Building a Hobby Project That Pays for Itself

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

My name is Dirk Hoekstra. I'm a software developer in Amsterdam.

For the last couple of months, I've been working on screenshotapi.net in my free time. Screenshotapi is a tool that allows developers to take screenshots of a website through a simple API call.

Today the tool has 20 active paying users and is making roughly $400/MRR.

What motivated you to get started with ScreenshotAPI.net?

It all started with a personal hobby project I was creating. I wanted to create a directory of news articles. On the home page, I wanted to show a screenshot of all the indexed news articles. This meant I had to figure out how to take screenshots of websites automatically.

My motto going into this was, "Well I have no idea what I'm doing, but that is not going to stop me. I'm just going to figure out what works and what doesn't!"

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I started googling and stumbled onto screenshot APIs. I tested one out, and it worked. However, it was charging me $35 per month. I wasn't happy with paying that amount on a monthly basis for a hobby project, so I figured I would build my own screenshot system. And while I was at it, I figured I could also turn that system into a full-blown screenshot SaaS application.

What went into building the initial product?

Building it was quite brutal as I was working full time. I remember coming home from work and forcing myself to squeeze out one or two hours of programming. But after a few months, screenhsotapi.net was up and running.

user spike

The original MVP had a lot fewer features than it has right now. But, I wanted to see if users would actually use my API before I went all feature-crazy.

What's your tech stack?

I'm a bit of a Laravel fanboy, so I always create my personal projects in Laravel. For the front end, I use a combination of plain Javascript and Vue.

I figured that if I was to build a SaaS application it should be scalable. So I decided to run everything on Google Cloud.

The screenshots are created by spinning up a real Chrome browser (using Selenium.) That way the website is rendered exactly the same as on a normal computer.

I recently wrote a deep-dive article on exactly how the screenshots are created.

How have you attracted users and grown ScreenshotAPI.net?

I had the same problem that a lot of other developers have. I had created a product, but had no clue how to attract users.

The first thing I did was look at what my competitors were doing. I used the Ahrefs tool to see how they generate traffic and where they got their backlinks from.

And then I simply did the same things that seemed to work for them. This meant submitting the API to directory listings, writing blog posts on reputable tech blogs, etc.

Most of the backlinks generated no traffic though, especially from the directory listing websites. But I figured they do have some value for SEO purposes.

The thing that really worked well for me was Google advertising. I'm currently spending $100/month on the "screenshot API" keyword on Google. And so far, 13 of the 20 paying users came from that paid Google advertisement.

If you look at the Google Analytics report you can see a spike in users when I started advertising on Google Ads.

user spike

I'm still figuring this stuff out as I go. But my strategy remains to look at what competitors are doing and experiment to see if that works for me as well.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

ScreenshotAPI uses the SaaS business model. There's a free plan that offers 100 screenshots per month, and there are a few paid plans ranging from roughly $9 per month to about $175 per month.

I recently increased the prices. When I just started out I was charging $5 for the smallest plan, but I felt like people take you less seriously if you charge such a small amount. The price increase is only for new customers though, as I feel that my early adaptors deserve some extra love. That was a few weeks ago, and there are no new paid users since then, so I'll have to see if it was a good decision or not.

On average, two paying customers sign up every month, and the churn rate is really low. So the income has been growing slowly but very steadily.

Currently, the revenue is about $415 per month.

Month Revenue
Jan '20 10
Feb '20 35
Mar '20 45
Apr '20 211
May '20 191
Jun '20 203
Jul '20 353

What are your goals for the future?

If you look at the user graph above you see that most users come from paid advertisement and referral links.

I feel like I could improve my SEO a lot, and my goal is to attract more users through that medium. This means that I'm brushing up my writing skills and reaching out to a lot of reputable blogs. I don't want to mindlessly spam my backlinks, so my intention is to deliver high-value articles with a backlink to screenshotapi.net.

I also plan to build more simple SaaS applications. I believe that it's better to solve one small thing extremely well than to try solving five big things poorly.

home

But currently, my biggest roadblock is time, as I'm also working full time. If screenshot API reaches $1,000 of MRR then I will switch onto this full time. But until then it remains a side gig.

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

Marketing-wise I had no clue what I was doing. If I had to start over I would do it right from the beginning.

For example, I had no clue that Product Hunt was a thing. And when I submitted my product there it failed miserably. So if I had a chance to do that again I would put way more effort into Product Hunt.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I saw this whole adventure as one big experiment. My motto going into this was, "Well I have no idea what I'm doing, but that is not going to stop me. I'm just going to figure out what works and what doesn't!"

I believe that it's better to solve one small thing extremely well than to try solving five big things poorly.

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I believe that this is a healthy mindset to have when starting something for yourself. Because every time something failed (like my Product Hunt launch, for instance) this mindset helped me to view it more as a learning experience than as a failure.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you are interested in my journey you can follow me on Twitter or check out my blog

I've you have any further questions let me know in the comments below.

Thanks for reading!

Dirk Hoekstra , Founder of ScreenshotAPI

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  1. 2

    Hello Fellow-Amsterdammer!!!

    Congratz with your startup, nice to see how things are going.
    Also thanks for the insights in your startup journey.

    If theres anything i can help with even if its just sparring, just let me know :)

  2. 1

    Fantastic job! I didn't think something as simple as taking screenshots could be profitable. You've got screenshots built-in with Windows and Mac so that's like turning a free thing into money. Genius

  3. 1

    Thank you for the post man! I really enjoy seeing people getting success from their projects, on top of that, the in depth revenue sharing is very nice to see. I really liked your post. Keep it up. Greetings from Argentina.