Episode #002

Fueling Growth with SEO and Content Marketing with Chris Chen of Instapainting

Learn how Instapainting founder Chris Chen used a combination of SEO and content marketing to grow his business to $32k/month in sales.


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Courtland Allen 0h 0m 7s

How do you find your first paying customers? How do you come up with good ideas and then how do you pick the right one to work on? How do you create compelling content that drives tens of thousands of customers to your website? I'm Courtland Allen and this is the Indie Hackers Podcast. And today I'll be talking to Chris Chen about all of these topics. Chris is the founder of Instapainting.com where you can upload a photo and in a few weeks you'll get a handpainted canvas in the mail done by a real artist. I did a text based interview with Chris back when I launched Indie Hackers in August and was one of the first interviews to really explode in popularity in the site. It was number one on Hacker News for a day or two in October and shortly afterwards, Chris and I sat down to record this episode. The reason Chris' interview was so popular was that he was a great example of someone finding creative ways to overcome some of what are the bigger challenges that indie hackers commonly struggle with. Chris is a super scrappy guy and just to give an example, he was in debt before he started Instapainting. And then he created his business as a means of getting himself out of debt. Two and a half years later, he's averaging $32,000 dollars (USD) a month in revenue as a one man operation. I'm really excited to have him on for this episode of the Indie Hackers Podcast. And I hope you guys enjoy it. Just wanted to give a quick shoutout to Project Manager HQ. If you're an indie hacker who's looking to build better products that people actually want to buy, go join the world's largest product manager community on Slack over at productmanagerhq.com. The community has thousands of product people around the world chatting daily about best practices for building amazing products. Once again, that's Project Manager HQ. What's up Chris? Welcome to the show.

Chris Chen 0h 1m 48s

Hi, yeah, thanks for having me here.

Courtland Allen 0h 1m 51s

Yeah, no problem, man. You and I go way back since we met in Y Combinator back in January 2011. And you also did one of the very first tech space interviews for Indie Hackers back in August which has since accumulated I think more page views than any other interview that I've ever done.

Chris Chen 0h 2m 7s

Yeah, I had no idea my previous interview is the most popular. I don't think it's not even the highest revenue one on there.

Courtland Allen 0h 2m 17s

Yeah, you're right, it's not. I think you're averaging $32,000 dollars (USD) in revenue per month which is not the highest in the site, but it's also not chump change. But part of the reason I think your interview is so compelling is how you've handled the growth. You've done a lot of cool and creative content marketing projects that drive traffic. And on top of that, the idea behind Instapainting is also super simple and I think that's inspiring to developers and entrepreneurs. So could you tell us in your own words what Instapainting is and how it works?

Chris Chen 0h 2m 45s

Well, for the average consumer, it's a way to get oil painting or custom artwork done by an actual artist in their home and give it to you. And all you have to do is provide them a photograph. It could be as easy as providing a photograph or sending multiple photographs and actually creating something more complex like swapping heads or changing backgrounds. But it allows you to get custom artwork from the artist.

Courtland Allen 0h 3m 18s

And how does Instapainting work exactly? Like let's say I've got a photo of me and I want to turn it into a painting. What exactly do I need to do? Do I just upload it to your site and you take care of the rest? Or is there any other responsibility on my end? What is the end to end process look like on your side of things? How do you coordinate with the artist and how do you make sure that my painting gets made and shipped to me?

Chris Chen 0h 3m 41s

All right, so what you have to do to, the easiest way for you to get a painting is to just upload a photo that's exactly or design a picture that's exactly how you want it to look already. And it can be a crude photoshop if you have something customized. But the artist will smooth it out. But just have the picture uploaded and then the painter or the artist will paint or draw it exactly as depicted in the picture. And then you'll just get it at your shipping address within about three weeks.

Courtland Allen 0h 4m 18s

Wow, that's, this goes back to what I was saying earlier about your idea being just so simple and unique at the same time. Most of the companies that I've interviewed for Indie Hackers are pure software companies. But you got artists and you got shipping. You got all these photo uploads and so much going on behind the scenes. It's just a lot more complex than most of the companies that I talk to and yet you manage to make it work as a solo founder. And you manage to do incredibly well for yourself. So how exactly did you come to build this business? How do you handle the complexity and what have you built to help you manage all of these artists?

Chris Chen 0h 4m 58s

When I first started, it was just manually brokering, managing transactions. So that's how I worked initially. And then just over time, more and more things became delegated to CPUs. For example, at first, I think I always, if I remember correctly I always had some sort of basic interface that allowed the artist to check the orders online. And initially there was no messaging system or anything like that. So basically, customers would have to email us to pass any messages and then we would have to tell the artist and we would have to also in fact to make sure they were on schedule.

Courtland Allen 0h 5m 37s

So that's interesting 'cause it sounds like you're saying that customers can directly message the artist and then curious, what kind of messages the customers have to send to artists?

Chris Chen 0h 5m 47s

It ranges to anything from what's the status to changes that they want to make. 'Cause we allow unlimited revisions.

Courtland Allen 0h 5m 57s

Okay, so customers can see what the painting looks like before it's shipped to them and can request changes using your platform?

Chris Chen 0h 6m 18s

Yeah, yeah. From the get go, there was always some amount of web technology involved. It was never completely manual. But from the start, there was at least a page that let you see the picture once it was completed from the artist. And then there was administration interface for the artist to lead the orders that they have and then upload a picture. That was always there from the beginning. But there was some manual overhead in facilitating communication between the artists. And so a messaging system was introduced. So that we didn't have to go back and forth like that. There's no need, because ultimately we just, we pass the message as is.

