Despite being an introvert, Rosie Sherry (@rosiesherry) knew that she needed to build a community that software testers deserve: the Ministry of Testing. In this episode, we discuss how Rosie created a community so tight-knit that people have its logo tattoo'd on their bodies, how she grew it to $1.2M in revenue without relying on ads, and how she did it all while raising and homeschooling 5 kids.
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 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 internet businesses. Today, I am excited to sit down with Rosie Sherry. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rosie for the past several months in her role as the community manager for Indie Hackers. So if you’re active in the community, you’ve certainly seen Rosie leaving comments, making posts and introductions and just helping people out in general over the past few months.
In addition to helping me out with Indie Hackers, Rosie is the founder if her own community. It’s called Ministry of Testing. It’s a global community of software testers. Rosie got started working on this in 2007 as a side project, but she eventually turned it into a business and since then she has bootstrapped it to over $1.2 million in annual revenue. Rosie, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast. Thanks for joining me.
Thanks, Courtland. It’s great being here.
$1.2 million in revenue. That is a lot further than I ever got with Indie Hackers. Indie Hackers doesn’t make money anymore, but before it was acquired, I was experimenting with all sorts of business models.
I tried affiliate marketing. I sent a lot of cold emails for sponsorships and podcast ads, so I’m pretty curious about all this kind of stuff. Can you explain to us how your community makes over a million dollars a year and where that money comes from?
Basically, most of it comes from events at the moment. We run conferences across a lot of countries at the moment. We started out, and basically in 2007 we started out just as a forum, and as it grew bigger and bigger, I felt like it was sucking the time out of me and I was feeling not great about all the time it was taking and not having that financial reward for it so that I could give it my focus.
After about four years of it running as an online community, I decided that I needed to figure out a way for it to make money. I had dabbled in some advertising stuffs, some online ads and promotions for company, but to be honest, I never really enjoyed that angle of it so much. I didn’t feel like it was a sustainable way to build up community, and there’s also the fact that these companies always want to push things in front of people’s face, and they have different goals from what I had with the community.
Now fast forward going to 2011, 2012, I basically decided that the community needed events in a way to physically come together. That’s what I started with. So 2012 we hosted our first conference. It was in Cambridge. We called it TestBash and we did one training course beforehand as well. Basically, that was the start of it. We had 65 people turn up. Everyone paid for a ticket. I didn’t charge a whole lot for it. I made some money, but it wasn’t really making money compared to the amount of time I spent on it, but it’s money in the bank, a little bit of cash there to decide what do to next.
The whole idea of running the conference for me was that I was a tester and I knew that there was nothing else out there for testers. There was nowhere where testers would gather and speak openly about their industry. The only other events that were out there were completely corporate focused, or they were full of sales vendors just shoving tools and marketing and I was like, “This is not us.” Testers deserve to have something better than what they had.
So that’s the event side of it. As we grew, now we do some marketing for companies as well. There’s a fair chunk of cash, I guess you would say. And then around 2015 we started a professional membership where people would gain access to benefits, mostly content. Most of the content was based on the conference talks that we had recorded from the beginning. The way forward was to include all those conference talks in an annual package.
As we did more and more conferences, the first we did a conference it was nine talks. But now that we’re doing something like nine conferences in a year, that adds up to 80 or 90 talks and that becomes valuable within itself. On top of that, we do online master classes, AMA’s, and we’re doing courses as well that testers create.
Nine conferences a year. You sound like a crazy person. That’s ridiculous.
I’m lunatic crazy.
You have to be. I remember selling sponsorships for Indie Hackers and I had the same feeling that it sounds like you had when you were doing a little bit of sales for Ministry of Testing before it became an in-person community.
That was the feeling that it pays the bills. It kind of works, but it’s the exact opposite of what’s best for your community in those cases. It’s not like your community members are ever asking you for more advertising. No one’s ever like, “Hey, can you put an ad on this page? This podcast would be much better with more ads,” so you spend a lot of time to actually make your community when that’s your business model.
Exactly, and it takes away lots of energy from you as someone just trying to run the community. A lot of these companies are hard to work with. Marketing people are notoriously difficult to communicate with and get something signed off and agreed. By the time you agree to something and for what you end up getting, it wasn’t worth the hassle and the stress.
I went back, and I counted this morning. I looked back through the old Indie Hackers interviews, and you were the 17th person that I ever interviewed after launching Indie Hackers. This was September 2016, almost three years ago. Do you remember doing that interview?
Yes. It feels like it’s just so long ago, and where we were as a business is just not where we are now. It’s crazy to think about, because I haven’t planned for where it is now. I didn’t set out to start a community and do global conferences. I followed the community. I followed what the community wanted and were asking for, and it’s just what it is.
But I’ve also learned that doing that means that this is a whole different beast. It’s one thing doing one conference a year and running a website and keeping in touch with people throughout the year and running the forum. And then all of a sudden there’s all these multiple conferences happening.
I think it was 2015 or ’16 that we did our first conference outside of the UK, and that was New York. I got stressed out about it. It did fine. It had 180 people or something like that, so financially it did fine. All our conferences have done okay. We’ve never lost money. Some have, over the years, produced a lot more than others. But the whole idea of bringing conferences to another country is filled up with so many unknowns. Sometimes I can’t understand why I said yes to doing it. I’m like, “What was I thinking?” It always seems like a great idea at the beginning, but then it’s like, “Oh my gosh, what am I thinking?
