This is not a success story. This is not a "humble brag".
In 2018 I start with a goal of reaching $500 MRR through my side projects.
Six months in, I am at $50 MRR, riding a huge wave of momentum.
Fourteen months in, I am at $200 MRR and have three profitable products.
Now I'm two years in, I have shut down two of those three profitable products and I'm at $100 MRR, wondering what to do next.
During these two years, I find myself having pimps, scammers, arms dealers and pornstars as customers, get offered an amazing medical technology job in Milan, have business meetings with CTOs of multi million dollar TV networks, and question my ethics and morals multiple times.
This is my story.
Year zero 🗓 The spark ✨
Up until 2017 I was trying to build the next Facebok.
In 2015, an aquaintance of mine was living the startup dream. He flew from Greece to San Fransisco, founded a Big Data company and raised millions from high tier VC firms like "Andreessen Horowitz". As a 20 year old, I was inspired, I was hooked. I wanted to build the next unicorn.
While in uni, for about two years, I built and ran a mobile app that was "Snapchat for bars and nightclubs". It helped students decide easier where to go out clubbing. Later, with this product, I joined a startup accelerator.
In the startup accelerator everyone is talking about raising money. No one is talking about making money. No one is making money. That's odd. Meanwhile, that acquaintance of mine? His company shuts down and he is bootstrapping his next startup from Greece. He is doing great.
I run through the numbers and see that we are playing a losing game, a game not built for us to win, but for investors to win. Fair play to them, but I don't want to play.
Starting out, I went with what was at the time my biggest passion after tech, MMA. I remember reading through YouTube and Reddit comments and noticing one thing. Everyone loves to talk about who should fight who next.
So, I decide to build MMAmatchups, a website that listed all possible UFC matchups, and you could upvote the ones you wanted to see. I built the website in two weeks, launched it on Reddit but got banned for self promotion. I cold email a few relevant journalists, nothing. I start doing Instagram marketing, get tens of signups and hundreds of visitors, but it was super hard to get the ball rolling and it would die off as soon I took the foot of the gas. Like, straight away.
I couldn't see this making any money, nor that people were crazy about it, so I abandonded it at the end of the month.
This was a weird one because I had a huge time constraint, which I initially thought would cripple the product. My idea was to build a chrome extension that allows you to use multiple New Tab extensions. Something that I needed myself.
I had one week to build MultiNewTab, as opposed to three weeks I thought I needed, but I made it in four days. Something tells me that if I had three weeks, it would magically take three weeks to build. Parkinson's law.
Anyway, I launched on Product Hunt but at the time I had zero followers on Twitter so I couldn't create any real buzz. It got 100 users but I only found out about it about 10 days later after the launch, when the Google Chrome Developer dashboard was refreshed.
The results gave me a bit of confidence to keep going. It's a wonderful feeling to know that the software you wrote is alive and running right now on hundreds of computers.
After products #1 and #2, I realised that my ideas were not targeted to people that would actually pay. I wanted something more B2B oriented. The next idea stemmed from a real life situation.
In November of '17, I applied for a Remote Junior Full Stack developer position at Product Hunt. Andreas Klinger, the CTO at the time, told me that although they didn't hire me, I was in the top 15 out of the 400 candidates for the position and that he would share my details to other companies to help me out, with my consent of course. I don't know if this was true or he said it to make me feel better about the rejection, but I said yes, thanked him, and it really worked, about five companies emailed me for job opportunities.
This was super nice of Andreas and I will never forget it. I decide to build a platform for companies to share top candidates that they unfortunately could not hire. The pricing would be 'Free' for anyone that shares a list of candidates, 'Paid' for companies that just wanna have access to the lists.
I launch a landing page with an explainer video on Product Hunt Ship. From the signups though no one is a founder or part of a transparent company willing to share applicants. I also email every founder of a transparent company I can find on Twitter, IndieHackers, TransparentStartups, Baremetrics Open Startups but the results were shit. Hardly any replies. I even message Andreas, and he took the time to reply to me! He tells me that a friend of his had tried the same idea but that it's very hard to incentivise hiring managers to share lists of applicants, for many reasons.
I stopped working on the product because I ran out of cold or warm leads and had no one to chat with about it. Also, I could not launch an empty platform on PH, Reddit or wherever.
