Episode #034

Making $125,000 a Month as a Solo Founder with Mike Carson of Park.io

After a lifetime of hacking, Mike Carson hit on a very big opportunity selling .io domain names. Learn about the forces that made his massive success possible, the threats that almost killed his business, and how his life has changed.

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Transcript

Courtland Allen 0h 0m 7s

What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, where I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I ask them what's going on behind the scenes so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and become indie hackers ourselves. Today I'm talking to Mike Carson. He's the founder of park.io. How's it going, Mike?

Mike Carson 0h 0m 24s

Pretty good. How are you?

Courtland Allen 0h 0m 25s

I'm doing great. I got some new glasses in the mail today, and they are, I think, the wrong prescription, so it's a little bit hard for me to see. But other than that, life is good.

Mike Carson 0h 0m 35s

All right. Good.

Courtland Allen 0h 0m 36s

So you were on Indie Hackers a year ago, your company, park.io. And you were one of the most popular interviews that we have ever done on the site, for a good reason. For anyone who hasn't read your text interview, I think there was a great quote you have in there that really sums up why your interview was so popular. You said, "Park.io is set to break over $1 million in revenue this year, and I am the only employee." That really speaks for itself. I think you're living every bootstrapper's dream. You're checking all the boxes. You are self-employed, and killing it. I just want to ask you a lot of questions about what that feels like later on, but to begin with, there are probably a lot of people listening in who haven't read your interview yet. Can you explain what park.io is and how you got started working on it?

Mike Carson 0h 1m 18s

Yeah, sure. Park.io is a domain drop-catching service for hacker domain, like, ccTLDs, like .io, .ly, .me. So a domain drop-catching service is when domains expire. So, you have to renew domains every year, and if they expire, sometimes if it's a good domain there's a lot of competition to get that domain right when it becomes available for registration. So park.io focuses on creating scripts to get them as fast as possible so that we can get them for our users when they become available.

Yeah, I got started… I mean, I'm a hacker. I identify as a hacker. I love Hacker News. I feel like it's my people there. I read it every day, and I've been reading it for like 10 years. I just love it. I love the content there. I was into .io domains because a lot of hackers were using them because a lot of the .coms were taken.

There was one I wanted for a project, like, me and my friend were going to build this thing, and we saw that the domain smile.io had become available, or it was expiring. We figured out the exact day it was going to become available, but we didn't know the time. So I wrote this script that would check it every second, and when it became available it would email me. Around dinnertime I was about to sit down and I got an email, and I rushed to the computer, but somebody had already registered it. It was pretty frustrating, but it led me to look more into this and figure out exactly what time, and also to look at all of the domains that are becoming available.

I started to see some good ones becoming available, and there wasn't a lot of competition to get some of them. I mean, I hand-registered some really good ones like ask.io.

Courtland Allen 0h 3m 20s

Really?

Mike Carson 0h 3m 21s

Yeah, and a lot of two-letter .io domains. For me, I was just getting them for future projects. I thought, "These are too cool to not register. I don't know exactly what I will use them for, but I probably will use them. I think they're valuable, so I might as well… " So I started getting more and more, I don't know, 20 domains, or 25. So it was adding up. The costs, I was talking with my wife and I was like, "Yeah, I think they're valuable. I think it's worth more than I'm paying for them." So she actually suggested, she was like, "Well, why don't you try selling a couple just to see if you're right about that?"

So I put one on Flippa, there's this website Flippa.com where you can auction domain names and stuff. So I put one on there and it sold. It was a two-letter .io domain. It sold for $2,000. So I registered it for like $40. I thought maybe that was just a fluke, so I tried it again, and then it worked. So I thought, "Okay, I'll try to scale this up and see what I can do with it." And that's basically how it kind of started.

Courtland Allen 0h 4m 33s

And when was this?

Mike Carson 0h 4m 34s

End of 2013, 2014. I started park.io in like June 2014.

Courtland Allen 0h 4m 40s

Yeah, that's so interesting, because you'd think, even in 2013, 2014, kind of the feeling that most people probably had around that time is that buying domains and selling them is… "That time is over, that ship has sailed. People were doing that in the late 90s. It doesn't work anymore." That's what I would have said if you had asked me.

Mike Carson 0h 4m 56s

I know. I think this is one big lesson from this, is like, you're never too late. Because I was later than everybody else to domains. I mean, people 20 years before when I started were getting into domain investing. So 20 years later on internet business, that's way late. So basically, you're never too late for something is a big lesson from there.

Courtland Allen 0h 5m 25s

So I want to get a handle on the exact business model for park.io. How do I, as an interested customer, buy one of your domains? And what's the breakdown of your revenue look like?

Mike Carson 0h 5m 35s

If you go to Park.io, we list all the domains that are going to become available in the next week, and you can place an order for one of those. If we get it for you and you're the only person that ordered it, you're charged $99, which includes the one-year registration for the domain. If other users also ordered it, then it goes to a 10-day auction.

Courtland Allen 0h 5m 57s

What about the other domains that you've, because I imagine that you've probably bought a lot of domains that people have yet to bid on and that haven't been sold. How do I buy one of those? Is there still an auction, or is it just a flat $99?

Mike Carson 0h 6m 8s

When I was first starting out I got a lot of domains for a private portfolio of domains. Through park.io and stuff I've gained a lot of knowledge, in the prices, like the market basically for domains, so I have a good feel for it. I've bought domains from others. I also have, like, half of the revenue that I have is also from buying and selling domains on my own, and then half of it's through park.io.

