Help to make Retromat sustainable

Hi, my name is Corinna Baldauf. In 2012, I had a month of free time between quitting my old job and starting at a new company. During that time I created Retromat. Before Retromat, it took me at least an hour to plan a retrospective, looking through various blogs for inspiration. I was sure that there must be a faster way to find a wide variety of ideas. AFAIK there wasn’t one at the time, so I built it. Retromat launched with 16 activities.

Afterwards I spend large chunks of my free time adding activities to Retromat, blogging and creating 1-page summaries. For a while all was well and I was a happy creator.

2014 came along and 2 things happened: 

  • I became a mom. From then on, my free time belonged to my daughter. 
  • Retromat became popular. With it came “community work”. People suggesting activities, asking questions, sending photos etc.

Invisible work

As someone interested in Open Source, I eventually recognized that I had landed myself in the Catch-22 that successful OS projects suffer from: You have a successful project. Yay, that’s awesome! People are using your brainchild. But it means community work (bug reports, pull requests, questions, contributors that need onboarding – if you’re lucky). Community work is not why you started the project. It’s mostly invisible work and takes away time to improve the original project.

In my case, community work soon became 95% of what I did. After a job and family I just didn’t have much energy left. What little energy I had went into answering emails – and feeling guilty about the ones I hadn’t answered yet… It took me months to answer emails.

I might sound ungrateful. I’m not! It’s still remarkable to me that so many people use their time to translate Retromat into 6 languages, suggest activities and so on. Still, in 2015 I realized that the current situation was not sustainable. (And we’re big fans of a sustainable pace over here in the agile camp, aren’t we ;))

Goal: Work part-time

You probably know the phrase “Time is Money”. The opposite is also true: “Money is Time” as in, “money can buy you time”. Money that the projects earn is money I don’t have to earn in my day job. If I want to have time and energy for my original projects (i.e. new activities and features for Retromat, new summaries, new blog posts), I have to find some way for the projects to support themselves.

Retromat is the only project with an audience big enough that it might pay for itself. So I started looking into possibilities to “monetize” with the goal of me going part-time at my regular job. Below I’ve listed the things I’ve tried or consciously decided not to try.

tl;dr: In a cruel twist of fate every monetization attempt paid about for as much time as it took me to implement it. But not for more. If I had taken the “monetization time” to create new content I’d probably have been happier. Creating is what makes me happy. Selling… not so much. Well, no use crying over spilt milk. Maybe someone can learn from my fails. If you’re not interested in the details, scroll past the boxes.

How have I tried to monetize? Let me count the ways:

PRINT RETROMAT

Actually this one doesn’t really count: I’ve created the print edition before Retromat became popular. I wasn’t even sure I’d break even. I did. The Print Retromats are the only thing on this list that made serious money.
Upside: That pays for a nice holiday.
Downside: After a round of selling I really need that holiday! It’s largely manual labor. Each and every Print Retromat is hand-cut. 

But Corinna, can’t you produce them pre-cut? Yes, but that completely changes the game for me. Right now I fall under a very nice VAT tax exemption for small businesses. For pre-cut Print Retromats I need to order much larger numbers and pay VAT, making them more expensive. Also lots more bureaucracy for me. And the risk of not knowing how big the market actually is. Could I sell 5000 Print Retromats without being able to give huge discounts to bulk orders? It’s complicated.

DONATIONS

This one was the least effort to implement but also the lowest return. Donations were typically 5-10 dollars. A one-time-donation of 10 bucks every 2 weeks is not sustainable. Still, thank you donors! Especially to Steve who donated 50 bucks 🙂

To be fair, I never really pushed donations. AFAIR I’ve never even mentioned them on my newsletter. I was too ashamed. Donations feel like begging, not like being compensated for valuable work.

SPONSORING

Next I thought I’d go big: Instead of asking lots of people for donations I’d ask a few companies for bigger amounts. Companies usually have more money than individuals. And on Retromat the audience is a very desirable niche. I know how much it costs to find a new employee via a head hunter -> a sponsorship on Retromat to find a new Scrum Master is a great bargain.

Sponsoring would be close to viable if we had a sponsor every month. Alas, we’ve had 1 per year. At least they’re both cool, worthy organizations! Thank you Emendare & Teammood.

