Overcoming the Expectation of "Free" to Build a Profitable Product

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

My name is Stanislav Dimitrov (Stan), and I’m one of the founders of Night Eye — the dark mode browser extension that works on nearly any website.

I finished my Master's in Marketing in 2014 and headed back home to join the family business: a printing house. The family business was and still is a big part of my life, but tech in general has always fascinated me and I wanted to start a side venture.

Luckily, a couple of months after I came home, I met the current co-founders of Night Eye. We were all around 25 years old and eager to build a tech company from the ground up.

Night Eye is a browser extension that enables dark mode on nearly any website. Instead of simply inverting the colors, we developed an algorithm that analyzes a webpage's colors and converts them. We started this product to scratch our own itch as four dark-mode UI enthusiasts (this was before the trend).

The extension is mostly used by software developers, students, writers, gamers, and researchers: people who spend a lot of time staring at their screen and are familiar with the benefits of the dark UI. These folks usually have at least one app or website with a dark theme and are already used to it, e.g., software developers who use Dark IDEs.

We’ve been slowly growing our monthly income and right now we're sitting at around $1,800 per month.

Night Eye homepage

What motivated you to get started with Night Eye?

Since our whole team loves a dark UI, we were frustrated when we couldn't find an extension that would convert colors smartly. We tried all of them but none met our standards. So we decided to do it ourselves.

We pushed the Chrome extension first. As downloads increased we felt like it was time to develop further — for Firefox, Safari, and the rest. The validation time took two months, during which we grew to 2,000 Chrome users.

We are a small software company and the building process (although a challenging one) was nothing new. We had existing processes that allowed us to develop, maintain, and consistently improve the extension.

Dark Mode enabled

What went into building the initial product?

We focused all of our efforts on the algorithm — the engine that converts a page's element colors and creates a pleasant dark mode. After we made sure every aspect met our standards, we moved on to finish other main features, design, etc.

It took us three months to get v1.0 up and running. But as soon as we were ready, we published the Chrome Extension and began communicating with our early users to develop it even further. It took us around seven months to fix bugs and websites that were not properly converting.

The decision process for creating new features was pretty simple: we went with what we thought would be useful for us. Of course not all were accepted or actually used by our initial user base.

One such feature was color-changing. In essence we had developed a clumsy yet powerful tool that allowed the user to alter any color on any website. For example, you could change the background color from dark grey to black, the font to pink, etc. But because it wasn't really user-friendly we decided to remove it until we had more time to improve.

When considering initial features for a product, do what would be most useful for you. If a feature requires a couple of months to develop and is not essential for the launch, don’t do it. Validate it first.

We had a small window between two large projects which allowed us the ability to work on Night Eye full time. After the initial development phase, only one member of the team continued to work on it nearly full time.

We couldn't have done all this without the patient early users who took the time and energy to test the initial release.

Night Eye features

How have you attracted users and grown Night Eye?

Our official launch was May 1, 2018. We didn’t have any pre-launch landing pages but as soon as the extension was available on the Chrome Web Store, we created a website.

Communities like IH helped us get some of our very first users. A couple of subreddits also helped get the word out, but the results were not stunning. We heavily invested our time in SEO on both our website and the Chrome Web Store. SEO was and still is our main user acquisition strategy. It's a slow but really valuable approach for us.

If a feature requires a couple of months to develop and is not essential for the launch, don’t do it.

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Our SEO activities are pretty straightforward. Everyone can do it; it's not rocket science. Basic SEO processes can be found in thousands of guides across the web. What I’m trying to say is that we don’t do anything magical, but rather focus our efforts on the right things. And remain patient. That being said, quick results cannot be expected from such an approach, so just be prepared.

We spend a lot of time in keyword tools like the AdWords Keyword Planner, Serpstat and Ubersuggest. We also try to produce written content every week (at least one post on our blog) and update content in all extensions stores. It's also very important to us that we evaluate our past performance.

In addition to SEO ,we also experiment with YouTube as a traffic source, and are planning to launch paid campaigns mainly on Facebook and Google Search.