Courtland Allen 0h 6m 58s

Okay cool. So hopefully by now, most people understand what Instapainting is and how it works. And I wanna go back now to kind of the beginning of how you started Instapainting. Because today you're incredibly successful. You're on track to do $400,000 dollars in revenue as a single founder this year. But things weren't always so rosy for Instapainting. In fact I believe correctly, when you first started, you were in dire straits financially. You were at a point where your previous business hadn't been doing that well and you were in debt. And you needed money and Instapainting was kind of your answer to that problem. Which is crazy, because most when people need money, they get a job, you know, they take out a loan. And your answer to needing money was let me start this business that's immediately profitable. Can you tell us a little bit about that process and how you started Instapainting?

Chris Chen 0h 7m 54s

Well I raised money from Y Combinator after Y Combinator. But it was pretty soon after, maybe three months after YC that it was pretty clear that I needed to pivot to something new. So from the funds that was raised, (I) just spent an absurdly long time, maybe about two years or so just pivoting and trying out new ideas. And in hindsight it was probably a waste of time. But as I ran lower and lower on cash, my ideas would start focusing more, less and less social music and more on how to generate revenue immediately. And then eventually I ran out of all the cash and also had credit card debt. And that's when one of the potentially cash-generating ideas Instapainting was launched and wasn't a complete failure. And that being said, it wasn't like oh ho, holy shit, it's bringing in so much money on day one. It was, in the first three months, even the first year, it was probably, only if I took all the profits for myself as salary, it would have only been like 40 or 50,000 dollars per year salary in the first year.

Courtland Allen 0h 9m 13s

That's funny that you say only 40 to 50,000 dollars salary the first year. Because I've talked to a lot of founders of businesses and a lot of entrepreneurs who are aspiring to create something like this. And most people can only dream about having that kind of success in their first year. It's really a huge accomplishment and it's amazing that you were able to do it.

Chris Chen 0h 9m 34s

Yes, but I was focusing full time on it which meant that there was no other salary that I had. And also this is in the Bay Area so we're comparing this to a 140K starting salary for Google. It's like, yeah, if I'm only making 40K a year, I could just get a job as a software engineer and right, but I didn't wanna do that. So I just hope for the best and kept going.

Courtland Allen 0h 9m 58s

Yeah I kind of have the same mindset as you. I suspect like I, I personally had never had a full time job at any tech startup or company or otherwise. I've always been self employed or working on my own startup. Is that the case for you?

Chris Chen 0h 10m 13s

Yes. I've never had a job, actually. Yeah I mean, when I was in YC, I had just quit college. So I haven't even gone into the job market yet. I hadn't had the opportunity to go in the job market. Which is how it happened. Obviously if this Instapainting failed and I ran out of money, I would have had to have gotten a job.

Courtland Allen 0h 10m 38s

Speaking of money, let's go back a bit and talk about the period after YC. Because you'd done YC and you'd spent years just coming up with idea after idea, trying them out and moving on to the next one. But eventually you started running low on money and would you say that revenue pressure was what allowed you to come up with better and better ideas over time?

Chris Chen 0h 10m 59s

I won't say better at it but it means that would be less idealistic and more focusing on revenue.

Courtland Allen 0h 11m 8s

Do you think that having revenue pressure, like that absolute need to make money is what made it possible? You think you never would have come up with the idea for Instapainting if you weren't under that situation or were there other motivating factors?

Chris Chen 0h 11m 21s

Yeah, I wouldn't say never have come up with that idea. I guess it would have just probably taken a lot, lot longer. You know, when you have other people's or when you have enough money to cushion you you don't really have to think about problems. Like revenue.

Courtland Allen 0h 11m 35s

Yeah. That's very apparent when you look at some of these more well funded companies. You see them branching out in every direction because they have so much money in the bank that they're not constrained. They're not under any pressure to make money.

Chris Chen 0h 11m 48s

Yes. 'Cause it insulates your from signals that would otherwise prevent you from doing what's necessary. It's like pain. Without pain, you would just hurt yourself, pound yourself constantly. Without a lack of money, you don't feel any pressure to make money. So you just stumble around doing things that don't make any money. Don't make money and probably hurt you in ways you don't know because you have enough money to not care.

Courtland Allen 0h 12m 4s

Without a lack of money, you don't feel any pressure to make money. So you just stumble around doing things that don't make any money.

Chris Chen 0h 12m 10s

Don't make money and probably hurt you in ways you don't know because you have enough money to not care.

Courtland Allen 0h 12m 16s

Exactly. And not to bash on companies that raise money. Raising money gives you a lot of breathing room. And it gives you the capital to grow a lot faster than if you're trying to bootstrap. But at the same time, bootstrappers do have this unique advantage in that they're pressured to make money immediately. And if you're trying to be an indie hacker and your goal is not necessarily to become a billion dollar company but to make enough money to provide for you and yours, then focusing on making money is crucial. And on that note, with Instapainting, because you were so low on money you had to do a lot of things from the get go to make money immediately. How did you set up your initial product? How did you make money right out of the gate with Instapainting?

Chris Chen 0h 12m 59s

It was just a basic page. It said what you gotta do will get you a painting. First type of painting we sold was called mixed media, which is actually a new product in the market. So there was already a bunch of old sites like at least 10 years old doing, brokering oil paintings from particular Chinese companies. And they do these 100 percent painted oil paintings. So when we started, we actually introduced a new product that wasn't really in the market. It's called mixed media. It's printed and then painted. And we made that clear, it was called mixed media. So because of that, it was half the price of an oil painting. It would still look like an oil painting. So that took off. I don't know if the effect would have been the same if I had introduced the same product as existing competitors which was oil painting and then charged the same price. Right. So where did your first customers come from?

Courtland Allen 0h 13m 55s

Right. So where did your first customers come from?

Chris Chen 0h 13m 59s

I posted on Reddit's subreddit called r/startups. And it's pretty small subreddit. But it's probably still full of people that are trying to try new things. But yeah it was a small subreddit. And generally I never have any success posting on Reddit. But especially with something trying to sell something. But that worked. I would recommend r/startups. You have to frame your thing, you post as a startup.

