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.
What's up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it's like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions at their companies and in their personal lives? And what exactly makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own successful businesses. On today's episode, I'm excited to be talking to you, the talented and mysterious AJ.
AJ is a creator of a number of various successful projects. Almost a decade ago he created HTML5 Up and to this day if you search for free HTML templates, AJ's site is right there on the first page of Google. His templates have been downloaded something like 12 million times.
He is the creator of Pixelarity, a similar website, but where instead of just giving his templates away for free, he actually sold them for money. And most famously, AJ is the creator of Carrd, which allows you to easily create a beautiful one-page website for pretty much anything your heart desires. So AJ, welcome to the show.
Hey and thanks for having me on.
It's good to have you. I've been trying to get you on here for -- man, it feels like years at this point, so it really warms my heart to finally have you on here.
Yeah, sorry it took so long. I've just, I don't know. Something about trying to get the right microphone and trying to, who knows. I'm not gonna make excuses. I'm here now. Let's get this going.
You're a busy guy. AJ, you always have a good excuse. You are working on Carrd. Carrd is amazing. In fact, before we jump into things, why don't we give people a sense of the level of Carrd’s success? You're generating something close to $30,000 a month in revenue now. Every month, almost 20,000 new users sign up and create over 40,000 websites using Carrd.
And what's amazing is that you've built this thing by yourself in just a few years as a solo founder and a solo developer. I think that's crazy. Does that seem crazy to you? Are you ever amazed by what you've done?
When you put it that way, it does sound a little bit crazy, but I think when you build something like that incrementally, it's easy to look back and say, “Oh wow, there was so much that happened there.” It's like, well, six months into it, I got this much done. 12 months into, I got this much done. It's not as insurmountable as it seems, in retrospect.
It’s like a frog boiling in water. You just don't really notice. You look back two years, two years later, and you've got this thing.
And you wonder how did you end up in this pot where you're going to slowly boil to death? I don't know if that was right analogy to be using, Courtland, but we'll go with it.
We're getting really morbid really fast here with boiling frogs. What do you think is the most exciting part of Carrd for you? What gets you out of bed every day?
I think just the sheer number of use cases that I just never anticipated. They just came out of nowhere every day. It almost seems like I'm finding a new one. To an extent it's a testament to how I built something that was general purpose enough that it actually is able to be used in a more general way, but at the same time I guess the thing that gets me out of bed every day is just where is this thing going to go next? Every day is just a new adventure.
When I introduced you at the beginning of this episode, I just called you AJ and it's not because I forgot your last name. It's because I don't actually know your last name. You're anonymous. There are no photos of you online. And as far as I can tell, nobody knows who you really are. You could be an exceptionally skilled elephant named AJ and none of us would know.
That's pretty close.
Two questions here. First off, why be anonymous? And second, is it even possible to remain anonymous over the long term as the founder of a business that's incorporated and has a bank account and has real, paying customers?
To be honest, I'm not really anonymous. It's not even a conscious thing that I'm doing. I grew up in that era where you would have an online handle or username or a nickname or something and that was what you were known by. So I continued doing that even in recent years and I just stuck with it.
And it's not because I'm in witness protection, hiding out or something. It's just, who really cares? I guess some people care, apparently, but I certainly don't and I'm just doing my thing.
Despite being not really anonymous but anonymous, you share a lot of stuff online, you do a lot of building in public. You tweet about your stats and I know one thing about you is that you used to tweet your revenue stats for Carrd regularly. It was something that you made a tradition of, especially in the early days, but recently you've done a little bit less of that. Why is that?
I think past a certain point – in the early days when you're making like 200 bucks a month or 400 bucks a month or it gets up into maybe the low thousands, it just seems like a good thing to share early on because it's the early stages of a project that may or may not be proven.
And then when you get to that point where it's actually making it more than a few hundred dollars, that's good motivation for other people. It's good motivation for you. But once you get past a certain point in the five-figure range, I just feel it's, at least in my case, I feel it's a bit douchey. So that's why I don’t do it.
Yeah, it's weird because nobody shares their salaries with their friends. No one's like, “Hey, I make $200,000 a year. What do you think about that?” Because that would be –
I certainly know some people who are that way and that's just a weird thing. The lack of self- awareness that comes with that.
But then there's business where no one really bats an eye if a business shares its revenue. It's not like that crazy for business to share their figures.
Now I think we have this weird time period where one person sitting in her living room can code an app and be making thousands of dollars a month and she's one person. That's her job, but she's also in business and so it's this weird mix where it can feel douchey to share your numbers but also your business. So why not?
I think you actually nailed it right there. I think the issue is how close I am to the project. If it were a team effort where I had two or three other people working on this, sharing numbers for that would feel a little bit more, well, a little less douchey, let's just say that.
But by me actually being so close to the project, it being a solo project, me sharing how much it's making is effectively like sharing how much I'm making. And that is when it starts to feel a bit too douchey. I think you nailed it right there. It's just that there's not enough separation between the two and so they fuse together.
That makes perfect sense. It's you really just sharing your personal finances at that point.
And that’s just strange. But I guess for some people, they can contextualize it better than I can, which is why I don't think they feel the way I do. So who knows?
So let's come back to that later. Because I know that you have strong opinions as well about separating your work life from your personal life. And I think that's something that everybody treats in a different way. I know I certainly treat it differently than you. So we'll talk about contextualizing your business.
But first, let's talk about some of your earlier projects. In 2012 you started a website called HTML5 Up. What's the story behind how you got started with that and how you came up with the idea?
Quite honestly for years I had worked on other stuff. I started making good money off of it. And then what happens when you get to a certain point, at least the way I was, you start getting complacent. You start not working on things as often as you should, and you inevitably just start sucking at what you do.
Because you're not keeping up. Because why should you? You're making good money, why bother? But then inevitably you hit a peak and then things start to decline and then you wonder, how do I get back into this? So 2012 I realized well, I'm really far behind so I need to do something to catch up.
So that's when I decided, well, the thing I really need to learn is responsive design, which I had zero experience with despite it being around for at least like a couple of years at that point, I think. So I figured, why not just jump right into it, just see what I can make and just put it out there. And if people think it sucks, it sucks.
If not, whatever. It's a good way to get public feedback on something entirely new that I have no idea what I'm doing with. But I figured that would be the fastest way for me to learn. So I pretty much started with, actually, if you go to HTML5 Up.net right now, scroll to the very bottom. That template is the very first responsive design I've ever done.
So yes, it looks incredibly dated, but it got me going. So over the coming months I started working on it more, started adding better templates, learning new things and it just, man, it just grew from there. I've been more or less keeping up with it ever since.
You mentioned that before HTML5 Up you felt that you'd grown complacent, that you'd done the same thing for a long time and you started sucking at it. What was it that you had been doing for such a long time?
