Zencastr

Josh Nielsen explains how he spent two years growing Zencastr to 15,000 users and $12k/mo in revenue by capitalizing on market trends and new technologies.

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

Hi, I'm Josh Nielsen and I've been traveling the world with my family while working and building Zencastr for the last three years. We've spent time in Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Malaysia, and the USA.

Zencastr is a web-based tool that helps podcasters easily record their guests in studio quality. It is used by podcasters who want the best quality recordings. Before Zencastr, most podcasters used Skype call recorders to capture their audio. The quality wasn't very good, because it only recorded on the host's computer and thus Skype compression artifacts were distorting the audio.

Using Zencastr, you simply send a link to your guest(s) and they will be recorded locally in studio quality. Then the tracks are uploaded to your cloud drive for postproduction.

Back in November I launched out of beta and started charging for a premium plan. So far I am bringing in around $12,000 a month.

What motivated you to get started with Zencastr? What were your initial goals? And how'd you come up with the idea?

Before working on Zencastr, I was trying to build a browser-based DAW (Digital Audio Workstaion). It was an overly ambitious project, but it was really fun to work on. Then I found out that we had a baby on the way and I had to get more serious about having a clear path to financial success.

I needed to find a more feasible and focused project. Someone had mentioned to me that podcasters had problems recording their shows and collecting the audio. I thought I might be able to leverage some of the skills I had been learning with the previous project to build something to solve this problem. Also, this was right when browsers started allowing developers to access microphones and process audio.

This new technology in the browsers created opportunities that no one had utilized yet, so I decided to take a shot at it. I thought it would only take a couple of months to build, but I was way off!

For better or worse, I really didn't spend that much time on validation. I had a few friends who were podcasters and I asked them if they had this problem and what it was worth to them if I fixed it. They said that they did and they would pay $20 a month. That's how I came up with the pricing I'm using for the Pro plans currently.

I didn't want to have to deal with raising money or finding co-founders, so I decided to bootstrap the company as a solo founder. I did web development contracting for 20-30 hours a week and spent the rest of my time building Zencastr.

What did it take to build the initial product? How long until you were ready to launch the beta?

It took about 7 months to launch the open beta. I cut as many corners as I could to get the MVP out the door. I handled all of the audio process and encoding in the browser and used each user's Dropbox account to store the audio files.

This made it so my server code complexity and costs were very low. All it does is serve the application code and handle some websocket messages. The back-end is written using Node.js, Koa.js, and MongoDB. The front-end uses Backbone.js, Web Audio API, and WebRTC.

Originally, the beta only handled the local recordings. You still needed to use Skype or Hangouts to facilitate the VoIP call. Now this is all handled in Zencastr without the need for a third-party service.

I also now offer postproduction services to prepare the audio for publishing by mixing and leveling the audio. Another time-saving decision was to outsource this to Auphonic. They do a great job and my users are really happy with the results.

What marketing strategies have you used? How have you attracted users and grown Zencastr in the past two years?

Im a terrible marketer. I don't really do much at all. I do a few interviews and appear on podcasts here and there, but nearly all of my users come by word of mouth. Luckily Zencastr solves a real pain point, and podcasters are great marketers and they help spread the word.

One of the best things for building a user base was that my service was completely free for two years before I started charging. I still keep a very liberal free plan for this reason. I want Zencastr to be the place to record podcasts so I don't turn anyone away. I also structured the application so that free users cost me almost nothing. I only have one production server and the audio is stored on the user's own Dropbox account.

I currently have 15,000 registered users and that number grows by 50-80 per day. There have been about 50,000 hours of audio recorded through the service so far with around 500-700 new recordings per day.

Daily Sessions in January 2017

How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?

After running the service for free for two years, I finally decided I was close enough to being able to charge that I quit all side work and focused entirely on Zencastr. It took about six more months to work out all of the kinks and integrate a billing system.

I could have started charging much sooner in retrospect, but I didn't feel ready at the time. Live and learn.

Interestingly, most of the power users during the beta didn't convert to paid users like I expected. They were such great promoters of the app and I didn't want to lose that, so I gave many of them some free credits to keep helping promote the service. It seems to have paid off ok. I'm working on a more official affiliate program soon to help leverage this more.

I make money in two ways: subscriptions from Pro plan users and one-off payments from users on the free plan that want their audio mixed and leveled automatically via the postproduction service. Pretty simple.

I get very little revenue from the free users — less than $1000/month. The rest comes from monthly and yearly Pro plan subscriptions.

The base expenses for running the infrastructure and surrounding services is about $1500/month. I've just made our first hire, and that obviously ups the operating costs a bit.

Daily Revenue in January 2017

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

There are lots of other needs in the podcasting space. Since I have users on my app at the very beginning of the creation phase, it would be easy for me to offer other follow on services: hosting, publishing, advertising, etc. I'm not sure if I will go that route, but it's possible.

For now, I am focused entirely on polishing the existing product and preparing better for scale. I'm hoping to hire some development help as well, as it is getting a bit hard to handle support requests, business development, bug fixing, etc. all on my own.

Feel free to reach out if you are a developer interested in Web Audio / WebRTC and don't cost an arm and a leg ;)

What are the biggest challenges you've faced with Zencastr? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

The biggest challenge has been just getting the dang thing working well on all different types of systems. Also, the browser vendors are actively working on and change features of Web Audio and WebRTC. Keeping up with all of that has kept me on my toes. A big shout out to the devs at Firefox and Chrome for making this kind of application possible at all. There has been so much great progress made in the last few years.

Another big challenge is just staying productive while working solo. It is really easy to lose motivation if you don't have anyone else around. Luckily, receiving emails from my users keeps me motivated most of the time to fix bugs and keep adding needed features.

Last but not least, my family. My wife has been super supportive of me from the beginning, and I truly believe I would have quit along the way without her there to help me through the tough times. My daughter is a constant motivator. The desire to secure financial freedom for them really helps keep me focused.

I also use Trello to manage tasks that need to be done. I force myself to complete at least one a day. Once I get in the zone I usually get a lot more done, but it is easier to get started if you keep your goal small.

What would you say have been your biggest advantages so far?

My advantage was that I was a first mover in the space just after the solution became technologically feasible. There are vacuums created in markets just after the technology changes. It is a good time to strike.

Also, as I was building Zencastr, podcasts like Serial became very popular and brought about a sort of renaissance in the podcasting space. It was dumb luck really.

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

If you are just starting out, I think that the best advice is to get started now. You will probably fail a few times, but these are learning experiences that better help you the next time around. You can only get so much out of reading books about other people's success. You need to develop your own intuition for what works and what doesn't by trial and error.

There are hundreds of reasons to delay if you let them get in your way. You don't need to raise money, you don't need a co-founder, you don't need to quit your job. You do need to start now.

Nonetheless, there are some books that I've found inspirational:

Where can we go to learn more?

I'll keep an eye on the comments below and try and respond to any questions.

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