Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hey there, Indie Hackers! My name is Pete, and I run No CS Degree, which is a blog where I interview successful developers that are either self-taught or have been to bootcamps.
So I've got a very mixed background. I studied Politics and Spanish at university and then worked as a Researcher in the ethical investing industry. In 2018 I left to pursue entrepreneurship, but I didn't have a plan. I failed and had to go on welfare and then take a job in a bookies shop where there was lots of violence and drugs. I left after someone threatened to stab my manager.
Since quitting that job last June I have been making a living from No CS Degree. I ask people questions about how they got started with coding, how they overcame challenges like imposter syndrome and their tips for getting hired. It's a fun thing for me to do as I get to learn about people's stories and then share them with the world!
Since then I've started to build up a nice audience in this area, and I've made a jobs board for developers without CS degrees and I recently launched Bootcamp Index, a way to easily find the best coding bootcamp. It allows users to filter by things like location, what tech stack you will learn, if there are scholarships available, etc, and just gives website visitors a lot more control compared to other bootcamp lists.
My best month so far has been in February 2020 with $2,300 in revenue, and my expenses are only about $100 a month. I am a big believer in the open-startups movement, so you can check back on my revenue on the No CS Degree open page.
What motivated you to get started with No CS Degree?
Indie Hackers was obviously a big inspiration! My original thought was that, just as Indie Hackers is there for entrepreneurs without VC funding, I could make a website for developers without Computer Science degrees. I had built up enough savings to last me six months. I started out at the very end of July 2019 and found my first newsletter sponsor after a few days. In October, I made $1,693 and after that I felt pretty confident that I could make it work.
My original motivation was so I could stay inspired while learning to code by talking to people who didn't have the stereotypical developer background. I would just ask my online friends who I knew didn't have degrees how they had become successful. One of my first interviewees was with a 21 year old developer making over $10,000 a month. I was intrigued by that, as he had dropped out of high school at 16. So I figured others would find this interesting as well.
I had already done quite a lot of work as a freelance writer and I had years of research experience from office jobs so I was pretty confident I could do it. Also, I had seen Pat Walls from Starter Story grow his business from nothing.
I got a lot of validation early on! I got to the top of Hacker News with a brand new user account and the site got 29,000 visits in a day. When I launched the job board, No CS OK, that stayed at the top of Hacker News for two whole days!
I have some other ideas I'm going to roll out in the next month or two outside of the coding world so that's exciting. No CS Degree just seemed to be the obvious one to pursue, since there are lots of people learning to code and I would be intrinsically motivated since it would help me learn as well.
I had seen the likes of Pieter Levels take a growing niche like remote work/digital nomads and build businesses around that so I figured I could do the same. So far I've made the blog, which is the the principal source of income but I've also rolled out the jobs board and I've just launched, Bootcamp Index.
What went into building the initial product?
So I spent about three weeks making it. I had to choose what blogging platform to use. Luckily I just sent a tweet to Pieter Levels and asked him what I should use and he suggested Ghost, which is a non-profit set up by people that used to work at Wordpress. It has a lot of nice features like a built-in preview of how articles will appear on social media and things like that, plus you don't have to install all these plugins like you do with Wordpress. Everything is pretty much ready out of the box, so I went with that.
There wasn't much else to do apart from contact people and ask if they wanted to take part. I think I had perhaps ten articles ready before the launch and the site started with four blog posts. I figured it would be good to have some in reserve so i wasn't under pressure and that was a good decision!
How have you attracted users and grown No CS Degree?
I launched the website at the end of July, 2019. I put it on Product Hunt and it got featured but didn't get the #1 spot which I was hoping for. I had scored Product of the Day with my previous launch so I was a bit disappointed, but in hindsight it went well and got 277 upvotes.
Later the same day I went to a cafe and decided to put it on Hacker News. I had never posted there before and I just knew it had a tough reputation for a place to launch. I asked a couple of people in the WIP Telegram group about advice on how to word it. You don't want to be too salesy - you should title it like you are explaining your thing to a friend so I made a post called "No CS Degree - Interviews with self-taught developers".
Everything started going crazy! The post got 692 upvotes and someone told me on Telegram that they had never seen a post blow up so fast! It was at the top of Hacker News for 24 hrs. During this time I didn't have any newsletter call to action, so I was hurriedly adding one to the site in production without any testing. I was messaging this developer Steph Smith and she was telling me how to add a fixed header, etc. It was funny in hindsight but it was very intense at the time. 29,000 people viewed the site on the first day and most of those from Hacker News.
