How I Bootstrapped a Site Builder to $6,000 in Monthly Revenue

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

My name is Mattijs Naus (I typically go by "Matt"). I'm a 34-year-old Dutchman, and I have been living in Thailand for the past 13 odd years. I moved to Thailand in my early 20's and decided this was as good a place as any and stuck around. When I was still living in the Netherlands, spend some time stuyding Computer Science and pursuing an MBA (I dropped out of university when I moved to Thailand though). I wrote my first code when I was 12 years old and have been programming and building stuff since.

I currently own and run a software company named Chilly Orange, and our flagship product is called Pagestead (formerly known as SB Pro; we renamed the product in January 2018). It's a self-hosted, fully white-labeled DIY website builder. Think of it like your very own Wix, Weebly, or Squarespace. Being a self-hosted platform means our customers purchase the software, download a copy of the source code, and install it on their own infrastructure.

Since it's a white-label platform, typically our customers apply their own branding to it and sell it as their own. It's mostly used by small- to medium-sized digital agencies focusing on web design, web development, and marketing, but it's also used by hosting companies, Internet marketeers, and entrepreneurs around the world.

DIY site builders like Wix and Squarespace are becoming more commonplace, and our customers have noticed this increased demand. They don't want to lose their customers to the existing platforms, but they also recognize how expensive and time consuming it is to develop their own. Pagestead handles this service for them.

Pagestead homepage

After launching in May 2017, I ended up doing just over $50,000 in revenue in 2017, or roughly $5,500 per month. Since launching we have grown our customer base to 140 customers.

What motivated you to get started with Pagestead?

The current version of Pagestead is an iteration on a slightly different product I developed years ago. It all started with a product I built with the intention of selling on Envato's CodeCanyon website. This was just around the time DIY website builders like Wix and Squarespace were gaining popularity. I had previously sold products on ThemeForest, and I got the idea that people selling HTML templates on the platform might like to integrate their templates with a simple tool that would allow customers to drag-and-drop sections such as headings, content blocks, contact forms, feature sections, etc., to quickly and easily modify their pages.

So I developed such a tool and started offering it on CodeCanyon. I specifically mentioned that the product would be useful for ThemeForest authors, and quite a few HTML template authors ended up purchasing a license and started offering the builder with their HTML templates.

In addition to HTML template authors, we quickly started seeing interest in a flexible, self-hosted website builder from web developers, hosting companies, and other small businesses. This led me to continue developing the script into a proper self-hosted web application. So a few months later I released a product called "SiteBuilder Lite" on CodeCanyon. I continued working on and supporting this product for the next few years. Since then, the site builder products I launched on CodeCanyon have netted me just north of $80,000.

Pagestead, the latest iteration of this product, is the first product I started selling outside of the Envato environment. All previous versions were sold through CodeCanyon.

I validated the idea by having actual paying users from day one. Envato was a huge help in this. Since there were paying customers from the beginning, I could start gathering user feedback very early on. I was able to learn what my early customers and potential customers were looking for, how much they were comfortable paying, etc.

Additionally, while we were developing the current version of Pagestead, we started accepting pre-orders. The pre-order page mentioned the features we were planning on launching with, and the fact that quite a few people ended up pre-ordering validated that we were moving in the right direction.

Before I started building products, I did contract work for several years and worked a fair bit with digital agencies in Europe and the United States. This gave me a pretty good understanding of how typical agencies work and how they make buying decisions.

The pre-order page mentioned the features we were planning on launching with, and the fact that quite a few people ended up pre-ordering validated that we were moving in the right direction.

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Furthermore, I ran an agency myself for a while which deepened my understanding of the industry and the problems they face that are relevant to our product. Since most of our customers to date are digital agencies, the insights I gathered over the years have been very helpful in understanding our customers.

When I created the first version of our page builder for CodeCanyon, I was already selling some other products on CodeCanyon. If memory serves me right, I was making maybe $1,000 per month from these products. Additionally, I was still doing contract work. I reckon my total monthly income was around $2,000 to $3,000 per month. Once I launched additional products, my monthly income started to go up.

