From No Coding Skills to 50K Downloads in Two Years

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

Hello there, I'm Thomas. My background is mostly in data and analytics in the Berlin tech scene, including ZenMate, Ecosia, and Clue.

I left ZenMate in 2016 because I was burned out and wanted to take it easy for a bit while I plotted my next move, and I realized that I needed to learn how the development world works in order to level up. I figured that the best way to do that would be to dive right in, so I embarked on a mission to release a simple, single-purpose Chrome Extension called Beebs and turned my flirtation with unemployment into an opportunity for education and elevation.

Beebs is a simple extension that unblocks a handful of media sites in the UK, with the BBC iPlayer being the most popular. It’s built for those who don't understand what a VPN is, how it works, or the difference between RAM or a hard drive. It essentially wraps a clean, easy-to-use layer of interface around a bunch of things that some might find technologically challenging or overwhelming.

Beebs has made over $55K since its release and is currently sitting at around $2,800 MRR from over 600 paying users.

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What motivated you to get started with Beebs?

I was with ZenMate, a VPN provider, from the incubator all the way up to a team of over 70 people with $7.7M in funding. In terms of tech, it was the only thing I knew anything about or could really walk someone through. My grandmother heard about ZenMate and asked me how she might use it in Spain, but couldn’t make it through the setup process without my guidance.

Explaining to an 82-year-old woman with no technological know-how that she needs to delete her cookies is...challenging. There was a lot of back-and-forth about baked goods. But it gave me some really useful insight into the user experience of a certain demographic. I know that my grandma wanted to use ZenMate, but it just wasn’t accessible to her in its current state. There needed to be some sort of one-click buffer between the technical complications of setup and getting the thing to run. So I decided to build an extension to do just that. I never expected it to take off; it was just a side-project I was doing while unemployed to help out my grandma and prove that I was capable of building something.

Fortunately, the German welfare system is robust and there was never a real fear that I would starve or run into dire straits if I was unemployed for an extended period of time. This kind of support system is a real game-changer for entrepreneurs and grants people the liberty to take risks when they otherwise wouldn’t and come up with some really innovative ideas. Thanks, socialism!

What went into building the initial product?

A lot of screaming at my computer.

I'm not a natural-born developer, to say the least. The first version of the extension was laughable — any developer on the second day of boot camp would have been upset with the code I wrote. I was also agonizingly slow. It took me a few months when it should have taken a week. Most of the time was spent learning concepts like SSH, Git, and config files.

The extension is in JS with a PAC file that redirects your traffic to my server when you're accessing the UK sites. The servers are squid proxies that have 20 lines of config with a whitelist to stop potential abuse and I have DNS level load balancing.

Focus on the things that you excel in rather than wasting time and energy needlessly failing.

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Being in Berlin, I'm surrounded by a lot of very talented developers who helped tremendously while I was slogging through the process. That network was vital in getting things off the ground when I was first starting out.

Since all the coding was self-taught and I was being supported by the welfare system, it cost me almost nothing. I used $5 Digital Ocean droplets to get started.

How have you attracted users and grown Beebs?

There was no launch, just an unceremonious release onto the Chrome Web Store, where it sat for 18 months collecting a handful of users. I started at Ecosia a little while after I released Beebs and more or less forgot about it.

Then Reddit delivered some unsolicited and serendipitous marketing. Someone made a post about Planet Earth II, which was only being released in the UK, and a user mentioned Beebs in a comment as a simple way to access the program for everyone outside of the UK. The post hit the front page and Beebs got 40,000 installs within 24 hours from riding the top comment karma train all the way to internet glory. That’s Reddit for you and, as far as I’m concerned, the internet in general.

I truly believe that if you are the easiest way to solve a problem on the internet, the users will find you as long as you put yourself out there. People tend to follow the path of least resistance and the internet is no exception. You just have to make sure that your product is somewhere along that path.

Aside from that lucky Reddit post, I haven’t had much success with marketing. The VPN market is really saturated at this point and it takes a lot of capital to get off the ground and get your name in front of potential customers. The profit margins are substantial — VPNs cost very little per user to provide — so if you’re already established in the market and have a handful of customers, you can funnel all of that right back into product and marketing and effectively squash the little guys.

I tried all of the usual tricks, but the standard Facebook Ads and the like simply did not produce results. My launch on Product Hunt brought in one paying user and a modest 80 upvotes, which was disappointing. I didn’t expect tech-savvy Product Hunt users to buy my product, but I had hope that it would a least generate some buzz and perhaps drive some users through word of mouth as the tech-savvy recommended it to their less tech-inclined friends.

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

“How to monetize a Google Chrome Extension" is probably my most searched phrase in the last two years.

