DnBRadio

Michael Ramirez shares the story, strategy, and hardships behind keeping his side project alive and profitable for over 13 years.

Tell us about yourself and what you're working on.

Hi, I'm Michael Ramirez. I'm a full-stack web developer and engineer, and I've been doing systems design and development for 22 years. I'm also the creator of DnBRadio, a crowd-sourced and crowd-funded live streaming and podcasting service.

DnBRadio offers an outlet for independent labels and audio content curators to showcase their work to an active community of genre enthusiasts. Our aim is to give independent creators the attention they deserve via a familiar 24/7 continuous radio-style format for live streams in addition to a podcast archive of recorded shows for on-demand listening. This gives creators a way to grow their fanbase and tap into an already engaged audience.

How'd you get started with DnBRadio?

In the late 90's I had previously dabbled with creating an online streaming service. I made use of SHOUTcast, Winamp's side project, which allows you to host a distributed streaming service. (Basically it allows you to launch an instance of the sc_serv binary on multiple hosts and set them up as mirrors or "relays", thereby creating the distributed network that your listeners connect to.)

Not until 2002 did I make use of this knowledge to launch DnBRadio. The idea was already validated with the 150+ people that were in our community (an IRC chatroom). For the first launch, I found a couple of cheap dedicated servers and put up a basic website. It grew very rapidly from there, attracting more people from outside of our community, and eventually we had a full schedule of shows from all over the world broadcasting daily.

What were your goals starting out?

This was over 13 years ago, but I believe I wanted to build the site for two reasons:

  1. I wanted to become a better coder.
  2. I wanted to create something for our IRC community. I built the radio aspect to allow the DJ's and labels within our community to show off their skills and their music catalogues.

How'd you find the time and funding to work?

When I started the project I was still an entry-level programmer doing it as a hobby. My main job at that time was tech support and on-site maintenance for a telecom company. My background before that was in data rationalization and data mining for a data scrubbing company. I shifted my career around a lot trying to make the best wage I could while building DnBRadio on the side.

I don't really remember how long it took to finish the initial product, but my guess is a couple of weeks. My schedule was a long 10+ hours a night after my real 9-5 job. I was passionate about the work, so I didn't mind staying up til 2-4am (or even all night) and then going to a regular job the next day. It probably hindered my work at my regular job at times. In fact, I know it most definitely did, because sometimes on my lunch break I would go to my car and take a nap and accidentally sleep for 2 hours (haha).

Immediately after beginning the project I got several volunteers, some of whom are still around today. Some people volunteered as moderators, and others got in involved as system admins. I never got the chance to meet a fellow developer who became a real part of the project, so all of that work fell on me. It didn't take a lot of money to launch the site on my own. We didn't start taking donations until much later in the game, so it was all just my own money spent to keep it going.

How have you attracted users and grown your business?

I didn't really prepare for a proper launch. Back then I had no knowledge of how to launch a product or anything. I just set it all up and then announced it to our community. I also posted to a few genre-based message boards. Message boards were very prevalent back then, but still there were only a few popular ones for our niche genre. Also, the SHOUTcast service had their own stream directory where all Shoutcast stations were listed. The directory still exists today, although it's not as popular as it used to be.

As for getting our first users, I think we mostly grew organically. We didn't do much except build and wait for it to get traction.

Afterwards, in the first 2 years, the project did not change much. The basic premise of running a SHOUTcast stream stayed the same (and it's very much the same to this day), but one thing that came about at year 3 was the introduction of an RSS feed for our podcast archives. This quickly became a popular feature of the site and I would say helped us with our SEO.

Our SEO was impeccable and effective, because I did tons of research on the topic. Back then I was heavily focused on learning about these kinds of things. I spent a lot of time optimizing our site to be #1 on Google for our particular genre and other key phrases. We also monetized with Google ads and eventually started taking donations which has helped us maintain and grow our feature set.

Can you tell us about your business model?

To be honest, I never even considered charging for the service until many years after starting, and still I don't think charging the listeners is a good model for us. So for that reason we have focused on the "pay it forward" mentality, just asking for donations from listeners. We've also remained transparent about our bills and the donation goals we were reaching.

Donations were totaling around $150 per month back in year 2-3, and we were getting about $400-500 per month from Google Ads, but things soon changed in the Adwords algorithm and they started paying a fraction of that. I had to foot a lot of the expenses myself after that, but it was ok because I had a good paying job.