The money I was making from contracting work and my Envato portfolio was enough to make me feel comfortable taking the leap and selling our next product outside of the Envato ecosystem. The cash investment that I would ultimately put into the first version of the modern Pagestead was around $10,000.

What went into building the initial product?

The first version of the modern Pagestead took around 18 months to complete. However, in these 18 months, we were not working on the product full time. I reckon that when we released Pagestead v1, we'd spent about 1,000 hours coding it, which does not take into account the time spent building previous versions of our page builder on which Pagestead is based.

Before development began on Pagestead, we started taking pre-orders and decided on the initial feature set based on customer feedback (from our previous products).

During this period, I was doing contract work for a company in L.A. and working on Pagestead in the evenings and on weekends. This was definitely a challenging period. I remember numerous days pondering whether or not to continue and whether we were ever going to be able to complete it. I knew we had a potentially good business on our hands since pre-orders came in on a regular basis along with customers reaching out and asking when we were finally going to launch.

However, the progress we were making was just too slow for comfort. We had to keep pushing back the launch date, resulting in frustrated pre-order customers. I recall considering pulling the plug several times.

Since Pagestead is a self-hosted web application, it's very important that we make it as easy as possible for buyers to install the software on their servers. To this end, we decided to use the popular CodeIgniter PHP framework for the back end of the application.

I am personally not a big fan of any of the popular JavaScript frameworks out there. That, plus the fact I was looking to use the front end of one our previous site builder products as a starting point, led me to use regular vanilla JavaScript for the front-end and page builder part of the application. The front-end code is structured using CommonJS modules, and we use Webpack to build and generate our front-end code.

Two developers helped with the development of Pagestead, and they are still involved today. Without them, creating the product would have taken forever (assuming I would have been able to complete it at all). Additionally, we have had a lot of help from existing customers and potential new customers who supplied us with a steady stream of useful feedback.

How have you attracted users and grown Pagestead?

We officially launched Pagestead to the public on the 31st of May 2017. We'd been accepting pre-orders for about one full year at that point and were able to process just north of $30,000 in pre-order revenue.

Most of the traffic to our pre-order page had been driven by referrals from our existing products. We did not do much marketing before launching, other than sending out occasional emails to our mailing lists. (Most people on our lists are customers who have previously purchased one or more of our products.) When we actually launched the first version, we only notified our mailing list; we did not submit to Hacker News, Product Hunt, or any other site.

Our pre-order page was very basic, using the Divi Wordpress theme, explaining the main features, one or two application screenshots, and some samples of the blocks we were bundling with the application.

Here's a look at the landing page we used for our pre-orders while building the actual product:

SB Pro landing page

The first few months following our launch, the majority of leads and customers were being driven by our mailing list and our existing products (we promote Pagestead on several websites for our other products). After launching, I started spending more time on content production and content marketing, which resulted in more and more businesses coming from Google and other search engines.

This is what our traffic looked like in the months following our official launch:

Month Sessions
Jun 2237
Jul 2611
Aug 3681
Sep 4076
Oct 4237
Nov 4371
Dec 3667

What worked very well for us was having previously released popular, similar products on Envato's CodeCanyon website. Several of our other products are similar to Pagestead but have fewer features, and they drives a significant amount of Pagestead's traffic and sales. It simply builds upon previous successful products.

At the moment, we're focusing on content marketing using our own blog. This has definitely given our website traffic a big boost. However, I have not been able to determine how many leads and conversions we're getting from our search engine traffic.

We initially started publishing two long blog posts per week (between 1,000 and 1,250 words each), but I quickly started struggling with finding new topics to write about, as well as finding decent writers to get the articles written. I've experimented with using freelance writers from Upwork and other freelance sites. This was hit-or-miss, and I was not able to establish a long-term relationship with good writers. I ended up using CrowdContent, and I am modestly happy with the work. If you continue to use new writers (writers you haven't used yet before), you're still running the risk of being disappointed by the final work. However, once you've found good writers, you can give future assignments to them directly, which is great. I am currently paying between $100 and $150 per article.