Initially, I installed a product by a company called YieldKit that adds images to Google results. The images increase the probability of a click and I got paid a commission for that bump. It was admittedly a gray area. I put it in the install flow so users were aware of the script and overall it was very successful, reaching an average payout of over $3K per month from 10,000 monthly active users (MAU). After 18 months, Google found the code and told me to remove it, but it was good while it lasted.

In August 2018, I went paid-only. Stories of MediaHint, who once reached 300K MAU, taught me not to drive my users into a paywall at 100 miles per hour. The endowment effect is strong and you can expect a fierce backlash from users who fundamentally disagree with paying for something that was once free. MediaHint destroyed their userbase by converting everyone unilaterally, and are now left with a dwindling pool of paid users and a downward spiral of referrals and recommendations.

My stance has always been that the early adopters were my best resource for gaining new users, so I didn’t want to lose them when I made the leap to paid-only. Because of that, I only charged new users. If you had the extension before August 2018, you don't have to pay.

Margins are good in VPNs as server costs are less than $80 for the nearly $3K we’re pulling in, and we're only at about 15% capacity. I use Google’s terrible merchant payment system out of sheer laziness — I didn’t want to write any code for a payment processor. Don’t follow my lead on this.

What are your goals for the future?

Beebs is great for now but it has some serious limitations and is a pretty vulnerable product, so I’m focusing on other projects that I think will be better off in the long run. It’s in maintenance mode at the moment and I spend very little time on it. We’ll hit $5.6K MRR by the year’s end, which will be pushed into other ventures.

People tend to follow the path of least resistance.... You just have to make sure that your product is somewhere along that path.

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Sometimes you have to know when to cut your losses. Beebs is ultimately not a roaring success and I’m certainly not basing my future on it or planning on fighting the good fight. Not only am I competing against other well-established VPNs, but I’m under siege by giants like Netflix whose service I’m essentially opening up to the world for free. They’ve already killed a lot of VPNs by tightening up their traffic, and if the BBC decides to take the same stance, the party is officially over. It’s just not sustainable.

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

Camper vanning in New Zealand turned into a Beebs fire-fighting extravaganza. The servers were continually blocked, causing three days of downtime. Here's a video of me fixing the servers while my girlfriend drives the truck.

I needed help and it took me a while to accept that. I actually ended up starting a company with a close friend of mine who redeveloped the entire extension, so now there are two of us who know how to fix any issues that come up and I can enjoy my holidays in peace. We are currently in the process of building other products together and Beebs is on the backburner.

Before that partnership, I was living in a constant state of fear imagining what problem would pop up next and how long it would take me to fix it. His development skills resulted in a more reliable, stable system with better backup systems in place. It's a fairly simple product and, together, we’re starting to find our niche. He taught me that I'm not built to be a developer and that that’s okay — that I should focus on the things that I excel in rather than wasting time and energy needlessly failing.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The career I’d built before jumping into SaaS development helped me gain all the skills I needed to get to where I am today, and I’m grateful for that.

I’ve also gained a lot from having short phone calls with friends who know their stuff and can point me in the right direction, especially given that all my friends once worked on ZenMate's infrastructure. It also helped that Berlin has a very international crowd where it’s easy to mingle and make new friends since I was in a new city.

I've seen too many founders overpromising and completely underdelivering because they were relying on some sort of funding that didn’t end up coming through.

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I’m tempted to say that you shouldn’t rely on any guides that preach “How to Launch Product X” since I didn’t, but I feel like that might be confirmation bias. Ultimately I think you should do whatever you think will be the most helpful, but don’t rely too heavily on books or advice from those that have gone before you as it can be limiting and prevent you from carving out your own authentic path or idea.

A friend of mine went the way that everyone told him he should with a company built around selling houses: he spent thousands on Facebook marketing. Against all conventional wisdom, one day he decided to switch it all off and diverted it to leaflets, door to door posting to every house in the area, and his startup took off.

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

Switching your userbase from free to monetized is one of the most difficult challenges you can butt up against. You can’t put the cart before the horse.

Indie hacking is about bootstrapping, making no promises to any VC, angel investors, or other funders. You are and your customers the only ones that you are accountable to, and it’s important to keep that in mind. I've seen too many founders overpromising and completely underdelivering because they were relying on some sort of funding that didn’t end up coming through. If you need to get VC money to hire a team and rent out an office, that’s fine, but you are not an indie hacker—and building your businesses around an indie hacker ethos probably won’t work out in the long run.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can't, really, this is the most I've ever chatted about Beebs! But you can find the website and extension in the Chrome Web Store.

And feel free to ask me anything in the comments below!

Thomas Isaac , Co-founder of Beebs

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