Turning Thirty: Story of My Life

Today I’m turning 30, and I’m thrilled to share this milestone with you. Unlike previous birthdays, this one feels somewhat dramatic.

As something special, I decided to write down my bio. I’ve done many interviews, but there’s rarely an opportunity to share details. So I’m stealing the spotlight today! You’ll learn about my childhood, my first dozen jobs, and why Jane Portman isn’t my real name.

Image credit: Animeyed (Self-Portraits) by Flora Borsi. You should check out all portraits, they’re amazing.

Early Years

I was born thirty years ago in the city of Voronezh, Russia. My parents stopped living together when I was about five, so I was raised by my mom on her own — a pretty common story. We had a great childhood together with my younger brother (he’s a rocket-scientist-smart iOS developer, ping me if you need an intro). We played together, read a lot of books, and did a lot of fighting — until he grew up and became obviously stronger than me.

There was very little money, but our mom went out of her way to develop us as intelligent human beings. That included a ton of additional home-taught math throughout the school — which was fun and allowed us to do well at school and in competitions. I also took extra English classes (“English club”) three times a week, from 2nd to 10th grade.

In high school I focused on math and physics, and was obsessed with getting A’s in all other classes as well. Excellent grades were probably a way to compensate for a lack of fancy clothes. We also never had a computer at home until I was 17, even though we had programming at school and I was dreaming of one.

American High School

When I was 16, I won a scholarship with Future Leaders Exchange (FLEX) program (run by the U.S. Department of State through funding from the Freedom Support Act, now sadly discontinued). It was huge! Without my parents paying a single penny, I had a chance to spend a whole year living in the U.S. in a host family and studying in a local high school.

They assigned me to live in upstate South Carolina, and the language learning curve was tough. I could easily write a college-level essay, but had trouble understanding basic everyday phrases. In addition to that, on my very first morning of school I landed on a super-dirty seat in a bus which hadn’t been used (and cleaned) the entire summer.

Did dirty jeans give me extra confidence? You bet!

I signed up for several art and design classes, and they were very refreshing after the hard-core science and math in Russia. I’ve always had a soft spot for arts, especially typography and hand-lettering, but I’ve never had time to even think about it seriously. Now I had plenty of time, since other classes were a breeze.

That’s when I first tried Photoshop — they would accept computer-generated images as assignments. So I played with Photoshop and some HTML at night, almost every night, finally having a PC at my disposal! I even won a few local design competitions with my graphics, including $300 in a poster contest on youth pregnancy prevention. This seemed like a ton, combined with my $125 monthly pocket money.

My First Dozen Jobs

When I came back, there was a bit of backwards adjustment. But it was nice! Previously a typical nerd, now I was a well-dressed trendy girl who just returned from the United States! I had to go back to high school (effectively losing one year) but it was a fair trade-off.

In the summer of my return from the U.S. (2004) I got a job as a junior designer at a local agency. I felt on top of the world, and I didn’t want to stop. I was 17, and finally able to make my own money!

During the following years, I took on extra jobs and side gigs, leveraging all possible skills:

  • Various gigs as a freelance designer
  • Private tutor of English
  • Translator of technical documents and fiction
  • Live interpreter for business negotiations
  • Waitress (waiting tables in New York City during the summer in 2006 and 2007)
  • Jewelry CAM manager (hiring 3D-artists and organizing 3D-printing of jewelry mockups)

College Years & Getting Married

The jobs described above happened during the college years. I was lucky (or was it years of hard study?) to get admitted to a trendy faculty in our state university. My program took 5 years (in-between Bachelor’s and Master’s degree) and my major was “Software Development in the Legal Field.”

It meant amazing classic education, 50% studying law and 50% studying programming. This made me a well-rounded human being, and brought me several lifetime friends. However, I didn’t choose any of these professions as my career. Today I call myself a non-coding designer, because all this knowledge is very high-level and doesn’t help much in real life.

In the end of 2008 I got married to my high-school friend, quickly and happily (we shared a desk back in the 11th grade). That was our 4th year of college. Ever since we grew together as a happy family, and now have two wonderful boys. My husband runs his own construction design company, and we always have business topics to discuss — even though he doesn’t work in the IT industry.

