BugTower

Kyle Connors explains how he grew his side project to $800/mo by identifying the challenges that kept him from finishing and launching his products in the past.

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Kyle Connors, and I'm a software developer in Brooklyn, NY.

I run BugTower, a simple issue-tracking application for teams maintaining and building software. I built the tool from the ground up without any outside funding.

As of March 2017, BugTower generates about ~$840/month in revenue.

What motivated you to get started with BugTower?

I work for a development agency, where we build custom software for a wide range of clients, a good portion of whom are non-technical. Our clients are heavily involved in testing the software we build for them — both in terms of feature validation and issue reporting. Managing this communication usually involves one of the following:

  • Email: This is the easiest for the client, but it can get lost and end up becoming a nightmare to manage.
  • Developer Tools/Software: Most issue-tracking applications are fairly technical and have steep learning curves. A lot of our clients lack the time or desire to learn another tool, so they end up not using these applications and reverting back to email.
  • Spreadsheets: More or less the same problem as email.

So I set out to build a simple bug-tracking tool that anyone could jump into and start using immediately.

I didn't do too much initial market research — mostly I just scratched my own itch and solved the problems I'd seen. I knew there had to be others facing the same problem.

BugTower

What went into building the initial product?

I've started a lot of side projects in the past that have gone on to become useless, half-baked applications sitting on my computer. I took some time to think about why I'd failed to launch these projects, and I came up with the following:

  • I tried solving something that wasn't really a problem. These cool ideas would pop into my head and I'd start writing code immediately, only to later realize they weren't projects that anyone would use.
  • I tried to do too much. This overextending usually involved analyzing competitors in the space and convincing myself I needed to match them in features, designs, etc.
  • I wanted to use a new and exciting tech stack (language, framework, etc.). This took too much time away from building the tool that was solving the core problem.
  • I was scared to launch. "It's not good enough." "It's buggy." "People won't find it useful." You get caught up overthinking, ending up essentially paralyzed.

It's going to be a grind, and it'll take time. Make sure you're setting yourself up for small wins.

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I knew I had the first bullet point figured out — it was a real problem I'd experienced. Sure, it wasn't going to be the next unicorn, but it was a pain point. If I could avoid the pitfalls of my previous attempts, I felt I'd be able to make it work.

Drawing from the lessons I had learned up to that point, here are some of the points I focused on:

  • I focused on solving the core problem — a simple workflow around creating and updating some basic information (title, description, and severity).
  • I used what I knew — Python and Django, AWS for hosting, and Stripe for payment processing.
  • I needed to launch — I wouldn't care what people thought. I'd just focus on launching.

All in all, it took around 2-3 months to build the initial MVP. I'm working a full-time job, so even today the main blocker for me is free time. I work on weekends, making progress seem slow at times. But I actually think working with limited resources is a plus — it forces you to focus.

How have you attracted users and grown BugTower?

I successfully launched the MVP and put it out there in the wild, but I had absolutely no customers lined up. I wanted to find users ASAP, so I ruled out long-term traffic options, like SEO, for the time being. I knew my options for generating immediate traffic were either to pay for advertising or to hustle. I did both.

I set Adwords with a daily limit of roughly $15-20 a day. It brought me some customers, but it was too expensive for a bootstrapped product. Moreoever, I hadn't fully nailed down the long-term value of a customer just yet. (I still haven't!)

For the hustle, I decided to post on forums. These, particularly Quora, quickly provided the product a lot of targeted eyes. Dozens of users asked about simple bug-tracking tools. I simply provided BugTower as an answer. This was and continues to be a stable source of traffic for acquiring new customers.

Quora Bug Tracking

Quora: most-viewed writers in bug-tracking tools.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

BugTower is a SaaS product that charges a monthly subscription. I knew from the start that I wanted to build a product that charged from day one. I did, however, make a couple of typical mistakes here in the beginning.

First, I had an overly generous free plan. Second, my paid plans were too cheap. My free plan allowed for something like 3 projects and unlimited users, while my entry-level paid plan was $10/month for 10 projects and unlimited users.

I had dozens of customers signing up and sticking with the software, but hardly anyone paid for it. The free plan was just too good — no one needed to upgrade. I knew I couldn't continue to pay out of pocket for expenses (a couple hundred a month), so I decided to remove the free plan and raise prices. I needed to know if people would pay for BugTower. If they wouldn't, I would shut it down.

I gave my then free plan customers roughly 30 days' notice of the change, and allowed them to be grandfathered at the soon-to-change lower rates. It was a tough decision, and I received some harsh criticism, but most customers understood. Over the course of the transition period, a flood of people converted to the paid plan.

Revenue, Jan to March 2016

BugTower revenue from January 2016 to March 2016.

I sent out a series of emails to customers with a reminder at certain intervals (30 days, 20, 10, etc.) before the period was up. Each time, more customers upgraded.

I used Intercom for messaging with customers, which I highly recommend. You need some way of communicating with your customers.

