How a Throwaway Project Became a Full-Time Hustle

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

My name is Herman, I'm from Cape Town, and I love tinkering with multiple projects. I used to be a video game developer working in VR, and then in mobile games, subcontracting for a large animation studio. I decided I wanted to go travelling and joined a San Francisco based startup called GetMyBoat where I could work remotely from all over the world.

Throughout all of this I've always had side projects and other things keeping me busy. Last year I was mentoring at a startup incubator and tech school in Accra, Ghana called MEST for a few months. During that year I released a few little projects: A rhythm-based space arcade game called Into Outer Bass, an online journaling platform which works via email and SMS called SomeWordsForMe, and then I did a full rebuild of JustSketchMe.

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JustSketchMe is a character-posing tool for artists and illustrators who need sketch references. Think of it as those wooden mannequins from IKEA that all artists happen to have, but more anatomically correct, with multiple different body types and styles of character.

We've been growing at over 50% month-over-month since monetizing some features (in November 2019) and are currently making ~$5,300 as of the past 30 days.

What motivated you to get started with JustSketchMe?

My parter Simon and I are both programmers (we used to work together as game developers), but also sketch and make art recreationally. I can't remember the exact time or place we came up with the idea, but I think it has to do with the wooden mannequin we have in the house whose foot fell off (we still have it, with the foot held on with prestick), and thought: This could be digital.

We initially released a very minimal version, built in the unity game engine with a PayPal donate button, mentioned it in a few artist communities online, then completely forgot about it for a year. I think I was in Ireland when I received an email saying I'd received $40 over PayPal for JustSketchMe (JSM). This prompted me to check out the stats and we were getting a healthy 25 people per day.

While I was in Ghana it was so hot that I spent my afternoons indoors, and ended up rebuilding JSM in a web-first framework ThreeJS. This made our numbers leap over a three-month period to about 1,000 free users per day. At the time I was teaching as well as mentoring at the startup incubator, so I wasn't too concerned with monetizing properly.

In August last year I added the first paid feature, the ability to save and load poses (using @sahil's Gumroad for subscriptions), went to sleep, and woke up to find that three people had subscribed! Around this time I was also burning out at work and ended up deciding to take a sabbatical, do some travelling (which is out the door now), and play around with JSM. From there it's only grown.

What went into building the initial product?

There's a game design company, Ico, whose philosophy is design by subtraction. Removing anything that does not support the core mechanic. I have this philosophy in product design as well. Do one thing, and do it very well, and make it pleasant to use. Think of it as the difference between Twitter and Facebook. One is a core mechanic that has been refined, while the other is so feature-stuffed, no one knows what it actually is anymore except your aunt.

Design by subtraction: Do one thing, and do it very well, and make it pleasant to use.

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The rebuild (which was the actual build now that I think about it) took about eight months, but is still being improved on every day. I was quite relentless in cutting potential features and customer suggestions as I wanted to be Trello, not Jira (I've got a good analogy going here).

As for time expenditure, I have always found time to tinker on projects. I have a hard time with consumption and really feel my best when I'm creating. If you have rocks (your core work) and sand (your superfluous consumption) and you are trying to find space for it, always put the rocks in first. If you put the sand in first you won't have space for what's truly important.

I've had some good support from friends and family, but also from a very enthusiastic community. It makes me so happy when people post what it is they've been working on using JustSketchMe. Lots of artists, but also ski coaches, martial artists, and more. We're in a PhD dissertation (referenced as well) about spine injuries. There's even a pedal-powered submarine competition where we feature in their designs.

What's your tech stack?

Originally it was all just a Unity application which exported to WebGL, but now it has evolved to the following:

Front end:

  • ThreeJs (rendering)
  • Vanilla JS (functionality)

Back end:

  • Google cloud functions
  • Gumroad
  • Firebase database

There have been technical challenges, such as getting it to work well as a Progressive Web App so it runs natively on all devices. Which I've got working well, and is pretty cool. Death to app stores!

How have you attracted users and grown JustSketchMe?

We didn't have a formal launch. When I did the rebuild I did post about it on the [/r/artist_lounge subreddit](https://www.reddit.com/r/ArtistLounge.

