Entrepreneurs often talk in terms of rocket ships. But Benedicte Raae knows the best kind of business is more marathon than sprint. She created hers by prioritizing quality and sustainability over explosive growth.
Season 2 – Call Paul – Episode 4
Paul: Hello friend, I’m Paul Jarvis. Welcome to Call Paul, a show where I get to ring up some of the most interesting minds in small business and have thoughtful conversations about their unconventional approaches to commerce.
I’ve run my own small company for 21 years and I’ve written books on how bigger isn’t always better in business. In this season I’m talking to folks who are prioritizing doing the right thing over just the most profitable. Some are starting something brand new, standing up their businesses in an entirely new environment. Others have been at it a while, working to ensure their continued sustainability through turbulent times. And there’s lots to learn from everyone.
Benedicte: So I very early on made a decision to charge for my side projects and we've had a couple and that's worked out really well. And also when you're doing software where you're not Twitter or Facebook, where you're trying to lure people in so that you can sell their data, it doesn't really matter if you have a ton of users. So it's a lot better to have 10, 15, or whatever paying users that then can give you feedback that you can listen to because they've actually paid, than to have a couple of thousand users who are shit posting and haven't paid anything.
Paul: That’s Benedicte Raae [benn-a-dicta-ray] She’s the co-founder of Norway-based development company Lilly Labs, where in 2020 she released an encrypted menstrual cycle software called POW! Benedicte [benn-a-dicta] is the sort of person who makes the things she wants to see in the world, and as a software developer, was able to create POW! in the way she wanted it to work: privacy-focused, built in a way that works to help women befriend their unique cycles, and with a style that very much reflects who she is, in the most wonderful way possible.
Benedicte: I think it’s one of the softwares, that if you're a developer, you've always thought about that's one of those things you want to make because it's never perfect or really how you need it to be. But then I talked myself out of it for, I guess, 10 years, or it came back and forth into my mind since my university days. And as I kept talking myself out of it partly because it's one of those apps that there are a lot of them out there, so why should I make one and do we really need another one? And sometimes a software that is 80% good, just make it work, there's no need to make another one.
And another reason was that when I had this idea, the first time I was a student and I thought if I made it a lot of the first users would be my friends. And going to a party on a Friday night, I didn't really want to be in the back of my mind seeing, "Oh, you logged this yesterday," it could be that the person had sex or was feeling bad or feeling good or whatever. It might not even be a secret to me, but it still wasn't something that I wanted to have access to.
So I kind of shelved the idea for years and years and then two years ago, I went to the global diversity CFP day where they try to help you create talk proposals for technical conferences. So I went there and one of the things they said that one could do was to create a talk proposal on something that you would to learn more about. ... That's when it kind of hit me. I was like, "Well, what would it take to make a privacy first menstrual cycle journal? What would I need to learn? What would I need to know about to make it happen?" So I created a talk proposal where I kind of just brought out, I think, six questions or statements about what I wanted from a menstrual cycle app or journal. And I think it was like do I want it to be shared? Heck no. I had a very bold kind of CFP or talk proposal.
So I ended up sending that out and JSCOM, Budapest was the first conference to accept it and then I got accepted by three more. So when it was accepted, you just got to learn it, right. So I started looking into encryption...So I studied computer science, but encryption, it was the hard... The real geeks did that. I kind of just always thought it was too hard, but looking into it, it was like, "Oh, it's not really that complex." I'm pretty good at math so I could wrap my head around it. So the talk ended up being about end-to-end encryption...I decided to just have a go at it and actually make the software. So that's kind of the origin, the long, long, long winded origin story, and I created the prototype and that was the fall of 2019.
Paul: So then what are the benefits of journaling about menstrual cycles?
Benedicte: So I have a personal story about this.... I do client work so I was working on a web app for clients and life had been really good to the last couple of weeks I was like, "I got this." And then suddenly it was coding long and I got this idea in my head that's like, "You need to quit everything and move to the countryside. This ain't working." And I was like, "Yeah, I'm an engineer, let's look into that. You're going to fix this. Something's obviously wrong."
