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Examining the Repeated Successes of a Product-Focused Solo Founder with AJ of Carrd

Episode #087

The anonymous "AJ" (@ajlkn) is one of the most prolific and multi-talented creators I've ever had on the podcast. His rare combination of developer expertise, design skills, and product sensibilities have allowed him to release a string of popular products that have racked up millions of users and downloads over the years. Maddeningly, AJ also has a knack for the business side of things, having grown his latest project Carrd to $30,000/mo in revenue as a solo founder and developer. In this episode we dive into exactly how he works his magic, analyze the most important decisions he's made with his businesses, and discuss the role that luck plays in any founder's journey.

  1. 6

    Instantly hypnotised by that background music :D

    What I'm confused by is he mentions Air Table but then says he has all his major ideas in essentially a text file?

    I store pretty much everything in Air Table and use their Kanban/Grid view religiously and have found it excellent for storing all manner of ideas which can be quickly transformed into actionable tickets.

    Would love to see more interviews around tooling and processes for IHers.

    As for avoiding creating a frankenstein app by taking on every suggestion, what about providing a plugin/add-on framework for users to build the product they want? Understandably, this is a massive undertaking vs putting those suggestions in the backlog.

    He also mentions prioritising smaller suggestions that fit with the product, but what about delegation? Has he considered delegating even a small amount to clean up such work?

    So many questions haha Great interview! Thank you and AJ.

    1. 4

      Ideas = Yup, just a text file. I mean I'll occasionally try out other ways to organize stuff but I always seem to come back to that.

      Plug-in thing = Hmm, interesting idea but not really something I'd want to get into with Carrd right now (though I could definitely see a future iteration having both that plus a marketplace for people to offer/sell their own custom elements or something)

      Delegating small stuff = Nope, but if Carrd gets large enough to justify bringing on another developer that would more than likely be the first (developer-oriented) thing to get delegated.

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        Appreciate the response!

        I used to always dump everything in Evernote so can definitely relate to simple text files.

        Good luck on your continued growth! :)

  2. 4

    It's funny because I legit just finished setting up what is basically a shittier carrd. Darn.

    1. 11

      Carrd 3 years ago was a shittier Carrd so keep at it :)

    2. 5

      As he mentioned, though, there are innumerable ideas and directions he could have gone. Keep at it! It will turn into a different beast I'm sure.

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        Yup! It's a big, big space. Plenty of room to carve out a profitable niche.

      2. 2

        From day 0 I plan to listen to customers a lot, and basically go where the majority takes me.

        1. 2

          I honestly don't think you can lose if you sustain such focus on customers and follow up with dedication and action over a number of years. Don't give up, don't take no for an answer, know when to throw in the towel and move on (probably the most difficult one).

          If anything, your similarity to cardd is +1 on viability.

          Do you have another idea you'll move onto if this first venture doesn't work out?

          1. 1

            Funny you ask, I built (https://snuffer.co)(the homepage is built with the app, but still looks shitty, old bootstrap version because I'm lazy) to have my own platform to make simple one page "MVPs" to collect leads, so this project is literally a project I will use to test the viability of other projects. Ideas are endless, but I tend to not take action, so I plan to speak to as many real people as possible in April about all sorts of industries and their daily issues, what they hate doing the most, etc. To come up with solutions to real problems that big players might have missed.

            I can already create pages on other domains, which is nice: eg: https://offer.amando-abr.eu/

            1. 1

              Ha! That's an excellent idea. Though those designs are quite simple, they're actually really clean. Kudos!

              It sounds like you're on your way.

              but I tend to not take action

              That's pretty much what is going to destroy all your dreams. You either fix it or fail. I think everyone struggles with that at the beginning. It's daunting, and you are very likely pushing yourself in a completely new direction. I've found it difficult to build momentum at times.

              I recently installed a habit app on my phone, but I also replaced my homescreen with widgets for my most important habits. Now every time I look at my phone they are staring me in the face, my phone won't stop nagging me every day with notifications about them, I have a full display of monthly calendars for each habit without even opening the app.. it's greatly helped to keep me on track. The most important habit is x hours on my product/business.

