Overcoming Technical Roadblocks to Achieve $1 Million ARR

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

Hi, I'm Robin. I started working with computers in 1991 with a DOS and BASIC manual to write and play games since I didn’t fit in well with other kids.

When the internet was introduced in India there was no clear documented procedure for getting access. Regrettably, I had to resort to “social engineering” and writing trojans in order to get access. Deciding to put my coding skills to more acceptable use, I started making websites and web applications in Flash. A misspelled email to a client put me in touch with Danny, an ex-punk rocker and the producer of the movie Spun. He was also running a startup webshop in the US. Next thing I knew, I was building kevinspacey.com! After 18 months and numerous projects together we decided to work to grow Danny’s shop since we were working in the same space. I moved to Tucson, AZ, in 2003.

Adjusting to adobe houses and quiet streets was quite a culture shock. But having access to high-speed internet, a vast public library system, and coffee shops changed my life forever. Eventually, I fell in love with the desert.

Although I’ve always liked tech (and still do), I used to see it as a means to an end; my short term goal was financial freedom, which would allow me the ability to pause and be non-utilitarian within a conventional value system.

My plan was to save up some money, take a year off, and completely focus on a content publishing platform. This had started off as a personal project where I channeled my obsession for documenting new observations. I ended up generating $300-$400 a month from Google Adsense. I thought if I could get to the point where I could make $3,000 I would be set for life. I kept my expenses at an all-time low to save up for my one-year hiatus.

To supplement my income I also sold a small graphic utility. I promised to buyers that I would deliver their goods in 4 hours or less. Whenever PayPal texted my phone about the sale, I had to rush back home or roll out of bed and email the file. Once I got fed up with that, I decided to write a script to automate it and called it “PayPal IPN.” I started selling it and also charged for setup.

E-junkie homepage

What motivated you to get started with E-junkie?

Things changed in 2004 when a few of my musician friends asked me to help them set up the PayPal IPN script to deliver their MP3s. Even though it would have been great for exposure, they didn't want to send their fans to the iTunes store for their music. They wanted them to buy their music from their actual site and avoid the fees.

Around the same time, I got a cease and desist from PayPal that I shouldn’t be using their name.

That’s when the idea of E-junkie was born: a self-service website where people can upload their products, link to their payment account, and get a purchase link to use anywhere.

What went into building the initial product?

I rented a few blades in a server farm across town and started coding. I didn’t need much money to start E-junkie and the code I wrote wasn’t complex. I was able to set up the servers, fix the DNS, and create graphics myself.

I worked my day job and then continued to work on E-junkie at night. When it grew so large that I needed more hours, I hired the webshop I worked for using my Adsense income.

My approach has always been hackish; I paid little attention to “good practices.” I’m an innovator and a problem solver, not a business person. And sales and marketing were foreign to me. It became clear then that my salvation would come from E-junkie, so I abandoned my content publishing website.

Around 2006, Google approached me, asking if I was interested in being part of Google Checkout beta and implementing it in E-junkie. This was a game changer. At that point, E-junkie was only providing PayPal "Buy Now" buttons for makers who sold anything digitally (like files or access codes). Most of the folks using E-junkie were artists, software developers, and authors.

In order to offer two different payment processors, E-junkie needed a shopping cart. At that point third-party carts were ugly; as far as I remember they did not do digital delivery complete with files, access codes, etc. So I started working on a cart that would work inside the merchant’s website in a lightbox.

There was nothing like that at the time, and for good reason — there was no way to implement something like that. So I wrote my own program which I called JSOD (Javascript on Demand). With some hacks, the JS code was generated on E-junkie servers and then embedded itself in the DOM of the page where our cart was being generated. I called it “Fat Free Cart.” It became widely popular; we were featured on TechCrunch, and PayPal loved it so much that I was even on the banners of the PayPal Innovate Conference.

Our clients were still DIY artsy people who didn’t have the need for too many custom solutions. They liked us for the ease of use. We had dissolved the technological barrier to entry for enabling e-commerce on a website. Big companies like MTV and Google Kitchen even started using E-junkie.

I became a victim of my own success. After being a one-man army I knew I needed people for customer support, writing docs, and development. I needed to build a functioning business.

E-junkie did not start with a grand vision or a master plan. We kept adding what our clients wanted, and most of those features helped us bring in more clients.

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What's funny is that the whole idea of E-junkie originated from my not wanting to wake up in the middle of the night to manually deliver, but at that point I was waking up in the middle of the night to reconcile any customer support emails. My partner Shivani was helping me, but living and working together gives rise to a lot of personal tension, too.

Hiring and team building were so alien to me (remember that I started coding to be away from people). For most of what I needed in life (buying things, selling things, help with moving) I went to Craigslist. I loved the website, and I liked Craig. He actually responded when I sent him an email. :)

So naturally, I posted an ad on Craigslist and met Tyson, our first customer support person (other than Shivani and I). Then later I found Thad, a second developer.

By then we had outgrown the server farm and invested in a few boxes of our own — running CentOS, firewalls, switches, KVM, power strip with remote access, the works. We moved to Login, a highly secure co-lo facility. Not very long after moving we got DDoSed. There were sleepless nights of manually finding and adding the offending IPs to the firewall.

Luckily for us, there was a startup called RioRey which shipped us two of their boxes overnight. I was able to work with them to modify the firmware and add a feature that helped us tweak its filtering for the attack specific to us.

Most of the initial years were overcoming very tangible technical hurdles. Things which seem so simple and stupid now that we have AWS. E-junkie did not start with a grand vision or a master plan. We kept adding what our clients wanted, and most of those features helped us bring in more clients.

