Turning a Quest for Financial Independence Into a $5k/mo Site

Tell us about yourself and what you're working on.

I'm Dave Child, and I've been building websites for over 20 years. The first time I got to browse the internet, I was hooked — I thought it would change the world, and I knew I wanted to be involved somehow. Before long, I was building little hobby sites, joining webrings, and having a great time doing it.

It didn't take long before I started building sites for friends and family, and I was always looking to explore new technologies and opportunities. I was lucky enough to work as a developer, consultant, marketer, and manager in various roles over the next few years.

It was in mid-2012 that I decided to make a change. I was stuck in an agency rut, and needed a new challenge. I'd always had side projects, but I wanted to make them the focus of my work. So, with a baby on the way, I quit my job and moved to the countryside with my extremely patient wife, and started my very own small web agency.

That allowed me to start to focus a bit more on my own product sites. One idea in particular refused to be ignored: Readability-Score.com. Today, I'm growing the site, adding new tools and new ways to interact with it, and trying to find more ways to help people make their copy more readable.

What made you choose Readability Score over other ideas?

I had a few product sites in my portfolio when I started out on my own, the biggest of which is Cheatography, a cheat sheet generator and repository. I also had a little cash in the bank, and a reasonably regular flow of freelance development work for a collection of clients.

I knew I wanted to eventually transition to a product business, but didn't have any one idea for a product in particular that grabbed me above the others. I've always had a bit of what I call "shiny-thing syndrome" — I like building something new, but haven't usually been as excited by the prospect of getting it in front of people!

In 2004 I wrote a small piece of code to measure the readability of text. It was a coding exercise at the time, but I added it to my website and continued merrily releasing cheat sheets and writing blog posts. It was a few years later that I spotted that the tool was getting quite a lot of traffic, so I moved it to its own domain. The traffic grew, so I added a small premium offering, and used it as a test bed for some pricing experiments — "pay what you want" pricing, and things like that.

At the end of 2015, the site was sending a trickle of income my way, but based on decent traffic. The conversion rate was about 0.04%, so I decided it was about time I gave the project the attention it deserved.

I emailed a few of the existing customers to find out what they liked and how they used the site, and spoke to designers and developers with SaaS experience. The feedback I got was that people thought it was a useful site, but the design was just about the worst thing anyone had ever seen, especially the clunky premium signup.

So, I got to work. I rebuilt the entire site, improved the underlying software, sourced a new logo, put together a new design, added some new tools, and in April I pushed it live.

I'd not been expecting much. My initial goal was to have the site hit $1,000/month in revenue by the end of 2016, and for it to be one of several sites earning a decent combined wage for me. Ultimately, the goal was — and still is — financial and location independence. I'm building a diversified lifestyle business which allows me to work on products and challenges that excited me.

Apparently, the site didn't think $1,000 per month was a realistic target. The first month, the new Readability-Score.com pulled in $3,000, and that was all the validation and encouragement I needed to dive in and give it some real focus.

The conversion rate is now closer to 0.7%, so there's still plenty of room for improvement.

How'd you find the time and funding to do all this?

It wasn't easy. I had client work, which accounted for about 30-40 hours per week. At home, I had a three-year-old who deserved more of my time than he was getting. I had several other websites that required some level of attention.

Oh, and we'd just had twin baby girls.

A lot of people tell me they don't have enough time to build their own site or work on their own project. But I've not yet met someone with more reasons to put it off than I had at the start of 2016. But my new family was also a hugely motivating factor for me. I worked 80+ hours per week, with a lot of 9pm to 2am and weekend sessions. One advantage of newborns is that you're up all the time anyway, so you might as well make the most of it.

The client work was enough to pay the bills, so money wasn't a big concern. I had to prioritize the client work, of course, which meant I wasn't always able to work as quickly as I'd like, but I kept up the momentum and got the site live in a reasonable timeframe.

One big help to me was that I started writing about the process I was going through on Get Post Cookie. Putting together regular income reports has forced me to be much more analytical and more focused. I'd recommend it to anyone with shiny-thing syndrome.

How have you attracted users and grown your business?

The traffic was already pretty good, which came down to luck more than judgement. The site was already used extensively by researchers and teachers, giving it lots of lovely .edu links, which has been great for its search rankings. And it's referenced in academic papers pretty regularly as well, which gives it a level of credibility I'd find difficult to attain by myself.

The new version of the site introduced some limits on free usage, and that has resulted in a drop in traffic, so my main focus now is building that back up through content marketing. Over the next few months, I'm hoping to increase that, and by the end of the year the effect should be quite noticeable.

I've tried a few other avenues to bring in traffic, most notably a referral scheme and a Slack app. Both are in their infancy, so it's difficult to say either is a success at this point, but both were fun to build, and that's justification enough for me.

I know you guys love specifics, so here's a lovely chart for you of 2016's user numbers, marketing budget, and revenue:

Month Customers Revenue Marketing Change
January 2016 1004 $405 $0 -
February 2016 1056 $361 $0 -11%
February 2016 1056 $361 $0 -11%
March 2016 1120 $530 $0 +47%
New Site Launched
April 2016 1340 $2923 $0 +452%
May 2016 1560 $4184 $0 +43%
June 2016 1787 $5019 $0 +20%
July 2016 1925 $4431 $250 -12%
August 2016 2058 $3100 $250 -30%
September 2016 2411 $7669 $250 +147%
October 2016 2753 $7023 $500 -8%
November 2016 3076 $7447 $500 +6%

What's the story behind your revenue?

