🔴 The software stuntman

Content, UX, gamification, oh my! (Ft. Peter Ramsey of Built for Mars)

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Today’s guest is Peter Ramsey. He runs Built for Mars, a UX (user experience) consultancy and content library he started almost by accident after the company he founded during university was acquired in 2018.

Peter is a rare type — an obsessively detailed research but not pedantic about it. He’s just as talented at spinning that research into fun, functional, and easy-to-digest narratives. It’s good stuff!

  • 🏍️ Going viral as a software stuntman

  • 🖥️ Building and selling a startup by 25

  • ♻️ How Peter built a rich content ecosystem

  • 🌲 Getting an audience to read evergreen (but older) content

— Francis Zierer, Editor

P.S. Listen to Peter and I’s conversation on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube.

P.P.S. Peter and I talked about a load of stuff that’s usually behind the BFM+ paywall. He’s a self-described “bad businessman” and a decent guy, so he wanted to give Creator Spotlight readers free (no credit card needed) access to all his content (for 60 days). That work represents over 4,000 hours of research. Check it out!

“I was like, this is it now. This attention is going to stay, going to hockey-stick up. I’m going to be the most famous man in the world in a year.

But what really happened is I spread myself too thin.”

The reason Peter Ramsey started producing content for a public audience was he kept having to sign NDAs. The reason he kept having to sign NDAs was he sold his company for some undisclosed sum in the millions of pounds.

It’s 2013. Peter is a university student in Bournemouth, England. He’s had a dreadful time dealing with dodgy landlords as a renter, so he creates Movem (as in “move them”), a website for him and his classmates to review local rental agents and landlords (à la Tripadvisor). He soon drops out, six months before graduation, to go all-in on what quickly becomes a tech startup.

It’s 2018. Movem has been acquired. In the previous five years, it had evolved into a two-way marketplace (agents and landlords could review tenants), then more of a FinTech tool replacing the entire tenant reference process, and finally a platform used by “every university in the UK, and more than 500 towns and cities.”1 

Movem website in 2018. It no longer exists; the buyer rolled it into their existing operations.

It’s 2019. Peter, undisclosed-sum-in-the-millions richer, leaves Movem. He spends a few months not knowing what to with all this free time (he’s now 26 years old) and playing Xbox. So, he starts consulting for a few fellow founder friends; he was always product-obsessed.

Bigger and bigger clients come knocking. Over the years, Peter’s client list has grown to include names like Notion, Stripe, and Google. But, back in 2019, when potential clients asked to see a bit of his work, he’d nothing to show them — it was all under NDA. Thus, content.

Becoming a creator

Peter likes making stuff. Specifically, he said, “I guess creating stuff is quite interesting.” And he’s quite good at it. He published his first case study in September 2019. But the bombshell — the nine-part series with around 2 million page views to date — came in May 2020.

Ok — the work Peter publishes started as a case study series to convince consulting clients, and it absolutely still does that, but it’s evolved. Peter, in an interview three years ago2, described himself separately as a “software stuntman” and compared himself to MrBeast.

In comparing himself to MrBeast, Peter meant to underline the amount of time he puts into each project “to do something outlandish.” In terming himself a “software stuntman,” he simply means he commits and goes through the motions. He becomes the user to understand the user experience. For example, back in 2020, Peter wanted to dig into Uber’s driver-side app, so he signed up and drove around delivering McDonald’s through Uber Eats.

None of Peter’s case studies exemplify his MrBeast-software-stuntman schtick better than his banking study; none have proven as popular. Here’s an incomplete list of everything he did:

  • Opened over 12 new bank accounts

  • Measured how many clicks it took to create each account

  • Spent hours on call with customer support for all 12 accounts

  • Opened and froze cards for all 12 accounts

  • Completed international payments using all 12 accounts

You get the idea: Peter drew up a laundry list of actions a new banking customer might take, then tried them all himself — with 12 different banks. He then ranked the experience for each action and published the results in a six-part series. Three years later, he went back and published a three-part update.

Again — 6 million pageviews across the banking series alone in the four years since publishing. And Peter was catapulted to microcelebrity status in the FinTech world. Here’s why it worked:

“People had done it before, right? They were always dry and boring. And there are companies that exist that sell these, that do annual reports for banks and sell them for, I’m making this number up, two grand per company.

It’s a big business and it’s entirely dry and indigestible for the average consumer.”

