Despite running a successful design agency that caters to big-name clients like FKA Twigs, Stefan Endress (@stefanendress) has known for years that he wanted to build a product of his own and be an indie hacker. In this episode, Stefan and I dig into what it's like running an agency while developing a new product on the side, how to surmount the challenge of finding customers by focusing on people like yourself, and why bringing a unique style and brand to your business may be more important than having a unique product idea.
What's up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you're 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 to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How did they make decisions both in 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 profitable internet businesses.
This is a quick chat episode, which I've been doing once a week for a while now where I bring on an Indie Hacker from the website who has been posting milestones about their project or their business and we just talk about it for half an hour. So today I'm sitting down with Stefan Endress. Stefan, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having me. Thank you.
You are the co-founder of an agency called International Magic where you build products and websites for your clients, but recently you started working on an internal product for yourself called Dekks. So, tell us about Dekks. What is it and who's it for?
Dekks is a presentation app that we kicked off three years ago for ourselves because we struggled with the same things. We had the same issues every other creative office, or design office, or designer, freelancer has. We wanted to build a new system that would allow us to create these presentations in a much faster way because sometimes we spend two or three days on just a simple presentation or on a pitch.
We just wanted to reduce the time and make things available. Still today, it's super hard to have your own fonts and a video working that you can just send off. It just doesn't work. It's super complicated. You can use Keynote. It's super nice, it works quite well, but then you send it off to the client and the client doesn't have the font, and then the whole thing looks crap. And that's just one one-use case really.
So Dekks is really a replacement for, or a competitor to, PowerPoint on Windows or Keynote on Mac. These older desktop tools for presentations.
They're still relevant, right? Ben, our producer, just researched how many hours are wasted each year for producing PowerPoints. If we could put that number down, that would be an amazing goal. It's not only about how you create them, but also how you store ideas into your system.
We want to build Dekks in a way where you can recycle ideas but bring them into a new format very quickly. You have a new client and he needs something, and then you go back and you think "Oh, we've done something that could work two years ago on that one, or a half year on this one."
Then you combine all of these old ideas into a new format. It's not about showing old ideas or recycling them. Some things just are not used, and they fit for the new thing much better than for the old one.
You posted a milestone to your Indie Hackers timeline in June of this year. You said that you kicked off working on Dekks. So even though you had conceptualized it much earlier, you just started working on it recently, and your product page also says that you're making $500 a month from Dekks already.
What do think has been the hardest challenge in growing to that point?
The idea has been in our head with my business partner, Adam, and myself for the last three years since we started International Magic, but from a day to day basis, you just have all these client jobs with a deadline, and you never really kick off. In the beginning of this year, I said, "Man, we gotta do this. I'm done talking about it. I want to make it."
In June, we had teamed together with two super dope developers and our producer, who could manage the team as well and take care of timelines, etc., because we are bootstrapped, so we have no funding, nothing. So, we need to split our studio time in half basically. One group can work on the client site and one group can work on the Dekks project.
It's been a challenge, but in June we finally kicked it off, and I have almost done nothing but Dekks. It's a massive relief. When you only work on client projects, you always have this made up timeline, this made up deadline.
When you work on your own thing, you can accelerate to the fullest amount. Sometimes things take a little bit longer, but it's worth putting in the extra energy. You know why you are going the extra mile.
A lot of people have consultancies or agencies where they're doing work for clients and yet they never do this. They never transition to doing their own project. Part of that is because when you're getting these regular paychecks from clients and when you have an actual head count of people working in your agency, it's hard to give that up.
It's hard to transition away from that. Part of it, I think, is just confidence. It takes a lot of confidence to believe that you have got a good idea for a product and that you can make it work and grow it to profitability. What gives you that confidence with Dekks?
As I told you before, I've been listening to Indie Hackers and figured out that there's a whole community around bootstrapping in indie startups. It gave me the confidence because when you have never done anything and you have never worked in a massive startup, maybe you're not confident enough to kick off.
But when you listen to all these podcasts and then people tell about their own things, what they worried about and then they still made it, that gives you confidence to actually just dive in, surround yourself with everything you can find, read all the books, listen to everything you can and then educate yourself, and then just do it. You need to find a great team that you trust. But then once you make that call it's just amazing. Everyone can do it.
Tell me about finding that team. One of the things you mentioned when you posted about kicking off Dekks in June of this year is that you finally have the right people. You finally have the right team together to really bootstrap this product.
With International Magic, we are an experienced UI Design company building cutting edge things. We often work on projects where we don't have a solution ourselves in the beginning, but we take on the risk and then we execute by researching on how it could work.
