The last month has been wild. It's been five weeks since I first submitted a link about Indie Hackers to Hacker News, and the response from all of you has been incredible! I've barely stopped to focus on anything else since launching Indie Hackers, and I'm happy to finally find time to sit down and write about it.
I've struggled a bit trying to decide on the purpose of this post. I don't want to write a how-to guide, because I didn't follow any particular rubric myself for launching Indie Hackers. In fact, I made some very basic mistakes and missed out on some easy wins. Regardless, Indie Hackers got almost 200,000 pageviews during launch weekend and another 100,000 since then, so something went right. This post will be a meandering attempt to find out what that was.
But first, the fun stuff! Also known as "numbers" to normal people. 🤓
And here are the total stats for Indie Hackers' first month, between August 11th and September 14th:
- 313,287 pageviews
- 65,011 unique visitors
- 1,404 mailing list subscribers
- 52.1% opens and 21.4% clicks on average for the weekly newsletter
- 23 new interviews with founders
These are some awesome numbers — way higher than I would've predicted if you'd talked to me a month ago. They're especially cool if you consider the fact that Indie Hackers hasn't gotten any press whatsoever since launching.
But it hasn't all been roses. Traffic has declined since the initial launch, and in the past couple week's it's bottomed out at an average of about 1800 pageviews and 500 unique visitors per day. We've entered the famed "trough of sorrow" — a post-launch period characterized by flat traffic and little growth. Here's how things have looked since launch weekend:
It helped a bit that this decline in traffic after launching was predictable, but I have to admit that it was still sad to watch. On the flip side, knowing that 500 people are visiting my site every day feels absolutely great! As have all the supportive emails and tweets I've been receiving every day from people who love the site. Launching can be an emotional roller coaster for sure. 😝
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back and look at what led up to the launch.
In my last blog post, I talked about how I came up with the idea for Indie Hackers, so I'll just skip that part here. (But you should go read it if you haven't yet!)
In a perfect world, the next thing I would've done is to put up a simple landing page. On it, I could've explained what Indie Hackers is about and added form to collect email addresses from people who were interested. Then I could've submitted the page to something like BetaList and maybe gotten 50-200+ signups who I could email when I launched. It would have been a quick and easy win.
But I did none of that. Whoops.
Instead, I dove right in and started building the site. It took me a week and change to finish it, even though the website itself is quite simple. I spent many hours focusing on the design of the site (I wanted it to look good), the tech (I wanted to have fun building it), and the hosting (I didn't want things to crash at launch).
First up, the design. The conventional wisdom is to keep your MVP as barebones as possible. I think that makes a lot of sense. You don't want to waste days putting lipstick on a pig. But, me being me, I couldn't stand to release something that didn't look good. I really wanted Indie Hackers to be unique and memorable, so I decided right off the bat that it'd have a dark background. Did the design help out with the launch? I have no idea. But I have received a lot of positive comments about it, and that feels great!
Next, the tech. Let me start by saying that spending as much time as I did on the tech was not justifiable. There's no reason Indie Hackers couldn't just be a small collection of HTML files on a server. But I'm partial to single page apps, and I really wanted to use Ember FastBoot (a way to render Ember apps on the server), so I spent a few days setting that up and having fun.
Finally, hosting. I've had two launches in the past where the traffic brought down the servers. There is no worse time for your app to go down, and I wasn't going to make that mistake again. I decided to host the site on Amazon's Elastic Beanstalk, which automates adding/removing servers depending on how much traffic your site is getting.
In a way, all of the above was "useful" procrastination. I was doing things that I consider fun, like programming, design, and server setup. However, I knew the real reason the launch would ultimately succeed or fail would be the interviews themselves.
Doing the Interviews
I started off by going to my initial source of inspiration: the various "Ask HN" threads on Hacker News. (These were online discussions in which people transparently talked about the businesses they were working on and asked each other questions.)
I knew the people in those threads were the target audience for the launch, so it was important to understand what they cared about. I analyzed the comments that were most popular, and I also looked at the types of questions that people were asking each other. The answer was obvious after a few hours of reading. People want to see actual revenue numbers!
It makes sense when you think about it. Which one of these statements is more compelling?
- I quit my job and started a name tag business.
- I quit my job and started a name tag business that makes $45,000 a month.
If you answered #1, then you're a space alien from outer space. 👾
I decided then and there that I'd only interview people who were willing to share revenue numbers, and then I got to work.
The first step was collecting email addresses. I figured I'd need 10-20 interviews to launch Indie Hackers. Assuming 10% of the people I emailed were interested in participating, I'd need to email at least 100 potential interviewees.