The biggest problem with doing content marketing well is that you have to keep at it for a long time — I'd say at least a year, preferably longer. And when publishing twice a week, you'll quickly burn through your list of content topics. This something I am still struggling with today.

I have plans to start experimenting with paid traffic (Google and Facebook ads) in the future, and I am also exploring partnership possibilities. However, for the time being, our mailing list, existing products, and search engine traffic are doing a good enough job at growing our revenue until we reach product-market fit, and we're ready to start investing more in exploring different marketing channels.

By releasing small products on an existing marketplace, I was able to start building my own audience and leveraging an existing audience.

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My advice to starting entrepreneurs looking to grow their business would be to look into Rob Walling's stairstep approach to bootstrapping. Without knowing about this approach at the time (I only first saw Rob's blog post about two years ago), I followed it pretty much to the letter. The idea is to take small steps in growing your business. By releasing small products on an existing marketplace, I was able to start building my own audience and leveraging an existing audience. It was this very audience that gave Pagestead its initial boast.

Launching your first product to an existing audience (whether it's through a marketplace, someone else's blog, or a mailing list) will save you the effort and hassle of building your own before being able to launch.

Partnerships are another good option for finding an existing audience to launch a product. Find the market and audience for your product and figure out the easiest and quickest way to reach that audience. If you're a product person/coder like me, this almost always means getting out of your comfort zone and talking to people.

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

In our current business model we sell life-time licenses for our software at three different pricing tiers: Starter ($149), Professional ($599), and Enterprise ($2,499). Additionally, we use yearly subscriptions for support and updates. The first year of support and updates are included in the initial license fee. If customers want to continue receiving updates and getting support, they will need to pay the yearly renewal fee.

Pagestead pricing

As I mentioned before, we started doing pre-orders while we were developing the product (at 20% off of the listed price). For each pre-order, we'd collect credit card details and the permission to charge those cards when we launched the product. (Gumroad makes all of this very easy.) So when we did launch, we instantly collected a large chunk of money — enough to finance the next months of developing the product and growing the business.

When we were ready to start taking pre-orders, we looked for the simplest way to collect payments and distribute our code, and we ended up going with Gumroad. Alhtough Gumroad is an awesome solution to get started with (we still recommend it often to fellow entrepreneurs who are just getting on their feet), we are now getting to a point where we start feeling the need for more flexibility and control. Therefore, we'll start transitioning to our own solution sometime in 2018.

At the moment, the business is doing around $5,500 in monthly revenue. We saw a big spike in revenue when we launched our highest pricing tier in September. Towards the end of the year, things slowed down a bit (as business tends to wind down during the holiday season). Except for salaries, our operating costs are still pretty low. Since we are not running the SaaS ourselves, our server costs are pretty low. We currently spend about $300 per month on operational costs (mostly a bunch of SaaS apps we use, plus a single dedicated server).

Month Revenue
Jul 5261
Aug 5924
Sep 14572
Oct 9459
Nov 3737
Dec 2993

What are your goals for the future?

As far as the product itself goes, we have a ton of features that we have yet to implement. We released a blog post earlier this month that mentions some of them.

For the business, the goal this year is to reach at least $10,000 in monthly revenue and work towards making a larger chunk of the total revenue subscription-based. This all comes down to getting the business to the level where it becomes sustainable long term, meaning we can all take a decent salary and have some money left to re-invest into the business.

To achieve this, the main priority right now is reaching product-market fit. I have a pretty clear picture of where the product needs to go to achieve this, so it's just a matter of getting into gear and moving towards that vision. And while we're working towards product-market fit, we'll start exploring additional marketing channels and experimenting with these channels to figure out how we can unlock the next growth spurt and where to invest our marketing dollars once we get to product-market fit.

Marketing itself has been and continues to be a bit of a hurdle, although I have been getting better at dedicating more time to it. It's not that it's too difficult — it's not that hard actually; as with most things, common sense gets you a long way — or that I dislike marketing per se. It's just that making sure I free up time to actually do it is still hard for me. (That said, I did used to hate it, probably because I am a programmer at heart and didn't know squat about marketing.)