We have such a tight core team of developers that we've worked with for five or six years together on a daily basis, and they are around the world. Sweden, I'm here in Munich with Christoph and then in London we have James. This year, another developer who's super strong on backend development work joined the team.
That gave me the confidence to build something like this. I knew that now, with two developers, we can execute something as big as this. I think with Indie Bootstrapping, you can also execute small ideas really nicely and really quickly, but Dekks is a little bit more advanced in terms of coding. You need a proper backend dude who knows his shit, basically. If you work with someone else's files, you shouldn't mess up.
You can support this team because you have client work coming in from your agency, but I wonder what your long-term goals are. Do you want Dekks to replace your current work, or do you just always want it to supplement it?
I don't want to move out of client work because that's where new ideas come from the outside into your company. When a client comes with a pitch or when they ask to do something, that inspires you. That keeps the creative flow going.
We never want to quit the client work. Dekks is just something that we can build ongoing, and iterate ongoing, and make it better. That's what I've always been missing. We've done so much work for FKA Twigs and 32 C and quite high caliber people, but then there's always this deadline, and then there's launch, and then there's bug fixes, hot fixing, a week of stress, and then there's silence.
Then that beautiful platform goes slowly into the dark corners of the internet where it starts to slowly melt away until we flag something and talk to the client or say, "Hey, can we work on this again?"
There's, there's a certain amount of love and ideas that, as a creative, you put into these, and you shape, you massage them to the very end, and then you don't want to see them going away. Dekks is something where, as software development, it's never done. And that's something that I'm looking forward to, is building something that we can constantly iterate.
I've done work for clients in the past building websites and stuff, and it's tough to have to give up your baby. To put so much work into something, to do a great job at it, but then once you're done, it's theirs, and they just take it, and they can neglect it or take it down.
On the flip side, you get to work with pretty cool clients. You're working with Twigs, which is awesome. I was just at a Twigs concert in Oakland last week.
She is absolutely wicked. Funny story, the last website she had is down now, but we did the last website for her. Obviously, she has a team who takes care of her, but then, on the final day when we finished development, we met up in London and then we showed her it, and the team gave us the impression that she's always aware of what we're doing and she loves it and thinks it's amazing.
She sits down, and I'm totally shaking behind her, thinking, "Holy shit. What is she going to say?" And then she just gets up and gives Adam and myself a big hug and she's like, "I totally love this. This is amazing." she said, "I haven't seen this yet." I was just looking to her team like, "Okay, you played that one nicely."
But yeah, that was amazing. She's such a great artist. Her voice is amazing. She's a performer. She's an athlete. We've been with her on a real-time internet documentary where she was rehearsing in Manchester. We did a real-time installation on the internet, showing her work online, and you hang out with her and you just see that she's a proper athlete.
I mean she gets up at five o'clock in the morning and has gym sessions everywhere. She's amazing.
So Twigs is an example of a client who you do work for your agency. What kind of customers do you have for Dekks? And also, what are some of the differences between finding clients for your agency work and finding customers for your product?
That's a good question. The finding-a-customer thing for us as a creative studio -- we've been super lucky. We've never tried to find people. We've been lucky enough that they find us now, but that, that comes from Adam and I putting in a lot of work before we started out with International Magic.
In our portfolio, we worked a lot on things for low-budget and put all our energy into it. You build up your reputation, and now International Magic is here. Once you have someone Twigs or 32 C, then it's easier. New people will come to you and talk to you. Last year, we joined Management + Artists. They are representing us worldwide.
And then you work for even bigger clients. Under the radar a lot of times, but yeah... So that's one way how it works with International Magic. With Dekks, it's the total opposite. That's what I'm learning right now. I'm trying find all these spots where I could place it. Maybe not placing it, but where I could find the spot for Dekks.
I'm really trying. I put a lot of thinking into the question, "What is our core audience?" At first when I thought about it, I thought, "Oh it could be everyone. Everyone needs a presentation, so my audience is pretty much everyone." And then I was like, "No, let's start off with the people that I know best."
I thought to myself, "Okay, let's do this for creatives and innovators who understand the proposition of this product." That was one and a half weeks ago, or almost two weeks ago now.
When we launched Dekks, I put it up on siteInspire, where you can submit a website, and it got featured and then that hit that sweet spot of people, which is actually our audience. UI designers, creatives, creative agencies, people who are creative and are looking for collaborators. That hit our inbox like crazy.
The first three days was around 900 signups or something from quality dudes, which helps. If you put your product up on the first day on Hacker News, everyone signs up and when it kicks in, you have 5,000 subscriptions. But who is this? It's like, I'm trying to find the right people. We've got a little bit of time because Dekks is still under development.