Be open to all of your users. Welcome questions and feedback, get to know them, and talk to them like normal human beings.

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

We wanted to make our business model as simple and affordable as possible. We started with three months for a free trial, after which the user was prompted to either subscribe for $9/year or purchase a license for $40. We expected that most users who were willing to continue using Night Eye after the trial expiration would choose the annual subscription. Surprisingly, a lot of people preferred to pay once and forget it.

The most important aspect of our business model is the free trial. Unlike other software, we do not require any personal information to obtain a free trial of Night Eye. Users simply go to the extension store, install it, and enjoy it for three months. This allowed us to reach out more people without asking them to fill out forms, provide personal information, etc.

Currently we are making around $1,800/month which has been pretty stable for the past four months with relative fluctuations.

An important lesson that we've learned from this project is that the browser extension market is not the easiest place to establish a profitable business; browser extensions are typically considered to always be free by users. Asking for payment is something we struggle with every day. That said, we've managed to disprove the theory that users won't pay for a browser extension. If we can do it, anyone can do it. And I’m not talking simply about the niche of browser extensions; any niche market that is considered tough or even impossible can be conquered. But you need to build a product that people want — a quality product that's superior to free versions. This is how we've thought about it all along and so far, it's worked.

But if you're willing to start a side project only for monetary benefits, choose a niche where users are willing to spend money on the product.

What are your goals for the future?

Our most important goal is to increase the speed of Night Eye so that it becomes unnoticeable when browsing the web. We are currently working decreasing page load time by 30–40%. This will significantly improve the way Night Eye handles websites.

We are also considering an additional route to generate more revenue. We've been getting quite a few requests from developers to provide them with API in order to add dark mode to their client’s websites. At the moment we are considering testing the value of the idea with a Wordpress plugin.

We've managed to disprove the theory that users won't pay. But you need to build a product that people want — a quality product that's superior to free versions.

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

The biggest challenge we've faced since day one is that people are not really excited to pay for a browser extension. Due to the number of free extensions it's been difficult for us to explain why we ask for a subscription fee.

Most users forget that they pay with their data when using a free extension, which is much worse. The allegedly "free" extensions usually include affiliate links, ads, and other hidden ways of monetization. True, the person is not paying with his or her credit card, but paying with data is far more dangerous these days.

If we had to start over we wouldn’t change a thing. Throughout this journey we've kept two important things in mind: a beautiful and smooth dark mode and user support.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Be open to all of your users. Welcome questions and feedback, get to know them, and talk to them like normal human beings.

Two people that really inspire us every day are Tim Ferriss and Naval Ravikant. They each have a podcast and blog and offer tons of valuable information for free.

At this point you may be thinking that our progress was perfectly planned and nothing could've gone sideways, but that is far from being the truth. The timing of our launch was incredibly important. We launched just one month before Apple announced the dark mode in macOS 10.14 Mojave. That announcement spiked the interest in dark mode quite a bit and we benefited from that a lot. That move by Apple snowballed the dark mode trend which allowed us to grow quickly.

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

DO

  1. Scratch your own itch. See what annoys you in your daily activities and the current available solutions. If they are not up to your standards and you think you can develop a better product, do it.
  2. Be patient. Keep your head down and give yourself time.
  3. Features that you think are great may not be that great or needed at all. So keep talking to all of your users.
  4. Be authentic in everything you do — design, copy, conversations…everything.

DON’T

  1. Don’t polish the product prior to launch. Make it just good enough and ask people for their feedback.
  2. Don’t invest a lot of energy and time on things that you have not validated.
  3. Don’t be discouraged by naysayers.

Where can we go to learn more?

We keep our blog regularly updated https://nighteye.app/blog, and we also like to talk with everyone on Twitter.

We are open for all your questions and feedback in the comments below. Don’t be shy and ask anything that comes to your mind.

Thanks to IH for hosting this interview and giving us a chance to offer our perspective.

Stan Dimitrov , Founder of Night Eye

Want to build your own business like Night Eye?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗

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Not ready to get started on your product yet? No problem. The community is a great place to meet people, learn, and get your feet wet. Feel free to just browse!

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