To be completely honest, neither Simon nor I are marketing people. I don't even have personal social media accounts. JSM grew because it was useful and people told one another about it.

pricing

I did do a lot of SEO optimization, and the keyword space isn't saturated, so if you google character poser or posing tool, you'll probably find us first. Most of our traffic comes from there.

One thing that was quite nice recently is for the past month I added the following to the subscription popup:

"Can't afford this but would love to use the full version? Get in touch at [email protected]"

About 5 to 10 people reach out to me every day. Artists are famously broke. And I've been giving out free license keys (inspiration from Balsamiq). This has led those users to evangelize us on social media (which we're trying to do properly now) and spread the word.

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

We only make money one way, through a $9 per month subscription to unlock all the paid features.

We've only had paid features available for the past six months, and have been running it all through Gumroad to PayPal to Forex to my South African bank account. I know it sounds like a long route, but it's actually the best. Stripe isn't here yet.

The revenue has just been growing month over month. We're hoping this growth rate continues at least for the next six months, but if it tapers off, we're still profitable, happy and healthy. We currently have very few business expenses. We get a few new models made every now and again, so pay a 3D artist for that (shoutout to Arthur and 3rdDimension studio), and our server bills are about $50 a month.

Month Revenue
Oct '19 506
Nov '19 1217
Dec '19 1633
Jan '20 2071
Feb '20 1861
Mar '20 3145
Apr '20 4220

Our churn rate isn't ideal, but that's to be expected as it's not an essential service. If our servers go down for a day, some people will be annoyed, but it won't affect anyone's livelihood, which is okay by me.

What are your goals for the future?

I'm a big fan of Jason Cohen's stuff. I've learnt a lot from him. He said something along the lines of: "Make $10,000 per month per founder and you'll be fine." It's a very arbitrary line in the sand, but I think it's a nice goal to head towards, and we're well on the way.

I also want to rebuild the app again. I know this sounds silly, but there's so much that can be learned from rebuilding something, even better the third time round.

I'm administration-phobic, so having to figure out taxation and business registration, etc was daunting for me. Shoutout to Wogan May for giving me great advice on how to structure a tech company in South Africa.

As for my personal goals, they all include not being in front of the computer so much. Before the lockdown I was at the beach every morning for an icy swim. I love being at the ocean and in nature and my plan is to spend more time doing that.

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

To be honest, it would be not quitting my job sooner. I had a really cool job, with rad people and a very awesome CTO. I put off leaving for longer than I should have because rationally I knew that I had it better than most tech employees. However, JSM really started exploding once I had the ability to focus on it. This is my unique situation though, and I'm not recommending people go and quit their jobs, especially at such a trying time.

JustSketchMe in action

One lesson that I've learned from mentoring and working with various startups is to pay for a really good tech person. They're expensive, but you will save money by hiring a very good programmer. This comes down to how long it takes them to set something up, but also how maintainable and extensible the final product is.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

As I said before, I'm not on social media. This helps a lot and I can focus my time much better than if I did use it. I even went and blocked YouTube for myself for the whole of last year.

The Mom Test is required reading. It certainly helps you cut through the noise.

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard is also an awesome read about how to build a company that people want to work for. It's about ethics and purpose, which are very important to me. The author is also probably the most interesting man in the world.

Making games is also one of the best ways to learn how to build something delightful. "Fun" is so hard to quantify that you have to test your assumptions and iterate. It's a nonnegotiable.

Always be working on something that keeps you up.

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Stay fit and healthy. I think one of the biggest shockers for me in both university and tech startups is that people forget to take care of their physical and mental well being. You function your best at what you're doing when you feel good and eat well. I was teaching a workshop on AR and all the snacks were chocolate eggs and crisps, etc, and I could watch people crashing at certain times of the day. We switched those out for nuts and dried fruit and a good lunch, and people were visibly more engaged and proactive.

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

Always be working on something that keeps you up. I think Paul Graham writes about this in one of his articles. Do the thing that you think about in the shower.

I've seen so many people (and I've been one of them) build stuff people don't need or want. It's the biggest tragedy. For this I recommend The Mom Test. Here's an example: if your web app relies on ad traffic but you've got an adblocker installed, you're going to have a tough time.

Where can we go to learn more?

I write about stuff at Worldbutter, and I have a list of running projects there.

If you want to get in touch with me, I'm on Indie Hackers! :)

Herman Martinus , Founder of JustSketchMe

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