Nowadays we have people donating anywhere between $1-$30 per month, and one person even gives us $250 per month because they can afford it! This is the kind of thing that keeps me motivated, not to mention the public and private messages we receive daily showing support for what we are doing.

Only recently did I decide to take DnBRadio more seriously, mainly to ensure its survival. The site had been running on autopilot for 8+ years, and I had moved on to other projects and needed incentive of my own to come back to it. Before that, I never thought of it as a business. It was not until after I launched a couple of other apps and learned about startups did I decide to approach DnBRadio with a more business-oriented approach.

The popularity of the site was waning, and in order to recover from this we needed an infusion of cash to make it worth the effort. The fact is, SHOUTcast-based services are not as popular as they used to be, and in order for us to compete with all the Spotifys, SoundClouds, and Mixclouds out there, I knew we needed to pour more resources into it. I saw this need to breath new life into the project as an opportunity to test out the new things I had learned.

If you look on our website and Patreon, you could make a guess at our revenue. I've been really bad at monitoring financials, but only because until recently I haven't been treating the project like a business. I have always been happy with it breaking even for over 10 years, but we've seen a nice uptick in revenue now that I've decided to focus on growth. So we are now profitable to the point of allowing me to spend blocks of time on DnBRadio without it impacting my income.

There's some random crowdfunding going on (e.g. about 4 years ago we raised $350 to get a new logo designed), and we occasionally do fundraisers to print new merch or take care of an unexpected expense. So it's difficult to divulge the amount we're bringing in at the moment. Surely, it's peanuts at this point compared to a real business.

Can you elaborate on these additional revenue streams?

I put specific broadcaster tools behind a paywall of sorts to encourage active involvement from them. It is free for any broadcaster to sign up and use the service, but for access to certain perks they must become a patron on Patreon.

We are also selling merch and doing events. We are selling merch directly from our own shop and via services like Teespring and Teezily. We are also doing events here in Denver, collaborating with a local promoter, Recon Denver, who we helped get an award for Best Promoter for Drum & Bass in Denver. Basically, I took all the lessons I learned about startups and marketing and applied them to promoting events for Recon here in Denver. Our logo and name gets added to all the flyers and event names and I help promote the events locally with our wide reach of 90k followers on Facebook. Our most recent event is pulling in about 500 RSVP's and people flying in from all over the world to come to the event. I also assist Recon in running FB Ads targeted locally and nationally for certain events and monitor ticket sales analytics in order to optimize our ad-spend.

Another note about the merch thing — we used CafePress back when that was the only option, but the quality of the merch was not great. Now Teezily and Teespring offer the best quality for the least amount of hassle. We still make our own merch from time to time (dog tags & stickers), but ordering in bulk via Teezily when we have a t-shirt campaign running is very effective.

Also, in 2004-2009 we launched 2 record labels representing opposite sides of the genre's spectrum. Both got quite a large following, with the largest of the two (Section 8 Records) gaining ~20k fans on Facebook and a few top 10, several top 20, and even more top 100 chart placements within our genre. The other label, Plush Recordings, is much younger and still growing, but has seen similar success. The automation I put behind the operation of both of these labels has now become its own SaaS product called LabelGrid.

The creation of these two labels also served to help DnBRadio survive the licensing costs that forced many mainstream stations to shutdown. Since we demonstrate that we are providing a constant stream of licensed content on our own (the labels' music), this make us completely independent, and we continue to upload our own music as the primary content of the site's playlist.

Today, any other content added to the site is provided directly by the labels via promos from the record labels themselves, or the artists who are not signed, or even free content with permissions for broadcast use. This greatly helped us survive the changes in online broadcast licensing laws in the mid-2000's which was heavily pushed by the majors — a very controversial move on their part at the time. Our direct relationship with labels and distros helped us focus on our very small sub-niche allowing us to remain an independent operation.

How'd you set up your various payment systems?

In the beginning we were only taking donations via Paypal, but now we are offering a perks system via Patreon which does direct deposits via Stripe. We even have a Bitcoin method provided by Coinbase's widget. Our shop is custom built by me and is connected to Paypal. For our events we use Square at the venue door and Nightout for online ticket sales.

What approaches have helped you increase revenue?

I think what has helped the most is keeping things super transparent, even in the early days when we had leaderboards for our Paypal donations for each month (we still do this, too). I've always been very transparent about our milestones and revenue. It encourages contributors to become more involved in the direction of the site as well as giving them merch and special features in return for their contribution.