I am very active on Twitter and that's definitely helpful. It's a good place to both find new people to interview and to find more readers. Having a newsletter is definitely very important for me both in terms of getting more traffic and making more money. I have a Slack community as well where I can reach people as well.
My biggest source of traffic just now is Google so my SEO must be pretty good. I'm the first result on Google for "no cs degree" and "no computer science degree" so I'm happy with that. I've interviewed over 70 developers now, so I think if you have that many articles about one niche then you will rank well in search results. I suppose that's one of the benefits of making the site just about developers without degrees; if I had just interviewed developers in general then there wouldn't be such a strong brand and it would be much more generic.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
So I have a few different revenue streams which I think is a good idea for entrepreneurs instead of being reliant on one way to make money. My biggest source to date has been newsletter ad sales. I include a couple of sentences at the end of my email about a product, usually a coding resource of some kind, with a link and that's it. I made my first newsletter sale a few days after I launched. In the beginning I also made a Buy Me A Coffee page which a few people gave money to which was nice early validation.
After newsletter sales, another big contributor to my income is running sponsored articles in partnership with coding bootcamps who want to attract more students. As I have a very niche website aimed at getting people into coding and making web development more accessible, it's an attractive place for bootcamps to be mentioned. So far I've partnered with Flatiron School, Holberton School and Makers.
It's very rewarding for me to share these success stories. Here's an example of a sponsored article with someone who went to Flatiron School and learned to code remotely. She was able to quit her waitressing job and become a developer!
I have a few affiliate links in my articles to coding courses and that's something that has been surprisingly lucrative. One of my early interviewees made Algo Expert and I've made over $1,000 in passive income from that in six months. I have affiliate links with Wes Bos as well, who I've also interviewed.
In addition, I charge companies like Amazon to post jobs on No CS OK, my job board for self-taught and coding bootcamp developers. I've recently launched Bootcamp Index, (which I spoke more about earlier) and I'm optimistic that it will be a good source of revenue as well.
I learned a lot from the Indie Hackers interview with Steli Efti about selling. You really just have to like your product and put yourself out there! No-one is going to do sales for you. A friend of me was saying the other day that I have an advantage over entrepreneurs because I don't come from a CS background, so I'm spending more time on sales and marketing than on constantly adding features to the websites and being fixated on the tech.
My highest month for revenue was two months ago in February 2020 when I made $2,337. That was the second time since I launched that I had got over the $2k mark and I'm confident I will get into the $3,000-$4,000 zone in the next month or two. I made a bit less last month with $1,007 but I think in the current economic climate due to corona you have to look at the glass half-full.
I'm definitely grateful that not only can I make a living online but that I am involved in an area that I think will grow if there is an economic downturn as more people need to change careers and learn to code as a result.
My expenses are approximately $100 a month so it goes to show how profitable running an online business can be and why everyone should give it a shot! My per-month expenses at the moment are as follows:
- Ghost: $35
- Sheet2Site: $35
- Zapier: $10
- Mailchimp: $10
What are your goals for the future?
My goals are really simple: work on what I want, where I want, when I want. So let's break this down.
What I want: This just means deciding my own vision for the business, which is something I can do as I am indie and don't have a co-founder
Where I want; I love living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Once Corona lockdown is over I'd like to do the occasional bit of remote work such as going away for a few weeks or months somewhere exotic and then coming back home for the rest of the year. I love being able to work from home or in cool cafes instead of in an office!
When I want: Having a flexible schedule is fantastic! It means (in non-Corona times) I can go to the gym when it's quiet and then work right through the evening if I want. I don't have to ask for time off for Christmas. I can babysit my nephews and see friends during the day and then work later on. It's very liberating being in charge of your own schedule!
I do have some revenue goals as well. A friend Andrey Azimov challenged me to make 10k a month by this time next year and I think that's do-able. He just made 10k last month so that's added encouragement that it is possible! So if my business means I can meet the first four points, I'm happy. Numbers never end so be careful about chasing them. Ultimately, I'd like to be in the position of someone like Lynne Tye making several hundred thousand dollars a year but I don't need to be a millionaire, for instance.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
I really didn't take advantage of the launch as well as I could have in terms of gaining subscribers. I love Ghost but there was only a tiny subscribe button and now big CTA. I had 30,000 visitors in one day after getting top of Hacker News and I should have had way more email sign ups from that. I did learn from that with No CS OK, the jobs board, and I got 1,000 subscribers in my first week due to a big ol' signup form and a hero image.
