How I Launched and Grew My Startup by 500% During the COVID Crisis

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

Hey there, my name is Valentin and I'm the founder of Thankbox - a really simple to use online group card and cash collection service. I think of it as a digital way for lots of lovely people to celebrate one lucky person.

I'm originally from Bulgaria and am currently based in lovely Edinburgh in Scotland. I came to Scotland to study computer games programming in 2010. After I graduated I even ended up working in gaming for almost 2 years - mostly doing mobile games.

I then gradually transitioned into regular apps as there was an increasing need for that skillset at the time. I even made my own one in 2015, called Bargain Bytes - a simple app to track when stores like Steam have discounts on games. It actually ended up getting a decent amount of users and still has about a thousand actives, even though I no longer support it. It was my first experience of building something on my own and promoting it.

I then tried my hand at doing a social network app, called Curated. I spent two years on it and learned all the hard lessons one needs to learn when doing their first startup. The main ones being building before validating and not having a clear monetisation or user acquisition strategy. It was an expensive lesson that made me realize there was a lot more to learn. So when I decided to work on Thankbox I tried to apply all the lessons I'd learned.

What motivated you to get started with Thankbox?

I live in the UK where there is a big office occasion celebration culture. I’ve been a part of many different teams and each of them would celebrate things like someone leaving, someone’s birthday or work anniversary by getting a paper card and everyone signing it. While the end result was nice and the recipient was happy, the whole process was always a hassle. The card would usually be bought last-minute by the person’s manager. Then he’d have to chase people around the office to (discreetly) sign it. Some people that weren’t physically present in the office couldn’t contribute at all. If there was an envelope cash collection, people would have to run to the ATM to get cash to leave in there because who uses physical cash anymore, right?

In November 2019, during another one of these occasions I thought to myself “there must be a better way to do this, online”. I did some research and found that there was really nothing that covered both aspects of this – both the message and cash collection. That’s when a lightbulb turned on – this is something I can do! So I started brainstorming early designs on what would eventually become Thankbox. I had just bought the domain and started planning out a landing page but then I paused further work, as I had too much on my plate at the time – full time freelancing (which I still do) and joining another startup as a technical advisor.

Then March 2020 happened. Everyone was going to work remote. I was meditating one morning (I try and do it every day for at least 10 minutes) and all of a sudden this thought pattern hit me like a train: “This is the perfect time to do Thankbox”. “If there ever was a time to do it, it’s now”. “Nobody can do the paper card thing anymore; companies will need a way to do this”. It totally ruined my meditation 😅 but it stuck in my mind and wouldn't let go. The first version of Thankbox went live 2 months later in May.

What went into building the initial product?

I only started learning about building websites at the start of 2020 - all of my experience had been in apps before that. I was also engaged in a full-time contract at the time and didn't have enough time to do this quickly on the side. And I felt time was of the essence in order to make use of the fact everyone was working remote. Thankbox had to be done quick and it had to be done right. I talked to my wife and we agreed on a set budget we'd be comfortable putting towards Thankbox. But that budget wouldn't allow paying a developer for 2 or 3 months - I needed an alternative.

So I turned to a good friend of mine - @joe_pritchard - who had helped me with some web dev work before. He's a really good developer who's done tons of freelance web work. We chatted about Thankbox and he offered to set up a profit sharing agreement in exchange for getting the first version of the product off the ground. We agreed that once Thankbox hits certain revenue milestones he'd get a share of the monthly profits for a year. This was great as it de-risked the whole project significantly for me. I also knew that Joe would do an amazing job in setting up the initial stack.

This meant most of the initial cash investment for me was paying my designer to work on it and sketch out the main screens - around $1k for the v1 work. She was one of the first people I discussed Thankbox with in 2019. She really felt passionate about the idea and it drove her to turn around the initial designs really quickly.

So development started in mid-March 2020 - I helped out Joe where I could, while at the same time learning as much about the tech stack as possible - Laravel, PHP, Vue, Typescript, CSS was all stuff I had to learn quickly as I was going to be the one doing almost all of the development after v1 shipped.

I had learned the important lesson, from my previous startup, to keep scope as small as possible. So Thankbox at the beginning was just meant to have the minimum amount of features necessary to operate - and we stuck to that. We launched it on May 7th 2020 - less than 2 months after worked kicked off.

What's your tech stack?

I actually wrote in detail about my tech stack a few months ago - most of it hasn't changed but I'll sum it up here.

Thankbox is currently running on a $10/month Digital Ocean droplet. I started on the $5/month one but had to scale up since the 1GB memory limit was too small. The current droplet (2GB RAM) has performed really well and I'm far off any serious CPU or memory limits, even on my busiest days.

