Two and a half years of building products
Written in June, 2019
TL;DR (Too Lazy Didn't Read) 📕
At last I did it! After more than two years of constant trial and error, I managed to build a successful, profitable product and achieve financial independence!
In this blog post I will explain in detail what happened and how I went from no idea to $2k MRR with CyberLeads inside six months.
The story of I found a good B2B idea. How I launched it. How I found a good distribution channel and grew it. And how you can do it too.
No bullshit. Straight up the real story. Moving abroad. Starting a full time job. Doubting myself. Crying. Finding CyberLeads. Launching it. Growing it. Everything.
Ok, let’s do it. Let’s go back in time to the beginning of 2020.. January 4th…
The big change. Moving abroad ✈️ 🌍
I’m getting off the plane. I’m in Milan, Italy. Going to get the bus to find the place I would call home for the next year. A little room, in a house with four Italian room mates I've never seen before in my life.
The weather is perfect. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I keep asking myself, “What the fuck am I doing here..”
The reason I’m here is because of “Epilepsy Blocker”, a product I built in 2019. It's a chrome extension that protects people with photosensitive epilepsy while browsing the web.
It managed to get the attention of the CEO of a big healthcare startup.
That company builds life saving, FDA cleared medical devices for people with neurological conditions. Epilepsy also. Hence, the interest. He invited me for a Zoom chat, and we discussed for close to two hours.
We talked about everything, and in our chat he explained what they do. He explained that they have offices in Boston, Milan and South Korea, and most importantly, that the door is open for me if I ever wanted to join.
I learnt that they use AI and other cool technologies. That they work with organizations like NASA and MIT. That one of the founders is an MIT professor. That they offer fantastic perks and benefits. Free lunch every day. Free gym membership. Free weekly massages. Free MacBook Pro and gear. Summer offices in Sardinia. An international team full of young and interesting people. A great salary.
But no matter how great the job, I wasn’t interested. Actually, I thought that there was a slight possibility they might buy EpilepsyBlocker. So, I was even disappointed.
I can't work for a company! That's like selling your soul to the devil. No matter how cool the company is, it still felt like golden handcuffs to me.
But I was running out of time. And I was going no where, as far as generating revenue is concerned. I had been building products non stop for two years, and was struggling at around $100/month.
I was also finishing up uni at this point, and after that I would have to find a full time job.
I mean.. you have to, right? You either study or you work. You can't fuck around on your laptop all day, pretending to be building businesses! That was my parents' mentality, anyway. And I had to respect it.
This was definitely the best job I would ever land straight out of uni. Especially with my grades and credentials.
And I also wanted a change. Moving abroad excited me.
So I took it. I emailed them and told them would start in January 2020, after I get my degree. I had a few months, but I still didn't manage to build a successful product. No matter how hard I tried.
I remember reading this quote:
"When in doubt, do the exact opposite of what you are doing."
A pivotal moment 🌧
So here I am, I've arrived in my small bedroom in Milan, and I'm getting ready to go to "work" tomorrow. At the office. Like a proper grown up.
I set my alarm clock for 07:00AM.
I saw my jeans, white polo shirt and watch on my chair. My shoes nice and clean. All ready to be worn the next day. Ready to make me look professional.
Fuck.. I'm an adult now.
Only my closest friends and some members of my family know about this, but at that moment, I started crying like a child.
I wasn't afraid that I was going to hate the job. The opposite, actually. I was afraid that I was going to love it and forget everything about my goals.
I was afraid that in the blink of an eye, my life will be work during the week, and partying on the week ends. Before I know it, three years will have gone by and I'll still be at the same job. I will have forgotten everything about my goals and dreams. My side projects would seem like a very distant dream I can hardly even remember.
"Oh, yeah. Back in the day when I used to build little side projects.. Cute."
I promised I wouldn't stop working on my personal projects, no matter how tired I am.
So, yeah.. Picture this.
A grown ass man crying because he would start a comfy job. At twenty five years of age.
It's pathetic. I know. But it's the truth. And in this blog post, you'll get nothing but the truth.
Starting a full time job 💼
Luckily, reality was different to my expectations.
There were no NASA scientists at lunch break. I wasn't saving lives with my code on a casual Tuesday. And I definitely wasn't discussing about AI, side projects or making the world a better place with my colleagues.
Welcome to reality!
I was tucked in a corner, with my brand new laptop, programming an internal dashboard for the logistics team.