And I started in on that kind of activate my system to fix this. And then I remembered I have an app for this. So I checked my POW! app and lo and behold on exactly that day in my cycle last month and I think even the month before, I had hashtagged, "Want to quit everything and move to the countryside," which is a lot shorter in Norwegian. And then I was like, "Okay, this might be a valid feeling." All feelings are valid, of course, but this is something I'm feeling right now, but it might go away in a couple of days so let's just sit quietly in the boat, is a Norwegian expression at least, and just wait this out and then circle back in a couple of days and see if that feeling is still there. And it was not.
And this is one of the reasons that I wanted to make POW! the way I've made POW! because the other solutions out there don't really let you see what you've logged mood wise, they're very focused on fertility. And I'm not really that concerned about that, but I want to see, is this normal for me today?
Paul: Yeah so, having that ability to look at patterns and reflect must be super useful?
Benedicte: Pre-pandemic, I did a lot of traveling for my contract work and one of the ways I used the knowledge of my cycle was that we usually go out to dinner and socialize after a full day of working with the clients. And I know that in certain times in the cycle, I get a lot more hungover and I can also be less social. So, since I know that I might get more tired than earlier in the day, I'll be saying that, "Oh, I'm going to do some errands after this before I meet you up at the restaurant," or I'll decline the last glasses of wine because I know I won't be able to get up the next morning and do the client work. So the knowledge of the cycle helps me in kind of preparing the people around me, but also myself of what I want to do.
Paul: What do you want and what do you hope that users or customers will get out of using Pow? Benedicte: It's, I hope that they get that feeling that I'm getting like, yeah, this is totally normal for me right now....I have a very good friend, who's a writer here in Norway, and she has figured out that she writes really well when she's on her period. She's super focused and she doesn't really want any social context. It's perfect then she goes into her writers den and she just writes and writes and writes and writes. And then she comes out after that period and then she's ready for some more social interaction. And instead of then forcing herself to kind of be social and not utilizing that time, because I think a lot of especially businesses advice is very linear, you're supposed to do the same thing every day, you're supposed to have the same focus every day, maybe that doesn't work for everyone. And some of us have cycles, and if you befriend your cycle, you can then utilize the different periods for different activities.
Paul: Do you feel like women befriending their cycle also helps befriend other natural cycles like the seasons, or just connect more with nature in general ?
Benedicte: I definitely think there's some aspect of that and I have friends who are more kind of into that nature route where they're very much and they go out when it's the full moon and they do rituals and stuff that. I'm an engineer, so I'm not there, but what I do feel is that I guess my generation, or at least the generation above me, I'm soon 40, have tried to distance themselves from the cycle actually doing anything to us because a lot of us were growing up being teased like, "Oh, you're on your period," or women are less than and one of the ways that we were less than is that we have a cycle that affects us and that is purely negative, but I think what the new generation, and then maybe our generation, and that POW! is a part of is that realization that yes, we do have a cycle and yes, it does affect me, but it doesn't have to be purely negative. If you learn our own cycle and we get that knowledge, we can kind of use it in a more powerful way.
Paul: Why the name POW! and the branding of POW! obviously has a very specific look to it. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about and why you wanted to use that word and the way that you branded it?
Benedicte: It was very intuitive actually. I was I think I was on Slack with some friends ... I think just from something they said, I wrote POW!, and then I said it and I was like, "Yes. POW! POW! POW!." It's bold and it's fun instead of flowery and pink and oh, pretend that we're not even bleeding. It's just right in your face and I guess that's what you're saying with the branding, it's red, it's not light blue as in all period commercials.
The branding around these things have always been very pink and flowery and there's nothing wrong with that, but it's felt very, I don't know, girly in a way, and we're grownups and it's not something to hide. I've had some really nice emails coming back that people enjoy the branding and they really that it's bold and less girly and not everybody who menstruates are very feminine. But originally it was just like, "This is what I want," and scratching my own itch.
Paul: So let's Zoom out a bit because part of how is this focus on digital privacy, and obviously that's something that I'm very interested in. But I'm curious to you why just in general, do you think that digital privacy is important to you as a software developer?