Agency Work

Remember my first job as a junior designer in 2004? I stayed with the same agency until 2012, first working during summer and winter holidays, then part-time, and later transitioning into full-time in the 3rd year of college. My brother joined the same agency around the same time.

By 2012 I grew into the creative director of this agency, leading a team of designers and illustrators. These were fantastic and challenging years! It was amazing to have all these resources and people on hand, and to build grandiose things.

I’m incredibly grateful to the director of this agency, who was brave to hire a 17-year-old and give her a chance.

Solo Consulting

In March 2012 my first son was born, and that’s where I usually start my interviews.

I spent a couple months baking pies and enjoying quiet family life. (I should mention that Russia has amazing social support for mothers. You can stay home for 18 months retaining 50–70% of your salary, and they’ll hold your place for up to 3 years if you want.)

Then I thought, maybe it’s time to do some work? But I didn’t want to go back to the agency turmoil. I just wanted to peacefully do my best work.

So I decided to leverage my English and explore the online job market. I was very confident in the actual UI/UX skills, so the question was — how do I find clients? I spent a year testing waters at oDesk, figuring out the process, making decent income by doing a lot of work. That’s how I realized there’s no big money there (and not too many great clients).

Here’s a life-changing article by Patrick McKenzie that turned my world around. I set out for a big consulting journey.

Sidenote: did you know that Jane Portman is not my real name? I made up a creative alias because I didn’t want anyone (particularly the director of my agency) to accidentally find what I’m doing online. Also, from my American experience I knew that Russian names make people uncomfortable — because they’re long and clumsy.

My Consulting & Product Journey

Thanks to Authority by Nathan Barry I decided to start with a book. In 2013 I was expecting my second son, and decided to spend the last pregnancy months doing something useful. So the book launch date was pretty straightforward: I had to ship it before my son was born in October.

And so I did it! Mastering App Presentation made very little money, but it served as a beautiful starting point for meeting people, getting new clients, and establishing myself as authority. If you’re curious, in these naive blog post series I describe the process.

The book got everything rolling fast and exciting (not without a lot of work, though). Here are the major products and milestones that happened afterwards:

  • April 2014 — my first MicroConf in Vegas, where I made many great friends. We went with our 6-month-old son, and my husband was strolling him to the Bellagio Fountains and back while I was listening to the talks (so that I can feed the baby).
  • April 2014 — launched Correlation, my monthly creative direction service which became popular in the wave of productized consulting. Monthly retainer — that’s how I made consulting money the next year and then some.
  • October 2014 — gave my first talk at MicroConf Europe in Prague.
  • October 2014 — started UI Breakfast Podcast (which is now huge and counts 53 episodes).
  • March 2015 — wrote my second book for InVision called Fundamental UI Design(published later on that year as a free course). This course multiplied my audience, and it’s still being promoted on regular basis.
  • July 2015 — faced a burn-out and quit consulting (to return later in the end of the year).
  • March 2016 — launched my third book, The UI Audit, which made over $14,000 in sales as of today.
  • October 2016 — started my own SaaS called Tiny Reminder, a tool that sends automated notifications when you need something from a busy client.

You can learn about all the details in my end-of-year reviews: 201420152016.

Key Takeaways

Traditionally, I like to include a few takeaways. What lessons can you use in your own work and life?

Study English. It takes time, but opens up global opportunities for everyone.

Write. Even though I’m a designer, writing is the second most important skill. You’ve got to express your thoughts.

Dare to make money. This world is made for us! It has never ending opportunities for those who dare.

Being famous doesn’t come naturally. I worked hard to become a little bit “internet famous” — do you think that’s a natural consequence of design skills? Not at all. It takes writing, work, knocking on many doors, traveling, and anything else that a typical designer never does.

Your childhood does not define you. Or maybe it does, but it does not prescribe a certain life path. You’re the only master of your own destiny.

Goals for the Next Ten Years

I don’t like long-term plans because life is so unpredictable and interesting. But I like the idea of continuous improvement and evolution. I love to grow and nurture my brand and my skills. And I hope that the next 10 years will bring more of that.

