Turning My Expertise with Asana into a Profitable Side Business

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

My name is Bastien Siebman. I live in France, in the mountains close to Switzerland. I am married and a father of two. After engineering school in computer science, I created my first startup that eventually failed and pivoted into a web and mobile agency. After getting acqui-hired and working for the new owners, I joined a group of 20 others and we co-founded a new SaaS around skill intelligence called Whoz.

Four years ago, I discovered the software Asana to manage my daily tasks. One side project led to another, then one e-book written, and a second, a micro-incubator founded, some consulting and training… then Asana Superheroes was born, a brand that holds all my activities around Asana together.

Today, Asana Superheroes represents more than 1,500 digital products and 200 books sold, one million page views, a growing reputation, and about $800 of revenue per month.

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What motivated you to get started with Asana Superheroes?

When I was working on my first startup, I was deeply immersed in the startup world, reading tons of books and blogs and following influencers. I was full of hope and motivation. I also need to mention that as a web developer, it is pretty easy to hack together any website to bring an idea to life. That is how I ended up doing a prototype of my first project: Templana.

Our small startup/agency was using Asana to mange clients, bills, ideas… and we ended up with a pretty decent workflow. I thought, "Why not share this with other Asana users?" So I created a prototype where an Asana user can login with their account, and I would load my "workflow" into their workspace. None of us believed someone could ever pay for such a service. "What the hell! Let's give it a shot." We were working full time on the startup but dedicated a few hours to the project.

Do stuff once in a while, and don't just read about doing things.

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I kept iterating, improved the website, and added other workflows (we called them templates). And users started coming in. There were random people tweeting, "love love love what you are doing," then one of Asana's co-founders, Dustin Moskovitz (who also co-founded Facebook), tweeted about us. Soon I had a Skype call with an Asana employee to discuss the project, then another…

It all started with this first project. I tried to create a spin-off with coaching templates, but it did not take off. I also tried to start a news website about Asana, but it required too much time to maintain so it was eventually discontinued. I also had the opportunity to take over an existing e-book about Asana. I updated it and launched its Second Edition as my own. And a few months later, I had the motivation to write my own e-book from scratch. The book was released at the beginning of 2018.

What went into building the initial product?

The first version of my first product was fairly simple. I bought a WordPress template online, installed WordPress on a server setup by my former associate (who still helps a lot with sysadmin), and hacked together some PHP. My second associate worked on the design and made a logo. In a few days the first version was ready. I kept adding a few features over time. Traffic and sales were slowly increasing.

We were very "user-driven". Anyone could ask for a feature and it could actually be built right away if we thought it was useful. For example, a user asked for a template preview and the ability to leave comments on them. We did it in a matter of hours.

I have been working like this ever since for all my projects. I have a very honest public roadmap with categories like "Done," "Coming next," "Might come soon," "Let's wait and see," and "Not happening." I don't want people to believe I am working full time on this, and I hate to lie. So if I think an idea is overkill, I just store it inside "Not happening." Anyone can influence the roadmap by emailing me. Truly, if you want a feature that does X or Y and it's fairly simple and I find myself at home with nothing to do, I'll just do it right away.

Time has always been the most valuable thing of all. When I upgraded my laptop from one Mac OS version to the next a few months back, my local server was broken. So I could not work on the website locally. I tried to fix it for two hours, then I decided it was not worth it. I coded directly in production for weeks until my former partner helped me sort things out. That's how important my time is.

When time is so valuable, you need to optimize it. I have been working before my day job, before or after lunch, after work, sometimes in the evenings or on the weekends, and during my family's naps. And sometimes not at all for days in a row. On average, I work on my side project between 0 and 10 hours a week. I rarely spend more than an hour at a time on it — everything I do is broken down into small pieces.

Also, I realized a few months back that my work contained tasks that could be delegated, like create content, answer emails, research… so I posted an ad on We Are Virtual Assistants and an assistant named Meagan was the second one to answer. It worked great almost instantly, and she is now helping me 10 hours a month. This has been a real game changer, because it kept me motivated by removing tasks I did not like and giving me time with my family or other important tasks.

How have you attracted users and grown Asana Superheroes?

I don't recall the details, but I think my idea for the prototype of Templana was actually confirmed by someone posting about a specific need he had on Quora. That might seem crazy right now, but at the time it was the only place talking about Asana and providing questions and answers.

I used the Quora community for a while to validate new ideas and share news. Then I moved to the unofficial Asana Google Group, and then to the official Asana community that launched last year.

If you don't talk about what you do, nobody will.

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Here's a breakdown of Templana's traffic sources over the last three months:

  • Direct: 45%
  • Google: 43%
  • Referral: 10%
  • Social: 2%

Most of my new traffic comes from Google. I find it very hard to reach people in general. Even with an official community, you can't spam everyone with your products and services. And people come in to ask a specific question or read a specific answer; they don't stick around reading every single post.