Oh, it's still, I was doing a site template stuff for years, even before I started HTML5 Up, going back as to like as far as 2008 or so, it was a different time, different era. There was a rising tide of themes and templates that would, if you just put up a site that put out templates of something or themes, you would actually make pretty good money off it.
I know a few other people who were doing the same thing around the same time, could probably attest to the same experience I had. There was just a lot of money in it and I made the mistake of thinking that would pretty much be the thing for a long time when it turned out to just be a very quick blip.
Selling themes and templates, it's not working out. The industry is in decline. You decided to make a transition and you create HTML5 Up where you are giving away themes and templates for free. You never put a price tag on it. Why is that?
Because, to be honest, I thought the first few things I put up there would not be really good enough to charge for and it felt like it was a good, the Creative Commons license, which is what I put all my stuff out under, I just felt like a very good way to also spread the word of what this thing is. Part of that license requires attribution. The attribution I chose is you need to just keep a little link or credit to HTML5 Up in the footer and that actually had a very good effect of just getting more people to go to HTML5 Up and see what was there, download stuff and just continue that effect.
I wanted to talk to you about growth, because I'm looking at HTML5 Up right now and you've got on every one of these templates you've created, a free download button and a number after that button that I think is just a representation of how many people have downloaded it.
Some of these templates have been downloaded 418,000 times 547,000 times. How did you make this website so popular? There's a sea of other HTML5 template websites out there. Why are so many people downloading your templates instead?
If I go back and it's one of those things where I can say, “Well, clearly, I did it this way to have this effect, but quite honestly, I didn't plan for it to get this big. Even Pixelarity, that only came about later because I saw there was a demand for it, but it wasn't something I really had planned out in a premeditated way.
I'm going to build this, and I know how to get all my traffic and all that. If there's one theme for my experience with a lot of this stuff is that I've just fallen into things. I think there's something to be said about making yourself available to have things like that happen to you.
So in the case of HTML5 Up, I didn't overthink it. I was like, “Well, I'm going to put out some templates with a pretty permissive license. I'm not going to put a bunch of marketing bullshit all over the site. I'm just gonna keep it really simple, keep it a little bit more personal this time. Maybe people like that better,” and then it just went from there.
So I don't want to make it sound like it was a calculated decision because it certainly wasn't. It was just, I'm not going to think too much about it this time and see where things go.
Was there a point where you realized that some of these things that you were falling into, some of these things that you were deciding on a whim actually turned out to be great ideas and that maybe you could capitalize on them?
Oh yeah that's what Pixelarity ended up being, because there was a point where people were just emailing me saying, “Hey, is there a way I can pay you, so I don't have to credit you?”
Or people would email me asking questions about how stuff would work and then I just thought, “Well, clearly there's a demand here that I didn't know about, so maybe I should build something around that demand,” which is exactly what Pixelarity ended up being. It gave people attribution or credit for usage of all the HTML5 Up stuff, gave them support.
And then it even gave them like extra templates that are exclusive to the service. So that was an example of a thing that just came out of nowhere, but I didn't plan for, but I took advantage of it. I just built something around it, and it worked out pretty well.
I have so many questions here because you made a lot of very interesting decisions. For example, I think many people, when they have a successful website that's getting millions of hits, like HTML5 Up, if they wanted to launch something off the back of that, they would probably just use the same domain name, the same name and just add some pricing to that existing website. You created an entirely different brand, an entirely different website. What led you to that decision?
I think because HTML5 Up seemed like it was just doing well as it was. You mentioned in the intro like if you search for it, it's still pretty high up in the rankings and part of me was like, “Well, I don't really want to mess with this too much if it's working.” The whole experience was working pretty well, I suppose.
Again, it was one of those things where I just fell into it. I didn't put a whole bunch of marketing speak on there. I didn't have a lot of commercial stuff. There are no ads on it with the exception of the Pixelarity little banner at the bottom. I just felt like I should leave it as is, build this thing as something separate so I don't pollute the original thing that was doing so well.
That makes a lot of sense. It's as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
That's pretty much it. It was doing great so why screw with that?
The other decision you made that I think is fascinating is your pricing model for Pixelarity. And so you say you've got 92 templates, and someone can download all of them in one go for just $19. How'd you decide on that?
Honestly, I can't really remember. It just felt like the right price at the right time. So to speak back to what we were talking about before, about sharing numbers, part of it is when you are pricing something, a product that you're basically running on your own, you're looking at, “Well how much do I want to make out of this per day, per month, per year,” or whatever.
So if you're the only person working on it, you don't have other concerns like other teammates you have to pay for, whatnot. You can be pretty lenient on pricing. You can pretty much price it wherever you want, whatever feels fair to you. You don't have to add a whole lot more on top of it to pay for other employees or other liabilities you may have come with running it.
That makes sense. So you can be a lot more aggressive pricing wise you can be more competitive.
Aggressive is probably a good way to put it. Yeah, even though I wasn't really thinking, “Well, I'm going to price it as low as possible to fight these other guys.” Just 19 bucks, that felt fair.
So looking back on both HTML5 and Pixelarity, I can only see them from the perspective of today, where they are these big successes. What was the process like of 2012 not having any of this up through 2016 were there any big milestones you hit? Were there any things that you'd changed to spur growth or was it a success right from the beginning?
Pretty much it was a success right from the beginning. It grew on its own. I think I owe a lot of that success to Google, apparently. Maybe the way they changed their algorithms, or something made it to where it started ranking highly, very quickly. I literally don't do SEO, that’s not a thing I do. I don't even really watch traffic anymore.
It's just right place, right time, I guess. Which I guess is completely useless to your listeners because I'm sure they're trying to figure out, “Well, how do I replicate something like that?” And I don't know what to tell you, man. All I can say is if you don't overthink things, sometimes good things happen.
Well, the entire idea behind Google search algorithm is that it's supposed to reward the best website to give searchers what they want. So to some degree you've proven that it can work.
That summarizes it just better than I could. The intent behind their algorithms is to reward, or should I say, rank the best sites possible, so when you search for something you get the best possible results, then skip all the SEO ground game that you have to deal with now. Just go right to the end. Just say, “Well, I'm just gonna make as good of a website as I possibly can. It doesn't matter how they changed their algorithms,” as long as you've done that, that's the goal they're heading towards anyway.
Except the frustrating thing is a lot of people make great stuff and no one ever finds it.
I'll probably get into this later, but luck is just a huge part of all of this and that's why I'm constantly trying to stay as humble as possible because I know, a lot of this wasn't calculated. A lot of this wasn't planned. It just happened or fell on my lap. I can't take a whole lot of credit for everything.
Let's talk about some of the practicalities that are going on behind how you build these websites. Because when I think about why entrepreneurs don't do some of the things that you've done, sometimes it just comes down to mundane stuff. They don't have time to build a website. They don't have any ideas, they don't have the money. How did you find yourself building HTML5 Up and Pixelarity?