The site started as entirely free to use to measure the readability of pasted text and URLs. In 2012 I added some premium features — readability alerts and PDF/Word doc processing, with a "pay what you want" model (with a minimum price of $1 per year) — but the core functionality stayed free and unlimited. It was really easy to add, though. Gumroad has an excellent subscription system, even including the ability to set "pay what you want" pricing as an option for subscriptions.

The third payment was for $100. A month later, I'd had over $600 come in from long-time, regular users of the site, who were just wanting to show their appreciation. Almost none of them used the premium features as they were then. I was blindsided. I was expecting maybe a few $5 payments. I thought that maybe, if I was lucky, this new premium model would buy me a few beers each month.

Traffic on the site kept growing, and at the start of the year I decided to see if there was a bigger opportunity. I still didn't (it turns out) grasp the potential scale of the thing. I was aiming for $1,000 per month when I rebuilt the site. Now, I'm aiming for $10,000 MRR by the end of next year. It's a little over $5,000 at the moment. Payments are managed through Stripe, and that's been great to work with. Love their API docs!

Revenue Graph

I've been adding features slowly, like highlighting of long sentences and difficult words. There's a massive list of new features to add. Grammar and spell checking would be useful, nice fancy PDF readability reports, Google Drive and Google Docs integrations, etc. The trick is to not get drawn too far away from the core mission — that being to make it easy to make your text more readable!

What are your goals for the future?

More or less the same as they were at the start — financial and location independence. That, for me, means about $7,000 profit per month across my sites.

For Readability-Score.com, I'm aiming for $10,000 MRR by the end of 2017. At that stage, I'm going to have some interesting choices to make!

If you had to start over, what would you do differently?

Top of the list would be — I'd hope I'd spot the opportunity I had back in 2004, and not wait until more than a decade later to develop it further. I suspect the work I've done in the meantime (and the mistakes I made with my other projects) have been a huge part of why the site is now successful, but that doesn't mean I don't look back and wonder where I might be now if I'd started this journey sooner.

Working as a single founder can also be draining and doesn't allow much flexibility in work/life balance. I don't know that this would be the project I would have taken on a co-founder for, but given the chance to start over I would certainly spend more time talking to other developers, marketers, designers, and so on, and who knows, I might have met a great co-founder for a project or two along the way.

Fortunately, that last bit is something I can still improve, so I'm making more of an effort to get to local developer meetups, I've joined bootstrapper groups, and I'm trying to help other people avoid some of the pitfalls I discovered along the way.

I also made a big mistake in June, when I broke the site in quite a subtle way — I accidentally removed the limitation on free usage. There was still a popup saying "please register to continue using the site", but it kept allowing you to use it afterwards anyway. It was an innocuous change, but it destroyed the conversion rate of the site. You can see the effect on the revenue further up the page. I'm a lot more paranoid now about testing, which is no bad thing. I'm also now a lot more respectful of the effect even small changes can have on a site.

What has been really helpful to you?

The best two decisions I made were making the leap to working for myself and starting to be transparent with earnings and progress.

The first, working for myself, helped me rediscover my enthusiasm for development and the web. It gave me the flexibility to work on my own projects, and a healthy dose of motivation — if I don't work, the bills don't get paid!

Transparency has also been good for me, so far. It's kept me focused, and forced me to spend time evaluating my efforts more critically. Before, I would happily go and work on whatever took my fancy. Now, I'm still working on things I enjoy, but I'm far more conscious of what I want the result of that work to be. I'm less easily distracted from my core products. (That's not to say I'm never distracted, but the distraction has to be a lot more compelling and interesting these days!)

I also found other people's writings about their efforts really helpful. Reading about what other people had tried, what worked, what didn't work, and how they'd approached their problems — all of that was invaluable. That's one of the reasons I like IndieHackers.com. 🙂

What advice would you share with aspiring indie hackers?

There is no feeling quite like buying your first beer with money you earned from your own project. The first $1,000 earned. The first time you draw a salary from your own product. Those are good days. But it takes time to get there, and some ideas will never make it that far. Sometimes that's because the idea isn't good enough. Sometimes it's because you're the wrong person for that idea.

Try not to be too attached to one idea. Sometimes, if you're struggling with one idea, working on something else can refresh you and provide new ways for you to look at things. Getting stuck in a rut is a surefire way to stop you getting anywhere.

Also, learn to make the best coffee you can make. You'll get through a lot of it.

Oh, and don't have twins while trying to build a startup.

Where can we learn more about you?

I write occasionally on my personal blog, Get Post Cookie (though it's mostly just income reports at the moment), and I tweet from @Dave_Child. If you leave a comment below, I'll try and get back to you!

I also have a few other projects:

(And just in case you were wondering, the Readability of this interview is 7.8. That's a grade level, meaning someone will likely need around 8 years of education to read it. For text for public consumption, you want to aim for a grade level of around 6-8.)

David Child , Creator of Readable.io

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