I started off 2018 with a goal of reaching $500 MRR or finding a remote job. I find a remote job, but I quit after one month because the job fucking sucked and only paid me $500/mo. I was me basically moving buttons around in Wordpress and my cringy boss calling me every fifteen minutes to ask me if I'm coding. "What's up Champ? Are you coding?" Ten times a day.
Anyway, in the process of finding a job I realise that Junior remote positions are super hard to find and get, because companies don't trust juniors working remotely.
This was the time when WIP.chat was on fire and everyone was building TODO list community products. So what did my unique ass do? I built a TODO list community product for junior developers that wanted to land a remote job.
There was a leaderboard, where developers could log how many job applications they sent or post their side projects. There was a Slack chat for developers to exchange advice and there was a crowdsource job board, where developers could post interesting job posts they found.
I posted a landing page on Product Hunt ship again, and out of the 150 emails that I got, 8 of them joined the beta and it got a spark of life. But if you don't push it, especially in the beginning, a community will collapse. I realized that I'm not that into online chatting and it's not really who I am. I never had online friends and never really chatted online with people. I abandon the product.
⏳ Time spent: 1 month
💰 Revenue: $0
📝 Sign ups: 10
My first successful launches 🚀
Do you notice a pattern in the first four months? Yes, my ideas are mostly community products/platforms. These are super hard to grow because you are faced with the infamous Chicken and Egg problem.
So here we are, it's already May, and 1/3 of the year in I have been building products I can't lift off the ground. I wanted to build something that had the same value whether I had 0 or 1000 customers/users.
I was really bummed out at this moment, so I went through my idea list and picked the easiest one to build. It wrote "Automated commit everyday on GitHub to make my github green". As you can imagine I had no intention of it going anywhere, this was not a business idea, but I could build it in a week and I wanted to try launching on Product Hunt one more time.
At this point I still had zero followers on Twitter, but like a phycopath I decided to tweet out loud to myself what I was building and gave me a week to build it. Funny enough, it worked wonders. Saying something out loud publicly makes quitting harder, even if no one is listening!
I launch the product, GitGardener on Product Hunt on Sunday and it's a success. It got 4K visitors, 400 signups and ended up #3 product of the day. I could not believe it. I get bashed on Reddit but I don't care. All these months I was thinking and planning on building the next big thing, and as soon as I said let go of all expectations, this happens.
Full of energy and motivation from my previous launch, I start building a product again on Monday, with the intention of launching it on Sunday again.
I pick another idea that looked easy to build, called 'Maker Feed', a website to find and follow amazing makers on Twitter. I launch it on Product Hunt and it ended up #1 product of the day, giving me even more motivation and a slightly bigger audience.
I could not imagine people paying for this, this is the epitome of a B2C product, so I didn't even entertain the idea of monetizing it. Here is the Twitter thread.
Someone on Twitter asked me if GitGardener could work with private repositories, and I said no. I thought about it, and thought it would be fun if I built it as a premium feature for $5/mo and see what happens.
Once again, I was blown away. GitGardener went from $0 to $50 in one week after building the premium version. All paying users were Free ones that upgraded, many of which are still paying.
Building in public and having low expectations seems to work.
Someone that was working at GitHub tweets to me that I should consider applying for the GitHub Marketplace. I thought that people working at GitHub would not be fond of the product, but they had no problem what so ever. It was mostly anonymous users on forums like Reddit that blasted me and the product.
As you can see May was by far my best month. I found a remote job, which was one of my goals for 2018 and I also reached $50 MRR. Crazy!
This was huge for me. I started believing that miracles can happen after all and maybe my dream will come true, $500 MRR at the end of the year. I wanted to keep up this fast pace and build other ideas on my idea list with out giving it too much thought.
I went through my idea list again and one of them wrote "Instantly monetize your Telegram channel or supergroup". I was a paying member at WIP.chat, which is a Telegram supergroup you pay to have permission to write in. I found that there are a few of communities like WIP and many Cryptocurrency channels on Telegram that are premium.
The product was very hard to build. I had to build a marketplace were I would handle all payments, have dashboards, and automatically build landing pages for each supergroup/channel. Oh yeah, and a Telegram bot. A LOT of work. It took nearly two months to build and then I launched it on Twitter and Product Hunt.