Courtland Allen 0h 6m 36s

Got it. So you've got a lot of person domains. But what happens if you see a domain expiring but nobody bids on it through park.io?

Mike Carson 0h 6m 44s

If nobody places an order for it, we won't try to get it. But if people order it, then we'll get it for them. It's only if there's interest.

Courtland Allen 0h 6m 55s

Let's go back to the beginning of the story. You've sold a few domains here. You've realized that you can buy these domains for a few tens of dollars, and sell them for 10 times more than that. What was your first step in deciding that, "Hey, this is not just going to be a hobby. This should be my full-time job."? Or was there ever a moment like that?

Mike Carson 0h 7m 13s

Really, I just became full-time a couple of months ago. I had another startup, WizeHive.com, so I was working on that mostly. Yeah, it's just this thing I thought was fun, and I just did it. I was doing it on my own. I didn't have park.io at first. I was just kind of writing my scripts on my own, and there was a few competitors. There's a guy in Germany who, every now and then he would beat me, and we chatted on Skype back and forth a little bit. But then eventually I figured out a way to beat him consistently, and so I was constantly getting them. So that's when I was like, I decided, "Okay, maybe I can make this a service for others also." So yeah, I decided around the summer of 2014 that I would create a front end and make this a service for other people. So I spent a couple weeks creating a user interface and just making a way you can do payments with Stripe and things like that. Then I launched it.

Courtland Allen 0h 8m 23s

So when you say that you were beating this other guy, you're referring to the speed with which you could register these domains that were expiring?

Mike Carson 0h 8m 30s

Yeah. Yeah, it's really competitive. It's almost like free money. I mean, you can register a domain for $40, and sometimes you can sell it for, you know, $10,000 or something. There's a lot of competition to try to get the domain. And anybody in the world can do it, basically. You're always trying to figure out, "How'd they get it that time? How did I get beat that time? What can I do to optimize this? How can I make it better?" So yeah, he was… I had my scripts running full force, and he would still beat me sometimes. So yeah, it's just figuring out a way to get better and better. And, I mean, that still happens today. It's still very competitive.

Courtland Allen 0h 9m 16s

Yeah, I mean, it kind of reminds me… I talked to this guy , I hope I'm saying that right. I'm probably not. But he ran a lyrics site in the 2000s, and it was similarly extremely competitive, because they were all competing for these front page spots on Google. So every single time he would move down in the rankings he would do a bunch of research and try to figure out what his competitors were doing to build their page rank. I imagine that's the same for you. What you started off doing, you probably evolved your techniques for getting these domain names very quickly.

Mike Carson 0h 9m 46s

Yeah. I mean, I think this is just a common thing with distance. I read this really good… well, I actually listen to it on Audible, but there's this book called Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. It's a great book. But in the business it's like, there's constantly something that seems like there's a huge crisis that feels like it's going to end everything. I mean, that's kind of… I could relate to that book a lot, because the last two years it's like, "Oh, crap. I'm done. It's done." But then you figure out a way, and you just kind of figure out a way to get around it. You learn that even though it seems like a huge, horrible crisis, there's probably a way to work around it or make it work for you or something.

Courtland Allen 0h 10m 36s

I think one of the things that makes your story so interesting is that you sort of hit it big pretty early on. I mean, a lot of the companies that I talk to spend months or even years kind of in this pre-product market fit phase where they don't know what their users want, or their product isn't good enough, or it's not even done yet. Then they finally figure it out and start making money. Where really, like, your first time even dabbling in it you immediately figured out, like, "Hey, this could be something that works." So most of the challenges came after that point for you. What are some of these challenges that had you worried that it was all over?

Mike Carson 0h 11m 10s

Well, I mean, the competition. Sometimes the competition does that. Also, one time, actually, the .io registry decided to have their own back orders. That was actually in December of 2014, like, right after I started it. And I was like, "Whoa, well, what am I going to do now? I mean, I can't compete against the registry." But it didn't turn out to be that popular, and it was expensive, and theirs was different. Like, you had to pay upfront, and if somebody renewed the domain you didn't get your money back. So it had its own risks and stuff.

I was surprised that I was able to figure a way to continue going through that. Actually, park.io continued to do pretty well after that. It's something like that. It seemed like it was totally a game stopper. It felt like at the time, I was like, "Well, what am I going to do now? I guess I'm just going to have to close everything down."

Courtland Allen 0h 12m 6s

Yeah, I bet.

Mike Carson 0h 12m 8s

But then, yeah, it wasn't like that.

Courtland Allen 0h 12m 11s

When we talked last year I think you had just hit $125,000 a month in revenue. What did the path look like to go from just selling a couple of domains to a number that huge?

Mike Carson 0h 12m 23s

So .io domains make up most of the revenue, and I think just the growth in .io has been big. I started using it just because a lot of hackers were using it and it was a good alternative. But then no domain investors really knew about .io. They just kind of blew it off as not being important, and so they started to become more aware of its value. Also, there's some other things that happened with .io. Like, there's some games that started to take off like slither.io, which really made people a lot more aware of .io domains. Then, recently with cryptocurrencies, a lot of them are using, like, filecoin.io. So I think it's kind of just the general growth of the space that kind of helped too.

Courtland Allen 0h 13m 11s

It's like you're riding this wave that's happening around you, and you were able to take advantage of just how much people were into .ios and how much it grew, and you kind of got in, maybe not at the very beginning, but at a good point where you could kind of be carried along by it.

