Not a Designer

Saron Yitbarek
Saron Yitbarek

Saron Yitbarek shares insights on the importance of 'learning in public', testing business ideas and the rise of newsletters in the web development industry. She discusses her entrepreneurial journey, including the product validation phase, fundraising, struggles with product engagement, and eventual pivot to newsletter development.

Saron illustrates the importance of audience ownership and direct idea sharing through newsletters. Starting under a company research project with her newsletter "Not a Designer", Saron managed to reach 1,000 subscribers in a month. This success, she state, showed the importance of not just achieving milestones, but enjoying the creation process itself.

Saron emphasizes that 'learning in public' with both successes and failures of the creative process can cultivate career resilience and valuable connections. Starting a newsletter or creating content on social media platforms could ultimately help improve skills, build networks and buffer against the uncertainties of the world.

In the ever-evolving web development industry, Saron recommends embracing public learning as a way to navigate changes, prepare for shifting landscapes, and shield careers from uncertainties.

Share this talk with your friends


Alright, so it was October of last year when I decided to look into newsletters for my

startup. I'd seen newsletters grow in popularity over the years, to the point where they had become features on existing social media platforms. Did you know that you could start a LinkedIn newsletter? If you send an email, it'll go straight to the inbox of your audience.

Now I knew that this phenomenon was infectious, and I was excited to get in on it. I wanted in. You see, for two and a half years, I've... Oh man. That's going to be my little dance move right here. Just plug and unplug.

You see, for the past two and a half years, I'd been stuck in a rut. It all started with a seemingly bright idea to sell audio courses that I'd come up with in business school class.

It would be called Disco. But I didn't want to jump into it right away. I wanted to test the idea. I want to go on a couple of dates first. So I decided to create a landing page where I could take pre-orders for my... Oh man. Okay.


Landing page where I could take pre-orders for my courses. I was hoping to sell 100 pre-orders in just three weeks. And in that short time, with the help of some social media, I ended up selling about 500 pre-orders and generated $10,000 in revenue. With that validation in my pocket, I was ready to start building.

But building meant hiring. Meant hiring. Let's try again. Meant... There we go. Meant hiring. I needed producers to create the content. I'm a web dev, so I can build the web app, but I needed mobile devs to build the mobile

app, which means that I needed money. So I went out to raise some venture capital. I set a goal to raise a pre-seed round of just $500,000 in three short months. This was late 2020, and my timing was impeccable.

Because of the pandemic, it meant that I didn't have to leave my living room to do pitches. I was pitching to investors dozens at a time each week in between business school lectures. Because of Clubhouse, remember them, back in the day? Audio was hot. Audio was the space to be.

Every investor was looking for their audio play. And because my startup was in audio, but also my career was in audio, I was in a really good position. My first company, CodeNewbie, was primarily about podcasting. I launched multiple successful shows with millions of downloads.

This was founder market fit. And besides all that, there was the fact that this wasn't my first time. I was already a successful founder with an exit under my belt, and being a two-time entrepreneur gave me a lot of credibility amongst investors. I was well-positioned to raise my round.

Two months later, I'd raised $350,000 in just two months. I was so close to finishing. Then, one Thursday morning, I got an email from a firm I'd been speaking to, and they wanted to give me the remaining $150,000. I was done.

But then, a few hours later, I got an email from a different fund who said they wanted to give me $750,000. That was bigger than my whole round. I was ecstatic. But then, shortly after, I heard back from another fund who decided that they wanted

to give me a cool $1 million. And that's when things really started to heat up. See, what I learned is that the VC community is actually pretty small. And word had started to spread about my round, and suddenly, all kinds of people were interested.

By the end of that week, what started as a humble round of $500,000 ended up with commitments of $3.4 million. I was well oversubscribed, but I knew that if I took all that money, I'd have to give up a ton of equity.

So after some negotiation, we settled for a seed round of $2.1 million. With funding secured, I was ready to get to work. I hired three producers and two mobile devs, and we started working on our first set of courses. In just four months, we had content, we had a web app, and we had a mobile app ready to

go. In early 2021, we launched, sending an excited email to our eagerly awaiting customers. Or at least, we thought they were eagerly awaiting. We sent that email, and then we waited, and waited, and nothing happened.