Prior to all of that, I still had some money left over from all the work I had been doing, my old projects, which I don't even mention them anymore because it was like, do you remember the era of like exact match domain sites and things like that? Making money off ads and all that stuff, which some people still do, but back then it was what you did.
I made a reasonable amount of money off that. So I ended up saving most of it, which was, turns out, a really good idea. And by having that foundation behind me, I didn't have to really fret too much about building something that made a shitload of money right away. So I could take my time a bit.
Did you do the same thing with Carrd? Because you released Pixelarity. Pixelarity, unlike HTML5 Up was something that actually generated revenue. Was it generating enough money for you to live off of it and save and fund the development of your next project?
Yeah, that actually that's exactly what happened. Pixelarity was doing well enough to where I could support myself just fine while working on this new project. And I think having that, it's a huge blessing. Because when you don't have to worry so much about money, I'm not saying I was a millionaire or anything like that, and everything was taken care of. But when you don't have to worry so much about whatever you're building next, making a shitload of money right away, you can take it a bit slower and build it around things that are a bit more sustainable than just like quick cash grab. Does that make sense?
Yeah. That's part of the magic of being a self-funded founder. It's that you can pay your own way to work on whatever it is that you want and you can move at your own pace without some other stakeholder or investor telling you that you got to move faster or telling you that you got to work on something else.
One of the things that I'm always interested in is how founders get feedback from their peers and how we learn to do the things that we do. I know that you live in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is not exactly a tech hub. Who are you talking to over all these years that you were building these things and who are you learning from?
Mostly Twitter, I think. And especially in recent years, it's amazing how it doesn't matter where you are now. If you can get on Twitter and then I guess connect with the group of people who are doing the same thing you are, you can very easily learn what you need to learn from them. Get feedback.
In the early days of Carrd, I think my – the very first Alpha I did, it was just all people I knew on Twitter and maybe like a couple of people I knew in real life who were just friends. That was a huge thing for me, and I can't stress enough how much value I got out of Twitter over the last 10 or so years I've been on it.
Yeah, you're one of the better Twitter users that I know. Looking at all your sites, it's not an accident that you have a Twitter following. If I go to HTML5 Up, one of the biggest calls to action right at the top of the website is follow at a-j-l-k-n. And I think on Pixelarity you also drive people to follow you on Twitter.
That actually comes from the way I handle support, still to this day where I'm – I think, I guess one calculated decision I did make in all of this was, I think the easiest way to provide support and probably the most value support I can give people is if I just do it directly.
So putting out my Twitter handle, opening up my DMs and just saying, “Hey, hit me on Twitter over DM or just email me, I'll take care of it.” And that turned out to be a very good decision.
That doesn't get crazy for you? Opening up your DMs and having everybody who uses Carrd, everybody who uses Pixelarity messaging you?
Shockingly, no. I think people need to give users credit. They're not as helpless as people would otherwise think. It depends on your product. Well, at least in my case, I think there's a certain level of sophistication that comes with it.
So people aren't emailing me mundane questions like do how I change this piece of text in this HTML file? They already know how to do that. So it's only the really advanced, more complex things I tend to get questions about these days.
Well, overall this whole Twitter strategy is really working out for you. You've got something close to, I think 50,000 followers on Twitter?
Approaching that, I think.
That's huge. That's a lot of people. And if you make use of them you can really drive traffic to other projects that you work on. Like you were saying, your first users for Carrd were your Twitter followers. I think some of the most oft repeated advice for founders just to build an audience before you build your product. But you've managed to do both simultaneously.
Pretty much. And I think a lot of them are following either to just -- because I think on that site in particular, I mentioned follow for updates. So I imagine a sizable chunk came along from just wanting to follow along and see what else is coming down the pipeline.
Other people probably following just for support. So yeah, it worked out really well because I was able to grow as I went.
Give me a snapshot of this process of engaging with your audience on Twitter, opening up your DMs so that people can send you support messages. What does this actually look like in practice?
Getting a tweet or a DM where someone's like, “Oh shit, this isn't working. What can I do?” And me just replying, basically. It almost sounds like a cliché, but people really do respond well to support that treats them like a human, and it sounds like it's coming from a human as well.
So that's pretty much how I handle it. Just if a person came up to me in real life and is like, “Hey, I'm having trouble with this thing,” then I would respond as a person would in real life. So I figured just translate that to the online experience as well.
I built apps in the past where I would sometimes get these support emails that would just be the angriest, meanest emails, and then I would respond and be an actual person. They'd be like, I'm so sorry for that first email.
Oh yeah, that's happened a bunch. The people were just, I think they expect to hear, “We are sorry you are having trouble with this product today. We will attempt to help you. Let me get you to the right,” that robotic speech, a scripted experience versus what you just described where it's like, “Oh crap, there’s an actual person here and I sound like an asshole for yelling at them when clearly it's not entirely their fault that this is happening.”
So things deescalate very quickly. And in the case of a solo founder or a small team running a product, you can oftentimes get things fixed very quickly because you have access to everything.
So besides just doing support and talking to your audience on Twitter, I think you also do a lot of building in public. You'll tweet out pictures of unfinished designs you're working on, you'll ask questions.
You've got this giant change log tweet for Carrd where you make a new tweet announcing whenever you've made a change and others will give you feedback on it. What's driving you to share what's going on behind the scenes so publicly?
Well, yeah, I think it wasn't really premeditated. It was just, I noticed the feedback I got when I would do that was oftentimes very positive. At the very least it was good to know people like what I was doing. That's one part. But also getting constructive criticism for a lot of things helps me move in the right direction. And so it created this feedback loop where I just kept doing it and I just really haven't stopped.
Yeah, it's so great, too, because like you were mentioning earlier, you've built this online support network. You don't really need people in your town to be startup founders. You don't need to move to a startup hub. You can just use Twitter and you're getting feedback from users and other founders.
That's actually pretty good. And I should mention that I think you're a lot braver than I am. I don't like to tweet behind the scenes stuff and I sometimes wonder how your pseudo anonymity plays into this since nobody knows who you are and nobody knows that you look like, does that make it easier for you to share what you're up to online and does that make it easier to handle criticism?
I never really thought of it, but now that you bring it up there, they're probably factors into an extent. It's almost as if this aspect of my life is more compartmentalize and I think it's a little bit easier for me to handle criticism through that because I know it's only just that part of my life being criticized versus the whole thing, which I think if you're putting out your entire personality, it's hard to tell the two apart, if that makes sense.
This is making me regret launching Indie Hackers under my real name. Maybe I should've had like an alias or just an invented personality that created it and it could've been a different person.
Just wish I could be you, AJ. So let's talk about Carrd. The first thing I want to know is why you even created it. You had Pixelarity, that was doing well. It's presumably supporting your lifestyle. Why even start any project?
Why start any new project? You want to challenge yourself. And that was especially true in my case because I had just come off a few years of doing fuck all, really. HTMLL5 and Pixelarity and then Carrd, to me it's not – there wasn't a break between those because like I said, the years prior to that I had just wasted.