Two years ago we did an exercise in Philadelphia with Amy Hoy and a few good friends. It was to describe your ideal situation you’re striving for. And here’s what I’m striving for, ranging from work to personal:

  • I’d like to have my own SaaS product which pays for my desired lifestyle and then some (but not necessarily millions). I’d like that product to genuinely help a large number of people do better work.
  • I’d like to have a tiny awesome well-paid team to run operations for me.
  • I’d like to stay public by traveling, speaking, writing, sharing knowledge, and occasionally consulting.
  • I’d like to stay close with my existing friends and make new ones.
  • I’d like everyone in my family to be healthy, wealthy, and happy.

That doesn’t involve diamonds and furs, but it involves plenty of awesome work and definitely some money. Hope the universe stays loyal to my aspirations.

Thank You for Reading This

Thank you so much for taking the time and going with me on this journey! I hope it brings you some inspiration, or at least serves as an interesting story to accompany your morning cup of coffee.

Good luck in your own pursuit of happiness!

How to Automate Onboarding for Your Podcast

Some podcast hosts think that automation makes guest interactions less personal. I see their point! But both my guests and myself are busy people. Automation speeds up the process, eliminates email exchange, and prevents both parties from forgetting things (which happens all the time). Also, I’ve been getting plenty of compliments about such professional setup.

I’ve been running UI Breakfast Podcast for years. I enjoy interviewing people. I love finding new guests and figuring out useful topics. But what about the rest of the crazy workflow? In this article, I’ll show you how to automate your podcast onboarding in a few simple steps.

UI Practicum #11. Real-Life UI Audit Example: BuzzSumo

Today I’m sharing a custom UI audit report for BuzzSumo — a popular analytics tool for content marketers. I’ve always admired their product success story, and did a little dance when they asked me for UI/UX help.

There’s one question I get more often than others: “Jane, do you have an example audit report you created for one of your clients?” I’ve always been sharing examples in a private conversation, but publishing one to a wide audience seemed uncomfortable. But finally I mustered up my courage — and also received a permission from several clients.

BuzzSumo audit is a great example when some hands-on work explains the improvements better than any words. Please read on for the tools and the method, the actual PDF download, and the tips for running a UI audit for your own clients.

The Tools

I’ve tried a few methods of delivering UI audit reports. Each of them has its own cons and pros — maybe one day I’ll write a detailed overview of them. Long story short: these days I’m either shipping an illustrated PDF report (written in Markdown first), or writing directly in Dropbox Paper. I’m starting to like Paper more, because it’s beautiful and allows to exchange in-place comments with the client.

You can also use specific software like Capian — here’s a podcast episode where we talked with their founder Jean-Michel Lacroix.

For the hands-on design part, I’m using Sketch — it’s been my tool of choice for the last two years.

The Method

I’m following my own method described in The UI Audit book. This method focuses on key tasks and calls-to-action in each screen. However, custom audits are called “custom” for a reason — I’m also commenting on dozens of other things.

For each area of the app, I’m including an original screenshot of the app and pointing out potential problems. Then (if it’s a premium package) I’m including my own redesigned screen, and commenting on the improvements.

Download the Report

Please click here to download the full audit report (PDF, 23 pages).

Practicum

If you decided to do a UI/UX audit for your own client, here’s a sequence of steps to follow. Hope this helps to bring more value to your clients!

  1. Pick a tool for documenting the audit (but don’t think too hard).
  2. Explore the web application and decide which screens deserve the most attention.
  3. Take screenshots for these screens. Multiple free browser add-ons are available for that.
  4. Follow the process with key tasks and calls-to-action — I’ve described it in the bookand in the free course (attention existing subscribers: you won’t be able to join the course again, so email me if you want access).
  5. Document any other problems you see with each screen. Strive for maximum clarity.
  6. End the document with a friendly overview, and a brief high-level roadmap for future work.

UI Breakfast Year in Review 2017

The new year is around the corner, and it’s time to pause and self-reflect. This year was very productive: I did plenty of consulting, grew my podcast, published another book, sold my SaaS product, and started a new one.

Read on for details! You can also take a look at the reports from 20142015, and 2016.

