What's your background?
I'm an entrepreneur and self-taught full-stack Rails developer. I run an "idea to market" web and mobile application development agency in Santa Barbara, where I live. I work with my clients to discover if their ideas are worth building. Once we've validated the idea, I help them build and launch their business.
How did you get started with ActionPages?
A few months ago, I had a client ask me for a creative pre-launch strategy. I'd read the article that Tim Ferris wrote about how Harry's Shave Club used a simple Rails application to build an email list of over 100k emails. They incentivized subscribers to refer their friends and unlock free products and discounts as rewards.
The awesome thing about this article is that Harry's Shave Club open-sourced their code for the referral campaign. After getting a couple of paying clients who needed this type of service, I decided it was worth building a SaaS product that allowed you to spin up this type of campaign in minutes.
I was talking to a friend who is a serial entrepreneur about the idea. He's built multiple successful startups that either exited or IPO'd. He mentioned to me that it's "the doing that builds a company". What he meant is that execution and taking action are the things that really matter in building a successful business. This has been my personal theme for the past several months, and is why I've named my products ActionPages and ActionWins. I'm building a suite of products that help you and your customers take actions that grow your business.
How have you found the time and funding to work?
This is a great question. I'm completely self-funded and bootstrapped at this point. When I started out, I acquired customers manually in places like UpWork, Reddit, and other online forums. Then I just used the open-source code to deliver the product. I also didn't charge a subscription fee, but instead opted for a more expensive one-time services fee where I not only built the campaign, but also provided strategy consulting. (I'm still doing this with the software version, too!)
Thankfully, a lot of my consulting clients need both of the products I've been working on. I use ActionPages to help them get early adopters, and I'm using ActionWins to build their in-app referral marketing features. Providing consulting services alongside your software services is a great way to keep paying your bills and focus your energy on your product. While I'm not against raising funds, I'm hoping that bootstrapping will allow me to raise from a position of strength, and to only raise when I need it.
I've also been successful in taking on partners at a venture lab in Santa Barbara called OpusLogica. I first met Brian, co-founder and CEO, in February 2016, and have been working out of their offices ever since as an Entrepreneur in Residence. They've brought a level of technical expertise and business strategy to my company that has allowed me to move a lot faster.
What've you done to find and attract customers?
All of my initial customers were acquired manually. I've had great success searching UpWork for people looking for help spinning up Harry's Shave Club's open-source code. My pitch to them is that they can use my product to build the same type of campaign without writing any code. I also offer to build and manage the campaign for them if they'd like. The best thing about this channel is that the customer has already expressed interest in the service and has budget!
I also created a free course called ViralRails which I posted to ProductHunt back when I first got the idea for this business. I'd had a few paying customers at that point for the open-source code version, but I wanted more validation that this was a good idea. So I built a free course teaching people how to spin up, customize, and push the open-source code to Heroku.
I posted it to Product Hunt and generated over 400 signups in about a week. I then wrote a 10-day email drip campaign walking these signups through the pre-launch strategy with the last two emails focusing on ActionPages. To me, this was a big indicator that there is interest in this type of application. That said, I ended up attracting a lot of people looking to learn to code and not as many people who were interested in actually building and launching a pre-launch campaign. I still thought this was a success, so I decided to move forward with building the product.
How did you incorporate?
This was a non-issue. I just formed an LLC and filed the paperwork myself. Really easy. Don't get bogged down in the admin stuff!
What's the story behind your other product, ActionWins?
I built the first version of ActionPages myself and started pitching prospective partners and customers. This is about the time that I met the team at OpusLogica. I spent the last two years learning to code, and I think this is a big part of the reason I was able to convince them to partner with me. I had a product and sales I could demonstrate traction with. I also laid out a vision for a company that's bigger than referral marketing (more on that later). With the Opus team on board, I was able to focus more on discovering the product plan for ActionPages. I started talking to a lot of different SaaS startups in Santa Barbara, LA, and San Fransisco to learn more about their referral marketing needs.