Benedicte: So I think for me, especially with POW!, the importance on it being private is that you should feel you can log whatever you really need to log. With the solutions that were already out there, part of it was like they asking very intimate and detailed questions. They wanted things very structured. Do I really want to let this app know whenever I feel sad or anxious because ads can be manipulative if they know this about me.
So with POW! it's like it started with that privacy focus in a way, but that also led me to be able to create a more journal-like software where you could use your own words and your own kind of terms and your own language, for instance. ...So because it's private and I can never sell the data, I can create a less structured approach because I don't need them to fit into pre-approved slots. It's one of those things that I just feel really shouldn't be privy to all kinds of information about people and it's possible not to, but we just create systems where we do have access and, of course, it makes it easier for us sometimes to fix things in the backend and stuff like that. So of course, for some software, it's not needed, or it's not possible, but when it is possible, why not? We have the technology there, we can do it, and it just feels like the right thing to do.
And as a person in a country where we do have workers, right, and we have benefits, and we have all those things where they would not be allowed to use any information like this on me, and they probably wouldn't. But there are countries where especially menstrual cycle information, it could be used against you in a work situation. You're trying to conceive, we know this, so you're getting fired, but we don't have to tell you that we know that you're trying to conceive and we can fire you before you're pregnant, because then it's legal.
Paul: So tell me about how and when POW! launched, because you talked about earlier how POW! had been an idea for 10 or so years, and you were kind of wanting to do it, and then you started to do these talks.
Benedicte: Yeah. So deciding to do a talk and not just make is very not me. So it was like when I was trying to ring myself in, you don't have to make everything. So then I was like, "I'm going to do talk because talks are then done and you're not responsible for them for the next 10 years or whatever, however long POW! will be in existence, hopefully longer."
So I kept making the talk and I wanted to code and I wanted to code and I wanted to code. And then finally, as I said, when I was doing the slide, I was starting to code, I couldn't help myself. So I started to code and I was coding away and then, because Norway is a little slow on the uptake sometimes with media, the Norweigenkind of financial times did basically what the Wall Street Journal had done in talking about how these health apps and they were focusing in on menstrual cycle at apps, how they were sharing data.
So I emailed a lady behind the article and I said, "Hey, well, I'm making an alternative," and then she called me up and that ended up being a full page in the Norwegian Financial Times. And obviously she asked me, "So when are you launching?" Because I was talking like this was pretty far along, so I was like, "I'm launching International Women's Day, March 8th," and that's how POW! was actually born because I had promised. I felt in the Norwegian people, even though I guess not everybody reads this newspaper, and I just had to make it then and release it. So we pretty much released something I would consider a minimal viable product, a very tiny feature set and then my plan is to keep on improving that little by little over at least the next 10 years. This is going to be one of long-term projects.
Paul: If everything goes according to plan, what does POW! then look like next year, five years, 10 years kind of thing? Where do you want to take POW!?
Benedicte: In five years, I want POW! to have really good prediction engine and I actually want to open source that engine to have that be something that people could play with on their own. And then on top of that engine, I then want to make the easiest to use app and also the most private app.
But also, for POW!, we have been thinking for a long time that it would be super interesting if you could share the data with your partner or somebody else that you would to share it with, but then in a very privacy focused way so that the person who's logging has control over what is shared and that's something I probably could have just started making, but it's one of those features that I think is going to be really hard. And I also want to be able to let people kind of export the data, but then again, in a privacy friendly way where they can maybe subscribe to a calendar where they have just color coded certain parts of their cycles so that they know when they look in their Google Calendar what that means and they can then plan their lives a little bit around it if they want that.
But the first focus now is to visualize it better and to make the prediction engine a lot better and hopefully then create some kind of open source community around the prediction engine so that we can get research into and out of the engine, hopefully. That's the vision I have because I think that would be fun and the right thing to do.
Paul: How do you decide what to work on and when right now, because POW! is just kind of ramping up and getting going So how to you prioritize?
