Finding Inspiration Abroad, Shipping Fast, and Growing to $50k/mo

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

Hey! I'm Robin Vander Heyden, the founder of ManyPixels. We're a premium unlimited design-as-a-service company for startups, and we're currently making $50,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

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What motivated you to get started with ManyPixels?

Before starting ManyPixels I studied law in the Netherlands. Back then, I ran a successful online letting agency for international students which grew to 250k EUR in yearly revenue. However, during its last year, the revenue fell to 25k EUR as a new law on real estate companies was passed, stipulating they could only charge landlords and not students anymore. I had to find another business idea!

After my graduation, I flew to Uganda to do an internship at the Belgian embassy (my first real job), but I hated it. I travelled a bit in the region and was seriously wondering what I would do next. I had a degree, applied to a few jobs, and kept checking my friends' LinkedIn accounts, wondering if I too should get a corporate job. It's quite stressful when you've had success doing your own thing and don't know if you'll hit it big again. You think you were just lucky and begin doubting yourself and losing confidence.

I did not put a lot of thought into starting. I just started.

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After traveling around Africa, I bought a one-way ticket to Asia after a recommendation from a friend who was living there. I thought I would find inspiration in a new place. I went to Taipei and finally decided to live in Bangkok for two months. I booked a coworking space and didn't know what to do next.

When I arrived at my coworking space I saw a small board at the entrance with many notes like "Looking for a freelance designer" and "Looking for a UX designer", and I overheard some members complaining about how hard it was to hire graphic designers. I didn't have that problem since I had a huge Skype list full of great designers, and I thought, "Maybe let's fix that problem. Let's make a website where I guarantee the quality (with a refund guarantee), streamline operations, pay designers a fixed price per month so they stay with me, and let's hunt for clients."

I did not put a lot of thought into starting. I just started, and it kind of worked from the start. I asked all of the designers on my list to send me their best portfolio pieces on Skype, bought an HTML template, and put up a payment system. In about five hours we were up and running. I posted the site on a few Facebook groups for entrepreneurs, and we made our first sales (about $1,500 in one day).

What went into building the initial product?

First of all, I think it's important to stress that while ManyPixels seems like an overnight success, a lot of things happened before building the first product. During my university years I was living like a king, as I had a successful business, but then during my master's degree it collapsed due to some regulations that limited the fees we could charge (we went from $250,000 in annual revenue to $25,000). I used to think that everything I did would turn into gold, and I thank my prior learnings for getting rid of that. The thing is: When you fail and learn from it, it helps you grow again. I don't think there's any other way around it.

Secondly, leaving my real estate business gave me some savings and the ability to travel for a year or two to find more inspiration. As Pieter Levels has said, traveling makes you less "normal", since you connect bits and pieces from different cultures which help you think more creatively. I think we are all "creative entrepreneurs" since our ideas come from our learnings and different bits and pieces we mix up to produce ideas. Traveling and being less normal is a competitive advantage for entrepreneurs.

In regards to building the product itself:

  • I asked all my designers on Skype to send me their best portfolio pieces.
  • I then purchased an HTML template, put all the portfolio pieces on that website, and put a "buy" button on the site as well as a live chat widget.

Honestly: The website sucked. But who cares? We were that quirky shop on the side of the street selling the best doughnuts in town. That's what people care about. (Of course now we have a better website. 😉)

One funny learning we had launching this: People were buying, but some people were also thinking, "This can't be true, this is too cheap." We raised the prices and got more sales. It seems stupid, but it worked.

The most important skill in launching early, I think, was being resourceful and constrained. I cannot code. So I had to find a payment provider to handle things. I had to find a nice template. If I'd been an excellent coder or designer I might have spent more time making the website perfect.

As to the tools we used at the beginning, it was mostly just an Excel spreadsheet. I put all the new clients there and sent the deliverables via email. We also use Skype to communicate with our designers as well as WhatsApp sometimes. I also got on many calls with clients over WhatsApp.

Samples

How have you attracted users and grown ManyPixels?