I learned that they certainly could use ActionPages in the early stage of their company but what they really needed was a way to quickly add and test refer-a-friend features in their web and mobile applications. Furthermore, I learned that the existing products on the market had a high barrier to entry for the customer. They typically cost hundreds of dollars a month, charge you immediately, and require you to sit through a sales call.
For example, you could reward users for referring their friends to leave reviews on a product, upgrading to a different tier, or any other action that takes place in your app. You can also customize the rewards to be anything you like: in-app credits, more storage space (think DropBox), an Amazon gift card, etc. All of this data gets recorded in our dashboard and can be managed by any non-technical person on your team once the API is wired up.
What are your goals with ActionWins?
We're launching in BETA soon, and I have 20 paying pilot customers signed up! I'm not charging them until they start generating referrals from my product. (If you're interested in ActionWins just click here to get early access and we'll set up a time to talk.) I expect to launch out of beta with a few thousand bucks in MRR with the goal of hitting 15k MRR in the next 4 months. To reach this goal, I'm going to produce at least one new blog article a week to get my content marketing engine off the ground, and continue to acquire my customers manually on UpWork and elsewhere.
The larger vision of my company is to build a suite of customer advocacy tools that allow you to incentivize your customers to advocate for and grow your business.
If you started over, what would you do differently? Or the same?
If I could start from the beginning, I would still have used a manual process to both acquire customers and to execute my value prop. This is always (IMO) a good practice. If anything, I would have stayed in this phase a bit longer and then focused all of my resources and time on ActionWins. The ActionPages product is here to stay, but I feel the ActionWins product will deliver a lot more value to my customers.
Most of the mistakes that I made involve spending money on things I didn't really need yet. For example, I needed some help with a feature for the first version of ActionPages, so I hired a guy I found online. He did a fine job, but I ended up trashing that version anyway from learning with customers. I could have learned what I needed to by just continuing to use the open-source code!
While I feel I've had some success, it's certainly been difficult. There was about a 3 month span where my consulting revenue dropped significantly, because I focused on building ActionPages instead of on sales. This was a significant challenge, because both my wife and I are building startups.
That said, I feel good about where my company is today, and think that all the mistakes I made along the way helped me get here.
What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
My biggest piece of advice is probably something you've heard before, but that people really struggle with, especially hackers. Our tendency is to want to just build the product, but hold out! Instead, find a way to generate sales and execute the value prop manually if possible.
Revenue is the life blood of a startup, especially if you're bootstrapped. That 3 month period I talk about above was extremely difficult and almost killed the company. I'm happy to say that now that I've re-focused my consultancy on services related to my software, paying my bills isn't a problem.
What's been especially helpful to you on your journey?
My habits keep me motivated. I make sure to go for a swim, run, or lift everyday. I also make sure to shut down my work for at least an hour when at home, so that we can have some family time. I'm also really passionate about building a successful SaaS business. It's my dream, and I love it every day, even when it's hard. It would be almost impossible to stay motivated on something as difficult as building a company if I weren't passionate about the activity.
Mentors have also been extremely important to me. Santa Barbara has a really strong network of successful entrepreneurs who are also angel investors. I've been fortunate enough to work for/with and get to know a few of them. About every six weeks, I send out a writeup detailing my progress (good or bad) and asking for advice help. Here's the outline of my email:
Here's what I thought. Here's what I did. Here's what I learned. Here's where I need help.
The habit of writing down my progress every six weeks is a mental gut check for me. It also gives me an opportunity to engage mentors who can help and may be investors in the future. I've been very lucky to have such a solid group of mentors, and I try to give back by mentoring younger entrepreneurs and teaching market validation at UCSB.
Where we can we learn more?
You can follow my journey building ActionWins and ActionPages at http://blog.actionwins.co.
If you're an entrepreneur building web and mobile applications, I'm always open to helping out however I can, so shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or hit me up in the comments below: