9 min read

The 16 year old maker of KanbanMail talks learning to code by doing

The 16 year old maker of KanbanMail talks learning to code by doing

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!


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