              Dunno, maybe it'd help you build some momentum? Have you tried anything like that?

              1. 1

                My issue is 100% fear and risk aversion, but I've reached a point in my life that I consider lost time to be a bigger risk than money, so that's what's making me go all-in.

                1. 1

                  True. How old are you btw? I think it becomes easier once you make the full decision to dedicate your life to it for the number of years required. I've dropped to part-time hours (16 months ago) and have the next 5-10 years set aside. That's made it much more simple as I can afford to throw away a few years on "education" so to speak.

                  Expectations have a lot to do with it. If you expect to fail your way to the top then you're already prepared for the worst case scenario and have plenty of back up plans.

                  Good luck anyway! I'm sure you'll get there if you stay focused.

  3. 3

    Wow... can't wait to listen to it!

  4. 3

    Amazing interview with a different perspective than I'm not used to.

  5. 2

    My Main Takeaways:

    • Break things down into small manageable chunks to be done over time, and they will appear far more achievable.

    • AJ used to make site templates from way back in 2008. He eventually got complacent with his web development skills so decided to start html5up to learn responsive website design.

    • Keep it simple, and just get started: AJ’s website html5up gives away responsive html5 templates for free in exchange for a backlink to his website, which is good for SEO. AJ didn’t intend for html5up to become this big.

    • Listen to your user’s problems for new ideas: AJ built pixelarity because people wanted to use his html5 templates without giving him credit. People could then pay AJ to use his templates without giving him a backlink.

    • “If you don’t overthink things, sometimes good things happen” - AJ

    • Luck plays a big part into AJ’s success, “it just happened” he says.

    • Save money so you have more freedom: AJ funded himself to work on html5 and pixelarity by having money saved up from the past where he used to run exact-match-domain SEO websites that had ads on them.

    • Users are not as incompotent as people think: AJ handles customer support via twitter DMs and he says that users mostly have no problems and the users that do have problems ask him questions regarding advanced edge-case scenarios regarding one of his templates.

    • AJ built his following and products concurrently.

    • Sometimes your greatest successes can be unexpected: AJ didn’t expect Carrd to be as big as it is now. (Similar to how Courtland started Indie Hackers only to find a good business idea that he could work on).

    • Don’t worry about competition if the market is big enough, as long as you have your own niche in that market: The website builder market is large enough that there is plenty of room for many different alternatives (Squarespace, Wix, Carrd, etc). Don’t copy, differentiate and form/enter a niche.

    • Get ideas for new projects from things that worked in your old projects: AJ got the validation for his project Carrd, from html5up, after seeing that the one-page templates were very popular.

    • It took AJ about 6 months to get the Carrd Alpha built and launched.

    • Ensure that you’ll be getting some benefit out of your company even if it fails: AJ knew that even if Carrd failed, it would make a great portfolio project in case he’d need to get a development gig.

    • Charge users from the beginning for validation: AJ launched Carrd with a paid plan because he wanted to leverage the initial surge of traffic, and see if he could convert people onto the paid plan as a form of validation.

    • Don’t be dogmatic with startup advice that you follow: Courtland says that Carrd violates many of the advice that he gives to founders (Don’t charge cheap, don’t sell to consumers sell to businesses), yet Carrd is still successful.

    • AJ doesn’t do much if any marketing for Carrd, it just grew on its own.

    • Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one role: AJ says that people can fill more roles (designer, developer, etc) than they give themselves credit for. Give it a try and you will be surprised with what you can do.

    • Don’t take every request that your user makes as a must-have feature: Sometimes users will request features that only apply to themselves, but not to the general target audience, or the vision of the product. Learn to say no.

    • When dealing with user generated content, have a system of moderation.

    • Automate before you hire: First, see if you can automate a role, if you can’t, hire.

    • Advice for beginners: If you haven’t figure out what you want to do, just pick something that seems like it would be fun, and build a small project around that.

  6. 2

    @csallen love the analogy question. Such a good point

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