From Idea to Profitable Business on the GitHub Marketplace and Slack

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

I'm a 27-year-old developer based out of Chicago.

My first experiences in programming and business were in middle school. I taught myself how to code so I could build a website for my Counter-Strike team. I learned about sales by hustling modded nerf guns on internet forums. A disgruntled buyer even taught me about customer support by telling on me to my parents when his shipment was delayed.

I fell in love with web design when I was in high school and have spent the past 10 years working in different full-time jobs ranging from UX design to managing enterprise software teams. I've always dreamed of working for myself so when I left my last job in December I decided to take some time off to try and launch a couple product ideas I had.

I launched the first version of Pull Reminders at the end of January and have been bootstrapping it for the past six months.

Pull Reminders helps development teams stay on top of pull requests and improve their code review process. With Pull Reminders you can set up reminders in Slack channels and have everyone receive direct messages about their assigned code reviews.

Pull Reminders also provides metrics like pull request size, code review turnaround time, and number of reviews completed — these help you recognize contributors and improve your team's processes.

Pull Reminders is making just shy of $4,000/month right now and has been growing by ~$1,000 MRR every month since it fully launched in April. Pull Reminders is used by over 400 companies including Pivotal, Instacart, WeWork, and Trivago.

Pull Reminders

What motivated you to get started with Pull Reminders?

I got the idea for Pull Reminders at my last job where I was an engineering manager. We had a pretty standard process for code reviews where we'd open pull requests and share them in Slack.

I remember one time I asked an engineer on my team what was up with a pull request that had been stale for a couple of days. He told me that he had asked someone for a code review multiple times and had gotten tired of nagging.

Our team was slow at completing code reviews so I would personally follow-up on pull requests and ping people on Slack that needed to take action. I hated spending my time this way but it really helped the team because otherwise pull requests would drag on and take longer to release.

When I left that job last December I couldn't shake away the idea of building a tool to automate what I had been doing. I was also hesitant because I wasn't sure if anyone else would want to use it. My side project graveyard was already big enough.

I overcame this fear by doing more research. I asked some of my peers in a "Chicago CTO" Slack group whether they had problems with pull requests dragging on, and a few responded.

I also looked for existing solutions and found a bunch of "pull request reminder" projects on GitHub that were similar to my idea. This was proof to me that this was not an uncommon problem.

Still, though, I had little to no expectation of being able to make money from this. I planned on letting people use my tool for free as a marketing strategy for another product I wanted to build. When Pull Reminders launched, it didn't have a pricing page or payment form.

What went into building the initial product?

I started building Pull Reminders at the beginning of January and built the first version in a couple of weeks using Ruby on Rails. I don't think there's anything better than Rails for shipping and iterating on a new product. The goal of Rails is to be the "framework for small teams to do big things", so it's a great fit when you're just one person.

At this point I had committed myself to spending the rest of the year trying to start a business. My plan was to create a very long runway for myself by finding part-time contract work. Still, going from a steady well-paying job to contract work was a scary transition that I was stressed about.

As I was building Pull Reminders I had to keep finding ways to stay motivated because my rational side told me this project was going to fail. One thing I told myself was that shipping Pull Reminders was like a warm-up lap for the long journey ahead, wherever it might lead.

The first version of Pull Reminders was relatively simple from a feature standpoint. Users would add the Pull Reminders bot to their Slack workspace, authorize access to their GitHub repositories, and then specify the frequency and Slack channel for pull request reminders. This functionality was surprisingly difficult to build because I had to integrate with both GitHub and Slack API's, and then build an interface on top of that.

How have you attracted users and grown Pull Reminders?

As I mentioned earlier, when I took Pull Reminders live at the end of January I had no expectations of making money. I didn't have a pricing page or payment form.

After releasing the app in the Slack App Directory, I started getting a small trickle of signups. I emailed every user that signed up to find out who they were and what they were hoping to get out of Pull Reminders. A couple of those early users were from larger companies and I could tell they were taking my product seriously because they asked for lots of changes.

I kept making changes based on their feedback until they seemed satisfied. Then I asked if they would be willing to pay. I thought I had about a 30% chance of success but it worked. Landing those first couple paying customers (which happened at the beginning of March) really blew my mind. It dawned on me that Pull Reminders could be an actual business.

Emails

I've been really lucky because I haven't had to do my own marketing to get to where I am so far. The Slack App Directory gives me a steady trickle of signups that convert pretty well.

On April 1 I was able to get Pull Reminders published in the GitHub Marketplace. This felt like a big moment but it took a lot of work and I wasn't sure what the results would be. Thankfully, it's given me a nice boost in signups and accelerated my growth.

I think of a business as the sum of three multipliers: creating a valuable product, reaching your audience, and selling.

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I think that marketplaces like Slack and GitHub are really effective at getting your product in front of people and helping you build initial traction. I'll share some specific numbers in the next section but my traffic from Slack and GitHub have led to consistent and meaningful growth.

That said, the downside of marketplaces is that there's no way to increase your traffic beyond what you get since you don't control the marketplaces. I'm at the point now where my growth has plateaued, so I need to find other ways to fuel it.

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

Pull Reminders is a SaaS business. I charge companies about $2 per month per developer through preset pricing plans of $10/mo, $49/mo, $99/mo, etc. Pricing is still a work in progress for me, but I like to justify the $2 per month per developer because it's less than a cup of coffee for each developer and I think Pull Reminders gives you more productivity than coffee.