The backend is powered by Laravel and written in PHP. Laravel has been my introduction to full stack development and I love it. Mainly because it allows me to go super fast. Eloquent, their ORM, is fantastic for abstracting away mySQL queries. Their first and third party integrations are awesome at getting you up and running quickly. I think it'll definitely be my framework of choice for future projects. One of the things I've been making the most use of is Nova, their paid admin panel package. It allowed me to really easily set up a dashboard to track my metrics and to easily manage the app. For a one-off fee of $199 it has paid for itself a hundredfold.

The frontend is mostly a Vue single page app (SPA) written in Typescript. I do use some server-side rendered Laravel blade components for my landing page and a few other utility pages. It was really easy to get into Vue - it immediately clicked for me despite never using things like React before. It's component-based approach is easy to get and it fits nicely with Tailwind, my CSS framework of choice.

I then use a bunch of standard tools alongside:

  • Mailgun for sending transactional emails
  • Stripe for payments & collection gift card contributions
  • Cloudinary & S3 for media and asset storage. Though I am thinking of moving away from Cloudinary eventually since it's expensive for long-term storage and I only use about 5% of the features it offers.
  • Fathom for privacy-focused analytics ❤️

Apart from the image storage issue with Cloudinary, I haven't really hit any nasty scaling issues so far 🤞.

How have you attracted users and grown Thankbox?

I started tweeting about Thankbox and posting on my LinkedIn as soon as the development kicked off in March 2020. I have a small following but some people noticed it and became interested. A lot of my early traction was just from my personal network.

On the day I launched I, surprisingly, saw a Thankbox was created almost immediately. It was an old university buddy of mine who was following me on Twitter. He works at Ubisoft and, just on the day I launched, they had someone leaving their team and he decided to use Thankbox so they could say goodbye. He bought it the very same day and his whole team loved it! I was thrilled - I didn't expect that at all. It gave me a burst of motivation and validation that I still remember and feel.

I ended my first month with 6 sales and a whole lot of feedback. For the first few months Thankbox was mostly used by companies in Edinburgh that found out about it through me or from others that knew me. This was really great because these were all users I could ask for honest feedback - who wanted to see me succeed. They were keen to point out bugs or obvious missing features. It really helped me polish up the product over the summer.

In those first few months I also noticed the network effects kicking in. That buddy of mine at Ubisoft who bought the first Thankbox? Since he introduced it in his team I've had over 20 different sales just from their company alone. Or I'd noticed someone would get a Thankbox when they left their company, and then suggest it as the group card tool to use in their new place of work.

I knew that I had product/market fit but now I needed product/channel fit. I spent July to October trying out different traction channels in the hopes that one would start attracting more people. I tried Facebook & LinkedIn ads, a competition, paid blog posts but none of them worked. Despite that, Thankbox slowly kept growing - mainly due to those small networking effects compounding.

At the start of October me and my small team (of mostly part-time subcontractors) had an honest conversation about our landing page. We knew the product was good - our users were telling us that - but new people arriving on the page just weren't "getting it" quick enough. So we went about redesigning and clarifying it - I also spent $300 on Fiverr to get an explainer video created - it was a great bargain, the video is excellent. The result was immediate and fruitful - it synthesized the product offering and people immediately got it:

Thankbox's homepage before and after

Just after that I decided to try search ads and that is when things started taking off 🔥 In retrospect it makes a lot of sense - advertising it on Facebook didn't have any effect because 99% of people don't need to send a group card at any given moment - you either need it right now or you don't. The people that search for an online group card service - they need it right now. I started with a really small budget of ~$15/day that brought on instant results.

I've increased it a bit since then and done a lot more ad optimisation but the growth has been staggering. I sold 29 Thankboxes in October, 167 in November and almost 500 in December (which is still not complete as I write this). Most of these new users love it and bring a lot of others on board. The ads multiply the network effects and it has resulted in a growth rate that is just now beginning to settle.

Thankbox six month growth

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

Thankbox has a really simple direct sale business model - people pay $5.99 for each Thankbox they buy. One of the main advantages I think Thankbox has over other products in this space is that it doesn't require users to pay in order to set up their group card. I don't even require them to register - I just ask for their email and then send them a link to manage it. Then they pay when they're ready to send it.

I removed as many barriers of entry as I could very early on - I wanted people to get up and running as quick as possible. As soon someone makes a Thankbox and collects at least 2 messages in it, they are >90% likely to buy it. This is advice I would recommend to anyone who's struggling with closing sales - make it as easy as possible for people to get going with your product!