How have you attracted users and grown E-junkie?

It was one-on-one, for the most part. I met people at craft fairs and sent emails to people who were selling digital products manually, like me. I researched authors who were publishing books independently and emailed them. I helped a lot of folks in marketing and payment processor forums as a way to get the name in front of them. Still, I’d say my efforts were more focused on brand-awareness than selling. I was happy to send clients to the competition if it seemed like their plans or features were a better fit.

I used to fly Southwest often between Tucson and San Francisco; I read in their magazine once that they considered themselves to be in the business of customer service and flying planes. Taking a page from their book, we focused heavily on great customer service and turned a lot of our clients into our evangelists.

We started a re-seller program which brought us 20% of our business. This was scrapped by the new management, and I am in the process of reviving it now.

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

From the get-go, I didn’t want artists to think that I was here to get rich off of their efforts. I was against profit shaving. Our model is a flat fee for the use of the software. If you make or do something awesome, I don’t see any reason why I should get paid for your output.

Our primary revenue stream is the monthly subscription amount merchants pay to use our service. When merchants want to send their buyers product updates, we charge a tiny fee per update. Once we were processing decent volumes, the payment processors did a rev share with us, which was pretty sweet.

For almost a decade now we have averaged $1MM a year in revenue. After expenses (but before taxes), E-junkie is netting about $500k a year. Our biggest expense after salaries is the PayPal fee and AWS charges, as we serve terabytes of data each month.

Month Revenue
Dec '18 77854
Jan '19 76317
Feb '19 73605
Mar '19 74479
Apr '19 72384

My monetary goals were met back in 2011, and through hard work I was able to afford the biggest luxury money can buy: freedom. I took the time to figure out what to do with that freedom and ended up starting an animal rescue and organic farm in 2014.

We have a 20-person team helping us run the farm. I’ve since bought back E-junkie and have been re-building it over the past year with my amazing team. I don’t take any money from E-junkie since I have minimal living expenses while living on the farm.

As much as I used to like things being perfect, I don’t strive for perfection; just improvement and getting the job done. That approach helped me get E-junkie off the ground.

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What are your goals for the future?

My biggest failure with E-junkie was leaving it too early — we had a great team and amazing clients, but we lacked structural leadership and a unified vision. I failed my product, my team, and my clients. Now, I want to focus on people and turn E-junkie into an employee-owned company with a bigger team and stronger leadership. I also want to re-focus on my true definition of "life’s work."

I want to learn how to sell in order to help me grow E-junkie; it will help materialize my ideas and make them accessible while attracting talented people to join us.

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

As much as I used to like things being perfect, I don’t strive for perfection, just improvement and getting the job done. That approach helped me get E-junkie off the ground. But there is a balance between striving for excellence at the cost of missed opportunity. If I could do this over, I’d learn proper coding standards before building out E-junkie.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I didn’t listen to the naysayers telling me that “nobody wants to read e-books,” or that “you can’t give unlimited bandwidth for five bucks.” I went with my gut and most times it turned out okay, and the times it didn’t, at least I didn’t have anybody else to blame.

E-junkie what to sell

I give a lot of credit to fortune and misfortune. For me to get where I am now, there were a series of intricately linked events, like meeting the right people at the right time. And why I didn’t become a billionaire before I exited E-junkie is also not meeting the right people at the right time. :) Among the numerous factors that influence the outcome of events, the right people may just be the X-factor.

I’ve chosen to believe that waking life is the working life. I don’t do work-life balance. People around me know that. I work 10-hour days seven days a week. I switch between projects that I handle to avoid being burnt out.

My balance hinges on six key things:

  • Personal care, so I can function efficiently

  • Work that makes money

  • Work that utilizes that money

  • Delegating menial tasks that steal your productivity

  • Leisure time, which is when I get to play with ideas and experiment

  • Rest time before sleep so I don’t sleep wound up

I maintain a broad structure for the day. I limit my exposure to things — people, noise, projects — which can distract me. I like being focused, so I can make sure that I (and the people around me) know what to ignore.

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

My biggest learning has been from a quote by Rumi: “The art of knowing is knowing what to ignore." We have a tendency to read, learn, and know…and that’s great for free association. But we know a lot more beyond what we need to know and that extra knowledge just clutters up your brain.

I see people trying to make the next big thing and overlooking small opportunities, like creating useful tools, utilities, and services. Especially if people are quitting jobs to start something, they expect to reach that level of income from the business in some unrealistic period of time. If what you want is financial freedom, lower your expenses and save up enough to tide you over for a year or two. Then the target income at the end of that year shouldn’t be the package you walked away from, but the minimum you need to sustain yourself.

I am still a big fan of the quick and dirty “get it done and do it by feel” approach, but now I temper that with a procedure (I’m not talking about just code but any kind of process).

I like the book Kluge by Gary Marcus. It was the first book which explained why people and conversations are not linear and rational. Being able to factor that into my thought process helped me adapt better to social situations.

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky and Drive by Daniel Pink have great insight into understanding people further, especially helpful if you have a team.

Where can we go to learn more?

E-junkie’s website is www.e-junkie.com, and my animal rescue’s site is www.peepalfarm.org. I mostly muse at https://facebook.com/locaterobin. I’ve also penned my thought process from the time I exited E-junkie to the time I started Peepal Farm.

For me, sharing ideas and scaling ideas are related. I’ll be happy to take a crack at answering any questions you might have.

Thank you!

Robin Singh , Founder of E-junkie

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