Stumbled onto Indie Hackers today, saw the top milestone was from someone in the same space as me who just hit 100K users in the same timeframe as me.
Here I am with ~20 users.
Their product is far simpler than mine, and they likely don't have to go through a Google audit.
I get jealous when I see those things. What am I doing wrong? Seeing that makes me feel like I've done everything wrong.
This is why I don't like to go on Indie Hackers anymore, what's the point? It's just a distraction.
I don't gain much benefit from learning they are at 100K users. You could argue that you could learn something from them, which is somewhat true. After seeing it, I looked closer into their business and their marketing.
But you can also argue it's just a massive distraction and probably will leave you worse off.
Not only did it make me feel shitty, but it makes me rethink my business and second guess myself.
If you second guess yourself every day, then you will never make decisions forward or progress.
The last few weeks have been tough, I'm finding that I'm becoming more "worried" about my businesses every day.
I'm nervous every morning I wake up and check my email. Will there be a new churn? A really bad bug? Will my employees quit?
To a degree, I think this is normal. When you run a business you always have that lingering feeling that it could all fall apart.
But it wasn't always this bad for me. It has definitely gotten worse.
Something needs to change.
I associate my own ego with my business. To me, my business is a part of me. So when something bad happens in the business, it affects my mood, my self-worth, etc.
When I was running Starter Story, I felt less like that. I think part of it was because I had a full-time job, so money wasn't an issue. The project could fail and I'd be fine. And also, I cared less about the idea and the market. I felt that I was more indifferent to the content and the idea, because I was interviewing other people. It was less of a representation of me.
But that is different with Pigeon. Each churn feels like a big blow, and I often take it personally.
Over the last couple days though, I feel I've been climbing out of this mentality. I need to accept the fact that all of my customers could churn tomorrow, go to $0 monthly revenue, and I would still be OK. And I still wouldn't quit with the idea, just adjust and keep focusing on the future.
I still have a successful project that is making money and enough runway for a couple years.
Time and time again, I hear the startup advice... something along the lines of "don't build a product and find a market" but "find a market and build them a product".
I didn't follow that advice.
Well, I sort of did. I picked bloggers or people that run sites similar to Starter Story. But that market ended up being way too small, and way too early.
So I thought picking a userbase would be enough, Gmail users - because Pigeon is a Gmail CRM. That does give it a lot of leverage, as 1.5B people use Gmail.
But I didn't choose a market. And it's biting me in the ass right now. Churn is high and I'm building something for too many people.
Why didn't I do this?
I'm stubborn and I didn't listen
I thought I could "figure it out as I built it"
I didn't have any idea what market to go for
The good news is that it's not too late.
As I continue to have the realization that I've been doing it wrong, I can work to change things.
How? Start looking for markets.
Now that I'm close to being done with the Google audit, the world is my oyster. I've built a great product and now I just need to find the best users for it. I can still keep the use case wide, because it's so flexible, but I can now pick and choose who I should go for, as long as I can plan it right.
Over the last hour, I created this spreadsheet:
Across the columns are questions, which can be answered on a scale of 1-10. Along the rows are different use cases and potential customers.
I've been scouring the Chrome store reviews for Streak to populate the rows. Total up the scores and maybe that can determine was use cases I should go for.
Once I know that, from a distribution side of things, I have some confidence that I can reach those people (with proper planning). I got Starter Story to 100K+ visitors, I think I can figure out some of the marketing stuff.
I'm excited about the future. Time to find customers that really need this tool.
(this spreadsheet/idea is a work in progress - I'll keep this updated on how it goes)
Some of these recent days have been harder than in recent memory.
It kind of feels like things are just slowing down for me. In my businesses. I feel like I've lost some of the excitement that I had a couple years ago when starting my own business.
Maybe because it's December (and it's slow), or maybe I'm just too isolated these days.
I want to do something bigger than just have a programming job and go through life.
I want to be somebody. I want to have unique ideas and people to look back and remember me. I want to influence and drive change in the world, and people.
But on harder days, I think about how I could be making lots of money in a corporate job and live in New York and be getting married etc etc.
Am I too late for this? I'm 29 and going to be 30 next year. Do I have time to do all this stuff that I want to do? Build a successful business, make money, build a family, etc etc.
I'm working too much lately and it sometimes feels like I'm not making progress.
