“Is John your real name?” I asked.
“It isn’t!” John B. Bartlet confirmed my suspicions: he uses a pseudonym on many online communities, including Quora, Reddit and Product Hunt. On Product Hunt, his latest side projects—Startup Book Club and ???, ???’? ??? ?? ????—rose to take the top #1 and #2 spots.
Why have a different name online? “For lots of reasons. It stops my ego getting in the way, and protects me from terrifying hackers.”
In real life, John B. Bartlet is a 28-year old web developer based in London, UK, or, in his own words, “a Squarespace go-to person.” He adds: “It’s a little frustrating at times. Some people just don’t know what they want. And not everything needs a website.”
In this conversation, John and I talk about his products, depression, and the value of forming ideas over solutions. First, let’s have a walkthrough of some of his products.
John’s first product: a 3D-printed guitar-playing device
A lot of origin stories on makers revolves around the deep-rooted passion to make, a natural inclination from way back, long before they get their big break. In John’s case, this also echoes true.
But his first product couldn’t be anymore different from his products under the John B. Bartlet moniker. In fact, his first product is a physical invention.
John: “Ah, so my first invention was this thing that you attached to a guitar, and it plays the chords for you, so you don’t have to learn. What a terrible idea. It took me about 9 months to make.”
Julian: “That’s amazing. When did you make that?”
John: “Maybe six years ago.”
Julian: “Did you just make it for fun?”
John: “It took forever! It worked once, then broke. I thought I could sell it!”
John shows me a photo of his first invention—a contraption of metal and rust, with some tabs that I assume attached to the guitar and played it, somehow.
Julian: “I’m having a hard time deciphering how this works… But it looks great!”
John: “This was in the early days of 3D printing. It’s a bit weird.”
Julian: “So this was 3D printed? Your first invention was a 3D device in bronze?”
John: “Yes, 3D printed then cast in bronze. Madness. It was the first, but it never got further than this monstrosity.”
Julian: “Please explain the context. You were 22 years old. How did you get hold of the materials and device?”
John: “Yes, maybe I was younger. I can’t remember. There was this dentist in central London, they had a 3D printer for making, I don’t know, teeth probably. It was the only one in the UK at the time that could do it.”
Julian: “How did you get hold of them?”
John: “They had a website, and they printed things commercially. This was a terrible idea, and it was doomed from the start.”
Julian: “Why? Were you kind of aware that it wouldn’t work?”
John: “The issue was that most people have fingers, and can just learn to play the guitar. And some people who don’t have fingers seem to do fine playing the guitar too.”
Julian: “Why with guitars in the first place?”
John: “Django Reinhardt.”
For the uninitiated, Django Reinhardt is one of the greatest Belgian jazz musicians of the 20th century, who had created a distinctive guitar playing style, in part from being only able to play with some of his fingers. He has influenced generations of guitarists for his astonishing display of technique and style, in spite of his handicap.
Julian: “Do you like music from that time?”
John: “I don’t think there was any particular reason, it was just an idea I fell in love with.”
An idea he fell in love with is a recurring reason for his next products, which don’t really offer clear solutions to existing inconveniences, as much as they give out helpful ideas on tackling them. And John has a clear love for being helpful and making; this is undeniable.
Prod and the Incrementalist
Before Startup Book Club, under John B. Bartlet, John released two other products. The first one is the Incrementalist, a website of practical tips for cafes, restaurants and stores to gain profit.
“Ah, you found the Incrementalist,” John said. “That one’s an example of something that doesn’t need a website.”
His tips include best practices in naming your company, using chalkboard walls to avoid toilet graffiti, using flattering lighting to increase sales, and using iced coffee cubes to avoid cold coffee from getting diluted, which happens with normal iced water cubes. Each tip contains a couple of footnotes derived from books that he’s read, from academic papers to popular non-fiction books.
The second product he’s made is an extension called Prod — “a thoughtful to-do list for Google Chrome and Firefox.” Prod blocks websites you waste time on and unblocks them once you’ve finished your to-do list.
