All our website fuckups, ranked (and why we’re still alive)
Broken accounts, swapped faces, unsold workshops, and other milestones on the road to success
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Hi! This is my first startup diary post! I never wrote one because I’ve been too busy with dev work, but I realized that I slowly die inside if I only do coding. So we introduced “boss Fridays” where I’ll be doing anything but coding!
This post is about our (mostly my) technical fuckups. We don’t have a QA tester (or any kind of process for testing), that’s why something on the website occasionally dies. We’ll definitely get our shit together before releasing the submissions manager and a lot more people come in, but meanwhile, enjoy this extensive list of embarrassments over the past year and a half:
1. That’s not my account
Not so long after I created the accounts functionality, someone said that they logged into their account, but…IT WASN’T THEIRS. It had someone else’s info on it. They obviously freaked out (so did I). Then I realized that we had multiple accounts without email (which I used to identify users) and during login, all these users kinda ended up in the same account. How fun! Luckily, that was fixed fast. Thank you, people who report weird issues!
2. In the media
We were interviewed by Andrea Firth for Brevity’s Blog and our website didn’t work at the time it was posted. Also, I was sleeping.
3. Cool account flow
Before I started Chill Subs, I couldn’t even imagine how many different account problems people can have. Some articles like this one say that 80% of users forget at least one password in 90 days. Based on our logs, we got at least 5 password resets every day. And dealing with all this is not fun at all. Also, our previous login provider made it even worse, because:
We didn’t have account linking (when you can log into the same account using multiple options like email/Google/Facebook). In our case, all of these were separate accounts.
Users were logged out after 3 days of inactivity. And when users are logged out, they forget how they logged in, and so problem #1 didn’t help with that at all.
Enjoy this message from an upset user:
That’s when I realized it’s proooobably time to get this over with and move to a new system.
4. Yes Kailey, it’s worth it working with us
One of the Write or Die’s workshops didn’t sell. And then I accidentally realized that the Shopify code didn’t save correctly, so the purchase button didn’t work (realization came only after the workshop was canceled). I came crying to Kailey and she said it’s okay because the workshop was expensive and chances were low, but oof. Kailey trusted us to give us her baby that she had been building for 4 years, and I’m like WELL, ENJOY THE HIGH TECH
5. [ugh] started killing our website
In August, we experienced what looked like a bot attack for several days. We had thousands of page requests a minute, and something fun happened. When they were trying to request [ugh] (our weird little social media) with the same frequency, the website died. Because Ugh is our slowest part of the website (I mean I made it in a week, so it’s not exactly well built), it just couldn’t handle so much traffic, and this dragged the whole website down.
We didn’t have time to rewrite the code to be more performant, so we temporarily sacrificed Ugh in order to keep the main functionality alive. Surprisingly, many people have been asking about it since then, and it was our 4th most popular page (we still don’t understand how and why), so we’ll definitely have to bring it back in some form.
6. What the hell is going on? Is this working? Is this not working?
We’re…not the best at error handling at the moment. We don’t have a cute error page (you just get APPLICATION ERROR on a white screen) and we don’t display specific errors most of the time, so it’s really hard to understand what went wrong and what you should do to fix it.
For a long time I also didn’t validate usernames, so we have quite a few profile links like “/user/p9^830**#” or “/user/Karina Kupp”
7. That’s not me (again)
I use the randomize function in the magazine contributors block. Well for a little while, users’ avatars were randomized too. So one day a person said, “I didn’t write this story!”. Well…but you could have…
8. “Oh I thought this was automated”
At some point, we hadn’t updated our bi-weekly Promorando for over two months. For the first month or so of our membership, people made a payment and didn’t even see that they were members now (because we gave them access to all the stuff manually). And for almost a year it took me a week or two to give editors access to their admin panel. When I texted people and apologized, someone said “ooohh sorry, I thought this was automated!”
