Leaving Gainful Employment for a Passion Project

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

Hi, my name is Matous Kucera. I’m building a developer tool for messaging called Amio.io. It’s a product that abstracts over multiple messengers with unified messaging API. Amio can help you start with simple notification messages up to fully autonomous chatbots serving your customers 24/7.

I've started this project with my good friend, Jan Donatek. We’ve both wanted to run our own companies since we could remember, and have now gained experience as software engineers in several companies in the Czech Republic and Germany. We decided to leave our well-paying jobs and start on our own independent projects — Jan developed an automatic trading app and I built a smart office fridge. Both projects were in production earning decent money, however, we came to realize that neither the food industry nor finance is a field we feel very passionate about. We decided that we wanted to work on something we loved, so we got together and started Amio.

We're currently at $4,500 monthly revenue with a week-to-week growth rate of around 5%.

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What motivated you to get started with Amio.io?

Back in 2016, there was a lot of buzz around chatbots. We liked the idea but we also realized that the technology was not sufficient and businesses were generally not ready to employ chatbots for their day-to-day tasks. On the other hand, we had the feeling that B2C communication was going to transform rapidly, and that soon enough customers wouldn’t need to spend ages waiting on hold or send out emails and wait for slow and/or inaccurate responses. We wanted to ride the wave of this transformation.

Following lean startup principles, we started with customer interviews. Our first goal was to talk with CTOs, marketers, or customer support directors from mid-size companies, with the aim of learning what problems they were having with customer communication. Soon, we figured out that these companies are missing tools to even respond on newer messaging channels such as Facebook Messenger. If we were going to get anywhere, we had to help them solve this particular problem first.

Keep the burn rate as low as possible until you find a product-market-fit.

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We wanted to build integrations to the customer support software rather than jump into the overcrowded waters and build just another help desk solution. This approach made sense from the Amio perspective as our prospective customers would be happy, and there was a promise to up-sell the chatbot solution we’d been interested in building.

We made our first sale before writing a single line of code, which was very exciting! Once we got to work, we wrote the initial version in just a few weeks and set everything up with our customers. But we soon saw that traffic on Facebook Messenger is actually quite low, so businesses are not willing to spend additional time or money to implement a rich messaging experience.

It is said that a successful startup usually goes through around 25 iterations until it finally finds a product-market-fit. That means you have to be really quick with iterations and adaptations. That initial version was our first shot out of many, and to be honest, we still haven't found a product-market-fit for Amio. But we still have fuel and motivation to keep Amio going and continue to iterate on a restricted runway.

What went into building the initial product?

We started Amio as a side project. We were lucky that we were able to divide our time between our old projects and Amio so we were not constrained to just spending late nights and weekends with developing the app. As the months passed by, we realized we were dedicating more and more time to Amio, until we finally realized that we were both essentially working full-time on it.

We always kept our burn rate really low, so the initial investment was not too high. Also, we've always been able to find a company willing to pay for various features or iterations that we’ve been testing. At one point we even had to hire a designer and two more developers to deliver on time. Right now, our team size has stabilized to three people, which allows me to focus more on sales and marketing and leave programming to my colleagues.

How have you attracted users and grown Amio.io?

From the beginning, we've focused on mid-size companies as we assumed that’s where we could add the most value. We relied predominantly on sales — cold emails and cold calls — which resulted in several interested customers. Our clients have been spread out across industries such as banking, insurance, transportation, e-commerce, package delivery services, etc. Whenever a potential customer expressed interest, we tried to propose a tailored solution, deploy it, and measure the outcome. Our strategy has been to take the results of these little experiments to similar companies and present them as effective and tailored solutions, but unfortunately, we haven't found a pattern yet that we can easily replicate.

Some of these initial customers are still with us, using Amio features and services that are still in the project scope. There are some clients we had to let go of, however, as we couldn't continue to support some of our old features as Amio continued to change and evolve. It’s really hard to say no to customers and their money, but we’re sure that it will pay off in the long run.