As of March 2017, revenue for BugTower is ~$842/month. I faced a decent amount of churn in the first 6 months from previous free customers (on cheaper legacy plans). This seems natural, as their initial aim was to use a free product.

I've since attracted new customers who've signed up for more expensive plans and stuck around longer. Churn is definitely a concern with this type of product, however, as some customers use it for one-off projects and then have no more use for it.

Regardless, expenses are low, and BugTower is currently profitable. My current expenses are:

If you're planning on bootstrapping a SaaS business solo, I highly recommend charging from day one and not offering a free plan. A (free) trial period for sure, but no free plan. You need to know if people will pay for your product, and you simply don't have time to wait it out with a freemium model.

What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

BugTower reached a peak revenue a few months back. It's been somewhat stagnant since. I'd like to get it to a point where it's growing a steady 8-10% month over month. I tend to follow the typical developer pattern of focusing too much on development and not giving marketing enough love.

As for the product, I'm listening to my customers on what to develop next. I recently sent out a poll asking my customers for the features and enhancements they want most (I gave a couple of options), and their answers ended up being the opposite of what I thought.

Only build features that are absolutely necessary for your product and save the rest for later.

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I had anticipated requests for a big feature I was missing, like an integration, but they really just wanted better ways to do things they could already do (e.g. searching and filtering). It's important to continually engage and reach out to your customers.

Longer term, I'd like for BugTower to exist in more places — third-party integrations, embeds, etc., but the vision is to continue making BugTower as simple as possible. This is the primary reason customers choose BugTower, and I don't see that changing. Otherwise, it would just be another complicated issue tracker.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

Finding the time has been the biggest challenge. I have to give up some weekends in order to do any sort of meaningful work on BugTower, which means sacrificing a bit of my social life. It's about finding balance. You need to make sure you're making progress, but not overworking yourself and burning out.

I'd also say motivation is a challenge at times. It's tough to keep grinding when you haven't had a new customer in several weeks, but you need to stay focused on the small wins. Having a customer reach out and tell you how much they love your software makes it all worth it.

Marketing has also been somewhat of a challenge. I tend to spend the majority of my time developing, and marketing becomes an afterthought. I think this is pretty common for developers — they just want to jump into building something.

The tough thing here is context switching. Developing and marketing require very different mindsets. It's hard to have your head in a feature you're building, and then leave it for days to focus on something completely different. I'd recommend spending batches (~1 week) of devoted time to each responsibility to avoid this.

Lastly, I could have done a better job at prioritizing what needed to be done. I spent a considerable amount of time building an iOS application, for example, that very few customers even use.

I also built out a feature that an early prospect said they needed, but it never converted them. This time could have been better spent elsewhere. It's easy to convince yourself to just do it. "It'll only take a couple hours," you think. But those are valuable hours.

What were your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?

I think knowing the problem I was solving and how to develop and design BugTower helped a lot. I could simply get to work without needing any sort of outside help. This made it 100x easier than relying on someone else, as I was able to put whatever was in my head into action without having to worry about miscommunication.

I also have a decent ability to remain focused, so I don't often get sidetracked (although it happens!). There are just so many distractions — new ideas, technologies to learn, new features to add, etc. — so it's a constant challenge to avoid giving into them.

More important than any of the above, I'd say my main advantage has honestly just been luck. I was fortunate enough to even have the option and resources to build something like BugTower in my spare time. Not everyone has that luxury. For many people, it's just not possible, or extremely difficult.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

Let's be honest — starting something from scratch by yourself is hard. It takes tons of work aside from just building the product. But it's possible, and there are thousands of people who are successfully doing it. It's important to remember that. A couple of tips I recommend:

  • Start Doing Now — it's too easy to get caught up in distractions reading about others' success and not making any progress on your own. Learning from others is certainly helpful, but it's not going to get anything built for you.
  • Ruthlessly Prioritize and Launch — only build features that are absolutely necessary for your product and save the rest for later. You need to focus on launching as soon as possible. If you let a feature drag out, you'll lose steam and get nowhere.
  • Enjoy Small Wins — It's going to be a grind, and it'll take time. Make sure you're setting yourself up for small wins to keep motivated.

Here are some sites, books, and resources I recommend:

  • Mixergy.com — Entrepreneur interviews with David Warner. I've been following this for a while. I always like listening to others' stories, and I learn a lot from them.
  • Rework — book by Jason Friend and David Heinemeier Hansson (founders of Basecamp). This helps you get the right mindset on how to launch a business.
  • Traction — great book by Gabriel Weinberg and Justin Mares. It explores a lot of the different marketing channels out there, and how to attack them.
  • Notable blogs — Baremetrics.com, Intercom.com, Groovehq.com

Where can we go to learn more?

You can check BugTower out at BugTower.com. If you want to reach out personally, you can find my email on my personal site — elyk.me.

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask in the comments below. Thanks!

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