Courtland Allen [00:08:28] Well that comes with the territory of running a community, where you can’t just set out a roadmap and do everything that you want to do, because your community members have a stake. What you do is necessarily going to be somewhat reactive in terms of what they want.
Yes. It’s been tough, and I don't think that people see that from my perspective. It’s a lot of pressure to think about these things, let alone act on them and everything that’s involved around every decision we make. It’s quite overwhelming and then again, doing one conference in one country doesn’t mean you can just pick it up and copy and paste and it and bring it to another country.
You don’t know until you try, and we’re trying things and it’s hard and it’s frustrating. There’s lots of work that’s not a lot of fun, like really not a lot of fun. I feel fortunate that my husband came on board midway to help out, but he’s kept me sane with tech and management of the business, because there’s lots of things with events that are just tedious.
I’ve heard it said by some that if they had known how hard it would be to be a founder that they never would have gotten started. They’re saying that in a way, they had to be naïve to have made that initial decision to start. Do you think that applies to you? What was your mindset like in the early days?
I was so naïve but at the same time, why not? And when you think sometimes you have the backing of the community, you think it will be okay, but in reality, you’re alone in that position trying to make things happen. I don't know if it’s naivete or stupidity.
A little bit of both?
I can’t pinpoint it. What makes me make those decisions and the looks my husband gives me when I say we’re doing something. He’s like, “Oh, my God.” Since New York, I kept saying, “I’m not doing another TestBash in another location,” and that was the second location. But now we’re at nine and we keep saying that as a team. We’re like, “No more TestBashes. No more new locations.” But we just find it so hard to say no sometimes.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the story, before you got on this treadmill that made it so hard to say no and so hard to stop. I would think that to be someone who starts a community for software testers, you probably need to be someone who has experience as a software tester yourself, and ideally experience running communities. You actually had both. So tell us about the years that you spent learning these things and picking up the skill sets that you used, to eventually build such a successful community.
I started testing. I got my first job in testing in 2001. I was 21 at the time, so I was young, didn’t know what I was doing. I had no qualifications or anything like that. I just managed to get this job that wasn’t very well paid as a testing job, but it was better paid than the job that I had at the time, which was working in a bank. I was desperate to get out of that position.
To be honest, once you get a job in testing, it’s so easy to get another job in testing further down the line, so within six months I’d gotten another job that paid even more. I was so happy about that, even though it still wasn’t that match. It gave me a taste of what testing was all about, and I enjoyed it. It did interest me.
Then the company that I was working for went under in the dotcom boom and bust. After that, I freelanced and I contracted for a bit, but it was tough to get work at that stage. I had two years’ experience and I just felt like any job that was out there, there was loads more people with experience and I had challenges there.
And then it wasn’t too long after that that I managed to get a job. Then I had my first child in 2003, but when I was pregnant with him, my boss was not very nice to me, so that’s had an impact on me as well.
He wasn’t nice about the fact that you were pregnant?
Yeah, basically. As soon as he found out I was pregnant, he completely changed his attitude towards me and was not nice to me and was out there to make my life as difficult as possible. I was stressed about that, and I decided to get myself signed off so I couldn’t go back, because I didn’t want to deal with it.
People don’t tell you this. Society doesn’t tell you this. As a mother or as new parents, they’re like, “Figure you can have it all. You can have a job, you can have a career and you can have a family and it will be fine,” but actually it’s not fine. There are all these hurdles that no one ever talks about. The reality of going back to work after you have kids is it’s really hard and childcare is really expensive.
Even when I tried getting jobs after my first child, a few months after, they would talk to me but as soon as they found out I had kids they would stop communicating. I was like, “Okay. Is this how it’s going to be?”
It was bad. It really was. Everywhere I went, that’s how it was.
What kind of companies were these? Were these tech startups?
All kinds, to be honest. A lot of them were recruiters as well. At that point -- we’re going back to 2004 -- it was hard to apply directly to companies. A lot of the jobs posted were jobs via recruitment agencies. They would pick who to pick forward.
I think, because recruiters are just generally motivated by money, they would be very selective in who they would put forward. If that person is a woman with kids, they would see that person as not having the best chance in getting a job, I guess. I don't know. It’s hard to pinpoint it.
So how did you get out of this rut from going from this point where it was easy for you to find jobs as a software tester, to the point where now you’re a mother and nobody wants to hire you?
Mostly I freelanced, or I did some contract. I oftentimes worked from home. I also worked with my husband for a while on his company. He’s a tech guy as well. So I did some testing stuff there, but also just generally helping out with running the business. I was there for probably of years of helping out and then I decided to move on to other stuff. I got sucked into the local geek world of coworking and building up the coworking community.
I know you started hosting a meetup as well. I think it as called Girl Geek Dinners. Tell us about how you got involved with that.
There’s a Sarah who used to run them in London, and I saw that she was doing them. I thought, “Oh that’s a great idea. I’d love to run one down in Brighton. I think it would go down well.”