Clocking in eight hours per day, plus one hour for lunch break.
I would enter the building at 10:00 AM and leave at 19:00 PM. That was pitch dark in January/February.
It was depressing. I wasn't getting close with my colleagues either. All our conversations were at surface level.
Things were like I had predicted. I had daily fuel and motivation to change my life.
Initially, I thought that something was wrong with me. That I'm a "special flower", who doesn't like working in an office.
One day, during lunch break, I overheard my colleagues talking about sleep. Somehow the conversation ended up in how lovely it is to lie down in bed on a Friday night. Knowing that you don't have to wake up early for the next two days. And how depressing Sundays are because you know you have to go to work the next day.
"Ok, so I'm not the only one."
I'm not the cancerous cell growing inside this company. And I'm not special.
No one enjoys working on a desk for eight hours a day, five days a week. Week after week. Month after month. Year after year. Decade after decade. No matter how cool the company is or fulfilling it's mission is.
Most people don't know you can actually escape. Or maybe they don't have the balls to try.
All I needed was a plan..
Forming my plan 👨🔬
Hindsight 20-20, but three books I happened to read in December and January helped me shape my approach and strategy.
- The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
This book was short, sweet, and easy to read. It's about a boy that has a dream and works hard for it.
Bullshit, really. Just a bit of inspiration to keep going.
- Atomic Habits
The most practical book I've ever read. It explains how progress happens slowly, then all at once. All you have to do is focus on your inputs/habits and wait for the rewards.
- Millionaire Fastlane
Please, for the love of god, ignore the title! It's cringe as fuck, and I have a really hard time recommending it for that reason. But, if you ignore the title and the first twenty pages of the book where he talks about chicks and lambos, you'll thank me. The principles in the book are timeless and very close to the indiehacking philosophy.
Three concepts from this book really helped me solidify some raw ideas I had in my mind.
They deserve chapters of their own.
The first concept is that making your passion your job is dangerous.
It can mix up your incentives and make you hate what you once loved.
I had personal experience with this. Again, I'm getting dangerously transparent with what I'm about to say, but fuck it.
I was looking at how many people have photosensitive epilepsy and remember being dissapointed that the market was small.
Damn it. Couldn't I have built a solution for more people? Couldn't it have been a bigger market?
I caught myself off guard. What the fuck. My incentives had started getting mixed up before I had even started.
It's a wonderful thing that so few people have this. Not a negative.
Now, EpilepsyBlocker is completely free, and always will be. I'm not trying to make it a business, and never will.
So stop trying to build products that are your "passion". What you want is a business that gives you the freedom to explore your passions and hobbies, without having to worry about making money out of them.
The second concept is that you don't have to be unique or try to change the world.
Trying to change the external, the whole world around you, is a very naive way of thinking.
What you want is to change your world first, and then the rest of the world.
Actually, changing yourself is the best way to change the world anyway.
Heck. If you are so keen like you say you are, do something more boring, make money, and donate like 50% of your income to charities, every month.
What is better?
Trying to build a romantic, cool, probably B2C idea to help humanity? Struggle to make a profit and build an average product at best?
Or build a less romantic, profitable product? One that you enjoy working on? Build a stellar product, make a lot of money and then give a percentage of it to charities every month?
I mean, honestly, ego aside, how can you be more useful to the world?
This question troubled me for weeks.
Entering a B2B market 🏢
The third concept is that you should try to enter a large B2B market at all costs.
There, no matter how many are competing, there is room for you.
Especially if you are a solopreneur, who's costs are low and wants to build a "humble" $5k - $25k per month business.
Of course I knew that already, but I was sceptical about it, since I found it scary competing with companies.
But what I saw at my day job completely changed my perspective on this.
What companies really look like 🕵️♂️
Spoiler alert. Companies aren't that scary after all.
When you're against a 50 person company, you aren't against 50 people.
You are against 5 motivated people and 45 yes-men. Forty five people that bored and dragging their feet until they finish the tasks they've been assigned to do.
They don't care about the company. They have their own lives to care about.
They have their own financial problems. Problems with their girlfriend or boyfriend. Dreams. Aspirations. Stress. Insecurities. Health issues. Maybe even sexual issues, who knows. The point is that they are not the company. They are humans. And just like all humans, they care about themselves first and foremost.