How nice would that be, ha? But we’re a team of 6 and I’m our only backend developer (and I’m not even a backend developer)
(Most of it is now automated though)
9. Kristin broke the website
That’s a famous one. But if you didn’t know, a user tried to upload about 1000 publications to her profile and we just weren’t prepared for this many, so her profile died. Not for long though, because I fixed it! We even interviewed Kristin about it.
10. Yes our SEO still sucks
Partly because I didn’t realize one super important thing had to be configured only like half a year after starting the website. But also, because we have more important things to do than stuff our posts with ridiculous keywords and links to other websites. That’s why social media is still our main traffic source.
11. Email notifications
Last summer I set up email notifications where users were notified when some of their bookmarked magazines became open for submissions. And once a week there was an email with all their bookmarked magazines that were closing for submissions in the next 7 days.
Seemed like a fantastic idea! Except at some point, I realized that the script had been broken for months because we added so many magazines that the way I wrote the code couldn’t handle it. It’s pretty easy to fix it, but right now we already send out too many emails, so have to think about how to bring those back without annoying people.
12. All the equally great user experience
Our library and services search didn’t work since our latest browse redesign which was a couple of months ago. But well, it’s not like these are super popular (YET, we haven’t given them proper attention yet)
Our editor admin panel is janky as hell and I don’t know how editors use it, but thank you. We’re working on making a normal one!
Just this past week I realized that viewing your contest bookmarks didn’t work since I don’t know. Ever? And no one brought it up, and I don’t remember testing it because I don’t bookmark contests
Our pieces drive (beta tool for premium users) doesn’t allow you to save stories that are longer than 2900 words. No, that’s not intentional.
At first, it was hard for me to understand why all the users just didn’t pack their profiles and leave whenever something broke down. I mean yes, there are three obvious reasons:
We have one of the biggest literary databases on the internet
This database is free
But even with this, the users who reported errors, they have to be angry, right?! They have to hate us, at least a little bit!
Surprisingly, 90% of the time, no, not at all. The people I talked to, weirdly started liking us even more because we took the time to reach out and help them (which seems like an obvious thing we have to do as a company). I think everyone just feels the extreme terror that I translate in my emails whenever I apologize for something that’s not working. Often we get a reply with something like “Oh god, no no, it’s okay! I love chill subs!! [insert a huge story about how we helped someone get published] Please don’t feel bad!”
It might be not entirely healthy for our mental health sometimes, but I feel like it’s definitely one of the reasons Chill Subs works. Our sensitivity. Our genuine fear of being assholes to our users. Just showing how much we care for this thing that we’re building, and your experience with it.
We really do listen, and I think this creates a feeling that we’re building this website together. That we’re changing this industry one website error at a time.
But also, we’re still alive because we’ve grown to become a wonderful team. A team that handles development, content, design, social media, and whatever other magic you have to do to keep a startup afloat. A team that will happily catch you when you have a minor breakdown after realizing some feature has been broken for 3 months (and make you laugh about it instead of losing sleep)
Most importantly, we’re all friends. We talk about books and movies (though Shelby won’t sit through a whole movie with you). About the joys of having Russian and Belarusian passports. About not having a home base where you can always return to and collect useless little things that mean something to you. Things you can’t carry around because your suitcase is too small for that.
We drink cocktails on Fridays (but not too many cause they are expensive). We feed puppies and come up with silly names for cats. We’re terrified of the news. We discuss our parents, the good things and the bad things. We watch The Good Place for dinner and go for a walk at night cause our bodies will hate us if we don’t.
We dream about making Chill Subs ten times bigger than it already is. But also, about making time for the other projects we care about. Writing a book. Releasing a music album. Creating a font. We dream about the basic stuff too. Like earning the same amount of money we once did when we had real jobs. Not too much, but just enough to have two rooms, go to a doctor, and get visas to the countries we like, and not the countries that seem like the only option.
We know that all of this is going to happen. And we also know that having a support system like this, we’re not scared to keep logging into this weird place that is internet and do this thing for another ten years or more.
So get ready, because you’re coming along with us!