There was a lot of momentum pushing me to go to the next thing as soon as possible. And so I actually, I think I touched on this in my little “Making of” thing that I wrote up a couple of years ago, but I needed something that took all of the skills I had learned building what ended up being a pretty diverse array of templates that had a lot of pretty crazy features, in my view.
I needed something that would take all of that and challenge me in an entire product that took advantage of all of these things. Front end, back end, weird user interface stuff I learned along the way. I had a few ideas that weren't Carrd that just seemed not really my thing. And Carrd, that idea came from just thinking, “Well, what am I already familiar with?”
And that was clearly had a lot of experience doing website design, site templates, that sort of thing. So it felt like the best first choice for any project. Now I didn't anticipate it turning into effectively a full-time gig like it is now. But then again, who does?
Tell me about some of these other ideas you were considering. What were they and why did you decide to choose Carrd over those?
Well, I think I had a to do list idea because, everyone is gonna have one of those.
Everyone's made a to-do list app.
Of course, because yeah. It actually, it wasn't that bad of an idea just because it probably would've been a good development exercise, which I think is why it's used as one so often. So. Shit, man, I can't remember the other ideas. I just remember thinking, no, I can't do that.
Oh no, that's stupid. Or like I just didn't, I think I had a few things that were just so far out beyond my realm of experience that I don't think I could have done them justice.
Well, I think what's interesting about Carrd and really all of your websites that we're discussing, is that you decided to do those despite the fact that you're in a pretty crowded market.
I think a lot of people would say, “Oh a website builder, I can't do that.” There's already Squarespace and Wix and a thousand other huge companies. There's a ton of competition. Why didn't you get discouraged by that fact?
I think because I realized pretty quickly that that particular market, and this isn't true of all of them, but at least this particular one is so massive, there is room for pretty much any solution because everyone going to need a website that's a little bit different from the next person.
The features they need a different, what they're willing to pay will be different. So, you could really carve out a niche within this much larger market and not really step on anyone else's toes. You will to an extent, but you can coexist with a Squarespace, a Wix, all these other guys.
How do you think people in other markets can come to the same conclusion? Because it was cool for you. You could build on your skillset. I think there are other people who have skills they'd like to build on and they're maybe not convinced that their market is so friendly to competition. How can someone look at what they're doing and come to the same conclusion that you did, that there's still room for them.
I think being willing to take risks and being willing to try to do things your own way, which is a point I try to drive home quite a bit is that, you're going to fail if you try to copy one of the big guys because the reason why that they're able to do what they do is because they're a much larger operation than you are.
You've got to think of some way to get into that market that takes advantage of what you have, which is a much smaller size, so you don't have quite as much overhead as they do, but also you're not as big as they are, so you can focus on perhaps one small niche of what they can do, but you can do better.
So in my case, it was the one-page site type, which all these other guys do, too, but those services are actually built more for full on websites. So they're not going to be as into it or as detailed about how they go about it than I would be.
Tell me about this, this process of differentiating Carrd from the other players in the space. I think it's super fascinating, like the set of decisions you make and the very early stage of your company. They stick with you for years. How else did you want to differentiate Carrd from the competition and what was driving some of this differentiation that you're putting into your app?
Well, I touched on it a little bit, but constraints just are something that comes with doing a project like that yourself. It's just you, you don't have 30 developers. You can say, “Hey, we're going to cover all of this ground.” You have to actually look at what ground is out there to cover and then say, “Well, what can I do myself that is not going to kill me because it's just me doing this.”
So I think by having your set of constraints from the get-go, it makes you get creative with what your product ends up looking like. So in my case it was, well, I'm going to be doing all of it. What does all of it look like for me? Well, clearly, I can only go after maybe one or two niches, probably just one quite honestly, because you can't spread yourself that thin.
It has to be simple enough to where it's not gonna have a huge amount of support overhead, just lots of little decisions like that. And then you end up landing on a very small sliver of this otherwise gigantic market. And I think just your constraints end up defining that and then you can go from there.
That's such great advice because I think no matter what you're building, there's always some ideal vision you have in mind of this amazing app. It's going to take a hundred programmers 10 years to build and it's hard to cut down on that and have the discipline to say, “I can't realistically build that. I need to start smaller.”
And the constraints will make you get creative. Like in any situation, not just building a product. When you don't have everything at your disposal, you have to just make do with what you have. And humans are pretty smart at doing that and that's what we're really built for. So you can really figure out something unique and special that you probably otherwise may have – you may have overlooked it if you had access to massive resources, whether financial or in terms of human power.
People talk a lot about this concept of validating their ideas, making sure that their ideas are actually good before they invest months or years of their lives into building it. Did you do any validation for Carrd? How did you know this would be a good idea?
The validation for Carrd was – that came from HTML5 Up, if I'm being honest. I don't want to speak to other people's experiences with that because in mine, Carrd came from, in part, what I saw as one of the most popular things on HTML5 Up was the one-page templates. So clearly there was something there.
Like the numbers on the download button that you were just talking about earlier. They're really high for one-page designs and I, up until that point, did not know that was really a thing. I just did those on a whim. So the validation to an extent came from just seeing that and saying, “Oh shit, a lot of people downloading these, maybe there's something there.”
Yeah, in a lot of ways the best way to come up with a business idea is to start another business before and see what happens, analyze your market, see what you learn, see what works and what doesn't.
How did you get started with Carrd after you first decided that this is a good idea, this is promising and it's something I'm definitely going to work on?
So I had to first figure out, do I have the skill set to build something like this? Because even though I had worked on so many templates and some other projects along the way, I didn't know if I had it in me to really pull together all of those things into one single product that needed all of it.
So the first thing I did was build a very rough prototype of what would later be called the generator part of Carrd, which would take the raw data from a user to build a site and then actually generate the HTML, the CSS and whatnot. That was really the first foray into building this thing to see if I could even do that. I did.
And so then I ended up just iterating on that, building every other layer outside it until basically I had a full working product.
How long did it take to get the first, early, full working version of Carrd?
Let's see, I did a closed alpha I think in October or November of 2015 and I started on it that summer. So it probably about five, six months of off and on work to get this very rough alpha out. That was arguably feature complete in that it would let you login, build a site and publish it. So yeah, about six months.
One idea that I've been obsessed with lately is the power of analogy and how important it is to really think about the analogies that you're using to describe whatever task is in front of you.
So for example, a lot of people talk about launching your startup. Well, if you start to think of your startup as something that's analogous to rocket launches, you're probably going to spend all of your time building and tinkering upfront and you're going to invest all of your marketing effort into this one single moment in time and then expect it to carry itself from there.
Oh for some reason I heard rocket launcher and I was like, wait a second. Have I just been out of the startup for so long and there's a new concept, the rocket launcher?
