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

Want to build your own business like ManyPixels?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗

We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.

Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!

Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

  1. 6

    That's nice, I'm happy for your achievements. I'm curious, how do you pay your designers? Monthly salary? Per project? Also, where do you live now?

  2. 5

    I love how bullish you are on fixing the bottlenecks caused by design subjectivity. I find myself thinking the same way.

    As a previous freelancer who did both design and development, I have two questions:

    1. In such a service-oriented business, how do you protect your business against unreasonable demands from clients?

    2. Are there ever misunderstandings where clients think they're going to get the code for a working website? This has happened to a few designer friends in the past. Maybe it's just my location, but it seems like most businesses are looking for a complete design + development package. I'm just curious if you've ever had to deal with fallout from this.

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      Hey Mark,

      1. Two important things will enable us (I think), to scale and maintain the service (quality and speed) that we want while still enabling us to make money on the long term: a. Avoiding scope creep b. Having clear production processes. If we make projects that are well defined, within our abilities and have clear way to undertake them we can be really fast and complete 20-40 tasks a month for clients.

      Now as regard to unlimited, the client can only request one task at a time. They can submit as many tasks as they want but they will be scheduled after if a job is in process. Realistically they can get a lot done. Right now the fastest we can deliver a task is about 12 hours but is actually more due to to our PM's being a little bit late in dispatching tasks. That's by top priority for March: being able to deliver way faster, and still maintain the quality (we had quite a lot of delays due to not having right PM's in place / no project management tool but this is being fixed)

      1. Yes it happens a lot actually. We do mention in our FAQ the formats we support (and HTML/CSS isn't listed) but we still get clients who tell us : But when do you provide the HTML? We will list integration partners hopefully later on to do various tasks.
      1. 2

        Thanks for the reply. ManyPixels is very impressive, I wish you good luck in the future!

  3. 4

    I found out about ManyPixels in the Indie Hacker Forum a while ago so I wanted to share my experience here for others. Sadly, I've experienced their turnaround time being much longer than what their website says. My first design request was fine, but my second one took 2 weeks. I expect some delays, but two weeks is significantly longer than 3 days. Their lack of communication and overall process is pretty bad. On the positive side their designs are actually pretty good for the money and the convenience of being able to send off design requests whenever I need to for a fixed cost is nice.

    1. 1

      Hey! Right now the biggest issues we have are the following (by critical importance):

      1. Lack of communication (I am planning to do a blog post + email to all of our customers this weekend to fix this)
      2. PM's not dispatching tasks on time (Right now this is still not fixed but will be as of next week with a daily report where they have to dispatch the tasks twice a day. Our Head of Production did a root cause analysis and we are fixing each issue one by one -- See here: https://imgur.com/a/a4e4O)
      3. Designers not having the right processes to undertake the tasks / understand briefs (we are building a bank of inspiration designs and clear guidelines and instructions on when a project will be considered as 'successful' to maintain quality at scale)
      4. Some designers not taking Manypixels' work as priority and rather focusing on their freelance work (I will meet tonight half of the team in person and have an open discussion on how to build incentives together -- while the whole team is pretty committed, we sometimes ask too much. We are planning to create a "Pro" status for designers who constantly get tasks on time, achieve a lot of tasks, and achieve great customer satisfaction. We are also planning to do more onboarding / training for them)

      Email me at [email protected] and I will add you extra weeks as a compensation.

    2. 1

      This comment was deleted 3 years ago.

      1. 1

        Hey Octoclam, by the way can you still give me your ID / email (feel free to send it to [email protected]) -- I didn't get an answer from you on the other thread and would still really like to follow up on your progress :)

        1. 1

          This comment was deleted 3 years ago.

          1. 1

            I have given you my personal email address in the past thread you made ([email protected]) and cannot find your emails. I Can you care to give me your ID / username (you can send an email to my personal email address for this)? I sincerely want to help and I understand it's not your fault.

            1. 0

              This comment was deleted 3 years ago.

              1. 1

                But can you forward the original email you sent to [email protected] ? I have reviewed this weekend all emails (sent to [email protected] and [email protected] and all other support emails) and they have all been answered. I can't find your username in our database of customers (octoclam) and need your email address if you have used another username. Our email address work and we reply to all emails within 24 hours. Keep me posted :)

  4. 4

    Holy shitballs! $10k to $50k in one month? Nicely done man. I can see ManyPixels making it to $100M biz if you solve the subjectivity issue.

  5. 3

    @Vinrob

    I was about to take out my credit card and try you guys out. Tried DesignPickle before and it wasn't exactly what I needed. I still have an account with them.

    Happy to pay 1.5x your pro fee if I can get what I want in terms of a regular designer help.

    Then I saw the comments thread on ProductHunt about the turnaround time for recent customers were too long and they cancelled and they still haven't received their refunds.

    And there was no reply to those comments on ProductHunt. (UPDATE: Just realised the comments were hidden on PH. I had to click to see the whole thread, so i will take my words back on this)

    If you can throw in HTML/CSS work and raise the fees to 499/month or even 599, I will still be highly interested.

    I also run my own business so I know the iron triangle of fast, good, and cheap can only pick 2.

    In my case as a potential customer, I will say, I prefer good and cheap. I can do with a slightly less urgent delivery.

    Today, I will be keeping my credit card in my wallet.

    Still rooting for u or other similar businesses to crack this problem of reliable, affordable, and quality designer services.

  6. 2

    This was the paragraph that caught my attention from the whole article (great read btw, thanks for all the lessons and insights):

    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.