Another thing I shouldn't have done was create a different brand for the job board, as it's just created another name people have to remember. I had assumed that Pieter Levels had created the separate Remote OK job board because he wanted to have another launch on Product Hunt with a brand new name (there are rules against launching with the same URL). So I made this separate identity for the jobs board only to find later on that Pieter had actually made Remote OK because he realised that lots of remote workers weren't nomads and so they shouldn't be part of the Nomad List brand. So building in public and asking him directly about his approach to branding would have prevented this. Again, I'm learning from this and reaching out to my mentors for their advice.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Having role models helps a lot! When I quit my job I would walk around Edinburgh just listening to the Lynne Tye podcast on Indie Hackers. She makes $300k a year without a CS degree or business training. I still listen to that episode any time I have a bad day. For sure having someone like Pat Walls who has made a very successful interviews website in the form of Starter Story has helped a great deal as it provides a pathway for me. I've seen Pat build it from scratch over a long period. So I thought in the summer, "Ok, Pat makes four thousand a month. So I can do that as well." Of course now he earns seven thousand a month so I have to catch up, haha!
I'm not a believer in books really as I believe that they replace action. If you buy a book on Entrepreneurship it's like you've told yourself you've achieved something. Well done you! Except, you've not. You just bought a book. There will always be more books you could read so it's better to actually get started.
Besides, Twitter is the best resource any maker could ask for! When I was starting out I would just go into Twitter and search for whatever Pieter Levels wrote about something. So if I wanted to hear what his opinions were about something I would just search @levelsio "sales", for instance, and that way I'd get all his sales tips. Instead of buying books you'd be far better analysing where other makers have gone right or wrong, asking more successful people questions and soaking up knowledge like a sponge.
I'm definitely glad I've built a very niche and specific brand. It's very plain and simple to understand what my product is about. I've definitely always taken a simple approach to names and I just say what the thing is instead of some trendy thing like calling your company "aviato". I'm glad I made it just for developers without CS degrees as it creates a much more powerful link with my audience. I'm a big believer in talking to a niche audience!
I also expect the number of people learning to code will continue to grow for at least ten years so I'm happy I chose a growing market. Ultimately, I'm very glad I can make a product like this so cheaply. I'm not sure there have been many times in history where you could make a living from only spending $100 each month on your expenses.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
My biggest piece of advice is make sure your ideas pass my take on the Hit by a Bus test. You should be working on a project which means so much to you that if you got hit by a bus tomorrow and you were dying in the street you'd be thinking, "Oh well, at least I was making X project." Money is nice, but if you hate what you are doing each day that's not a recipe for success.
Something that flows from that point is you have to be solving your own problems. I once made a sort of Nomad List imitation website for skiers and snowboarders called Ski Resort List. The only problem? I don't ski all that often! So I wasn't excited about the product and I didn't know what people really looked for in resorts. I don't snowboard at all, so I was asking people what they wanted on the website. So if you don't play tennis, don't make an app for finding tennis partners!
In contrast, I'm someone who doesn't have a degree in Computer Science and is into coding. I needed role models that didn't have the STEM background. So part of the reason No CS Degree is doing well is that I am intrinsically motivated. Also, I've made a job board for developers without degrees. Again, this is solving my own problem. It's not some selfless act, haha, it's helping future me! (Although hopefully I can stay indie and I don't need to get a job any time soon, haha.)
A final piece of advice is to be active on communities like Indie Hackers, the Telegram groups like WIP and Maker Log, and Twitter, of course. For instance, in October almost all of my $1,700 revenue came from newsletter sales to other makers. One sponsor is someone I contacted through WIP and he paid me 920 dollars. That one deal paid for my WIP membership for about 4 years.
After that I posted a milestone on Indiehackers saying I'd earned $1,000 in one month for the first time. Right after that someone on the Indiehackers forum saw that and bought another bunch of ads! I worked out that in October I only had to talk to about 5 or 6 decision makers to make $1,700 and they are all people I can quickly ping an email to on Twitter or Telegram. So being part of communities where you are contributing and being a positive member is definitely a big help!
Where can we go to learn more?
Here are my websites:
If anyone has questions about No CS Degree, building in public or anything else just let me know in the comments!
—, Founder of No CS Degree
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