I’d been to a few meetups, just general geek-type meetups in Brighton, and given my experience I had, and I just wanted a chance to meet people and network with people. When I started it, it was -- again, I don’t think about why I do things. I just do them because it’s a good idea.
I did them and for years. It was amazing because it was completely, fully booked without any effort to put them on. I just had to reserve a space and people would turn up. People would reserve their space.
What, exactly, were they?
It was just a talk and then drinks afterwards. We would invite people to talk about something related to what they were doing, or you’d get these talks just related tech, whatever your talk might be about.
I don't think people necessarily went for the talks. It was just the idea of, there was this meetup that was just for women. We had this rule that -- well, it wasn’t just for women. I lied there. We had this rule that guys could come but they had to be invited by a woman, so some guys would scramble for invites to come along. That was fun.
But yeah, that for me is that I had never done anything like that, and it just opened my eyes to the fact that I can make stuff happen and it’s fun and I enjoy it. From those days I became known as Rosie Sherry. I realized that people in Brighton knew who I was just by the things I was doing.
Then I took that to the next level with that coworking stuff that I helped start. I co-started a coworking space with someone else. Again, to me, that experience was similar but obviously not so much responsibility. Again, I question why I did it, because it was a lot of stress as well.
I just had lots and lots of fun doing it and I met so many great people. It just boosted my confidence in everything that I was doing, going from a mother not sure what she wanted to do, to running local events and creating a space for people and being recognized for that. That, for me, was a real confidence booster.
One thing I’ve noticed from working with you and talking to you is that you’re in general just a super-helpful person. Even in your interview three years ago, you talked about putting others first being one of your core values and you care more about the experiences of your community members than you do with generating revenue.
Maybe that’s why you kept finding yourself in these situations where you’re running these very social businesses, providing spaces for people and talks for people and communities for people, because you just end up wanting to help and you get sucked in.
Yeah. I think it is. I can’t quite pinpoint why I like doing that, but if I can help people, then why not? And I could see opportunities to help people when I was doing these meetups and coworking.
And then when I got into creating an online community for testing, that started taking it to a different space and a different level. But there’s something in me that just keeps pushing me forward saying, “If I can help you, I’m going to help you, and I’ll point you to the right place.” It’s not that I expect anything in return, it just feels like the right thing to do.
Well the good thing is if you orient yourself that way, you end up probably hitting on a lot better business ideas because you’re actually doing things that you see that people need, cause you’re talking to people first rather than sitting in isolation and just thinking about what might potentially be a good business idea. You’re actually out there in the thick of it talking to people and being pulled in the direction where you can be the most helpful and provide the most value to people.
Yeah. I say to a lot of people, when people are what to build, I encourage people to build communities as a way to build a business, because what’s neat is that you’re in there every single day.
If you build any kind of community, as I’m sure you know, Courtland, you’re speaking to your audience day in, day out. You’re understanding the struggles of their high points and their low points. There’s so much goodness in there. People just don’t pay attention to those kinds of things.
I don’t do customer research or anything like that because my community is my customer research. I know who they are. I know what triggers them. I know what pisses them off and based on that I end up making decisions that I believe are good for them. I don’t ask them their permission, because sometimes I think they don’t know what they want, and you have to make it before they realize they do.
I think if I’d asked people whether they wanted a conference and whether we should take it around the world, they would have said, “Are you stupid?” That’s the reality. I just believe so much in just getting to know people. Not enough people do it.
At some point you found yourself in a situation where you had worked as a software tester. You had started the Girl Geek Dinner for Brighton and brought together speakers and attendees for over a year.
You had started a coworking space. You had tons of experience bringing people together, tons of experience in software around other geeks in general. How did you decide to create an online forum for software testing? Because that’s how, initially, your testing was born, this online community.
Yeah. To be honest, this tool came out and I thought, “Oh, that’s kind of cool. I can probably do something with that.” And it was Ning -- I don't know if you know Ning. It’s basically a hosted online community forum. It was great at the time. It was better than anything else that was out there. I thought, “I’m a tester. I think testers need to come together. Maybe I could do something around that.”
It was easy to set something up, so I just set something up. I knew a few testers. I had been in contact with quite a few well-known testers. In that day and age there weren’t a lot out there. There weren’t a lot of people blogging. There was probably maybe 20, 30 people reliably blogging at the time. I just started it and I let them know about it, and that’s how it started.
It was small to begin with. I remember getting to -- don’t know how long it took me, but when I got to the first hundred people, I was like, “Wow, this is amazing, a hundred people. I’m loving it.”
A lot of people.
Maybe it is. I don't know. I had nothing to measure it against. And this is the thing, is that when I do things, I don’t measure myself against how other people do it. To me, I was thinking to myself, “Yeah, that’s good but how good is it? I don't know,” But it was making me happy and for me that was the most important thing. I was doing something, and people were talking about things. We were starting to create this little community.
We stayed on Ning. It took us ages to get off it. Ning got bought out shortly afterwards and then they never did anything to improve it, which was really annoying. But I think we stayed on there until 2016 maybe. I just couldn’t be bothered to move away. At that point we moved the whole discussion forum over to Ministry of Testing on their Discourse platform.
Do you remember strategically or maybe tactically the journey to get these first hundred users? You said that you knew a few of the bigger names in software testing at the time.