Courtland Allen 0h 14m 22s

Yeah, yeah. Indie Hackers was on r/startupsI think the weekend that I launched back in early August. And someone, some random person who I didn't know submitted it there and it was a really good source of feedback and stuff. So I can see how

Chris Chen 0h 14m 35s

It's not very highly trafficked, I believe, but at least it wasn't at the time. Definitely much smaller than Hacker News. But that's when I first started, that's where I first posted and I figured if this, it'll work, this wall here. I got a TechCrunch article later and then I got on Hacker News later, three months later I believe.

Courtland Allen 0h 14m 57s

Cool. So I got a wide variety of topics that I wanna talk to you about today. And one of them we already kind of touched on. But I wanna go back and get a few more details because I'm sure a lot of people, myself included are curious about how Instapainting works behind the scenes and aren't quite sure how it works. So if you go to the site, it's actually a marketplace. You're connecting to people doing the paintings with customers like myself who are going to look for a painting. But as the customer, it doesn't seem like a traditional marketplace. From my point of view, the customer, it seems like a store. So I just go in, upload my photo and poof, some magic happens and I get a painting back in the mail. But behind the scenes you actually got this entire user interface for painters to take requests and to communicate with customers and do all sorts of stuff. So I'm curious, how did you build that and how does Instapainting work?

Chris Chen 0h 15m 48s

So like I explained earlier, when it first started there was some degree of technology and automation just because of my background. And so one of the first things I did was create pages for the artists who sent the status of their order, upload pictures and viewed the orders that we have assigned them.

Courtland Allen 0h 16m 6s

And who were these artists at first?

Chris Chen 0h 16m 8s

It was just one supplier when we first started. No, zero suppliers when we first started then I found one after. The sales remain. But actually the very first artists were my roommates. So they were painted in New Year's Day. That was one of our selling points. So they painted the first few orders basically at cost. And I even pitched in some work.

Courtland Allen 0h 16m 11s


Chris Chen 0h 16m 33s

And we managed to barely ship those on time. Yeah, we were doing, these we're mixed media. We were doing them on the floor in our apartment and I was painting. I was helping to paint parts of it. Because in mixed media, it was mostly about adding in texture.

Courtland Allen 0h 16m 33s

You were painting? It's like tracing, right?

Chris Chen 0h 16m 58s

Yeah, kind of like tracing. It's mixing which is the hard part. But they would mix everything for me and I would just help apply the paint. Because we were on a tight deadline. I made some crazy promises in the beginning.

Courtland Allen 0h 17m 11s

Yeah, you sold something like 2,000 dollars worth of painting and had a two week delivery deadline, right?

Chris Chen 0h 17m 17s

Yeah, I think it was like two weeks at the time. Now we say three weeks. But at the time I said two weeks. Yeah, so it was really expensive. Because printing it in San Francisco on canvas was extremely expensive. It cost more to print on canvas in San Francisco now than it does from our marketplace of artists.

Courtland Allen 0h 17m 42s

Wow. Okay so your first artists were your roommates and basically that was just so you could fulfill this two week deadline. But then eventually you went out and you found a supplier in China. And you've got the software that you made that you were talking about earlier for the artist. What does this software do and how do you train the artist to use it?

Chris Chen 0h 18m 4s

Yeah, just to clarify. After launching that, when it was made by the artist, some artists who tried to contacted us. And we started using them as that.

Courtland Allen 0h 18m 18s

Oh cool, so you didn't even have to find them.

Chris Chen 0h 18m 21s

Generally, no. The only time I had to find them was when Christmas hit the second year. On the second year of operation and we didn't have enough suppliers to fulfill Christmas orders. The second year was one of the biggest Christmas years. But yeah, sorry, what was the question again?

Courtland Allen 0h 18m 39s

Yeah, you're talking earlier about the different types of software involved in running Instapainting. And specifically, you mentioned there's some kind of behind the scenes software that you wrote for the artists to use. So I'm just kinda curious. What does that software do and what's it look like?

Chris Chen 0h 18m 54s

It was just expanding. It was just expanding the current website. Yeah and the scope and functionality of it. Eventually added a messaging system. At some point we also had a translation system. But it was easier to just restrict to artists. Because there's so many artists, just restrict to artists, the ones that could speak english for the time being. So this messaging system, and then we added just more features, automatic email notifications. We added a bidding system that takes in account their customer rating, their price and the turnaround time so that it can be optimized for the best artist based on those factors.

Courtland Allen 0h 19m 36s

The artist has all sorts of features, this entire behind-the-scenes ecosystem going on where they're messaging customers and bidding on the most promising customers. But from your customer's perspective, all of this is invisible, right? You never talk about this to any of them.

Chris Chen 0h 19m 50s

Yeah, it's completely irrelevant to the customer what technology's behind it, right? And you know, that's probably, probably a common mistake by startups is to, consumer startups at least, to try to pitch how they're different by going into their technology. When what's really important is the end result for the customer. That's why it wasn't important to make it known that it's a marketplace when everyone is trying to build a platform and a marketplace. But it doesn't matter to the customer, really what it is. In the end, it's just ,all right. Can I get this product that I want and how easily can I get it and quality, those are the things that are important to the customer.

Courtland Allen 0h 20m 41s

Right, and what's important to you as a founder? Do you spend a lot of time focusing on automating things so you can spend less time in dealing.

Chris Chen 0h 20m 49s

Yeah. Automation is important and it'll get you there 90 percent of the way. Because there's always room for improving automation. But for the 10 percent of the people that aren't served by the automation or it doesn't work for them, we fill that in with customer service. Where what previously, for in the case of Google, those 10 percent are just forgotten. They provide a cheap product and absolutely no customer service. But I like to take Apple's ethos which is to provide the best customer service. And I don't know what level they have of automation behind the scenes. But automation, it's to provide, if we have to manually fulfill the experience of helping you get a painting at the very least and use automation on our end to lower the cost for ourselves right? But then you know you can't just stick automation in and then just let it run by itself and just be happy with the 90 percent of the cases it works for. So anytime anyone has an issue with anything we always respond within 24 hours. Any issue that may be covered by our website, for example a lot of people get confused by some UI occasionally, right? We always help them, and doesn't matter how they use the website. The customer is never using the website wrong.

