Blog logoMatthew Lang


A 54 post collection

I'm Starting a Newsletter Again, With a Difference​

 •  Filed under Posts, Products

With a rising interest in newsletters, I started one last year. I tried to publish one long-form post a month as well as a collection of links at the end.

I intended to keep this newsletter going through the year, but after a few months, I decided that a newsletter of this kind wouldn’t be of any additional value that my blog couldn’t already provide.

Now I’m also blogging on a daily basis, so there’s no need for such a newsletter, and most likely I’ll never publish a newsletter of this kind again.

The newsletter experiment did not succeed in the way I thought it would, but although I closed the newsletter down, I learned something valuable from the newsletter.

Newsletters themselves are great, but the real value of a newsletter is the niche the newsletter caters to. This niche could be an interest, a topic, a market or anything like that.

This year I’m starting a small side project to build a newsletter aimed at a specific type of organisation who are looking to make more effective use of their digital presence and other tools to help those organisations.

I’m sending out a few invites to sign up for some local organisations that meet this criterion. I’ll then run the newsletter for a few months, collecting feedback on the first few editions. If the feedback is positive, I’ll keep going. If it's terrible, I’ll adjust the content to either suit the feedback or close the newsletter down.

I’ve already got a landing page up and running and I just need to dig into how to send a welcome email to each new sign up. Once done, I’ll be ready to accept sign-ups as they come. I’m not going to market this though until I decide that it has any lasting value as a product.

There are a few added benefits from this experiment.

I get some hands-on experience with running a newsletter using MailChimp. TinyLetter was an ideal service for my previous newsletter, but for this newsletter, I need a few more features like more options for formatting emails and their content.

I can spend a bit of time researching and writing content for the newsletter. I’m budgeting a fixed number of hours a month for this, and in that time I need to have the material ready to send and handle any replies or feedback. A test of time management and improving my writing.

The final benefit is that this is a testbed to a more significant opportunity. I’m using the newsletter to gauge the interest in a range of services that could help a particular market. This newsletter will be the on-ramp to that range of products and services and will determine if there’s any value in them.

I think I’ve found a niche market with this newsletter but only time will tell. I do believe that this will have a better chance of success than my previous attempt at a newsletter, but the only indication of this is whether organisations that sign up for this and find it useful.

Numberless Analytics

 •  Filed under Posts, Ideas, Products

One of the significant problems with social media is that everything has a number against it. Followers, likes, retweets, hearts, comments and many more. Quantity is everything on social media, and yet there are so many people on social media creating content that many of us would like but we never get to see them thanks to timelines that are re-ordered for our so-called benefit.

When Manton Reece opened up last year to the public, I couldn’t find the number of followers that people had. Even one year on, still doesn’t use counts for followers and likes.

Manton explains:

It mirrors a philosophy we have with to launch without follower counts or public likes. Follower counts are not very useful for a new platform. They add anxiety and unavoidably lead to value judgements when considering whether to follow someone, instead of letting the quality of someone’s writing and photos speak for itself.

Don’t worry about the numbers by Manton Reece

I love this approach. Less focus on the numbers and more emphasis on the content.

Recently, I removed all the analytics tracking from my blogs. A crazy move? Maybe, but I would like to think that my time is better served creating more content rather than worrying about how many people are reading it.

I would still like to see what people are reading and what the trending posts are on my blogs. I’m not interested in the numbers though, just what people are reading. And that’s got me wondering about an idea.

A numberless analytics dashboard.

Rather than serving up a dashboard of page views and visitors with numbers everywhere, this would serve up the titles of the posts that people are currently reading. Much in the same way that the trending widget does on Twitter. It would also show the most popular posts for the past month and year.

Terrible idea? It might be, but it's probably not the worst idea in the world and may be worth exploring.

Stay tuned for updates on this.

Hello PenMuse

 •  Filed under Posts, Products

I'm always on the lookout for something different to write about, but some days the nudge just isn't there. I started using my daily themes as writing topics but this can be somewhat repetitive, and it still falls on me to narrow down the theme to a topic that I can write about.

I started looking for writing prompts that fell into the category of my daily themes, but this was another challenge in itself. Frequently it involved digging through the thousands of writing prompts available online across different websites. What the problem with these is that they not usually organised in a way that makes them easy to search through.

I needed a daily random writing prompt but one that was geared towards my daily themes for the day. So I started making one. Here's how it looks so far.

Screenshot of the PenMuse website

The idea is simple. It displays a random writing prompt. If you don't like it, you can generate another one. As a nice tie-in with DailyMuse and my preference towards analogue writing tools, I've called it PenMuse.