Mike Carson 0h 13m 24s

Yeah, I mean, one piece of advice I would give to people, and it's probably been said a lot of times before, but this is the story of my life, basically. It's like, I just launched a bunch of things, and most of them at first, most of them, like 90% of them, nobody used, nobody cared about, it didn't really take off. I just kind of had to suck it up and quit, and tried to quit fast and do another thing. Then, one day you just luck out. You know? One day you just luck out, and then you just try to… Yeah, so basically my advice would be just do a bunch of things. You know when it doesn't work. It's going to be obvious when it doesn't work. Like, after a month if you're still trying… Don't fight reality. If it's not working, what I would do is just stop and start something else.

Then, one time you will see and you'll know that it's working because it will be clearly obvious that it works, and then just take advantage of that one, because it doesn't come a long a lot. Just do a bunch of things, you'll know what doesn't work, you know what does. When you do see the one that does, take advantage of it as much as you can.

Courtland Allen 0h 14m 39s

That's so fascinating to think about, because on one hand you really did luck out that this .io wave grew to be such a big thing. But on the other hand, you were so prepared for it. I mean, you've spent years just working on project after project, and obviously honing your skills and getting better to the point where when you hit on this good idea you were in a great position to actually take advantage of it. I mean, you actually had to compete against these other developers in what's basically a gold rush to write better algorithms than they do and better scripts that can act faster and buy these expiring domains. And at the same time, you need a user interface that's pleasant, and easy, and simple enough that you can communicate your value proposition to customers and they can actually enjoy the process of bidding on domains through your site versus your competitors, which included the .io registry itself.

This whole thing is something that I can personally relate to, because I spent years working on projects that didn't really amount not much before I eventually got the idea for Indie Hackers, which as done very well, relatively speaking. So on one hand, it's very easy to get discouraged when you spend time on a product, and you launch it, and nothing happens, or you spend time on a product, and you don't even get to the point where you launch it, and you quit early.

But on the other hand, it's important to realize that what's really going on is you're actually building up a skillset. So even if something doesn't work out, you walk away from that with permanent knowledge that can help you in the future, that you didn't know beforehand. I am undoubtedly much faster and more prolific as a developer as a result of all those projects that I've worked on. I've improved as a product designer and a visual aesthetic designer, like, tenfold over where I was just a few years ago. I'm better with servers, and with AWS. I didn't know anything about that stuff when I first got started. Every site I built used to crash. Then, there are all of these intangible skills too, like having a better intuition for good versus bad ideas, what customers find valuable, how to talk to people, how to write compelling marketing copy, et cetera.

This is all just stuff I picked up out of necessity after failing so many times. So looking at it this way, maybe the most important thing that you can do is just to make sure you're always working on things that are a little bit out of your comfort zone, so at the very least you'll come away with extra knowledge, and also have the patience to keep going even when you fail, because you realize that what you're learning is making you more and more formidable as a founder.

But at the same time, all of this stuff about quitting fast is such challenging advice to follow, because you hear these stories about people who, for example, Airbnb is the one I always mention, but they stuck with one idea that wasn't working for years and years until they made it work. Then, you hear stories from people like you who quit immediately when things weren't working, and just switched to something else. So how do you know when to quit something? How do you know if it's a bad idea and that's why it's not working, or if it's a good idea but you just haven't figured out how to make it work yet?

Mike Carson 0h 17m 27s

Yeah, I mean, maybe I just didn't have patience like the Airbnb guys, or whatever, or maybe they just had the determination because they really saw the value in it. I don't know. But I think from my personality, my standpoint as a hacker, I think we have the opportunity to do really quick businesses online that could make things, like, right out of the gate can start making a lot of money with just the work of ourselves. I would recommend to other developers, hackers, is to do it the way that I suggest and maybe not the Airbnb way, because I think you could get… I started a website, which was letters.io. Which was handwritten letters… It was going to be you could buy handwritten letters, and we'll send them out. It's like software as a service, but we would send out handwritten letters. It was not a very good idea. I don't think it was a very good idea.

If I would have stayed with that, really trying to make it work, it's like fighting reality, I feel like. Yeah, I don't know. I guess if you have strong conviction on something. Maybe Airbnb they just really believed in it. But I think as a hacker, at least my personality, I think it really works to just try a lot of things and one will take off.

Courtland Allen 0h 18m 45s

Yeah. I wouldn't say that you didn't have persistence at all, because I think there's two different types of persistence. There's sticking with one idea, and then there's sticking with the entire endeavor and coming up with lots of ideas. But you still kept going even when things failed. I think for most people even that's challenging. It's really easy when one of your ideas doesn't work to just say, "Screw it. I'm getting a job." Or, "I'm done with this stuff. It's too much work."

But one of the things that you said that really stuck out to me was the importance that you put on the idea. This is something you hear advice on that's all over the map. When I first started getting into startups and following Hacker News and , the phrase that I heard all the time was, "Your idea doesn't matter. It's all about the execution. If you start with a bad idea, you can just pivot into a good one." But over the last seven or eight years I've increasingly believed that your idea actually does matter quite a lot. If you can start somewhere close to the mark, then you're making things much, much easier on yourself, because it's very easy to get discouraged and quit if you start with a very bad idea.

I'm curious how you think about the idea for park.io, and how it evolved over time. Because you certainly didn't start right out of the gate saying, "Here's my exact game plan."

Mike Carson 0h 19m 51s

Well, yeah. With regards to the idea thing, basically what I feel like I learned through park.io and what I kind of recommend to people is don't even start with an idea. There's two schools of thought: the idea doesn't matter, or the idea is really important, but maybe there's another one which is, "Don't worry about an idea. Don't even think about the idea." Because if you don't think about the idea, then you're focusing more on just things you find interesting, what you enjoy, and then the idea kind of comes to you anyway.