How do you go from a complete ghost town, where it’s pretty much just you and maybe these few people that you know, to a hundred people talking to each other and helping each other out online?
Mostly talking to myself and a few other people and based on that it’s mostly about showing up every day or every week and consistently trying to do something interesting to catch people’s attention.
I struggle to remember the exact conversations we had, but yeah. I don't know, I think people just knew me and through word of mouth people started signing up and finding out about the things we were doing.
I think that the other aspect is that even though I look and the designs and the logos that we had were pretty horrible, I always tried to make it fun. The whole reason, I remember when I started out, was I was so bored with testing. It was a horrible world to be in.
I mentioned earlier that it’s all corporatey. It was all certification based and all people seemed to care about was talking about how to pass an exam and stuff like that. My whole focus was to try to move away from those kinds of conversations and start talking about real issues faced around testing.
I think that’s what clicked with most people that came in. They saw that genuine conversation was happening. It wasn’t a marketing gimmick. There were people here who were interested in talking about testing and improving themselves and the craft.
I think most people see the world as essentially unchangeable. If they enter some industry and it’s drab and gray boring, they think that’s just how it has to be. Maybe if they don’t like it, they leave, whereas what’s fascinating about what you did and I what I think a lot of founders do is you see the world as something that can be changed.
If software testing is not as exciting as some other fields, you don’t think, “Well I need to get out of software testing,” you think, “What can I do to brighten this up?” What do you think it is about you and maybe your experiences that led you to see things this way?
I don't know. I just knew -- you know what it is that I went to some conferences at around the same time or within a year or two of setting it up. They were local work tech conferences. I got inspired by the things that people were doing.
I would go to these conferences and have great conversations, but I would always be the only tester there. If I introduced myself as a tester, they’d be like, “What? What do you actually do?” That made me think about the whole testing world and what we had. That inspired me to take those ideas and implant into the testing community and say, “How can I inspire the next generation of testers, because we need it.”
There’s so much bad software out there. I still wholeheartedly believe that testers need to be there to help produce better software. But I could see that the testing world needed the injection. I don't know, but I thought I could maybe make a little bent into that somehow.
That’s how I started the community as well, thinking that I’ll just do a little thing for fun and see what happens. I would browse the web seeing what other people were doing and I’d take ideas from that and see if they would work in our community. I would steal conversation ideas, all sort of things. It’s just experimenting with ideas consistently and seeing what sticks.
There’s a lot of good stuff there that I think could apply to almost any business. The first one has been a theme on the Indie Hackers podcast for the last month or two. I talked to Danielle Baskin who started 23 companies, and every one of them has been this creative, eye-catching, remarkable stuff that people just don’t think about. Most of her companies start as a result of jokes that she thinks would be funny to turn into companies, and they get a lot of attention.
I talked to Allie Lefevere who runs a branding agency, and their whole point of differentiation is how they inject fun and humor into your brand to make you stand out. And here you talking about how you started a community for software testers, which I think on its face seems like probably the least fun, least humorous, least zany thing that you could do and yet your entire approach was to figure out what you could take from other areas and other spaces to actually make it inspirational, what you could take that was fun from other tech conferences and inject into this otherwise gray world.
And based on that, one of the things that we did was create a newspaper, an actual physical newspaper. I saw this company, a newspaper club. I saw that it had launched, and I was like, “Oh, that’s an amazing idea. You can make your own newspaper. How cool would that be? What community can I create a newspaper for? Oh, let’s do it for the testing community. Let’s get people to write articles and create games in it and have interviews and all sorts.”
And we did it. It was fun. It makes me smile when I think about that, even though it never really made any money. We did ship them off to a couple hundred people. People used to complain about the price. “Oh, it’s too expensive,” stuff like that. But we created an online version as well, and those still exist. I still have some physical copies in my garage. One of them had a lean article on the front, something about lean testing. On it there was the picture of a guy who was not fit and then a guy next to it really muscled up.
That’s a perfect example of doing something different. How many online communities are you a part of or how many products do you love that actually have a physical newspaper that they will ship to you? Pretty much none. And when you get that, then you want to talk to people about it and share it, because it’s just so remarkable because it’s so different.
One of my favorite things about your community is that probably directly related to this kind of stuff is that your members are absolutely fanatic. You’ve had not one, not two, but I think nine different Ministry of Testing members who’ve gotten tattoos on their bodies of the Ministry of Testing logo.
They literally have the words, “Ministry of Testing” permanently inked onto their forearms and legs and stuff. How do you get people to care so much about what you’ve created?
It’s really, really simple. I’m kind to people and I think about people first. I think about how I can help them and how I can lift them up at every opportunity that I can. No matter what community you create, you can change people’s lives and that’s what I focused on.
Going back to something like the newspapers. Yes, it was fun. When I think about it, I say we managed to get people to publish articles who had never published articles before. Lots of those people, that was their first article they’d ever publish, as an example. So they will always remember that and keep that memory in their heart.
As we grew, that philosophy continued to grow in everything we did. A lot of conferences, for example, these days there’s a lot of pressure on them to be ethical. But for us, we were ethical from the beginning because that’s the right thing to do. We always paid speakers’ expenses for all the speakers. We’ve never done keynotes. We’ve tried to keep everything as affordable as possible. We’ve done scholarships for people.