In my company people were not "bored" per se, but they were not passionate, as I had envisioned them to be.
Me included. I contributed to the company and it's cause, but first and foremost I was thinking about my own life.
I can't even imagine what goes on inside huge, outdated enterprises. Where the work you do is soulless and monotonous.
It's only natural. I actually promised to myself that if I ever hire people, I will never expect from them to care about my company the way I do. I want them to be cool, to know that I know how they feel. I want them to take care of their own lives, and that will hopefully show in their work as well.
The human element we described above, as well as tight regulations and bottlenecks in communication between departments, are what make companies slow.
Everyone is trying to minimize the work they have to do. And that's only natural also. Throw the ball to another team. Try to explain why it will take too long to implement. Request a change in the requirements.
So don't worry if you are competing with companies. You are faster and you are not even on their radar. They are looking at bigger players than themselves, just like you are.
And their employees are actually on your side. They will try their best to do the least amount of work they can.
They will open tickets. Forward them to other departments. Get feedback. Have meetings. Syncs. Quality Assurance. Go through regulatory. All that just for one feature or even change.
A solopreneur can pivot 180 degrees in one day. A big company has to hold meetings to change the color of a single button.
Company budgets 💵
I also saw what company budgets look like.
I knew that getting money from companies is easier than getting money from consumers. But I couldn't imagine this.
Remember that free lunch perk we had? That cost the company several hundreds of dollars per day. Yes. Hundreds of dollars. Every. Single. Day. Just for lunch.
And they are not the only ones doing this. Thousands of companies are doing exactly the same thing.
That was my biggest problem in the first two years of building products. I had never succeeded in getting a B2B customer. Not even once. Everything was B2C.
Compare these types of customers to chasing $5/mo checks from people that churn. It's ludicrous.
Enter a big B2B market and get a small slice of the pie. That's all you need. The internet is not a zero sum game.
If you think the internet is not big enough to handle you and some other guy or gall, you're crazy.
A large B2B market is the way to go.
Greatness is ugly 💀
Last but not least, I saw the ugliness behind a sexy tech product.
Not glamorous. I can assure you.
Building a life saving, innovative product comes with great responsibility. I saw support tickets from people complaining. Requesting refunds. Reporting bugs. The list goes on and on.
What? You thought just because you are trying to make the world a better place, people forgive you? The opposite. You have more responsibility. And when you charge money to cover your costs, they hate you even more.
Plus, writing critical code and keeping uptime for these kind of systems is scary.
Servers breaking and coming down in the night. Peoples' lives on the line. Ugh.
This experience haunted me, so I didn't want to write code either, if I could avoid it. The last thing I want to be coding all day or worrying about servers going down.
I mean, does my product have to be SaaS? Why can't it be something else?
Actually, I sort of fell out of love with programming, after doing so for eight hours every single day. I realized that I wasn't in love with coding after all, but creating.
And you can create without code.
My final plan 🧪
All the above helped me decide and formulate my final plan:
You can read my early draft of this plan here: Plans for 2020, but the gist of it is this:
I was going to build a non romantic, non unique, prefferably no code, B2B product, charge a lot of money for it, and whatever happens, give 10% of it's profits to charities.
I was working for just one month, but I had completely re-structured my business and life philosophy.
I had flipped my priorities 180 degrees and had a clear plan. All that was needed was for me to execute.
Following the plan 👣
Work in the office became my daily motivator. I would look out of the window and fantasize going back home to start working on my side-projects.
Create my escape route.
I was very influenced by 'Atomic Habits', so I tracked down everything.
Motivation is overrated. Discipline is overrated. Habits are everything.
It's easy to start out a new year or a new decade full of motivation. But motivation is a finite resource. You wake up early, do the shit that has to be done, all in the first few weeks. But what happens when that fades and you have already every single motivational Gary Vee video? (I hope not)
You wake up on a random fucking Wednesday, but Gary is not there to lift you up. You might even power through it once or twice but that's not easy either, because discipline, just like motivation, is a finite resource. What is not a finite resource is something that happens automatically, like the brushing of your teeth or your morning coffee.
Have you ever heard someone say:
"Dude, this summer I've really slacked off with brushing my teeth, you know? I don't know man, I have to start getting back into it in September/October."
Of course not! Brushing your teeth requires no discipline. Or inspiration. It's a habit.
I had to make working on my side projects a habit. That way, no matter how tired or bored I was, I knew that I would work on them.