I released Thankbox in May 2020. It experienced a period of steady growth until November, at which point it skyrocketed - it went from ~$190/month in revenue in October to $1k in November and sitting at ~$2.6k for mid-December as I write this. During my best day so far I made $540. It's the most successful product I've built.

As I mentioned before, I pay a few subcontractors to help me out with it - since I am still full time contracting myself. The latter so far has helped pay for the former. But it also meant that Thankbox has to start pulling in around $2.5k/month before it would start paying for itself. Luckily, December turned out to be the first month where this was the case.

What are your goals for the future?

There are a couple of new features I am working on to increase my revenue. The first is a premium Thankbox tier - which will probably be priced around $9.99 - and give customers extra options for their Thankbox like video messages and more themes. I've already had users asking for these so I know they'd be popular.

The second, more involved piece of work, is to add subscription packages for businesses that use Thankbox often. I have some big companies buying 4 or 5 cards a month so giving them a subscription option makes sense. This will also provide me with a more reliable revenue channel.

One challenge I aim to solve relatively soon is to set up a proper customer support system. Thankbox is a B2C product and, as usage has grown, so have customer support queries. Without proper management this will eat up too much of my already scarce time.

My long-term goal is to move to working on Thankbox full-time - I am aiming and hoping to achieve that in 2021.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

One of the biggest challenges I had to solve, even before starting, was how to handle the cash collection aspect of the product. I wanted to offer users the ability to add cash to the messages they leave their friends and then pool all of that cash into a gift card that the recipient gets at the end. I could easily collect the money using Stripe but then how could I convert it into a gift card when the Thankbox was sent?

I spent weeks searching for a service that did this and, after I found one, I had to actually convince them to let me use them. They mostly tailored to businesses issuing gift cards for their own employees, not some random company collecting money from its customers and then converting that to a gift card for someone else. Luckily, they gave me a shot. I've now issued over $16k worth of gift cards through their service.

My other obstacle to overcome, as boring as it sounds, was accounting. Since Thankbox deals with a lot of cash collection, I had to gain some confidence in it in order to keep my books in order. I invested a little bit of money talking to an accountant at the beginning, who helped me understand what I had to track & how to track it. I even ended up writing my own tool to generate accounting reports, just so I can avoid any mistakes in doing them myself. The Stripe API was wonderful for this.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

In connection to what I said above - before you start do a bit of preparation in the areas you have the most unknowns about. While building a startup is always a bit of a leap of faith, it's good to at least know what you're leaping into.

If you can afford to have a team, even if it's part-time like in my case, use them to fill in the gaps of your knowledge and skills. Even though it's reduced the speed I get to profitability, I love my small team - each person helps me in a some way and Thankbox's success is the combined effort of all of us.

With Thankbox one big advantage came down to timing - releasing it during a time when exchanging physical cards just isn't possible. The other is keeping the product simple and easy to use. This is an extract from the survey I send first-time buyers of a Thankbox. Look at how many people mention the word "easy" - this is what I aim for.

User feedback showing how vital ease of use is

Books that really helped drive this point for me in the last years have been Building a Story Brand by Donald Miller and Obviously Awesome by April Dunford. I keep coming back to them as I iterate on the product. As for online resources, I recently found the First 1000 substack and it's awesome - it talks about how big name startups got their first customers - a very useful read. Marketing Examples, which I believe most indiehackers would be familiar with, is also a goldmine.

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

Accept the fact that you’ll learn a lot of lessons the hard way. You can read all the advice in the world, but you’ll inevitably make mistakes that others have made before, even if you were warned about them. A lot of the startup advice I was given only made sense in retrospect, after I made a lot of the core mistakes. Don’t be let down by that – it’s part of the journey.

Share your success and hardships with people who love and support you. When you’re a solo founder this is vital. For me, this person has been my wife. She is my biggest fan and has been sharing my joy and sorrows since the beginning of Thankbox. Her support in this has been invaluable to me – she can both motivate me when I’m feeling down and ground me when I start losing my way.

My last piece of advice would be to remember that the process of building a startup can and should be fun. You are totally allowed to have fun making a startup even if it doesn’t turn out to be “successful” (however you define that). In fact, I wrote this on our team Basecamp board just 2 weeks after starting work on Thankbox:

Valentin's message to his team when they launched

Where can we go to learn more?

I am most active on my Twitter, where I share my ups and downs while building Thankbox. You could also follow my blog. Since the beginning I've been posting about my milestones on Thankbox's IH page so you can follow my progress there as well.

I also want to use this opportunity to give a shoutout to my small team of subcontractors. Joe, Barbara, Alex & Niki - thank you so much for your help during this crazy year.

