Variacode

Miguel Fuentes Buchholtz quit his job to start a business that now makes $30,000/mo from a combination of clients and SaaS products. Here's how.

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

Hi my name is Miguel Fuentes Buchholtz. I'm a nerd, and I build stuff at my company, Variacode.

I started solo, and after about 6 months I was able to convince a bunch of other nerds to work together with me. We operate in Latin America (we're based in Chile), and we currently have a few products:

The first is an automated invoicing system. It's a little boring, but the monthly revenue is great, and we get some neat financial clients with it.

The second is a real-time data processing product. We build rules and smart contracts and regulations that help businesses (financial/food/industrial) save money by making smarter faster decisions. We've gotten some funding/interest for it, so it's going to have its own name and all (we call it xVariacode for now), and as a result our company is currently in the process of binary fission.

We also do solid back-end work for other companies, who are mostly awesome startups themselves. Because why not? It's fun and easy!

Finally, as a result of my personal programming efforts (I can't stop!), I got to be the co-founder of a startup named Tuten. It's an "Uber" for household services in Latin America: cleaning, electrical, plumbing, curtains, etc... kind of everything. But that's a story for another time.

How'd you get started with Variacode?

It started as this thirst to make things while still working a day job years ago. I just built things with friends, did work for a few clients, participated in hackathons, and founded a few failed startups for things like recommendation systems, real-time interactions for your website etc.

Eventually word spread among my clients, and at some point I got my first important client. They proposed adding a zero to the usual fee in exchange for exclusivity on our time, which was awesome.

However, I was in a very good place with my career (in a big financial business) at the time. I had my own place, a wife, and everything was set, so the decision was very difficult.

I had the usual fear of the unknown. Nobody else ever really knows what you should do... so I resorted to my sci-fi heroes (Samus Aran, Captain Kirk) and also some real ones (Grace Hopper, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing). What would they do? Well, the answer was obvious, so I founded Variacode. The name is a mix between the "Variasuit" from Metroid and computer "code".

Unfortunately, business got slow after our big launch. Money burns pretty fast, especially if you maintain the same yuppie lifestyle (so don't do that haha). However, after locking in some good software consulting deals, we started to think big again about creating a constant revenue stream. That's how we came to build the invoicing system. Again, clients' word of mouth is so important. We actually had customers "in line" to get the thing. Crazy.

Later we decided to make another product, and we had even bigger dreams for it. It would be a general purpose real-time data processor to help clients make fast decisions. The new product had attracted investors and we'd started to get invited to some fintech events. At this point we decided to divide up our 9-person company for the sake of our software clients.

How'd you find the time and funding to build your business?

Before creating the company work was a living hell. I was working 10 hours a day in a very well paying (but time-consuming) job, and then going home to continue working with my clients. I skipped out on a lot of sleep, and formed other bad habits as well. I was also all by myself, which was a lonely path full of effort and pain. That said, it was also a path of growth and increasing clarity on how to do business.

After creating the company things got better with time, resulting in an awesome work-life balance. Some of the decisions that helped improve everything were:

  • Exercising. I chose yoga, as a very good programmer friend told me it was a "developer sport." Well, good choice. It probably saved my life hahaha.
  • Spending more time with people. It really helps to find other crazy people to work with you (not just follow you, that doesn't work). This was really awesome for me. I focused on hiring the most passionate and quality-focused people, and eventually I was able to even lose the CEO title and go back to being a developer! Neat!
  • Focusing on extreme quality and being client focused. For us, this means that there are no live-production problems allowed. It also means asking the right questions before confusion can happen. When you are the professional, you should guide the client.
  • Cutting out the "business noise." In today's world it's difficult not to be involved in shitty projects, so be critical and upfront about what you can give to the project and what the project can give you back. Set due dates for the business and tech teams. We built an "estimatron" ("quotetron") that helps us give quick quotes to clients, resulting in more fast business and a way to filter clients as well. (Do they know what they want? Do they have the money? etc)

How have you attracted users and grown your business?

I started sending emails. I have a 25% conversion rate on that. It's weird, but it does work. I guess when I started I was absurdly polite and descriptive, but in time I refined things to be more concise. I would study the client to find the right words to use in each case, and I searched for ways for them to actually benefit from our services.

Word of mouth plays a big role in our businesses, largely due to the quality that we assure via our unit, stress, and integration tests. Clients kind of get addicted to it, and then they talk to others. About 75% of our deals come via with word of mouth, which is a lot.

Currently the other company we're splitting off (xVariacode) is resorting to more standard practices: meetups, cold calling, business events, etc. That seems to be going pretty well, too.

What's the story behind your revenue?

It's very straightforward. We charge using wires and our own invoice system for Chilean clients, and for international clients we use wires as well (via SWIFT), and we work with our local customs (gotta pay the taxes!)

We make about $30k USD a month, but that's not counting the projects we do "for fun" for our software clients. We usually charge between $100-150/hour for them. It's highly variable.

Can you break down where this $30k/mo comes from?

Of course!

  • The invoicing software makes about $2,000/month. It's small, but it's absolutely passive, and it grows a little each month.
  • We make about $20,000/month from doing software work for our recurring clients.
  • Our real-time software xVariacode makes about $8,000/month currently.
  • As I mentioned above, consulting/software projects are still very variable, so we get a project once every couple of months, and the total price varies from $10k to $60l or more. (This was not considered in the $30k figure.)

What are your goals for the future?

I want to freeze myself hahaha, and I need to make money for that. I want to see the future in 1,000 to 1,000,000 years from now.

The product development of the real-time data processing product, xVariacode, is really going fast. We'd like our clients to be able to use this tool in a self-service fashion, so we are working on getting a visual programming system out for that purpose. We are also getting aggressive with sales, so we should expect more sales naturally.

Also, we're doing some experiments in Variacode regarding the blockchain (Ethereum) and smart contracts. We hope to add another digit to the revenue, or even more! But this is something that probably everyone wants.

What has been really helpful to you along the way?

The decision to make Variacode a quality-centered company I think has been one of the most important ones. Everything's just better now, and we sleep a lot! Imagine yourself in a world with the minimum amount of live production problems. That's our world ;)

I think a good decision is knowing your history, knowing who made what, and knowing the big names in our geeky history. These girls and guys are so amazing. They lived in a difficult time to be different, and it's really awesome to be able to stand on their shoulders. You will need strength and motivation, and the stories of their lives can be that for you. If you find that lacking, try it with fictional heroes :)

What advice would you share with aspiring indie hackers?

At some point I realized that I'm an empirical person, so maybe you are, too! That means you should learn by doing. Don't worry about wasting time. Make bad decisions and work hard. To hell with theory. Just go to meetups, hackathons, etc. Start businesses that fail, get to know bad co-founders, and good ones also!

Another piece of advice I'd give to the nerdy ones out there is: Don't be afraid of business, and don't neglect the boring stuff... signatures, presentations, product descriptions, giving interviews like this one (hahaha it's not boring Courtland!). If you don't do this stuff, you will not learn how to ask for it or how to measure the results! It's typically easy for us to code, but not to do business!

Where can we learn more about you?

Send me an email at miguel@variacode.com, Skype me at miguelfuentesbuchholtz, follow me on Twitter at @miguelfuentes, or find me on LinkedIn. We can talk any time about technology topics!

Also, if you leave a comment below, I'll try and get back to you:

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