The launch goes "viral" (for my standards), but reaches the wrong people. I get no customers or free trials. I am thinking that a fucking landing page could do the same job.
⏳ Time spent: roughly 2 months to build
💰 Revenue: $0
😸 Front page on Product Hunt: 300+ upvotes
🚀 "Viral" tweet with 300 likes
🐦 Went from 200 to 300 Twitter followers
Getting praise by Pieter Levels 😱
Getting praise from the person that inpired me to start this journey just 6 months later was amazing. Things felt happening faster than I expected. I felt like I was doing things the right way and that my hard work was going to pay off, in the very near future.
Focusing on GitGardener and Telemonetize 🔍
This is where the going get's tough. I decide to focus my attention on Telemonetize and GitGardener instead of launching new products.
Pimps, Scammers, Arms Dealers and Pornstars 👯♀️💰💣
Welcome to Telegram of 2018!
July '18 - September '18
The launch brought no customers. I have to find them myself.
I find a bunch of crypto channels on Telegram and DM them. I try all techniques, 'The Mom Test' techniques on some, I ask for advice from others, I sell directly to others. Most of them charge in crypto and some of them tell me that if I supported cryptocurrency payments they would subscribe. I took their word for it and built my own cryptocurrency payment gateway, not fun. They never subscribed.
I had a small trickle of users signing up for free trials, mostly from some blogs that had mentioned Telemonetize, so I focused on those and tried to make them convert.
My customers were people I didn't want to serve at all. I had sleazy crypto scammers that were scamming people all day long, gamblers who encouraged other people to gamble, some guy that wanted to sell his Thai hookers through Telemonetize and some white dude in Africa with a profile picture of himself and some AK47s, I suspect he was dealing guns. I even had an amateur pornstar from Germany that wanted to sell her "premium content" through Telemonetize. I had no problem with her, but I had a problem with all the others.
And just to clarify, the above were not the exception, they were the rule. 99% of my free trial users were running unethical businesses. It made me open my eyes a bit on what really happens on the internet but we sometimes forget.
They were the epitome of a bad customers. Needy for time, support and features. Rude. Stingy with their money. Used burner credit cards for free trials and/or asked for extra time on the free trial. I get one customer. He is starting some kind of "investing" channel. $29 MRR.
Abandoning GitGardener and Telemonetize ☠️
Here I am ten months in, two months before my self-imposed deadline for reaching $500 MRR. At this point, Telemonetize is at $29 MRR (one customer) and GitGardener has fallen down to $25 MRR (5 customers). In total, $54 MRR. Not looking good.
I have an internal dialog with myself and decide to stop working on both GitGardener and Telemonetize. GitGardener is a little cheeky. Telemonetize is basically serving criminals.
I go back to the drawing board and see what has worked for me thus far. Easy answer, launching products in a fast pace without stressing about the idea too much. Right?
I told you earlier that while working on Telemonetize, I had to build my own cryptocurrency payment gateway. I won't explain how it works because it's boring, but you can have a look on it's website.
I launched it as a separate service on Product Hunt, Hacker News and Reddit, but got zero signups. Dissapointed.
I'm panicking right now, so I don't invest any more time in it. Plus, I hate the crypto space.
⏳ Time spent: 2 weeks
💰 Revenue: $0
😸 Front page on Product Hunt: 100+ upvotes
📝 Signups: 0
November '18 - December '18
I close out the year by building a new project I had in mind, Epilepsy Blocker. It's a chrome extension that automatically blocks animated content that may cause a seizure to people with photosensitive epilepsy. This would not be ready until February '19, because the tech behind it was very complex and sophisticated.
I was ok with my progress in 2018 and kept the same goal for 2019, to reach $500 MRR.
2018 Recap 🔍
Went from no product launches under my belt to $50+ MRR. Met failures, successes and learned about the different types of customers you can have.
💰 $55 MRR
🚀 8 products launched
💵 2 profitable products
😍 First 6 months felt like a dream
😩 Last 6 months felt like a slug
Let's stay in touch. I'll be posting a new blog post every week.