I would write down in a small notebook every day the things I had to do.
- In green if I did them
- In blue if they are irrelevant
- In red if I didn't do them
That really helped. I subconsciously wanted to make the pages green. But it wasn't that easy.
Mornings vs Evenings ☀️ 🌙
Initially, I was working, or at least trying to work, on side projects in the evening after work. But I couldn't.
Humans have the capacity for 2-3 creative hours per day. That's it.
You can get serious work in, if you are in this mode.
But I had it all wrong. I would blow my load every day at my day job.
So, when I got home in the evening, I was toast. I would stare at my screen, pretending to be working, feeling guilty and sorry about myself.
I. Just. Could. Not. Work.
Especially when you are in idea phase, you need that creative juice. Idea phase is the hardest fucking part! The part that calls for the most creativity.
Not many people talk about this. They say that ideas don't matter, but I love Courtland Allen's take on this.
He says:"It's very difficult to become a 10 times better executioner, but it's easy to have a 10 times better idea."
Ideas mean everything and nothing at the same time.
They mean everything, because you can 10x your odds of success by simply picking a better one.
They mean nothing, because with bad execution you'll achieve nothing, no matter how good the idea.
Want some free ideas with the notorious product-market fit you are looking for?
Jira. Salesforce. Intercom. Stripe. Shopify. Webflow. Basically anything that exists, is making money and is not in a winner-take-all market.
The problem is that you have to find the right idea for you. The idea you know how to build, run, and be able to get it in front of potential customers. Again and again. At a good cost.
So, yeah, back to creative work. I couldn't work in the evenings, so I flipped that shit.
If your side projects mean so much to you, how come you are doing them last thing before you go to bed?
Such a simple, yet powerful question.
I started working on them first thing in the morning.
It was a game changer.
True work vs Pretend work 👨💻 😴
I woke up every morning at 05:00AM and worked on my own stuff until 08:00AM. I would have a clear mind and get serious work in.
Then I would go to the gym until 09:00AM. Then I would have a shower and get to work by 10:00AM.
When I got back at night, I had no guilt. I had conquered the day already. I would enjoy a book and go to sleep early.
These constraints set me free. I knew that I only had 2-3 hours per day to work on my own stuff, so I made them count.
Honestly, in those two hours, I got far more done that I did back in Greece, when I had the whole day to myself.
I started noticing "Pretend Work" all around me. In myself. In companies. People with their hobbies. Everywhere.
People staying busy, but not really getting anything done.
Some examples for us creators/entrepreneurs:
- Refactore code and move to AWS (when you have zero users)
- Set up Pingdom (before you have paying customers)
- Set up A/B test (when you get 300 visitors per month)
- Redesign landing page (when the conversion is just fine)
- Set up a business email, business cards, business paperwork
- Add feature X (that customers never asked for)
- Improve speed of website (no comment...)
- Set up meta tags (when you have a tiny blog)
- Send 10 cold emails and get feedback
- Post product on FB groups, Twitter, Reddit, etc
- Post product on FB groups, Twitter, Reddit, etc today
- Build landing page with a signup form and soft launch
- Go to local business and get their feedback. Ask them to pay.
- Launch on PH
I first started noticing "Pretend Work" when I was reflecting and writing my "2 years of building products" blog post.
With every launch, I found another piece of excess fat that could be cut off.
From my first failed launch, I understood that the ".com" domain I was chasing didn't save me.
From the second, that the awesome logo I created didn't determine my success.
From the third, that those extra features wouldn't make me or break me.
From the fourth, that the amount of upvotes, positive comments or recognition you get doesn't mean shit. It may sound shallow, but at the end of the day, all you want is someone to find what you built so valuable, that he/she pulls out their credit card and subscribes. Talk is cheap.
From the fifth, that the faster you launch the better.
The list goes on and on. By the end of it, I realized that all I needed was a fucking landing page and a checkout button.
Of course, I knew this. We all know this. This is day one stuff. Written everywhere. But unfortunately, humans don't learn by reading, but by doing. Only when I actually make those mistakes, did I really "get it".
Nowadays, I still try to find "Pretend Work" in my daily life. It creeps in and never leaves me alone. However, I've came up with this bizzare scenario that helps me identify it. Sounds stupid, but bear with me.
Someone holds a gun to your head:
"You have to generate revenue online, by the end of the week. If you don't, you're dead."