Consulting

Consulting was great. I helped nine SaaS companies redesign ten existing web applications and build one new product, not to mention strategy calls and smaller gigs. This year brought some great names like BuzzSumo — here’s their custom UI audit, published as a case study.

Working closely with so many SaaS businesses helped me learn a lot this year: both as a consultant and as a founder. My overall revenue grew as well — due to the increased consulting volume, more product sales, and podcast sponsorships.

UI Breakfast Podcast

It was a fantastic year for UI Breakfast Podcast. I doubled down on quality of the guest lineup, and was religiously consistent (with only a few breaks for travel). As a result, 42 episodes were published this year, collecting a massive number of downloads. The number of weekly downloads for each new episode grew from about 2,000 to 3,500–4,000.

The chart below shows how the downloads have grown over time from the very first days. Checking the podcast stats gave me a lot of happy moments this year!

Podcast Downloads in 2017

I also started accepting sponsorships. It worked out great, and gave me another reason for shipping consistently. I’d love to give Balsamiq an honorable mention: they’re one of the most generous design companies out there.

Mailing List

UI Breakfast mailing list remains my most precious business asset, and I work hard to treat my subscribers with respect and send out quality content.

The list size hasn’t grown dramatically this year, since I haven’t done any active promotions: it lingers around 8,000 subscribers. There’s a nice number of organic subscribers, balanced with unsubscribes from each campaign.

This year I set up Sunday Breakfast — a weekly autoresponder sequence for the new subscribers. They get three pieces of my best content every Sunday for 11 weeks after they join. It helps them learn more about my ecosystem, and allows me to showcase the best content from the archives.

I didn’t publish too many articles this year — only two new issues of UI Practicum — but I don’t feel guilty about it. Most of my writing was in other formats, such as the new book.

Your Productized Consulting Guide

Your Productized Consulting Guide

Productized consulting has been my favorite topic for many years. Having amassed a lot of practical knowledge — and warmed up by a successful talk on the topic at DYFConf Europe — I felt a strong urge to share it with freelancers and consultants out there. The book was supposed to be a quick win, written and published fast. However, after I launched pre-orders on August 1, different things kept happening and preventing me from sitting down to write it.

I pulled myself together and launched Your Productized Consulting Guide on December 21. So far it has made about $3,000 (including pre-orders). I’m looking to sell more of it next year: not even because of money, but to spread the word and help people find their best way in client work.

Tiny Reminder

My main goal for 2017 was launching and growing Tiny Reminder to $5k in MRR. Here’s what happened. I launched Tiny Reminder on January 12, and the launch went amazing: it felt like the entire community got together to support my new product. During the first half of the year I was doing active promotion and collecting new free users (I quickly changed to a freemium model after the launch).

Initially I was very excited about the product idea and had high hopes for the virality of the product. But not only was I not experiencing rapid growth — the new users almost never converted to paid. From my experience, that means a lack of product-market.

I wasn’t sure what to do next. The product was good, but too broad to be super-useful to a specific audience. I was essentially violating my own favorite product advice! The product category was new and people weren’t searching for a tool like that. And I didn’t feel like a marketing rockstar either.

In the end of August I got an offer from one well-known company to acquire Tiny Reminder. We quickly agreed on a nice number, but this acquisition didn’t go anywhere (and the process took 3 months). However, I’m still very grateful for this offer. It turned my thinking upside down, giving me liberation to not move forward. It also caused a splash of inspiration for a new product — more on that later.

In the middle of December I sat down, reconciled all pros and cons, asked my senior friends for advice, and decided to sell Tiny Reminder to someone (preferably from our community) who’s more excited to grow it.

As I’m writing this, we’re working with the awesome new founders — Nathan Powell and Michael Koper of Nusii — to take over the product and make the public announcement. They’re very excited to keep improving and growing Tiny Reminder, because their proposal tool targets the same audience. I couldn’t wish for better new hands!

Userlist.io

Liberated with the acquisition news in September, my brain started buzzing with new product ideas. Starting the second time is easier than the first, plus I knew exactly what mistakes to avoid.

While starting out with Tiny Reminder, I was looking for a tool to manage my users and send action-based emails and in-app messages. I was surprised about the way most analytics tools dealt with users: making the profiles entirely faceless. Just having a transparent user list (with names, emails and some activity) turned out to be a problem — Intercom was the only tool that I could find. But Intercom seemed a bit clumsy and also outrageously expensive.