There are some great stories. Emma will probably hate me. We’re good friends now. Every year she gets a bit emotional with me when we hook up at TestBash Brighton because she applied for the scholarship a few years back to attend a week’s worth of training and attend the conference. She was probably 33, 34 at the time, working a not very good job, really wanting to get into testing but couldn’t find her way in, so I gave her a scholarship.
By the end of the week, she had a job offer, and she was completely blown away. I struggle to take credit for that because the whole community was behind that. They were all supporting Emma as well. Somehow, just by continually trying to support these people and do positive things and do the right things, you create a business in a very human way. People have gotten behind it in a way that I can’t believe.
It’s sad that there’s not as many examples as there should be for running a business like this. The more I do it, the more I don’t understand why people can’t run businesses in a human and ethical way, paying forward with kindness and doing things because they can.
For us, offering a scholarship doesn’t really cost us money. Sure, there’s the space of a training place and a conference space, but it costs us the money of food, and usually we wouldn’t completely sell out our tickets, so it was a no-brainer for me. Why can’t do this? And for me, the amazing thing is I’ve done this, and people see that, and they take a step back when I just say yes to stuff.
I see an opportunity online of someone asking for help and I’ll offer my help. For some reason when I do that, now everybody does it. The whole idea of a scholarship that we started has now taken on a new level where quite often members of the community just buy tickets for other people and they raffle them out or they try to find people to support.
The whole kindness thing is replicating itself, multiplying itself. It’s showing that people can be nice to each other and it does make a difference to people’s lives. When other people get those tickets and then become a part of the community, they then get blown away by all the support that they get.
They’re like, “Oh, my God.” I give credit to the whole community because it isn’t just me. I think a lot of people do so much behind the scenes that they don’t get credit for. I feel a bit guilty for trying to take any credit.
But at the same time it starts with you, because you’re the one who founded the community. I think what’s fascinating about communities in particular but really any group of people or any business is that people, for lack of a better word, enjoy copying each other. When we don’t know what to do, it’s pretty much a safe bet to do what the people around us are doing.
So if you’re the founder of a community and you have a personality quirk, for example you believe in kindness and it’s the core of your value system and you always do things for other people, even not expecting other things in return and you set that example, you can expect other people in your community to copy what you do. Now it’s taken on a life of its own. Even if you’re not the one responsible for all these acts of kindness, you lit that initial match. You got the sparks started.
Right. It’s true.
One of the challenges of being a community leader, on the flip side of this, is that whatever your community is, you can bet that by the time your community has started growing, you’re no longer doing that thing.
If you’re starting a community of software testers, at some point you were a tester yourself. But eventually you’re a fulltime community organizer, and you get away from what it means to be a software tester. Have you found that to be a problem with you, and if so, how did you handle that transition?
Yeah a bit, to be honest, especially in the past couple years, which I think is a positive thing, that testing has moved so much forward with dev ops and continuous delivery that when I look at talks of missions now, I’m like, “Hm, I don’t really know what this is about.”
Over the past couple years I’ve definitely felt like I’m not the right person for leading the company or making certain decisions. I felt it was important to try to find a way to get support in that. Cause literally I’ve been years since I’ve done any proper testing. That’s hard. Based on that, it’s interesting because you feel like you want to get stuck in conversations but you can’t because you’ve got nothing valuable to add.
You can talk about running the community, but you can’t talk about the software testing on the ground.
That’s the loneliness of being a founder. I think that might be true for almost any company. You’re the only person in your shoes. There’s not that many other people you can talk about what you’re doing, except for other founders.
Yes, it’s true.
What was it like going from an online-only community to deciding, “You know what, I need to get paid for this. I’m going to start doing real-world events”. Cause I’ve done a lot of real-world events with Indie Hackers, and you’re right. It’s not easy. How did you get your very first conference, your very first events, off the ground?
I think for me, I made the decision to do it and when I make a decision, I tend to try to follow through on it. Part of me, I think I probably lack confidence a bit, so I was looking to support from other people.
So I partnered up with someone to take the whole testing community forward but then that didn’t end up working out, which was very frustrating. Previous to that, I had done the coworking stuff and I had partnered with a couple of other people and that didn’t work out, and I had to walk away.
That aspect of it was personally to me was tough. But I decided after that I’m just not going to bother anymore trying to work with other people. I’m just going to go ahead and do things. I think, in a sense, that made it easier going forward. I just made decisions and I lived with the results of that and I didn’t have to have conversations with anyone to try to agree about what to do. In a sense, I felt like being a solo founder was the right thing for the first few years.
To get the event off the ground, I basically booked the venue and told people about it, and said, “This is how much it costs.” We didn’t ask people to apply to speak for that first one. We had just invited people that we knew that we thought would be good for a first conference. I think we had about seven or eight talks for it.
It was great. My only regret is promoting it three months beforehand. I don’t think it was enough time to get a first event off the ground. We have a rule of six months these days. We announce an event six months in advance.
But it was a great event and everyone there was from the community. Seeing those people meetup in real life, and actually meeting them for the first time, for me was great. It was a real situation of connecting the dots with people, again, bringing that humanity to the community. And yes, some of the people, I look back at the photos and there’s a good handful of people that are there and still with us today, and that’s a great thing to see.