Whatever the case, I can't see myself going back to a job. For me, that is throwing in the towel, and would be a big setback. I will do anything to not be there. I will do consulting or sell courses if it came to that.
I don't want to admit it, but I spent the last 5 days rebuilding the main data grid feature for my product.
I basically worked all day every day - I needed to rebuild it because of some big performance issues that customers were facing.
This rebuild has been nagging at me for months. I needed to do it. This last week was the week to do it.
"Pick the best library"
I knew I needed to use a good library, but this time, it better be a "good one". So I did a bunch of research on the best table / datagrid libraries for React, and I decided to go with react-data-grid.
A couple hours into it, I was flying high. Everything was working great, I had implemented about 60% and it was looking slick.
Then I found an issue. Then another.
Hours go by, I'm making progress, but a lot slower now.
I find myself scouring Github issues from 3 years ago, unresolved, stale. I see someone else is having the same issue as me, but nobody responded. Damn...
I find myself in an endless loop on the same Github issues and Codesandbox examples.
I stumble on a thread with dozens of comments about how the library is unreliable and the owner is unresponsive.
Eventually, I give up.
"Pick another library"
"Fuck, I'm 2 days in and I'm switching libraries? I'm a loser."
One quote that always stuckk with me is from the intro of a Dr. Dre song, it goes:
Fear. Fear's a powerful thing. I mean, it's got a lot of firepower. If you can figure out a way to wrestle that fear to push you from behind rather than to stand in front of you, that's very powerful. I always felt that I had to work harder than the next guy, just to do as well as the next guy. And to do better than the next guy, I had to just kill. And you know, to a certain extent, that's still with me in how I work, you know. I just... go in.
It's by Jimmy Iovine.
I really can relate to that quote, especially today.
It just feels like I have to work so much harder than others to get the same results...
Typically I do monthly Starter Story reports, but I'd like to start doing this for Pigeon. Since they are two very different businesses, I'd like to do them separately.
Overall, I'm feeling really good about Pigeon - better than I've ever felt about it, I think.
This road of building a SaaS has been really hard - a lot harder than I expected. I've gone through some pretty depressing times - wondering if this is even worth it. But, I keep coming back to it, chipping away, and really proud to not have given up and gotten as far as I have.
If you go back and read some of my daily entries here, you'll probably find some stuff about this.
Signups for Pigeon have been really strong and MRR is at its highest right now.
This next month I will go through the Google audit and I'm really excited for 2020. It's going to be a big year.
Right at the end of October, I was rejected from YC. That really sucked, but a month later, I've mostly forgotten about it.
After the rejection, I put my head down and focused on building a better product. I improved a ton of UI/UX, onboarding, signup, and added a bunch of features.
I spent a lot of time on marketing this year and validating the product. Now, I'm confident it's validated. It's time to get serious.
MRR is at $783, which means 27 paying customers. This is up from about $667 last month, about 12.5% increase.
I also track active users, because I think it's more important than revenue.
Here's what a weekly graph looks like since we started in May:
Churn has been rough, although I think it's too early to look at the numbers too seriously.
Weekly newsletter updates
A big win this month has been the weekly newsletter I've been sending. I have about 300 people on my email list, who are both existing/past customers or people who are interested in Pigeon but have not become a customer.
Every Tuesday, I send out a newsletter about exciting new Pigeon updates, usually new features.
This has done a couple things:
It's brought in new customers
It's kept me accountable to ship new stuff in a consistent manner
It's helped me ship faster and become more productive
It's showing customers that we are dedicated to Pigeon
The Chrome Web Store
I remember talking to Ajay Goel from Gmass and he told me a lot of his growth came through the Chrome web store. I am starting to feel this now. Pigeon now gets 3-4 signups per day (which puts people on the waitlist). People are starting to find us through there.
One of the reasons I decided to start Pigeon was because it was a Gmail plugin. Being in the Gmail/Google ecosystem gives you access to a massive userbase (1.5B active users) and a free acquisition channel.
It's also easier to convince people to use your product because they are already using Gmail!
We shipped a ton of stuff in November. Here's the main stuff:
Re-engineered the entire email templating engine
Made signing up much easier (oAuth flows, etc)
Quoted text in email replies
Lead status updater in sequences
Gmail reply box reminders/sequence setters
General onboarding / documentation / product education improvements
Felt great about November, and I have some big plans for December. I will be mostly focusing on product and getting the security audit completed.