EBOOK

This one is still around and does earn money. Unfortunately, I started selling the eBook around the time I exposed the newsletter more and subscribers skyrocketed. In most months the eBook pays for the Mailchimp account. So no extra time to work on projects either…

That’s all the monetization efforts I’ve tried so far. For completeness sake I’ll also list the options I rejected:

Considered and rejected

ADS 

I don’t like ads. I use ad blockers. I’d prefer not to put them on one of my sites. And AFAIK the earning potential is very limited so not a big loss either.

PATREON

Lots of people suggested Patreon. I perceive Patreon as a platform for individuals to support content creators. In contrast, I view Retromat as something that companies should pay for, since we use Retromat for our work. 

Plus, Patreon is based on extra content for Patrons. I’m trying to carve out some time to create at all. When would I create that extra content?

A NATIVE APP

Lots of extra work and risk for very little expected pay-off: App prices are low and the potential audience is not big enough to off-set that. Plus, I don’t really know what an app could offer that the website couldn’t.

GOING FREELANCE

Many of the people who put out valuable content are freelance consultants. Sometimes I get the impression that this is the only viable way: Freelancers (in IT) usually get paid very good day rates. The difficult bit is getting hired. That’s why it makes perfect business / marketing sense to put content out there, have a newsletter, etc. 

For me, as a full-time employee, it would be the other way around. I would go freelance to subsidize the time to create content under the risky assumption that it would be relatively easy for me to get jobs. 

I’ve actually tried that route. I never advertised workshops or facilitation but when someone asked for one, I’d usually say yes. I like preparing for the engagement and the actual job. Judging from repeat bookings by customers, I’m good at it. But consulting is a very different lifestyle, including traveling, etc.

It doesn’t seem like a good trade-off to completely change my life just to make my side projects viable and “sensible marketing”. And most importantly I really, really like my job. It’s where most of my content ideas come from – grounded in long-term experience at the same (awesome!) place. This long-term perspective seems valuable to me. I like what I’m doing. I love my colleagues. I don’t want to stop working there. I’d just like to work fewer hours.

What now?

I always tried to monetize something “extra” although I think the most valuable thing Retromat has to offer is … Retromat itself! Think about it: What would you do without Retromat? How much time does it save you? How much better are your retros because you can find activities that fit to your team’s situation?

I’ve narrowly avoided burn-out earlier this year. Without my doctor I’d be burned-out right now. Something has to change. Either I stop having projects or I find a way for them to be sustainable, i.e. earn enough money. I’ll give it one last shot:

Does Retromat create enough value for you to support it on a regular basis? Take the poll:

If enough people pledge their support, I will implement payment and billing. There are lots of providers in the US, not so many in Germany. I’ll have to look around. The bill will look like a regular bill for a SaaS.

If it doesn’t work out, don’t worry, Retromat will stay free and online. My projects will freeze in the state they are right now. The amazing agile coach Timon Fiddike will continue to take care of the Retromat backend. Retromat translators can still work and we would add new translators, but that’s about it. Requests regarding new activities, photos, features, questions etc. get a polite “This project is not maintained anymore”-email. I just don’t have it in me anymore after a day’s work and family time with 2 children.

How can we help?

A number of people have offered their time to help. Thank you, I appreciate it! Unfortunately I can’t think of anything that I could easily hand over to someone else. And if I could, the handing over, keeping track of it, reminding people, … Managing other contributors is work too and not the fun kind. So right now it’s down to money. If that ever changes, I’ll publish it here.

Money will help me tackle my huge backlogs: At least 30 activities for Retromat; features  for Retromat (comments, anyone?); 50 ideas for Wall-Skills summaries; 40 topics for blog posts; 2 3 book outlines; projects like Lift-off-O-Mat, Planning-O-Mat; physical products like the Scrum Master Emergency Kit; …

My ideas are endless. Obviously I won’t be able to realize all of them. But looking at my track record, a lot of my ideas turn into realities given some time and space to breathe.

Thank you for reading and considering to support Retromat

How much money has been pledged?

Update: As of Wednesday 30th, 6pm CEST, 37 people have pledged 460 Euros per month. After VAT and income tax this would leave about 310 Euros.
(Other people have pledged 1-time-donations. Here, I’ll ignore those, since I can’t plan time-off with these.)