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

While working on Pagestead, I made a number of mistakes. However, I should point out that, as is often the case with "mistakes", they only turn out to be mistakes in hindsight. I am referring mostly to choices regarding what parts of the business to focus on.

For example, we have spent a bunch of time and money developing templates for Pagestead which we never actually ended up using. (It turned out to be too costly and time consuming to fully implement at the time.) In hindsight, that time and money would have been better spent experimenting with marketing or adding highly requested features. That's one example, but there are plenty more. It's always easy to look back and say, "Hey, I should have known better." However, I don't dwell on it or even spend any time thinking about it. I just briefly consider whether there are any real obvious lessons to be learned (which, IMO, is not often the case) and then move on.

On the product/technical side of things, one of the main obstacles we have been dealing with is automating the update process for our software. This has turned out to be way more complex than we initially thought it would be. That said, we knew this was a feature we needed to have, so ever since our launch last year, we've been trying to improve the code handling this part of the business.

The complexity stems from the fact that we need to distribute updates automatically to a large number of servers. This in itself was not that big a deal, but the complexity was compounded by the size of some of our updates and different server configurations used by our customers.

Yet another layer of complexity is added when you consider the fact that we bundle themes (blocks) with our software as well. To give an example: when we make changes to the template, we have to make sure these very same changes are also applied to pages previously created with the software, meaning we'll need to make changes to data in our clients' databases. Needless to say, we have had a couple of headaches related to this.

Pagestead mockup

As I previously mentioned, doing marketing has been a big thing for me. Along with many other indie hackers out there, I am coder/product person at heart and doing marketing was not something that was easy for me or came naturally. However, we simply need to come terms with the fact that marketing is part of building and growing a business. If you're not willing to overcome your aversion to these things, you'll need to reconsider starting a business. And as I pointed out previously, it's not nearly as hard or complex as many of us like to think. Once you start getting into it, you quickly realize it's mostly simple, common sense stuff. But it is something you need to make time for and do.

Being, or working towards becoming, a manager is also something that's been a bit of a hurdle for me. I am most in my element when I am working on a product by myself, without interruptions. I have been in the position where I've had to manage people several times in my professional career, and I've always seen it as a bit of a drag. Accepting the fact that I need to make myself available when someone needs me was a big step for me.

However, I also see this as part of building a business. If you get to the point where you need others to accomplish the mission, you'll need to make sure to step into that managerial role and just suck it up.

Finally, the physiological challenges of being a solo founder do take their toll from time to time. It truly can be very lonely starting a company or a business. This is definitely something I still struggle with, especially when it's compounded by working on a remote distributed team.

Additionally, I live in southern Thailand, where it's pretty damn difficult to meet like-minded technical founders. I combat this by trying to meet other entrepreneurs when I can, by meditating, by exercising, and by staying healthy generally. I am also still on the lookout for a suitable mastermind group, but have yet find one.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I read an awful lot, which makes it hard for me to pinpoint specific books that have helped me. I think it's more a combination of all the content, information, and tips you consume that helps you move along. I just recently finished Tim Ferriss's new book (Tribe of Mentors) which is filled with little pearls of wisdom from some of the world's biggest achievers.

I also get a lot from the Startups for the Rest of Us podcast by Rob Walling and Mike Taber. Rob and Mike are doing an awesome job with their podcast (which has been running forever it seems). They also organize a conference called "MicroConf" twice a year (once in the United States and once in Europe). I attended the Europe edition two years back and had a blast. I'll definitely attend again if circumstances allow for it. The people who attend this conference are mostly bootstrapping founders (often single founders), so right up my alley. It's just wonderful to spend a few days with like-minded people and to find out others have dealt with or are dealing with the same issues you are.

The same goes for community sites like Indie Hackers. I'm a big fan of the podcast. It's not even necessarily about learning stuff (although I do learn a lot listening to these podcasts, obviously). Whenever I am in a rut, feeling stuck, insecure, or unmotivated, simply listening to people talking about building businesses is often enough to rekindle that fire and get me going again.

