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GYWD #12: Tools of the Trade with Max Seeleman from Ulysses

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In this episode…

Writers are a particular bunch. We like to have things just right when we get down to business. Some of us have trouble getting anything done if things aren’t just right. For me, writing is easier when I love my set up and have my favorite tools close to hand.

I’ll admit it: I’m fussy. I have a favorite pen, a favorite journal, a favorite computer, and a favorite writing app, just for starters. If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent many hours experimenting with all the different tools out there looking for ways to make your writing even easier, even more enjoyable. If I haven’t tried a writing-related tool yet, it’s probably just because I haven’t heard of it.

Given my obsessions, one of my goals with this podcast is to talk with the folks who make the tools of the trade. Today I’m chatting with Max Seeleman, Executive Director of Ulysses, my favorite writing app. I used Ulysses to write my book, and I certainly recommend giving it a go if you’re not thrilled with your current writing app. In this episode we talk about how Ulysses was born, how it has evolved with input from writers, and the future of online writing.

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Trevor Thrall 0:01
Welcome to the Get your writing done Podcast. I’m Trevor Thrall, author of the 12 week year for writers. Writers are a particular bunch. We like to have things just right when we get down to business, some of us have trouble even getting anything done at all if things aren’t just right. For me, writing is definitely easier when I love my setup, and have my favorite tools close to hand. Okay, all admitted, I’m fussing. I have a favorite pen, a favorite journal, a favorite computer, and a favorite writing app just for starters. And if you’re anything like me, you’ve spent hours and hours experimenting with all the different tools out there looking for ways to make your writing even easier and even more enjoyable. If I haven’t tried a writing related tool yet, it’s probably just because I haven’t heard of it. Given my obsessions, one of my goals with this podcast is to talk with the people who make the tools of the trade. today I’m chatting with Max Zelman, Executive Director of Ulysses, my favorite writing app. I use Ulysses to write my book, for example, and I recommend giving it a go if you’re not thrilled with your current running app. In this episode, we talk about how Ulysses was born, how has evolved with input from writers and the future of online writing?

Max, welcome to the show. Thanks so much for joining us.

Max Seeleman 1:28
Yeah, I’m happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Trevor Thrall 1:30
Yes, I’ve told people in the introduction that I am a huge fan of the Ulysses app. So we’ll just get that out of the way right away. So this is a fan interview. I’m really curious, you know, there are so many different apps out there. Maybe more now than there used to be when you guys started. But where did you get the idea to develop Ulysses in the first place?

Max Seeleman 1:55
So the story I always tell, which is like 90% true is that if my co founder, Marcos, you wanted to write a novel, and he’s been looking for writing apps, and to quote him, he is only been finding apps for secretaries, which he meant word and developers, by which he meant BB Edit. And nothing that was aimed at writing. And that’s why he came up with his own idea for writing app. But that’s like 2001 or 2002. Ish. So it’s a while ago.

Trevor Thrall 2:29
And then, and then he built something right. That wasn’t quite Ulysses.

Unknown Speaker 2:34
He while he came up with an idea and realized he couldn’t build it, himself. And then he found me on the internet. I’m was still in high school. And he’s been asking to find someone who could do it. And I was like, well, I could try. And that’s how we how we got started going. And yeah, we’ve been doing it ever since. And it’s always been called Ulysses. So we’ve like had like, durations? Yeah, it’s always been called you innocence. Yeah, named after knowledge from James Joyce. Right. Like, it’s it’s regarded as like one of the most important novels of the 20th century. And we were like, well, we’re doing writing up. That’s the right, the right target to aim for. Right. Like

Trevor Thrall 3:19
that’s a good Northstar to have in mind. Absolutely. Absolutely. So what what makes Ulysses great for writers that other apps weren’t so good at?

Max Seeleman 3:31
Well, back in that, at that time, originally, it was like, organizing a project and being plaintext only. That was real novelty back then, for writing apps. And we’re back like, a step back from where the industry had gone. And, and nowadays, it’s like the entire set. So it’s, it’s a, it’s a one tool for you to do everything in in terms of writing, starting from idea sourcing, collecting photo, like from websites, or just writing down notes and then organizing them. Then you have a clean, focused writing environment where like, everything fades away, and you’re just forced to write the blinking cursor on the empty screen, right? screaming like start typing. And then of course, you have like, like organization, again, to assemble your project. So if it’s a smaller one, then you have money snippet, just maybe the iterations like blog posts, and so on. And if you novel then you have chapters or parts of chapters, so you can organize that and in the end, you can export it and bring it to a variety of formats, like directly publisher block or submitted as a Word file to be added or printed as a PDF file or

Trevor Thrall 4:53
something. Yeah, I think the evolution of writing applications is fascinating to me, and I’m an older person. So I’ve seen All of them. And know, when I was in college, I had one of the early Macintosh computers that would sit on your desk and had a little 512k disk drive. And I carried around on one floppy disk, Microsoft Word, the program and everything I wrote in college combined on one day. And then sort of almost immediately after that Microsoft Word and every other program that got invented WordPerfect, which had already been bloated into these crazy, ridiculous that won’t hardly fit on your computer anymore. And, and yet, you guys went with something that was as simple as what they started with. What why?

