Turning Frustration into a $35k/mo Product that Helps Teachers Excel

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

Hello! I’m Danielle Simpson and I have been working on FeedbackPanda — a software tool for online teachers — with my co-founder, Arvid Kahl, for just over a year.

I didn’t start my career in tech. Far from it, in fact, as I am actually a trained opera singer. Like most artists, I mastered the art of balancing multiple side hustles between gigs and auditions in order to stay afloat. It was one of my side gigs, teaching English as a foreign language online, that lead to realizing the need for a service like FeedbackPanda. FeedbackPanda is a client management system for online teachers who work as freelancers. The tool saves teachers about two hours of unpaid time per day by helping them organize student and course records and write personalized feedback for students. Teachers can also use FeedbackPanda to collaborate and share their feedback templates to inspire each other.

After being around for a year, FeedbackPanda generates $35K/month and continues to grow by 10% monthly.

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What motivated you to get started with FeedbackPanda?

We built FeedbackPanda because I needed a tool that would help me teach as many classes as possible. After moving to Germany, I auditioned for about two years and completely ignored my student loans back in Canada. I was broke and needed to make money as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In January 2017 I started working for the company VIPKID, which connects Chinese children to American English teachers through video call. They have a wonderful platform to foster personalized education and I taught one-on-one English lessons from 4am - 4pm every day for two months straight. This worked really well except for the extra hours of unpaid time that I had to put in to keep my students organized and write a performance reviews.

It became clear that I would not be able to keep up this pace and maintain my health and sanity. I tried different ways of speeding up the process, but even after exhaustively brainstorming and pouring over Excel sheets, I couldn’t help shake the feeling that there just had to be a better way.

Being my boyfriend, Arvid witnessed the problem firsthand, and because he is a software engineer, I pitched him my idea on how to solve it. All I needed to move forward was to hear that it was possible, so once I got the thumbs up from Arvid we got started on building the exact product that I and other teachers needed.

What went into building the initial product?

We built the initial version of FeedbackPanda as a SaaS product with one customer: me. Arvid worked on the prototype at night and on the weekends, while he was working full-time as a software engineer in the industrial IoT space. The company he was working for was very progressive, building an IoT platform using the Elixir programming language on the backend and Vue.js on the frontend, so we decided to use the same tech for our own product.

Working at that pace, it took us a month to build a working system where I could manage my students and generate feedback using the templates I had previously kept in the spreadsheets. Once we integrated the system into VIPKID’s teaching portal, we saw just how much time we could save — the click of a button would automatically pull my previously used template and adapt it to the student I had just taught. Five minutes of work condensed into one click. We knew we had a valuable product.

Before we released it to the public, we made sure to offload as much of the complicated tech to other SaaS tools. We integrated with Stripe for payments, Intercom for customer communication and Auth0 for handling our user management. All of those services have a trial or startup plan, so we could easily bootstrap the company and never took any funding.

We also decided that we wanted to leverage the network effect of teachers sharing their materials, so we quickly prototyped a “Cloud” where teachers could share their data with everyone else on the platform. This has turned out to be the best decision we’ve made as far as driving growth.

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How have you attracted users and grown FeedbackPanda?

Luckily, I knew exactly who our customers were and where the water cooler was. So our marketing started with one small, strategic Facebook post. I looked through the community Facebook groups multiple times daily, and after about two months of dog-feeding our product, I finally revealed FeedbackPanda in a response to someone asking how to solve their problem.

Become a part of that community and get a feeling for what their needs are and how you can approach them without intruding.

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We had some very enthusiastic early adopters that went back to the water cooler and spread the word for us about this tool. We have helped this momentum snowball into more users by keeping in close contact with everyone through Intercom and really building a community of users. We sent our first 100 subscribers handwritten postcard thank-you-notes, which they then took pictures and videos with and went back to the water cooler again to share with other teachers.

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

We offer subscription-based access to our software platform. We have a monthly plan and a slightly cheaper yearly plan, both with a no-strings-attached 30 day trial. We don’t have a free plan, but we are generous with trial extensions, which we also offer to users who come back to the trial after the 30d ays but have not created any meaningful data. These users can automatically extend their trial, and it has been a great reactivation technique.

We charged our customers right from the start, after their 30 day trial, of course. Some teachers loved the product so much, they paid a few days into their trial. Actually, the first customer who tried to pay was unable to do so since we had forgotten to switch the Stripe test key with the live key! We had to do a quick emergency deploy to allow our customers to pay. But after that bumpy start, the subscriptions came in reliably, with a conversion rate over 25%.