The novelty in Peter’s work was the packaging, the storytelling, and that it was entirely free to consume. Why would anyone publish something like this for free? He worked on it for 6 months, spending hundreds of hours on it and incurring personal financial risk.

The series went viral with “a really weird group of people, VCs and company owners and boards of directors, you know, people who don’t normally get caught up in the viral aspect of reading something.”

Virality wasn’t for him. Peter had a busy 2020 and 2021 in a certain sliver of the public eye: he was a frequent podcast guest, he had a TechCrunch column, and he wrote a few articles for Forbes. He became an entrepreneur-in-residence at VC firm Creandum, who called him “the best UX expert in Europe today.” He said yes, yes, yes to all these new opportunities.

Peter’s last article for TechCrunch

Then, by the end of 2021, Peter largely stopped participating in any content besides his own: “I wanted to build that brand myself as opposed to for someone else.” He still works with Creandum.

Consulting, content, and conflict

The bank study brought Peter far more inbound leads for his consulting work than he could ever serve. In a 2021 interview2, Peter said:

“I don’t make money out of Built for Mars. People pay me separately to work on their own stuff. It’s a free blog, I don’t have ads, I never plan on putting ads or making money or making it a paid newsletter. I do it ‘cause I love it, so I hope that comes across.”

Businesses evolve, and we change the rules we set for ourselves: Peter launched a paid version of Built for Mars last November. I brought up the above quote and asked him what changed:

Consulting doesn’t scale as a product. It’s just me. And I never want to have have an agency where I’ve got people working under me that I outsource this stuff to.”

Peter wants the content and consulting to be separate businesses. To date, the consulting work has funded the content work; any revenue the content has generated (through subscriptions) has also gone back into the business.

Services and happy customers from Peter’s UX audit product page.

Three developers work on the Built for Mars website part-time: “How can I sustain that to a point where I’m not just paying wages out of a consulting pocket that can’t scale.” Enter: the premium subscription model. BFM+.

A bad businessman creates a good content ecosystem

There’s no particular reason Peter has to spend so much time on his content except, perhaps, his personal passions and neuroses. Back in November 2023, with 64 case studies published, he calculated he’d spent “about 3,500 "real" hours of [his] life researching and publishing free content.” He could’ve done way less and still attracted great consulting clients. But that’s not who he is — he likes the work, he’s good at it, and he historically hasn’t needed it to be lucrative.

I framed Peter’s consulting-funds-the-content model as him investing in himself; he replied he was “just a bad businessman.” A questionable statement given his success. I told him that I’d really enjoyed his website. He responded, “I’m glad you said that, because I hate it. Firstly, I’m actually a terrible designer.” Sure, the website has many flaws. Load times are dreadful and he’s still figuring out the ideal navigation system.

Peter’s self-deprecative replies here could’ve come off as arrogant. Rather, I found them illustrative of a detail-obsessed realism that seems to be his default operating mode. He’s uncommonly talented at noticing things, contextualizing them, and figuring out how to improve them.

Anyway — the website. Here’s how it works:

A high-level view of Peter’s content ecosystem.

One of the main issues Peter is trying to figure out with Built for Mars is that people aren’t used to consuming “old” content. That’s how we consume the web: we check the front page of our favorite news sites for fresh news. Social media feeds generally serve us the latest. This is a problem with Creator Spotlight, too — our past features are largely as interesting and relevant today as the day they were published, but you experience the series as a weekly newsletter.

There are 71 case studies and counting on Peter’s website. But he doesn’t believe simply pumping out more case studies will actually be a smart move. To use his example, by his 211th case study, he’ll probably be running out of fresh insights. The challenge will be more about guiding his readers to precisely the information they need precisely when they need it.

Light gamification might be the UX solution. Peter is currently experimenting with an analytics card for premium (BFM+) users:

My stats. I like how it gives me an understanding of the value of the content with the “Research digested” metric.

The card is "a way for people to understand the depth of the library that they’ve not read.” Peter says readers will sometimes pay for a subscription, email him asking to do some articles on Intercom (for example), and he’ll have to reply to tell them he’s done two.

“The aim is every time you come to the site, you can binge it like a TikTok, but for five minutes, not for hours, get a few ideas, take it away to a meeting.

It’s more about surfacing the depth than it is about encouraging you to continuously come back.

The dream is you can come to the site and be like, ‘I’m building a taxi app.’ And [the site] is like, ‘Have you thought about reducing churn? Here are loads of things.’ And you can keep diving in the rabbit hole.”

The people are coming back — it’s just a matter of helping them get the most value from the full content library.

