Goodnight Zoom and Charlie Holtz

Bringing joy to isolated seniors and kids during a pandemic

Hi All,

I’m excited to share the first interview from One Year Wiser! This week I spoke with Charlie Holtz, the founder of Goodnight Zoom. Goodnight Zoom pairs isolated seniors with kids for a remote story time. Charlie launched Goodnight Zoom a year ago as a response to the pandemic. It was the #4 product of the day on Product Hunt and he went on to win Product Hunt’s Maker Fest WFH edition. No small feat since “500 makers participated, submitting more than 90 products, and more than 1,700 upvotes helped determine the winner.”

In our conversation, Charlie talks about:

  • How the idea for Goodnight Zoom came about and how the product evolved

  • How early success contributed to him over engineering the product

  • His customer acquisition strategy for what is essentially a two sided marketplace

  • And, whether every side project has to be the next billion dollar idea.

Here is my conversation with Charlie Holtz, founder of Goodnight Zoom:

You launched Goodnight Zoom in March of last year and it seemed like it was essentially a response to the pandemic and that people were isolated. Did you have any specific metrics or goals in mind when you launched?

Charlie Holtz: So I think our launching story is going to be a little different than others in that I put very minimal effort into this launch. The back story is that in March of 2020 I had a month off in between jobs and I wanted to learn React and part of learning React was putting together a landing page. So, while I was learning React from YouTube videos, I was at, I think it was a family dinner. We were talking about the pandemic and seniors and one thing led to another. And we were like, OK, wait, what about a way to match seniors with kids for storytime? So I decided to just put together this landing page and add a couple of screenshots to it.

When I was thinking of where to market it, the first thing that came to mind was Product Hunt. This was actually my first Product Hunt launch ever and I spent very little time trying to optimize it or overthink it. I actually think that's a pretty good lesson I learned and it goes a little bit contrary to what I've seen. There's so much content out there about optimizing your Product Hunt, or Hacker News launch, like what your title should be, what time of day, whether your picture should be static or a GIF, etc. So I did almost none of that and I ended up getting, I think, number four product for the day and then a couple of weeks later, winning the Product Hunt Maker Fest with seventeen hundred votes. I think part of the product’s initial success was good timing, but I think people like a clear product idea that’s simple and easy to understand. Just put it out there and don't overthink everything else. 

Got it. It sounds like you are saying by not over optimizing your launch your product came across as more genuine, people felt that genuineness and they responded positively to it? 

CH: Yeah, I think so. Like at least when I go on Product Hunt and I see these products that have these well produced marketing videos and whatever, it kind of rubs me the wrong way. I don't know, it doesn't feel like a real person or a real thing.

Let’s talk about how your product’s evolved since launch day. You said you had only built a landing page. Did all it have was a signup form for people to show their interest in the product? 

CH: Yeah, the first version was to see if people would sign up for this. It was essentially a landing page that went to a database. At the end of every day, I would run a SQL statement to print out all the emails and names, then copy that into a CSV, put that into MailChimp, and then batch email people a Google form that asked their availability and whether they were a parent or a senior, along with a little bit of information about them. It was not good, it was not efficient and it was a big time suck every day. I then added the actual MailChimp form into the website so I wouldn't have to manually send the Google form. But basically, it was a Google form that went to a Google sheet, and that's how I would organize the story times.

So essentially you were doing the matching by hand and then emailing out the scheduled times?

CH: Exactly and I was also trying to do a call with every single person who I would match because I wanted to make sure they weren't a serial killer. If people are trusting me to set them up or their three year-old kid for storytime, I really don't want something creepy to happen. So that was definitely my top priority.

What’s helped me is to churn out a lot of ideas and launch them before I think they're ready. Basically, make it embarrassing. Goodnight Zoom 1.0 was embarrassing. It was me learning React and a landing page that didn't integrate with anything, but, the truth is no one cares about your tech stack. No one cares about how complicated the engineering is. People were perfectly fine filling out a Google form. The barest bones version works fine and often works better than an over complicated solution. 

How has your product evolved from that manual process?

CH: So it started out the very manual process, then I added the Google Form and the MailChimp integration, and then I over-engineered it. My vision for the product was Uber for story time. If you're a parent, you could open up Goodnight Zoom on a Wednesday at 7 p.m. and click schedule story time and then it matches you to a senior storyteller the same way Uber finds you a driver.

I definitely over engineered and built basically a feed of people and their profiles with pictures and times they were free. I also found a video chat API called Daily.co and I replaced the manual Zoom calls with this API to create a new video chat session. Long story short, I over-engineered it. It was also getting very complicated and it was taking more work to maintain it and deal with requests and confusion from users. 

So now the way matching works is that when people sign up, they go through a Typeform and it asks them when they can do a screening call with me or my girlfriend, or one of my friends who is helping out. We just do a 15 minute call with them, make sure that they're nice and normal. Then I reach out to seniors to see who can do the preferred time. I now have an email list of seniors and nursing homes that I regularly reach out. 

As an aside, a pretty good lesson I learned here is that there are so many startups that offer very generous free tiers. It's kind of almost a joke how much free stuff you can build your product on. Daily.co is a great example, my entire video service is running on this third party and I haven't paid them, ever, in the past year. Now that's partly because Goodnight Zoom isn't big, but also partly because these third parties are just really generous. 

Was there a specific moment when you realized you had over-engineered it and you had to rethink it?

CH: I don't think so. My vision for engineering it that way was that I would be able to scale faster and move from doing 10 story times a week to 10 times a day, but that wasn't really happening. In addition, it meant that there was a lot for me to coordinate. In some ways, my engineering approach made it a lot harder to handle because there were a lot more users and I didn't know if I could trust them or not. Also, people didn't really want to be randomly assigned to someone to read them a story. They wanted it to be curated and someone to tell them, “this is a good match for you.” I could have it programmed it to delay matches or something, but in general it all got too complicated.