High level I'm focused on getting everything sorted for the new year, so we can hit 2020 and grow fast!
Woke up at ~8am and pretty much worked until 8pm. Then I ran 3 miles.
It went by in a flash.
This week is crazy.
I need to get a big set of features out for tomorrow's release, then grind out this Gmail security audit, and then get all caught up on Starter Story stuff, and then jump right back into a big Pigeon project.
It certainly doesn't help that because of the past holiday weekend I missed 2-3 solid days of work. I shouldn't feel that way though, it's the holidays!
Although everything feels so hectic right now, I'm really excited about how I'm going to execute in this new month of December. Big plans. I wanna get a ton of shit done in anticipation of 2020 and set the year off right.
Most people "chill" in November/December. I'm grinding and getting ahead. I did this last year and it felt great.
It's starting to feel like things are coming together for Pigeon - it feels like more people are signing up every day or at least being interested. I just need to keep putting in this kind of work. It will all pay off.
I apologize for missing updates for September and October.
I was traveling on and off, and when I did have time to work I was super busy and needed to focus on business tasks.
Before jumping into November, here's a quick glimpse on traffic for those months:
November - our biggest month ever
But this month is about November, where we hit over 100k uniques!
Much of this is thanks to a really big Hacker News post that went viral. You can see the 20k+ uniques we got in one day. Even without the big Hacker News push, this still would have been the biggest month.
In November, we published 57 interviews. I'd like to be publishing at least 60 interviews/month but this month had a holiday and November/December have historically been slow for us because businesses are focused on Black Friday and the holidays.
In the new year, I expect a big spike in traffic as well as content output.
We are just days away from hitting 10k email subscribers.
However, email list growth has been really slow. I removed the CTA on the main page to put in the search box, which hasn't helped.
In December, I have a project to increase email optin rates, which I will use a bunch of tactics from this article.
I think it will go up a ton.
Revenue for November was $7,594.
Big tasks completed
Nowadays, I'm more focused on "bigger projects" within Starter Story.
Now that much of the content and "day to day" is owned by our small team of freelancers, I'm freed up to work on development/experimental projects, scaling, and generating revenue.
We try to find a way to automate or outsource most things and stay as lean as possible.
Here are some of the big things completed in November:
Adding more Pinterest templates
I'm always looking for new ways to distribute content for Starter Story, and I've been running an experiment on Pinterest where I auto-generate image assets and post on Pinterest.
Been doing this for a couple of months now and it's starting to pay off, you can see the graph taking off in last 30 days:
Improved social media
Our social media is completely automated, but I did spend some time making captions better and getting the auto-generated assets working properly.
I also added a LinkedIn channel to Buffer, and I post there regularly now.
We never had this before, as I always encouraged people to email me and go from there.
This new form brings in 1-2 legitimate interview opportunities per day. Pretty cool to see it working!
One of my goals for next year is to build a more "self-service" interview process. This form is one of the first stepping stones to get there.
Follow up stories
We are now doing many "follow up stories", as we call them.
These are interview "updates", i.e. we interview someone again 1 year later. This project has been really successful, and we have over 50% of founders agreeing to do one. Surprisingly, most of them say yes!
This is great because it's confirming that founders do see a nice benefit from sharing their story on Starter Story, and they're willing to go through the work to do it again.
I set up a Pigeon integration that would reach out to past interviewees to see if they want to do another interview. And getting them to write good content is really easy since they've already been through the process :)
Testing out lifetime membership
For our premium membership, I removed the free trial and only included a monthly, yearly, and lifetime membership.
I thought that we would see a lot more people signing up for the lifetime membership, but that has not been the case - we haven't even had one lifetime signup since introducing it about a month ago.
Signups are very much down after removing the free trial, and overall, I'm not very happy with results. I will reassess at the end of the year and see it makes sense to bring back the free trial.
I also paywalled a couple more things around the site, such as filtering businesses.
Increased exposure for Klaviyo
Lastly, I added new ad spots for Klaviyo in an attempt to drive more traffic and exposure to their site.
Since they sponsor the site exclusively, I want to make sure to send them as much traffic as I can, so I added this to all interviews on the site:
The results for that have been super good, driving ~3x more clicks for them across the site.
I hope you enjoyed this month in review! Lots of cool stuff planned for December.