Courtland Allen 0h 22m 19s

Right, that's what I think is interesting about customer service. It's one of those mantras you hear in the startup world that delivering good customer service is important. But until you've been there and tried it you don't realize just how hard it is. You get emails at all times of the day and night. And part of good customer service is being able to respond to these emails in a timely fashion. I think you said you do yours in under an hour. But that's tough specially if you're a maker. And these emails are interrupting your kind of uninterruptible time. You're coding or working on some project. Also, looking back at what you're saying, pretty much no matter what the problem is, the customer is never at fault. It's always supposed to be your fault. At least you need to treat it that way. And psychologically, for a lot of people, that's much easier said than done. So between these two issues, I think most people end up sucking at customer support which is why being good at it is such a big differentiating factor.

Chris Chen 0h 23m 9s

Yeah. And I had the same attitude. I had that attitude before too. Whereas like, well I built all this automatic technologies. You should be able to use it. Or that the customer should be able to use the technology that's there. Like for example, there's a way to upload and talk to your artist. Occasionally some people will still email us and ask us to forward a message for them. And we'll forward the message for them because somehow, the customer doesn't realize that they can just type a message on the page. So we do that for them and as far as automation goes we have to figure out how do we make it more easy to use? Because apparently some people are still getting confused. Oh yeah, and you can't do 100 percent of automation. Because there's always gonna be someone who you didn't account for. Maybe someone who's blind, for example. Or someone who is dyslexic. There's a lot of cases where people, there's a lot of people that you won't account for when using set. Or just randomly, someone would just not see something. You can never account for 100 percent the computer to fully know until you have like computer general and intelligence provide your customer support.

Courtland Allen 0h 24m 33s

Yeah, exactly, and that's a gap that automation can't fix 'cause that's where it becomes, I mean I guess that's where it becomes absolutely crucial to outsource things, and to delegate the task to other people so you spend less of your own time on sort of mundane processes and spend more time doing things that matter. Like focusing on growth or learning from customers, improving your product, et cetera. So what I'm curious about hearing is about how the automated parts of Instapainting have changed over time. Because I know in the beginning, it was probably a lot more manual effort for you to run the site than it is nowadays. There's probably a lot of processes that was just rote repetition or that a machine could have done for you or you could have outsourced to somebody else, you've been now able to automate away. So what are the processes that you've smoothed out over time to be able to give yourself more free time to work on what really matters?

Chris Chen 0h 25m 20s

Most of it is just providing a way to communicate with your artist directly. For things like revisions, for things like shipping information because artists ship their painting. And just providing the information that the artist would normally provide someone who orders. And making that automatically surfaced on the website so there's less pure emails asking about the status or whatever. Because we're in a small niche, we only do paintings. It's a fairly standard procedure. And to find out what to automate, it's really simple. If you do it, if you're doing your business, you will know what to automate. Because if you're doing the business as I said, let's say you're doing oil paintings, then your primary goal is to provide oil paintings as ordered by the services that you promised to provide to the customers. And that should be your primary goal. And you should be doing that manually if you have no automation. So if you're doing that manually, you will know what takes up most of your time and just provide some sort of automation for these things that take up time. Write software to handle things or to produce the task load for that specific subtask. You'll see if you do that manually. And eventually you approach 90 percent of automation. And 90 percent of automation, you'll still see 10 percent of the stuff that people are confused about and then you just keep iterating and keep identifying what's taking up that remaining 10 percent. What's the thing that's coming in 10 percent of the time. Maybe people keep emailing about tracking number. And so, even if your technology goes there and has displays the tracking number, it could only be 90 percent of the way. It could only be covering 90 percent of people who see the page for some reason, right? So you would have to think how can I fix that issue now? So you would have to go and actually identify and look at it and advise and try to see why 10 percent of the people are not getting the tracking, not understanding it in the UI. So it's an iterative process. And that's another reason why it's important to fill in that 10 percent with manual customer service. Because then you would actually, it becomes your problem and you really feel it. I'm a very lazy person. I don't like doing things manually. And yeah, I always dread it when I have to do something manually and I have to do some work. So when I funnel those customer service back to me, it makes it really, really pressing for me to automate it away.

Courtland Allen 0h 28m 9s

Right, right. So like today for example. Let's say you wanted to stop working on Instapainting. And you wanted to hand it off or you had to sell it to someone else. Who would you have to hire to keep the business running? Would it be just a customer support person who knows the app inside out? Would you need to hire developers? Like what parts of the business require attention from you in your day to day?

Chris Chen 0h 28m 30s

Yeah, it would only need a customer support person. To basically handle high level customer support like issuing refunds or arbitrating disputes between artists and customers.

Courtland Allen 0h 28m 41s

That's awesome to have gotten things so far. So I wanna switch gears a little bit and talk about another topic. Specifically I wanna talk about how you've grown Instapainting. Because I think finding customers is a very important and obviously challenging problem. But you've been very diligent in identifying different ways to bring traffic to your site and grow your business and grow your revenue. And one of the things that you talked about in your text-based interview was SEO. You mentioned that for the first six months or I think maybe a year of Instapainting's life, your growth was pretty stagnant and you weren't really doing anything on the SEO front till a friend kind of showed you the ropes. And eventually you were able to get Instapainting to rank number two or number one on Google for your desired key word. So searches like photo to painting or stuff like that. Can you let us know what that process was like of learning about SEO and improving your ranking?