That’s the basic premise of Prod, but it has other ways of gently nudging you to be productive. Every aspect of Prod is designed to make productivity easy and time-wasting hard.
On Google Chrome, Prod is being used by around 1600 users with a 5-star rating. Merely calling it a to-do list is a tad simplistic. Prod also has a website dedicated for actionable tips on habit formation and lifestyle — tips that reveal a bit of John’s stance on various things. There are tips on avoiding distraction, on the workplace, and most importantly on quitting social media.
Earlier, John cynically called the Incrementalist a product that did not need a website. And a lot of people would probably also say the same. Does a compilation of tips on running small businesses warrant a website over, say, a book or even a blog article?
Maybe not. But who cares? Do products and websites really need to have an intrinsic purpose for getting created? For now, I’m leaving this question unanswered, as there has already been a lot of existential debates on whether certain products should exist, and this article is not the venue for that.
But one thing is for certain—John likes being helpful. And likes giving tips that are actionable, concrete, and provide tangible incremental modifications people can already include in their lives.
As such, understandably, he would have a Quora account.
John: “I often get made fun of for being the guy who wants to explain everything. And I think it often comes from a bad place—Look how smart I am.”
Julian: “Does it often come from a bad place?”
John: “Well, I think that’s the assumption.”
Julian: “That’s what you think people might assume, you mean? I don’t think that’s true.”
John: “Yes, well I hope not. When I share some knowledge, I think to myself, is this something I’d wished someone had told me earlier in my life?”
In a question on restaurant tips, John states that customer tipping is more than anything else based on bias and prejudice towards the waiter and concludes that the best way to increase tips is to simply upsell. As science suggests, after all, higher spending on food leads to higher tips. On another, he ventures upon the etymological history behind the word ‘bluetooth’. He elaborates on the etiquette rules for men’s restrooms and urinals. He also has some few unsavory words to say about Starbucks, particularly stating that their best drink at is tap water.
While some of these questions were undoubtedly answered strategically, in part to give some exposure to Incrementalist and Prod to the unenlightened crowd, John reveals a bit of himself in every answer. There’s a plea for help veiled as a question on depression: How can I believe that I can beat my depression? Because I don’t think I can do it anymore. John answers:
Depression in itself can be debilitating, but John encourages the person to keep on fighting. John gives out pointers on how to fight depression, telling the person that thinking positively is not enough, and instead posits it as an illness, an affliction that needs real treatments. While prioritising therapy as a “big thing” that he can do to improve his mental health, John altogether lists “small things” that allow incremental lifestyle improvements, including on adding plants and exercising, as forms of self-care that compound into something big. He amusingly even includes examples of entertainment on self-care, including Queer Eye and Happiness by Design.
Startup Book Club
In Product Hunt launches, when makers describe their products, they typically focus on potential use cases for their products, including on the product market fit, how the product works, the reason why the product exists, and so on. Including these types of information makes sense. In order to survive in the market, products need to be used, and most makers think that by spelling out the benefits of using their products, people will use them.
But when John launched the Startup Book Club, John did exactly the opposite. The Startup Book Club works on a very simple premise; it’s a discussion forum on books suggested by startup founders. So instead of trying to further elaborate upon this simple thesis, he altogether bypasses this and states how this book club can benefit himself:
Here’s why I made it and why you should join:
I spent 2016–17 bumming around, depressed.
I watched every episode of Frasier—it was a dark time. I had a pile of books I hadn’t touched in over a year (there was always some easier distraction) but eventually, I picked one up.
The book was Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It’s a book about thinking, how we do it, our biases, and how we experience happiness. It was fascinating and extremely helpful—every few pages exposed some flaw in my thinking.
I read a bunch more books along the same vein; including Nudge and Deep Work.
The most valuable lesson I picked up—one that seems obvious in hindsight: don’t rely on willpower and good intentions, use practical interventions instead.
My apartment was a mess, I needed to be clean it, but couldn’t find the impetus. So I invited some friends round for dinner, that way I’d have to clean it up or face the embarrassment of them seeing my nest.
