How to Build a Web App from A to Z

These are the notes I took in the awesome session from Kevin Hale of at the Future of Web Apps Conference

Any misspellings or incompleteness is my fault, and not that of the presenter.

Strengths and Weaknesses

  • talking about his experiences/background
  • investing, etc, wufoo


  • Advice = Limited Life Experience + Over Generalization

Who? When? Where? Why? How?

  • there is no "what", these other things are more important


  • write down your questions and ask in the second half

About wufoo

  • writes for treehouse and particletree website/magazine
  • co-founder of Infinity Box, Inc. (Wufoo)
  • 6 million page views per month

Who are the wufoo customers

  • healthcare, individuals, many industries, as well as Microsoft, sony and other big names
  • do all programming with 3 people, and that's it

Story of Wufoo

  • graduated with digital arts degree, english degree
  • his aspirations were to take a year off, and then go get a graduate degree
  • got a job in a research office (Information Specialist) at USF
  • Where do you find money to do research?
  • Met Chris Campbell at USF
  • Met Ryan Campbell (TA for a computer science teacher)
  • went to a session at SXSW and with Jason Fried of 37 signals
  • made a decision to start a company at that point
  • first tips: build an audience first with a blog
  • made web development blog
  • "single greatest thing we ever did"
  • vehicle for learning these techniques would need
  • Particle Tree: web dev tutorials
  • inverse pyramid, most important thing at top, least at the bottom
  • learned a lot about writing, programming, etc.
  • thought about building a content manager (beginning of wufoo)
  • came across Ycombinator
  • incorporated Particletree Inc. (cost about $565)
  • setup as florida S-Corp
  • got contacted by CNET via an article of particletree getting picked up on slashdot
  • Ryan decides to quit his job, they start talking about it. Chris splits paycheck with the three of them
  • started out on 12 inch screens, terrible equipment
  • gave first magazine of treehouse for free (100,000 downloads)
  • Ycombinator puts up "startup school" and they apply and attend this in boston (fuck, I applied for this and got in, but couldn't fly in)
  • ycomb contacts them and likes their app a lot, they go to boston to pitch idea

Worst Interview Evar

  • ycomb tells them they need a form builder
  • they argued with ycomb on what their product was
  • 16 teams went out there, only 8 get selected
  • 10:00pm supposed to get call, got call at 11:15pm to say they were accepted

We're Going to California

  • $6,000 per each person
  • rented apt, furniture
  • pics of apt, and setup was horrible
  • they become incorporated (In Delaware specifically, it's tax beneficial) = Infinity Box, Inc.
  • had dinner nights, still have relationships with all those groups in ycomb
  • ycomb invests in 20 teams at a time now
  • all the ideas of startups are so different, the collaboration between teams is awesome
  • your idea doesn't matter, what you should focus on is the users/customers. (golden rule in effect)


  • real story: used (knew the guy who made that app) and got list of 5 letter domain names, and chose "wufoo" based on it's memorable
  • "girlfriend test", made her build forms using their simple version (design) of wufoo.
  • realized where things were complicated, etc. where to fix things
  • put out a demo (5,000 people wanted to sign up) immediately after that
  • you have a 10 minute pitch on what your product does; many people were interested in it
  • accepted 50,000 from 2 different angels (figured that it would last them about a year)
  • they didn't stay, went back to Tampa (out of money)
  • for the next three months they all live together with chris and fiance in their townhouse
  • contacts mike arrington to see if he'd like to try it; promised exclusive of when it will launch
  • launched July 5th; techcrunch gives rave reviews
  • Chris becomes customer evangelist; he answered every support email
  • take care of the beta customers first; and then it will benefit you

A Note on Beta Testers

  • almost no one gives them feedback

  • those that do give feedback wufoo gives them a deal for 50% the lifetime of the account

  • gave them this deal a week before launch (so they could test out the billing system for a week)

  • beta testers were not the "real" users, beta testers are just interested in the next big thing

  • surveying beta testers is probably not a good idea, you can't understand what your revenue model may be from that

  • the models out there: flickr, delicious, etc. aren't necessarily the "right" way to run a company