Come on, AJ, catch up. Another analogy that a lot of people tend to use is that of inventions. So if you think of your startup as analogous to inventing something and you're probably going to put a whole lot of weight behind the idea and building it, you're probably going to keep your idea secret and I want to tell anybody and you're going to undervalue the subsequent execution, finding users, etc. I'm curious what analogies you use, AJ. How do you envision the whole journey of a startup in your mind?
Huh. I actually kept a lid on it for at least the first, six months until I did the alpha. It didn't even have a name. I only emailed less than a dozen people about it. I avoided talking about it on Twitter. I think I may have teased one or two things along the way, but I don't know.
I would hesitate to call it an invention because it's not really anything that revolutionary or innovative in that regard. But I think part of it was, and this goes a little bit back to when you're building in public to an extent, you're a little bit nervous to share too much about something before it is really viable.
Is this thing going to suck? If it is, I don't really want to share where I'm at 10%. I'd rather just keep a lid on it until it feels like it's time to start telling people about it.
Did you have a roadmap, a predictive roadmap of what things were going to look like in the future? On this date, I'm going to launch Carrd and then next year going to go to step two and then there's going to be a phase three or were you just a winging it one week, one day at a time?
Early days, for sure, I was winging it. I just wanted to get the product out the door and see where it would end up. Recently, though, especially in the last year, because things have just grown to the point where you need more planning. I've done more planning, done a bit more.
I have a bit more formal of a roadmap now, but to an extent there is still just winging it. If something comes up out of nowhere that I didn't anticipate, but it seems like it would be a good thing to add and it makes sense then I'll actually oftentimes prioritize doing that over maybe what else I had planned at the time.
I do the same thing. There's this, I think it's called recency bias where whatever things you've heard recently seemed to stick in your mind, just take up the most mind share. And so it's really easy for me if a good idea pops in my head or somebody suggest it to end up prioritizing that over as some of my more long-term plans.
Right. Which can be dangerous for sure. Otherwise you just end totally tacking stuff on in a haphazard, unplanned way, completely forgoing whatever proper planning you did before. There's also still value in being flexible enough to incorporate new things out of nowhere. One of Carrd's biggest features is the custom form, payment enabled form thing.
Which, literally, I had no plans for. And it came out of a conversation with Pieter Levels just on a whim. Right after I was like, “Shit, I'm going to do this.” And so, immediately I started working on it. I don't even remember what I was supposed to be working on at time. I just started working on that. It turned out to be a huge, huge thing.
So nowadays you're getting something crazy, like 20,000 new users per month joining Carrd. But you mentioned that in the early days you were just reaching out to people on Twitter. You were talking to your friends in real life. How many users exactly were you finding through efforts like this and what did that process look like?
Oh, well, prior to launch I would say just less than a dozen people because that's who I emailed. I think around early 2016 is when I started announcing publicly on Twitter that I have a new thing. I'm doing an open beta. So if you're interested in trying it out, DM me or email me and I'll give you the details.
And so I probably got a few dozen more that way because I didn't really publicly share a lot of information about what this thing was until people reached out to me. At that time I still wanted to keep a lid on it for whatever reason.
After launching, it's been a while since I looked at this, but probably I started getting a decent number of new users from just that on Twitter and then the Product Hunt launch just blasted of the crap out of all of that because that's what Product Hunt tends to do. It certainly nowhere near what I'm getting today but it was pretty good just on Twitter alone.
Let's say your launch didn't go very well, or your Twitter advertising petered out. Did you have any growth roadmap or marketing strategy that you planned on following after that?
Nope, that was definitely the time when I was winging it a lot, so I was just like, well, whatever happens, happens. To an extent, I had already gotten what I wanted out of the product in terms of, I learned a ton along the way.
I felt like I had leveled up a lot during the development process. If it didn't go well or if it just petered out, it's was like, well, it's not costing me a whole lot to keep it around so it's not going to hurt just to keep it there and move onto something else.
That's such a cool mindset to have because it makes you more optimistic about what you're building. If you know that you're going to be gaining all sorts of things from your product, even if it doesn't succeed, if that you're going to be picking up new skills and learning things or meeting people or whatever you consider valuable, then it doesn't really matter if it succeeds or not. And so you can still move forward without this paralyzing anxiety about success.
Right, and for Carrd as well. at the very least, when I was done with it and it launched on Twitter way back in early 2016. I was like, “Yeah, maybe if it doesn't turn into a commercially viable product at the very least it's a very cool like portfolio piece.” If I need to get another gig or something, I can just point to that and say, “Hey, I built this on my own.” So it would have helped at least on that level.
What was your business model like in the early days and how has it changed since then?
The business model hasn't changed a whole lot, but I did make one very good decision early on and that was to first make it a free product because I know there's a lot of debate as to whether you should go freemium or not.
And I think for something like Carrd, I felt that either I invest a whole lot in marketing and demo videos and all kinds of shit just to show people what the product can do. Or fuck it, I'll just let people use it for free and then make it to where the really cool stuff is behind is paywall. So it launched with the free plan that anyone can get just by going to the website.
Then a pro plan, which was 19 bucks a year that gave you custom domains, forms, and I think, honestly not a ton more beyond that when it first launched. I added a bunch more to it later, but not – I think only launched with those two key features.
That's a good combination to launch with free and paid plans. Most of the founders I talked to who are doing things that are free, it's really because they're afraid to charge. So they launch and day one they've got a free plan, but there is no, there's no paid plan and they say, “Oh, yeah, one day I'll get to it as long as I can make my free users happy.” How did you decide to launch with your paid plan?
Well, I knew if I was going to launch on Product Hunt, I didn't want to waste that initial surge, which I had seen with so many products where you just get this huge wave of new users and attention, really. For it to only have a free plan I felt like I would be missing out on some potential conversions.
And also that's a good way to get a sense of, “Is this a good product beyond it just being free? Would people actually want to pay for it?” And so by launching with both at the same time, I was able to validate that very quickly. And in my case, it was, “Oh yeah, people are willing to pay for this thing.” So that's, that is really great and extremely motivating, quite honestly.
Yeah, that's smart. You're treating your launch as not just a way to get a bunch of users in the door, but also is an experiment, really, to test your hypotheses, to test if people will pay for what you're doing.
Right, if anything, people were complaining about it being too cheap. Well, okay, I'll take that over people complaining that it's too expensive.
It's a good problem to have. So on that note, I want to point out that Carrd violates a lot of the advice that I find myself giving the founders. I tell people, for example, to charge a lot of money for what they're building, but you sell a Carrd for cheap. I think its lowest plan is 10 bucks a year or something.
Yeah. It's like there's an entry level pro-lite plan for nine bucks a year, but I can get into that a little later.
Super cheap. I tell founders to charge everybody. I was just tweeting about this the other day. I think you responded to it, but I don't like freemium. I don't like giving away your product for free. For Carrd you have tens of thousands of people signing up every month who never convert to paying users.