No one responded, no one downloaded the app, no one hit play. Well, a few people did, but definitely not enough. But no worries, we would work harder, we would keep going. We would build even more content, longer content, shorter content, different types

of content, different styles, and flavors, and topics, updating our users along the way. And still, they did nothing. After all that work, and all that building, no one seemed to care. If you're part of the startup world, this story is not unique.

Founder has idea, founder builds idea, no one comes. But I tried to stop that story from happening, I took pre-orders, I asked people for money up front before I built a single thing. But I guess those pre-orders just weren't enough.

Just a few months after raising millions of dollars, nothing I did was working. So I talked to my users, talked to dozens of them, tried to get to the bottom of the problem. It turns out that the issue was actually quite simple.

As hard as we tried, at the end of the day, we were an aspirational product. Something people bought because it made them feel good, it made them feel smart. But we weren't actually solving a problem in their lives.

Once I understood that very fundamental flaw, I couldn't justify working on the idea anymore. It was time to move on. I went back to my investors and told them that I didn't think this was going to work, but that I had other ideas and I wanted to try again.

They gave me their support, and so began my journey of finding my next big idea. And that brings me to my rut. After moving on from audio courses, I spent the next two years trying desperately to find my next big thing.

I came up with idea after idea, experimenting, researching, building demos and MVPs and landing pages and prototypes, talking to hundreds, literally hundreds of potential users, trying to find the idea that met my new threshold, and nothing quite reached that bar.

I felt like a complete failure. I was stuck. And that's when I decided to look into newsletters. I'd always loved the idea of newsletters. During a time when the future of Disco, the social media platform where I'd built my first

company CodeNewbie, felt very much up in the air, the idea of owning your audience, of being able to share your ideas directly with them, was extremely appealing. It was such a powerful way to be a creator. And I wanted to get to know this ecosystem a little bit better.

So I decided to launch my own. I wanted to gain first-hand knowledge about the problems, the tools, the pain points that people who build newsletters came up with, so that I could come up with a product that addressed a real need.

But first, I needed a concept, something that would be fun and interesting for me to write, but also be helpful for people to read. Since my existing audience was mostly developers, ideally it would be something technical. I decided to pick design.

I always loved design and really enjoyed the design work I had to do as part of the prototyping and ideation for Disco. I even had the chance to redesign major parts of the StoryGraph, the book tracking app and number one competitor to Goodreads, created by my best friend, Nadia Ardenayo, and my

incredible husband, Rob Frelow. But while my design work was being used by millions of people every single day, at the end of the day, I'm just a web dev. I'm not a designer. I picked up my design skills over the years, mostly through trial and error, and I'd gotten

pretty decent at it, but I was feeling self-conscious that I was never officially trained. I had no degrees or credentials. I loved the idea of really getting good, of leveling up and claiming that skill. I had a feeling I wasn't the only dev that felt that way.

I knew there were others in tech, people who were curious about design, who wanted to get better, who wanted to take the ideas in their heads and turn them into beautiful screens. So I decided that that's what my newsletter would be about, Design for Developers, and I called it Not a Designer.

It launched in October of 2023. Now since this was a company research project, I brought in my head of growth, and together we tackled this newsletter. She was in charge of growing subscriptions, I was in charge of content. Our goal was to get to 1,000 subscribers in just one month, but finding success as

a company wasn't really about reaching that goal. I mean, it'd be nice, but it was more about going on that journey, going through the process and understanding the pain points firsthand. So I put my head down and I started writing.

For the first few months, I wrote that newsletter twice a week, and my newsletter was no joke. I genuinely wanted to be better at design, and I also wanted to create high-quality content. So I spent hours and hours researching, watching YouTube videos, reading design books, signing

up for and actually taking those design courses, and building a foundation of knowledge on which to do my writing. Then I synthesized, pulling together the Figma files that I was scratching up, taking my

outlines, turning them into drafts, and eventually I even put together a small team of beta readers, people who read each and every draft, making sure my writing was helpful and interesting. I took that newsletter very seriously.

My first issue was about letter spacing and the impact that a teeny bit of horizontal space can make in a header and on a full website. It was almost 1,000 words, and in writing it, I learned a ton about the topic, and I could feel my design muscles grow.

