Combining Passive Income Dreams to Create a Viable Business

Christian Beck

Co-founder of UX Power Tools, and Principal Design Partner at Innovatemap

I'll just come right out and say that creating UX Power Tools was initially driven by a desire to make side income.

After much appeal by a family member to invest in rental properties, I started looking for income opportunities doing things I actually knew how to do. Design seemed… well… natural.

Today, my co-founder Jon and I do in fact have a higher mission to help UX designers become faster and more efficient with design tools — particularly Sketch. It just didn't start that way.

In our day jobs as UX designers serving startup and scale-up businesses, we've developed all kinds of efficiencies for starting new projects. Time is of the essence, and many companies we work with are on strict timelines to close funding rounds, build their MVPs (minimum viable products), and ultimately launch.

Not every great idea has to be inspired by the mission that ultimately sustains it.

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As we built out these internal efficiencies, it never occurred to us that other designers might also benefit from our methods. Once we started seriously thinking about generating passive side income (instead of the more active freelancing model), we began looking at our techniques as a means toward a sellable product.

But wait, we aren't developers… so how are we gonna sell something that isn't SaaS, or on GitHub, or React, or <some other hot new developer term>?!

So we turned to Google like everyone else to find out what we could sell.

eBooks!

Nope, nobody reads those. (Side note: People actually do read them, but we were just too lazy to write them. More on this later.)

What about UI kits?! We looked at the already-very-saturated UI kit market and realized why we never buy them. UI kits are highly stylized and damn-near impossible to customize. Holy crap, we found our calling:

A UI kit geared toward efficient, scalable, and sustainable UX design.

You see, UX designers differ from visual and graphic designers (i.e. the ones who typically construct UI kits) in one key way: We work side-by-side with developers, and though we may not like to admit it, we've learned a ton about efficiency and scale. So even though UI kits looked sexy, we felt that designers wanted something less stylized and more scalable and customizable. Like Twitter Bootstrap, but for designers.

Before finishing our inaugural kit, we posted our very first article on Medium to start building an audience. (We also tried standing outside a Starbucks trading lattes for demos of the kit, but that didn't quite work out. As they say, fail fast!)

Knowing nothing about content marketing, we just did what we thought was right and wrote a provocative article:

UI Kits Suck

This got us a lot of followers, some haters, and was a great first go at content marketing (a term I'd never heard of about 9 months ago).

Hey, remember when I said we didn't want to write an eBook? Instead, we wrote like 1,000 minutes of Medium articles — enough for several eBooks 🙄

Here's a snapshot of our stats from the past 30 days:

UX Power Tools Stats

Don't these graphs always look like they're giving you the finger?

The big spikes are when articles are posted, and the little ones are when they get shared by other popular accounts. If you look at our sales, you can see similar trends:

UX Power Tools Sales

Big spikes when we post, or when content gets broadcasted. (Note: That big spike was a new product launch that we posted across multiple channels.)

The point here is that our content directly drives our sales. We've frittered away a few dollars here and there on Twitter and Facebook ads. We've set up affiliates. But nothing has worked as immediately, consistently, and effectively as our content.

Why? Hell, I don't know. I'm a designer, not a marketer!

But I can make a guess. When we first launched the product, we learned that what was obvious to us was not obvious to others. Our way of designing had become second-nature, and given 10 minutes to rant in person, anyone listening would be drinking the Kool-Aid. Our articles just became little digital replacements of our rants.

When you are selling a product or service that represents a new way of doing things, you have to keep educating and reminding people.

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So, where are we today?

We recently launched a mobile design system after hitting our stride in the first 8 months with our web-focused design system. We've experimented with different marketing strategies, but continue to see that simple content marketing through Medium has been the biggest contributor to our success. Even better, our writing style is fun for us, so it never feels like a chore. And people in our niche seem to dig it, too!

We'd be remiss not to mention that while income may have been our initial ambition, it never drives our decisions today. Success has grown out of personal necessity, and we're beyond thrilled to share our learnings, best practices, and efficiencies with the design community. We have a passion for teaching, and it's thrilling to watch designers of all skill levels enjoy our content and find our products useful.

Our keys to success:

  • Thoughtful original content, written how normal people talk, not how PhD students write
  • Laser focus on our key value propositions: design efficiency and scalability
  • To-the-point website copy (our site is nothing special!)
  • Simple, straightforward packaging and pricing (at the time of writing this article: two products, one bundle)
  • Constant interaction with our readers and users
  • Fast, honest, and considerate customer support
  • Willingness and eagerness to create and share cool stuff!

You can follow @uxpowertools on Twitter, and feel free to say hello in the comments below!

jon , Creator of UX Power Tools

Want to build your own business like UX Power Tools?

You should join the Indie Hackers community! 🤗

We're a few thousand founders helping each other build profitable businesses and side projects. Come share what you're working on and get feedback from your peers.

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!