I didn't have the intention of making money off of it, but a few days before launch I test the server and see that it crashed with heavy use even from one user. I think to myself that if it gets more than ten users it wil be unusable, and cost me a lot of money. I add a $10/mo price tag just to launch safely.
I launch on Reddit, in the /r/epilepsy subreddit. My post gets taken down in the first two hours. Shit. Reddit never shows me love. By the time it was taken down it was number one on the front page, had 7 upvotes, two very positive comments and one paying customer!
"Validation!", I thought to myself. Profitable on launch day. I message the admins asking why they took it down and that the people of the sub reddit were finding it very interesting. Guess what happened. They banned me from the subreddit without even explaining why.
I launch on ProductHunt and Twitter, hoping to get coverage. The tweet goes "viral" (for my standards) with 600+ likes, 100+ retweets and 100.000 views. But it reaches the wrong audience. Many people followed me, but it was mostly accessibility developers and software engineers that work in large companies like IBM, Google, Stripe, etc.
The launch was a flop. Many vanity metrics to stroke your ego like followers, comments calling you a genius and a great human being, a DM from a VC, but no actual customers. It reached the wrong audience, again.
I also launched on some Facebook groups for photosensitive epilepsy but I got no customers there.
Setting north star metrics ✨
Since three profitable products is a lot of work to balance, I set a north star metric for each one.
For GitGardener, I double the prices and since I have one paying customer for every 300 website visitors, I aim for more website visitors.
For Telemonetize, since I have a trickle of free trial signups coming in, I focus on retention by talking to them and trying to address their needs.
For EpilepsyBlocker, I want more visibility in order to validate the idea and test the waters for any B2B spin off of the product.
Hitting $200 MRR 💵
At this point GitHub is acquired by Microsoft, and private repositories become available on the free tier. Combined with an extra $10/mo tier, which after the doubling of the price went to $20/mo, GitGardener's MRR bumped up to $130 MRR.
Telemonetize got a second customer and went up to $58 MRR. I don't even remember what they did, something about football matches and betting odds.
EpilepsyBlocker has one paying customer, and is at $10 MRR.
In total, $198 MRR.
March '19 - April '19
Now I don't have a way for EpilepsyBlocker to reach my customers. Facebook groups aren't working, Reddit is out of the question. I go to online forums and DM people that have photosensitive epilepsy in order for them to try the service. A thing I did not know is that many people that have epilepsy also have other conditions. Many are disabled, so they can't work and they live solely on benefits. Giving $10-$30/mo is too much for them they said. I always felt bad when I heard that and would let them use it for free, for ever.
Maybe I don't have a thick enough skin, but when someone told me "Hey, I respect you trying to sell your product but I'm not interested", it fucking hurt me. It may be true, but it hurt. I thought selling EpilepsyBlocker would be and feel different.
I stopped trying to sell to individuals and chasing $10 checks. I'm thinking of making B2B spin off products and making the chrome extension free.
A Unique Job Opportunity ⌚️
Once again, May turned out to be the best month of the year.
Empatica is a large multinational startup that builds smartwatches for people with epilepsy. It is founded by one MIT professor and three engineers. Matteo, the CEO, found me online and DM'd me, told me that he saw Epilepsy Blocker and that he would like to talk to me.
To be honest, I was seeing dollar signs. I thought that there is a possibility for them to buy EpilepsyBlocker, and help me develop the product under their brand. But that wasn't the case. Matteo explained to me what their company does, the AI and Machine learning they use under the hood, how they work with the likes of MIT, NASA and major hospitals and clinics in the US, where their offices are (Boston, South Korea, Milan) etc
We have a great conversation on Zoom that lasted for more than an hour. In the end he tells me that the door is open and whenever I like I can join the company. I just have to shoot them an email.
Non profits, Clinics, TV channels 🎗🏥 📺
Still May '19
I start cold emailing and cold calling Epilepsy Foundations in the US and the UK. They have big audiences and thought that they may want to let their followers know of the product. They tell me they would not promote it because it's "for profit", but they could upload a survey on my behalf. No bueno.
I have an epiphany during class. I thought I might as well go and ask neurological clinics if the software could be of ANY USE for them. Who knows? Worst case scenario, they say no. I go to the hospital next to my university and visit the neurological clinic to talk to the doctor in charge. She really likes that I had the confidence to just show up and talk to them.