I’ve had similar experience with Indie Hackers, where I will know somebody by their username from the online community and then a year and a half, two years later I’ll see that at an in-person event. It is so weird. It’s like, “I’ve talked to you numerous times, but we’ve never actually really talked.”
It’s a magical feeling to go to a room full of people and see just how much energy there can be in a room with 15 people who are actually co-located and how that differs from even an online community of many thousands of people.
The great thing, for me, is what I’ve also realized in hindsight is when you organize an event, everybody knows you. That makes it easy to network from my perspective. I don’t need to introduce myself to people and things like that.
Naturally, I’m really introverted, and I just love the idea that people come to me to talk, where I realize in a lot of events that’s not always the case. It’s a nice feeling to have that, experience that.
I think you’re the fifth introvert that I’ve interviewed who is running a community. Turns out that running a community is just a hack for introverts to meet people easily.
It is. It’s the best way to do it. I totally recommend it to anyone. If you’re introverted, just start a community. You can do so many things and you can get known by so many people. You can just stand there at the side and people naturally float to you, because why wouldn’t they? It’s amazing.
I can hear all the introverts in the audience groaning. “Why would I want people to walk up to me?” So at this point, you’ve run multiple communities including Ministry of Testing. You are the community manager for Indie Hackers. Are there any lessons that you’ve learned that might be helpful to people listening in who might want to start communities of their own?
I think the best thing people can do is see the community as a very long-term plan. It sounds cheesy, but you plant the seed, but you can’t expect something to happen straight away.
I think these days I get frustrated. I feel so many conversations and interactions are transactional. It’s like, “I’ll give you this if you give me that.” If you’re building a community, I just wouldn’t do that. When you’re speaking to people, trying to get to know people, it should be thinking about what you can do for them, how you can make them feel.
Generally, it’s sad that not a lot of communities get off the ground. I think that’s why it is, is that there isn’t this long-term interaction between people. It’s all quick. You want results quick, and if you don’t get them quick then it’s not working.
You forget that humans are behind the scenes and humans have lives that they’re getting on with. They might disappear for a few months and come back for whatever reason, but it doesn’t mean they’re not important or valuable. It doesn’t mean that they don’t belong.
I’ve spent my head down in Ministry of Testing and I haven’t come across many other communities who can have that heart within them. The only one that ever stood out to me was Indie Hackers. I see so many similarities between the two communities in the kindness angle and trying to do the best thing for the community, and not trying to do these quick hacks just to increase engagement. You’re genuinely trying to do the best for Indie Hackers.
I’ve not seen a lot of that. If you compare the two, these are prime examples of how to build community, even if I’m a bit jealous that you don’t have to sell tickets and we have to sell loads to make sure that we can pay the bills. There are obvious differences, but the roots are very similar.
This is actually a good segue to, I think one of the big differences between the interview that I did with you three years ago and today, you had a lot of things going through your head at that time in 2016. One of them was that you wanted to focus on your goal of not always having to be thinking about work. More specifically, you said that you were super keen on setting up Ministry of Testing so that it could run without you.
I know a lot of aspiring founders who are the opposite. They want to spend all day, every day on their business. They want to be completely integral to their business. Why wasn’t that the case with you, and why were you focused on creating something that could outlive you?
In 2015 I had my third child – no, no. Sorry, fourth child. I’ve had so many kids that I have forgotten how many children I have. 2015, I had my fourth child. The first year was an intense experience for me, and then soon after she was born my husband had some health issues with his hips. It was just chronic pain. It was not a lot of fun.
My daughter wouldn’t sleep without me for a full year. She was basically attached to me. She didn’t like strangers. She would cry at anyone else who would come near her, and stuff like that. So that year was really, really intense for me, and I still -- I think 2016 I did my first conference outside of the UK.
We brought the family, which was interesting. There was four kids and my husband and I, all crammed into this mini-apartment hotel. I wouldn’t do that again, personally. But I was just sitting there before TestBash New York thinking, “This is not where I want to be. This is not the kind of work I want to do. I don’t want to be traveling the world. I’ve got kids. I home educate as well, which is a whole other story. We do things with the family a lot and if we go traveling, we just bring them along with us, generally.
It was just too much for me. I was like, personally this is not where I want to be. At that point, I made myself a promise that I would work towards removing myself as the bottleneck, as the person who ran things.
I had no idea how I was going to do it. I just knew in my heart that this is not the work I wanted to do. I started a community and it’s getting big and going to places and trying to manage finances and everything in between. I was like, “This is not me. It’s not where I want to be.”
I find it hard to say that, because I do love the whole community behind it, but I generally felt like I was not the right person to take it forward, that where it was going was not for me. So I started trying to figure out how to do that.
I had tried to hire a couple people and that didn’t happen, which was frustrating. One had literally said yes and then at the last minute backed down. At that point I was so overwhelmed with everything and having that happen just made everything so much worse. It was like going back to square one.
But also around that time, Richard, who is now the CEO, we had started working together and he’s UK based. He was doing TestBash Manchester, which is further up north in the UK. We just started building a strong relationship and we worked well together.