Max Seeleman 5:43
Yeah, it’s, I think, yeah, it’s basically a counter trend, right. So like, realizing that some tools may have went too far. And it may I mean, even today, you get some of those new written newlywed shows they are written Word Perfect or something like, really from the days because those were the tools to write from so many. Yeah. I don’t I don’t know exactly what was the what, what was the motivation? I think Marcos has always been someone who has been very deep on on usability and like, what are the tools that we need? What are superfluous? What could can be left away? And what’s really what’s really at the core, and it’s always been like, in he’s always been, like, driven by that and wanted to create something. Actually, he’s also never written that book, right.

Trevor Thrall 6:44
Project, Ulysses got too big. And he had to work on that. And yeah, yes, yes, yes. That’s very funny. So one of the things that also makes Ulysses different from at least Microsoft Word, and that sort of app is markdown, which, you know, as soon as I said that 53 People just turned off their, you know, headset, it’s like that sounds technical. But I think sort of the the flip side of being as simple as it is, when you’re looking at it, and writing it does require something to help integrate it with the rest of the world. So tell me a little bit about the decision to do Markdown and what that means for how you use the app.

Max Seeleman 7:20
So the well the idea behind Markdown is plain text writing so that everything you do with the text is just written. It has no formatting bars, no buttons, and nothing. So you only write some characters to add emphasis word in order heading. In Oh, sorry, to take. So all you do is, you know an emphasis or say, what, what is the heading and what is a maybe a comment. And the and the idea is that you never take your fingers away from the keyboard, and all you do is just stay on the keyboard. If you want to undo something, you just need to delete button, no commands needed. And, yeah, that really helps you clean up the interface so that all you all you have is really just the text like writing on a typewriter. You don’t have tools on a typewriter, you don’t have like, I mean, you could do both on a typewriter by going back and typing it again. But that’s really like, the core of the typewriter is just being able to type. And by that you force yourself into churning out words, and you cannot distract yourself because there’s no way to distract yourself. So that is like the like, like, the very core idea is to be able to focus by not being able to unfocus Yeah,

Trevor Thrall 8:51
yeah. So now I’m curious. It sounds like you know, Marcus, when he sort of first got this idea, you know, it was a personal sort of thing for him like what he needed. But Ulysses is obviously what are we on Ulysses 22. Now, is that what’s just been released version 22. And it’s only 24. Jack, and, and it’s added a lot of things since then, hopefully not too many. But where did you guys like, come up with this sort of development path? Did you you know, sort of do surveys Did you just, you know, think of the next thing you were thinking of? How did you guys get it to where it is now.

Max Seeleman 9:34
We were happy enough to have users. From the very beginning. We had a beta before we launched, we had people testing it. And we’ve always had plenty of feedback. So much feedback that we never like, had the feeling we need to go out and look for more input. It was like, but it’s too much already. We already need to like look at what feedback is the most important and which feedback we don’t need. Right? And then you need to know that our user base are writers. So they happily write long emails with a lot of things in them. And so it’s not. It’s not like it’s not like instant messaging app where people write short things. It’s like, they like to write a lot and write, like, often. And so we have so much feedback. And we like, we dig through it. And we’d like to make a make a sense of what different people tell us and what usually what’s usually. So one thing we always do is like, people usually come at you and say, hey, I want XYZ, so they, I need this in that function. And then what we do is we look at what they want, and we go a step back into what is the need. So what is the problem they’re trying to solve? And then but from there, we take it ourselves. So so we, we look at all the feedback and we take from that the underlying problems, what do you need to do? Not what is the solution you propose? But what is what is what is at the core. And from that we develop our own idea. It might happen that we end up with something that was proposed, but like, we started with the problem, and then went from there.

Trevor Thrall 11:17
Right? So what are the sort of features? Do you think that your writing users like the most what are they? What do they tell you? They like the most anyway?

