I drew a lot of similarities between what Courtland said in his recent Y Combinator interview, and what I focused on when I was building Built with Shopify. Given BwS was intended to be a kind of Indie Hackers for eCommerce stores, and that I often looked to IH and Courtland as an example, this wasn’t particularly surprising.
Built with Shopify started out as a simple side project intended to help launch another SaaS idea I was working on. But after being featured on Product Hunt, it continued to grow and eventually was acquired ~six months after launching.
Built with Shopify showed me that a community can be an incredibly valuable thing. But there is no shortage of other great products that started with a community (Product Hunt, Scott’s Cheap Flights etc).
In his interview, Courtland gave some great tips for those who want to quickly build a lasting community around content, and I think his points are worth expanding upon a little deeper.
1. Create a community around discussion, not answers
There’s a difference between topics that warrant discussion, and topics that just need an answer. Startups and business are a good example of topics that fall into the first category because there is never really one answer. Often the best way to discover the “least wrong” approach is to have a discussion with other people around content like the interviews here on Indie Hackers. Whereas the nitty gritty of taxes or domain registration are topics that usually have a more binary response.
With BwS I could have focused on specific aspects of eCommerce like drop shipping or app recommendations, but the purpose wasn’t to provide answers; I wanted to inspire other eCommerce entrepreneurs and show them real life examples that they could draw upon.
2. Focus on a topic people love talking about
If you can nail number 1, you’ll find it’s much easier to create a community that values discussion. Topics that don’t have a clear answer will warrant varying opinions and approaches, which all lead to a healthy community.
3. Don’t pinhole yourself
Communities are a melting pot of personalities and opinions so it’s impossible to know what people want to talk about . Your job is better spent providing content that sparks these discussions and being an active contributor to those discussions, rather than trying to define what should and should not be talked about.
This is particular true in the interview format on a site like Indie Hackers or Built with Shopify. The audience is so diverse that you want to focus on bringing out the best in the person you’re interviewing, not forcing them to talk about things they aren’t an expert in.
4. Create a distinctive presence
Like IH, I chose to create a custom website rather than relying on something like Medium or Wordpress. For me, that decision was about having the control to build unique features and not be reliant on any one system. This website was essentially my product, so I wanted to know it inside and out. As Courtland mentioned, it also makes working on the project a lot more fun, which keeps you motivated.
Courtland raised another great point. You’re not going to forget you’ve been on IndieHackers once you’ve been there. The colour is distinctive and the layout is unique. If you’ve subscribed to the IH email you’ll notice how unique it is as well. This uniqueness attracts good people who are interested in what you’re doing, and helps you stand out from the crowd.
Custom designs allow these kind of design choices and mean you aren’t reliant on your content alone to bring users back. It doesn’t have to be anything crazy. I based my design on a free HTML5 template and customized it until it fit what I had in mind.
5. Have a strategy to continually drive traffic
When BwS climbed up Ask HN and then Product Hunt, the traffic was great, but sustaining it for any more then even a few days is the hard part.
You have to be thinking about how you’ll keep bringing people in post-launch.
With the limited time I had to focus on BwS, I focused on creating great content around particular keywords (Shopify Examples). This was always my long-term strategy, to start organically ranking in search engines for terms like “jewellery store Shopify examples”.
Your acquisition strategy should be mapped out very early on. Will you be focusing on SEO or guest blogging? Where are your audience currently? How do you reach them?
I manually emailed every eCommerce founder I could find to request an interview at first. Even if I didn’t land the interview, there was a good chance they would check out the website and subscribe to the newsletter since their interests were aligned. This early traction helped to validate my approach and build up momentum.
6. Build processes that scale
Courtland talks about this in his interview as well. With every interview or piece of content you’re putting out, you should be looking at what similarities there were in the process to previous works you released.
For me, I learnt to rely heavily on Google Docs to rapidly create my interviews. This also meant that I could look back and see how I could improve upon my questioning with each interview. What questions had good responses? How could I rephrase for more in depth answers? It became a kind of A/B test for my interview questions and I could back it up with Google analytics and Hotjar data to see if it made a difference to engagement.
I remember with my first interviews I thought I would have a higher response rate by sending the full interview questions out to potential interviewees. I quickly realised very few would actually respond and even fewer would be great candidates, which meant I was wasting hours every week on interviews that would go nowhere.
From this I learnt how to vet my candidates. This gave me more time to spend my time more efficiently to create higher-quality interviews for the people I knew had a much higher chance of completing their interview.
7. Leverage your existing resources
Just as Indie Hackers is doing with their forum, I started experimenting with new tools that would provide greater community engagement.
I already had data on what Shopify apps people were using, so I created a ranking system of how often these were mentioned. This brought in a new crowd of people looking for app recommendations to achieve a specific feature, as well as developers who were interested in getting their app listed.
As everything on the site was running off JSON, putting this together was super simple. I’d always encourage people starting a community or content site to collect data from the get go about things their audience might be interested in and make sure this data is accessible.
8. Stay consistent
This is probably the hardest part in the early days of starting a community. It can be really hard to stay consistent with the content you’re creating, especially if you don’t have a clear monetisation strategy in mind.
This is a problem. People come to rely on this consistency. I remember checking Indie Hackers every other day when it first started because I knew there would be fresh content. Now I’m still an avid reader more than a year on.
I found it important to set a metaphorical finish-line of at least six months where I could evaluate where the site was at and determine if the audience was still there and growing. To do this I had to have specific goals in mind that would keep me motivated until I reached this point.
Day-to-day, finding ways to automate your processes, batching tasks like sending out interview requests, and finding ways to make the mundane interesting (another reason for a custom-site build), helped me stay focused.
Having built SaaS applications as well, I was surprised at how valuable my community became . It was difficult to monetise initially, but quickly led to big opportunities. That’s why I’d recommend to anyone looking to build a SaaS product to start experimenting with a community or content based product first. Worst case, no one bites and you get a real sense of how hard it will be to actually sell a product in this space, without the investment.
I’m no longer affiliated with Built with Shopify, but I’d definitely encourage you to check it out if you are interested in eCommerce. Right now I write on Medium about my own SaaS experiences and how I help other entrepreneurs launch their stores at Shopify Plus. You’ll also see me around the Indie Hacker forums.