Tell us about yourself and what you're working on.
I'm Adrien, a 26 year old software engineer / hacker who's very curious about everything. I graduated from Epitech in 2012, and since then I've been working for a Paris based startup alongside my personal projects, like updown.io.
updown.io is a very simple website monitoring service. It checks your websites periodically and alerts you when there's a problem. My customers range from individuals to small- and medium-sized companies who want something cheap that they can setup in seconds and forget about.
How'd you come up with the idea for updown.io?
After studying the market for a monitoring solution for myself, I found that existing solutions were often too expensive, too complex, had bad UIs, or were even unreliable. I thought, "Well, let's build my own and see if I can do better." It started as a side project made just for myself, but I decided to make a product out of it after I realized that others were in the same situation I was.
What convinced you that others needed the same solution?
When I would talk about the service that I was building for myself with coworkers and friends, a few said things like, "I also have the same issues with existing monitoring solutions" or "Can I try it?" So I thought, well, it might be a good idea to experiment launching a SaaS product I care about and which is useful to me. I'd learn a bunch of stuff, and maybe even generate a few extra bucks.
What was it like building the initial product?
updown.io started as a small side project in July 2012. I worked on it a few hours a week in the evenings and over the weekends. (Meanwhile, my main job was providing me with the money I needed to live.) I started by hosting it on my cheap dedicated server, so there was no additional recurring cost — just a lot of time invested.
It took 3 months to build the base product before releasing a beta version. I then spent another year running and improving upon updown.io before taking it out of beta and starting to bill customers in November 2013.
What was it like to start charging for updown.io?
When I started to monetize updown.io, it was a year after the beta started, and of course it caused a big (80%) drop in usage, as most users were just testing it out and weren't ready to pay.
I chose a very simple and cheap pricing model: buy credits, where 1 credit = 1 request. That allows me to bill fairly, because you (as a customer) don't have to buy the most expensive plan just because you need this or that feature. It also allows you to monitor some important sites faster than others without having to pay the same price for all of them.
I also choose to not offer any free plan (though I offer free credits), which was the main reason for the 80% drop. However, it was also a big help with making the service sustainable, so I didn't have to "race against" resource consumption too early on.
I've kept the costs of running the business pretty low by doing everything myself and avoiding the expensive hype tech (AWS, Heroku, etc). As a result, I currently have less than $60/month in hosting costs (4 servers + email provider) with $1500/month in revenue. This has allowed me to run the service for years with very few users (now 1500 active users), so I've been able to slowly grow the user base as I add features. updown.io was profitable 3 months after monetization.
Did you ever incorporate?
No, I have a simple "self-employed" French status which I intend to keep as long as possible, because it's so easy to deal with. I also have my girlfriend helping me with legal stuff.
What've you done to grow your user base?
At first it was just word-of-mouth: my friends would show it their friends. Having a nice-looking product helped a lot with this, because sometimes even people who hadn't used it would share it simply because it looked new and cool. I ran a small Google ad at some point (1€/day), to try the platform and burn the 75€ free credits that they wouldn't stop offering me. The results weren't very good. There were lots of bounces and a very low conversion rate (~1%).
Later, I purchased some more targeted ads in the RubyWeekly and WebopsWeekly newsletters. Those had a 5 times better conversion rate, and most importantly were hitting the right people. I didn't renew the ads, because I think hitting the same people again would be counterproductive. Finally, I tried some Twitter ads too, which had a better yield than Google, because it's easier to target in my opinion.
The best marketing returns I got were free, and there were 3 of them:
- Hacker News: I got to the front page in late 2014, which got me more than 100 active users.
- ProductHunt: Someone posted updown.io without me knowing, and this also got me more than 100 active users in the following weeks.
- Slack Platform: I was one of the first apps to be a part of the Slack platform when they launched in late 2015, and this drove a lot of users to updown.io (more than 500 active users).
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
I'm pretty comfortable with technical stuff, so for me the biggest challenges lie elsewhere: dealing with customers on the human side, marketing, advertising, explaining what I do to other people, etc. I'm pretty sure at some point I'll manage to help my parents understand what updown.io is. ;-)
What's gone well? Has anything been super helpful?
UI. Unlike most developers, I like design, and I hate using awful interfaces. I spent a lot of time working on updown.io's UI/UX, because I wanted to make it not only cheap and simple, but also good looking. And, surprisingly, many more people than I expected noticed my effort and really liked updown.io because of this. This has been not only rewarding for my work, but it's also helped adoption through word-of-mouth.
Also, I've tried to offer outstanding support with my product, as this can really help gain your customer's trust when you're a new product. It's working great so far, as people have been so happy with the support that they've shared their experiences on Twitter.
Finally, and this wasn't under my control, but being part of the Slack platform has been really helpful for attracting new customers.
What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
I'd say take your time, and don't set high expectations. Keep your costs low, so you can try to learn everything at your own pace, and use your project to experiment. It's a wonderful experience working on whatever you want to without pressure.