They are super friendly, they tell me that they could possibly see a use case where the software is being used. It was probably out of kindness because nothing ever came out of this. They told me later that in Greece something like this would be very hard to be used, but I should look into other hospitals abroad. Yeah right, as if that's easy to do.
I cold call some other experts in Neurology in Greece and they tell me the same thing, that I should keep my hopes very low when it comes to innovating in Greece. I fucking hate the notion of blaming your surroundings, but I can't risk wasting months or years on something experts say is hard to happen.
I find a law that would enforce all Greek TV channels to check their content and issue a warning in between commercial breaks if the content is dangerous for people with photosensitive epilepsy to view. The law would start on September 1st, 2019. What?! That's in four months!
The industry's price range for analyzing one file is about $350, example. Imagine the size of an annual TV Channel contract!
I call the greek "Ministry of Digital Policy, Telecommunications and Media" and ask them for specifics. I end up talking to the minister's secretary. She forwards me to the lawyer in charge of this law. She answers all my questions, this law is real.
I message CTOs of major TV channels, as well as smaller ones. I don't get a reply. I call a coach from that accelerator I attended, on a hunch that he might be able to help me. Turns out I was right, he had the perfect acquaintance.
The call went like this:
- Do you think you could help me? I can't seem to reach TV network CTOs.
- Hang up, I'm calling the ten year ex-CTO of XYZ.
Ten minutes later, the ex-CTO of a huge TV Network in Greece calls me and we arrange a coffee.
I met up with this guy, and he is cool as hell. We talk about London (he used to work at BBC and Bloomberg), about what I'm building and the new law that is coming into action. He calls the current CTO in front of me and arranges a meeting. Wow..
Business meeting with huge TV Network 💼
Now shit just got real. I have a meeting booked with the CTO of a multi-multi-multi-million dollar TV network in Greece, for EpilepsyBlocker. I have the magic algorithm, maybe I can build a solution with it that fits their needs.
I visit their offices and I only carry my laptop in a bag and a piece of paper with the new law. They treat me well, they make me a coffee, we sit down and we chat.
I show the CTO the piece of paper and underline the important parts. He gives it a good look, and then he starts laughing.
- This law, in Greece? They have been talking about this law for years. I honestly don't think this will happen for another five years. However, I have your phone number if something happens.
Again, the "Greece" argument. I hate the notion of shitting on your country but maybe it's true to some extent, especially compared to other countries like the UK and the US.
Till this day, I haven't seen any photosensitive epilepsy warnings on TV, although they should have started on September 1st, 2019.
Made EpilepsyBlocker free, killed Telemonetize 🌥
I get a message from an anonymous user in the chatbox of EpilepsyBlocker. It says, "You just do anything for money, don't you? Even good things, like helping with epilepsy and github commits."
In the beginning I laugh. Is he really comparing a serious neurological condition with github commits? Let alone the fact that GitGardener is open source and anyone can use it for free.
I go on about my day but it keeps popping in my mind. Every single one of my products that made money is kinda controversial. Is this unique to me, or is critique common with B2C products?
1. GitGardener is considered cheeky.
2. Telemonetize is basically helping out scammers.
3. EpilepsyBlocker is asking money from disabled people that live on benefits.
I decide to make Epilepsy Blocker free and kill Telemonetize. Enough of this shit. Let's sell to businesses.
Killing Telemonetize and letting go of Epilepsy Blocker felt amazing. After all, Epilepsy Blocker got me a fantastic job. That was enough.
Here is my final commit. It felt great.
Going round in circles in my head 😤
Just like in a kickboxing fight, if you start thinking, you lose. If you start doubting yourself, you lose. This is exactly what happened to me here. I could not confidently commit to anything I did, so the results were crap. I was too busy doubting the method and myself.
The rest of the year is super stressful. I don't know what strategy to pick. Shotgun strategy? Sniper strategy? Something in between? Nothing seems to work. Panicking does not help either. The shadow of a self-imposed deadline does not help either. Shit, I'm six months through the second year. Maybe I'm not going to make it after all. Not even this year.
I am also finishing uni and have to find a job. I email Empatica and we agree for me to finish uni and start work full time in January, 2020. I have five months.