I got a dog, I was now responsible for the life of an innocent puppy—the ultimate commitment device.
I made my goals public and set a time limit, that way I’d be held accountable if I failed to work. This website was conceived of and launched in 21 days, and I don’t think I could have done it without this strict method.
So what’s this got to do with reading?
Well, we all want to read more, reading is a great habit—and yet it so hard to get done. It requires focus and an environment free from distraction—both increasingly hard to come by.
By joining a book club, you compel yourself to read. You make a public promise to finish a book—and failing to do so would tarnish your good reputation and bring you shame!
So, if you want to read more, join the club.
The product exists because he wants it to exist, and he thinks that it would also benefit others, because it benefits him. He wants to read more, so why not make this a community experience?
Treating depression isn’t a matter of trying to beat it, but fighting it through practical tips that allow you to keep it at bay. John knows this very well. This idea is reflected in his reason to make Startup Book Club.
Julian: “I think that people are craving for discussion about ideas, again, rather than solutions. Sometimes, things don’t need to be solved, or can’t be solved. Depression, for example, is something that can’t be solved, I think.”
John: “Yes, there’s also a lot of people trying to change their lives for the better who are using this as a springboard. So, i think it’ll become about a lot more than books.”
When asked to elaborate, John replies: “I saw one Reddit post, a guy was talking about his life, how he wanted to change it, he’s addicted to video games. He mentioned that he’s joined the book club and that he thinks that would help. Mentioned in passing, like it’s just one change. I think there’s a lot of aspirations here that go beyond reading. Maybe not though, maybe we’ll just talk about the books! I don’t know, that touched me. I really hope he sticks to the reading!”
One of the most interesting fact about John’s online presence under this moniker is that he exists through the things that helps him form habits that he wants to have. His avatar in various online platforms is the puppy he’s adopted in order to become more thoughtful, responsible and conscientious — traits that are necessary to develop when you get a pet. He answers a lot of questions on self-improvement at Quora. And of course his products provide practical, actionable tips.
In all his products, he emphasises the concept of commitment devices. In Atomic Habits, James Clear mentions the Akrasia effect.
Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control. Akrasia is what prevents you from following through on what you set out to do.
In order to counter Akrasia, James Clear advocates the use of devices that oblige you to change your habits, or, in this case, procrastinating on important tasks, until the deadline. These devices are also known as commitment devices.
A commitment device is a choice you make in the present that controls your actions in the future. It is a way to lock in future behavior, bind you to good habits, and restrict you from bad ones.
The Book Club came from John’s commitment into reading more books and, perhaps more importantly, in order to get himself into movement by making something. Makers and creatives can understand this tactic of motivating themselves into action through making; the dopamine rush after finishing a product or a creation is intoxicating.
Julian: “Do you think commitment devices are a better way of self-optimisation as opposed to, say, the many “changing your mindset” tips given everywhere?”
John: “Yes, I do. I think telling people otherwise is a bit like saying stop being lazy or have you tried not being depressed or why don’t you just quit smoking. I think if it were possible to change your mindset by just thinking, then these problems wouldn’t exist. I think a lot of people are waking up to the idea that they’re not entirely in control. It’s a huge philosophical shift.”
Julian: “This process of sharing knowledge and ideas, was this also a main reason as to why you started the Startup Book Club?”
John: “Yeah, I think we’ll all learn more doing it together.”
Julian: “So in a sense, the Startup Book Club is like a multipurpose commitment device. What started off as a way to get you more into reading has also allowed others to read more. And now you have a community to moderate!”
John: “Exactly, and it seems to have resonated with people. I hoped that maybe 100 people would join by New Year. I didn’t expect so many people to join.”
Julian: “Can I ask how many there are right now? An approximate?”
John: “Right now there’s about 2100.”
Exposure through anonymity — knowing John B. Bartlet
There is obvious value in being anonymous online. Firstly, you won’t be held accountable for your own actions online. Secondly, anonymity allows you to express things you’re not able to in real life. And thirdly, you can be vulnerable without exposing your identity in real life. It is the third point that mostly relates to John and his online persona.