Be quick to move away from things that aren’t working and follow the things that are.

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Since we’re a German company with most of our customers in the USA, we have two major issues with online payments. We charge USD but receive EUR, so the exchange rate between the Euro and the Dollar affects our MRR significantly. Also, since the receiving bank is German, many small banks and credit unions in the United States are blocking credit card charges. Some banks wouldn’t even unblock these charges after their customers called them up to request that. We had to build a dunning system ourselves that would suggest how to deal with this to our affected customers. Stripe has been extremely reliable, but our customer’s banks have been hit or miss.

Our growth has been pretty stable, around 10% over the many months the company has been live. With more customers comes more word of mouth, which in turn translates to more signups. To keep conversion rates high, we are very quick to respond to questions and we have built an extensive knowledge base with videos and screenshots on Intercom. The teacher community is also very helpful, as teachers love teaching, so they will help each other out all the time.

Our churn is quite low, below 1%, as most teachers heavily invest into the product by putting in their personal templates. Most churn occurs when our customers switch jobs or take parental leave.

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What are your goals for the future?

Our major goal is to keep the teacher at the focus of our product. Many EdTech products are so student focused that they completely ignore the facilitator of the learning process. I have become very passionate about teachers and how they’re treated because I feel like they are often taken advantage of or taken for granted.

If you take care of teachers, you will see measurable results in students’ performance. Looking forward, I want to help teachers in other environments such as offline classrooms and brick and mortar schools.

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

Having a chat tool like Intercom has been a wonderful channel to receive feedback from customers. We constantly get requests for new features, which is mostly really exciting since it’s wonderful to have customers contribute to the product. However, the requests for new features and ideas can be overwhelming. I think Arvid and I have done a very good job of discerning which features might useful and which ones will become frivolous and complicate the simple nature of the product. The mistake we have made is to add new features without ever changing the price of our product.

FeedbackPanda has been enriched so much, with extra cost from us but without any additional cost to the customer. Now we are trying to figure out how we can raise the price of the product to match the value that we offer.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

There are some really good books out there about starting a SaaS company, and entrepreneurial life in general. I recommend reading The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber and Built to Sell by John Warrillow to get into the mindset of a mostly automated, well-structured company. For product, I heavily recommend Hooked by Nir Eyal as it gives very clear instructions about how to build a product that people love to use.

Find out where your customers hang out to chat. There are thousands of Facebook groups, forums, and other communities where people find help and support. Become a part of that community and get a feeling for what their needs are and how you can approach them without intruding. Provide valuable content to your customers and encourage them to share it into these communities.

Find a market where big forces are terraforming the world and creating new opportunities.

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We learned that dog-feeding our product helped us get to market incredibly. I used the prototype Arvid built, immediately told him of bugs and hard-to-use components, and the next day, it would be fixed. Unsurprisingly, that immediate feedback loop saved us a lot of time. Customers usually blame themselves or just “live with it”, so best use your product for yourself first. Encourage your customers to give direct and critical feedback. We found out that asking people for things that don’t work usually produces good results. If you ask them for how they like it, they will usually be very positive. Read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick for good hints on phrasing.

The Chinese education market is picking up speed, and we were lucky to recognize a niche in that market that we could not only fill, but also grow with the market. A year ago, VIPKID had less than 15,000 teachers, now they have over 50,000. All of these teachers are potential customers, with hundreds joining the teacher community every day. Find a market where big forces are terraforming the world and creating new opportunities.

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

When you are starting something, be very specific in identifying the problem that you want to solve and who it will help. Don’t worry about it being too specific. The more specific you can be in identifying your target audience or the problem that you want to solve, the more it is likely that you will solve the problem or reach your customer. Keep the 10-year vision, but don’t be afraid of being very specific in your initial actions. If you know your target group, you are much more likely to gain some traction to then build your empire.

Another thing that I have found helpful is to trust your instinct and take action. Be quick to move away from things that aren’t working and follow the things that are. Don’t dwell on it or avoid it, redirect and move forward.

Don’t take unnecessary meetings. As a founder, your time in scarce. Value your time and politely decline.

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Where can we go to learn more?

You can find FeedbackPanda at https://www.feedbackpanda.com as well as on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and CrunchBase. We release relevant content for online teaching on our blog . You can find me on Twitter.

I'm browsing IndieHackers all the time. If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comment section below!

Danielle Simpson , Founder of FeedbackPanda

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