How I Bucked Tradition and Found Success in a Crowded Market

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

Hey! My name is Alex. I'm the founder of yet another landing page builder β€” Unicorn Platform. My baby is generating $2,678 in MRR. Soon I will be celebrating 3,000 websites.

But what makes Unicorn Platform stand out among all the 100,500 competitors? How did I create it and how do I grow it? Let me start the story from the very beginning. πŸ™‚

I was born in a small town in Siberia. The winters there are cruel: the peak temperature I remember was -55 Β°C (-67 Β°F). Boy, that was cold!

All people do there is produce oil. That is not a very fascinating job for me. So when I turned 18 I moved to Saint Petersburg, the most beautiful city in Russia.

Unicorn Platform home

I entered the second-rated local university and studied how to design power stations. That was the most boring and depressing part of my life because I knew that the life of a power engineer here in Russia is far from heaven. I did not quit university like a Silicon Valley star because I was not brave enough. 😐

During my university studies I started looking into different stuff, just because I didn't want to design those power plants. I was lucky to stumble across web development. It was love at first sight, and I'm still into it after so many years!

What motivated you to get started with Unicorn Platform?

Many web developers dream about their website builder. But skills and desire is only a part of the recipe. To build a website builder you also need:

  • A well-thought-out product vision
  • Good design taste
  • A marketing strategy
  • A deep understanding of your users
  • A bursting passion for the world wide web to keep fighting in the overcrowded niche
  • To be adventurous

I was lucky enough to start my maker's career as Itmeo's co-founder. We have built some dope products for developers and designers (such as WebGradients). During this work I learned how to make lit UI and how to provide excellent customer care. Besides, this precious experience gave me the necessary insights into the web development market and its needs.

All this has led to my product vision.

So after a year when I asked myself what to do next, I knew exactly what the answer would be: a website builder!

Unicorn Platform design options

I started Unicorn Platform after I failed with another startup. We burned out all our money and just went home with nothing in our pockets.

So my financial situation for that moment was: "Digging around at the local market to find some discounted food." πŸ˜… I was seriously thinking about finding a real job. But I still had that vision stuck in my head and I desperately wanted to make it real!

I needed to somehow validate my idea. To test a product, one needs an MVP. But hey, what is an MVP for a website builder? Yeah, that is the trickiest thing. They say, "Build an MVP and don't waste too much time." But they don't say how much time is too much!

So I supposed a static landing page generator would be enough. "Static" means you couldn't edit the contents of my app, only compose a page with pre-designed components. Then you'd need to download a page as an HTML file and edit the text and images in your local computer.

And you know β€” it worked! It took an intense 160 hours to finish the MVP. And people loved it!

I ran a small crowdfunding round and raised $10,000. (Let me know in the comments if you want to learn more about this.) The MVP also got traction itself and was giving good sales. This solved my financial problems and allowed me to focus on the v2 of Unicorn Platform β€” the complete website builder with an online content editor, cool integrations, and design customization. Just like in my dreams! 😌

What went into building the initial product?

The v2 building process lasted for roughly a year. Yeah, a whole year of isolation and building a product in solo. Coding day by day without seeing sunlight or users feedback is uncool. Highly NOT recommended.

Quick iterations will keep your motivation boosted.

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If possible, aim for frequent delivery (a cycle of five to ten days). Quick iterations will keep your motivation boosted and besides that, it'll guide you on the way to a perfect product.

Here is a small quiz for you! 😁

Who knows the best about your product? Pick one of the following:

  1. You
  2. Your friend, the Apple UX designer with 10 years experience
  3. Your mom
  4. Actual users of your service

The correct answer is number four. You do not need to think about what features have to be added - just ask your users. They will tell you.

My technology stack is trivial: ReactJS, Python + Django, Postgres. I also use Trello for the public roadmap, Uploadcare for hosting images, Paddle for payments, Intercom for customer communications, and Notion for documentation and notes.

A website builder is not very complicated technically. And yes, I know, everybody says that after they've already done it. πŸ˜…

Anyway, I was asked dozens of times how to build a website builder. As I said, many developers want to build their own tool! I'm excited and happy to meet new competitors and therefore I started a series of articles on this topic: https://isora.me/building-a-website-builder-part-1. Welcome!

How have you attracted users and grown Unicorn Platform?