Extreme. But effective. All the pretend work goes out of the window.
All that matters is that you get someone to pay you.
Do those two or three things you know you have to do, and trust me, you are good. No need to work anymore. No need to feel guilty. You need a fresh mind. Stop pretending to be working and do what you are supposed to do.
Then relax and allow your brain to have new ideas.
Nowadays, I still think the same way. But I frame it a little different.
Someone holds a gun to my head and tells me:
"If CyberLeads doesn't grow by the end of the month, you're dead."
It helps me identify and quickly kill "pretend work".
Shotgun vs Sniper 💣 🎯
There are two schools of thought when it comes to building products and businesses.
The shotgun approach. And the sniper approach.
The shotgun approach is building many products and waiting for one of them to take off.
Sniper approach is building one product and sticking with it for months/years, even though it might not be generating any revenue.
Both approaches have worked for different people.
I went through the Indiehackers Podcast archive and started listening again to the episodes.
I noticed a clear pattern:
- They were tinkering
- They launched a product without thinking much of it
- It immediately got some traction and they were off to the races
Like the great Nassim Taleb says:
"Don't tell me what you think, show me your portfolio."
In contrast to popular wisdom and startup culture, that says you should focus on one and only one idea, for as much as needed, all the people I admired and looked up to didn't get there in that way.
These lists of products by Josh Pigford of Baremetrics and Pieter Levels of NomadList are just some examples.
I had seen this from my own experience as well.
In 2018, I built and launched 12 products and had good results. I went from zero experience in building products to almost $200 MRR.
In 2019, I focused solely on EpilepsyBlocker, but didn't manage to make it work.
Maybe the real answer is somewhere in the middle. Persistence is definitely needed, but you need that initial traction to put your soul into it.
At least that's what happened for me.
So, yeah, I was going to build many small products.
Building small products 🤖
I started building small MVPs like I used to, but this time I went market first.
I wasn't going to "throw and hope" or "spray and pray". I was going to "aim and fire".
I was going market first. I was going "idea hunting"!
I had two markets in mind. The Cyber Security market and the Lead Generation market. There are countless of big markets out there, but these happened to be two that interested me and I knew were lucrative.
These was the products I tried out.
A collaboration tool for pen testers.
I cold emailed several people and scheduled calls. Also went undercover on Reddit and asked questions regarding their pain points.
Something like, "I'm a student, I want to enter the market, what is the worst thing about your work?"
Or, "I have time and want to build a free tool for you guys, what do you wish existed?".
Shit like that.
I tried to find ideas in the market. Eventually, I realized that the Cyber Security crowd is far more technical than me, and I'm not a geek and engineer at heart. I would suffer in that market.
An uptime monitor for web scrapers. Website monitors have their place and people pay for them.
It's a bit of a saturated market, but that's not really a problem. We are not aiming to build a billion dollar company.
I built a Product Hunt Ship page. Built a mockup in Figma and posted it on Reddit.
Got emails from the landing page and some comments on Reddit.
No real interest though. Fuck this.
Lead generation service for startups selling to developers.
Built a Product Hunt Ship page. Also built a landing page with a subscribe button.
PH Ship didn't work at all for me by the way. For any of these ideas.
Launched on Twitter. Nada. Reddit. Nada. Cold emailed a few people. Nada.
Get notified when people talk about something on Twitter, eg. if you selling coffee machines, people that are talking about coffee.
Again, a pretty validated space. I had seen products do well.
Bad thing, I definitely would have to code.
Didn't get to try this one. I prioritized CyberLeads before getting my hands on it.
This is it. My muse. The product I was waiting for so long. So the big question I get asked all the time. How did I get the idea for it?
Spoiler alert, I didn't. I found it by accident while idea hunting.
Most people have a sexy "epiphany" moment. When they were walking around Central Park. Or lying on a beach in Bali. Looking at the stars. Smoking a cigarette. And like in some kind of Hollywood movie, the idea hits them.
Nah, my epiphany moment was super boring.
I was scrolling through Reddit and saw a post with a list of startups that recently raised money. The post was doing well, and people were interested. It seemed strange to me, so I started googling around.
I found out that recently funded startups are like the hot chicks in school that everyone wants to date. These startups are scaling quickly and since they have a truckload of money, they will hapilly spend it to solve those scaling problems.
I had seen this first hand from my day job, so I got the gist of it immediately. It made total sense and I liked it.