At first, I go back to the blackboard and think about what got me results so far. Definitely not the sniper method, definitely the shotgun method.
I pick an idea from my idea list and build it. It said "Uptime monitoring for chatbots". It was a problem I had sometimes with the Telemonetize Telegram bot, it would go down and users would message me about it.
I launch on Product Hunt. Zero signups. I panic. no time to waste, on to the next one.
The idea part of my brain is in full motion. I find ideas all day long, like, at least five new ones a day.
One of them was to be able to see the local time a tweet was posted. It gives a little more context to it. A tweet authored at 3:00 PM does not mean the same thing as a tweet authored at 04:00 AM, even if the text is the same.
I build a chrome extension and launch on Product Hunt, just to get that momentum going. No time to waste, on to the next one.
I am on Unsplash and find it hard to find a landscape image for a wallpaper for my laptop. Boom, new idea.
Another chrome extension. This one allows you to "advance search" unsplash.
I build and launch it in a week. It get's about 250 downloads.
What I am doing anyway? Are these businesses or stupid products?
⏳ Time spent: 1 week
💰 Revenue: $0
⬇️ Installs: 300
Enough. Give me some time to think! 😩
Now I'm completely lost. I'm just blindly building products. In a fight, it's the equivalent of throwing an overhand right, looking at the floor, closing your eyes, hoping for the best.
One the one hand I am building crap without giving any though about it what so ever, hoping to build another GitGardener that makes money. On the other hand I go all in on a idea I fall in love in for six months, with no results. (EpilepsyBlocker)
Should I follow strategy A, B or something in between, C?
I listen to some podcasts on IndieHackers. The ones that stand out are this one with Justin Jackson, where they talk about the importance of being in a good market, and this one with Steli Efti, where they talk about the importance of direct sales and asking for advice before building a product.
I decide to try out what they are saying:
1. Pick a good market 2. Ask for feedback/advice and dig deeper to discover their painpoints 3. Build a product/solution for their pain.
For reasons too boring for this article, I pick the cybersecurity market.
I send out cold emails following this method and they convert well, I arrange about one Zoom call per day with penetration testers, security consultants and security engineers. Everyone is super friendly, helpful, and no one accepts money from me. I learn a lot, I immerse myself into their world and start to notice patterns and common pain points.
But although I knew some pain points and their workflow, it felt like a black box. I just did not have the confidence, experience and know-how to come up with a solution. And even if I had, I could not improve it or have a grand vision of it. I can see the tree, but I can't see the forest.
I pick a second market and follow the same method, one that is closer to me.
I will not name the market for obvious reasons, but the difference was evident. No one replies to my emails, some ask for $150/hour off the bat and others ask me to buy them books. Others tell me that if it's a free product they would help with giving me advice, but if it's for profit, they have no time. Fair play to them, I'm not judging.
I clearly learnt a lesson.
1. The market plays a big role 2.You can learn a bunch with a few calls, rather than just building stuff.
This is me now writting this article. I decide to take the rest of the month of, mostly to reflect on the past two years and come up for a plan for 2020. I am also moving to Milan so I have some packing to do!
2019 Recap 🔍
Went from $50 MRR to $200 MRR, shut down Telemonetize, abandoned GitGardener, made Epilepsy Blocker free and went down to $100 MRR.
Tried to go B2B with EpilepsyBlocker but didn't manage to do it. Build some other products but none had potential.
Two years in, I still haven't gotten a paycheck from a company.
💰 $100 MRR
🚀 7 products launched
💵 0 profitable products
😍 First 6 months were spent trying to go B2B with Epilepsy Blocker
😩 Last 6 months were spent panicking and trying to build new products
What's next? 🤔
Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading all the way through this Behemoth of an article.
What's next? Honestly, I don't know. I am certainly giving it my all in 2020 though.
I would love to hear the opinions of my fellow indiehackers, tech entrepreneurs, engineers and friends. What do you think I could have done better? What do you think I've done wrong?
I am hoping through self reflection, conversation and feedback, to reach a conclusion and create my plan for 2020. I'll post an update with my plans.
This was my story. Thank you for reading. ❤️
Let's stay in touch. I'll be posting a new blog post every week.