React Native, so I figured I’d give Vue a try too. The Vue beginner documentation really treated it as more of an extension of normal JavaScript rather than its own thing with a CLI etc, so it was really easy to get started with. I immediately saw how much easier it would be to use it to make a web app, so decided to resume building KanbanMail, but this time with Vue.

I converted all my existing code to Vue and started working on it again — this time it was much easier to stay motivated since it didn’t feel like I was learning a completely different way of doing things, although there were still hard parts. I got a basic prototype done by July 2018, released a proper version and started charging for it in September 2018, and launched it on Product Hunt in October 2018! I’ve been working on it and improving it massively since then — it’s amazing what one year of incremental improvements and passion can do to a product.

You got #1 on Hacker News when you launched there. Did that lead to a lot of users?

Interestingly, I didn’t actually launch there. KanbanMail wasn’t even finished then. You couldn’t even send emails from it because I hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. What happened was, I’d got the main Kanban functionality working. You could open emails, flag them I think, move emails between columns, and that was about it. I decided that I’d put a beta version online so a few of my maker friends in Maker’s Kitchen could try it out and tell me what they thought, or if there were any bugs. I also posted something on Product Hunt maker goals saying I’d finally got the beta version done.

Now at that point, I actually already had a landing page like with was the real thing, because I’d got really excited along the way and wanted to build the landing page for it. It even had a price on there - $12/month - which I’d completely plucked out of thin air. There wasn’t any indication that it was in beta and had features missing other than the sign up button which took you to a beta access email form. So, someone ended up seeing my post on Maker Goals, and checked out the landing page. Then they decided to post it to Hacker News. All of this was while I was sleeping.

screenshot of tweet from person who put KanbanMail on Hacker News

The next morning I woke up, checked Twitter, expecting to see a few people congratulating me on getting the beta out. I checked Google Analytics, expecting to see that a few people checked out the landing page. Instead, when I opened Twitter, I saw a bunch of tweets congratulating me on getting to #1 on Hacker News. I opened Google Analytics and saw 100 people currently on the site! (With over 10,000 people having visited the site already. )

It was a pretty exciting Saturday morning. The thing was, my landing page didn’t say anything about it being a super early version. So most of the people who put their emails down probably expected a polished product. In the end I think I had about 20K visitors on that day, and about 400 email addresses. That’s a pretty low conversion, but remember this was a very early version of the landing page, so I guess that’s to be expected. But still, 400 was a massive amount when I expected to have about 20 people in the beta.

I spent a while thinking about what to do, and started giving them access in batches. However, once I’d finished adding the necessary features, I decided to just give the remaining people access in one go. This early version was very buggy and not that easy to use though, and unfortunately not everyone gave feedback — a lot of people just saw it and then didn’t really end up using it. I did get a ton of useful feedback though, from probably about 20 of them. And when I finally took it out of beta, only one of the people who signed up ended up subscribing to the paid plan — and they cancelled after 15 minutes (that was a bit sad). They were very nice about it and gave me some really useful feedback though. So in the end, pretty much all of the 20K people who came from Hacker News ended up getting filtered out somewhere along the process.

I think this was just because I wasn’t ready for it. However, I’m still glad that it happened. It’s really cool to be able to say that I got to #1 on Hacker News, and it gave me motivation and belief in my product idea at times when things were really hard or I was doubting myself. I don’t know if I actually would have gotten KanbanMail finished if it wasn’t for that, 400 people waiting to use your unfinished product is a really big motivation to hurry up and keep going!

Screenshot of No CS OK job board

So I believe you are in school so you definitely don’t have a CS degree! How did you get into coding?

I think my first try of ‘coding’ was when I learned to use Scratch in 2011. It’s a drag-and-drop platform targeted towards kids where you can make programs and animations. Even though it’s not ‘real’ coding, it still taught me a lot about things like loops, conditionals, logic, and an overall programming mindset.

In April of 2015, I decided to start going through a free online Codecademy course on web development (HTML/CSS only). I still remember typing my first <h1> tag and seeing the output - even though it was really simple, it felt absolutely crazy that I was finally using this ‘mystical hackerish text stuff’, instead of the coloured blocks from Scratch, to make something happen. I went through quite a bit of the course learning basic HTML and CSS skills.

I also wanted to learn JavaScript - that seemed like a super difficult task. I started learning that in early 2016, and I’ve been learning it since then - it seems like there’s always more hidden features to uncover. I’d say that I probably became ‘fluent’ in it around mid 2017. I started learning it by going through a Codecademy course — but I got bored after learning about for loops, so I decided to just jump in and start making stuff with it.

This approach was really beneficial because it was more fun, and it also meant that I was remembering the stuff that I needed to look up often, and not other less useful things. I’d basically just code, and my learning resource was Stackoverflow. Here’s one of the projects that I made while learning JavaScript — a prime number generator.

Since then, I’ve actually made a tutorials site called Code The Web teaching others how to learn web development as a way to give back to the programming community. I felt like a lot of other places used complex technical language to explain programming concepts, which can be intimidating to beginners - I know that from experience. So I decided to write tutorials that explain web development in a more simple way.

What are your plans for Kanban mail?

My plan is to keep improving KanbanMail. It’s really hard to make a solid email client, but I feel like with my progress this year, I’m really getting there. Honestly, the version of KanbanMail that I launched on Product Hunt last year seems like a clunky toy compared to what it is now. It’s crazy how much progress I’ve made and how much I’ve learned along the way, about both programming and business. The cool thing about making a product is it’s literally free super-intense education, and people are paying you instead of you having paying others!

I plan to launch a v2.0 with all the changes I’ve made so far (and a few more to come) on Product Hunt, and hopefully on some news sites like TechCrunch and Lifehacker, later this year. Or early next year, depending on how close it gets to Christmas (lots of people are away around that time, so launches don’t really get as much attention). Apart from the technical and product side of things, I plan to really find a good direction for KanbanMail.

Finding a niche for an email client is really hard. It’s especially hard when you’re a 16 year old who’s never worked in a corporate setting, so I have basically zero knowledge about what one of my ideal target audiences even does all day, or how stuff like purchasing software works within these companies. But I do hope to find a more specific niche and direction, because I feel like KanbanMail is a really great product, but I just need to find the right sort of people to sell it to.

I often get emails saying “this is an amazing email app, but unfortunately I won’t continue using it because I don’t get enough emails”, or some other reason related to their use case. Once I find my ideal audience, I really want to focus on growing KanbanMail and upping that MRR.

testimonials for KanbanMail

I know you’re still young! What are your aims for the future? Are you going to try and keep going as an indie maker?

Building software is definitely one of my passions. It brings together programming, design, creativity, problem solving and more, all of which I like. So I’m definitely going to keep going as an indie maker. I haven’t decided if I’ll build additional ‘proper’ products that I focus on, or just focus on KanbanMail and Code The Web. Either way, one of my goals is to increase my revenue to something that I could potentially live off by the time I finish school.

That way I’ll have the freedom to do whatever I want, whether that be studying or travelling as a digital nomad or something completely different! I think I’m really lucky to have found something that I’m passionate about which is also profitable, so it would be awesome to do that into the future. But I have many interests, and I’m curious about lots of things, so you never know, I might end up as an engineer at SpaceX or something 😉