Product playground

PenMuse serves a dual-purpose for me. While it does take the guesswork out of what you are going to write about, it also helps a much more significant purpose. It's a product playground.

The idea of this that you have a small service or product that you can use to flex your development skills. While this application doesn't have the complexity of a more significant Rails application, it does allow me to try things out on a smaller scale and it's proved to be helpful already. I'm going to re-design the DailyMuse website with a similar theme.

Plans for the future

There are a few things still missing that I hope to add shortly.

  • Allow people to suggest a writing prompt and give them accreditation when it is displayed.
  • Document the API for other developers to use.
  • Allow people to link to individual writing prompts.
  • Create a weekly PenMuse email that emails you the week's writing prompts ahead of schedule.

One thing that I could do with help on though is writing prompts. There are thousands of writing prompts online, but I don't want to copy these into PenMuse without thought. I want to curate these prompts so that they are easy to find and share.

What do you like to write about? What prompts would you like to see on PenMuse?

Contact me with your suggestions.

The death of web analytics?

 •  Filed under Posts, Products, Analytics

It's been a long time since I stopped using Google Analytics to track the activity on my websites. In its place, I went with a product called Gauges.

On its own Gauges is fine but there hasn't been any new major features for a while now. Sure I pay money for the serivce to continue but it would be nice to see something new in the way of features. It's got me questioning though whether Gauges or even web analytics is still necessary.

Do I need web analytics?

I honestly think the answer to this question is no. Well, let me expand on that answer. I don't need web analytics. I can't speak for others, but let me explain using each of my different websites as examples.

Personal blog

For my personal blog, web analytics is nothing more than a vanity feature. I don't need to see what people are reading on my blog, I don't need to tailor content based on what people like or searching for.

My blog is an outlet for my writing, the topics that I am interested in writing about.

Whether people read it or not is not my main concern.

I write because I want to write. I don't need web analytics here.

DigitalBothy blog

For my freelancing blog things get a bit trickier.

Sure it would be nice to see what people are reading and what is proving to be most popular but my freelancing blog isn't just about giving people something to read. It's about advertising my knowledge of web development.

My blog is also the first step in acquiring potential clients. If a potential client likes what I am writing about and they have a need for a web developer like myself, then what next?

At the moment they can contact me through a form but there needs to be more than just a contact form. I need to be able to contact them back on a regular basis and let them know what's changing in the world of web development. This is where an email list comes in to play.

Despite listening to podcasts and reading many newsletters telling me for years that I need an emailing list for my business, I don't have an emailing list for my business. Crazy I know.

With an email list though I can start to build a way of contacting potential clients and convert them to paying clients through a funnel of more specialised content that is only available through that email list.

Instead of using web analytics and learning nothing about my potential clients, I can use an email list to contact them directly and see what interests them in terms of clicked content within each email campaign.

My freelancing blog is the first step in acquiring a client. While it might be helpful to see which content is proving popular at this step, I don't think that it warrants having web analytics. I'd rather see metrics of what people are clicking through to in the email campaigns that I send out.


For DailyMuse, web analytics is not something that I want to measure.

Sure it's nice that people visit DailyMuse and perhaps even sign up for an account, but the key metric here is whether people use DailyMuse on a daily basis and that means measuring when people login, how many people are signing up for the paid plan and how many people are receiving emails per day or week.

I've already got a minimal dashboard for this cobbled together from user data in DailyMuse, so again, web analytics isn't necessary here.

There are also other plugins and solutions that offer user analytics for products like DailyMuse. This is more interesting because I get to see what user's are doing in my product. I'm not at that level yet and so what I have at the moment will suffice for the time being.

Do I need web analytics then?

So perhaps I don't need web analytics then.

Others might make the case that regardless of the type of website I am running, web analytics is better to have than not at all, but I think I can live without it.

I've justified in each case why I don't need web analytics and what I would use instead. I think in each case it's fair to say that I have alternatives in place that work for me and my own needs.

Web analytics isn't dead then, but I think it has been superseded by other analytic products that offer customers more. It's probably good to have in place if the content of your website is the only way of measuring activity on your website, but even then I would recommend that such a website have an email list as well.

I've used web analytics for a number of years but I think I've used it for so long that I've become complacent with it. It's not the type of activity I need to be looking at. I need to be looking at different forms of activity for different sites and that perhaps is the most important lesson in all this.

There's also the fact that Twitter already offers a sizeable amount of analytics that makes social media interaction much easier to see. If you share your website's content on Twitter, then it's worth looking at your account's analytics dashboard on to see the traffic through your account's recent tweets.