So I stay active (I am among the top 10 worldwide active users) and answer many questions, some of them sometimes leading to one of my projects, but mostly building up a reputation and also learning! Before the community, I had no idea what my level of expertise was, or if I could actually help people. Now I know that I can definitely help, and I'm actually thinking of building a consulting business one day!

Templana

We tried to use Google AdWords, but they refused our ads because it included the brand "Asana". Other brand names are forbidden unless they give specific agreement to Google. Apparently if you keep pushing you might get some ads accepted though. I think we tried to create ads without the word "Asana", but as you can imagine it did not go well. And when you sell a template for as low as $2, you always end up losing money, so AdWords was probably not a good match for us at the time.

Thanks to my various projects and Templana most of all, I have about 15k email addresses of Asana users that I can push content to. That allows me to improve traction for any new product or service I create. But interactions are still desperately low. Asking a question by email to 15k people and only getting 10 answers tops is usually because only a portion gets the email, a small portion actually reads it, and only a fraction of that considers taking the time to answer.

I recently moved away from fancy emails to black and white text emails. Conversion jumped for the first email, and fell back to regular numbers afterwards. But that is always amazing to have someone from the other side of the world you don't know answer your newsletter and tell you how he likes what you do. It always gets me so pumped up.

I know one of the best methods to get traction is to create content, like blogging very regularly. I just can't. I can't commit to such a thing. I can commit to writing a book of 100 pages, working a few weeks tops. But not writing so regularly. I don't know how to find the motivation to write about every single new feature for example. However, publishing books is a great way to show your expertise and get your first clients. But keep in mind, books are a side project on their own for which you need to choose a price, attract clients…

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

My "brand" is made of various projects, so my business model is made of several channels: I sell books, templates (either as the author or sharing revenue with the actual author), private sections where clients can share their templates with their own users, affiliate agreements with other consultants and content creators, and ads on my main website. Consulting and training are a very promising channel and I see a lot of requests coming in.

My expenses are limited: my virtual assistants for a few hours a month, and then there's hosting, domain names, and an email provider that costs a few dollars a month.

In terms of pricing my products: this has always been the hardest part. It's easier for e-books — most are between $10 and $20 I would say. So I just picked a price at random in that range and stuck with it. In terms of advertising, I had a look at other providers (I am using Google AdSense). Carbon Ads looked great, and their ads are far less intrusive than Google AdSense, but my revenue would have been divided by a factor of 10 based on their pricing.

Deciding on a price for the templates was really difficult. We knew most of the content could be re-created either by spending enough time online or by asking people from specific domains of expertise. I finally understood we were not selling products, but time and knowledge. However, at the time we were a bit paralyzed by the syndrome "What I am selling does not really have any value." We were so skeptical about our ability to sell anything that we started very low — a few dollars a piece. And then we increased. And decreased. Our revenue was too low to do any A/B testing. When you do $50 a month in sales, then $20 the next month, then $60, A/B testing is completely useless. So we tried a few prices and eventually stopped changing. Even now with more sales, I have no idea how to run a proper A/B testing campaign to see if I have enough sales.

One thing that's worked great though is our bundles. We've sold each template individually, but also as a bundle for a fraction of the price. We've sold many bundles. I keep doing the same thing: I sell my first e-book by itself, but also as a bundle with templates. The story is similar with my second e-book. I sell it by itself or in a bundle with the first e-book and templates…

I have no idea if this is useful or not, but I am always willing to give away free stuff. Everything I do is 100% refundable, no questions asked (apart from "What did you expect?"). And whenever someone has trouble using the site after a purchase, I offer a refund. When someone shares a bug with me, I immediately offer free stuff as a thank you. It is a low price to pay to avoid tons of users running into a bug and not saying anything about it. Refund requests are very low: below 10%.

CMS

What are your goals for the future?

My main goal is obviously to increase revenue while decreasing the amount of manual work. As long as I keep a full-time job I cannot dedicate more than a few hours per week to my side projects. But whatever the amount made, a single dollar from a side project has a special taste. It tastes like a small victory. For this reason, I've kept email payment notifications enabled. Getting a few emails a week, even for occasionally cheap sales, feels so good.

To increase revenues, I think I have four options:

  1. Increase the number of channels by launching new projects for example. I created an "incubator" that allows me to test and nurture new ideas around Asana. But that would also mean dividing even more of my attention and energy.
  2. Improve my use of the mailing list by adding automation, perhaps with the help of an expert.
  3. Do more cross-selling by pushing users of a product to other products or services I offer.
  4. Do consulting and training in France, Belgium, and Switzerland. That should come naturally as the market grows, especially as I continue building my reputation.

A few weeks ago, I realized I had a lot of projects and services, and not enough coherence. I was not sure where to spend my time to be as efficient as possible. I started looking for a coach to help me sort everything through. Maybe build a map of the projects to cross-sell better, improve my mailing automation, change my pricing, etc. I found two coaches and started working with them. They both started off by focusing on my personal goals and motivations. Now that things are clearer, we can move onto the projects themselves.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

I would say that I faced mostly three major challenges: hacking, motivation, and lack of help.