I found at least 10 businesses offering this information in one way or another. As a service. As a database. As a one time downloadable list. As a newsletter. As an insight and business intelligence platform.
And they were making money. People were paying for this.
They were also selling it to many different types of customers.
Some were selling to investors. Others to sales people. Others to journalists. Others to people looking for a tech job. Others anyone and everyone interested in tech and wants to keep up with the news.
This looked promising. But again, I had felt the same way countless of times before.
Explaining how I "rationalized" launching CyberLeads is dangerous, and can be very missleading.
So let me re-phrase.
I didn't know that it would succeed. It just looked promising. It was just another product idea. Product number 20. I had felt confident many times before and failed.
The big difference was that for the first time, I stopped looking at ideas as if they were fucking bus seats.
"Oops. This is taken! Sorry! On to the next one."
I was actually glad it already existed. That means it's already validated for me!
Ok, so I had a validated idea in my hands. How easy was that?
But the idea isn't everything. Ok, let's say it's validated. Now what?
The important thing is to find a distribution channel and get it in front of people.
I was going to try Product Hunt, as none of those other companies had launched there. It was an unutilized channel.
I chose the newsletter format, since it reduces friction, makes it super easy to sign up and doesn't require me to write code.
So, bacically, CyberLeads offered company, funding and contact information for hundreds of startups that just raised money in the past month. You subscribe, and get a new list with all these startups, on the 1st of every month. Dead simple.
I narrowed my focus to B2B Sales initially, and positioned myself as a service to help you grow your business. And chose Product Hunt as my launching platform.
Nowadays I have narrowed my focus even more, to Digital Agencies. But that's another story for another time. Probably my next blog post.
Now I was ready to launch.
There is no epic launch. No epic event. No going absolutely viral.
I built the website with a no-code tool and launched it on ProductHunt out of the blue. If people did indeed subscribe, I would rush and create it before by the 1st of the next month and deliver them the list, as my website stated.
No pretend work this time.
Even those mockups, soft launches, Reddit posts and cold emails had started to feel like "pretend work" now.
Just launch already.
The launch went well, and I got ten paying customers. Just like that. With a $29/mo price tag, I was at $290 MRR!
Some subscriners had business emails as well. I had officially built a B2B product at last!
All and all, I went from no idea to $290/mo in two weeks.
Or two years. Both answers are technically correct.
I was pinching myself.
What? That was it?! 🤯
So all of this blog post just to tell me that you found a simple, already validated idea, built it, and launched it?
I took me two years of pretend work to be able to do two weeks of true work.
Simplicity hides complexity and understanding.
We need time to build these skills and abilities.
The ability recognize a good idea.
The ability to recognize a good distribution channel.
The ability to kill your perfectionism.
The ability to launch fast.
The ability to know which idea suits you, your skills and your resources.
I already knew all of the above. From the first week I started indiehacking. It's written everywhere. We all know it. At least theoretically.
But there is a huge difference between knowing and understanding.
The 2018 version of Alex would never find the idea. The way to position it. Know what to include in the MVP and the landing page. Have the guts to launch this early. Have a small audience to push it to. Know which channels to use and know the ins and outs of them.
It took a long ass time, but at last, after two years, I had for once played my cards perfectly. It was time to make the most out of it.
Pure chaos 💥
I'm not even going to go over how I built the first list in 20 days. But the important thing is that I made it.
After all these months and much automation, they still take 50-100 hours to compile every month.
The craziest thing is that I didn't even know how to compile them at that point. This was my first list! I was building my parashute while falling.
Had to find the sources. The tools. Go over everything by hand. You name it.
But when you throw yourself in the fire, somehow anything is possible. I would wake up at 04:00 AM, work until 09:00 AM on the lists. Go to work. Come back at 07:00 PM. Work until 10:00 PM.
By far the most stressful days of my life. Twenty days of pure chaos. No sleep. But crazy excitement.
I would have never worked like this, if it wasn't for my paying customers waiting for their first list. This would have taken multiple months, I'm sure.
I managed to send the first list on March 1st, 2020.
Some of them unsubscribed. Others loved it.
I was happy, excited, stressed and shattered at the same time. It was crazy.
Ehm.. Now what? 🤷♂️
So you launch on Product Hunt and get your first paying customers. Now what?
I had no fucking idea.