Julian: “You don’t seem to have a social media presence, at all. How healthy do you think social media is?”
John: “I have a real problem with Facebook and Twitter. Social media doesn’t need to be bad, but it is at the moment. I found myself getting really into Twitter a few years ago, I would argue with conspiracy theorists, and bigots of all shapes and sizes.”
Julian: “So you did have social media! Did you use your personal account to fight those people?”
Julian: “I had real accounts, and fake ones for arguing with trolls. and it made me miserable. One night someone actually got to me, I was furious, and I deleted everything. I’d never go back. It’s having a deeply negative effect on the world.”
Julian: “The trolls compelled you to react to them, I guess.”
John: “Yes, like with all bad habits, you usually have to hit rock bottom before you become conscious of the problem.”
Julian: “Did social media partly triggered your depression?”
John: “I actually don’t think so. I was depressed before social media existed. But it was just another bad habit. I was just using it to argue with strangers. I wasn’t seeking validation or adoration.”
Julian: “There’s a type of anger or cynicism against the world that develops when you’re depressed, I think.”
John: “Yes, i think it played a part. When you’re suffering it hard to know what causes what. Once you’re out of the woods a bit, it all seems clear.”
Julian: “Hopefully not being too intrusive, but do you think your depression informs your product-making, then?”
John: “I’m fine talking about my depression. I think it does a lot.”
Julian: “It’s less stigmatised, but people are still afraid of being vulnerable, I guess.”
John: ‘Yes. It took me a very long time to lose that vulnerability.’
Julian: ‘And I don’t think that it’s something you consciously think about. The concept of saving face is something deeply ingrained within all of us.’
Throughout the course of this conversation, John’s memory occasionally faltered. While his products offered well-researched assistance, he couldn’t remember bits of his personal life, and sometimes I had to remind him of the topic we were at. As I also have mental health issues, this is understandable. In fact, according to science, depression has been linked to memory loss and forgetfulness.
John emphasises how his mental state is a key factor that shaped the way he remembered his past and childhood. He described his adolescence, in a way, as tempestuous, full of emotions. In another, his adolescence is also “difficult to separate” from his childhood, implying that he didn’t know how to deal with his own issues back then and felt overwhelmed by them.
John: “I don’t trust my memory on anything.”
Julian: “Why do you think your memory is bad?”
John: “I really don’t know. But I don’t mind. There is a connection between depression and memory loss, but it’s more likely I’m just not paying attention at the time.”
When asked if he has any tips for makers struggling with mental health, Johns seems to hesitate: “Gosh, it’s a tough one. You’ve always got to start by saying this: There’s no substitute for professional help. Except, professional help is letting people down a lot recently.”
Julian: “What about community help?”
John: “What I’d say is be open about it. There’s so many of us out there. I was amazed when I started talking about my depression how many of my friends suffered and I didn’t know.”
Julian: “It’s kind of a zeitgeist issue, isn’t it? We can’t keep up with the current technological and societal pace, so we leave our mental wellbeing behind.”
John: “There’s a lot to say about productivity and mental health. They’re so intertwined. I made a lot of practical changes, I got a dog, I made Prod, and I started taking meds! It took a while to find the right ones, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that was the main thing that helped. But that was a practical change.”
Julian: “How long have you been taking meds?”
John: “About a year now.”
Julian: “Great job, especially in the context of mental health services in the UK. A waiting list of 9 months for urgent cases.”
The new year
In pursuing his passion for making, it’s clear that John has created these products, not despite of his mental health issues; on the contrary, his depression has informed the design and function of these products.
Meanwhile, he is rapidly taking back the internet in its mid-2000s, when customisable fonts and webpages were all the rage in online communities, with ???, ???’? ??? ?? ???? — a universal text styler.
In the new year, he will be launching the first book discussion at Startup Book Club on James Clear’s Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones. He will also be updating his various products. So if you want to talk about books and interact with John, head over to the Startup Book Club forum.