Courtland Allen , Indie Hackers founder

  1. 7

    I agree with the other guys, this feels more like it should be on Medium titled something like "how we came up with products and why you should buy it" rather than on here. I wanted to know when you guys started, how you built the website (As you stated you are not developers), struggles, problem customers, how they engaged with you, how marketing using blogging felt at the start vs how it is now, so on and so on. I hope IndieHackers doesn't just start letting more of this general stuff on or I'll just stick to medium. Clear attempt at drumming more business without giving any value.

    1. 10

      Thanks for the feedback. We were given the option to answer a standard Q&A or to experiment with more of a narrative. I felt that a narrative focused on how content marketing helped us would be useful since a lot of the other details of our business weren't that compelling compared the other stories on here. I also thought a break from the Q&A format might be refreshing. Maybe it still can if executed more effectively.

      I had no intention of using this to drum up business. I tried to write about the origins of our product in an entertaining way but that tone was clearly lost.

      As for your questions:

      • Started -- July 2016. Started with a 5.99/mo subscription model and it was awful. Very difficult to add value to a .sketch file on a monthly basis. Almost quit after three months but decided to give a standard download a shot ($40 unit)
      • Website -- Divi builder for Wordpress. Each iteration of the site has gotten simpler than the last partly driven by lack of time/skill to code something amazing, but also to highlight value/pains instead of sexy visuals. Divi builder makes it pretty simple to just drop in components and gives a simple overall theming functionality.
      • Technical Struggles -- Wrangling all the parts needed to start selling something and then maintain is hard. We started with a Wordpress plugin that handled subscription payments but it wasn't great. When we switched to single download we started using Gumroad. Then you have to integrate with Mailchimp. And once we started adding freebies to some of our articles, it gets hard to make sure everything is all in sync. Now we are writing on Medium, broadcasting on social, embedding Gumroad or Email signups into articles, firing off Mailchimp automations, then handling customer questions in Zoho Desk. We're never really sure we're doing it right and I screw things up weekly.
      • Problem Customers - Been lucky enough not to really have them. We have given refunds when people complain. We are very clear that we all sales are final but if someone pushes back, we just relent. Other than that, customers may ask us tons of questions but we happily answer them. I'm sure there are more dissatisfied customers that are silent but we do send out surveys asking for feedback (using Google Forms)
      • How they engage - Twitter, Email and Facebook. We handle a lot of questions on Twitter, and then help with support on email (through Zoho Desk). People really engage on our Medium articles as well. Forums like Reddit, DesignerNews (or here even), tend to attract more hostility so we don't spend much time there. It's much better to get someone in a private forum to help them.
      • How blogging feels today - At the start we truly didn't realize we were content marketing. We just had a ton of tricks we knew that others would love to know. And at the same time we were having fun writing with a hint of comedy or sarcasm. It felt like a natural extension of how we both work together. Today, it feels a little more targeted but when we get to writing it just flows. The hard part is when we go through periods where we just don't feel like writing. Even though we know it drives sales, we strictly only write about things we truly believe in and think will be helpful. It's hard to resist writing an article that is just meant to outright sell your product but we do from time to time. When we do we are always very up front about it--no trickery. Lastly, today it's a challenge to keep writing the fun way we always want to while also making sure we are writing effectively for our product. We've had to choose headlines we don't love or made edits that we knew would bump up readability. But overall I feel like we've stayed true to ourselves.

      Hopefully that was useful. And as you can see I'm much more verbose and less articulate without an editor :)

      1. 1

        Thanks for a great response, this is the type of thing I come to this site for, to see the back end of the business, the stuff that doesnt usually go into every other "blog post" type of thing.

        A few follow up questions.

        • How long did it take you to build the initial UI Kit (as it was a side project)

        • What did the revenue look like month to month? I often see it slowly pick up, spike, then drop again. But would be interested in a price/profit break down too.

        1. 5

          Hey KJ! Here are some answers for ya:
          -------
          Real time, the kit probably took about 40 hours to build. That includes experimentation time, testing, and real design time. It was probably spread over two or three weeks (evenings weren't always open to work!).
          -------
          Here's a breakdown of our monthly revenue, and how much the product(s) were at that time:

          • August-September ($5.99/mo): $2,032
          • October ($32 flat): $4,564
          • November ($32 flat): $3,944
          • December ($32 flat working on v2 and changing the model): $1,112
          • January ($24-48 flat): $13,664
          • February ($32-48 flat): $13,080
          • March ($40-64+ flat): $18,775.50
          • April ($48-80+ flat): $12,793
          • Up to May 26th ($48-80+ flat): $14,830.94

          Average monthly revenue is a bit below $16K as reported for the past 5 months; when this conversation was started with IH, we were averaging mid-month, so the calculation was a bit skewed.
          -------

          Around February we started playing with packaging. The product itself didn't change much, but we experimented with various bundling options. Since then, we've seen a fantastic response to the bundle option, and more than half of our sales have gone toward the bundle.

          Our original goal when we started was to generate $1K/month net income for each of us, and since January, we've each netted $1K+ per week, so the packaging and content marketing has been very successful.

