How "Slow and Steady" Is Getting Us to Our Goal of Ramen Profitability

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

Hi! My name is Alexandra Persea and I am a 23-year-old software engineer from Cluj, Romania. I’ve been developing and running a small service called Burner Mail with my co-founder, Serge, for almost a year now.

Burner Mail is a tool for generating burner email addresses. Instead of giving your personal email address, Burner Mail generates a unique and anonymous email for every service you sign up with, making it really hard for companies and advertisers to track you online. The burner addresses forward all emails to your personal inbox, collecting zero personal information. Unlike other disposable and throw away email services, Burner Mail’s email addresses do not expire and are meant to be used long term to protect your personal email address from spam, scams, data breaches, and identity theft.

After seven months, Burner Mail is making a little over $300 in monthly recurring revenue, over $1,000 in monthly gross revenue, and has over 12,000 users. We share our metrics publicly and you can find them here.

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What motivated you to get started with Burner Mail?

Like a lot of software developers out there, I enjoy building things up from idea to product. I would often find myself working on side-projects but wouldn’t have the courage to put my work out there. I’ve always dreamed of building my own product and running my own business; however, I didn’t think I had the knowledge and experience to do that.

After meeting Serge and having conversations about our life goals and what we would both like to do, we decided to start working on a side-project together. We did some brainstorming and went through our respective lists of ideas, and Serge’s idea of a forwarding email application stuck with me. I was familiar with disposable email addresses and had been using temporary mailboxes for testing purposes, but I wasn’t aware of any popular service that was doing exactly what we had in mind. We started doing some research and, while we did find similar services, we didn’t like any of them. They were either unusable or not user-friendly. We couldn’t find the combination of reliable, privacy-focused, and easy to use. We also weren’t able to tell if any of the other services made a good profit and if there was even a market for such a tool. Taking all that into consideration, we decided to take the leap and start working on our email forwarding app.

What went into building the initial product?

We talked a lot about our values and long-term vision for the service. We wanted to make sure we were on the same page from the start and not risk having disputes later on, especially around important issues like what the service stands for, methods of monetization, possible funding/acquisition offers, etc.

We decided that the main traits of the service would be security and privacy, combined with a user-friendly and easy-to-use interface. We decided to be as open and transparent as possible and, in terms of business, we agreed on having equal shares and unanimity in decision making.

Most of our initial time was put into learning how to build and configure an email server. There are very limited resources on the topic so we mostly learned by testing and breaking things. Once the email server was complete, secure, and able to forward emails, I moved on to building the web application while Serge was developing the browser extension and the landing page.

Most of this was done while working full-time, putting in a few hours before and after work and mostly on the weekends. Doing that for a long period of time takes patience, dedication, and the willingness to make sacrifices in your personal life and career. We got burned out multiple times and had to take time off every once in a while. I’m not sure how long it took us to finish the MVP since we had moments where life got in the way and we paused the development of the app.

The first version of Burner Mail had a relatively basic set of features. Users could create, disable, and delete burner emails through the web application and through the browser extension. The browser extension would add an icon to email fields which, if pressed, would generate a ready to use burner email address. The burner email addresses would forward to your personal inbox if active and block forwarding if disabled.

How have you attracted users and grown Burner Mail?

We launched the beta version of the app on reddit by posting about our tool on tech and privacy subreddits and asking people for feedback. We got a couple hundred signups at first, mainly people that were willing to test it out and give us feedback.

A few days later, we launched on Product Hunt and it was a bit of a "failure." We didn’t make it to the popular section and, even worse, people didn’t leave any comments, so we didn’t know if the product was bad or if people just weren’t interested in such a service. We then asked Indie Hackers for feedback on the product and idea and received an overwhelming response. It felt a bit harsh at the time, but it was accurate and honest.

We took all the feedback that was given to us and re-launched a couple of days later, ranking #2 product of the day. You can read about our first launch mistakes here. We had over 5,000 page views and over 2,000 sign-ups that month. We even got featured on lifehacker a few days later and received another spike of traffic.

Shortly after our launch, we had the opportunity to buy a relevant domain in our niche that was ranking high in search results. It helped us rank higher and it also brought some of its users to us. It’s important to note here that when we were presented with the opportunity, even though it involved risk and additional work, we didn’t overthink, we dove right in.

The cheapest and most effective marketing strategy is word of mouth.

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Channels like Product Hunt are good for getting your product in front of people and giving you a good amount of exposure and initial traction, however, they’re not a good strategy for long-term, consistent growth. We soon learned that promoting and selling our service had to be a constant effort.