Plus, I didn't really come up with… I don't feel like I really came up with an idea, honestly. I feel like it just kind of happened. It was just like… it's more like the idea happened to me or something. Things just happened out of my own interest in exploring these different things. With a lot of the other things I did before it was like I had an idea, "Oh, what about this? I'll do this." So yeah, I think maybe that's one way. One different perspective maybe for people to think about is be open to creating businesses if the opportunity arises, but maybe just explore things that you're interested in and something will come of that.

Courtland Allen 0h 21m 7s

I think doing something you're interested in is extremely important in terms of what we were just talking about, too, and not quitting. Because, to your point, I see a lot of people trying too hard to think about what their idea's going to be in terms of what could make money, and then they end up doing stuff like selling raincoats to people in Siberia, or something that they don't really care about. After a couple of weeks they're like, "This sucks. I quit." Whereas in your case, if you're a hacker and you've got all of these different projects that you're working on that are fun, and you're trying to get a good domain, it's a situation that's much more amenable for one thing to lead to another and for you to stumble onto something cool and profitable before you get burned out and tired.

Mike Carson 0h 21m 42s

Plus, you have good domains for your other projects that you want to work on.

Courtland Allen 0h 21m 45s

Exactly. So how many other projects have you worked on? Because it sounds like you've been building stuff for a long time.

Mike Carson 0h 21m 51s

Well, there's a bunch of projects that I've build that have failed and are forgotten kind of, but then there's a few things that I kind of still am working on, like file.io. It's like convenient, easy fil-sharing that's anonymous and secure, and it's ephemeral, so you upload a file, and the first time it's downloaded it's deleted right away. There's a simple API for it so you can use that. So file.io. Then, there's this nameserver.io. You can see them all if you go to humbly. com, different projects that I've started.

Courtland Allen 0h 22m 33s

What does your schedule look like? How many hours a week are you spending on park.io right now, and how many hours a week are you spending on file.io and your other businesses?

Mike Carson 0h 22m 42s

Yeah, most of it's park.io, but yeah, lately I've been also really interested in the blockchain stuff. I've been looking more into that, and really interested in possibly doing a project with that. I've been spending a little time with that, but mostly, yeah, it's all park.io.

Courtland Allen 0h 23m 1s

You're just all over the place doing everything. Are you transparent at all with these other projects you're working on? Have you shared revenue numbers with file.io?

Mike Carson 0h 23m 11s

I mean, so park.io has made it so that I can launch some things that are not profitable right away, and then if they're not that expensive I can just keep them going for free or see what happens. So file.io, basically it was free for the first year. Then I was thinking of shutting it down, because it wasn't a lot of expense, but it was an expense and I just didn't… But then I got kind of a white-label service from one client who was willing to pay a certain amount for a year. Basically, it's profitable, but it's really small revenue. Then, same with nameserver.io. There's a few users for that. Yeah, they're not huge, making lots of money, but they're just barely profitable.

Courtland Allen 0h 24m 6s

How did you decide to be transparent about park.io in the first place? Because I know there's probably some other people out there running some extremely profitable businesses by themselves who just don't want to say anything because they're afraid of competition, or they're afraid of revealing their secrets. What was going through your mind when you decided to, like, "Hey, I'll sign up for an Indie Hackers interview and just tell everybody what I'm up to."

Mike Carson 0h 24m 27s

Yeah, not much was going through my mind. I mean, I don't know. I guess I tend to be more open about things. I don't know if that was a mistake. Because now when I try to buy domains from people I think they quickly find that Indie Hackers interview and they ask a lot more . It might have had a little impact there. But also, I mean, I really appreciate you doing that, because it did bring a lot of users, a lot of people say they found me through that. But yeah, I don't know. There wasn't much thinking really involved in that. I just tend to try to be more open with things, I guess.

Courtland Allen 0h 25m 10s

Well, that's interesting that it actually brought some traffic to you and that it kind of affected your business in that way. I kind of want to get back to the story about how you grew your revenue to $125,000 a month, because that's a huge number, and I know that doesn't happen overnight, even if you found something that's doing as well and is as desired as park.io was. What are some of the marketing techniques that you use to bring people to your service? How did people even find out that park.io existed?

Mike Carson 0h 25m 36s

I feel like this is kind of one indicator of you know it's working for you, like, a project is working. It's like, you don't have to do any marketing at all, really. I didn't do any marketing. What I did is, any domains we got I just put a parked page up that said, "This domain is parked on park.io." And that's how the first users came. Then, I think it came from word of mouth from that. There was, yeah, not really any marketing involved.

Courtland Allen 0h 26m 4s

Have you seen your traffic numbers change and grow over time? Or has it been kind of like it grew initially and it's just been flat?

Mike Carson 0h 26m 11s

Yeah, I think it grew to about last year. It was growing really fast. I think it kind of correlates to basically the .io growth. It grew really fast until like last year, and then maybe it's flattened out a little since then.

Courtland Allen 0h 26m 24s

What about your early growth? Like in the first few months after launching park.io, what kinds of numbers were you seeing in traffic, or I guess in revenue to convince you that this was an idea worth sticking with?

Mike Carson 0h 26m 35s

Basically, what I remember from the beginning is selling a couple domains, and they were pretty profitable sales, and then just thinking to myself, "Okay, well, what I want to try to do now is take the profit from these domains and buy more domains and see how far it could go that way." And that worked pretty well. Yeah, then I remember thinking, "Okay, why don't I try to sell this service; sell it as a service online for other people?" And I thought, "What's the risk?" Basically, the only risk is my time, and it shouldn't take that long because I have all the scripts already built land stuff, so basically it's building the user interface.