  • the myth is that you can only start a company in california

  • things learned in exercise:

  • each company has been around about 3 years

  • you can make a shit-ton of money regardless of the niche you are in

  • location doesn't matter

The Importance of Time

  • start your company now!
  • you got to have patience
  • relationship and customers the most important
  • Inc., 5000.:

You Make What You Measure

  • guy of jotspot says this (just sold to google as "google sites")
  • wufoo stats
  • monthly subscription rev
  • increase rev
  • month # users
  • customers/ month etc
  • "stumbling on happiness" = humans are the worst at predicting things, they are the worst at this

Chart of Destiny

  • exercise:
  • Q: Which is better 1000/month or 1000 + 10%/month?
  • A: Over time the 1000/month is better.
  • conclusion: over time, you make more, start now, and be patient

Q: When? A: Now

Bootstrapping vs. Raising Money

  • bootstrapping can be done
  • trade off is control
  • ways to raise money:
  • seed investors
  • angels
  • 50k - 100k
  • venture capitalists
  • up to 3 mill = they want part of your company
  • family/friends
  • business loan
  • gov't grant
  • first person you talk to is an associate, not a partner (venture caps); they are no one, and have no power

Top 10 Questions Investors Asked Us

Article here:

  1. Who else have you spoken to?
  2. How will you make money?
  3. How will your company grow?
  4. What technologies do you use?
  5. How easily can you be copied?
  6. Can we see the demo?
  7. Who are your competitors and how are you better/different?
  8. Who are your customers?
  9. How will you spread the word about your product?
  10. What will your market penetration be?
  • this can be one of the weakest points for some companies

TAM = Total Available Market

  • the piece of the market you're going to be catering to
  • doesn't freakin' matter, impossible to predict
  • don't be afraid to say "I don't know" if it's reasonable to do so

Resources vs Resourcefulness


  • Two most important things in considering for a team mate

  • passion

  • animal

  • like a marriage

  • trust

  • where?: family, friends, school, work

  • How?

  • Do stressful test projects

  • practice fighting

  • don't make it personal

  • sleep on it

Let the Data Decide

  • track things, and the data should show you the right path
  • which person is more correct?; with data to back it up

2 Weeks

  • do anything you want (give that flexibility to anyone)
  • you have two weeks
  • you can measure it

Chris Kevin Ryan

Profit per X

  • you find the thing that drives your profit
  • then maximize that profit
  • for wufoo:
  • stay as small as possible
  • profit per employee

Customer Support

  • doesn't scale
  • you cannot outsource this; have to do it on your own
  • maximize your time to make customer service great

How to be a Market Leader

How Word of Mouth Works

  • give them a great customer experience

Marketing is what you do when you didn't make something remarkable

  • Would you recommend me to a friend or coworker?

Wufoo Support

  • only 3 people support 60,000 users
  • great customer support doesn't scale easily
  • just as much time on support, as working on the application
  • do everything in gmail (
  • label with "C", "K", "R" with who should answer it
  • assigned different days to answer support: all day, from when you wake up, until you go to bed
  • built tools to help them manage accounts, things that users never see
  • wiki, forums, screen casts HD!, FAQs, knowledge base
  • they use TextExpander to help with support emails
  • promote your documentation in your support emails
  • use google search for their documentation (Google Custom Search) ($100/year if you don't want any ads, and they provide a lot of tools on statistics, what's being searched, etc.)
  • hand-wrote christmas cards to customers, made postcards, and hand-wrote those too. (wow!)