Peter says, “Built for Mars is often the first time that someone has cared about UX. It’s often the entry point.” He gives non-designers a highly accessible lens into what UX is and why it matters. The plan is to scale down consulting and continue working to make his content as useful as possible.

Here’s the thing: if you’re anything like most Spotlight readers, you, unlike Peter, are not a (presumed) multi-millionaire from selling your startup and consulting for the world’s best software companies. You may have neither the money, the time, nor the pure, natural obsession to create a deeply researched, fun-to-read case study series that attracts an audience fully word-of-mouth.

Quality content takes time and care. Is Peter a content creator? Yeah, sure — more accurately, he’s a writer and researcher. The problem with those two words, content and creator, is that they flatten. They reduce.

To be a creator is to contribute to the massive and deafening conversation we call the internet. To be only a content creator, sans nuance, is simply to make noise. We should aspire to more than that — to be writers, researchers, podcasters, videographers, producers, whatever it is you may do — with something to say.

We, the people, who make up the internet deserve a richly textured content landscape that we might call culture. Spend time on your work. Take care. Sweat the details, because they add up. The details are all we have.

You can connect with Peter on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Peter is a great conversationalist, which means we made a great podcast episode. Listen on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube.

🎙️ In Peter’s episode of The Creator Spotlight Podcast:

  • 💿️ Stories from his work as a “software stuntman”

  • 💹 Thinking about scale and sustainability in a content business

  • 📣 Outsourcing or scaling a brand voice (for companies and creators)

Listen on Spotify, Apple, or YouTube.

A cheatsheet for improving your content UX

By “content” I mean writing, audio, or video created for online distribution and consumption — stuff consumed on phones and laptops. By “content UX,” I mean how your audience experiences your content.

User experience. Your users are your audience, and their experience is, well, every single touchpoint to do with your newsletter. Every page, button, and line of text on your website. Every detail about the newsletter itself, from subject line to word count to format.

Every detail of your newsletter could probably be better. That’s absolutely the case with Creator Spotlight, if I’m being honest. But to think about it all at once is overwhelming and unhelpful. So, a simple piece of advice: make a list of the top three details you think could be tweaked to improve the UX of your newsletter. Try to improve just one next time you send an issue.

For example, Creator Spotlight is long. I’m sure most of your fellow readers don’t read it all the way through (you do, right?). So, this time, I’ve greatly shortened the longest part, In the Spotlight, and given you the option to read more of it on our website. What I’m trying to solve for here, in technical UX terms, is a form of “Cognitive Drift” — I want you to be able to at least scroll through the entire newsletter without getting overwhelmed, then get back to your day. And I want you to come back and do it again next week.

Next week, I’ll probably still be trying to solve for “Cognitive Drift.” After that? I’m looking for ways to introduce moments of “User Delight.” And yes, these are obvious concepts and a little over-intellectualized. But! Quality content — and quality content UX — is serious business.

A few items in the BfM UX glossary

I suggest you check out the Built for Mars UX glossary. Many of the ideas apply to the work I do around this newsletter, and most aren’t as obvious as the two I mentioned above. I found it thought-provoking and useful. I think you will, too.

Three pieces of content we were thinking about while writing this issue.

  • 404 Media’s Jason Koebler wrote about journalists writing throwaway “articles” about Elon tweets. TLDR: It’s no way to live. Do original work.

  • This Creator Spotlight from March, about Salary Transparent Street, was on my mind writing today’s issue. Why? They’ve also set up a compelling content ecosystem, though in quite a different way.

  • The Colin and Samir Show featured Instagram head Adam Mosseri this week. It’s a good look at how IG thinks about creator revenue share and IG v. TikTok, among other things.

Thanks for reading! I had a great time chatting with Peter, so if you haven’t listened to our podcast before, this is a perfect episode to start with (Spotify, Apple, or YouTube).

Next week’s guest is Akhil Chauhan, who runs a newsletter self-explanatorily titled The Writer’s Job Newsletter. His story is unique in that he actually acquired the newsletter a year into its existence … but he’s now been running it for going on three years. We had a great conversation that leans more business-side-of-things than usual.

And if you missed last week’s story about how Caitlin Murray built a 1.4 million-strong Instagram following — check it out.

Talk soon,
Francis Zierer, Editor

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1  “This is the biggest change our start-up has seen in 5 years.” Peter Ramsey, 2018

2  “Built for Mars | Peter Ramsey” Fintech Nations, 2021

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