With that in mind, what are your goals? Where do you expect the product to be a year from now? 

CH: A couple of thoughts about this. So my first response is, I don't really know. There are a couple of sides to this product, on the one hand, this is a service that helps isolated seniors because it gives them a moment to do something fun, interesting, and social. But it's also something for kids, especially kids who are learning to read or not as confident in their reading skills. It’s a helpful and constructive experience for them to read to someone. So there's two sides of the product and one of the key things to grow and scale it would be to narrow down my focus a bit. I haven't really decided which side of that I want to focus on.

It also isn't really a business. It costs me around $50 a month to keep it running. Something I really want to stress and something I wish I had seen more of or someone had told me about is not every side project has to be the next billion dollar idea. It's totally fine for Goodnight Zoom to be a service that connects families every week for 30 minutes to an hour of story time and just adds a little bit of happiness to the world. 

When I launched on Product Hunt it got a lot of attention. Suddenly I had hundreds of people signing up, I had investors reaching out, I had these important people emailing me. There was even an email telling me that the CEO of Zoom had heard about Goodnight Zoom. Everything was happening so fast and I thought, ok, this is going to be a real startup. I am going to apply to Y Combinator. This is going to be a billion dollar idea. But what I’ve learned is that it’s okay for it to not be a billion dollar idea. I'm open to ideas of how to scale it, make it a real business, or a more legitimate, but also I'm at peace with it just existing to create some joy in the world.

I've also met so many cool, interesting people across the world. Take this storyteller named Maha, who's a beekeeper living in southern China. He is awesome. To meet someone like him through this random thing I built and put out there is so cool. Also there's this guy, Dan, who used to be a comic book illustrator for Marvel and he was just taking some time out of every week to read to some kids. It’s so cool that these people are out there and happy to do this without expecting to get paid.

The way you're talking about it is that your focus is bringing joy and making the world a better place, in the truest sense of the phrase. It’s become a cliche for a startup to say they are making the world a better place, but you're actually doing that and I’m sensing that you have some hesitation and concern that inserting a financial transaction into the middle of the product will take away from that.

CH: Totally and that's something that I don't think gets talked about very much. There's definitely a pressure to make a product scale really fast or at least to make it financially viable. Even if you don't want to do a VC funded startup and you want to be an indie hacker, there's still a pressure that if you're spending a lot of time on a side project then it needs to produce income for you. And I think it's fine if it doesn't. But, I’m open to ideas.

Let’s talk about customer acquisition. You have a two sided marketplace which comes with challenges since you have to acquire two types of customers or users. In your Product Hunt post last year, you mentioned you were starting to talk with some nursing homes as a way to quickly acquire the senior side of the marketplace. What have you found to be the most effective acquisition strategy to be?

CH: This is something that's obvious in retrospect, but it's good to market your product where your users actually are. When people are starting a side project, Product Hunt and Hacker News or Reddit, jump out as the first places to go, but that's often not where your users actually are. So when I launched Product Hunt was great for getting a lot of parents quickly, but terrible for getting seniors.

To find seniors I called a ton of senior homes and told them about Goodnight Zoom. Most expected me to be a salesperson and when I told them no, it’s free and I’m doing it for fun they were really open to it. Especially early on in the pandemic. Most said it would be too complicated, but a couple every now and then were really excited and their seniors had already been taught how to use Zoom.

A lot of the growth has been word of mouth. For example, we had a lot of success with a senior home in Tulsa. It’s a home for seniors with dementia and their staff hosted the Zoom call and four or five seniors would join and the kids would read to the seniors. The word of mouth came from the families of the seniors who found out about this great experience they had and spread the word. So once I got enough traction through reaching out directly to senior homes, it's literally all word of mouth. I've never done a paid ad. I've never even really tried to do more than word of mouth.

What really helped my word of mouth is that Goodnight Zoom is kind of unusual and it's generally not something everyone would want to do. It's a little bit of like a niche experience. I think most side projects should be neat and unusual. I initially heard that on an Indie Hackers podcast, the guy who started Flexbox Zombies, said it’s important to make something unusual and unique. I think Goodnight Zoom is unique enough that people want to talk about it and that really helps with word of mouth.

Is there anything else you want to share about your experience over the past year?

CH: I still think the main lesson is that it’s totally fine for a side project to not make money and for it to even cost you money, as long as it adds a little bit of happiness and value to the world. I think that sums up my Goodnight Zoom experience. It's been a surprising amount of work and it costs me money, but at least so far, I think it's been worth it.

The other thing is I learned React so much faster doing this than if I had taken an online course. For example, I'm now really into Phoenix, Phoenix LiveView, and Elixir and I’m working on a new project called Shlinkedin. It's like a satirical version of LinkedIn. Basically my roommate and I got so sick of seeing all the content marketing on LinkedIn, so this is our rebuttal and it's a satirical social network, everything on it is satire. It's a fun side project and I've learned Elixir and Phoenix so much faster doing this than I would have otherwise. Learning via projects that you actually put out into the world is definitely the highest speed and value ratio you can get. Even if it feels like you shouldn't be putting it out there and maybe in retrospect, I’ll look back and say, it wasn't production ready, but I still think it's worth it because it forces you to learn so fast.

Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me. Where can people go to learn more about you?

CH: I really should update my personal website. They can follow me on Twitter, @charliebholtz. I’m going to start tweeting more. I'm really not good at marketing myself just yet, but maybe this will be a good instigator for that. They can check out my personal website, charlieholtz.com