We got our initial users solely via niche Facebook groups of entrepreneurs and startups. I joined many Facebook groups and wrote a post asking for feedback on ManyPixels and our value proposition. My message basically was, "Hey guys, here is what we do, would you be interested in this? Yes/No/Why not?" I also experimented by promising that each person giving us feedback would have a promo code. This worked well — lots of people commented, and this was a small hack that got us a lot of buzz.

I think what we did right here was putting the right product with the right message in front of the right users. I was honest: I told them I was a digital nomad in Bangkok experimenting with a new idea and trying to validate demand. People reacted well to that (even though it was advertising in a sense) and were supportive. I honestly wasn't sure if it would be flagged as spam, but I decided to take the risk nevertheless.

Another advantage was that I was a tech entrepreneur myself. I knew exactly what kind of modern design style people liked, and I knew where online entrepreneurs met and had discussions. (Indie Hackers is one of those places.) I did not have to do a lot of customer research. All my decisions were based on instinct and probably were all very biased. I also got lucky to be in such a field and target a community that's very open to trying new ideas.

My efforts included:

  • posting case studies on reddit
  • being active on Indie Hackers and Hacker News
  • actively contacting companies on Facebook and Angel List. Though my account got banned for a few weeks from these platforms so I will be trying a different strategy.

We are thinking to develop affiliates and referrals next, then work on more content, PR, and ads later as well as partnerships and perhaps even white labeling.

What's worked the best so far? As I mentioned earlier, it hasn't been about the tactics we've used so much as putting the right message with right product in front of the right audience. We had a 25% conversion rate on Angel List outbound emails, which was absolutely ridiculously high. We've had customers from every sales channel we've tried so far. During my previous business I was mostly doing sales (acquiring landlords and tenants), and I love sales. I just love to talk to people and make promises and try to deliver on them. I think it's challenging, and I get a real kick when I make sales.

My advice is for those starting: Just focus and launch something ASAP.

Build with your users, get quick feedback loops, and iterate after. We are so biased and imperfect as humans that it's impossible to get it right from the start. Also, you might get it right, but you might miss other bigger opportunities. Focus, start quickly, and put your product in front of users and let the free market destroy it or love it.

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

We are a subscription-based design service. People pay us a fixed monthly fee and can enjoy unlimited premium design services. Right now we have two pricing plans: Basic ($259 per month) and Premium ($349 per month).

We started charging customers directly but had an introductory pricing of $99 for the basic plan and $179 for the premium plan. We use Stripe to charge customers.

We now have 210 recurring customers, and we're generating $50,000 in monthly recurring revenue.

The biggest boosts to our revenue growth: Mostly our Product Hunt and Hacker News launches. We got featured on the third spot of Product Hunt, and I posted an article on how I started ManyPixels which reached the first page of Hacker News and stayed there most of the day. I also had a few hits on Reddit (which is easier than Hacker News). These got us tens of new customers per day.

My tip on business model: Charge as early as you can. If you do not make money you do not have a business. (This doesn't apply to those who build media companies or social networks.)

Our margins: We had 20-30% margins in December, but then that number grew to over 50% in January. We should be even higher than that in February.

I haven't started tracking our conversion rate yet, But our traffic is about 30,000 visitors in total since our launch.

Month Revenue
Dec 2017 8500
Jan 2018 15000
Feb 2018 50000

What are your goals for the future?

I have three goals for the business and one goal for my personal life:

My goal is to reach 100 million dollars in annual sales by 2020. We want our customers to be addicted to ManyPixels and for it to become their go-to platform of choice to undertake the creative side of their new companies.

I want to fix design subjectivity. I want to develop the most advanced system (perhaps supported by AI) to understand client requirements to the nitty gritty. How can we make sure we always over-deliver on client expectations? Design is very subjective and will eventually be a bottleneck to insane growth (going from a 1-million- to a 100-million-dollar business). Currently no one is fixing this. So if we can fix it and understand client requirements and exceed their expectations, then the sky is the limit.

