Ministry of Testing

Rosie Sherry explains how she built an $80,000/month business by listening to her audience and genuinely setting out help to her community.

What are you working on?

I'm Rosie Sherry, and I run the Ministry of Testing. We represent the often forgotten software testers of the world. I'm a mother to four kids, and my husband and I work on the business together. We live in Brighton, UK.

What is the Ministry of Testing?

I started out in the world of tech as a software tester, and that's how I ended up on my journey to create an online community almost 10 years ago. I felt like the software testing world at that time was so completely dull, and something had to change it. We first started off as an online forum under the name of Software Testing Club.

Six years ago I decided to turn it into a business. I started with a conference and some training courses. Now we run multiple conferences ("TestBashes") a year. We pride ourselves on really connecting with the community. We have so much love from them, and we allow them to guide us. All our conferences spawn from the fact that community members lead with local conferences. It is very much a partnership.

Last year we started an online learning platform, too. This is still in its early days, but it makes complete sense, because we run so many events and record the talks as part of it. Our aim is to create the most useful education resource for testers.

How'd you build up the initial community from nothing?

I started it because I was a tester at the time, and I was getting jealous of all the cool web 2.0 and web design stuff (online and events) that was going on. I compared it to our software testing world, and I just felt we completely and utterly sucked. So, I thought I'd try to do something about it.

I had a blog at the time, and I had started to become known and kind of trusted within the software testing world. When I started the forum people were happy to sign up. I remember being super happy at getting to our first 100 members. There are around 20k members there now, though the numbers on our email list are much more than that. These days the community exists all over the interwebs.

The software testing world was really infected with lame discussions and often the quick infiltration of spammy marketing posts. We made a big effort for our forum not to be like that and moderated content ruthlessly in the early days. People really seemed to appreciate that.

The testing world also sucks at design, so it was kind of easy for us to stand out a bit. I always placed the focus on being fun and not too serious, and the community has really appreciated that and taken it to heart.

How did you turn the community into a business?

After running the Software Testing Club forum for 3-4 years, I felt like I had to turn it into something that would generate an income, because it was taking up so much of my personal time.

Also, I could see very clearly in my head that the testing community needed more, and there weren't really any people doing something about it. I still feel like I was given that role of improving our industry, and can't escape it even now!

At the time, I thought our software testers really needed some good events (specifically, conferences) so they'd be able to meet face to face. So we hosted our first conference (we call them TestBashes) in 2012. It was small with around 70 people, but the vibe was fantastic, so we continued to host TestBashes each year.

We're now up to hosting four within a year — in Brighton (UK), Manchester (UK), the Netherlands, and Philadelphia (USA). We keep getting asked to host our TestBashes in local areas, which is why we're hosting so many now. The community really does lead us. We put a huge amount of effort into community-building through our forum and publishing content, too.

Along the way, we thought it would be great to create an online learning environment, so we do that too — we call it The Dojo. In addition to the conference talks we host there, we also work with members of the community to write or create videos.

Our learning platform is all custom-built. My husband manages it with our part-time developer. He's pretty awesome at understanding what we need. It really allows me to focus on the communications and community aspect of the business, or try to anyway.

Our motto has always been "co-creating smarter testers". What has always driven me is the need for testers to change. How we've tested in the past is not how we should be testing today. It is unfortunate that many testers still have an old mindset. However, on top of that it is perhaps worse that the wider tech world often doesn't see or know how valuable it can be to have a good tester on their team. When people think of testing, they think of us finding bugs. We do so much more than that, and as a community we need to learn how to communicate that better.

I would love to have more conversations about testing with non-testers!

How much revenue is your business generating?

Our monthly revenue hit £80k at its peak, and it varies between £40-80k at the moment. (Note from Courtland: This is between $50k and $100k USD per month.) Since we run events, income peaks in the preceding months. Here's a breakdown of the actual income in numbers:

Year 1 £8155 Total
£6724 Marketing services
£1431 Testing services
Year 2 £50,335 Total
£3,208 The Testing Planet
£12,647 Marketing Services
£9,000 Testing Services
£25,480 Training Courses & Events
Year 3 £144,971 Total
£7,505 The Testing Planet
£24,069 Marketing Services
£13,100 Testing Services
£100,297 Training Courses & Events
Year 4 £160,970 Total
£47,488 Marketing Services
£7,715 Testing Services
£105,767 Training Courses & Events
Year 5 £237,201 Total
£45,099 Marketing Services
£4,421 Testing Services
£187,368 Training Courses & Events
£313 SaaS
Year 6 £398,836 Total So Far
£88,398 Marketing Services
£298,884 Training Courses & Events
£11,554 SaaS

In the past 12 months, the total is £600k.

It's been a bit of a journey throughout the years. There are things we tried out and decided not to continue with, and there are things that worked.

For example, once upon a time we created a newspaper — an actual physical one. And whilst it felt great to create a physical product, it wasn't much fun or profitable to run it. So we expired it and let it continue in a digital format. It felt like such a big decision at the time, we thought we were letting people down, but really, most people and customers were fine with it.