In the meantime, I had to build my subscriber list, and for that, I did two things. I had a personal newsletter that I'd maintained over the years, a place where I gave updates on life and projects I was working on. It had about 500 subscribers, and I sent an email to that list, sharing about my new newsletter.

Then I went to Twitter, still my preferred social media platform, and posted there as well. That got me to an initial list of 100 subscribers, which felt like a good start, and I launched with that letter spacing post shortly after. How was I nervous about that first newsletter?

I mean, letter spacing is a fun topic for me, and it was fun to write, but would anyone care? Was I sharing information that people already knew that was common knowledge? Or worse yet, was it just boring? I just couldn't tell. And that's the hard part about newsletters.

It's really hard to know how you're doing. It's not like social media, where within the first few minutes, you can see if your content resonates. There's no bookmarks and reposts and likes and favorites that tells you if people like your content or even cared about what you had to say.

Few people hit reply. You get very little feedback. After I published that first issue, I had no idea what people thought about it. The only thing I had to go on was the open rate. And the open rate doesn't really tell you very much.

The only thing the open rate really says is if people found your subject line interesting enough to click on. It doesn't say what people think about what you actually wrote. But this lack of feedback is not unique to newsletters. It's also our curse as developers, as builders.

We code and we create our apps and side projects with all this love and passion and detail. And rarely do we hear back from the people who consume our work. The people we build for. If we get some traction, maybe we'll get a small fan base.

They'll post their adoration on Twitter or they'll send us email inboxes full of love. But most of us create for a quieter crowd, if we gather one at all. It can be lonely, that journey of creating. It's hard to know when we should turn right, when we should switch gears, when we should

keep going. It's hard to tell when to zig and when to zag. But over time, through consistent social media, a referral program that kind of worked, a lot of emails and tons of DMs, my little subscriber list started to grow.

It took us six weeks to reach a thousand subscribers and boy, did hitting that number feel good. It was so validating to know that a thousand people were interested in this little thing I built, even if it was just a newsletter.

But here's the thing that surprised me, that feeling, that high of seeing that number reach a thousand, it didn't last. After a few days, it was completely gone. But what stayed was the knowledge and skill I learned as a designer, slowly getting better

and building that muscle. I remember watching a YouTube video of a popular creator who'd written a book that had made the bestsellers list. I remember him reflecting on that moment and saying that it really didn't feel like very much.

After a few moments of elation, it was reduced to just a mere fact, a thing that happened. And that may be the sad reality of milestones, of destinations. Those feelings of elation, of being on top of the world, they don't tend to stick around.

And if you're building to chase that high, you won't stick around either. Instead, it's the pursuit that's ideally the reward, the act of creating, the practice of writing, the journey of building. It's why so many of us fell in love with code in the first place. Building is the fun part.

So let's talk about building. Over the years, I've seen more and more people build, but not just building, but building in public. It's particularly popular in the indie hackers community, where people are always posting about their monthly recurring revenue, starting at a hundred and then maybe bringing it up

to a thousand if things are going well. Have a lot of respect for people who genuinely build in public, the people who not just share their highs, but also their lows. It takes a lot to be vulnerable and open when things aren't working out. What I was doing was something a little bit different.

I wasn't really building in public, I was learning in public. By calling it not a designer, I was telling you the skillset I wasn't good at, but was trying to improve on. I wasn't trying to be this expert designer showering you with hot tips and trends about the design world.

I was just a web dev trying to get a little bit better at design. But by learning in public, I was taking you on that journey with me. We were leveling up together. I've been lucky to have not needed to look for a job for quite some time.

For most of the last decade, I've mostly worked for myself, starting as the founder of CodeNewbie and now as the founder of Disco, but as a dev who's very immersed in the community, I know how hard it is to be in this industry. Between the threat of AI taking our jobs and the possibility of layoffs looming over our

heads, it's really hard to be a dev right now. Even when we escape the chopping block, we never quite feel comfortable not knowing if we'll be next. We miss our friends and our coworkers who've left us. The anxiety in the air is palpable.