Wouldn't it be great if we were could launch on Product Hunt every week? We’d all be rich!
Well, that's why you need a distribution channel and a way to utilize it. Repeatedly. At a good cost.
A way to generate traffic so it's essentially like launching every month/week/day.
It was final piece to the puzzle. Something I had never figured out before.
A small detour ⍼
Unfortunately, nearly all of March was spent building a new product.
I know, I know.. What the fuck, Alex?! I was angry at myself as well.
It was a similar product to CyberLeads, in a different vertical. I was acting off of momentum, and was picturing myself launching multiple products in different verticals.
Although this idea was also "validated", it didn't go great at all. I got zero customers, although I tried a lot. It reminded me to stay humble.
You have no magical powers all of a sudden. You have a gift in your hands, CyberLeads, and you have to make the most out of it.
Luck smiled at you. You have everything you wished for.
Double the fuck down and show it the attention it deserves.
Finding my distribution channel 🔍
From this point on, I want you to know that things get easier. I was out of the dark ages and had at last changed chapter.
My breakfast tasted better in the morning. The sun seemed warmer. The people kinder.
Literally, the whole world was burning down, going into complete lockdown and panic mode with the corona virus, but I was in my happy little bubble.
Italy, and Milan in particular, were hit hard by the virus. We were the first to go into complete lockdown. We started working remotely on March 9th, 2020.
While working remotely, I found myself having more energy. I actually started enjoying my day job as well. The future for funded companies was extremely unpredictable and we were building a new platform for pharma companies to track the spreading of Covid.
Everyone was terrified at this moment, and my work felt super important.
Also, since the future was uncertain, all bureaucracy was gone. We were all working as a team. Getting shit done. It was great.
For the next three months, we were in complete lockdown. Working from home. We weren't even allowed to leave the house, unless it was to go to the pharmacy or to the supermarket.
All of my room mates, but one, fled to their families to stay safe. So it was only me and my one other flat mate, Luca, who was also working remotely.
I had no problem being stuck at home. I was focused. It meant more time for CyberLeads.
All I needed was to find a way to get new customers in a repeatable and predictable way. A system.
Again, in another alignment of the stars, I happened to read a book that helped me a lot.
I read the book Traction, that's co-authored by the founder of DuckDuckGo. His main thesis is that startups don't die due to lack of product market fit. They die due to lack of traction.
What you want to do is focus at least 50% of your energy into marketing. Try every single traffic channel (they are 19) and when you find the one that working for you, double the fuck down.
Double down, and leave everything else. Focus all your energy on that one traffic channel, until it no longer works or you find a better one.
And that's exactly what I did.
I tried everything. Facebook Groups. LinkedIn. Reddit. Cold outreach. Banging my head against the wall. Hacker News. Direct Sales. Twitter.
Over a month went by. Nearly two. Revenue was dropping.
That's another thing I didn't know about the lead generation market. Churn is high, especially when you have low prices. You have to keep rowing. You can't take a break.
Many will come in, blast a cold email template to everyone, and then unsubscribe when they don't get good results.
I was very dissapointed and starting questioning myself again. Doubt had started to creak in a bit. I was again at around $100 MRR. The infamous $100 MRR, the place I lived in for two years..
When I felt down, I would log into ChartMogul and look at the chart history. Look at where it was after the launch.
"Wow.. I was at $300 MRR.. Man, that means it's useful. I just have to get it in front of people again."
My habit tracking notebook came to the rescue.
One of the habits I was cultivating was tweeting every day, and writing blog posts every day. It was something that I enjoyed and something I knew might help me.
They ended up being my saviors.
One day, on April 21st, completely unexpectedly, a random tweet of mine went viral! I had around 600 followers at the time.
"Got my first $50/mo customer! 🎉"
I posted it, watched a movie and went to bed. Didn't even check it until the next day. It ended up getting 2,000 likes and 100,000 impressions. What the fuck..
It also brought nearly 10 paying customers!
The next week I wrote a monthly blog post and posted it on Twitter. Someone shared it and it went straight to the top of HackerNews. The blog post went viral. People were actually reading my words on air and analyzing it on podcasts. So strange. So cringe.
It's "Month #4 | Holy shit" - you can find it on the homepage of this website, on the monthly column.
That blog post brought another 10 customers.
What?! I found it! It was the least expected traffic channel.
Twitter is crazy powerful.
Double the fuck down 🎯
This is where things got much, much easier.