    Great mission and approach to giving back!

    Rooting for you @Vinrob and ManyPixels 👍

  7. 2

    Congratulations on the incredible growth! You actually inspired me a while back to start my company DEVY.io where we do this but with web and mobile development.

    Thank you for everything, including your facebook group ;)

  8. 1

    Hey Robin, thanks for your post. Do you think this would work / or know of any existing companies that do "unlimited service" but for digital marketing? Of course, your advice is to ask the customers themselves, but I figured you would have done this research yourself as well!

    Thanks!
    Jeff

  9. 1

    Wow some free schools, I'd love to attend it. I'am from Indonesia

  10. 1

    Wouldlike to know that How did you find the hunter on producthunter to launch your product there? Or did uo dod yourself?
    Thanks!

  11. 1

    And how much you pay your each employee from 50k?

  12. 1

    Excellent startup!
    How did you find your customers?
    Didn't U target through content marketing like from google search by doing SEO on page and off page?

    1. 0

      Mostly reaching to founders directly by niche Facebook groups and some big launches. Later on we will definitely do SEO (that's in progress), referrals, affiliates. However for March the top goal is to satisfy our 200+ customers and have processes in place to make sure they stay with us and are able to take more customers. This is the hardest part right now.

  13. 1

    Love your story! I think I even remember reading an article from you in the beginning (maybe Reddit or Medium?) where you talked about your past business and what to do not next. Congrats on your incredibly successful journey so far!

    How did figure out in the beginning what to pay your designers or how long client project would take?
    What I mean is how did you figure out how to balance both sides in the beginning, e.g. how many projects one designer could handle?

    1. 1

      Honestly it was pretty hard to know what to pay them. I did some basic napkin calculations that were like this :

      plus How much clients pay us per month: 259 to 349 USD per month
      plus How many clients a designer can take per month
      minus Fixed costs per month (servers)
      minus How many refunds we will have
      minus How much a designer cost us per month

      = Our profits. From that I changed the above variables. No science at all and is probably not working but better to start with something and improve after. I am keeping the communication open with designers if they want more. As long as the team is happy and that we can still make money and grow sustainably it is fine (for now)

      1. 1

        Thanks for your reply, Robin!

        One follow-up question: How did you estimate how many clients a designer can take per month?

        Thanks again!

  14. 1

    I have been trying to sell my design services for a long time, maybe I'm charging too much money. Cause those guys in India charge $6 an hour! Or maybe I'm just looking in the wrong channels. Anyway, I have to figure out how to land the design work cause I'm good enough to do it.

  15. 1

    Super inspiring! How did it work in the very first MVP you made? Would you manually send the design requests to the designers you have in your list?

    1. 1

      Correct, I sent the requests on Skype to them. Was a pretty bad way to work but it worked with the first clients.

  16. 1

    The packages look attractive. Honestly, I am interested in your design service for landing pages or social media graphics.

    Who are your trusted partners to do the HTML/CSS?

    By the way, if your sample works can be magnified, it would be much better for reference.

  17. 1

    The design world was blown away when someone came along and was selling design work for 1/10th what it was before, 99Designs. And now you've come along and are selling it for 1/10th what 99Designs is doing. How does this work? Is it cheap labor in developing countries moving around the lay-out of pre-made designs and using stock art libraries?

    1. 2

      And now you've come along and are selling it for 1/10th what 99Designs is doing. How does this work?

      You're looking at it from a perspective that they deliver instantly, that they're paying $x for a fixed product. They're not. Rather than pay $x for a finished product, you pay $y for a retainer and the vague promise of delivery.

      Their product isn't design, it's time management + retainers: distributing x clients in a period of time (e.g. monthly) over y designers. More delay to delivery = more profit.

      I went into more detail a while ago in another comment: https://www.indiehackers.com/forum/show-ih-unlimited-web-and-app-development-for-a-small-fixed-monthly-fee-a10b25b8b5?commentId=-L6vxv_8CC-JXXw22Jul

      1. 1

        This has been my exact same experience with these services. The promise is unlimited but it’s very limited. This can work for you if you don’t have very much work to get done.
        It can also be done with almost any service - writing, design, development, etc.
        there are major trade offs for the price point. You may get good work done in the end but be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time on revisions and communications bottlenecks.

      2. 1

        Great comment. That whole thread was interesting as it mirrored this with dev rather than design.

        I definitely think you are right and I'm more curious to know if OP understands this or is under the same disillusion as the other thread.

        Here is from ManyPixels FAQ:

        "How much work can you realistically expect in a month?

        Let's say you need to redesign your whole website with 7 pages, need business cards, a new Facebook cover, as well as some stickers & flyers.

        Website redesign (Landing page): 1 to 3 days per page - but since your pages will be more or less similar we should be able to do it within 5 to 7 working days.

        Business cards: 1 to 3 working days.

        Flyers & stickers: 1 to 3 working days.

        Facebook cover: 1 to 3 working days.

        Which still leave you with a lot of room to request more work
        In any case, we strive to work efficiently and always aim for high quality work. "

        1. 1

          Here is from ManyPixels FAQ:

          Note that they ingeniously explain the duration of the tasks, but there is no promise that they'll only work on your tasks, that they'll work on your task continuously until finished, or that they'll work on any of your tasks for any given period of time. :-)

          And as usual, these times are a general guideline that fit smaller customers. Anything outside of their business model and profit margin = they take a hit in their profit margin until they took too many hits and they need to add intentional delays (or reject these larger tasks) to increase the profit margin again.

  18. 1

    This comment was deleted 2 years ago.