I have 3 user acquisition channels:

  1. SEO: I was lucky to rank in good positions for some sweet keywords. It turns out the default SEO optimization efforts provided by the Unicorn Platform builder out of the box did a great job. This gives me roughly 20 clicks per day.
  2. Product Hunt: I launch my pony on PH once a year. Each time it gives my project a significant boost with a conversion rate from a landing page visitorβ€Što a paid client of ~0.4%.
  3. Existing users and followers: This is the most important. SEO is insignificant, PH launches are rare. The support of my mates (mostly Indie Hackers) and existing Unicorn Platform users is what keeps the fire burning. When Wix throws another million in ads, I can just close my eyes and pray the people around will give me support β€” and you do! So thank you guys for supporting my launches and updates, for sharing my articles and for liking my boring tweets. I love you all!

I know you're dying to see some numbers:

Unicorn Platform GA

The landing page visitors. The spike is the PH launch day. Via Google Analytics.

Unicorn Platform GA

Sign-ups. The spike is the PH launch day. Via Intercom.

Unicorn Platform GA

Appearance in Google search results. Via Google Console.

I think I'm a terrible entrepreneur because I do so little marketing.

I could have written a hundred articles, recorded ten videos, partnered with ten other startups, hustled more on chats and here on IH, created a funnel, and thrown some cash in paid ads, created a side project, and written 50 posts in my dying Telegram channel. πŸ˜‚

But I only did a couple of interviews. ;)

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

When it comes to website builders, there are so many ways you can earn money:

  1. Sell custom domains
  2. Sell more website slots
  3. Sell more traffic limits
  4. Offer the "do it for me" service
  5. Add paid integrations and components
  6. Sell website exporting
  7. Add e-commerce features
  8. Sell more customization (e.g. custom code)

I could go on! But I decided to go the simplest and most understandable way: users get all the features on the free plan. All components and all integrations are unlocked. You are free to create a website of your dreams. When you're ready to move your project on the serious phase, you pay to connect a custom domain and you are good to go. No more additional payments.

So even when a website hosted on Unicorn Platform starts getting thousands of views per day generating hundreds of gigabytes in traffic, I do not charge my clients more. I prefer to keep the pricing model as simple as possible. Even if I have to overpay for it sometimes.

Unicorn Platform design options

Fun fact: I paid ~$100 for one client's traffic in March because his website went viral. But at least I got a "free" loading test! πŸ˜…

What are your goals for the future?

My only goal is to provide a perfect landing page generator for startups. I believe all the crucial features I have in the roadmap can be finished by the end of 2020. Then I will probably get some rest and start thinking about marketing stuff.

I could have set some traffic goals, revenue goals, funnel goals like all the pro entrepreneurs say to do when you start. But I didn't. So I'm planning to keep going this stubborn "product-only" way.

Numbers are important for the business but they distracts me from the more important thing: product. So I just ignore numbers. (Perhaps this is why I was rejected by TechStars. 😁)

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

My biggest mistake was I did not hire anyone until last month.

I was super lucky to meet Asad β€” a talented front-end developer and cybersport enthusiast. He helps me with customer support, which is a significant part of Unicorn Platform. We don't just sell access to the builder; we help users' startups to thrive. This includes help with setting up custom integrations, with finding specific 3rd party widgets, with giving feedback on a landing page, with connecting with someone, or β€” very often β€” just by giving a cheer!

Asad is always in a great mood and it looks like he never sleeps. He is really into each support request. I could not be happier working with him! His help gives me more time on the product development part which, like I mentioned, I strongly prefer.

Unicorn Platform design options

The next step will be hiring a ReactJS ninja. But I need to grow the MRR before hiring a developer on a full-time basis.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There is one thing that played a significant role in the game. I would have never created the v2 of Unicorn Platform without the support of my friends.

Learn from other people's mistakes. If you can't do that, then learn from your own mistakes.

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A special thanks go to Kostya who guided me in technical questions when I was desperately stuck. Thanks for the 100th time, man! πŸ€“

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

Oh boy, I don't like giving advice, but here is a piece: learn from other people's mistakes. If you (like me) can't do that, then learn from your own mistakes.

If you've had an unpleasant, painful, terrible experience in any part of your life: career, personal life, hobby, friends β€” reflect on it. It may be a pain to think about it again, but you need to make conclusions in fact to evolve. Ask yourself Five whys, find the reasons for your failure and never let it happen again.

If you don't admit and analyze your mistakes, you will never grow.

Where can we go to learn more?

Thanks for your attention!

β€” Alexander Isora πŸ¦„ , Founder of Unicorn Platform πŸ¦„

Want to build your own business like Unicorn Platform πŸ¦„?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! πŸ€—

We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.

Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!

β€” Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

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