We also experimented with providing testing services — this mostly came down to people getting in contact with us for help. However, to be honest, our focus wasn't there. And as our events and community grew, we felt we needed to focus on them. Maybe one day we'll go back to services. I don't know, we have so many ideas and options!

What's clear is that most of our money comes from learning and events, and as our community has grown we feel this is where we need to focus. Alongside this, we've created a reputation of awesomeness, so more and more testing related companies have sought to advertise and market their products with us, online and through our events. We mostly act according to demand, i.e. people coming to us (no cold-calling on our part). Our marketing services have grown organically over time as companies have expressed an interest to promote their things to our most awesome community. We've tried to find balanced ways to do that as we know our community are often sensitive to marketing and advertising.

I often ponder (deeply) about the whole marketing and advertising angle. I've never set out to be a sales person, and I'm quite sensitive and careful about how I promote things. At this moment I still personally manage all the marketing side of things. I really need to delegate this!

Over time I'm kind of coming to the idea that we need to work together as an industry. There isn't a great strategy behind this, but my view is that as an industry testers, companies and employers should learn to co-exist in harmony. It's easier said than done, as many testers can all too often reject the need for commercial tools. As a company and person I feel like I'm in the middle of this conversation. I'm really on the side of the every day tester, but at the same time I see the value and need to get testers and testing-related companies communicating better.

On a personal note, I'm quite happy that the marketing services we do offer more than covers my own wages and costs. So, in theory, income from other areas of the business can be used to pay people or be re-invested into growth. I also find that all our core income overlaps quite nicely with one another. We do events which are great for the community and learning. They also bring sponsors on board. They're also helpful in creating videos for online consumption via The Dojo. The Dojo is increasingly becoming the most useful resource out there for testers. Which will then attract more people to our events. And then help us create more videos. It's a wonderful loop!

Where did you get the time and funding to do all of this?

Initially, I found time between having kids. I focused on ideas that I could work on mostly from home and without specific time constraints. Sure, events have specific dates, but they were only once a year to begin with, so it was manageable.

Also, I started off doing the tech and mostly hated it. I often relied on hosted services and the limitations of things like WordPress and Ning (argh!). My husband came on board 3 years ago, and he does the tech now. It's only since my husband joined that we got more serious about building a solid system/platform that we are in control of. And to be fair, we felt like we both needed the confidence to invest more time into the business. Until 3 years ago it still felt very much like a side project.

For a long time it was just us two. We've just hired our first full-time person to help lead with the community and initiatives. We also have a part-time developer and a designer who makes us look uber cool :-) And we hire people from within the community to help us do specific tasks.

And even though we made some money in the first 3 years, I didn't really take any out. This was mostly because my husband was consulting at the time and we could survive without the extra income. This did mean I built up a reasonable buffer of money to give me the confidence to pay myself and then — a year later — pay my husband. We've never been greedy with pay either. We mostly keep within a tax efficient income range. We would be earning more if we had contracts or jobs elsewhere, but that would also kill us mentally.

I have a philosophy to never spend money I don't have, and I always made do with what I had. I feel any kind of loan or investment would bring me too much stress and distraction. It's incredibly liberating being in control and making decisions that I feel are right for the business, community, and myself/team.

What financial goals do you have for the future?

I haven't really set specific financial goals, to be honest. Life got hectic in the last couple of years, and I just didn't have time to think about it. The important thing for me has been to remain independent, to have a buffer of money in the business so I can make good decisions, and to have the freedom to make decisions on how I live day to day.

We don't need to worry about making money to pay the bills for at least a year, probably two. This is a very comforting position to be in.

We unschool our four kids — 18 months, 5, 11, and 12 year olds. Life is mad and hectic. The last thing we want is to worry about having enough money on a day to day basis. I had a tough time with my youngest daughter. I found it really hard to get work done, but I did get by despite the stress (even if it wasn't nearly enough). However, despite that, the business seems to have grown faster than ever before since I was pregnant with her. Go figure!

My goal at the moment is to not always be thinking about work, and to focus on having more balance. We have been doing quite well on that front, but there's still room for improvement. I'm also super keen on setting up the company so it can run without me, so I'm working towards that. It's a slow process and one that I've failed at more than twice in the past. I feel like the team that's being created now is the right one.

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

I would tell myself not to stress out so much! I like things to be done well, and I would often give myself a hard time, but actually much of that stress was unfounded. Things are what they are. Stress does not help change them.

What would you do the same?

I've always put others first. I didn't create the business for me. I honestly sought to create change. I seek new stars. New ideas. Attendees over sponsorship money. I don't use what I've built as a platform for myself. I'd rather help others shine. I wouldn't change this approach for the world. I do believe it is what has made my business work. At every stage I'm asking myself, "What can I do to help?"

What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?

Please give a damn and don't treat people like numbers. Forget what your stats are saying. Stop chasing that quick fix. Listen to what your audience is saying and see how you can genuinely help or create something useful. And if you are in it for real, then have patience. Do something every day that will get you a little bit closer to your goal.

Where can we learn more about you and Ministry of Testing?

You can find me on Twitter (@rosiesherry) or on my blog, Rosie Land. Also check out unschool.me for my unschooling activities.

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

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