I spent days scouring the Hacker News threads and collecting detailed information on the businesses and founders who had openly shared their stories. I also had to track down email addresses for each one. I won't mince words: This was a long and boring slog. But it paid off, and I eventually built a list of ~120 companies and email addresses.
Next, I started emailing people a link to an interview form I created on Wufoo. I used Gmail's "canned responses" feature to create a template, then I tweaked it to make each email seem personal. The detailed data I gathered for each company helped a lot here. Often, I would reference what I liked about the company, or provide a link to the HN comment that sparked my interest. My goal here was to get as high of a response rate as possible.
This was another mind-numbing slog to get through. It was hard to send more than 10-20 emails per day. Some days I sent none. Lots of people turned me down, and even more simply never responded. But it wasn't all bad — I got to talk to people who were sincerely enthusiastic about the idea behind Indie Hackers. Hearing their positive feedback kept me going.
I mentioned it earlier, but the emotional component of starting a business is huge, and it's something I want to talk about often. Hearing good things about what you're doing is tremendously motivating. So whenever possible, talk to people!
Eventually, I got to 12 interviews. There was still a significant portion of my list that I hadn't emailed yet, but by this point it had been 3 weeks and I was getting extremely antsy about launching. It was time to see what people thought about Indie Hackers!
The Launch Itself
Okay, this is where I got lazy. In hindsight, I was completely burned out from weeks of research and interviews. I was in no shape to spend days analyzing and perfecting a launch strategy, so I defaulted to what was easiest.
The first thing I considered was "when". I decided to launch on a Thursday. I told myself it was because lots of announcements happen on Mondays and Tuesdays, and I didn't want to have to compete for attention. The actual reason was probably that it was already Wednesday, and I didn't want to wait.
Next came the "where". I decided that I'd only launch on Hacker News. I understood HN well, I felt comfortable with the simple submission process, and I'd explicitly made Indie Hackers to appeal to the HN audience. Product Hunt's submission process seemed more opaque and effortful, so I punted on taking the time to figure it out. I also decided to put off any sort of pitching to press and bloggers.
Finally, the "how". This was something I got right. Even though I'd skipped building an email list the traditional way, I had spent lots of time getting to know the founders I'd interviewed. I reached out to them on Wednesday night to let them know I'd be launching the next morning. My hope was that they could act as my co-founders for the launch. All of our incentives were perfectly aligned — the better the launch did, the more views their interviews (and thus businesses) would get.
This worked spectacularly. The next morning I posted Indie Hackers to HN, and after the first few upvotes it shot to the top! Many of the founders who I interviewed supported the thread in the comments and shared Indie Hackers on Twitter:
There was a redirect bug that broke the back button, and some people complained that the interviews showed peak monthly revenue instead of average. I also should've made the first comment on the thread, which I think would've been a little more positive than what ultimately became the top comment. Regardless, the overall the reception was great:
The post stayed on the front page of HN for almost 36 hours, and it was in the top 3 for over 24 hours. It ended up with 971 upvotes, which puts it in the top ~320 posts of all time on Hacker News (out of over 11 million). This was waaaay better than I expected it to do.
I spent the entire day staring at the real-time dashboard in Google Analytics, which climbed to over 900 people browsing the site simultaneously. Meanwhile, over 700 people signed up for the mailing list and almost 20 people emailed me requesting to be interviewed.
A few days later, someone submitted Indie Hackers to Product Hunt, where it also got #1 for the day and now has over 900 upvotes. Watching this happen was bittersweet, because the submission happened on a Sunday, when traffic was certainly lower than it would've been on a weekday.
Paul Graham once wrote a post called Do Things That Don't Scale. In it he writes, "Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going."
I think this is some of the most important advice that any founder can follow, and it certainly played a big role in launching Indie Hackers. It took a lot of manual effort to get those initial interviews done, and I'm currently investing similar amounts of effort to get the Indie Hackers discussion forum off the ground.
Even more important, I think, is to really understand your target audience so you can build something they actually love. I've spent countless hours on HN in the past 7 or 8 years — more than enough time to grok the culture there. I think that was a huge advantage in coming up with the idea and launching something that resonated.
A shortcut here is to make something that solves your own problem — I wanted a resource like Indie Hackers for myself. And the vast majority of the founders I've interviewed for the site started their businesses for the same reason. They had a problem themselves and wanted it solved.
This post is getting to be a lot longer than I originally envisioned, but I hope it's also been insightful (or at least entertaining) to some of you! I'm sure there are plenty of details I left out that you might find interesting, so I encourage you to hop on the forum and ask me anything you'd like! 😘