For me though, I'm going to stop using web analytics over the course of this week and instead focus on getting my analytics from elsewhere.

Pro colour schemes

 •  Filed under Posts, Tools, Products

If you see me bashing away at text editor then you'll know that I'm a die hard Solarized fan. In the last few weeks though I've been using the Dracula colour scheme as well just for a little change.

Colour schemes for text editors and other software tools are a personal choice. There are benefits to the carefully thought out schemes like Solarized where you get a balanced set of colours that works in most conditions. That works for me. For other people though, they might just use a set of colours because they like the colours in the scheme. Everyone is different and has their owns reasons for what they like working with.

Over the weekend I read about a new colour scheme called Monokai Pro, which is based on the popular Monokai colours and it's availability as a colour scheme for Sublime Text 3. I installed the package and spent some time with it over the weekend. What's interesting about this colour scheme is that while the package is freely available for Sublime Text 3 to evaluate, it does require a license to use. The license is 10 euros to buy.

I debated with paying the license fee for what is essentially a list of colours, but when you look beyond that you see that the Monokai Pro colour scheme has a lot more to it than a colour scheme for your code.

An example of the Monokai Pro colour scheme

The colour scheme changes the interface of Sublime Text as well and there are a number of settings that allow you to customise how different parts of the Sublime Text user-interface look. A very professional finish.

In the end I decided that it was worth the money to buy a license for the package and bought one on Monday.

The most interesting part of this though is not the colour scheme itself but what it is. Yes it's a package for Sublime Text that people can install, yes it's a list of colours that you can change your interface too but other than that it's also a product, a micro-product if you like. And it's not the first product that I have seen that is marketed towards text editors like Sublime Text 3. A few years back I bought a license for the GitGutter package for Sublime Text and I've been using it ever since.

Just goes to show that products come in all shapes and sizes and shouldn't be discounted because of their feature-set or size when compared with similar "free offerings".

Fall like a thunderbolt

 •  Filed under Posts, Products, Business

I have never read The Art of War, but I've seen this quote enough times mentioned elsewhere (other books, games and of course the Internet) to know that it comes from Sun Tzu's book on military strategy and tactics.

Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

I recently spotted this quote during a gaming session on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered. In between scenes a quote from history appears on the screen.

It got me thinking about the trend towards crowdfunding for products and how transparency is often thought of as a good thing when it comes to building products.

With the recent surge of crowdfunding, you might think that you have to have an idea to tell the world first before it can be successful. It's not always been this way though.

Before Kickstarter, before crowdfunding, before the Internet successful products were built without customers knowing too much about the products until after there were launched.

I wonder if in the light of all this crowdfunding that it's time to consider working on products in a new way? Building the product under the cover of darkness, without the world knowing. Then when it's ready, deliver it to the world. Letting it fall like a thunderbolt.

We live in an age where everything we do is shareable and only a click of way from others knowing what we're doing. It not only applies to what we do in our own time, but also what we do when we're working and that include what we work on.

In some cases it's a good idea to get crowdfunding for a product. You can test the market and get the financial backing before the big push.

Perhaps we might want to consider the opposite as well. If we spent our time working on something without anyone knowing about it, could we capitalise on it and thereby surprise people's expectations?

Evernote - Time to move on?

 •  Filed under Posts, Tools, Products

So apparently Evernote employees now have the ability to read the notes in your Evernote account. There is an opt-out feature in the settings but I wonder how many people will do this?

I started using Evernote when it first came out. Since then I've closed and re-opened my account a number of times. To me Evernote feels bulky and awkward. I've tried to use it a number of times, but each time I find the product too difficult to use. I last tried Evernote just over a year ago. I went for a couple of days before I closed my account again.

Evernote started it's life well as a product but in recent years it has taken a lot of criticism for it's usability, support, pricing and now it's stance on privacy. With the growing criticism you have to wonder if there's life left in the Evernote product and whether it will stand the test of time.

It's starting to look like Evernote has lost its lustre, which is a shame. I know a few people that use it daily to help them run their business.

If I was still an Evernote user today then I would be considering looking at alternatives. I use Simplenote myself for notes and there's also Bear which was named one of Apple's best apps of the year in their App Store.

Whether you're an Evernote user or not, you always have to consider the lifetime of the products you use. It's a small percentage of products that stand the test of time and maintain their status as a wonderful product.

For everything else you have to ensure that if your product of choice folds, you can take your data elsewhere with minimum fuss.