That’s how I came up with the idea for Userlist.io. The idea wasn’t new exactly, which is a good thing. I quickly registered the domain name and started recruiting co-founders. With Tiny Reminder, I had to pay hard-earned cash to build every new feature. It was a great “sanity check” against building a Frankenstein product, but felt very limiting. I also needed someone for marketing, it just isn’t my strongest skill.

I got extremely lucky: the people I wanted the most said yes. My co-founders are Benedikt Deicke as the CTO (he is the one who built Tiny Reminder for me), and Claire Suellentropas the Chief Marketing Officer (she was previously the Director of Marketing and employee #2 at Calendly, which speaks for itself).

What’s so exciting about Userlist.io:

  • It’s an essential tool that every SaaS business needs (not a productivity vitamin).
  • Once you set it up, you’re unlikely to switch.
  • It’s strictly a B2B tool.
  • It serves the amazing founder community that we know and belong to.
  • Email automation is a well-known existing niche (much better than inventing a market from scratch).
  • The tool name is very SaaS-specific, yet flexible to allow for new features.
  • There’s a dedicated co-founder doing marketing and customer research — such a relief!
  • There’s a technical co-founder, which means we can implement everything in-house without funding.
  • All three of us come from the same ecosystem and share the same business values.

Our ambitious goal is to reach $5k MRR by the end of the year, but realistically we aren’t expecting hockey-stick growth from day one. Having all the success factors in place, we’re set for an amazing long journey. Claire has already interviewed 12 founders during the research phase, and we’re planning to launch the beta version early in 2018.

Productivity

Here’s a secret: I’m a seasoned procrastinator. Or maybe I’m a sensitive human being who gets easily shaken by various circumstances and needs time to recover. Whatever it is, it comes with plenty of guilt attached, even though I did embrace such “waves of productivity” long ago.

As an experienced design professional, I’m fast and efficient at work — if I make myself sit down and get started. It helps with client deadlines, but doesn’t help too much with my own products.

I’ve been in the productive mode many times this year, including the final push in the end of December, so I’m still happy with the outcome. But I’m not 100% at peace with such daily drama; I’m secretly hoping for a magic cure. My friend Kai Davis mentioned The 12 Week Year as one of his favorite books. But no strict system has ever worked for me, even though I admire focus mentors like Shawn Blanc and everyone who wakes up at 6am. Maybe I just need to find inner peace about it.

Turning Thirty

I turned thirty in March, and this number felt like a major milestone: wrapping up tender youth and entering “serious” adult life. Very melancholic. To self-reflect and celebrate, I wrote a huge blog post with the story of my life. Sharing this moment with my friends and readers was a great pleasure!

Conferences & Vacations

  • February 10–12 — FemtoConf in Darmstadt (video)
  • May 18–19 — The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam
  • June 16–19 — Double Your Freelancing Conference in Stockholm, Sweden (slides)
  • June 28–30 — Bootstrap Tokyo, a retreat in Tokyo, Japan (mindblowing sushi!)
  • November — MicroConf Europe in Lisbon, Portugal (slides)

This year brought just the perfect amount of travel, three conference talks, and a lot of pleasure from meeting friends around the world. We also spent this year living in the south of Russia, which meant trips to the beach every weekend for the entire summer, and exciting field trips all year long.

The Next Web Conference in Amsterdam was the only one disappointing: beautifully organized, but very impersonal, hundreds of enterprise teams sticking together. Other events were fantastic — once again proving that small size is the best.

Lifestyle & Family

My husband is growing his own engineering company (30+ people), and we find pleasure in sharing business matters with each other. Our two sons are now 4 and 5.5, we’re getting ready for school, and things are going well in the family. The kids have become much more autonomous: they now play PlayStation, learn to read and write, and do other awesome things.

This fall we all made a major step forward in health and fitness — like massage, kinesiology, a personal trainer, etc. I’m hoping to make more progress there in 2018.