Chris Chen 0h 29m 32s

Yeah we rose in the search results gradually over a period of, well actually it mostly happened in the second year, over the second year. And that's because that's when I shifted the focus to SEO. It started with some basic HTML changes. But then we were into link building and content marketing. Yeah I'm still not an expert on it and I still don't consider myself and expert on it. But my friend Ryan Bednar who now does a startup called RankScience, yes. RankScience. He gave me some simple tips and I've just been following his tips. And the most important thing is just trying to get links in. That's the meat of SEO. It's hard 'cause nobody knows how Google's algorithm works but link building should be the main thing. You get more people to link to your site about what your site is about. And it'll boost your rankings.

Courtland Allen 0h 30m 38s

Yeah I should really know more about SEO given that I run a content site. But in addition to SEO, and maybe it's tight end is your content marketing strategy. You've done all sorts of cool effective things to get people writing about Instapainting and linking back to your site. For example, you made a painter robot that can autonomously replicate an artist's painting. You made a two player version of the popular video game, 2048 and got it to the top of Hacker News. And you even toured art factories in China and then wrote about your experiences. So you've done an incredible amount of really interesting stuff and turned them into awesome blog posts that have been linked to tens of thousands of times all over the web. So I'm curious how did you find the time to do all of this stuff? And what's your day to day like?

Chris Chen 0h 31m 20s

Generally, those things don't take up too much time. It'll be like one week or two weeks of full time work. The longest was the robot which was about two weeks of full time work. And yeah, I spend time thinking about obviously what to do next. The business is streamlined except for growth. And so the content market initiatives is growth. So it's not necessarily taking time of business. The things that I consider time off besides customer service which doesn't take up that much time, is developing new features that automate more of the business or you know, make it otherwise somehow better. Or marketing. Those are the two things that take up my time. Marketing and features. And so I just have to spend that time, a week or two weeks on marketing.

Courtland Allen 0h 32m 19s

I'm jealous, because I'm nowhere near that point in Indie Hackers. I spend hours and hours probably every week just finding people to interview, editing and annotating interviews. Handling social media and answering emails, posting on the Indie Hackers forum, working on the podcasts, et cetera and all. So really almost all of my time is consumed by just doing the minimum necessary things to keep my business running. So it's hard to find time to spend on things like growth and new features. But I think that's one of the big challenges for being a solo founder. And I wanna ask you what's your experience been as a solo founder? Because I know you did YC as a solo founder and you've been on your own since then. And in fact, you're one of the rare solo founders to even get into YC. So what do you think are the unique challenges or advantages to being on your own as a founder?

Chris Chen 0h 33m 13s

I mean I could do anything I want. I've seen companies dissolve because of founder disputes. I mean, a lot of companies are structured in that there is a two equal founders, right? A 50/50 split or two founders that really wanted to take the companies in their own directions. And there's a lot of company breakups. And that would just destroy the companies, right? And so being a single founder, I don't have to worry about those things. I can make any product decision that I want to my detriment or to my benefit.

Courtland Allen 0h 33m 47s

Do you find that it's challenging not having a co-founder to bounce your ideas off of?

Chris Chen 0h 33m 51s

You can bounce ideas off anybody. It doesn't have to be a co-founder. As long as you have friends, perfectly fine. Even then I wouldn't focus too much on bouncing ideas off people that aren't gonna pay you. They're probably mostly a waste of time. You should just spend that time, and I think that's another benefit of a single founder. You can spend more time and focus on just getting something out there. You can ask the real world, the real audience that you're gonna potentially have for feedback by letting them use your thing. And you can work a lot faster. There's less time spent making decisions, I'd imagine. I don't know. I never made decisions collaboratively with another person.

Courtland Allen 0h 34m 34s

So is this part of your, would you say this is a philosophy that you subscribe to, that you should never have a co-founder? Or is there a situation maybe with if Instapainting were to fail, you started another company where you would consider working with somebody else and bringing on a co-founder?

Chris Chen 0h 34m 51s

No, yeah I will try a co-founder. But it would definitely in a non-equal, the second person would have less equity or would have less say. Effectively, in this the co-founder would be like, cheap labor. Just an invested early cheap labor.

Courtland Allen 0h 35m 9s

Yeah I think that's an interesting take. Because the conventional wisdom is to just split the equity down the middle 50/50 every time, no questions asked. And that is supposedly a helpful way to do things to avoid co-founder disputes. But at the same time there's something to be said for people who recognize that like, hey, maybe I'm in a situation where I'm contributing to the business full time and my co-founder is in school or has a different job or came on late. And those situations, people aren't going to be happy for very long with a perfectly equal split. So I think it's worth considering doing things in this kind of unconventional way. But I wanna move on to talk about user growth and marketing. I want to change topics and kind of get back to what we were discussing earlier. 'Cause I think it's something that a lot of people struggle with and a lot of people would love to hear your thoughts on specifically how do you avoid this trough of sorrow period? For those that are listening, you don't know what the trough of sorrow is, the trough of sorrow is this phenomenon where after you launch, you might get a lot of press on TechCrunch or Hacker News or Product Hunt or maybe you don't. But after you launch, you end up with this long sustained period of very little growth. And very few users coming to your product or app that you built. And I'm curious what you did at Instapainting to deal with that period and what your advice is for other people.

Chris Chen 0h 36m 32s

Yeah. You have to look at, when you're doing a startup you have to think, oh I can use the press as one of my tools. The press gives you some traffic, but it's temporary, right? And you have to look at your tools that you can use to market. So there's one time press which will give you a boost of traffic. That doesn't really help much because that's one time, right? Another thing press does it it also helps with SEO, right? Because it's a reputable site that links to you. Another thing that helps is one time traffic could potentially get other people to share and become viral, right? And that almost 99.999 percent of the time never happens. And even if something goes viral, it's also temporary. You know, like Pokemon Go.