Luck, timing, the right place at the right time, whatever you want to call it, has been a major factor in the success we've enjoyed. To be quite honest, I still feel like I know very little about what I am doing, and it often feels like I am somehow stumbling upwards (if that makes any sense?). I never actually set down and planned to build the business I have today. It kinda just happened, and it somehow feels like "luck" plays a way bigger role than skills, knowledge, connections, etc., do.

To give an example, I have been very lucky with timing when it has come to launching products on CodeCanyon. There just wasn't much competition back in the days that I launched, and site builders were just starting to gain popularity. If I were to do the exact same today, I am fairly certain it wouldn't work (or not nearly as well as it did a few years back). There've been many similar scenarios like that, often small but not insignificant. And when looking back, I can't help but think: "Damn, we were lucky there. That could have easily turned out rather different."

Luck, timing, the right place at the right time, whatever you want to call it, has been a major factor in the success we've enjoyed.

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Another thing that's been a huge driver is learning to trust "intuition" or your "inner voice". This a tricky thing, because you obviously do not want to end up acting on every single useless thought that enters your mind. The ones you do want to pay attention to are different from the typical, daily "noise" in your head, and being able to tell the difference can be huge!

Meditation, or practicing awareness might help here, as useful thoughts typically arise (or at least they do for me) when I have a clear mind and have temporarily turned off the regular mental noise. For me, this is often during the morning, just after my morning meditation, during my daily run, or when I am out walking my dogs. It's no secret that your unconscious mind picks up and processes a huge amount of input, and I believe that when you're able to turn off the noise, you're giving your unconscious mind the space to use that processed data to form thoughts which can be very useful to whatever it is you're currently working on or struggling with.

Having some of the following skills have proven to be quite helpful to me:

  • Being able to keep an open mind
  • Disliking authority (great motivator to starting your own business)
  • Stubbornness (for me, this means the need to verify assumptions for myself and not just simply accepting things as truth)
  • Laziness (as a driver of efficiency, not as in "being incapable of doing good day's work")

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

  • Ask yourself if you're really truly interested in building a business, and not just in creating a product. When starting out, you should make absolutely sure you're aware of the fact that building a business entails a hell of a lot more than simply building your product. Are you "ok" with the idea of talking to customers, doing marketing, doing advertising, doing support, dealing with administrative work, documenting processes, writing operation manuals, possibly hiring and managing staff, etc.? You'll stand a much better chance of succeeding if you're in it for the sake of building a business rather than just coding up some cool shit.
  • If you're starting as an indie hacker without an audience or following or anybody you can market to, consider leveraging an existing audience (like using a marketplace, guest blogging, JV deals, etc.) rather than worrying about how to grow your audience. Building an audience that's significant enough to market to is going to take a long, long time.
  • "The difference between winning and losing is most often not quitting." —Walt Disney. I love this quote. To me it's a great reminder that things take time (although popular media would have you believe that huge, overnight success is the norm and not the exception) and that you can significantly increase your chances of success by simply sticking with it and not quitting. Play the long game. If you're willing to commit to something long term, dedicate yourself to improving all moving parts of your business (not just the product), regularly evaluate what you're doing, apply common sense, and simply don't give up.
  • Be careful about taking advice (including mine!). All advice, even with the best of intentions, comes with the specific experiences of the people giving it, and should always, initially, be approached with a healthy dose of skepticism. Even if you keep hearing the same advice time and time again, it still does not necessarily mean it applies to your situation or will work out for you.
  • When dealing with annoying, frustrating or angry customers, take a step back and realize that, in most cases, they are emotional because they care about your product. If they didn't care, they wouldn't get all worked up about it. Look at it from that point of view, and think about how awesome it is to have people who care about what you're doing.
  • Adopt a meditation routine, even if it's just five minutes per day. I have yet to meet a person who has not benefited from meditation. (Note: you'll want to make sure it becomes a routine; just meditating once or twice is not likely to do anything great for you.)

Where can we go to learn more?

Pagestead's main site is located at https://pagestead.com/. You can follow me on Twitter.

If you have any questions about the interview, Pagestead itself, or indie hacking from Thailand, feel free to leave them in the comment section below.

Mattijs Naus , Founder of Pagestead

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