Today, the day after Thanksgiving (a proper holiday) I had a product demo scheduled with a customer, at 8am.
Prospects book demos through Calendly, and I had forgotten to update my schedule to reflect the holidays.
This is my fault, so I owned it. I woke up at 730AM, tired as shit. I got my coffee and headed into the hotel lobby where I'm staying.
He didn't even show up to the meeting, and didn't respond to my emails for over an hour. He finally replied that he could talk, I sent him another follow up to jump on Hangouts and he didn't respond to that one.
This kind of thing actually happens all the time, so I'm used to it - it probably happens 20% of the time.
It really sucks, but it's part of the job.
There are a lot of reasons I do product demos and have meetings like this. For one, it builds a relationship with customers. It helps me get feedback on the product and understand what users want and how they think. It's also hard to get people to sign up for my product because of the Google security audit issues I'm facing at the moment. There are lots of other reasons too.
One day, I won't need to take meetings for new customers. Maybe the product won't need it anymore. Maybe I will have a team that does it for me.
But for now, I gotta do it. I see it as a make-or-break for my success.
Having a no show today especially burns.
I could send a passive aggressive note to the customer, but no, I should keep my cool and get him to reschedule - I should focus on landing him as a customer and not let my ego get in the way.
Over the last 3 Tuesdays, I've made it a point to "launch" features and to my customers.
In reality, it's just a weekly email blast that goes out to around 300 people. Here's what today's looked like:
Something good always seems to come out of sending these, for example:
I got 5-6 emails so far with general comments and feedback already - I expect a couple more over the next couple days.
Building this SaaS is so god damn hard, but one thing that seems to chip away is just simply keeping people updated - whether that's my customers or people who are on my email list and keeping tabs on the product for the next time they might need it.
Nobody really cares about you, or your product. You need to tell the world!
Putting together the newsletter, all of the documentation, creating videos, and responding to emails - it all takes about half of my day, but I think it's worth it. It's also been keeping me really accountable.
I should be spending even more time on marketing too. But right now, I'm just doing a massive product push through the end of the year, and then I'm going to go absolutely bonkers on marketing in the new year.
Let's talk about Starter Story vs. Pigeon - my two projects that I'm working on.
Starter Story is an info product (sort of, it's a blog), and Pigeon is a SaaS.
In a given week, I spend 80% of my working day on Pigeon, and 20% of my working day on Starter Story, yet I generate 80% of my total revenue earned from Starter Story and 20% of it through Pigeon.
People probably look at my situation and think I'm stupid to be doing this, and I can definitely see their point.
It also feels so much harder to grow and get traction for Pigeon than it does for Starter Story.
But I do justify this for a couple reasons:
Pigeon is a much more scalable business (and business model)
I wouldn't be proud of myself if I didn't try to build Pigeon.
Info products life time value is much shorter
It's like skiing vs. snowboarding. In my opinion, skiing is really easy on your first try, but gets really hard as you take on more advanced terrain. Because when you stand on skis, you can naturally balance without falling. But as you take on steeper terrain, you have to face pointing your skis straight down the mountain.
When you first try snowboarding, you catch your edge and fall on your ass the whole time. It sucks. But as you get better and take on more steeper/advanced terrain, your edge actually becomes a crutch. On steeper terrain, you don't have to point your snowboard straight down to get down the mountain - you can just do a "falling leaf" and never have to point your board straight down.
Info products (like Starter Story) are soooo much easier in the short term, for a couple reasons:
You don't have to provide value every single month (to avoid churn)
You can rely on one-time impulse purchases (funnel, buy this book, course, etc)
Can easily differentiate (there are millions of books in the world)
Can use your own audience / founder "clout" to propel the business
But in the long term, there are really big downsides (in my opinion):
Not recurring revenue and unreliable business model
You take advantage of people's impulses (which is morally questionable - that's just my opinion - but there are thousands of scummy courses out there)
It's hard to scale the business beyond "yourself" and your own brand
You will likely not be acquired or have a big multiple on your business.
Can the business run without you?
Fulfillment for the founder. Are you really adding value the world?
So - I think info product businesses are a great way to get started. It's a stepping stone. For my case, Starter Story allowed me to quit my job and own my own time.
Without Starter Story, I wouldn't be able to build Pigeon - from a financial/time perspective, as well as experience.
That's all I'll write today, on this, but more to come soon. Wrote too much.