I mean, we have the enterprise version, which is a custom installation, and we're going to do all the templating from scratch, by hand. We probably have around three months until the product launches, and that's the amount of time that I have to find more people getting excited.
I think that's so smart to decide that, yeah, your product can be used by everybody, but that's not who you want your early target audience to be. You want to hone in on a more specific group of people, ideally a group of people that you like working with and that you understand.
That way, you can tailor your product's feature set and its design and its messaging to that group of people and make it something that's truly amazing for them just to get started. You can also identify where these people hang out online. You posted Dekks to siteInspire, where you could find other creatives and designers to use it, and that's better than posting in some general place where you're going to get all sorts of people who your message doesn't really resonate with.
One of the posts that you made to your Indie Hackers timeline is, you posted about putting up a mailing list so people could join and follow along with Dekks. You referenced being inspired by this post by Kevin Kelly called "A Thousand True Fans". I've heard a lot of people reference this post, so what does it mean to find a thousand true fans, and why did you find that inspiring?
When you start off thinking about your own idea and how you could build it, you get overwhelmed because you read so much stuff on the internet, and there's so much noise around it. It's a relief post because you read it and it's like, "Okay, one thousand is a tangible number, this is a number I can get my head around.
Come on, one thousand people should be doable for everyone, you know?" That was the inspiration, really. We had a talk in Antwerp for a design festival called Us By Night. I was like, "Okay, cool. Shit. We don't have a product page. Cristoph, we need a subscription page, a simple signup on the domain, just looking cool, and we need it now because we have the talk in two days."
We introduced it onstage and we had people instantly signing up on that night, I think it was 250 people or something. I don't know. I don't remember exactly how many, but it spread out during a couple of days.
Well, you eventually got to a thousand because you posted another milestone to your Indie Hackers timeline about reaching a thousand early adopters for Dekks. These are people who had all given you their email addresses and who had taken a survey as well because you asked everybody who signed up to fill out a survey, I believe.
Yes, once you subscribe on the homepage of dekks.app, you put in your email and then you get an email back with the double opt-in, basically. You confirm your email so we can put you on the list and then you get a welcome message. Just one more transactional email, really, where -- I'm not gonna bullshit or something -- where it's like, "Hey, we just need your help.
Would you mind taking a survey and to become an early adopter?" Because then I know these guys are real. These are the people that I really want to show the product, the beta. As soon as it's ready, I can contact them, you know. The funny thing is, if you ask people, they really will do it, they will help you.
People are, by default, nice and they are super helpful and supportive. I haven't gotten any email where it says, "Oh you guys suck." It's been amazing so far, and I appreciate that. It gives so much energy back.
What have you learned from people giving you feedback through this survey?
What I learned about it is that usually, as creatives, we assume a lot of times. It's like, when I talked with Adam about a design job and was like, "Hey, this could be a really cool feature." Even with Dekks, it's like, "Hey, let's make this, this is amazing. I want this feature." It's more driven by emotions, right?
Because it's just a train of thought you have right now, and then it becomes so big. But if you have actual data from a survey that a thousand people did, then your MVP feature list reorders because people don't care if you have video integration just now, and they just need an import PDF function or something.
I'm just making something up, but we have that MVP feature list. That is informed by the survey at the end of the day. It's good.
Yes, even if you're building something for yourself, you're not going to guess perfectly what all of your customers are going to need and their top priorities and feature requests. You're going to have blind spots, which is why it makes so much sense to do a survey like this and talk to your customers because no matter how confident you are in your idea out of the gate, you're always going to have some things wrong.
Exactly. They come up with a lot of stuff. To be honest, we have thought about a lot of stuff, but sometimes, it hits you like, "Yeah, of course. How could I miss that feature? It's so crucial, so important. Let's put this on the feature list. Just give it two heads-up actually instead of one." That feedback is so valuable, really,
One of the things that differentiates you from a lot of the founders that I've talked to is obviously that you've got this agency. You've been doing a lot of design work and products for clients for a while now. Do you think that gives you an advantage when it comes to working on your own product, Dekks?
Yes and no. Once you get into this Indie Bootstrapping thing, everything you read is like, "Execute fast, don't care about the design, do it quickly." We are coming from a design perspective where we pride ourselves with nice experience designs, and we really polish our things until the very end.
Coming from that side and building a design tool, a presentation engine that needs to kick ass, it's quite a big ask to not care about the design and just do a really quick website. So, I thought, "Okay, what do we do?" Then we're like, "Okay, we need to build that UI framework that we can roll out.
And that saves us time in the end." So, what we did is, we did no Dekks app development. We sat down for a whole month and came up with our UI component framework that we use for Vue.