Max Seeleman 11:31
Oh, that’s a good question. I would say all of them. No, I would certainly say the like the full screen mode. So where you just really just have a blank screen. And because we’re into text, and they like a lot the library that helps them organized. So it’s flexible, yet allows, like, giving yourself enough structure that you can, you can make yourself home there. And then it being synced to all the devices so that even when you’re on the go, in the subway, have an idea. You didn’t just open your project and write it down right next to your project. Or did you can review text while you’re not at home, or on the plane, and so on and so forth. So this this flexibility that, like, your writing is always where you are. Yeah. And then of course, the one one thing that’s really beloved by many users is the publishing feature, like publishing directly to the blog, and having all those projects together in one case, they don’t need to think about like, what, what, a lot of a lot of our users happen to experience a situation where they were, like, well, I want to write down the thought. And they don’t need to ask themselves, where do I go to write it down? Because all the writing is in Ulysses, they automatically go there, and then they can organize it later on? Yeah,

Trevor Thrall 13:07
yeah. So one of the things I wonder is, Do you ever worry about getting to putting too many things in Ulysses, it doesn’t end up feeling like you’re risking becoming Microsoft Word, the next generation?

Max Seeleman 13:26
I mean, it’s a valid fear, of course. I mean, that’s, that’s a valid fear, I would say for every product, because every software product, because you most of the time you’re reading, what do we try to do though, is, whenever we add something to simplify, what is there even more, so that, like, the result is never more complicated than what we had before. So that’s, that’s a tough thing to do. Right? So like, really, really need to chew on the details, you really, really, really need to like, I want to add a setting. So if I want to add the setting, I need to get rid of another setting. And then which setting can I get rid of? Maybe I can get rid of two settings and only add one. So then net i Oh, I removed one setting while adding one. So like that this is this the this is the train of thought that we always try to do doesn’t work out 100% of the time, but really, by by really chewing on things and trying to be smart about what we need to offer and what’s maybe not so important. I would say we have been very successful in in that strategy and not having things become too complicated.

Trevor Thrall 14:43
Yeah, well, I was I was stalking your your Twitter feed the company’s twitter feed this morning. And you know, there are just a lot of super fans out there. And I think one of the things that was most obvious just this morning scrolling through a couple 100 tweets was that people really do love how beautiful the interface is, and how clean. And you know, I’m a big writing setup, kind of walk in I love, like get making sure my keyboard is exactly the right thing and the monitors and all that sort of stuff. And, and the app that you’re staring at is, is one of the biggest parts of that whole thing. And so for me, you know that, that it’s really critical. But one of the things I also noticed when I was looking at these tweets is that a lot of I mean, clearly people have other tools they need to use to get whatever the kind of writing they’re doing is done. What other tools do you see people sort of like what kind of workflows Do you see people sort of using Ulysses as part of like, they might have some other tools or stuff, but seems like you guys, like there are a lot of people doing creative things with Ulysses out there.

Max Seeleman 15:49
So one, one thing a lot of people do is before they write, they like organize our thoughts. And they happen to do some, some do it in Ulysses, but some prefer outlining apps, like mind note, or x mind or something, and where they just, like, throw everything at and then later import it into the app. And yeah, then obviously, you have like a lot of post processing do been done for people that publish books, where they send out a Word file, and the publisher, then a lot of things, but also for self publishing, there’s tools that post process, for example, in already formatted ePub file into these Amazon Kindle Kindle files. And then we have an integration with timeline. How’s it called a on timeline, which is an which is an app that helps you organize the history of a novel, for example, if you’re writing a historical novel, then you have like a lot of things happening at certain dates, and certain places. And then you have like a visual timeline editor that then syncs to Ulysses with time and places, so for you to organize your, your writing, and then and then there’s people doing presentations, and Ulysses, for example, you can write, you can you can write, maybe basically just a markdown text, and then send it to a presentation, give me a second full name.

So but there is, there are apps that make from a markdown file, they make a presentation, that’s me, which then can put up as slides. So you can even do your presentations inside Ulysses. And

Trevor Thrall 17:49
that’s so nice, because I think one of the things that that, you know, Microsoft Word is great, it does a, it’s a Swiss army knife, you can probably do anything there is to be done with it, if you can stomach learning how to do that. But what it doesn’t do in my mind anyway is make other things easier. And I think that’s what you guys have focused on that’s so cool is that you know, the from the simple interface, being able to end up doing multiple different things without, since you already did the markdown it’s done, you sort of write once and use many times, which I think is is very logical. And winner for me. I’m curious, you’ve been doing this a long time now. And I’m asking you in a minute about your support of the writing community, which you guys are great about, but what have you learned about writing or the writing process or maybe about writers since you started this project? I mean, you guys interface with a lot of writers may have learned some good things, some bad things, I don’t know.