14 Replies to “Help to make Retromat sustainable”

  1. Hi Corinna,

    first of all let me thank your for all the great work you’ve put into the Retromat and all its different info channels. I use Retromat several times a year just to get clear in my mind and come up with a retro concept. After thinking about it for a little bit, I would probably find a €<censored> / year service fee for a fully maintained Retromat reasonable (I came up with this number based on how often I use it and what I spend per year for other curated information and training sources). I don’t know if that helps you to determine how to proceed but maybe it does!

    Many thx again!
    Kai

    P.S.: I think I will post a Tweet and distribute your cry for help this way.

    1. Hi Kai, thank you for your tweet! I’ve censored your number, to avoid anchoring (can you tell that I’m currently reading “Thinking fast and slow”?), hope that’s okay.

  2. Hi Corinna

    I’m sorry to hear how much “invisible” work you’re doing and how it prevents you from being creative.

    I wouldn’t mind paying for Retromat – but there’s a BUT: Since I got the printed book and the ebook, I’m quite happy using those. So my contribution would be rather token. It might be another of these “pays just enough to offset the cost” things.
    I am sooo behind reading my mail, reading newsletters is rather hit and miss. Your latest subject line caught my eye, but otherwise…

    At any rate thanks a lot for all your work. Do more of what you love to do! and if you install a “support me” subscription I’ll hit it 🙂

  3. I have another idea – I’ve been working on converting retromat into playing cards. What if you sold those and use the funds to support the site? The physical aspect of them is really nice and adds some new options to facilitation, and the activities are supported by additional cards that some of the activities themselves already need, which works pretty well.

    1. Hi Alan, thanks for the idea.
      Curiously my initial concept for Print Retromat was cards not a book 🙂
      Because cards are more flexible regarding the phases. When I looked into it in 2013, cards were significantly more expensive to produce -> small profit margin -> you have to sell more to make it viable. Anyway, most of the reasons why I’m not going “big” with Print Retromat also apply to cards.

  4. Hi Corinna,
    you always save my retro from day one on.
    What you write sounds like a serious issue. We as community should fight it and I am sure that we can tackle it down.
    One question:
    Why is there a fat button for your e-book but not for donation on the main page?

    Thank you for your transparency!
    Best
    Chris

    1. Hi Chris, 2 reasons:
      1) Donations feel more like begging, and less like being compensated for valuable work.
      2) It was there instead of the ebook button for a while. Donations made a lot less. Like I said, typically 5-10 dollars and never more than 3 in one week. The ebook earns more. I don’t show both because I don’t wanna crowd Retromat with ad-like content.

  5. Thank you for all the work you have put into this very valuable tool. I would subscribe but would hope it would be at an annual rate and not a monthly one because I would submit it to my business as a work expense and they do better with a one time fee. I feel I could defend a 100 annual expense for the benefit this gains me.

    1. Hi Lynn! Thank you for this input! If I ever enter the phase where I look for Payment Providers I’ll check them for annual and monthly options.

  6. Corinna, my heart hurts after reading your post!
    Retromat is one of the best tools I’ve used in my Scrum-Master-life and I’d love to fill up my karma and give sth in return. First of all I will share your post to all the Retromat-users I know and second I’ll ask if there are any sponsor opportunities at my company. Anyway I’m happy to pay, too.

    Corinna, great job with Retromat, pls never forget: With retromat you have improved many Retro-routines of Scrum Masters and even more Retro experiences of team members!
    <3 <3 <3

  7. What about organisations like Scrum.org and Scaled Agile? Could you form a more sustainable/long-term sponsorship or partnership with that type of organization? If they participate in this type of arrangement (sorry, I don’t even know if they do), it seems like you’d be able to get more steady backing from some of the big Agile consulting companies rather than (or in addition to) individuals and the companies of those individuals. Not to say I’m not willing to contribute personally, of course.

    1. Yes, just one partner would be great (like some companies pay the wage of an Open Source contributor). It’s just a huge commitment from a single party. And it’s tricky regarding independence. E.g. I couldn’t / wouldn’t partner with anything SAFe related because I don’t believe in that approach.
      I had thought about a single big partner but so little that I haven’t listed it above. It would be a great clean solution but I never knew what my first step would be…

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