I mean, it took some time, but a certain number of hours is what I risked, and not much financially, you know, the cost to run the servers and stuff is not that much. Basically, it came down to, "Well, here's an opportunity to… Here's an opportunity and there's not much risk, but potential rewards." So I did it, and then, yeah, it turned out to be pretty good. A lot of people started using it. I think the first few months the revenue… I think I only had .io domains at that time, and not many people knew about the site at first.

So I think the first few months the revenue from park.io was like, $5,000 a month. Then, I think on the fourth month we caught the domain smtp.io, and there was a few businesses who were interested in that one, and SendGrid ended up getting it for like $5,000 or something, which was the highest sale at the time. But I was really happy that SendGrid was a customer. Yeah, that was probably another milestone at that point, that more people started using it. Then, yeah, then it grew from there I guess.

Courtland Allen 0h 28m 28s

What kinds of product decisions and changes did you make once you saw that park.io was really working out and you started making these sales, and you saw that your revenue was $5,000 a month and growing? Because I can't imagine that the product as it existed at the very beginning is still how it is now.

Mike Carson 0h 28m 45s

Yeah, I mean, a couple of things I did was add more ccTLDs, which you have to research. The ccTLDs, it's kind of interesting. They're like the wild west of domains. ccTLD is country code top level domain, like .io. So there are two… Anything that ends with dot two letters is a country code top level domain. They have their own rules. Everyone has their own rules, and they don't actually even follow ICANN rules. So it's interesting. .io is Indian Ocean, is what it stands for, but a lot of hackers use it as input/output. But they're, I think the British government or something, some company in, I think, the United Kingdom or something runs it. But, like, .ly is Libia. That's like a war-torn country. It's been really interesting, researching a lot of these ccTLDs.

Courtland Allen 0h 29m 49s

I was just curious, like, what kinds of things did you change, and what kind of code did you write once you saw that park.io was working out? I mean, you talk about adding ccTLDs, but was that the plan from the beginning? What was your roadmap like?

Mike Carson 0h 30m 3s

The easy roadmap was adding ccTLDs like .ly, because a lot of people use that. So that was an easy roadmap, was adding these ccTLDs. Then, I mean, the other part of the whole thing is just when I first built it I built it very bare bones, and there was a lot of things I did manually, and then just building that out more so that it's a lot more automated, and self-service, and things like that.

Courtland Allen 0h 30m 32s

I think one of the cooler parts of your story is that it's just you. I haven't talked to very many solo founders and solo developers who had as much success as you've had revenue-wise. I think it's just probably you and Mike Perham from Sidekiq, maybe Brennan Dunn, but a lot of the other people that I've talked to who've had these outsized results and built these million dollar companies have generally built teams behind them. Even if they started out as a solo founder, now they've got 10 or 11 employees. What has enabled you to stay solo for so long?

Mike Carson 0h 31m 4s

Well, yeah, I mean, there was a point where it's like, "Should I hire?" There's a lot of pressure of a lot of stuff online, and people who… They're like, "Oh, you've got to hire a team. You've got to build. You've got to grow. You've got to grow." So I was thinking, "Okay, yeah. I've got to hire some people." But then I thought about it, and I don't know. I don't know if that's great advice, like, always trying to grow. I mean, people… you see that everywhere and it's almost taken as fact, like, you should grow, you should just really try to grow your business always. I don't know if that is the best advice. If you want… It depends what you're trying for. If you just want to make as much money as possible, and there's nothing wrong with that, then maybe trying to grow is the best way.

Maybe not though. I don't know. Maybe not. Because when you grow, you become slow. If you become a big company with a lot of people you're slower to make decisions, there's meetings. I hate meetings. I don't know. It's just slow. There's just a lot less things that happen. You can't make decisions as fast. In a lot of ways you slow down. There's people who aren't as attached to it as you are, or who care about the users as much. I mean, maybe if you hire the right people, I don't know. But I see other companies… Like, what's the goal? Is the goal to become, like, Equifax? You grow so big that you… You make such horrible mistakes and cause…

If the goal is for happiness, which is what I want to do, like, I want to optimize for happiness. For my personality and everything it's like this is what works for me the best. Also, I feel like I can make the decisions faster, I can do things faster. I'm a little anti-growth with all of the stuff that's out there. For certain things, yeah, like Airbnb or something, yeah, it makes sense that you want to grow. But I think in a lot of ways it's a little bit more like, I don't know if this is a good example, but like a painter. When they paint a picture do they want to… Asking a company to grow, or your project to grow, it's almost like saying you want the painting to get bigger. You want to have the biggest painting. It's almost like, "Well, that is one way to do it, but it might take away from certain things."

If you care about the product and what you're doing, and you care about the users and stuff… I don't know. I don't know if growing is always the best thing to try to do. For me, I found that trying to optimize my happiness and stuff has worked out much better.

Courtland Allen 0h 34m 12s

Yeah, I totally understand and agree with pretty much everything you've said. You're right. There are situations where growing really helps. There are companies that could not make it if they didn't have hundreds of people working there. But at the same time, like, what you said, for example, about development speed. If you look at someone like Peter Levels, that guy's cranking out features every day like it's nothing. Then you see these other big companies with 20, or 100, or 200 employees who release on feature every two months and then celebrate it as if it's unbelievable to get things out that fast. There's just so many barriers.

Like you said, I like your painting analogy too, like, what's the point of having the biggest painting for the point of having the biggest painting if you're happy with a small painting where you can focus more on the details that matter to you?