Max Seeleman 18:49
I already said that. They really like to write and write emails. Alright. That’s, I would say that’s a it’s a it’s an obvious and still interesting learning. Right? That’s it’s not writers are not limited to their craft, they they spread the now to say the Boston Tea everywhere. And then I would say about the process. One thing we only recently like really dug into and realize is that all writing processes sort of a seminar, right? You start with an idea, you then gather maybe some material, do research and then you write a draft, you review it and maybe you send it out for someone else to review. So but there’s, there’s there’s a process that every text goes through. And for different kinds of texts and different places this process. Each stage might be very different. But the process itself is always it feels like at least in our view that the process is very similar in structure. So it’s not like Did you? Yeah. Well, did you publish first and have the idea last? But of course you always have the idea first and publish last, and so on. So that is, yeah, that is something that is that is a realization that only came very late I would say, because we, we didn’t, we didn’t think about it before. But we hope to be making more of that realization in the future and to streamline the app even more. Right to watch that process.

Trevor Thrall 20:30
Yeah, no, I mean, for that, yeah. Because when you think about the marketplace of other kinds of apps that writers might use, there are some that are focused on the idea gathering and information gathering phase, there’s a lot of note taking apps, for example, then there’s some writing apps, and then there’s sort of publishing apps. And yeah, I mean, it seems like you guys have got your heads around all those phases.

Max Seeleman 20:50
Yeah, we try, we try to aim to represent the entire process, as much as basic, I would say is feasible. I mean, we can’t do every niche process. But we can have interfaces for every niche process, which is the markdown files we just talked about, like the presentations and all the other other integrations. And, but what we we will use this, this idea of the process to look at, where do we have gaps, right? Where can where can you start and end in Ulysses, but there’s a gap in between, which might force you out of out of the app. And we try to, we try to have a solid base on the entire process. So

Trevor Thrall 21:37
yeah, that’s excellent. So I didn’t mention I wanted to sort of get your take on your support for the writing community, you guys do writing contests you, you know, interview and sort of promote people tell me a little bit about why you guys do that, and sort of what you learned about that.

Max Seeleman 21:54
I feel like I feel like it’s important to show that the apps are not just about the interface and not about like, programming them, but there’s real people using them. And that it in the end, it’s about written content, and it’s about the people behind it, and showing that there’s many different ways people use a writing app. There are many different backgrounds of people be writing books, I mean, we have we’ve, on our blog, we have a lot of interviews, we’ve had people that hiked the entire worlds and people that run a diving schools on a remote islands that and people that quit their day job to become a writer. And people that happen to have stumbled into writing and others that are do really crazy things we have like TV, TV hosts that write the show scripts in it. And so it’s really the writers, the writer scene is really diverse, it’s and people ride everywhere. And in many occasions, and we hope to be able to give a give a picture of that. And with the with the contest, also, we had our hope was to give give some exposure to people that might never have been been given exposure to. And we ran it anonymously. And so it was really just we just looked at the text. And a lot of those that that did one and weren’t in like in didn’t get in the final round and got in the top 10 And got a price. They said they have never won a prize before. So it’s so it was the first time to be seen by others. And

Trevor Thrall 23:55
that’s awesome. That’s a good feeling. That’s a really good feeling. So totally different topic. Which country has the most Ulysses users per capita?

Max Seeleman 24:08
I would say to us, still goes we have I still us. It’s still like 45 or something percent of our users are from the US. And and that’s difficult to top on a per capita on a per capita basis.

Trevor Thrall 24:27
Where are some other countries that are are big?

Max Seeleman 24:30
Yeah, yeah. The other countries are big, but on a per capita basis, I would say it’s still in the US. So in absolute numbers, it’s us and us is fairly, fairly large. So maybe some very, very, like, I don’t know, some island country might might have might have a higher share per capita. But in total, it’s us. Yeah. I would say it’s mostly to be attributed to Apple’s market share. I mean, we’re exclusive on Apple’s platform and Apple’s market share in the US is this representation us is very massive. And yeah,

Trevor Thrall 25:07
yeah. Now that’s why did you guys choose to be a Mac only? Not that I’m complaining, obviously. But