I had a product and a distribution channel.
Once again, I was tempted to start utilizing the other channels that were working for me. Just like I wanted to build new products.
But this was one of the biggest lessons of this year. Less is more. Focused attention on one thing is far better than scattered attention on multiple things.
So I focused solely on CyberLeads and Twitter.
I would share my progress, just like I did before. The way I did before I even knew it could result into paying customers.
I wasn't promoting it at all, let alone in a slutty way.
"Hey guys, use the coupon 'CyberLeadsRocks' and get 20% off in the next 30 minutes! Go! Go! Go! Don't forget to retweet, like, leave a comment and share it with your friends! #promo #crazydeal"
No. I was doing the exact opposite. I wasn't selling it at all.
I was sharing my personal journey, lessons and milestones.
The best marketing is no marketing. No one wants to be sold anything.
I was just being myself.
From artist to athlete 👨🎨 👊
This is where the real fun begins. Things get even easier from here on.
You have your product.
You have your distribution channel.
And most importantly, you have your system to repeatedly get new customers.
Now all you have to do is put the reps in. That's it.
Until you reach this point, you have to be an artist. Be creative. Think out of the box. Do different shit every day. Try to crack this puzzle.
But from here on, you have to become an athlete. Be disciplined. Focused. Do the same shit every day.
The three main things so the guy with the gun doesn't kill you.
I would work two hours per day on CyberLeads in the morning to promote it. And a couple of hours in the afternoons and week ends for the lists.
Inside three months, half way through this crazy year, I was slowly getting within striking range with my monthly salary.
CyberLeads was only 4 months old, but was already at $1.5k MRR.
Two months later, just six months after the launch, it was at $2k MRR.
If I were to leave you with one thing, it's this:
Remember that things get easier after you find that product/channel/system combination. And you don't have to find it many times. Just once.
So don't give up just because you haven't found it yet.
What a ride. This year was crazy for the whole world, and my world as well. And we are still just six months in.
I'm still at my day job. Hacking away, working remotely while slowly travelling around central Europe with my girlfriend.
I love my job right now. I love that I'm working remotely. That I'm working on stuff that matter. That I am close with my colleagues. That people listen to what to I have to say and respect my opinion.
Maybe it's because I feel more confident now, after proving to myself that I'm capable of building a business. Don't know. I am at my day job on my own terms, and I don't see it as a trap anymore.
Actually, I am pinching myself every day. I'm living my dream...
Appendix: This shit is hard 😭
For now, I want you to keep this.
No one knows what the fuck they are doing. I don't. As far as I can tell, everyone is winging it.
I could easily "forget" and omit the previous two years. The crying. The doubt. The fear. The failures. I could just play smart.
Write about finding an idea and launching it successfully straight away. Building an audience and reaching $2k MRR in 6 months.
How cool would that be?
It would be very cool, but it would not be the truth. I'm not that smart. No one is.
The stars just happen to align sometimes. ✨
Like randomly getting the idea for EpilepsyBlocker.
My girlfriend pushing me to pursue EpilepsyBlocker although I was burnt out.
That specific company finding EpilepsyBlocker and reaching out to me.
Accepting that job and moving to Italy.
The corona virus not happening just two months earlier.
Seeing those specific things in the office at work.
Being sick the day I was scrolling through Reddit. Normally I would have been at the gym at that time.
The idea making sense to me because I was working at a funded startup.
Tweeting that random tweet.
Reading those specific books.
The list goes on and on.
Many people have actually read my blog and tried to do the same things. They build a product identical to CyberLeads. They built a landing page the same way I did. Launched on Product Hunt. Tried to promote it on Twitter.
Some were even talking the same way I talk. But all of them quit after a few weeks. All of them. It's strange.
It didn't work out for them. It wasn't the idea that matches them perfectly. The world is so random, and we have less control over it than we think.
You can't predict these things.
You need luck.
But guess what? If you show up every day for two years, one day you'll get lucky.
Coming soon.. 👀
In December I'll start writing "3 years of building products".
This was the plan initially, but so many things happened this year that I had to split it in two.
There, I'll cover what I learnt about building an actual business. All the new things I learned, like:
- Features & Design
- Incorporating a company and other boring stuff
- Going viral
- Fear for the future
- Inputs vs Outputs
- Playing the long game
And who knows what else.
See you soon, and thank you for reading ❤️