Courtland Allen 0h 37m 24s

That's a really interesting point you made about the SEO, because I think a lot of people underestimate the SEO benefits they get from their initial launch and they just have no idea why they're getting an increased amount of traffic after their launch. But with Indie Hackers, I launched on Hacker News which as far as I can tell, doesn't have that many SEO benefits. And people aren't really searching Indie Hackers on Google anyway. But since launching then, I've continued to use Hacker News as like a major source of traffic. I try to get one or two interviews to the top of Hacker News every month. And I'm usually pretty successful. And it accounts for about half of all my traffic in total. But in between those spikes of traffic from Hacker News, I spend a lot of time looking at Google Analytics and trying to understand exactly where my traffic is coming from. Because those sources are a lot more organic and they're a lot more under control. Sources like my newsletter. There are sources like social media, Twitter, Facebook, people directly coming to the site, et cetera. So they're a little bit more of a barometer of like how healthy the traffic is to Indie Hackers.

Chris Chen 0h 38m 27s

What's your breakdown from social links in versus Google?

Courtland Allen 0h 38m 32s

Yeah, I get about 50 percent more traffic from social sources like Twitter and Facebook and Reddit, not counting Hacker News, than I do from organic Google searches. Although organic Google search traffic has been growing pretty steadily since I launched.

Chris Chen 0h 38m 46s

I'd say even social links in will die down.

Courtland Allen 0h 38m 50s

Yeah, definitely. People sharing articles on Facebook or Twitter, those things don't last very long. At least they haven't for me. But the good thing about Indie Hackers is that it's a content website. So effectively, I'm constantly adding new fuel to the fire. Every week I have three or four different interviews that I'm putting out there and more people are sharing them as opposed to Instapainting where you've got a product or a service, right? People are Googling you because they actually want your service but they're probably not constantly sharing your articles about Instapainting.

Chris Chen 0h 39m 21s

Yeah. I've never found the case where people sharing, a lot of people share on Facebook, having it go viral or having it sort of snowball. So the thing is like, one of the main things that people over rely on that I saw on our batch. One thing common is they do the launch and then magically things will work out after the launch. You know, once you get enough critical mass. That was the word that was used. Critical mass, which is once you get enough people to use your product, it will start growing by itself. Then it doesn't. I've never seen that happen before.

Courtland Allen 0h 40m 7s

Yeah, it's not a very common thing. I think it's just something that people should not rely on.

Chris Chen 0h 40m 12s

Yeah, you shouldn't rely on that. You should be able to rely on some way to get consistent traffic in. And those ways are SEO, paying for advertising, which you can do but you shouldn't do. Not for something that's a free product, at least. If you do advertising, you really have to spend a lot of time to optimize the ads so that it actually comes out positive for you. Because when you first start out doing advertising on AdWords or anywhere, you're blowing a lot of money just to see what works and what doesn't. You won't see immediate results with that. That's for a paid product. If you don't have a paid product, you probably shouldn't be advertising.

Courtland Allen 0h 40m 53s

I take it you've done a lot of advertising for Instapainting?

Chris Chen 0h 40m 56s

No, I've learned a lot about advertising. I don't think there are any ads that are currently running now. In the beginning, we even tried out ads. And I noticed that if you put in like a few hundred dollars that it's not enough to really optimize for what text or keywords actually convert and come out positive for you. So we stopped doing that. We stopped doing that. But in any case, we use content marketing. I use content marketing as an alternative to traditional advertising. And it's much cheaper.

Courtland Allen 0h 41m 29s

Yeah, it's certainly a lot cheaper. And I think the textbook story that I hear when people talk about ads, at least in the context of fledgling startups is, oh I poured 500 or 1000 dollars into Google and Facebook and nothing came of it. My money's just evaporated. I think people just need to put more time into it and do more analysis.

Chris Chen 0h 41m 47s

Yeah, it requires ongoing, you really have to spend time and look at it and optimize it. You have to see which keywords are actually converting. Not all keywords may convert. Well, some might be too expensive, the CPC cost, the cost per click might be too expensive to actually make a profit. So you have to disable those depending on how other people are bidding. So yeah.

Courtland Allen 0h 42m 16s

So with Instapainting, I know that you don't look at it as any sort of overnight success story. But I'm curious if it was consistent, steady, smooth sailing from the beginning or was there ever a point when you look at how things were going, and there was some sort of insurmountable challenge in front of you and you thought that there's a real possibility of you failing?

Chris Chen 0h 42m 35s

I think in the first year, before I had, before I focused on SEO, after TechCrunch. Traffic obviously died down after TechCrunch but I noticed that there was still coming, people were still coming in somehow, finding us. And eventually a long time later I realized it was because the TechCrunch article had, it was ranking for search terms related for getting a photo turned into a painting. The TechCrunch article was, and people were finding the TechCrunch article.

Courtland Allen 0h 43m 6s

And then coming to you indirectly through the TechCrunch article.

Chris Chen 0h 43m 9s

Before that I was struggling to grow in any way. And so that was when I had doubts. That was when I was making about 40,000, 30 or 40,000 dollars per year for me in profit. And I was thinking like, can I keep doing this? And I was struggling to find a way to grow. And that was the first year before I had figured out any growth strategy like SEO or content marketing.

Courtland Allen 0h 43m 40s

It sounds like actually things were kind of bleak until you hit your SEO strategy. But I'm curious what your goals are for the future, what your approach will be. Because right now you've got SEO kind of figured out. Your content marketing is working wonders. It's just hit after hit. And we'll talk about that a little bit more because it's pretty cool what you've been doing with content marketing. But I'm curious what your goals are for the future. Are you just gonna double down on those two strategies?

Chris Chen 0h 44m 1s

Yeah, constantly looking at new growth channels. And that's probably gonna be the main thing. Now that the business is mostly automated, you can mostly focus on growth. The point of a tech down company is the ability to scale it up to meet any demand. Or just to scale it up, right? So we have the ability to scale it up. We can make 10,000 paintings a month. We can make a million paintings a month, probably.