I want to create a Pixel school which will give free English lessons, free business courses, and free UI/UX courses to aspiring entrepreneurs in key cities in Asia. This would help us strengthen our brand, hire talented designers, and also give back to the community. I am planning to start small with this with a small bootcamp this summer and see how the response is and if there is real value in it.

Traveling and being less normal is a competitive advantage for entrepreneurs.

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On a personal level, I want to have more time for other interests. I am really interested in other subjects, such as architecture, design, and literature, but ever since I started running businesses I've found myself only thinking about business, which has limited my brain capacity. In short, I want to keep my brain up to date. I am always worried that I now have some moderate success, but that if I do not train my brain to be good enough in the long term I won't come up with good ideas for a long time.

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

We are a service business. The biggest hurdle is people management and constantly finding talented designers. We work with freelance designers in Asia. Carrot and stick incentives — e.g. money — aren't as effective in motivating people to work here as they are in Europe and the US. Other aspects such as community and family are more prominent and need to be embraced. Living here and in Africa have helped me understand and empathise with other cultures, but I am sure I've only scratched the surface.

Secondly, during my previous business (and during my university years), I was constantly wired to do things to perfection. I would put in insane work hours and make sure my employees were making at least 100 sales calls a day. Mostly this just burned people out — myself included. Since then I've realized that, at times, done is better perfect. Moving fast, pleasing customers, capturing value, and understanding leverage are super important concepts.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

My favourite blog of all time is Farnam Street from Shane Parrish. When I came across it a few years ago, aspects of it struck me as boring, but as I've grown myself and my business I've realized it is such a great resource.

Secondly, my favourite source of information is Hacker News. I sometimes think it's too negative, but generally the comments and the discussion are well-balanced, and it always seems to be more advanced.

I think my most important skill is that I am never content and always have a fire burning. I want to push myself to the max. I just want to work as hard as I can and make as much money as I can, and to hopefully have the highest impact as I can and a legacy when I die.

My biggest advantage is that I came from a middle class family in Belgium and had a supportive childhood, a good education, and a lot of freedom. I was dealt a luck hand of cards from birth, and my moderate success with all of this is mostly due to coming from a good environment.

From a young age my parents would take me to the public library at least one day a week to stack up on books (not crazy parents; we could read if we wanted and mostly it was comic books). I read a lot of fiction but also a lot of classic books. That library had a video game rental shop, and my dad and my brother would do LAN parties (mostly Quake III and Unreal Tournament). My dad is a software engineer and always got us computers and also helped me code my first website. When I was 10, I was a fan of Harry Potter, and my dad coded an online MMORPG where people could enroll in Hogwarts. My dad also introduced me to Ebay and explained to me how to sell stuff there. He also told me how to use communities (usenet) and IRC. My dad created an email address for my sister when she was not even born yet, I think.

This supportive childhood has undeniably played a large role in my success. My parents' only demand was for me to finish my education, but they didn't care too much about grades or any particular career path, as long as I was happy. They gave me a lot of freedom, and I didn't deserve all that I received. My parents supported (and still support) me fully, introduced me to their friends for student jobs and internships, and I also went to live a few months with my cousins in Australia to study English. I also have wonderful driven friends that I like to compete with.

Finally, I also think a big part is that while I sometimes like to talk about myself, I do not have a big ego. I just want to keep on making cool things (and make money of course). I do not care if I fail; I do not care if I lose all my money tomorrow. I think what impassions me most is building something, see it taking off, and then fixing the various parts of it so that it can grow even bigger. I sometimes go on car websites and wonder what kind of cool car I could buy with all that money, but then I really wonder whether buying stuff vs. making stuff will make me truly happy.

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

The best advice I have is to try as many things as you can.

Secondly, it's to be inspired. Often the dots connect at some point. It's great to be interested in a few subjects, and it's okay to be a bit lost every now and then (or even at several points in your life). It's all part of a growth process that helps us refocus and eliminate distractions.

Where can we go to learn more?

I have a personal blog, and I sometimes tweet.

Feel free to ask your questions!

— Robin Vander Heyden , Founder of ManyPixels

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