January Month in Review

Phew! I just landed in San Francisco, back home from a 2 week vacation in South Africa, and I've never been more pumped to get some work done in my life! ๐Ÿ’ช โšก๏ธ

For those who are curious, South Africa was amazing. At 24 hours each way, the flights to and from SF were brutal, and yet they were totally worth it. I spent two weeks hanging out with penguins (they live on a beach there!), going on safaris (we walked right up to a wild cheetah!), driving on the left side of the road, and dodging baboons as they crossed the highways.

By the way, Cape Town is a great place to be an indie hacker if you don't mind being halfway across the world. Food, rent, and transportation are so cheap that you could live comfortably off very little money. I actually met up with two indie hackers while I was there, Jason Grishkoff of SubmitHub and Rob Hope of One Page Love.

Admittedly, going on vacation is pretty challenging for me. It was fun, rejuvenating, eye opening, and even got my creative juices flowing for some new ideas. But at the same time, I start to feel guilty very quickly when I take successive days off work. Thankfully, I'm at a point in my life now where I'm far-sighted enough to ignore those feelings, take it easy on myself, and be smart about managing burnout.

Revenue and Expenses

For the second time in a row I'm able to say that I had my highest revenue month ever. Indie Hackers made over $3500 this month! ๐Ÿ˜ฒ

$3536 Total Revenue
$1600 Podcast Shoutouts
$1300 Newsletter Promos
$350 Featured Interviews
$137 Amazon Affiliates Program
$99 BuySellAds
$50 Donations
$205 Total Expenses
$83 MailChimp (weekly newsletter)
$43 PayPal Fees (2.9% + 30ยข per sale)
$24 Firebase (database for forum)
$20 Zapier (automation tool)
$20 Zencastr (podcast recording service)
$10 Buffer (scheduling social media posts)
$5 G Suite (Google-hosted email)

Just like in December, the bulk of my revenue came from sponsors. I expect this to continue to be the case going forward, at least until I settle on a strategy for generating recurring revenue with a product/service of my own. And going that route is on hold until I feel comfortable that I've got both the podcast and sponsorship revenue figured out.

Finding Sponsors the Hard Way

Last I wrote about how I found sponsors the easy way โ€” mostly inbound requests from people who checked out my sponsorship page or read the newsletter. This month I switched to a heavier-hitting strategy: outbound sales. Here's what my process looks like:

  1. Identify a company with a product that I think is useful for the IH community. The company has to be big enough to have a marketing budget. Extra points if they already sponsor other newsletters, blogs, or podcasts.
  2. Find the contact info for a decision-maker in the marketing department. It's best if I get a warm intro via a mutual contact, but mostly I ended up reaching out cold.
  3. Send a brief email introducing myself and Indie Hackers, and explain why I'm getting in touch. My goal has been to be as specific, personal, brief, and non-spammy as possible here. Did I mention brief?
  4. If they reply, send them more information and try to set up a phone call. The phone call is where I actually get a "yes" answer.

Now I am not a sales person. In fact, the last thing I thought I'd be doing when I started this website was talking to marketing people on the phone. But it's actually been pretty fun, and I'm learning a lot!

As for choosing sponsors, affiliates, and other partners, I only want to promote products that rock, seeing as to how my entire goal is for Indie Hackers to be a helpful resource. At the same time, I only want to take money from sponsors when I'm confident they'll have a chance of seeing good returns on their investment. Luckily, these two goals are aligned!

If I can find A+ products that you guys actually sign up for, then you're happy, the sponsors are happy, and I'm happy, too! The sponsor I'm most excited to be working with as of this month is SparkPost, whose API I'll be using to (finally) add email notifications to the forum! If you have a website or app that needs to send/receive email, I strongly recommend you use SparkPost, too, because getting 100,000 emails/month for free is an absurdly good deal for scrappy indie hackers like us.

Making Money from the Website

One thing I still haven't figured out yet is how to make decent money from website sponsorships. This is counter-intuitive, because the website has more real-estate and a bigger audience than the newsletter and podcast combined. Still, it makes me far less money, because I'm not sure how to sell that real-estate.