We promoted Burner Mail as much as possible on channels like Twitter, reddit, and Quora. We engaged in discussions about email security, privacy, and spam and we tried to educate people on the benefits of using burner emails. I’ve also noticed people organically suggesting and recommending our service online. The cheapest and most effective marketing strategy is word of mouth.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to growth but promoting your service and trying to acquire new users should be a constant effort. When you don't have the resources for a marketing campaign or buying ads, your best channels are reddit, Twitter, Quora, Facebook groups, Instagram, or any other place where your target users hang out. Engage in conversations, answer questions, and write helpful content.

Another aspect that helped our growth was the fact that people started advocating about privacy after an alarming increase in data breaches in 2018. This brought privacy-focused services like Burner Mail more attention.

In short, that domain, combined with privacy trends going up in 2018 and getting a few press articles, brought us steady, organic growth. We average around 30% growth month-over-month, with an average of 1,400 new users per month.

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

When we launched, the service was free and we only had a Buy Me a Coffee link for donations, from which we received only $114. The people who donated commented with positive feedback and good wishes.

We continued adding more features, iterating over the product, working on user feedback, and, after two months, we were confident enough to launch the Premium package and charge people for our service. We started with a $2.99 monthly plan, which we increased to $4.99 a couple of months later.

We now operate based on a SaaS, freemium model. Our Free package includes 30 burner addresses and limited features while our Premium package includes unlimited everything and an additional set of features. Our pricing plans are $3.99/month, $29.99/year, and $74.99/three years.

Some people might find our pricing a bit high or even outrageous since they are used to free apps; however, we try to educate and explain that we don’t have a big VC funding us and that we don’t make any additional revenue from selling their data or spamming them with unwanted ads. The reality is simple: no service can last without proper monetization. Having to explain to people that your time and work should be just as valuable as theirs can become a bit frustrating at times, but we’ve actually managed to convert some users into happy customers that had initially emailed us saying that they like our service but are not willing to pay that much for it.

Not everyone will become a success overnight, and not growing as fast as other services doesn’t mean that you are not worthy or that you are not providing value.

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We had 19 paying customers in the first month and an MRR of $56, which we’ve grown to over $300 MRR in the last five months with an average of 20 new customers per month. We’re trying to have steady and linear growth so that we’re able to accumulate some capital and work out any issues that might appear before we serve a bigger range of users. We’ve based this strategy on the notion that, generally, viral or exponential growth comes with a lot of stress and more risk for failure.

While this MRR might seem very little compared to some and we are not the “getting to $10k MRR in six months” type of story, we are still proud of our growth and journey. I think it’s important to emphasize that not everyone will become a success overnight, and not growing as fast as other services doesn’t mean that you are not worthy or that you are not providing value.

While we can’t be entirely sure of what ultimately helped or hurt our growth, this is what we believe we did right:

  • Transparency and openness: I’ve set up an automated email for every sign-up, presenting myself to the user, thanking them for trying our app, and encouraging them to contact us in case they had any questions or feedback. We also gave out our personal Twitter handles. By doing that we let the user see that there is a real person behind the service and showed that we were friendly and very easy to reach. We also created a Telegram group chat for people that were interested in the development of the product and we went public with our growth and revenue metrics, as well as with our roadmap.
  • Responsiveness: We have been extremely responsive on the support chat and email. We have answered every question, feedback, and concern. We have also sent automated emails asking for feedback and we have answered every single email, whether the feedback was positive or negative.
  • Gratitude: We have always taken the time to thank our users for their feedback, for trusting our service, for reporting issues, and for supporting us by purchasing our Premium package. We are well aware that people are busy and the fact that someone has taken from their time to give us feedback means a great deal to us. We have also given discounts to users who gave us constant feedback and to users who encountered issues but had the patience to report and wait for us to fix them.
  • Following up with users: We consider every piece feedback and suggestion and have either implemented or disregarded it. When we did that, we made sure to always give the user a follow up on either adding their suggestion to our roadmap or the reason why we chose not to implement it. We have also apologized for any issue the user has encountered and tried to help them as soon as we could. That showed people responsiveness, responsibility, and thoroughness on our end, even if the service wasn’t perfect.
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What are your goals for the future?

Our ultimate revenue goal is to get to ramen profitability and be able to live off of Burner Mail profits.

Our goals have remained the same since we started working on Burner Mail: making our business profitable and, overall, providing more value to our users. We hope to get there in 2019 by creating more content around email privacy, and by improving our tool and adding new features while maintaining its convenience and ease of use.