Courtland Allen 0h 44m 26s

That's a lot.

Chris Chen 0h 44m 27s

I don't know about a million.

Courtland Allen 0h 44m 29s

Well on that note, one of your content marketing articles was actually about the backend of Instapainting. Specifically you went to Dafen, China and also Yiwu. And I believe it's in one of those cities where you said 60 percent of the world's oil paintings are made. So what was that trip like?

Chris Chen 0h 44m 44s

Yeah, at some point I guess, Dafen China which is next to Shenzen which is next to Hong Kong is where 60, according to Wired magazine, 60 percent of the world's oil paintings are made. It's not so much the backend is that a lot of our suppliers, a lot of our artists are Chinese or from China. Not all of them, but most of them are. And most of them that dominate industry, that are on Etsy or that are on Ebay are Chinese suppliers. So we went to, we wanted to go and visit and see how, what it was like, these people that are doing this, right? And we also visited some factories at the site. So the people doing photo repaintings do not work in the factories because it is much more expensive work. The stuff that goes in the factories are so, it's generally abstract artwork and done by just a factory worker that applies a brush. Kind of like how I just painted the initial orders. So I went to visit some of these factories just to see. And some of these factories can do thousands or a hundred thousand pieces of the same painting.

Courtland Allen 0h 45m 55s

Yeah, I saw a photo on your blog that was a row of canvases in this warehouse with the same guy going down these hundreds of paintings with the same brush and just doing the same stroke on painting after painting after painting. And then when he was finished, he would turn around and do a new stroke on painting after painting after painting.

Chris Chen 0h 46m 11s

Yeah. And that was just something interesting that we saw there. Those are not actually Instapainting painters. Some people think that, of course. I was reading, after reading just the title or just looking at the picture. A lot of people don't read the whole article.

Courtland Allen 0h 46m 25s

So who is doing the Instapainting paintings nowadays?

Chris Chen 0h 46m 29s

Just artists in China. Literally just artists in China from their home. As they would for, well there's also other artists, they paint from their home. But most of them are just artists in China. They paint from their home. The ones that are in China generally come, a middleman is involved and they submanage orders across hundreds of artists. And so they basically use the website for them. But artists can also directly sign up and we have artists outside of China that are directly signed up. Because english, so they can directly use the website. We made it so that onboarding artists, it's a really simple process now. They just register and they can receive orders immediately. And we have checks and balances to make sure they don't screw us. We don't pay them until they finish the paintings. So if you're planning to take an order and then complete crap, right? Then you're not gonna get paid if it's obviously way below our quality.

Courtland Allen 0h 47m 39s

Are those checks and balances something you guys have always had or was there a time in the past where you actually got burned by artists?

Chris Chen 0h 47m 46s

I don't think we've ever been burned by artists. Generally they're all legitimate and actually produce work to the best of their ability at least. But yeah, we didn't initially have the money back guarantee. But now we have that as an additional check and balance against bad artists. Even after you've gotten the painting, you don't like it, you can return it. We'll refund.

Courtland Allen 0h 48m 13s

Yeah, cool. That piece of you going to Dafen China was super interesting and it drove a lot of traffic to your site. And another thing that you've done in the content marketing arena was to and I mentioned this earlier. You built a robot that can autonomously replicate an artist painting and then you blogged about that too. So can you tell us about how you built that robot?

Chris Chen 0h 48m 31s

I already had some experience working with Arduino and other hardware stuff. So it wasn't a cold start. That's why it only took two weeks. But I just decided to reapply some knowledge I already has which was working with motors and Arduinos and stuff like that. And I just decided to reapply this to my current business. How could I take that and build something that's related to paintings. It was just basically I had a cool idea and I really wanted to try it out. I had the idea, oh I can connect a Wacom tablet with this 2D plotting device. Spread some software for it to control it. And it should in theory be able to let you paint on a Wacom tablet and then replicate it, right? And I really wanted to just see if that would actually work. And it worked, pretty much.

Courtland Allen 0h 49m 29s

So the fact that you created this robot and the fact that you went to China and wrote about it, do you just sit around all day coming up with ideas like this? Do you have a list that you brainstorm, that you're working off of?

Chris Chen 0h 49m 41s

Generally when inspiration strikes me, and also I'm in the background constantly thinking about, basically anytime inspiration strikes me or opportunity comes up, I will try to jump on it.

Courtland Allen 0h 49m 54s

Right, I think coming up with ideas, like actively coming up with ideas is very difficult to do.

Chris Chen 0h 49m 59s

It's not difficult if you are not trying to come up with ideas but rather you be open to ideas when they come. You gotta be opportunistic. You should open your eyes to all possible ideas and not just ones that you want to think about.

Courtland Allen 0h 50m 14s

Yeah, I was gonna ask you almost that exact question. Because one of the things I hear a lot from founders is that they really want to get into entrepreneurship and they really want to create something, but they just can't come up with an idea. And there's so much advice online for what you should do. There's this whole mantra of solve your own problem and then there's what you're saying which is that you can't actively come up with an idea, you have to let inspiration strike you. And I think it's all frustrating for a lot of people because they're not sure exactly when inspiration is gonna strike or because they think to themselves, hey, I don't have any unique problems worth solving. So what do I do? Do you have a process? And when you were going through a period of developing new products and trying to work on those before you came up with Instapainting, what was your process like for coming up with ideas?

Chris Chen 0h 51m 1s

Well I definitely wasn't solving my own problem. It wasn't because I was trying to get a painting. I wasn't an artist, I wasn't trying to get orders either. I mean my strategy was just to try a lot of ideas and be open to ideas that other people pose or be open to ideas that come that you may not be equipped to do necessarily, right? So I was thinking on working on something completely different from selling paintings before.