I have to ask you, one of the things that pressures people into growing is just being overwhelmed by different parts of their business. Maybe there are so many features that need to get added that they need to hire developers, or maybe customer support has taken up so much of their time they really need to hire some customer support people. I know that every project that I've ever worked on I've seen my to-do list grow longer, and longer, and longer with just things that I really want to get done but I just don't have the time to do by myself. What have you felt in terms of pressure that would cause you to hire, or that has been hard for you as a solo founder?

Mike Carson 0h 35m 30s

Yeah, I mean, I have to do everything, so dealing with support issues takes time, and yeah, features, and just making sure that the code, like, refactoring the code, and tests and stuff. So yeah, there is a lot, and it would be nice to have some help. Yeah, I think the hardest thing with doing something like this on your own is just not having another set of eyes, or a different perspective on ideas and things, especially with regards to the code. It would be nice to have somebody looking over a lot of the code just to make sure. That's why I think a lot of automated testing is really important when it's just you. But I really would… I know it would add a lot of value to have somebody else just looking over things. Because you can't see everything. You're going to miss some things. It's just inevitable. That's probably the biggest pain point.

Also, just ideas about where to go, or what to do, or ideas on the design of the UI, or different things; just being able to have a different perspective on things. I mean, I ask my wife a lot of questions, and she's really helpful with it, but she's not a developer. So, yeah, there is a lot, and it would be nice to have some help with that.

Courtland Allen 0h 37m 1s

One of the interesting things that you talked about back when you did your text interview last year for IndieHackers.com was just how important automation is to your business. You explicitly mentioned that the only reason why you can run things as a solo founder is because you've got so many bots helping you out with things behind the scenes. I think that's fascinating, because I myself have this gigantic list of things that I need to automate for Indie Hackers that are taking up my time every week, and it's hard figuring out when do I have the time to build some automated software so that I can save myself time in the future. So I'd really like to pick your brain here about all of your automation, and just learn about what kind of bots you're building and what jobs you're having them do. Maybe the place to start is to just ask you overall, like, what's your philosophy on automation and how do you approach it?

Mike Carson 0h 37m 45s

Well, yeah, I mean, I guess one kind of philosophy that seems to have worked, and I guess might be good advice for other people starting out is that when I built park.io at first, I just made the bare bones. There was a lot of stuff that was done manually, you know, like, user actions. I don't remember exactly the things, but it could have been something like, maybe even like setting the name servers for a certain ccTLD domain. That could have been a manual thing, and when somebody did it I would just see, "Oh, they entered this in to do this." And then I would take care of it. I did it that way just to be fast, and also, because you don't know. Maybe I would build something that's automated that nobody would use and it would be a waste of time.

So my philosophy with the whole thing was build the bare bones, and then once I start doing something over, and over, and over again, then I automate it, and then it's like a big relief, "Oh, I have all this time." Then, another thing comes up that I'm doing manually over, and over, and over, and then I try to automate it, and then it saves a lot of time. Yeah, I mean, I think that's a big advantage for developers these days. There's so much that can be done automated.

Courtland Allen 0h 39m 1s

What kinds of languages and technology are you relying on here? Is everything on AWS? Are you using Lambda? Do you have Zapier scripts?

Mike Carson 0h 39m 10s

Yeah, well, it's all on AWS, and it's just like EC2. Actually, the website is just built with PHP, using CakePHP. The scripts are, I use Node.js for a lot of the scripts on the back end.

Courtland Allen 0h 39m 31s

What are some of the jobs that you've automated and written bots to do?

Mike Carson 0h 39m 36s

I mean, there's a lot of data collection, I guess. For park.io specifically there's a lot of data collection and analyzing that. Then, well, like domain name stuff. Yeah, like WhoIs information, or even other things, like there's this service called Estibot.com where they give appraisals of domain names, so you can hook that up, get the appraisals, and use that. Then, also use other things in combination with that, like even using GitHub. I realize that if the word of a domain name has a lot more results in GitHub, it's a lot more valuable of a domain name. So I even hooked up the GitHub API to analyze that.

A lot of it, this is not so much on the park.io side, it's more on the personal research domain investing side, just learning more, getting a better idea of everything. But I think this is where developers have a huge advantage. Because, in the domain name industry, there's not a lot of developers, surprisingly, because I feel like it's an internet thing, but there's not a lot of developers, and they have to do a lot of this manually. I don't know how they do… It's a lot harder. I think they have to be a lot more resourceful in order to get a lot of this data and figure out a lot of these things. As a developer, going into an industry like that, I think we have a huge advantage in a lot of ways by automating things.

Courtland Allen 0h 41m 11s

So you've got a lot of stuff to help you figure out which domains to buy, and obviously to buy them before your competitors do. Do you have any bots that help you with the softer skills like marketing, or customer support, or just the product itself from the customer's point of view?

Mike Carson 0h 41m 26s

I guess it's kind of a hard question to answer. I mean, for marketing I do have a newsletter, a weekly newsletter that goes out, and that is automated. It basically just collects the current auctions and domains that are dropping in the next week, and also recent sales, and it just puts it in there and sends it out every week. Then, a lot of the other stuff is things with domain renewals, sending out emails to users about different things. I mean, when somebody buys a domain on park.io it automatically parks a page where somebody can contact them. So if they are contacted, emails are sent out that way. Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything really that sophisticated that's being automated.

