From Offhand Side Project to $600K in Just 12 Months

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

Hey, I’m Renato Marinho, the founder of GitScrum. I'm just a little bug in the system! When I was eight years old, I asked my mom for an Atari, but I got an Apple II instead. Without knowing it, this was the catalyst for my entire career: BASIC became my first programming language and things developed their own momentum from there. I now have over 15 years of IT expertise (many more if you count my first forays at eight years old) working for large companies and startups.

My startup baby, GitScrum, is an Agile Project Management tool. But this is a very static and simplistic definition of what we do and where we’re going. Our goal is to become the go-to meritocracy and performance management system. We want to make work fun, boost performance, and help employers and entrepreneurs to identify and reward talent. The challenge is to create killer features that will help us reach those objectives.

Big picture: we hope to help human resources departments and hiring managers find the right talent by, in part, disrupting sites like LinkedIn where everyone can (and should) write a stylized version of their work experience. We envision another way to evaluate talent, not just by self-promotion, but also by how productive prospective employees are through time, every day. Interviews are necessary, but they tend to introduce a lot of false positives and negatives in the hiring process.

We have an awesome community with more than 30K users, annualizing over $600K in revenue in our first full year. And the best part? We still have so much more to improve and so many more opportunities for growth. We are very grateful and proud to be helping thousands of people, like and unlike us, to unleash their productivity in order to dream, plan, and do more.

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What motivated you to get started with GitScrum?

I was going crazy in my past incarnation as an IT manager. There were just too many frustrating moments when poor communication and lack of proper time management killed ideas and halted execution. We are in a time of endless distractions, rich in procrastination and low in deep work. When people are underutilized, aren’t engaged in their work, and have no structure to keep things moving along, ideas fall apart and deadlines get missed. And it's simply because the right systems are not in place.

I decided to take action and develop a work and project management system that pushes you to do your best work and be your best self with your team. As a manager, something else that really bothered me was the politics of corporations or big businesses dictating who was a “good” employee worthy of hiring or promotion. I wanted an objective and scalable solution to this bias. We created performance tracking features (our RockStart Team feature, for example) that let managers know which contributors were really knocking it out of the park. We collected feedback on this set of features from the users in our Facebook group, and it was a huge hit!

That’s how GitScrum was born: with meritocracy, gamification, and scrum in mind.

We all face similar hurdles and want to impress our clients, but project management tools can be confusing. Often they are either too basic and free or too complicated and expensive. We decided to tone down the complexity of other tools and make it more accessible to a non-technical team. Our raison d’etre is to help users master our flavor of project management (with gamification features to boost performance) without a big learning curve or a hole in their budget.

At the time I jumped on this entrepreneurial road, I had been the CTO of a startup and was a consultant for large companies in Portugal. I was ready for it!

What went into building the initial product?

It started out as a geek’s hobby. When I was the CTO of a Portuguese startup, I took some days off and started to write code to help me manage my team more efficiently and got hooked. It was hard to find the time to devote to it and I had to pull a lot of late nights to get things done.

Then, I shared my code in GitHub as an open-source project and suddenly started getting help from hundreds of other geeks all across the world! And that’s how I got to GitScrum’s MVP. From there, we re-wrote the whole application as a SaaS. In order to do everything people suggested, I really needed to be on it full-time and charge something to pay my bills.

I am very fortunate and grateful that almost 100 geeks (like me) joined the open source GitScrum project. That was the best start I could possibly have had. I made sure to offer a very generous free version of GitScrum as a thank you to the open source community. Another valuable resource was a kickstart I opened up to family and friends. It allowed me to hire talented coders to create the first alpha version. All of that may sound smooth and organic, but rest assured I’ve had many sleepless nights thinking about how to fund myself and GitScrum.

Luck favors those who work hard.

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Our MVP was very basic and didn’t have many important features like gamification yet. The initial focus was on kanban dashboards, task management, and other simple building blocks. In order to do the “complex,” we need to do the “simple”; otherwise the product would have fallen apart.

We followed Agile and scrum principles and went to the small-business market early to collect feedback. Our initial version took one full year to come to life. That quick initial feedback allowed us to focus on what was important for our clients in the short run so that we could turn a profit and survive in the long run.

We then built our first “game” — we compare it to a rudimentary Pac-Man. We are still constantly evolving to become more like Fortnite in an effort to make work fun, but, most importantly, the framework for measuring and rewarding performance is now in place.