I think a lot about the future of tech, about our future as developers. I wonder what the definition of an epic web developer will be in a few years as AI gets smarter and better. And most importantly, I wonder what it means for our careers, for our ability to provide

for our families and take care of the people we love. I don't know if software development will have the same prestige and esteem and especially salaries as it does today, but I do know that the ground is shifting and we need to be ready.

But being ready isn't just about leveling up your skills. It's about insulating your careers, building a bigger moat. Now is not the time to build in isolation. It's the time to learn in public. What I started was a simple newsletter and I didn't do it for my career.

I did it for my startup. What I ended up with was a process for becoming a stronger designer. And while that alone was extremely beneficial, that wasn't it. Because my learning took place in the inbox of strangers, I ended up growing a small audience

of technical people who were also interested in design. And here's the thing, my newsletter, it wasn't that big. Right now, it's about 2,500 subscribers, which is a good start, but it isn't making me tons of money. But what it is doing is building my network in a very authentic way.

It's given me an audience that I own, that I can tap into directly at any time, that won't disappear with a change in a platform's owner. I hope to work at Disco for a long time, ideally the rest of my career, but I'm also painfully aware that the odds are stacked against me.

As a startup founder, chances are high that in just a few years, I will be out of money and have little to show for all the time and hard work I put into this startup. And that fear haunts me. Developing my little newsletter, building a new skill, making that mode just a little

bit bigger and growing that small audience helps me sleep just a little bit better at night. And if I had a normal job in this economy, where my future is in the hands of a CEO whose bad day can derail my entire career, I'd be even more invested.

I'm not necessarily saying that you should start a newsletter. If you take it seriously, newsletters can be a lot of work with not a lot to show for it for quite some time, but I am encouraging you to invest a little bit of your time to

learning in public through blogging, uploading on TikTok or YouTube, posting on social media, whatever your preferred platform is. I'm encouraging you to not just build your skills, but do it in a way that also builds your network.

With a shaky job market and an uncertain future, you never know when those connections and those skills will come in handy. In starting Not A Designer, I learned a lot about newsletters. And while there wasn't a compelling problem that I wanted to solve in that space, I had the chance to really get to know the people who create them.

And the fascinating truth is that most of those people aren't actually creators. Most people who write content aren't full-time creators making money off of their product. They're mostly regular people with a 9 to 5.

Being a creator is often painted as this poetic, romantic lifestyle where you're constantly sharing your passion with the world. And for some people, that is the dream. But perhaps most frequently, people do this for their careers, to get better at their

jobs, to make it easier to get the next one, and to make some extra money. They're not creators, they're multi-hyphenates. They have a main job, but they do more than their 9 to 5 because they are more than their 9 to 5. I've met so many of these multi-hyphenates who are learning in public, who are building

that mode and insulating their careers. But being a multi-hyphenate doesn't come with guarantees. You can create incredible content and have no one to consume it. You can write, and no one will read. You can build, and they may not come. But by learning in public, you can strengthen your career and be better prepared for an

uncertain future. After deciding not to pursue newsletters for my startup, I had to decide what to do with Not A Designer. Should I maintain it as a personal project, continuing to build my skill in my mode and helping me sleep better at night, or should I let it go?

To be honest, I'm not very sure. There are days when it feels incredibly energizing to pick a design topic and write my little heart out, and there are other days when it just feels distracting. But what I do know is that in the time I wrote my little newsletter, I grew a small audience. I expanded my network.

I got invited on podcasts to talk about design, got invited to conferences to talk about design. And now, I get to use these skills at my startup, designing and building the current MVP for Disco. We're currently working on a link-in bio product that helps you generate revenue from your different projects.

If you're curious to learn more, you can check it out at I don't know what the future holds for our industry. I don't know what an epic web dev looks like five years from now. But I do know that learning in public is a simple way to invest in ourselves, our careers

and our network all at the same time. And the best part is, you don't have to be an expert to do it. In fact, it's even better when you're not. Learning is not just for creators. It's for people like you too.

People with families, with regular jobs, who want to make more money, but more importantly, want to take care of the people they love. There are many ways to make that job easier, to protect your career, to make your future feel a little less daunting.

Learning in public may not solve all your career problems, but it can make that journey a little bit easier. Thank you. Thank you.

Related Talks