So far I've been trying out "featured interviews", where I do an actual Indie Hackers interview with a sponsor. In my opinion, that's the holy grail โ€” advertising that's just as interesting and educational as any other content on the site. Unfortunately, I've found that this is just too hard of a sell.

I need to convince a sponsor's CEO to spend hours on an interview, openly talk about their revenue, etc, and that's very tough to do with companies above a certain size. True story: One company paid me for a featured interview, then their founders never actually completed the interview itself, despite my constant reminders! When people refuse to do what they just paid you to do, you know there's a problem. ๐Ÿ˜†

In addition to featured interviews, I've been testing some affiliate links (which appear as text ads) to see how they perform. So far the answer is not great. I'll have to keep experimenting in until I hit on something better.

Traffic Without Hacker News

January turned out to Indie Hackers' lowest traffic month ever. The reason for that is quite simple: It was the first month since launching in August that I didn't get an interview to the top of Hacker News, which up until this point has accounted for 50% of my traffic.

For the record, I did try to get on Hacker News this month. Yesterday I submitted the awesome Zencastr interview with Josh Nielsen, then I took off on my flight home from South Africa. I noticed when I landed that the post had just barely failed to make the front page. Tuesdays are competitive! I'll try again on Thursday morning, but the 31st has passed, and so any traffic that comes from it will count towards Febraury.

Regardless, I feel good about things. Don't get me wrong โ€” getting to the top of HN is huge every time it happens. The interview gets a ton of hits, new people learn about Indie Hackers, and my mailing list gets a spike. But that's about it. Most people read the interview and leave. It's not like the committed, organic, and diverse visitors I get the rest of the month, who read multiple interviews, post on the forum, check the blog, and come back often. In January, that type of traffic was higher than it's ever been! ๐Ÿ‘

Daily Sessions Graph for January

Usually there's a big HN spike somewhere, but not this month.

There may come a day when pushing for 250k, 500k, or 1M+ monthly visitors is more urgent than growing revenue. But I don't see a good reason for that to happen before I reach profitability or hit a revenue plateau, whichever comes first. The only thing I'm racing against is the balance in my own declining checking account. ๐Ÿ˜

Automation and Time Management

I worked for a total of 135 productive hours in January, which (surprisingly) is 18 hours more than I did in December. Here's how that worked out:

Daily Breakdown of Productive Hours

I left for South Africa on the 19th and got back the 31st. โ›ฑ

Time Breakdown Pie Chart

I use an excellent app called Toggl to track all of these hours for free.

One of the big things I wanted to focus on this month was automating mundane tasks, so I could stop "treading water" and spend more time on things that permanently improve Indie Hackers. The biggest time-killer for me by far has been conducting interviews, but I reached a turning point near the end of January due to a number of factors:

  1. I'm finally getting more incoming interviews than I release each week. That means I can stop doing tedious tasks like searching for new interviewees or sending reminders to people who haven't finished.
  2. I'm using Zapier to automatically create a draft in Gmail when someone submits the preliminary interview form. Now following up is just a matter of editing and sending that email, where previously it required a whole bunch of manual tasks that I dreaded doing.

Suddenly, the only time-consuming part of the interview process is the editing itself. In December I spent 32 hours on interviews, in January it was 28, and I'm hoping that February will be close to 20.

Goals for February

Although I didn't mention it anywhere above, my #1 goal for February is to launch the podcast! I planned to launch it back in December and then again in January, but I couldn't quite swing it. I'm very confident that I'll get it done in February, and also very excited to see if you guys like it!

As for revenue, I'm wary of setting a concrete target, because I know from recent experience that doing so will distract me from launching the podcast. Instead, I'll just focus on the vague goal of simply experimenting with new ways to monetize the website itself, and I'll continue reaching out to new sponsors, too.

Last but not certainly not least, I want to use SparkPost to add a long-overdue email notification system to the forum, so you guys will actually know when people are replying to your threads and comments. ๐Ÿ˜˜

Thanks everyone for all your support this month โ€” if you've got any ideas, feedback, or questions, then definitely leave me a comment below!

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