Working on Thankbox has made me really interested in how startups get their initial users. If you're interested more about my journey I'm happy to answer questions in the comments.

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Valentin Hinov , Founder of Thankbox

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Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

  1. 4

    This was a great article. Super helpful and informative of tools resources to read.

  2. 2

    This article is so awesome! Congrats. One idea is that since most of the buyers are going to expense this cost, I wonder if a $19.99 cost would be equally viable, instead of it being $5.99

    1. 1

      I think that's way to big of a price hike compared to other products in the space. I'm already charging $9.99 for a premium version and I think that's about the cap right now.

  3. 2

    I loved reading this; thanks so much for sharing. I think it's especially cool to read about your product, positioning, pricing, and lean-ness of the MVP. It's so easy for me to think of SaaS as needing to solve a big meaty problem on an ongoing basis and charge a recurring fee for it — it's really cool to see the brilliant way you've solved a small, tackle-able problem really well, and that you have built-in word of mouth marketing that brings naturally-growing recurring revenue from word of mouth and the nature of recurring events, even without a monthly pricing package. Cheers, best of luck, and thanks for the great read. :)

    1. 1

      Thanks so much for this kind comment, Zach! I think you've summed it up quite nicely 😊

      Really glad you enjoyed the read.

  4. 2

    Congratulations on your success and thank you for this article :) Could you please share the organization you are collaborating with for planting a tree and maybe explain stepwise (high level) how you automated this process of tree purchase in the background?

    1. 1

      Hey, glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your kind words 🙏

      I've actually not automated tree planting. I was going to but decided it wasn't actually worth the extra hassle. So what I do instead is just at the end of each month use to buy a number of trees equivalent to our sales. It's manual but only happens once a month.

      I was looking at using for automating it. I still might some day.

      1. 1

        Congrats on this amazing success! Please do not hesitate to contact us to automate your tree planting! We now also have a dashboard from which you can self sign-up at and use the API.

        We are a non-profit run by a group of volunteers from all around the world, all concerned about climate change. The solution is 100% free.

  5. 2

    I love this story and the actions taken. Wish you all the luck!

    1. 2

      Thanks so much ❤️

  6. 2

    Thanks for sharing. I'm always looking to start something myself and always enjoy reading how others have done it

  7. 2

    Very beautiful story. I like the product too. Good luck - Venkat

  8. 2

    I am curious what vendor worked with you on the gift card? There are a lot of different products that are leveraging gift cards ( employee appreciation is one example ) so curious who you worked with and how you convinced them to work with you?

    1. 1

      Hey, of course. I am using a company called Tremendous. They have quite a good self-service flow for gift card recipients and a simple API.

      They came out of YC so I managed to pull on the "fellow startup" heartstrings a bit, convincing them Thankbox is a good idea and that it will turn into a great partner for them. They agreed, putting certain limits on my account initially but have since removed them after they saw how much it's grown.

      1. 1

        What kind of limits did they impose on your at first? Like the number of cards you could send or how you paid or something else? I know sometimes when you are starting off it’s hard to have anyone give you the same limits or terms they give a larger company?

        1. 1

          Hey Jason - the limits were mostly around what types of cards could be issued. After about half a year we revisited the agreement and I was ran through some additional checks in order to have access to the full integration.

  9. 2

    Thanks for sharing @ValCanBuild! Wish I had found this before I launched my app. You outline a solid plan of attack and areas of focus for people wanting to start a build.

    1. 1

      Congrats on having a launched product!

      Appreciate the kind words 😊 Glad you found it useful and I hope some of the advice is still helpful even though you've launched.

  10. 2

    Great work! This is an encouraging story and a cool product. I'll keep it in mind next time one of my co-workers has something to celebrate!

  11. 2

    did you register your idea?

    1. 1

      Hey Ali - what do you mean?

      1. 1

        actually, I am working on my idea. I just want to know it is necessary to patent or registers my ideas so that others will no copy my idea. Can you guide me about it

        1. 4

          Hey Ali - I only just recently trademarked the name in the UK, after Thankbox started making more serious money. I find there's no need to do it just as you're starting out unless the idea gets traction.

  12. 1

    Very useful article. Thank you.

  13. 1

    Super cool to hear, sounds like an interesting product.

  14. 1

    Congrats and wishing you all the success going forward, I am a lone founder as well who's just graduated and this article helped me in a lot of ways!

  15. 1

    With your revenue model and unit ecomonics, there is an opportunity to raise some non-dilutive capital with Clearco for customer acquisition. You should check them out.

  16. 1

    This comment was deleted 16 days ago.