Courtland Allen 0h 51m 38s

And what was that?

Chris Chen 0h 51m 59s

It was an online ordering system for restaurants. So I build all this software so that restaurants can pay me something like 50 dollars per month so they get their own online ordering system, right? So they could put their menu online and take payment and get an order that gets sent to an iPad. And it was really hard for me to sell. I went manually walking door to door in San Francisco. Even tried to do it in China. And pitching restaurants and it was difficult but I actually got some sales, right? So I was gonna continue doing that. But then I got an idea or someone inspired me for this Instapainting idea, custom oil painting photos idea. And I thought, wow, that sounds like a great idea. I should try it. Just to be open to ideas when they come in.

Courtland Allen 0h 52m 31s

Yeah and it's interesting because neither one of those were ideas that you, neither one of those were problems that you were solving for yourself, right? You didn't need to turn photos into paintings and you didn't especially need a restaurant ordering system so you were kind of violating the pattern that I've seen so many times.

Chris Chen 0h 52m 47s

Well the restaurant ordering system to be fair probably didn't work out as well. Or it may have failed completely as well. So we don't, we can't really say if that was exactly a good strategy. But I think the main thing is to be open to good ideas when they come and don't be afraid to actually spend the time to actually, that's the hardest part. Finding time to actually jump on every one of these cool ideas that'll come your way.

Courtland Allen 0h 53m 14s

Yeah, another thing that's really interesting to me in this whole idea space is this article I read that was written by Isaac Asimov like 50 or 60 years ago. And I keep tweeting about it and trying to get someone to engage me on it. 'Cause I think it's fun to talk about and it's just so interesting. But he puts forth this idea that in order to come up with an idea, what you're really doing is combining multiple inputs. Say, two experiences or two otherwise unrelated ideas. And he gives an example. He talks about Charles Darwin and this other guy, I forget the name who both traveled the world studying the differences between species. And they also both read this guy Malthus' essay on overpopulation and humans. And as a result, they both independently combined these two ideas and independently came up with the theory of evolution at around the same time. And other people when they saw the theory about evolution were like whoah this is so obvious, how can I not have thought about this? But no one had done these two things that Darwin and this other guy had done. And so no one else came up with that idea.

Chris Chen 0h 54m 16s

Yeah, that is a very good way to come up with ideas. I agree. Yeah, you should synthesize, especially if you have expertise in two different areas. You have a lot easier time finding new ideas. Even if you are a programmer and then you learn how to do hardware stuff, you have a whole world of new ideas that no one's ever done before regarding hardware stuff. Yeah, like the other ideas like the robot for example. It's not that hard to make. But if you've just spent one hour or two hours looking into how to do stuff with an Arduino, you'll see that like a whole universe of new ideas is possible. And that's how the painting robot came about. But it's not that hard, right? It's not that hard because it's just some software in the end. I didn't actually have to do much hardware.

Courtland Allen 0h 55m 9s

Yeah, totally. And I think what's interesting is if you look at people who live in the Bay Area or Silicon Valley for example, they're reading the same books and living in the same places and doing the same things and following the same Twitter accounts. And consequently, they have ideas that aren't all that creative. People need to branch out a little bit more and try doing something that other people aren't.

Chris Chen 0h 55m 28s

Yeah, exactly. That's mostly you got to think outside a box even just a little bit, you'll find that it's really easy to learn some new thing like programming an Arduino. And then a cross section between the hardware and the software now will create a whole new space that's not been filled by other people. Because everyone doesn't want the cognitive overhead of having to learn a new thing. Like hardware, they think it's hard. But it's not, right. And then if you just take an hour to do that you'll be one mile ahead of everyone else because they'll all be stuck in software world building the next restaurant startup.

Courtland Allen 0h 56m 14s

So I wanna wrap up by talking about your goals for Instapainting's future. And specifically what I'm interested in is, is Instapainting something that you wanna work on forever or did you ever see yourself selling the business and moving on to something new?

Chris Chen 0h 56m 27s

Not at the current point. Current point is just too much stuff to do that I think can grow the business significantly. Focusing on partnerships. We can try exploring partnerships and try exploring retail experiments. Also we're expanding the platform to include more artists who can do creative work. So we wanted to be more of a place where you can just get any type of artist and not just a photo painting. And so we've been slowly onboarding more and more artists and about to sort of make it open enrollment at some point. It's already a platform so it doesn't require this huge energy. Another thing I wanna say is if the idea that you're testing takes too long, it's probably not worth it. Because you're probably wrong about the idea. With Instapainting, it started out with something that was simple to do. And then once that succeeded, everything that I've added on, mostly simple improvements, small undertakings, right. Just over a long time. This allows you to sort of not waste your time.

Courtland Allen 0h 57m 45s

Yeah, I couldn't agree more. My personal philosophy is I will not do an idea if it's gonna take me more than two or three weeks to implement the prototype. But that said, I think this is a great point to actually end the interview on. And I've had really a lot of fun talking to you because I think Instapainting is one of those unique businesses that's very inspiring to hear about. And the idea behind it is cool and the fact that you've been able to automate so much of it really is like my dream for Indie Hackers. So I've had fun talking to you and hopefully people who are listening have had fun too. So Chris, could you tell them where they can go to read more about Instapainting and read more about what you're doing?

Chris Chen 0h 58m 23s

You can always see our blog posts at Instapainting.com/blog or at the bottom of our homepage, there's some links to some blog posts. Or go to IndieHackers.com. Or just google Instapainting. If anyone has any questions, feel free to email me at chris@instapainting.com and I'll try to answer the questions.

Courtland Allen 0h 58m 51s

If you enjoyed listening to this conversation, I recommend joining myself, Chris, and other Indie hackers in discussing this episode in the Indiehackers.com orum. Thanks so much for listening and I'll see you next time.

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