I tell people not to build products for consumers, target businesses instead, but the vast majority of your customers are just regular people. Not that it seems to matter, you're killing it anyway. In your opinion, what's going on here? Is my advice just bad? Is Carrd a special case?
I would say your advice is good generally speaking. And I have to stress that Carrd is a special case just as every product is. You can't look at Carrd and say, “Well this is the way to do it.” I'm only sharing my personal experiences with this stuff and that's all I can really speak to. So what works for me is not necessarily gonna work for anyone listening.
That being said, I think being dogmatic about how to do things is a good way to box yourself in and not take different approaches or even just risks that may end up panning out. So in the case of Carrd for instance, there's an aspect to it that I would say, yeah, I winged it. I certainly winged it.
I probably could have done things a little bit different, but it ended up panning out because I was willing to just take those risks going in and not be held back by, “Well, all the startup advice I've seen tells me to do otherwise.”
So let's dive into some of the specific ways that Carrd is unique. The first thing we already touched on is pricing. You have pricing plans that go as low as $9 a year. What is it about Carrd that makes this a good decision?
Well, Carrd initially launched with that single $19 a year plan because that felt like a good starting point. But as time went on, it became clear that there are just so many different types of people using it and I figured it being a freemium product, I should come up with a way to incentivize converting those free users over to paid.
That's obvious. So in the case of that $9 a year plan, I noticed about, it's been maybe like a year and a half, maybe two years even a certain demographic of users began using Carrd as you well know. Kpop aficionados among others. And again, a use case I didn't anticipate, but still pretty cool. Those users would probably never pay for the features on a regular pro plan because those features are more business oriented, custom domain forms, Google analytics, that type of stuff.
So I needed a plan that had features that they would actually want to pay for and also price it in such a way that they would almost on a whim upgrade to that plan because it's so cheap. Because I figured, look, it's either a decision between that – getting something out of them or getting nothing out of them.
So by adding this plan, I actually ended up converting quite a few of them. Maybe not all, it’s not a huge percentage, but at least now I'm actually converting some of those users who would have otherwise just been free users.
Let's say you could go back in time to the early days of Carrd and give yourself some advice around some of these major decisions you made about pricing and product design and the architecture of your code, etc. Is there anything that you would tell yourself to change?
Well first I think it would be, have a little bit more faith that this thing is gonna do well, which I guess it's hard to really – that advice doesn't always apply because it have very well not gone well. But I would have made some better code decisions.
It's not to say what I have right now is not – I can't work with, it's certainly, it's fine, but there are aspects to it, where had I seen where things were going way back when I started, I probably would have structured things just a little bit differently to make my life a bit easier now. That's not that big of a deal.
Beyond that I'd say, maybe – actually I can't really think of anything else. I'm not saying that I got everything perfect. It’s almost as if I just lucked into the right setup to handle the scale that I have now. That could very well change in a few years, maybe even sooner. But as it stands right now, I think between my own good decisions and just straight up luck, there's not a whole lot that needs to have been changed.
Carrd is one of the few virable products that I've seen. It feels like one out of a hundred products actually have real virality. If I search Google for website builder Carrd doesn't come up and yet you're getting tons of new signups, tons of traffic and people seem to be finding you primarily through just spreading the product through word of mouth. Is that accurate?
Yeah, I'd say that's very accurate.
How much time do you spend doing marketing and growth stuff for Carrd deliberately?
Zero, I'd say. Unless you count my tweets on Twitter and then the occasional podcasts that I do. I really don't put any effort into marketing. Again, it doesn't apply to every type of product or every product period, but I don't know. Something about Carrd, I guess just makes it spread on its own, at least right now.
That's every programmer’s dream to sit around building their product all day and not have to talk to anyone to do any marketing whatsoever.
Believe me, I can absolutely relate, but I can't sit here and say, “Well, I designed it to be viral,” no way, man. It just happened in my case.
Well, what do you think is the secret here? How do you think with the benefit of hindsight that you build something that spreads via word of mouth?
I would say, first it being free because the barriers to entry is pretty much eliminated at that point. People aren't having to hand over a credit card to use it. The second thing would be, and actually this was a conscious decision, the process to get into building the site, like to try out Carrd, if you've never used it before and you just want to give it a go, you literally just click a button.
You don't have to give an email, you don't have to do anything. You just click the, well actually I think you have do two clicks. You click the button, then you choose a template you want, and you just go right into it. No sign up required. That turned out to be a hugely beneficial decision. Especially going back to the Product Hunt launch.
That became extremely effective because of this one decision I made where people like the, there's like no reason where you can't just accidentally build a website with Carrd because you were just clicking around.
You'll end up building something, you don't have to type anything. So that was probably a big part of it. And I think just I really deliberately tried to keep Carrd’s copy, marketing, whatever you want to call it, as not marketing-ish at all, if that makes sense.
I'm in here right now messing around with a Carrd. You said it would take one or two clicks to get started and you're right. I'm already setting up a website. I got to say, man, your design is slick. You've got a rare combination of design sensibilities, front end programming skills, and back programming skills. How does someone acquire that entire well-rounded skillset?
Oh, man, it's actually not really a big secret. It's just try it, just do it, I think people are more capable of doing things that they give themselves credit for. And I think of that comes from just this desire to pigeonhole yourself. You want to give yourself a label like, “Well, I'm a developer.” So if you see any problem that requires even a modicum of design effort, you're just like, “Well that's not my thing. I'm a developer.”
And I think it's like, well maybe actually you may be okay at design, you may be good enough at design to actually solve that problem. So why don't I give it a go? That doesn't mean become a designer and all this, but just try it. And the same goes for designers. You're human, you're smart you can solve problems. There's no reason you can't apply that aspect of it to solving maybe a backend development problem.
It's cool looking at your growth strategy being zero minutes a day invested into marketing. But the reality is that you're doing marketing by engineering. Like you said, having it be so easy to sign up for their product or keeping it free, like your product choices make your product more viral.
How do you think the aesthetics come into it? The fact that creating Carrd is such a pleasant experience and that the Carrd that you create looks so good. What are you find your users talking about when they're spreading this product to each other via word of mouth?
You pretty much summed it up right there. They are just pleased with what they can make with very little effort and I think that is what spreads it. Carrd is a unique case for many reasons and I think that's one aspect is that you're creating something visual. It's very easy to spread something like that because you can make something and say, “Hey, I made this thing,” and then someone can look at it and immediately say, “Oh wow, that looks cool. I want to make a thing like that too.”
For other products that are a bit more technically oriented or – okay, Air Table. Air Table is freaking amazing, but it's a little bit hard to spread it virally in the same way that Carrd can go because you're showing basically what's a spreadsheet to someone. That's not as – unless that person already has a need for something like that or familiarity, they are going to be like, “I'm looking at a spreadsheet.”
You're right. There's just something about what it is that you're building. It's a website. If you build a website, the point of it is to show other people. Probably very few people build a website just for themselves and so it's like making a greeting card company or something.