Courtland Allen 0h 42m 17s

Well, what's cool about it is not even that it's sophisticated, it's more that it's just not normal for one person to be able to run a business that generates this much revenue by themselves. It's just not. I don't know if it's because of the degree to which you've automated things, and maybe it's that in combination with the fact that you really just don't care that much about growth, and you're willing to maybe make some sacrifices to live a happy life, but you're doing this incredible thing, and you don't seem particularly stressed out or overworked.

Mike Carson 0h 42m 49s

Yeah, I mean, I think there's so… It's crazy how many things you can do now as a single person with technology as a developer. I mean, one example I was thinking of recently is like, so the person who started Bitcoin. I mean, so this theoretically could be one developer who started Bitcoin, which could revolutionize… I mean, right now there's hundreds of billions of dollars in it, but it could potentially disrupt everything just by one developer doing that. I don't know if there's a lot of other industries where one person can create something that disrupts, and completely changes the entire, like, upends the world financial system. Yeah, it's crazy, and it's exciting what you can do.

Courtland Allen 0h 43m 48s

Yeah, I mean, it's nuts. I think that's kind of why your story is so interesting and it's so inspirational, because you're just one person, and yet you've created this company, and presumably this lifestyle for yourself that any hacker would love to have. I mean, number one, the idea, even if you didn't put that much thought into it to begin with and just kind of fell onto it, it's a brilliant idea. I mean, you're essentially in an industry where the value that you're providing the customers is super clear. I mean, there's no chance they would be able to get these domains against the other competitors on their own, and it's als something that people are quite comfortable paying for. Like, nobody balks at paying a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for a domain.

On top of all of that, it's kind of self-marketing because the domains that you've bought personally are advertisements for your business. So you don't really have to exhaust yourself trying to figure out Facebook ads, or content marketing, or any of this other stuff that typically developers hate doing. On top of that, you're really taking advantage of the fact that you can live anywhere and build a business on the internet. I mean, you're not the stereotypical startup developer who works at Facebook or Google, and lives in San Francisco paying $4,000 a month rent for one bedroom. So I kind of want to dive into your personal life a little bit before we end this episode and find out what it's like to be Mike Carson. For starters, where do you live?

Mike Carson 0h 45m 7s

I live just outside of Philadelphia. Yeah, I mean, right now my personal life, I just had a son. He's a year old. He takes up a lot of my time. I mean, yeah, I guess when I say I'm a hacker, yeah, I have friends who are really good with coding; really smart. I'm not like that. I mean, I have the hacker mindset. I just really enjoy reading about ways that people have hacked together things. I really love to build things that people can use.

Yeah, my life, I guess my daily life, I mean, my personality, I'm very introverted. I'm a really introverted type of person. I feel like I've just filtered myself into this place where I don't ever have to go into an office. Maybe this is why I don't have a team or anything. I feel like I don't have a commute. There were some times when I was working at WizeHive, I mean, I only had to go in once a week to the office, but I dreaded it. I had to commute like 45 minutes or an hour. It felt like this colossal waste of time. I would sit in the meetings and it would just be like, "We're not getting anything done here." So I could barely stand it. I don't know. I just work in my office every day, and yeah, I feel like I can get so much more done that way just by focusing.

Courtland Allen 0h 46m 42s

What about the people around you? How many people look at what you're doing and even understand it? Because I know for a lot of people who are working outside of the major tech hub, they say they're going to start an online business and everybody, their friends and their family look at them like they're crazy, like they've just grown two heads. I remember you saying your wife was the one who originally recommended that you sell domain names. Do you feel like you have a lot of support from the people around you, or do you kind of stick out like a sore thumb?

Mike Carson 0h 47m 9s

I don't have that many friends. I mean, I think that's what… I read this article, like, when you become middle-aged, and I'm 41 now, but when you become middle-aged, like, middle-aged men, they don't have a lot of close friends. In general, a lot of them don't have closer friends. It's actually kind of a health crisis, because there's more depression and stuff. I can relate to that. I mean, honestly, my wife deserves a ton of credit for park.io, and she doesn't even have… She's not really interested in business, she's definitely not hacker or anything. She's like therapy and stuff. But yeah, I bounce all of these ideas off of her all the time. She, yeah, initially got me started to selling them which led to this whole thing.

Yeah, I don't know. I mean, I guess, and this is probably common advice too, but what really has been important for me in my life is if you decide to have a partner in your life, make sure… It's important, because I was married before, and it's a lot harder when it's not a good relationship. Actually, I think Altucher, James Altucher I think is his name, he said he makes money when he's in a good relationship, and he loses money when he's in a bad relationship, and he's not sure if it's because one or the other, like, he's not sure what causes the other. But for me, I've noticed the exact same thing. It's important who you pick in your life.

Courtland Allen 0h 48m 47s

Yeah, I agree completely. I think for a lot of people, for example, Indie Hackers itself is a community, and there's a forum on Indie Hackers where all of these people who are making stuff can go and talk to each other about what they're building, get feedback, et cetera. For a lot of people, I think just being able to share their ups and downs, what's going wrong, what's going right with other people on the forum is really helpful, because they don't have someone in their life, they don't have a relationship, they don't have friends who can identify with what they're doing. So I totally agree that you need to get your personal life together, because starting a company, especially if you're going to go through what you went through and fail a whole bunch of times and create things that don't work out, you kind of need the psychological wherewithal to keep going in that situation. If the things in your personal life are really stressful or not working out, then it's going to make your business life a lot harder.

Mike Carson 0h 49m 34s

Yeah. Also, when you launch things on the internet in general, but on Hacker News, like, you get berated. Like, actually, the last Indie Hackers interview I did, when it was on Hacker News, I think two separate, I was telling my wife this, two separate people called me a douche. It's so weird. In real life, I've never been called that, except maybe when I was back in middle school or something.