Another thing which has been huge for us is that, as I mentioned above, I started gating some of our most valuable features behind a paywall. Anyone with a good demo can join and broadcast for free, but broadcasters who contribute get unlimited space for their archives, special features such as Soundcloud posting, and inclusion in our popular main podcast feed which gives them more organic views. These immediate perks incentivize our followers to become patrons and the long-term milestones incentivize them a second time to contribute more in order to unlock additional features for everyone.

I also started taking the time to outline all the specific things I want to build in detail, and then putting these forthcoming features behind a paywall via the milestones system on Patreon. So, for instance, there is a new dashboard I want to launch which will help the broadcasters promote and run their show more effectively, but the next set of tools for this dashboard can only be built if we maintain our $500/mo Patreon milestone. So the first paywall gets them the immediate merch perks such as t-shirts, dog tags, and sticker packs mailed out to them every year, and the second paywall is based on reaching a milestone (certain $ amount every month). Once the milestone is reached, it unlocks special features for all users.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

I wish I had looked at the bigger picture sooner. I could have launched a SaaS product a long time ago based on DnBRadio's source code. There are giants out there now that have a similar model at the basic level. I could have recognized this early on and tried to create something.

I also could have adopted 3rd party services such as YouTube sooner, because I have watched early channels in our genre take off quickly on that platform. One thing we were strong with is curation, so I think our content would have translated very easily over to YouTube back when there wasn't a lot of competition. That was a missed opportunity out of fear of getting YouTube strikes. However the wild west of YouTube birthed a lot of big and profitable channels who were accepted by the music industry without fault, and now those channels are our direct competition.

If I could go back I would also approach monetization differently. I would do it similar to how we do it now and use that as a proven model to get aspiring station owners to purchase a SaaS product running on our existing infrastructure.

What have been your biggest advantages?

You know how sometimes you read a passage of text and your mind goes too deep and sees a different meaning from what the writer meant? Although it can be a drawback, I think this is an essential skill in building things for other people. Even when you write, you might be constantly trying to ensure the person reading does not have any unanswered questions. With lots of practice I have recognized this trait inside myself and I'm trying to master it. Being short and concise does not come naturally to most people. The majority of us are naturally superfluous with our words, so it is our job to condense things down in a way that is intuitive for our end-users.

You also have an advantage if you become a skilled researcher (aka knowing how to use Google). Just having the ability to figure out a problem through research or intuition has helped a ton. Being in IT and troubleshooting for several years helped me hone that skill, and I've always strived to be thorough in learning new skills or researching a problem. I think it's just a matter of having pride in your work.

I've held lots of roles that later helped me, from being a support tech to data analyst to DBA and eventually developer. I always thought to myself that if another person in my field looked at my work, I wouldn't want them to say "WTF?" (even though some of them probably would). But the point is I always had these things in mind and forced myself to be diligent about writing clean code and doing things the "right way", so that if someone came after me they could pick up where I left off.

This translated to anything I was working on later on. Whether it was website optimization, SEO, UX, or whatever... I had developed a work ethic that ensured I would be putting out the best quality I could. For example, I'm not going to say we have the best UX, but I've always tried to look at things from the perspective of the end user. This is another trait that comes naturally to some, but I learned it by just building sites for others. I ran a BBS when I was very young, got involved running gaming clans and forums, and that got me into thinking about the end user's experience.

What are your goals for the future?

My immediate goals are to appease the patrons by giving them new features they want as well as features to help us become relevant on other platforms. I'd also like to monetize these features in a way that is constantly validated through contributor participation.

Long-term, I would like to launch the source code of DnBRadio as SaaS product allowing content creators to start their own radio station using the exact model we've proven to work for us. This would also lead them to our "sister-products", which focus on a more general approach to media content hosting and marketing (see: LabelGrid, Promoly, and BeatTracker).

These other projects benefit from the core components of DnBRadio. Any time an improvement is made to DnBRadio it's carried over to our core framework (this ecosystem of apps), allowing them to communicate and share resources.

What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?

Missed opportunities of mine reveal a pattern that makes me wonder: How many people like me have often decided to make a change only because it's necessary? People miss out on opportunity because they don't go looking for it. What they have is good enough, so they stick with it until it fails, and then they move on and often find something even better than what they had... something they could have launched sooner, or monetized differently, or gotten a better deal on. What if they had gone looking for the change before it was necessary?

Where can readers learn more about you?

You can also leave a comment below, and I'll try to get back to you!

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