We want to start focusing more of our time and energy on marketing and growth. I believe that the most effective way of doing that is through creating valuable content. We want to get in the habit of consistently posting on our blog and create a referral program which will reward users who recommend our service.

We also plan on launching a mobile app in the upcoming months and for the extension to support more browsers, like Safari and Opera. We want to add more features to our web application and experiment with the pricing model, as well as add an enterprise package offering access to our API.

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

One of the biggest mistakes we made was bad branding. Both Serge and I are coming from a technical background and the way we explained and branded our service made sense to us. So it came as a surprise when people told us that they don't necessarily understand the concept and the benefits. They were confused about what exactly we were selling and how it could help them, which made people unwilling to give it a try. We also failed at explaining the value proposition. People would leave comments such as “isn’t this the same as X and they’re free,” despite that Burner Mail had a completely different value proposition from the company they were referencing. Another thing that we didn’t get right was explaining, in simple terms, the most important questions a potential user might have when visiting a landing page: What specific problem is your product solving?

When we were presented with the opportunity, even though it involved risk and additional work, we didn’t overthink, we dove right in.

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Another mistake that we made was not launching soon enough. It can be very scary to put your work out there when it’s attached to your name and you have invested so much in it. In retrospect, I believe that fear of failing and being rejected and impostor syndrome kept us from launching when we should have. Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, said: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late”. You should try to launch as soon as possible and get as much feedback as early on as possible.

We also didn’t monetize soon enough. This was, again, a decision based on fear. At that time I truly believed that we didn’t provide enough value to actually charge for the service, and that we should focus on user growth and convert them into customers later. You should try and monetize your service as soon as possible, even if it’s just one dollar. That dollar can be proof enough that people are willing to pay.

We’ve overcome small failures and learned to fail fast. We failed our first launch but we asked for feedback and relaunched. We failed on our branding but we asked for feedback and improved it. We’ve had small issues and lost some users and customers because of it. It’s important to fix the issues as quickly as possible, learn from them, and get back on your feet.

We quickly learned that having a successful SaaS goes beyond building a good product. You need to know how to market, how to interpret metrics, how to sell yourself and your business, how to deal with unhappy customers and negative reviews. As a bootstrapper, you don't have the time to read books and take courses on all the skills that you need to start and grow a successful business. So the best method of learning is the "how to" Google search approach: "how to have a successful launch," "how to monetize," "how to grow your users," "how to grow your MRR," "how to have a good landing page," "how to get feedback from users," "how to launch a startup." The best part about building software or a business is that you can find an almost infinite number of resources online. We didn't have the time and resources to hire a designer so we read articles about effective branding and powerful landing pages. We looked into what other popular services were doing and we adapted to that.

We have taken inspiration and ideas from many big services, things like pricing models, how to properly explain benefits and features, what blog content to write, how to onboard your users, examples of automatic emails, examples of feedback requests, etc. There is nothing wrong with learning from other big services. They have the time and resources to experiment and see what works and sticks. They have dedicated teams for each aspect of their service. You don't. See what successful businesses do and try to mimic that in a way that rings true to your own business and is relevant to your niche and service.

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

If you have many ideas and are unsure of what to do, let your ideas marinate for a while before starting one. When it’s recent in your mind, you might be too excited about it and fail to see the downsides. Also, try to separate yourself from your idea and never get attached to it. Not all your ideas are good and some might even fail. If that does happen, it’s better to move on than continue to work on something unpromising.

If you are working on your idea as a side-project, try to form a habit of constantly working on your product. It’s really important to keep making progress every week, even if it’s small. Taking a few hours every week to plan and organize your working hours can help tremendously.

Try to find a supportive friend and build habits for your mental health. Juggling between building a business and also having a day job takes a lot of sacrifices and mental energy. You need to have the mental and emotional strength to keep moving on. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged, make mistakes, and even want to quit. In moments like those having someone to talk to who can relate and encourage and advise you, can be extremely beneficial. The huge benefit of having a co-founder can be just that: Knowing that you are not alone.

Take the time to engage with your users. Show them that there is a friendly face behind your service and that you care about them. It helps you build trust and create a relationship with them. That makes getting feedback or reviews so much easier and users might even help you grow by word of mouth.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find me and Serge on Twitter at @sergeships and @perseaalexandra.

You can find Burner Mail on Twitter or on our website: Burner Mail. We also hang out in our Telegram group and we just launched a blog: Burner Mail Blog.

Feel free to ask us any questions down below or by shooting us a message on Twitter or via email.

Alexandra Persea , Co-founder of Burner Mail

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