I bill customers through Stripe and GitHub. GitHub Marketplace lets people purchase Pull Reminders with their existing payment method attached to their GitHub account.

This is nice for me because it means people don't have to take out a credit card, which makes purchasing a lot easier (although GitHub does take a 25% cut). Lately I've been experimenting with sending more of my signups to pay through the GitHub (versus only the ones who initially sign up there) to see if that has a significant impact on my conversion rates.

Right now I'm making just shy of $4,000/mo. In terms of the full timeline, my revenue was $0/mo at the end of January, $0/mo in February, $158/mo in March, $774/mo in April, $1,508/mo in May, $2,752/mo in June, and $3,450 so far this month.

Even a product with little differentiated value can be successful if you can reach a lot of people and sell it well.

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Most of my time has been spent improving my product and adding new features. As I mentioned earlier I'm just now starting to focus my time and energy on marketing which is really challenging, as all of us know.

Last month I rolled out a referral program but it hasn't gotten any traction. I'm still trying to figure out why.

First I tried to offer a package of free gourmet coffee per referral. Then I switched to Amazon gift cards. Right now it's a dual-incentive system where both the referrer and the invitee get Amazon credit.

I believe that the best way to reach new customers is through great online content so that's what I'm focused on now. I am working on a new website where I'll create guides and tools for developers that are interested in starting their own businesses.

This includes things like open-sourcing my legal documents and giving away boilerplate code for building Slack apps. So many developers that I know want to have their own business that they can eventually work on full-time. I hope I can help them at some point along their journey.

What are your goals for the future?

I don't have any specific revenue goals. I'm happy so long as Pull Reminders makes enough money for me to continue working on it full-time.

My goal is to continue building valuable tools for engineering teams while staying a one-person company.

I absolutely love working alone. It gives me the freedom and creative autonomy to do things however I choose without worrying about pleasing or managing other people. It makes the journey very personal, like art.

I think Derek Sivers says it best on his about page:

"Nobody gives a novelist shit for writing alone. But an entrepreneur, programmer, or musician is expected to collaborate. I disagree, for me. I prefer the life of a novelist, whether I'm writing code, music, or systems."

I also think working alone has some business advantages because I have low enough overhead to pursue opportunities that most other companies wouldn't even bother with.

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

I just talked up working alone, but gosh, is it difficult.

As a solo founder it can be difficult to stay positive and motivated. I think all creative people deal with fears of being rejected or failing. When you invest so much of yourself into creating something it can be very scary to put it out there.

Sometimes I get down about stupid things. For example, if I have one week where my signups dip or a customer I admire doesn't purchase a subscription, I start to get negative thoughts. It's a very stupid thing because my business is growing well and I feel lucky to be in the position I am in.

Another problem I have is being a perfectionist. It's easy for me to go down rabbit holes and labor over details that aren't practically benefiting my business. I've had to stop myself from wasting time overly refactoring code or redesigning something that looks good enough.

I think being a perfectionist can really backfire because when you start over-scrutinizing your work, you often end up making it worse. For example, when I was drafting responses for my first written interview, I started word-smithing things to the point where I was making it longer and more boring. I had my brother and a couple of my friends rescue me by proofreading and telling me to stop.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I think that a big part of turning your idea into a successful business is having the mental and emotional stamina to keep going, even when there are plenty of reasons to feel discouraged.

When I was getting started, I wasn't good at this, and would get really affected by the daily ups and downs. These days I actively focus on my mental health and staying positive. If I catch myself feeling a bit down I try to take a day or two off to recharge a bit. I've found that if you focus on getting into the right mindset, creative success follows much more easily and is a lot more fun.

As far as learning and getting better at things, I'm a huge fan of books. I think they are consistently underrated as a resource for internet entrepreneurs and especially developers that want to eventually build a business.

My personal website lists some of the books I've read along with detailed notes. My number one recommendation is the book Nail it then Scale It. Methodologies like Lean Startup get a lot of attention but I haven't come across better content on building a B2B business than this book.

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

My younger brother (who's also a developer) recently got interested in starting a business so my advice to him is fresh in my mind.

I think of a business as the sum of three multipliers: creating a valuable product, reaching your audience, and selling. I call them "multipliers" because even a product with little differentiated value can be successful if you can reach a lot of people and sell it well.

Indie hackers talk a lot about "validation", but this usually only applies to validating product ideas. I believe that validating your ability to reach and sell your customers is as important as validating that your product solves a problem.

For example, let's say you build a valuable product for CTOs and can even do a pretty good job selling when given a chance. Do you know how difficult it is to actually get 5 minutes of a CTO's attention online or offline to even have a chance to pitch your product?

I believe that validating your ability to reach and sell your customers is as important as validating that your product solves a problem.

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When you build a product without first answering questions like that, you risk building a product then later encountering challenges reaching or selling to your customers, which is when a lot of people give up.

I think the best way to validate all three parts is to try and pre-sell customers on a paid pilot before building anything more than a prototype of your product. This forces you to figure out how to reach and sell customers before going any further. There's not enough room here but I'm working on a blog post explaining how I've done this in the past.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can learn more about me on my personal website which will be updated soon with articles and resources for other indie hackers. I'll be posting more information about this on my Twitter account (which is open for anyone that wants to direct message me with questions).

I look forward to answering questions in the comment section of this interview!

Abi Noda , Founder of Pull Panda

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