          1. 3

            This comment was deleted 4 years ago.

            1. 5

              Of course! We're always learning, so we're happy to share our experiences.

              The monthly values above represent gross revenue, so once you take out taxes and such, we were sitting right around our $1K/mo per person goal. The revenue is kind of tricky because there was a good deal of churn. That was the toughest part of our original SaaS pricing model. We had around ~100 consistent subscribers, and the rest were buy-and-bye customers. A couple viral articles drove some good traffic, so that's how we were able to hit those numbers.

              Blogging is a funny thing. I think our success is honestly a combination of luck, good content, a tight niche, and a couple brave moves reaching out to design influencers.

              We are NOT spray-and-pray bloggers. I think we hold ourselves to a high bar because we get easily bored from other blog posts, so we always write things that we find genuinely interesting. We try our best to make our blog articles:

              • Timeless (equally as useful today...or in a year)
              • Engaging (lots of images and GIFs)
              • Thorough (in our tutorial posts, we go into lots of detail)
              • Honest (we're not afraid to admit when we don't know something)
              • Human (we don't like to write like academics)

              The January spike lines up with us releasing v3 of our design system which took advantage of a ton of new features that Sketch (the app it's designed for) had just released. We wrote a couple articles on these new methods that Sketch enabled, and then used those to drive traffic to our product. The articles themselves were just tutorials of Sketch, and only made mention of our product at the end - "If you thought this was cool, we use these techniques and more in our full design system. You can get it [here]!"

              Our straightforward packaging has really helped (the buyer has to make one decision...do you want to buy it or not?), and the price point has turned out to be pretty perfect. It's slightly below most of the other UI kits out there, but is far more extensible. So people recognize the value.

              Revenue will always grow as your audience grows. As of today (May 26), we have ~11.9K Medium followers, ~7.9K email list subscribers, and 2.2K Twitter followers. We've become fairly well known in the Sketch space, and we always do our best to be teachers for the community. It's helped establish a lot of trust with our customers and audience, and we work hard to maintain it through immediate customer support and interaction.

              Thanks so much for chatting with us! Anything else you're curious about? We're an open book :)

              1. 1

                I actually started reading the blogs you guys posted way back, so I was aware of you guys as soon as you posted on here. Im a designer too and Sketch is my go to for any digital design (I even find myself using it for certain logo designs these days). I think I even have some of your freebies floating around in my files somewhere.

                You guys definitely do write good, well written blogs with plenty of value. Especially so when a new sketch update drops and you go over some of the new features.

                I think that is all I have for now. Except ill leave you with one more question. What are your plans for the near future? Expand more kits, make something new, or just enjoy what you have?

                1. 2

                  Oh that's great! Well Christian and I appreciate your support so much.

                  As far as future plans, that's a great question. We have a huge backlog of ideas with everything from online courses to new design systems. Lately we've been leaning toward a brand system and style guide out of a necessity for a more efficient process at our product agency. Something to help brand designers quickly generate a beautiful brand guide fairly automatically by plugging in fonts, colors, logos, and imagery.

                  Is there anything you'd like to see us create or write about?

                  Thanks again for your support and encouragement. It's people like you who keep us motivated to continue writing and creating!

                  1. 1

                    You know, I would really love a post about how the process went. Walking through building a UI/UX kit with such an a broad use rather than a really niche design that isnt really usable in 99% of cases.
                    The planning, sketches, etc. It may be easier to do than I am imagining, but as someone who has thought about it but never done it, it seems like a very complex thing to plan out/do.

    2. 2

      Thumbs up, this reads like it was hacked together (pun intended).

      1. 2

        Yep, got it. Loud and clear.

  2. 3

    To the people who are upset that this isn't a typical interview: As Jon mentioned, I asked him to help me experiment with a different format that would be more narrative.

    I think he did a great job with it, and I'm not sure how you can read the whole thing and sincerely come away thinking he's just trying to hock a product. But clearly the format itself needs a lot more work to be on par with the typical interviews, which are a bit more in-depth, and which I've had 10 months to get right at this point.

    Anyway, I'll probably make a forum thread about it soon, but I'm going to keep experimenting with stuff. The ultimate goal is to have a higher quantity and variety of discussions with founders, which I think is a win-win. If the interviews are your favorite format, don't worry, I still plan to put out 3 interviews/week. 👍

  3. 3

    Didn't get anything useful out of this. Where is the Q&A?

  4. 3

    This isn't even an interview. There's no questions, no technical info, and reads like a white paper.

    1. 2

      Hey Ophidian, thanks for stopping by. I'm Jon, Christian's business partner and co-founder.

      We decided to try out a new format to do a bit more storytelling, and shudder to think it ended up coming across as a whitepaper. That's no good!

      Our intent was to make it lighthearted and real, while highlighting how we stumbled our way into content marketing as the primary driver for our success. As you mentioned, maybe more details would've been helpful.

      We're happy to answer any questions you have, and are willing to be transparent with any metrics you're curious to know. Cheers!