Benedicte: So I do POW! and I do contract work and I mostly do contract work during the winter because it's actually pretty nice. Norway is a dark country, it's nice to have some extra structure during the winter time and it's fairly easy in Oslo to get kind of contract work where you're just a kind of a hired hand, a programmer. ...I feel like the conventional wisdom would be do POW! and just do POW! and be super focused on POW!. And I tried to get myself into that mode and I'd done it for a couple of months. And what I find is that then I just I get really frustrated and I start kind of hating on POW!. I don't it because it gets too much. So I realized I need several parts to my professional life. So it works out really well now where I do POW! and I also have contracting work a as a service.
Paul: So how does YouTube fit into POW!? What do you use YouTube for specifically with POW?
Benedicte: So I transitioned into streaming, which I was super, super scared. So for those who might not know what that is, but most people know what streaming is, but there is a sub genre where you code on stream. So I live code and talk through whatever I'm coding with people who are in the chats. And I was so scared when I did that the first time, I don't know why. Coding live has just been one of these things that I thought I'd never do. And then I like, "Well, then at least you should try once." And I did it once and I really, really enjoyed it because in a small shop like ours, it's not that many people to talk to while you code, but then I have this hour every Sunday where I just talk and I like to talk and then I just talk to the camera and I code and people can chat or comment suggestions and stuff like that. So that has been a really fun surprise, that's something I really enjoy then it makes me very motivated to keep on going.
Paul: Yeah, I would be nervous to live stream code as well so I totally understand that, but I'm not brave enough to actually do that anyway.
Benedicte: And it goes so badly. I code then in an hour, it's like, "Well, we got nothing done," but that's also how being a developer is like and I've had several people who are like, "Oh, it's so nice to see some people where it's the actual process," and that somebody has practiced and then pretend it's their first time doing it while I actually haven't tried doing it before, and then I'm doing it on stream and they can feel, I guess, better about themselves.
Paul: So POW! is paid software, right? Because you do some open source stuff and you do have experience with free software, so can you explain why POW! is a paid software product and how you came to the decision to make it paid and not a different type of revenue?
Benedicte: Yeah. So in another life, about eight years ago, me and another friend did iPhone apps. And I don't think we ever did a free app. But at the time, there was a lot of talk about apps where the free ones were getting a lot more support emails and a lot more bad reviews on the App Store.
And so I started digging into that at the time and I found some kind of marketing or sales psychology article books on this where if people don't make an active purchasing decision, they don't convince themselves that they need the stuff that they're buying. And since they haven't convinced themselves, it's easier for them to be negative about what they're buying. Which makes no sense if you don't read this and you're like, "Yeah, okay, it does make sense." Because people are like, "I'm going to give it away for free because I don't think it's good enough." And then they end up getting a lot more negative feedback than if they had put a price on the software they have created, or the book, or the course, or whatever you're making.
So I very early on made a decision to charge for even my side projects and we've had a couple and that's worked out really well. And also when you're doing software where you're not Twitter or Facebook, where you're trying to lure people in so that you can sell their data, it doesn't really matter if you have a ton of users. So it's a lot better to have 10, 15, or whatever paying users that then can give you feedback that you can listen to because they've actually paid, than to have a couple of thousand users who are shit posting and haven't paid anything.
Paul: Yeah, so that seems like purposefully not focusing on crazy user growth at the start allows you to actually connect with those users more?
Benedicte: When you sign up for POW!, you can also sign up for a chat with me so I can learn more about you and what you want out of POW! and not many have signed up without any kind of extra nudge, but one person did and she talks about how she somehow that maybe her husband even had a better kind of understanding of her cycle looking at it from the outside than she had herself because it felt like it always kind of came up out of the blue on her. And she always felt entitled, of course, to the feelings she had, but then she didn't connect that these things happen, this argument happens at the same time every cycle. So definitely knowledge is key and knowledge is power. So I hope POW! Can help people connect the dots and collect the knowledge they need.
Paul: So how has the pandemic been for you in terms of working online and on POW!?
Benedicte: On kind of the very positive side is that I feel during this year, I've reconnected with the internet like how I remember it from my teenage years where you just make friends on the internet wherever they are. I have this Twitter group of developers that we just met on Twitter I can’t really remember how anymore, but now we are the Netterpoppers.