When I started Templana, I quickly chose to start with a WordPress website hosted on a private server. This worked great until the site's audience grew and attracted the attention of hackers. That is at least my analysis in retrospect. Maybe they just find any website with a vulnerability and hack it.

Anyway, Templana got hacked a few times. By "hacked" I mean that hackers found a way to access the WordPress admin controls and added a link at the bottom of each page. This wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't used a page builder. My pages could be edited either with the native WordPress editor or with a page builder: dragging-and-dropping, then configuring blocks. I was using the latter, which means the regular editor was just empty pages and all the content was in the page builder. So whenever a hacker was adding content to the regular page, it switched away from the page builder onto the regular page, resulting in blank pages on the website!

It took a while to find the issue. It also took a while to switch back every single page to the page builder. After this happened twice in a matter of weeks, I got really fed up and almost quit. One last burst of motivation helped me decide to move away from WordPress onto a PHP framework-less website. I thought it was also a great opportunity to simplify the website to make the migration easier. So long to the poll on template page, the search engine, and so on.

As a result, the website was lighter and easier to maintain. One amazing and unexpected result was the rebirth of motivation after the migration. Indeed, the website was suddenly very easy to work with. I knew every single corner, and any attempt to hack it would be much harder because there was no administration area and everything was version controlled with Git. I am currently in the middle of a complete re-design and re-code of Templana, using the latest technologies.

The second and biggest challenge is always motivation. In my case, it really comes and goes depending on my mood, my other activities, the sales, etc. I learned to take advantage of bursts of motivation and also to let go when motivation was nowhere to be seen.

Finally, it has been hard to not receive a lot of attention and help from Asana, at least in the beginning. Now they are starting to work on their ecosystem and give attention to their partners. Some people advised me a while ago to just move on to other SaaS and adapt my tools, but I always refused. Mostly because I truly loved the product and would not want to do all this for another product. I don't have the energy to work on something I don't like. This is not just about money; it is about passion. Focusing on a niche is a great advantage because you quickly get to know everyone and everyone knows you, but it's also hard because your growth is bound to the growth of the niche. And if you depend on another brand like I do, it can all stop one day if your relationship deteriorates.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

My superpower as I like to call it is definitely Asana. Apart from being the subject of my various activities, it is the tool that allows me to do so much at the same time. Personal life, work, and side projects — everything is in Asana.

Over the years, it also helped to read a lot of books or blog posts about entrepreneurship, wellness, motivation, productivity. As long as you actually do stuff once in a while and don't just read about doing things.

Someone could argue that having so little time for the side project is an obstacle. I would say that it could be quite the opposite. If I had more time, maybe I would be tempted to spend it on things that don't really matter. The scarcity of my time forces me to focus only on what is the most important.

Last piece of advice: if you don't talk about what you do, nobody will. So setup a Buffer account and use Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn to share your journey with your personal and professional network. Soon enough people will think of you when they have a friend in need for a product or service like yours. I am known as the "Asana guy" in my networks, and that gets me a few sales and prospects.

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

A common recommendation I hear is to "fail fast, iterate, and quickly go for another idea if that does not work," but my own experience would beg to differ. I never thought I would be so patient, being here after four years and still having fairly small revenue. But I do believe my time to market was not right and my chance for an increase might be around the corner.

So my main suggestion would definitely be to target a niche. Especially if this niche is something you like. You need to be able to work on things you like because the time spent on side projects is time you don't spend on other things like family, hobbies, or sports. You need to be pretty damn motivated to keep it going long enough. Prepare yourself for a long run.

Keep in mind your side project might not generate any money for a while. But a side project can help you get a job like it did for me. Side projects look really good on a résumé, and you will probably be able to talk about them for hours. However, make sure to be very clear about whether or not you intend to keep them going after you get hired. Your superiors or co-workers might argue that you are not 100% engaged in your work if you keep side projects. Most people don't get what side projects are about.

I found that having multiple subjects to work on was a good thing — sometimes projects just need "time off" and not more features. But having multiple projects should not be an excuse not to tackle important subjects like marketing, a thing that all developers usually suck at (I do, big time).

Finally, don't spend time on the details. I know you'll want to build a "feature-complete product" before launch — we've all done it once. But we should never do it twice. You get an idea for a service or a product? Buy an HTML template (yes, even if you are a web developer), get a logo from Fiverr (yes, even if you are a designer), get a domain name from Hover, and launch as quickly as possible. Do not code too many features. Wait for people to ask for them. And find a way to talk to your customers. Even if they say they need your stuff, only trust their wallets. You can set up a pre-order page on Gumroad for example, or ask for a PayPal payment in advance.

Where can we go to learn more?

You can have a look at all my projects on my website and follow me on Medium and Twitter. If you have any question or think you help, reach out or leave a comment below!

Bastien Siebman , Founder of Asana Superheroes

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