How I Got In Shape and Started a Side Hustle in the Process

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

πŸ‘‹ Hi! I'm J.C. Hiatt, a 26-year-old developer from Jackson, Mississippi. I've been working professionally as a developer for about six years, and (un?)professionally for about 10 years. I work as a frontend engineer at a custom clothing company called Trinity Apparel.

I started DevLifts last year. We provide workout plans, nutrition information, and community support to help developers get fit and live healthy lives.

What motivated you to get started with DevLifts?

In 2015, I was feeling really crappy physically. I had gained 50 pounds in just a couple of years. I was tired and anxious all the time. My back hurt a lot. I was only 23, but I felt much, much older. At the time, I was running a product agency here in Jackson and my best friend, Thad, was working for me. Since Thad was a personal trainer and really into fitness, I asked him if he could help me get in shape.

Fast forward a few months and I was feeling so much better. I had more energy and focus at work. I was sleeping better. I had accomplished a nice body recomposition and was in even better shape than I had been in high school when I was really active.

Thad left to go overseas shortly after this, but I kept at it. I was loving the effects that fitness was having on my job and my personal life, and I had gotten to a point where I could self-regulate my fitness because of Thad's great training. When he got back at the beginning of 2017, I told him I wanted to take what he had done for me and do it for other developers. Generally speaking, our industry has a lot of unhealthy habits and I couldn't find anyone specifically trying to solve this problem for us devs.

We started having conversations with developers to learn if others had a similar lack of exercise and nutrition experience as I had before getting started. It became very apparent that I wasn't the only developer who knew little to nothing about fitness.

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What went into building the initial product?

After being convinced that it was worth testing, we scraped up about $1,500 to pay for a website design and a podcast ad on Syntax.fm. I built the site in a few days and we launched at the end of November 2017. The response was completely overwhelming (nearly $15k in sales in the first week!).

If you're thinking about starting your own side hustle, the most important thing is that you start.

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The whole process, from design to our first sale, took about a month. We came up with the most basic and easy-to-implement product we could think of: personalized fitness and nutrition plans sold for a one-time fee.

We also stripped down our stack to the bare minimum implementation:

  • A simple static HTML/Sass/Gulp boilerplate I had already made. No backend (even to this day, actually)
  • Freshbooks for billing (we didn't have on-site checkout when we launched!). We manually sent invoices at first. This ended up costing us about $5k in revenue but was almost no time to get and up running
  • Google Sheets to make and deliver plans
  • Calendly and Zoom for onboarding calls
  • Slack for community chat and private conversations with customers
  • Zapier to tie it all together

How have you attracted users and grown DevLifts?

We launched on the same day the Syntax ad aired. Within 30 minutes of the episode going up, sales started pouring in. The episode was all about fitness and nutrition for developers, and it seemed we had really hit a nerve.

Initially, we were only aiming to get 100 customers so we could refine our processes and get even more insight through customer interviews. To incentivize this, we included a free 30-minute video consultation for the first 100 customers. We hit this goal within three days.

We went on to sponsor a lot more Syntax episodes (we still sponsor episodes today), and it continues to be a high-performing channel for us.

I think a lot of things came together at the same time to make our launch so successful, but the main things were:

  • Influencer Marketing β€” Wes and Scott, the hosts of Syntax, have a great audience and a lot of influence. And their audience is entirely made up of developers, so it was perfect for us to sponsor.
  • Timing β€” I'd recommend thinking about the timing of your launch. Are there any seasonal events or holidays you could piggyback off of? For us, we launched about six weeks before New Year's, which was perfect since people often think about fitness as part of their New Year's Resolutions. This wasn't necessarily on purpose, but it ended up being a real boon.

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

Today, we make money through memberships. We essentially have two "tiers" of membership:

  • fit.start() β€” involves giving templated plans based on broad goals. This is less expensive but also less personalized. It's still great because we make our workouts very beginner-friendly (most of our customers have little to no experience working out).
  • Premium β€” this is basically our initial launch product (personalized fitness plans) but morphed into a membership model. Everything is highly tailored. It's full-on personal training, but remote.

We refined our business model into a recurring membership model back in July, and it's been great for us. As you can see on our IndieHackers profile, our revenue has been consistently growing. Having a more predictable stream of revenue has allowed us to make decisions about what to do next.

A business without paying customers isn't a business.

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We still run very lean, too. Not counting credit card processing fees or the monthly fitness stipends that Thad and I give ourselves, our monthly expenses are less than $400. Usually, we spend the rest of our money on podcast ads. We still haven't begun to pay ourselves except for our fitness stipends.

We also finally stopped sending Freshbook invoices and implemented credit card checkout on our site back in March, and that helped our conversion rate. Today we use Snipcart to handle the checkout and memberships (they are perfect for sites with no backend) and we use Stripe to process payments.

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What are your goals for the future?

We have been in what we refer to as "Phase 1" since launch. We currently envision two more phases, and aren't sure what's after that.

Phase 2 involves getting all of our open source projects up and running. These projects will allow us to deliver plans via mobile apps, APIs, and more, and they will serve as the foundation for our future goals. This is underway right now, and we have a dozen or so members from the community contributing (we give free plans to all contributors πŸ™‚).

Phase 3 is something that may or may not happen, but we still want to at least test it out and have some conversations with companies about it. We would ultimately like to take on more of a conference approach where we have companies sponsor DevLifts, and in turn, we provide free fitness plans to the tech industry and also provide a highly effective recruiting tool for companies that isn't annoying to developers.

That sounds highly cryptic of course, and I probably should write a post about the plan here sometime soon. It would be great to get some feedback about it. If you work in marketing/dev relations, especially at a medium- to large-sized company, I really want to talk to you sometime.

TL;DR β€” we think we have a way to help get free plans into the hands of tons of developers, help companies find great talent without spending a ton on recruiting, and make enough money for me and Thad to be happy.

Our biggest roadblock is probably lack of awareness in the industryβ€”we are hoping to make fitness and health a hotter topic in tech in the coming years.

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

If you're thinking about starting your own side hustle, the most important thing is that you start. Everything else is secondary.

Got an idea? Go talk to potential customers about the problem you think you're solving.

Validate your idea. Boil down your value proposition to the core thing that solves your customer's problem and build a prototype. Put it back in front of those potential customers. Important: Ask them to pay you for it. A business without paying customers isn't a business. It doesn't have to be perfect. It can be downright embarrassing. But if you can get people to pay you for the crappy version, it's only going to get better from there.

Got paying customers? Talk to them! Often! Randomly ping them to see if they can chat for 10 minutes. Ask them how they are liking your product. Ask them what they hate. Make them feel like part of your company. Take everything they say seriously and when you are hearing the same things over and over again, do the thing.

Knowing your customer (the ones who are paying you and the ones who haven't heard of you yet) is an invaluable asset.

Where can we go to learn more?

Do you have any questions about DevLifts or running a side hustle? I'd love to help however I can! Ping me in the comments below!

β€” J.C. Hiatt , Founder of DevLifts

Want to build your own business like DevLifts?

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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