He was focused on just doing TestBash Manchester to begin with. During our conversations, I told him honestly and openly what I wanted and that I would love for someone to take on more stuff and I didn’t want to do certain things.
He just started taking on more and more responsibilities each month or six months went on. He took responsibility of the conferences. We did TestBash Philly after New York, so he took responsibility for that.
I guess the rest of that history is it’s three years it’s taken me. It’s been a long three years. I won’t lie about that. I’ve been very patient with everything I’ve done. I’ve tried to make decisions that are obviously beneficial to me in the long term. I obviously feel like I deserve that to some extent, but also trying to think about what’s best for the community. Everything, every decision we make is based on that.
Basically, over the past three years I’ve worked closely with Richard to teach him everything I knew. He’s probably been competent mostly on his own for the past year, but then we’ve also been hiring people as well. That transfer knowledge to other people has also been slow.
I wasn’t rushed to leave, but at the same time, I knew I wanted to. The more I stayed doing Ministry of Testing stuff the more I felt like I wanted to do other things and I couldn’t. I was stuck between two walls. I love the company, but I also have other things that I’d love to get on with. As long as I’m still tightly involved with the Ministry of Testing, I can never do these other things.
Then you start thinking about, “Oh I’ve only got one life. Can we hurry up, please,” stuff like that. But three years, I’m almost there. One of the ways we transferred all the knowledge was Richard would often ask me, “What would Rosie do?” He’d find himself in situations and he would ask me, “What would you do, Rosie,” in a situation? Literally, that’s been my past three years, sharing that knowledge with the team as well, not just him.
Do you think there’s anything you could have done early on with the Ministry of Testing to make it easier for you to transition out of the business later one?
I probably should have hired someone to help me out earlier. I was trying, loosely, but I just found it hard. I didn’t know where the company was going, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like, “Who am I going to hire?”
I finally got stuck in a bit of a situation and just not making a decision. It was tough. Now I could have hired someone, which I do wish I had. But it’s hindsight as well. I had tried. I had been looking out for people who could potentially help me.
I didn’t just want to put out the standard job ad. I felt like it had to be the right person, but I was stuck about who that right person was and what they would do. I wasn’t sure. I was indecisive about what that role is. I felt confused within myself, and I would have struggled to communicate that to anyone out there.
Also, I wanted to hire someone within the community, but actually it’s hard to find someone who would be willing to take up that role. There’s a bunch of great testers out there but running a community is a completely different thing.
Yeah, it’s totally different. People join a community for a reason, and running the community is a totally different set of skills and perhaps even interests than being a member of the community.
But at the same time, it’s tempting to hire people from your community because they’ve got that domain knowledge. They’re interested in the space, vaguely, and it’s harder to find somebody else out in the world, but still not always going to work out.
Yeah, but saying that, where we are now with a nine, ten-people company, at least half of them have come from community. We’ve got an events community person who was a tester. This is Heather, a reference for anyone else. She was just in the community every day anyways, doing stuff. We saw that as a great opportunity, that she would be perfect for the role.
There’s Anya who was a tester but wanted to get into marketing and social media stuff. I was like, “Well that’s ideal because you know all about testing and what we do. You’ve been to our events. Now how cool would that be?” So we hired her.
We hired a developer who used to be a tester, which is interesting. Who else? Richard was a tester. His first speaking gig was at TestBash. We helped him create his speaking career and he remembers that with fondness, I would say.
We’ve got another guy who’s just focused on creating content and learning materials. Obviously, there’s other people there that haven’t come from a testing background, but I think it’s great that we’ve managed to hire people from within the community. I think that’s a positive thing to keep certain things intact.
One of the more interesting hires, so to speak, I think you’ve had is that of your husband, Graham, who’s helped you run Ministry of Testing for I think six or seven years now.
This ties in with what you were talking about earlier, the fact that you had a second child and a third child and a fourth and now you have five children that you homeschool while running this business. I have trouble getting stuff done. I don’t have any kids. I have very few responsibilities. I feel like there’s not enough time in the day. What are your productivity tips for making it work as a founder when you have such an active family life as well?
Time boxing. It’s amazing. You laugh at me. If I get two hours to myself to do something, I just get my head down and I do it, because I know at the end of two hours, my time is gone, and I’ll get nothing else done. For me, people don’t understand how precious my time has been.
But at the same time, it’s made me realize that sometimes keeping busy doesn’t add value. Sometimes I do lots of work where previously, after having children, I wasn’t doing a lot of work. I was just staying afloat and trying to keep things going. That didn’t stop things happening. Having that realization that things will be okay if you don’t do anything is interesting.
I’ve also become quite good at trying to fit everything in. For about five years now I’ve been running. I’ve been pretty committed to just keeping a regular running route, running two or three times a week. Nothing massive, just 5K each time just to clear my head. It’s helped me a lot.
But there were times with young kids where the only option for me to do that would be to run with the kids. It’s coming up with solutions and thinking of creative ways to get things done and not thinking that you have to have this eight-hour block in the day to get work done. It doesn’t have to be like that.
I think Slack has been a great game changer. With the change of my role to be more supportive and not actually doing work is that I can just hop onto Slack and help my team out, see if they have any questions. I don’t check my email as much anymore at all.