We are currently hiring in order to build some important features that we don’t have yet. A strong mobile interface, API, and open marketplace will create room for another round of substantial growth in terms of users and revenue. And we owe that to our clients.

GitScrum is built using very reliable and fast technology like the Laravel Framework, Vue.js, Docker containers, and AWS Aurora. AWS gives us a security layer second to none, helping us to create a safe platform for knowledge sharing. We are constantly analyzing and testing new technologies to help us provide the high performance we need to scale our application.

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How have you attracted users and grown GitScrum?

I got a huge gift from Santa Claus. I shared my commitment to GitScrum, at that point a side project, with a few colleagues around Christmas, and then left to take my family to a ski resort. Suddenly, the project attracted dozens of early joiners.

We had posted in Laravel News and ended up being featured. From there, the snowball grew so much that I decided to stop skiing and focus on creating more snowballs!

This is a lucky path for any software company, as it not only contributes to the open source community but also creates the most valuable asset a company can have: followers! The challenge became finding the next clients. We resourced to Facebook groups, focusing on startup founders, marketing professionals, and small business owners. We were happy to find pockets of professionally-minded and ambitious folks on Facebook.

We learned a lot from these forums and came to know our clients, the competition, and their roadmaps in a very healthy way.

Also, we relied on everyone that followed us in our GitHub project. We were doing so well in the first six months that we were acquiring more than 4,000 customers a month. A great deal of these were free users that we would then we work internally to upgrade to premium versions of GitScrum.

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Today, our heavy users are freelancers, marketing people, and small businesses. They see GitScrum as a way to become more productive and organized, with less contact-switching and more focus. These users make up about 70-80% of our client base. The remaining clients are technical teams, mostly developers.

Our most important advice is ABS — always be shipping. This allows you to collect feedback and use your time more efficiently. Every time we waited to release the perfect software, we regretted not having had more client feedback from an earlier and less polished release.

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

We are very early in our monetization journey. Right now we mostly sell to freelancers and small businesses, as we want GitScrum to be the best possible value for our clients. While we may be underpricing, it allows us to grow the user base quickly and collect more feedback, which is important for our long-term goals. We also offer monthly subscriptions to our licenses for those clients who prefer to spread out payments over time.

We are currently annualizing over $600K in revenues, which is fantastic given we don't even have 12 months in the market.

Our initial pricing was hyper-competitive since we didn’t want price to be a barrier for the client. Our most premium license started selling at just $49 — the competition charges that every other week. Since then, we have been increasing the price in order to hire more coders to make a great product. We are one of the few tools out there to offer white labeling so that when a client shares their project with their clients, it is their brand that goes first.

After adding more features and improving the software, we decided to steadily raise our prices. We are still a bargain versus the competition but, as our value proposition grows, we can allow ourselves to charge a bit more in order to keep pushing boundaries. Our initial lifetime license price of $49 was barely covering our operating costs, so we steadily increased it to $299. We’ve been able to do this by focusing on keeping the value proposition sky-high, and so far it’s worked.

Every time we waited to release the perfect software, we regretted not having had more client feedback from an earlier and less polished release.

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Being a small company, we had super strong growth. In the first few months, we sold $5K in licenses, but it quickly grew to the $40K/mo zone as word of mouth started to circulate. We tried many ad venues, but the only one that worked for us was Facebook Ads. Once we started to “master” running ads on Facebook we grew exponentially. The SEO path is more organic and profitable but we wanted to present strong numbers quickly, so we tried out various configurations in Facebook Ads until we found a portfolio campaign that works well for us.

We learned an important lesson through all the trial and error that I hope is helpful to other indie hackers: Don’t try to conquer the world right out of the gate. Find your niche and stay there as long as you need. Big success is often built on the back of smaller, intentional successes.

We also have a features marketplace that we’ll open up for third-party developers so that they can sell their apps. We see it as a revenue generator in the future, especially for the free user base.

We hope that our ambitious monetization channels will help turn us into a human resources tech firm, focused on performance management. We reinvest the vast majority of our revenues into building the best tool for our clients so that we can keep scaling, improving our portfolio, and improving our clients’ work lives.

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What are your goals for the future?

From day one GitScrum has been about survival. Survival of the fittest is not about being the strongest or smartest, but being the most adaptable.

We started as an IT development tool, but when we built the SaaS business model, the IT developer community was not buying GitScrum licenses. It took me a while to understand that I was targeting the wrong audience. In order to become a successful business, GitScrum would need to find another target audience and pivot from there.