The whole thing is built in Vue. We even had discussions, "Hey, let's just use material design from Google or Vuetify, which is the Google material design version for Vue. And I'm like, "No, we can't do it because this is the only thing you can really own." Everyone has ideas and presentation tool ideas.
I don't own that idea. Ideas are free, and a lot of people have the same idea, probably. But what you can own is the style and your brand. We wanted to really focus on that UI framework. We just made a list, like, "What are the most basic things we need? Buttons, sliders, drop-downs, inputs," all this stuff. And then we spent a whole month just doing nothing but this.
Then, to be honest, the product page that is out now took us, from beginning to end, less than two weeks because I could support Christoph and James with coding because it's more like Lego. You just plug in the thing from your framework. You don't have to do any styling anymore. It just works out of the box, basically.
This is the biggest mission because you don't see a lot of progress in that month. You're building this, encapsulated in your little bubble, but then once you use it, you save so much time, really. And now, even if the product has issues with functionality, that framework never changes. It's still the same design.
I love your point, that you can't own an idea. Anybody can come along with the same idea as you and you can't really stop them. It's not your property. What you can do is differentiate on things like branding and your design and your unique relationship with the customer you're targeting and what you know about them.
Those are all the things that you guys are focused on. So, instead of throwing away the advantage that you have as a designer so you can move faster and just have crappy design, you're really doubling down on that in order to turn it into an even bigger advantage. It's risky to do that.
I mean, if I talk to a developer on here, they're probably going to focus way too much on code to the exclusion of other things. If I talk to a marketer, are they going to focus too much on the marketing. If I talk to your designer, they're probably going to focus too much on the design, but at the same time, if you can make that a strength, then it's not a bad thing.
And your website looks amazing. I'm looking at it right now, and it looks better than the websites of a lot of VC funded companies. And this is just a scrappy, bootstrapped project you guys have started, right?
That's the goal. Do it without the angels, basically. You can do it yourself, honestly. I'm a designer, but I also love to code. I do a lot of front end, all the polishing, the pixel pushing to where it feels right. You just have to make it feel right, and you know when it's right because it feels amazing.
When you scroll down, it has the right amount of white space or whatever. This is a big learning curve. Regarding the idea that you can't own an idea, I actually need to give a big shout out to Pieter Levels, who talked about his book, “Make”, that I read because it's hands-on. There is no yoga, thoughts, and dreaming about the next Tesla, the next SpaceX. It's more like, "No, just go do it and do it nicely and well but do it fast."
He said that an idea is worth 10 bucks, but it's about the execution, how good you make it. So even if you have a not-so-great idea, if you do it amazingly great, then you can still make a good living or a fortune, probably, out of it.
Stefan, you've been working as a designer and now developer for many years. You've been working for clients and you're working on your own product. What are some of the things you've learned during this time that you think other fledgling Indie Hackers would benefit from knowing?
The biggest one is, if you don't start off with yourself and be a solo founder, really concentrate on the team. Keep the energy levels up on the team. Surround yourself, read everything you can, listen to every podcast. YouTube. It's free. It's free education. I mean, it's not free. They get your data and all that analytics, but you know what I mean?
You can just educate yourself. I'm married, I have a daughter. So, my time is also limited. I have nine hours a day. My wife is giving me an extra an hour every day. I have nine hours a day to work, but once they are in bed, I go back, and just read, and do the extra amount of work that's necessary. Otherwise, you're not going to get anywhere.
You have to put in the hours. There's no shortcut. I would also say, in general, learn how to code because that informs your thinking and your design as well because you're solving problems and you're thinking about functions.
All right, Stefan Endress. Thank you so much for coming on the show. Can you tell listeners where they can go to learn more about what you're up to with Dekks?
Yeah, you can either follow us on Indie Hackers, or you can just go to Dekks.app Dekks with a double K.
All right, thanks so much Stefan.
Thanks for having me, Courtland. Thanks.
Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, I would appreciate it if you gave it some love on Twitter. Just find me on twitter.com/CSAllen and I will have tweeted about this episode, so feel free to like it or share it. Also, if you're interested in coming on the podcast yourself for a quick chat with me about what you're working on, go to indiehackers.com/milestones.
You can post a milestone about any accomplishment or achievement or feature you're working on for your app. What I do is, at the end of the week, I go through and look at the top upvoted milestones and invite those posters onto the podcast. So once again, that's indiehackers.com/milestones. Thanks for listening, and I will see you next time.
Did you know the Indie Hackers podcast has a newsletter?
Sign up to get insights, takeaways, and exclusive content from each new episosde, directly from the host, Courtland Allen.