Goals for 2018

This year was productive, but much more relaxed and focused than 2016 (the year of speaking frenzy and unstoppable content production). That’s a good trend. The goals for 2018 are even more straightforward:

  • Launch Userlist.io and start growing it
  • Do some consulting
  • Keep publishing UI Breakfast Podcast
  • Go to at least 3 conferences
  • Exercise and take care of my body

Key Takeaways from 2017

Be a specialist. As founders, we wear multiple hats — because we can, and because it saves us resources. In this rat race we often forget that the most precious resource is our time and energy. Sometimes it’s better to focus on your most valuable skills — what you do best! — and delegate the rest to co-founders or employees. Learn to buy back your time in all areas of your life.

Ask for advice. You might know your business better, but sometimes you’re perfectly incapable of seeing obvious solutions from the inside. Whenever in doubt, seek advice from friends or consultants. Don’t just ask for general feedback — ask for critique or specific recommendations.

Don’t be afraid to quit. There’s always a way out of any situation. Persistence is great, but find time to evaluate your results (and your feelings) once in a while.

Work with humans. Working with big companies can bring amazing acceleration, but it’s much more pleasant to work with partners of your scale. Deal with people who have genuine interest in your product. Do business your own way — human, transparent, and reliable. You’re not alone sharing these values!

Thank You for Reading This

Dear friends, thank you for reading to the end: maybe some lessons will be useful for your business. Hope the new year brings you energy, good health, peace of mind, focus, and amazing professional growth!

Best regards,
Jane

The Chicken or the Egg? Explaining Our Early Product Design Decisions at Userlist.io

“You need to get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

This was the blunt feedback one of our early adopters gave us during his onboarding call.

As co-founders, we’d spent the past several months doing customer research for Userlist.io, collecting a round of pre-orders, and using our findings to build a very raw MVP. Now, we were finally ready to invite our first few customers into the product.

But when the time came for onboarding calls, we hemmed and hawed — all three of us nervous about showing people real, actual product screens, and answering tough questions about the MVP’s core features.

But in the end, it turned out that our early adopter was right. We took his advice — we showed him the actual product, got deep into a features discussion, and lo and behold: he walked away so eager to come on board!

This article is a continuation of that sharing process: below, we’ll explain our product decisions and show our progress to everyone, not just those who pre-ordered.

To recap, here are the initial core features of the app that customers can expect:

  1. Managing the user list and tracking each individual user journey.
  2. Sending automated email messages based on user behavior.
  3. Sending email broadcasts (like newsletters or announcements).

Now, I’ll walk you through the key screens and explain some of our product decisions. Our design choices were largely based on customer research, but also on my own experience with other email automation tools.

Disclaimer: these are merely design layouts which represent our current product vision. Since the core part of our strategy is promptly acting on user feedback, virtually anything is subject to change at any time.

User list

User list at Userlist.io

The heart of the product is the user list — hence the name. This simple admin panel allows SaaS founders (our customers) to see who exactly their users are, with names and key details like LTV or plan information.

One of the early frustrations with my previous SaaS product was the lack of such a user list. When I launched the beta version of that product, I realized that there was no UI to see my new users (unless I wanted to build a custom admin dashboard, which comes with a development cost). And my analytics tools only showed faceless data with session IDs! As a result, I opted for Intercom, but I can still remember that feeling — not being able to monitor such obvious information was frustrating.

  • The columns can be customized to include properties specific for your business. For this sample customer, a fake company called Sparkle.io, it’s the number of projects that we want to see at a glance.
  • It was important to make this table full width, so the filters are on top instead of being arranged in a side panel. Lack of horizontal space in tables can drive laptop owners crazy!

From the user list, the founder can navigate to each individual profile. Let’s see what these profiles look like. […]

Start Here: Your Essential Content Guide

My dear friend, here’s a curated list of content organized by topic. I put it together for you, so that you can learn the essentials of our business ecosystem without paying top dollar for expensive training.

It starts with my own books and talks, and continues with other resources organized by topic. Note: I only include resources that are either free or very affordable.

My Books

Important Personal Posts

My Conference Talks

My Podcast Appearances

UI/UX Design

Freelancing & Consulting

Startups & Product Development

Copywriting & Publishing

Outreach & Marketing

Podcasting

Conferences & Mastermind Groups

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