How I Learned to Code, Quit My Job, and Bootstrapped a Solution

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

Hi there! My name is Mitch Colleran and I’m bootstrapping Join It, a SaaS platform that helps organizations sell and track their memberships by automating repetitive tasks (to imagine our typical customer, think of a local theater group or professional association that needs to sell an annual membership to support the organization).

Prior to starting Join It, I spent six wonderful years at Eventbrite, where I got a broad “tech education” through roles on the sales, marketing, and finally product management team. At the end of 2016, I left to start Join It, moved to Spain for three months, and have been working full-time on Join It since then.

As of December 2018, Join It is making $18,000/month and growing!

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What motivated you to get started with Join It?

While leading the API/Developer Platform at Eventbrite, I was responsible for building integrations with complimentary SaaS platforms (like MailChimp, SurveyMonkey, WordPress, and more). We easily built integrations with SaaS platforms serving a wide spectrum of functions (email marketing, surveys, CMS, etc.) but I was turned down by every “Membership Management” platform that I contacted, so I kept thinking “this needs to exist.”

At the time, I was also teaching myself to code, so I created an MVP (heavy focus on minimum) and ran a small Google AdWords campaign. This made it easy to drive some inbound traffic and get in front of potential customers. Once I had five customers put down their credit card to start a free trial, I quit my job and went full-time.

What went into building the initial product?

I used to build basic websites when I was in high school, but when I decided to start Join It, I knew nothing about developing web applications. So I started teaching myself how to code (JavaScript/Node.js) while building the initial product.

It took about nine months of late nights and weekends to get from nothing to an MVP that I was comfortable launching. This should have gone faster, but I was still very much a beginner software developer and had a full-time job.

The best decision I made was shipping my MVP even though it felt way too early.

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After launching the MVP and going full-time on the product, it took another three months to go from MVP to something that I could really sell and be confident about putting in front of customers. This was the time that I spent in Spain. A typical day would be 10 hours building the service and two hours talking directly to customers (phone, chat, or email).

Two massive benefits from moving to Spain:

  1. Longer runway because my money went further (my Airbnb was 1/4th of my previous monthly rent in San Francisco)
  2. Easier to focus without social distractions

This was a pretty intense three-month period, but it was fundamental in building the service. At the end of this phase, I finally had a product that I was confident in and our first 10 paying customers, so I felt like it was time to focus on growing the business.

How have you attracted users and grown Join It?

As of December 2018, we have about 700 paying organizations that use Join It, and we’re still in the phase where it seems like we have to individually fight for every single customer.

Our price point is relatively low (our most popular plan is $29/month), and at this price point, most SaaS companies won’t engage directly with customers on the phone/chat because it’s not profitable at this value of customer. So for us, engaging prospective customers at our price point is a classic example of “do things that don’t scale.”

And if you assumed that by $18,000 in MRR, we’d have customer acquisition/onboarding/success figured out—Not. Even. Close! We're still trying to build our acquisition channels.

To date, our acquisition is spread relatively evenly across multiple channels: Google Ads, Organic Search, and Word of Mouth.

Three channels that specifically have not worked for us:

  1. Paid referral program—way more folks come from old-fashioned word of mouth, rather than using our referral program
  2. Cold emailing—in our experience, it seems impossible to convince someone to change membership systems if they aren't actively evaluating
  3. Social Ads—we might try this again in the future, but Facebook/Twitter ads have previously led to low-quality leads

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

Join It revenue has two components. First, we use the standard SaaS model and charge a subscription fee to access the software. Second, we also have a transactional service fee that we apply when an organization sells a membership through the platform (in this case, we use Stripe Connect, which makes this incredibly easy).

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This dual model allows us to keep our subscription fees as affordable as possible—which makes the platform more accessible to smaller organizations—while collecting higher fees from organizations who process a larger volume of membership sales. Also, it aligns incentives between us and our customers (e.g. if we launch tools that help them sell more memberships or we increase their checkout conversions, it’s more money in both of our pockets).

Last year, we increased our pricing (shout out to @patio11) by 50% and saw no negative effects on acquisition. And in 2019, we’re planning to raise our prices again. I strongly believe that since we're constantly adding new features to the service, it's becoming more valuable so, of course, we should be charging more.

Also, we’ve avoided any negative pushback from customers by grandfathering existing customer pricing forever. In a SaaS business, grandfathering old pricing to existing customers is a no brainer.

Month Revenue
Jan ‘17 300
Apr ‘17 1500
Nov ‘17 6000
Jul ‘18 12000
Dec ‘18 18000

What are your goals for the future?

Our customers consistently affirm that we’ve reached product-market fit, but I think we’re still looking for our ideal business model-market fit.

As I mentioned, we’ll be changing our pricing with the goal of charging more for larger organizations that use our platform. By increasing the average value of customers, we’ll be able to invest more in customer support and customer success, and grow faster. However, even at our current growth rate, we'll have to hire this year. So bringing on the first non-founder, full-time employee is definitely a milestone I'm excited to cross in 2019.

More broadly, though, my goal is to build a sustainable company that's around for the next 25 years. I'm having a lot of fun and feel like we're just getting started. :)

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

When building a business as a bootstrapped founder, there is a focus on the lack of capital, but one of the challenges that caught me off guard was how alone it feels.

Without investors, there are fewer people to check-in with and hold us accountable. Without investors, you’re going to be slower to build the team, so it's just you for a much longer period of time.

One of the challenges that caught me off guard was how alone it feels to be a bootstrapped founder.

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In my weaker moments, I considered raising a small round just to build a network of external advisers/mentors who would have a vested interest in our success. Instead, I’ve been reaching out to other folks in a similar position, and my goal for 2019 is to be even more proactive about meeting other founders/CEOs/execs at small or medium-sized SaaS companies (if that's you, let's connect!).

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

One of the best things about building a SaaS in 2019 is that the playbook has been written and is easily discoverable online! Genuinely, if you have a question about anything SaaS related, you can usually find it through a well-tuned Google Search.

Also, there are a bunch of amazing SaaS founders/execs on Twitter who are transparently building their companies. Following these folks has been incredibly impactful when building Join It:

Lastly, I sing the praises of Stripe to anyone who listens. We incorporated via Stripe Atlas, we sell subscriptions through Stripe Billing, and we collect our service fees via Stripe Connect. I firmly believe that it wouldn't have been possible for me to build Join It without these tools from Stripe.

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

"Ship It. Now. Yes, now!"

The best decision I made was shipping my MVP even though it felt way too early. Shipping brought me loads of helpful feedback and criticism (with a small dash of affirmation).

Shipping products early goes against the natural instincts of most people. In your head, you think that the service just needs a few more features or a little more polish. But you have to ignore those instincts and get your product out there. It's the only way.

Even today, when I’m building a new feature, mulling a price change, or writing an email campaign, I have to remind myself to follow this advice.

And I’m always glad when I do.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you’re interested in chatting more about SaaS, bootstrapping, or non-profits, then definitely slide into my DMs on Twitter: @Colleran.

To learn more about Join It, check us out: https://www.joinit.org.

Also, I’ll be hanging out in the comments below, so drop a question here if you want to know more!

Mitch Colleran , Founder of Join It

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