If you're selling greeting cards, you can be pretty sure that your customers are going to share the card with someone else because that's what you do with greeting cards. Do you do anything on top of that? Do you have any incentives? Like, “Hey, invite a friend and we'll give you $5 off,” or something like that?
Well, as it stands, just the natural virality, but that suggestion you just made there, that's definitely been suggested by other people that I should do something like that. At the very least like a referral or affiliate program or something. Definitely good ideas. It's just I haven't really had a need to do that just yet.
I'm not dismissing it, like, “Oh I'm growing so well I don't need that.” It's growing pretty well on its own. That's given me a lot of free time to work on the product itself. So to go back to how I spend no time on marketing. Well, by not spending any time on marketing, guess what I can spend that time on? Actual features for the product and enhance it that way.
Courtland Allen [00:56:41 ] Let's talk about that because a lot of us are building products and especially in your case where you've got so many users, so many people giving you suggestions and so much surface area because what you're building is so general, I bet you've got a feature list of like 1,000,001 ideas for things you can build with Carrd.
How do you decide what to work on next? And you consider yourself more of a long-term planner or a strategic prioritizer or how do you figure this all out?
So short term stuff. Again, a lot of people who have suggestions to make small enhancements to things and when those come in, I'll look at it and think, “Well, is this – how much time am I gonna end up spending on implementing it?” It has to pass the filter. Is this a good idea for Carrd or not?
If it is, I look at it and think, “Well, is this something that will take a few minutes, implement a few hours, a few days, or a few weeks?” More often than not, the stuff that just takes a few minutes where a few hours will be prioritized because especially if more than one person suggested this, clearly there's – if two completely different people in a short amount of time suggest the same thing and it's a relatively small feature to add, then it makes sense to go ahead and add it because they're probably people who are looking for that but don't think to ask for it.
So I'll prioritize those things. Other things though, beyond that more major stuff, I ended up putting into a just a general – I have a text file just full of major ideas and those are things that I'm not quite sure at what point I'm going to work on them, but they were good enough ideas to where I know at some point those need to make it into the product in some form or fashion.
Probably the most often repeated tip for startup founders is to talk to your customers regularly and it sounds like that's something that you've done a lot of with Carrd. What does this process look like? How do you get in touch with your customers and have they ever significantly changed the direction that you're headed in?
Interestingly, this goes back to the way I handle support for even a HTML5 Up and Pixelarity. I guess by keeping that communication channel open and making sure people knew, “Yeah, you're talking to the person who made this thing.”
It makes it easier for them, even as they're asking, requesting support or something to just get in touch when they're like, “Hey, I have this idea for this thing,” they're not having to go through many levels of bureaucracy to get to me. They just shoot me an email and there it is. So I don't really have to go out and really seek input. I get a lot of feedback just from people getting in touch with me every day.
One of the things that I struggle with Indie Hackers is that I have this platform that I'm creating and there's this, I don't know how to describe it. Maybe it's a fine line you walk between being prescriptive about what features to build into your product and also keeping things open-ended so that users can surprise you.
That's something that you deal with Carrd as well. You have all sorts of people building cool websites that you never would have imagined, but at the same time you're coding up a very limited set of tools that they have at their disposal to create these websites with.
How do you think about enabling your users to be creative and do whatever it is that they want while also making sure that the sites that they create fit in with your goals and your design aesthetic and what you think they need to be doing?
And that's an excellent question because there is always that possibility where if you were too open and you just go with what your users want, you'll end up with this crazy mess of – it would be an incoherent mess of features that don't really fit together. You'll have niche features for very specific people who will never – don't really have general usage beyond that specific niche.
It's a great question because the way I handle it is anytime a someone requests a feature, I'll always look at it in the context of, “That's great. How does this fit into the overall picture of what Carrd is and will other people beyond just this particular person’s use case actually get use out of it?”
And if it doesn't pass that test, then more often than not I won't come back to it just because I don't want to start adding on hyper specific features for hyper specific niches because that's just going to clutter the product and make it less usable overall.
It's fascinating because I had Des Traynor, the chief strategist for Intercom on the podcast on last year. I asked him how they prioritize features at Intercom.They have this whole framework called RICE. It stands for Reach, Impact, Confidence and Effort. And it sounds like you are a pretty much doing that exact same thing without having a fancy name for it.
You think about E, the effort part of it, you're prioritizing things that are much quicker to do versus doing things that take a long time to do. So you get a lot more features out the door. Or the reach. You're consciously thinking about how many of my users will actually use this feature. I don't want to build something that only 5% or 10% of people are going to experience. And all of this sounds obvious in hindsight, but your intuition often as a founder is not to do either one of these things.
That is really interesting that like there's a formal term they have for it because that does sound exactly what I'm doing. A good part of it is intuition. I think overthinking this stuff in advance, I think you'll end up missing the boat to an extent. If you just dive into it and you start working on the product and you start interacting with your customers, a lot of this stuff will just become apparent as you go.
I realized that right off the bat when I started getting people requesting features that are like, “This would basically require me to rewrite the entire product in a different way. I'm not doing that.” I didn't run it through that acronym.
I just basically thought, “Well, no, there's no way I'm doing that. I only have so many hours in the day where I can work on this thing. I'm not doing that.” But then I'll get someone email me a little bit later saying, “Hey, do you think you could add this tiny little thing?” And I'm like, “Well, that makes a lot of sense. I'm going to go ahead and do that right now.” Purely intuition, and I think everyone has this, once they put themselves in that situation.
We've talked a lot about your wins here with Carrd. We're talking about all the things that have gone right. Let's talk a little bit about mistakes. What are some lessons that you've learned from things that perhaps didn't go so well while you were running Carrd?
I'd say the biggest thing when you're dealing with a consumer-oriented product – and I didn't expect Carrd to be this way, but it is what it is. You have a lot of user content and you've got to basically moderate that stuff because who knows what crazy shit may end up on there. Luckily, we really haven't had anything really untoward be put up on the platform.
But man, content moderation is definitely a thing you have to deal with when you're dealing with a platform like this. And I think if I had – to go back to the previous question, you asked if there's anything I could have told myself back when I first started, I would have told myself, “Be ready for this and maybe have a system in place where right away that you can use as opposed to something that you have to very quickly implement and iterate on in a short amount of time to get up to speed.”
Which is pretty much what happened when Carrd launched on Product Hunt. Up until then I was getting maybe a dozen new site today at most and then it got on Product Hunt and it was up in the hundreds. That's like a shit ton more content and nothing shady ended up on there.
But I was like, well I can see where this could go, though, with this many people adding sites. Someone's going to have to look at these and make sure people aren't posting porn or something, which we don't allow on the platform. How are we going to do that? And for a while there, I didn't have a good solution in place because I just didn't really think of that. As part of growing pains, I guess, with a platform like this, you just don't know what you're going to get with user content.
What is the solution to that problem? Because with so many people creating tens of thousands of sites per month this is not something you can handle by hand.