I was privileged in the position that I was, and I could just say, “Look, this is how I work and that’s how it’s going to have to be.” There was no choice in the matter. I couldn’t do anything about it, and they couldn’t do anything about it. Everybody had to put up with that, and that’s okay.
Slack is great, and the time boxing thing is so underrated. I have pretty much unbounded time. I have no kids. I have no real responsibilities in life. I’m just sort of free-floating through the world, and I’m less efficient because of it.
The average hour I spend doing things is probably not as efficient as the average hour you spend doing things, because you’ve got all these deadlines built into your life. You’ve got five kids. You homeschool them. You’ve got a lot of hard deadlines that really can’t be negotiated with.
I find myself getting into this almost robot mode, when I’m procrastinating, when I’ve got something due, something coming up, that last hour I turn into almost a machine. But you have many of those deadlines all day, every day.
Yeah, and I have no shame admitting that I’ll work while the kids are watching TV sometimes, and that’s fine with me. Some people won’t admit that. Or I’ll go down the park and they’ll be playing, and I’ll be on my phone. I won’t necessarily be playing with them. That’s the way I cope. That’s how I get things done. My kids, they’re fine and they’re happy. And despite what some people might say they’re never in danger.
At the same time, the kids understand the situation that we’re in. I’ve been getting out a bit more these days and just getting out of the house to do a bit more focus work. My younger ones look at me and they’re like, “Where are you going?” They don’t understand the concept of me not being around all the time.
Let’s say you were faced with a choice, Rosie. Let’s say you had to start another business and you have two options. Option A is you start a business that has a mission like Ministry of Testing. You’re starting your business to change other people’s lives, to change the world as they say.
Option B is you start a business to change your own life, to make yourself happier, to increase your freedom, to give yourself better habits, to improve your relationships and stuff like that. Which of these choices would you make today if you had to pick one?
Probably change my life, selfishly. I feel like I’ve given a lot to everyone and it’s time for me to be a bit more selfish and do things for me. I don't think a lot of people realize how much I’ve given of myself and how many other things I’d like to do. Definitely, I feel like I need to focus on me and stop saying yes to things, which I’m still a bit bad at doing.
I’ve got so many things that I’d like to do, but I’m in no rush to do them. At the same time, Ministry of Testing has grown to what it is, and it’s been a great experience. It’s happened over a fairly long period of time which has given me a lot of time to reflect.
The industry has changed as well. There’s a lot more people creating companies in different ways. (Inaudible)* and Company of One and things like that, and I find that interesting. I’m kind of jealous when I look at models like that and then I think of Ministry of Testing and all the responsibility I have there. You always want what you don’t have, I think. There’s a lot more options out there.
But also, then, thinking about the Indie Hackers work that I’m doing at the moment, it wasn’t something that I planned for, to be honest. I feel like it just happened. I did put myself out there, but I didn’t expect to be where I am right now doing Indie Hacker community work.
But I’m loving it. I’m honestly enjoying it and I love trying to understand how other communities work. Having that flexibility or similar work culture that we had in Ministry of Testing, that’s not always easy to come by. I like to be grateful for opportunities that I have at the moment.
I’m not sure. I’m always tempted to start another company, but I don’t know what I want to do now. I’m just happy doing what I’m doing and learning more about the Indie Hacker community that I had wanted to spend a lot of time doing anyways. I’m just taking time to reflect on everything and spending time with my own little thoughts in my head.
Well count me in as well as being one of the people who’s happy that you’ve made the choices that you’ve made and ended up as part of the Indie Hackers community. I think you’re breathed your own version of life into things and made the community a much nice, more helpful place. I appreciate having you.
At this point, you’ve started several businesses. You spend literally all day, every day, on the Indie Hackers forum talking to other people who are starting businesses. Based on your experiences so far, what advice would you have for somebody listening who’s considering starting a business of their own?
A few weeks back or a few months back at TestBash in Brighton, I was having a conversation with someone. They called me the master puppeteer. That struck me as something interesting, and I was like, “Yes, that’s exactly who I am.” I start stuff. I pull the strings. I make things happen. I make decisions and I make them happen. I don’t do it for myself.
I hide behind the scenes. Literally, as I’ve never gotten up on state for TestBash to speak. I refuse to do it, and I love hiding behind the scenes, just looking at everything that happens and figuring out what to do with it. I think it would be amazing if more people did that and had less ego in how they approach things, focused in on what it is that people need and want.
That’s great advice, and very difficult to follow, because quite frankly, I think a lot of us who choose to be founders are just big balls of ego, but it does make a huge difference if we can get out of our own way and start focusing on what other people need rather than just ourselves.
Anyway, it’s been my pleasure talking to you, Rosie. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Can you tell listeners where they can go to find out more about what you’re up to nowadays?
You can find me at Indie Hackers.com/rosiesherry and @RosieSherry on Twitter and I’m RosieSherry.com as a website that I don’t update too often.
All right. Thanks so much, Rosie.
No problem. Thank you.
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 handful of some of the guests that I’ve had on the podcast.
If you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve also got a huge directory full of hundreds of products built by other Indie Hackers, every one of which includes revenue numbers and some of the behind-the-scenes strategies for how they grew their products from nothing. As always, thanks so much for listening, and I'll see you next time.
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.