Eating your own dog food puts you in your customer’s shoes, so you can see very directly what their needs are.

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We've also done some work on our marketing strategy. Here on Indie Hackers, you can find a lot of inspiration about how to effectively market with limited to no budget. The truth is that not everything works for everybody. Maybe your project is niche, you're too late for a particular marketing channel, or whatever. Don’t be discouraged by failures. There’s something that will work for you, and your job as a marketer is to find it.

We've tried Reddit, Hacker News, Stack Overflow, content marketing, and many others. Campaigns on Product Hunt worked well for us and generated a lot of traffic. The problem with these kinds of campaigns, though, is that they don’t generate steady traffic. You get a huge spike of curious people, but most of them are just clicking through to see what all the hype is about and then never come back again.

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In the startup world, sometimes the strangest ideas are rewarded. Posting Amio on madewithvuejs.com was definitely one of them. We use Vue.js, a progressive front-end framework, for our web app development. We decided to contribute back to the community by presenting our project on the site. It started generating lots of traffic from highly qualified leads — developers. This is how we ended up getting our first users that didn’t come from traditional sales efforts.

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

We want to make Amio sustainable as soon as possible, so we’re focusing in on monthly recurring revenue (MRR). All of our business decisions revolve around this number, from product decisions to sales strategy. If we’re determining which feature to work on next, we always choose the one we think will increase MRR the most. Our goal is to grow at least 5% from week to week. It’s a high bar, but so far we’ve been able to keep up with it. Since the beginning of this year, we've hit 5.91% growth on average.

Month Revenue
Jan ‘18 414
Feb ‘18 638
Mar ‘18 638
Apr ‘18 526
May ‘18 571
Jun ‘18 1013
Jul ‘18 1125
Aug ‘18 1067
Sep ‘18 1330
Oct ‘18 2047
Nov ‘18 2265

A majority of our income comes from consulting and custom feature development, however. We are very careful about what we take on and make sure everything is within the wheelhouse of Amio. We’re not looking to build a general consulting business at this point, so if we don’t see a fit with the overall Amio strategy and portfolio, we don’t take the work. This approach has helped us improve the project so much. Eating your own dog food puts you in your customer’s shoes, so you can see very directly what their needs are.

What are your goals for the future?

From a business perspective, we want to reach a "default alive" state, which is to say we want to reach a place where revenue covers all expenses. Once you’ve reached this point, you have more room to take risks and grow your business. We think the product is mature enough to push towards this goal and warrants us investing more time in sales and marketing. It's all a numbers game in the SaaS space. We have to reach a certain number of leads in order to generate a certain number of site visits, which will in turn generate some conversions.

Product-wise, we are working on adding more channels and integrations. There are plenty of new channels popping up for us to explore, such as WhatsApp, Apple Business Chat, Google RCS, etc. Other channels we may pursue include voice assistants (Google Home, Amazon Echo, etc.), web chat, or iOS/Android in-app chat. In order to provide a complete suite of tools and features for messaging, we have to add more analytics and AI tools, as well as integrations to help-desk software and other business solutions.

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

You can find a lot of advice swirling around on the internet. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad; some works and some doesn’t. Advice or lists of best practices should be taken as inspiration, not hard and fast rules. What works for one person or one business might not work for you. Having said that, here’s my best advice:

  • Keep the burn rate as low as possible until you find a product-market-fit.
  • Keep an open mind, don't throw ideas out just because you think they won’t work. Try it. If it works, great. If not, move on.
  • Don’t take advice from people who cannot back their achievements up with clear metrics and evidence.
  • If you need motivation, search for successful companies that have spoken about their process and read about how they struggled in the beginning. It will help you feel less alone and hopefully keep you focused on your goals.
  • Take care of yourself. Work hard, but also rest hard.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can find Amio at amio.io. We are also active on Twitter @amio_io. My personal Twitter account is @mat_kuc. Feel free to reach out to me, I’m always ready to give back to the community! 🤞

Thanks for having me here and all the best with your projects!

Matous Kucera , Founder of Amio.io

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