So we cast a wider net and ran targeted ads in several sub-populations of the professional world and caught a few fish. It’s discouraging when your initial target audience is not converting, but rather than throwing in the towel, I highly recommend testing many new and perhaps even counterintuitive audiences until you find your niche.

Don’t try to conquer the world right out of the gate. Find your niche and stay there as long as you need. Big success is often built on the back of smaller, intentional successes.

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Luckily, I was open-minded about it and we found a way forward through consistent and repeated market-fit testing. Our tests showed that we needed to target freelancers, marketing agencies and small businesses instead of hardcore IT devs, so we got to it. We joined Facebook groups dedicated to the marketing and startup crowd and the product-market fit locked into place. Before changing our focus, we had less than 10K unique users per month. After the change in audience, we reached 120K, so we got confident we were into something.

In a way, GitScrum is still in this survival phase. We need to adapt quickly in order to survive and learn how to serve our clients and keep up with our competitors. We love this natural evolution contest as it pushes us to adapt, survive, and thrive!

On a personal level, I was the classic IT geek — very introverted, coding all night long, learning new technologies, but utterly lacking in commercial skills. The first many months were a disaster in terms of sales. But to me, writing code is like writing poetry: the poet loves to do it, regardless of any commercial success.

Unfortunately, this sentiment doesn’t pay the bills. I was running out of personal and seed money and had a few weeks worth of costs in the bank account when the universe put me in a tough spot. I was offered a very well paying job. My wife was very worried. Should we follow the dream or take this good job? We decided to give it a very last shot. Either GitScrum walks on its own, or we’ll shut it down the following month.

I took all the money left in the bank and bought Facebook Ads. It was a steep learning curve, but once I got the hang of Facebook Ads things turned around. We started to convert a lot of ads into sales and soon had enough money to fund months and months of GitScrum coding.

It is cliche, but the lesson learned is that if your heart tells you to keep going, burn your bridges, up your game, take risks, and never look back! There will always be a job to help you pay the bills.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I am currently reading Grit by Angela Duckworth, a gift from a friend. So much of this book resonates with me and I think it’s a very inspiring read for any entrepreneur out there. I am also a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell and his book Tipping Point. Ash Maurya’s Scaling Lean is one of the best growth startups books I’ve ever read.

In terms of skills that helped me to bring GitScrum to life, logical thinking was fundamental. Leaving no variable, option, or rock behind allows us to map out all of the solutions in order to find the best answer.

Grit is also fundamental. I truly believe that luck favors those who work hard. I spent more than a month locked at home coding for our first SaaS version. I replied to thousands and thousands of customer chats, from all over the world in all of the different time zones (i.e. no sleep for me). I created a crazy routine: wake up at 3 am, work until 8 am, sleep again until 1 pm, and resume working until 11 pm — a real marathon to be able to talk to clients in GitScrum’s formative months. But I managed to make clients happy, collect feedback, and adapt.

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

GitScrum was a lucky stroke. Initially, I had no intention whatsoever of creating a world-class startup. And in just a few years, we are improving people’s lives, improving work productivity, and gamifying work to the benefit of everyone involved. Oddly enough, it all reminds me of the discovery of Viagra’s chemical compound. It was a total fluke that they managed to turn into a revolutionary success. It just goes to show that there’s always a way, even if it’s not obvious at first.

How will GitScrum evolve? I have been working hard to implement a future where we’ll use machine learning to reduce project management stress.

We want to add intelligence to a project manager’s daily life so that their work can be much more fulfilling and innovative than it currently is. The goal is to make project management mostly auto-pilot while leaving it open to human control and interference to make improvements and adjustments along the way.

And we’ll also keep pushing our gamification values, to induce our users to give their best. Naturally, we will keep tracking, measuring, and rewarding performance, which will put us on the path of being an HR tech firm.

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Where can we go to learn more?

A great starting point is our User Cases page on the website. It shows how real people are using GitScrum to make work more efficient.

Another fantastic resource is our active Facebook Group. It is a source of positive and critical feedback for us. We wouldn't have achieved such explosive and sustained growth if our users were not constantly asking us for features, progress, and roadmaps.

Another great source of reviews is our Product Hunt Page.

As far as I’m concerned, this is just the start for us! We’re excited to see how far we can take things. Please leave comments below, I’ll do my best to respond to everyone.

Renato Marinho , Founder of GitScrum

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