Paul: Sorry what’s that word. Can you say that again?
Benedicte: Netterpoppers. So one of the developers is British and I think Netter is like chatting, but none of us really understood that, and then you can add pop at the end to make it cute. So it's Netterpop and then it became we are the Netterpoppers. So it just kind of evolved.
So kind of that side of it has been really fun for me and also kind of that helped, reconnecting with the developer community in that way and with people who are developers more like me, kind of more creatives than developers. So finding that community online, its the Natterpoppers but also Indie Hacker Women is a group that I've joined and also Blogging for Devs, which is another group I've joined. And coming into that environment has made me a lot more confident in my creative decisions and also just made me enjoy the internet again. I don't know, a lot of us were done with the internet and then somehow at least for me this year, I'm really into the internet again and the people of the internet.
Paul : Benedicte makes a good point about the internet. The web started out weird, and wholly unique, and full of different voices. But over time, that died off, it subdued itself so subtly it may not have been noticeable, and became a little homogenous in terms of style, voice and tone.
What I like about POW! is the way that Benedicte runs the business, completely by her own design. Her approach to software development on her Youtube channel and connecting with other creative coders gives me hope that the internet can be enjoyable again. It’s part of why I think small businesses can succeed in markets where much larger corporations seem to be thriving; because entrepreneurs like Benedicte can add that personal touch to her product, she can do things like phone up new customers, and she can take smart risks like designing a menstrual cycle app with a comic-book style POW! logo.
Part of running a smaller business is that we can be beholden to things other than quarterly performance reports or investors or shareholders. We can, as Benedicte does, tap into a natural rhythm of working on one thing in the winter, and another in the summer. Or planning our months based on cycles that aren’t just two week software development sprints. This is part of what draws us to working for ourselves I think. That freedom to design our both work and our world.
(music) - - Paul: Next Friday, I’ll be chatting with two women who are starting something new in an industry that’s felt like it’s on the brink of failing for the last couple decades.
Lauren: It happened in a text message, and the really outrageous thing is I live in the DC area and Akoto lives in Brooklyn and we have not seen each other in person from that moment when we texted each other that we needed to do this to this day.
Paul:I hope you’ll join us. In the meantime you can listen to the small business spotlight, sharing with you a behind the scenes peek at the day to day of running a company. These stories are from folks who are doing amazing things, I think you'll really enjoy them. They’re also in the Call Paul feed.
Call Paul is wonderfully produced by Ruth Eddy and is a Mailchimp Original Podcast. Subscribe now on your favourite podcast player, so you can check out all our other episodes and seasons. And if you want more awesome content, go to mailchimp dot com slash presents. moment in their life, a moment that they may never get back, a moment that's special to them.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Things are returning to normal – but that doesn’t mean we should go back to the way things were. Paul Jarvis is back, interviewing entrepreneurs who prioritize passion over profit and renegotiated the status quo.
Austin, blogger, illustrator and author, shares his entrepreneurial philosophy.
Bunnie, bookstore owner, shares a behind the scenes peek of running a company.
Kolkata Chai Co.’s co-founder on the importance of your business's north star.
Joey, co-founder of Baronfig, shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Adena and Chad, owners of Another Lane, on understanding your customers.
Laura, owner of Adventure Cats, shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Benedicte, creator of POW!, discusses sustainability over scale.
Kelli of The Gathering Spot shares a peek at a company’s day-to-day.
Akoto and Lauren, co-founders of Capital B, discuss building customer trust.
Kyle of Totally Good Time shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Listen to the leaders of Real talk about revolutionizing mental healthcare.
Latosha of Proper Gnar shares a behind the scenes peek at running a company.
Jeff, owner of design studio Ugmonk, and a new way of doing business.
Tiffini of Latched and Hooked shares a peek of a business’s day-to-day.
Leah, the COO of Juniper Ridge, discusses sustainable business.
Brandi of Just Add Honey shares a behind the scenes peek of running a company.
Connie, CEO of East Fork, shares how her company defines its own success.