Productivity Experiments

Paid Incentives

  • you meet certain quota on writing for particle tree, and you get money
  • if you don't meet it, then you don't get the extra money

List of 10

  • every 6 months, what are our major goals
  • 15 things you'd have to do to make that happen
  • first person to finish at least 10 things, would choose the company trip
  • last person would be the "Trip Bitch" ha ha


  • everyday have a quick meeting
  • what did you accomplish yesterday
  • what are some things in your way and how can I get them out of the way
  • write it all down, accountability
  • wufoo
  • they do this once a week (video chat)
  • highly recommend this approach; what tasks need to be done

Behavioral Economics

  • Dane Ariely "Practically Irrational":
  • Efficiency vs Efficacy
  • Chocolate / Intangibles. How do you quantify? How do you price quality?
  • SSN
  • take the last 2 digits of your SSN
  • take a list of items and write this number next to each item
  • consider that number the price of the item
  • wager to see how much items: correlation between high number and what they bet
  • once you get a price you usually don't stray to far from what the price should be
  • price is placed within context and that matters
  • so when you price your app, place it in context
  • free plan, 9/month, 69/month, 100/month
  • don't doubt putting those higher prices out there
  • do tiered pricing
  • candy
  • the "free" plan is very very enticing; beware of it

Document Your Story

  • talk to everyone

  • remember the golden rule

  • wufoo:

  • took a lot of screenshots

  • lots of pictures

  • one guy kept a journal

  • you can do a startup and have fun; don't take yourself that seriously

  • don't be in it for the money


  • Small Giants: why companies choose to be great instead of big
  • Blue Ocean Strategy
  • Made to Stick
  • The Best of Software Writing
  • Prioritizing Usability (get this one)
  • CSS Mastery
  • Landing Page Optimization (SEO book, really good)
  • Game Design Workshop (user experience, fun, and engagement)
  • Harvard Business Review (only magazine they get: get subscription)


  • how was ecommerce and setting that up?

  • Answer: Sucks. Don't have recommendation for any particular payment systems. Built their own recurring billing. Documentation sucks.

  • they are considering these guys:

  • still developing this service, may not be ready for months. wufoo is working with them

  • would you consider taking venture capital when getting the contacts?

  • Answer: Taking the seed money was so worth it, just in the contacts you make. Invaluable.

  • be aware of people that are doing angel investing for the first time. Get someone who has done it for awhile. Talk with the people the angel investor in.

  • Outsource your IT?

  • Answer: No one will be good as hiring your own. Set up a three stage push system, they helped them set it up. They are really good than working with them. They find it to be completely worth it in paying a little more, and not having to do everything yourself. They use Bitpusher.

  • Outsourcing your code?

  • Answer: They have two people they are considering hiring, they gave them some projects to work.

  • How did you initially figure out the pricing plan?

  • Answer: Copied jotspots pricing plan. They researched their competitors. Haven't raised their prices.

  • Should invest in some kind of marketing or PR?

  • Answer: Focus on your product in the first 1 -2 years. Then transition to marketing and advertising, that's what they're doing right now.

  • What would you do differently if you could start over?

  • Answer: Start earlier! Regarding legal stuff: No reason you should pay a lot of money for ToS or Privacy Policy. Go copy ours! Be aware of where you ask for legal advice.

  • Have you leveraged blogs to promote wufoo?

  • Answer: Yes. Sold some web dev ads at first, but then found out that all conversions in promoting wufoo worked much much better.

  • Build audience first?

  • Answer: Yes. Blog worked out very well. Joined Web 2.0 workgroup.

  • How much time goes into research (reading blogs, etc)? Percentage of time goes into this?

  • Answer: Fridays they hang out. Share books all the time. Reads 3 books a week.

  • How often new features come out?

  • Answer: Wrote the form builder 7 times. Rolls out new versions to new users about 1000s at a time. See how they react.

  • Feature requests?

  • Answer: Feedback form. Don't let people know what you're timeline is, setting them up for disappointment.

  • Work in same location?

  • Answer: Work separately, remotely from home. Only have monday video conferencing. Always have instant messenger open for real-time communication. Always have phones on talking about it.

  • How does workflow go?

  • Answer: Design driven development. Design gets taken to have the data serve the data, then the JS/interactivity. If you see something cool in front of you, then you're more motivated to get it going. Kevin does all the HTML/CSS. Don't make a lot of spec requirements, just get a design, and then get the work done.

  • Best technology in 5 years?

  • Answer: Ha! I said humans are bad at predictions. HTML/forms hasn't changed in 10 years. For form building nothing much, hasn't really changed.