Part of it is automation and that's the thing that I implemented over the last nine months that's really made a huge positive impact on it. And also having an interface in there for manual moderation as well for stuff that the automated systems just can't figure out on its own.
So my business partner, who I'm working with on other stuff before, used to not really be involved in Carrd, but then when moderation became something I couldn't handle on my own, he had to come in and start handling it.
With his feedback I built a good interface where he can quickly go through what sites are remaining in the moderation queue that the automation couldn't take care of itself. So I wouldn't say that's something that went bad. It was definitely something that could have been better early on, though.
That's cool that you have a business partner. I had no idea. I've been meaning to ask you, actually, what it's like to be building something this big with this many people using it on your own and whether or not you ever feel tempted to bring in some outside help.
Is anyone else helping you besides your business partner? And what other things do you do to scale your own effectiveness so that you can handle running such a huge operation?
To answer the first part of the question, no one else. He actually came in to do the moderation angle. When I was doing that myself and then also working on the product, I started spending like a couple of hours a day doing moderation. I was like, “No, fuck this. I'm not doing this.” So I handed it off to him.
He took care of it for a while, but then it started getting even beyond the couple of hour range to three, four hours. And at that point it was like, “Alright, we need a solution that scales.” Well then, to answer the second part of that question, how do I scale up with it? Well, a huge part of it is automation because you'll find in even a product like Carrd, there are lots of little things that early on you do manually just out of habit, you don't even think about it.
But then as things grow and you get more users and more content, you start seeing the repetitive things you end up doing every day that just take up time that could otherwise be, in many cases, automated. Scaling automation is 100% key, especially if it's just you working on this thing. Or even in my case where I have a business partner handling content moderation.
I don't want him spending 18 hours a day moderating content because that's just not cool. So automation even helps if you have more than one person working on something and that can take you really far.
You seem to have a bias in favor of automation, and I've talked to lots of people who have a bias the other way around. They prefer to hire, they hire small armies of contractors who are working overseas or working on UpWork. How do you feel about that path and have you hired any contractors in the past?
Not as of yet, which is part of why I'm going the automation route because my thinking is if I can automate what I can, then the stuff that I can't automate, I can hire out. At that point where I'm hiring people to do stuff, I know I've done my absolute best to automate whatever I could before I try to go the route of spending money on people, if that makes sense.
We've talked about your early ambitions with Carrd. It started off as a side project. You weren't sure where it was going to go. Today you've got hundreds of thousands of users. You're making close to $30,000 a month. How have your goals and your vision changed for what you want this to be and what keeps you motivated to keep working on this rather than starting something new?
The adventure every day of just seeing where the product goes, which I touched on a little bit before. Every day people are just using it in different ways. I don't know, something cool about when you make something, and then other people are using it and getting value out of it. There are people using Carrd now at an agency level where they're building websites for clients.
And I was like, “I never expected people to use it that way, but it's so awesome that they're using Carrd to power part of their business so they can move forward.” And that's just really cool to me. So things like that really keep me going on the project. And as far as where I see it going though, there's so many like major features. I mentioned that text file I have where I have major things written down that I'm not sure when I'll get to it, but I'd like to get to it.
One of the big things right now that I'm thinking about is taking a whack at commerce and seeing how I can do that in a Carrd way. Who knows what they'll end up looking like, but it sounds like just a natural challenge to add even more value to platform, but also just more value that users can get out of it.
I think some people say that a business is something that should be done for the sake of growth, that every business needs to grow. Some people say that every business needs to generate a revenue you need to grow your revenues. Some people say that a business is meant just to provide a nice lifestyle for the founders, the employees and the customers. What is the point of Carrd for you? You're saying you want to add these new features, ecommerce, what direction do you want to head in?
Part of that, I think, is dictated by how you start. If you're taking funding, I think that dictates the terms of how you run the product. So if you're taking funding, you have an incentive to get your revenue going, grow as quickly as possible. If you're doing it yourself and you're self-funding it, you have a little bit more freedom in that.
And so you can take it slowly. You can choose not to grow. You grow it at a manageable pace, like what I'm doing. You have more options available to you. For me, though, right now Carrd is more of just a thing that I do. It's gotten to where it is my full-time job, which I didn't anticipate even two years ago when it was still at that side project phase. I'm enjoying it and I'm going to keep doing it as long as people want to use it and as long as I still have ideas I can put into it.
Well, I've taken up more than enough of your time, AJ. There are so many more questions I could ask you, but it's been like an hour and a half at this point. We will end by asking you to give advice as people who are listening in who are maybe just starting their first project, just starting their first company or even just trying to decide what to work on. What do you think these people should know? What do think they can learn from the lessons that you've learned?
If you're just starting out, if you haven't even figured out what you want to do, then the advice I give everybody for that is just pick something that seems like it'd be fun for you. It doesn't have to be a world changing product or something that's going to sell for billions of dollars.
Just find something in your life that interests you and then build a small product around it that solves a problem or make something better or whatever. As long as it's fun and keeps you interested. I think that's always the best way to start because especially if you've never done it before, that gives you the motivation to move to the next level because then you realize, “Wow, I can do this. This is something that I'm capable of doing.”
Cool. I love that advice and I think you've invited it yourself because you've always stayed around this niche or products that you really enjoyed doing yourself. Anyway, thanks AJ, so much for coming on to the podcast. Can you let listeners know where they can go online to find out more about what you're up to and where they can find Carrd?
Sure easiest place is just Twitter, @AJLKN. That's where I'm usually just yakking about the stuff I'm doing. Then, of course, Carrd. Carrd with two "r"s, dot "co". Carrd.co. That's about it. Courtland, thanks for having me on, man. This was a lot of fun.
We’re going to have to get you and maybe Pieter Levels on at the same time sometime.
Oh yes, the thing that we've been talking about for a while. Yeah, that'd be a lot of fun. We should totally do that.
Someday! Alright AJ, I'll let you go.
Alright. Take it easy, Courtland. Thanks a lot.
If you enjoyed listening to this conversation and you want a really easy way to support the podcast, why don’t you head over to iTunes and leave us a quick rating or even a review? If you’re looking for an easy way to get there, just go to IndieHackers.com/review and that should open up iTunes on your computer. I read pretty much all the reviews that you guys leave over there, and it really helps other people to discover the show, so your support is very much appreciated.
In addition, if you are running your own internet business or if that’s something you hope to do someday, you should join me and a whole bunch of other founders on the IndieHackers.com website. It’s a great place to get feedback on pretty much any problem or question that you might have while running your business.
If you listen to the show, you know that I am a huge proponent of getting help from other founders rather than trying to build your business all by yourself. So you’ll see me on the forum for sure as well as more than a handful of some of the guests that I’ve had on the podcast.
Did you know Indie Hackers has a newsletter?
Sign up to get insights, takeaways, and exclusive content from each new episode, directly from the host, Courtland Allen.