Yeah, so once you launch enough things, or maybe when you get to a certain age like 40 or something like that it's like, "Whatever." You don't care as much. But you kind of have to let those things just go. Don't even spend the time defending or anything like that. Just kind of let it go and move on. Take what you can from it and just move on.

Courtland Allen 0h 50m 31s

I'm young enough that I like arguing back, but you're probably right. I think Hacker News is a special place where, quite frankly, a lot of people hang out who aren't actually making stuff and who really just like to tear down the things that other people have made. I don't know why it is. It's really toxic.

Mike Carson 0h 50m 51s

Yeah, there's egos involved and stuff like that, and it's understandable. I guess people are going through different things in their life. But the people on Hacker News, I love some of the comments.

Courtland Allen 0h 51m 1s

It's like the best and the worst.

Mike Carson 0h 51m 7s

Yeah.

Courtland Allen 0h 51m 8s

How has your life changed after starting park.io? I know a lot of people wonder that if they start something successful, how their life will be different, so you're a pretty good person to ask given the success of your website.

Mike Carson 0h 51m 20s

I mean, what's interesting about park.io is that it's not a subscription model thing, so it's not like you have 100 subscribers, so you can feel kind of confident next month you're going to get all of these, you know, everybody's going to pay their monthly subscription. It's like, basically, you just get orders, and if the next month there's no orders, then you don't get any money.

So I always kind of have this perspective that I didn't know how long this would last. I guess I just didn't always feel… Also, the things that happen, there's constantly competitors coming in, and other things where it seems really… I guess I never really feel that comfortable that things are going to go on forever like this. It also hasn't been that long of going on like this. I don't know how much my life has changed. I mean, I feel really lucky and grateful that it's done so well so far. It has made my life easier in some ways, and I've also been able to quit my job and just focus on things that I like doing.

With regards to the money, I mean, I didn't buy it… On Hacker News sometimes people talk about fuck-you money, which is like, you want to have enough so you can do whatever the hell you want to do. I think it started originally with Humphrey Bogart wanted… He kept some money in his drawer so that if he didn't like what a director was telling him he could just tell them, "Fuck you." And then he could just do whatever he wanted. So I didn't really buy into that, because a homeless person could say the same thing. I don't know if it's the money so much as the frame of mind that allows you to do something like that.

I guess now it probably has helped me to focus more on what I want to do. Like, if I just want to work on blockchain stuff I can. I mean, I don't have a boss, so that's nice. Some people could say, "Oh, well, your users are your boss." But I really love my users, and I want them to be happy, and I like serving them. I don't know. It's kind of a hard question. I haven't bought a lot of fancy cars or anything like that, but I do feel more stable and can focus on things I like.

Courtland Allen 0h 53m 46s

More than the other people I've talked to you seem focused on maintaining your happiness as a founder, even to the point where you prioritize it over growing your revenue and your team, which makes a lot of sense, and I'm not sure why I don't talk to as many other people with similar priorities. Are there any other unconventional things you do here that other founders might be able to borrow from you?

Mike Carson 0h 54m 6s

Yeah, as for optimizing happiness, I think focusing on happy users is really good. If you have happy users, it's just such a more enjoyable thing to work with. A lot of people on park.io, a lot of users actually ask for a feature to sell their own domains, like, create a marketplace, and I've been reluctant to do that, just because I know with marketplaces… I think it would lead to a lot more unhappy users because they may not be able to sell the domains that they have for what they want, or it might not have the expectations that they want. I think it would basically just lead to a lot more unhappy users, and so I've been reluctant to do it for that reason.

I think focusing on having happy users. One other thing I guess I didn't mention is Sam Harris wrote this book Lying, which talks about how, yeah, people know you shouldn't lie, but even white lies, even little white lies they don't really serve a purpose, and they're not that good. I think my wife has actually influenced me a lot with this. I try to really do that, like, every email, I try really hard not to have any white lies or anything like that. I think it really is good for your users, and with your relationship to others in business, and online, and stuff like that. Yeah, especially online if you're reliable that way. I think that's really important, too.

Courtland Allen 0h 55m 30s

That's really interesting advice, because I think the stereotypical relationship that businesses have with customers is to constantly tell a bunch of little white lies, to never really be forthcoming, and always have this layer of business speak that's very inauthentic. And we don't really think of it that was as lying, or as unhealthy, just because it's so prevalent. But nowadays, there are a lot of founders who are moving towards more transparency, and honesty, and openness, and who aren't afraid to say, "Hey, I'm just one person working on this thing. Here's what I care about. Here's my roadmap. Here's what I will and won't do. Take it or leave it."

Maybe this has been driven somewhat over the years by social media injecting businesses into the sorts of places where normal people hang out with each other, so they've been forced to be more colloquial, but regardless of why it's happening, it really works. People feel closer to you. They feel like they can trust you more. And they're more interested in buying from you when they can read your story and see that they can communicate with you honestly, and that you're not just some faceless corporation.

Mike Carson 0h 56m 25s

It's hard to do, too. And I'm not perfect. I'm not saying I'm perfect with it, but it is actually really hard to do once you start trying it. But I think that book's really good. I think people should check it out. It's really short, too, so you can read it really quickly.

Courtland Allen 0h 56m 39s

Yeah, I think I'll read that myself. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about you personally and about the things that you're working on?

Mike Carson 0h 56m 47s

Yeah, I guess humbly.com. Go there. That's kind of like a parent company for my-

Courtland Allen 0h 57m 50s

This episode got cut off right at the end. Sorry! 😝

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