Max Seeleman 25:16
I would say it used to be by accident in the beginning. And now it’s it’s a decision. So it used to be an accident in the beginning, because my parents had Max, they architects and architects in the, in the early 2000s, they used to have maximum, one of the few last people remaining that were regular back users. And Marcus also he was in a advertisers, advertisement agency. And so he’s been a graphic artist before. And nowadays, I would say it’s the creative people and people that like a willing to pay for ease of use, and that they see value in well designed apps, I would say they are drawn towards the Apple platform, so drawn towards iPhone drawn towards Mac. So if you really, if you want to, like the easiest to use devices, and ease of use, and and yeah, and feeling good, is core of apple and our philosophy. That’s, that’s, that’s the best match. And like, in terms of business, it’s it’s very, like, the math is very simple. So for example, if you take Android, I mean, there’s roughly like, really, really rough, like, calculation, but it’s like 10 times the Android devices. And the worldwide sales is like half. So the average willingness to pay per user 5% of that of an iOS iPhone user. So And for us that are selling most Yeah, I mean, those are what makes your business unique. It’s like the the ease of use and, and the and the feature set. And it’s a premium product. So that is just right on the iOS platform.

Trevor Thrall 27:12
Yeah, no, I, I agree with you creators tend to gravitate towards the Mac ecosystem. And that makes it a very good fit in but speaking of ecosystems, you know, the internet has obviously just changed the sort of nature of writing a lot. It seems like in the last, I mean, even just five years, 10 years. You know, do you see a role? Or is Ulysses part of that? Do you see? Where do you see the future of writing online going? And do you think writing apps play a role there?

Max Seeleman 27:46
I definitely see that we’re getting a lot of competition, right. So and that everybody tries to be more elaborate on their, on the usability. So if you look at, for example, just just an example, WordPress, they used to have a nice back end, we could write some texts, but they’ve like, last to last two or three years, they’ve switched to a new system. That is much easier to use. And, and, yeah, but it’s, it’s compared to where it came from, right. It’s much easier to use. So you get you get those movements from all the sides. And then we have a lot of a lot of startups that are that are going into the notes area and personal notes area in the writing area. And they are all just building on web technologies. So there’s a lot of competition coming from coming from the web. And in terms of publishing, it’s obvious that like, all news is online nowadays, right? Paper, paper news are going away. I don’t know if they’re going to be around in 20 years, maybe maybe not. Likely, much, much fewer of them. And so all this publishing is going to become more online. And all the submissions going to be online in and we probably they probably are already right. Nobody sends their manuscript in a printed form to the publisher nowadays. It’s all digital. And so yeah, and so this trend that we’re seeing with everything going online, we’ve also like helped with by integrating publishing, like 15 years ago, it wasn’t like a lot of people were blogging and a lot of new sites, new sites were running on WordPress, for example. But nowadays, a lot of sites run on WordPress, even the biggest news sites on the Internet. Some of them run on readily available tools, and Ulysses can integrate with them. And so that’s I think that’s more where it’s going. And it’s going to be interesting to see if there’s going to be a standard towards publishing, which I’m not not yet aware of Like every publisher, they still have like the closed processes. But it might happen that there’s a, there’s an open format coming. For self publishing, we’ve seen that already we’ve, we have people that self publish ebooks directly from the app. So even even a colleague of ours, she’s a writer, and she’s written, she’s written a book. And she’s published the ebook right from the app. So with no changes made,

Trevor Thrall 30:30
she used her own product, right, the book, you can’t really ask for more than that.

Max Seeleman 30:34
Yeah. And it’s all digital. Right? That’s like,

Trevor Thrall 30:37
fantastic. So So let’s wrap up. And let me ask you, where is Ulysses headed? What’s what’s the next sort of big thing you’re excited to do with Ulysses? What’s what’s on the docket?

Max Seeleman 30:50
So what’s the one thing we’re working on? Which is like, the most requested feature of all time? Since many, many years, number one is adding support for tables.

Trevor Thrall 31:07
Just I’m on that list? Yes.

Max Seeleman 31:11
So that is the number one project. Like, for a few months already, like, since spring already? It’s the number one project we really focus on that is very complex, very large. Want to do it? Right. Yeah, we want to

Trevor Thrall 31:28
have the best. Yeah, you want

Max Seeleman 31:30
to have the best table editor on the platform in our writing. So that’s, that’s the challenge. But we’re getting there. And yeah, and after that, let’s see. I mean, there’s, there’s multiple directions we’re going and one thing that I certainly see happening is that we’re gonna double down a bit more on the process, like how do people organize their library, add a few more tools. Yeah, to do to do to make it simpler and easier to navigate and easier to focus on a project right? It’s easy to follow text right now. It’s not that easy to focus on a project if you want to, like dig into your book or blog or something. So that is something we’ll double down on.

Trevor Thrall 32:19
Sounds like something to look forward to. I certainly look forward to it. Next. Thanks so much for joining me today. I learned a lot. It was fantastic talking to you.

Max Seeleman 32:28
Thank you for having me. Bye bye.

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