How I Grew My SaaS to $1K MRR by Rewarding Early Adopters

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

I'm Tim. I'm an almost-40-year-old web, IT, and engineer guy that actually studied Art History. I'm from Utrecht, the Netherlands, but I've lived in Berlin for the last five years. I also play semi-seriously in bands and enjoy making music with guitars and synthesizers, and I'm pretty good at Battlefield on the Xbox.

Checkly is an API and site transaction monitoring SaaS. My customers use it to actively engage their API endpoints and check their crucial click flows like logins, signups, adds to cart, etc. using the Google Puppeteer framework.

I just crossed the $1,000 MRR mark and also just signed up my largest customer employee-wise and largest customer subscription-wise.

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What motivated you to get started with Checkly?

While working as an IT lead for a German electric mobility startup (Hi Unu!), I got a text from the CEO every time our signup or sales funnels broke down. There was a lot of technical debt and there weren't a lot of tests, which is totally normal for a startup.

I wanted to actively monitor the most crucial parts of our infrastructure, but the many, many tools out there were either:

  • Stuck in 1999
  • Too simple (no authentication, scripting, or scheduling options)
  • Too expensive or too “enterprisey”

I had already started a company some years ago (Hi Vamp!) and I took the plunge. Even though I had a lot of experience in this sector, I mostly financed going solo by freelancing roughly 50% of the time. Also, I had some savings. Roughly $20K in Euros was spent in basically paying myself to work on this.

What went into building the initial product?

Building Checkly was pretty much the same as all other developer stories. I fidgeted, underestimated time, made sweeping changes before having any customers. The usual. Here's an embarrassing list of some of the more egregious ways I messed up:

  • Going for tech I didn't really know instead of tried and trusted. I swapped out MongoDB for Postgres three months in. I wanted to use AWS Lambda for everything. I later migrated a ton of stuff back to the "normal" app because it was just a hassle.
  • Underestimating front-end work. I was okay with Vue.js but I'm pretty sure I spent 300% more time than I figured on getting it right. Front-end is just way harder than people think.
  • Saving a few dollars by not having a real, usable staging environment. You need that once some level of complexity hits your app.

While freelancing, I worked part-time on Checkly for roughly six months. But I'm still adding and tweaking stuff all the time. It's never really done. I use Heroku and AWS, Node.js and Vue.js. Database is in Postgres.

What struck me most during building is that there is not a lot of deep and useful knowledge out there specifically on building a SaaS application. That's why I recently started my "We're building a SaaS!" blog, which now has a couple hundred subscribers.

How have you attracted users and grown Checkly?

First, I did a private beta — which I wrote about in this blog post — and that helped with feedback. Most private beta signups (around 200) came via Betalist, Twitter, and Hacker News. I managed feedback during the beta with Hotjar.

Don't sell; everyone hates that. Just gently nudge and have some humor about it.

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Then I just launched and announced it on all the usual channels. I think launches are a bit overvalued. It's not about that one day, it's about the years to come after launch.

Most growth started happening when I did three things:

  • I open sourced a Chrome extension called Puppeteer Recorder to record click scripts in the browser with no coding. This got massive attention, over 5000 Github stars and 11K users, as well as a feature on a Google Developers blog and speaking opportunities and buzz at conferences. I can attribute a fairly large percentage of signups to people finding Checkly through Puppeteer Recorder. I have some big plans for it somewhat later this year.
  • I really started blogging in-depth, long-form articles at a steady rate. I got a Ghost subscription and just dedicated roughly 20% of my weekly time to it. Three of my recent posts got to front pages of Hacker News and a relevant Reddit sub.
  • Hangout and engage with relevant Reddit groups and Slack groups and be an active member. In my case, these are mostly /r/devops and devopsengineers.slack.com. I share blog posts there, but also genuinely contribute to the discussions. Don't sell; everyone hates that. Just gently nudge and have some humor about it.

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

Checkly is a classic SaaS. Different plans and you pay monthly or yearly. No magic there.

I gave early customers a nice discount. This really helped to pull people in and Stripe makes it really easy to process payments. We're doing roughly $1,100 MRR now, and most of our growth has happened in 2019.

Month Revenue
Jan ‘19 400
Feb ‘19 500
Mar ‘19 520
Apr ‘19 620
May ‘19 1070
Jun ‘19 1048

I changed prices quite drastically, effectively doubling them at a certain stage. Where our Starter plan was initially $15, it is now $29. Customers understand this. It's early-bird pricing for people taking the plunge with a newcomer on the market.

Think years, not months. Overnight success is a myth.

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As for any SaaS, margins are quite good (60% to 70%) but my non-variable costs are now still a fairly large chunk compared to variable cost. This will change as we grow.

However, driving revenue is still a massive challenge. Getting more name recognition and awareness is key now. I'm fairly confident in the product and its ability to convert, but people need to know you exist and consider you first; otherwise competitors will snatch them up. I'm focusing on three points in 2019:

  • Consistently providing content in blogs and articles. Every week, the whole year.
  • Listening to and working with current customers and actively engaging them in the roadmap. They need to become fans and supporters.
  • Patience. The B2B monitoring SaaS market is tough.

What are your goals for the future?

My goal is to move full-time to Checkly, so I have to get revenue up. That is my only goal — more customers, more revenue.

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

Oh my, the endless list. Two standouts, one technical and one promotional.

Avoid the Startup Industrial Complex.

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First, I underestimated how stable my infrastructure needed to be. My customers use Checkly for monitoring their infrastructure. This means it needs to be "better" than theirs. I had some outages, refunded some customers, and spend a ton of time refactoring my infrastructure.

  • Better logging
  • Separate queues and workers (AWS SQS and Heroku)
  • Better monitoring (AppOptics custom metrics)
  • More and better tests

It was a success, but pretty painful and basically put the business on hiatus for two months.

Second, I didn't focus enough marketing effort on where my customers are. I was tweeting, posting, and promoting in the wild. I used ads that were totally unfocused. You need to find the place where your potential customers get together and get involved.

For me, these were the aforementioned Reddit subs, Slack, and also Hacker News. They consistently provided the best and most referrals to the Checkly site. Google Analytics is your friend, sort of.

stats and metrics

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There is this really funny and useful one-hour talk by Guy Kawasaki on Youtube called The Top 10 Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make. Point three on his list, “Sales fixes everything,” is a fantastic gem. Just remember that and you'll be fine.

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

  1. Avoid the Startup Industrial Complex. The platforms, the conferences, the lawyers, (some) accelerators, the books, the self-help guides, the gurus. Not all are bad, but "startups" is an industry and you are the customer. Is it adding to current or long-term revenue in any way? No? Then you probably don't need it.
  2. Think years, not months. Overnight success is a myth.
  3. Focus on one thing. Become an expert. The "24 startups in 24 days" is misguided.
  4. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries is not a guide, it's a data point by which you can evaluate your situation. There is no "golden rule" for success. There are rules that worked in a specific market, for a specific company, with a specific product, at a specific time.
  5. Get testimonials. Just send a friendly email to a loyal customer, and there's a 50% chance they will say "yes".
  6. Give discounts for three months or whatever. Compared to customer lifetime value, it's probably peanuts.
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Where can we go to learn more?

The Checkly Blog is my main channel to share knowledge about all (technical) aspects of building a SaaS. I also use Twitter but I'm not very good at it.

I'd also like to offer indie hackers 50% off for one year on any plan. Just sign up for a trial account at https://checklyhq.com and fill out the form here.

Tim Nolet , Founder of Checkly

Want to build your own business like Checkly?

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