When Dmitry Dragilev (@dragilev) looked at the personal lives of his business heroes, he didn't like what he found. "Horrible family lives. Just horrible personal relationships." He knew he wanted something different, so he made the conscious decision to prioritize his family life and build his business around that. In this episode, Dmitry and I talk about how he was able to bootstrap from $0 to $30,000/month in revenue working just 25 hours a week, as well as how his business JustReachOut.io helps indie hackers do PR with less time, effort, and money.
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 like to be in their shoes.
How did they get to where they are today? How do they make decisions both in their companies and in their personal lives? And what exactly makes their businesses tick? 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.
Today, I am talking to Dmitry Dragilev. Dmitry, welcome to the show.
Thanks. Good to be here. Thanks for having me.
Good to have you. You are the founder of JustReachOut.io. It's a company that you run together with your wife and co-founder, Corey, and together, the two of you bootstrapped it to over $30,000 a month in revenue while also working about 25 hours a week. You start work about 9 am and you're done by 2 pm only on weekdays. Tell me about that schedule. How do you make that work?
I have, for the last five years, I've been pushing on this whole thing of “you only live your life once” and you can spend your long, few hours every day to push yourself to do the best you can. Eventually it comes down to like, my grandfather died a couple years ago, and I asked him, “What do you remember from your life? What comes to mind?” Years before his death, he just kept going back to, “All the times you spent with your family, your loved ones. It wasn't your career.”
He hasn't had anything ridiculous, no crazy acquisitions. He had a decent career. He grew up in Soviet Union, he was an engineer and he's done well for himself, but he wasn't anything insane. As I was coming up, I was trying to figure out, “What do I want to do in life? I have this online business, I can go balls to the wall, I can raise funding, I can just be that guy that's always on, working, chat with people, “About how many hours you work in a week?” “I estimate 60 hours a week.” Somebody's 50 hours a week. “Oh, I put in 70 hours a week, what are you talking about?”
I'm like, “Do I want to be that guy and have $1 million MRR or $600,000 MRR” or I don't know, whatever it is, “or do I want to focus on spending time with my kids, who are three and five now, and then when they don't want to spend time with me when they're in their teenage years, maybe I do more work? Maybe I start working crazy hours to scale businesses. Now, I just need a nice, cushy business.”
After the acquisition of my previous company, I walked away from acquisition, I didn't get the paycheck, but I decided I'm going to build the business that's good, that gives me cash to live on, that I can survive on, but I'm not going to trade this time in my life, in my 30's, for some big exit in 10 years or in 15 years. It's just a conscious decision.
I want to remember this decade in my life, primarily the time with my family and my friends. Family friends, my kids and being the dad that is on equal parenting schedule with my wife. I just made that the conscious effort to build the business around it. Really, nobody really needs that much time to do the work they do. People spend a ton of time procrastinating.
Time boxing myself into it has helped a lot and it's just reality. After 2 p.m., I pick up my kids. I'm not the guy that's going to go out and work somewhere from a cafe. I'm just not going to do it. I'm just going to be with the kids, so I know at 2 p.m., that's over. After this podcast recording, pretty much it's going to be it.
I'm going to go and pick up my daughter and it's freezing outside, so we're going to come back home and try and figure something out.
That's our principle approach and you're really prioritizing creating memories that you're going to cherish. I think memories are underrated. You don't remember work. I've had years where I really enjoyed working and I worked a ton, but what do I remember from those years, it's definitely not the time I was sitting at my computer writing code.
Maybe you remember some of the accomplishments and the milestones, but the actual work you're putting is a means to an end and you end up forgetting about it.
Some people reminisce like, “Remember when we were just five people and we were doing this?” and then, “Remember when we were ten people and look at us now. 1,000 people now, big corporation.” But the reality is I've studied all these CEOs of super successful companies.
That book Clayton Christensen wrote, The Innovators Dilemma, he also wrote a book called How Will You Measure Your Life? and this guy, Clayton Christensen, goes to all of the most successful CEOs, like Mackenzie, and all these major successes. They were part of his Harvard class. And he’s like, “Horrible, horrible family lives. They're on their third wife, they have seven houses, their kids don't talk to them. Just horrible personal relationships with their family and their loved ones or friends, but they're the most successful people in the business world.”
I started noticing that trend. Last ten years or so, I've been consciously looking at people that are portrayed as successes. The tech crunch unicorns, all these people that are high up that are like, “Oh, I want to be like him.” Really poor family life and very poor relationships with their kids.
A lot of dads that are trying to figure things out when the kids are a little older. Just really not taking care of themselves properly. They might be exercising but not really eating right or exercising right all the time. I was like, “You just got to really attack this as a job prioritize things differently.”
A lot of businesses have something that makes them intrinsically difficult to run on a tightly defined schedule, where they could just stop working at 2 p.m. They might be getting urgent customer support requests, or they might have servers that go down in the middle of the night, or security issues that require taking care of and stuff like that.
I wonder if that's the opposite case with your business, with JustReachOut? How are you able to stop working at 2 p.m. every day? Do you have any urgent crisis type situations that you have to take care of or is it just smooth sailing, work stops at 2 p.m. and you're not worried?
No. No, I'm not immune to any of that, right? It's a SaaS platform that goes down. We get DDoS attacks, we help people do PR, so somebody signs up and they're like, “I did a search for UTA texting and I can't find a lot of journalists, so your platform doesn't look like it's really good.”
They do three searches, they write a bunch of anger emails, they leave. I have people who sign up and they say it's not working at all, the search's broken. It hurts to lose customers. It also hurts when your site is attacked.
We've been hacked, we had our Stripe account, which is our payment processor, hacked by people that change the bank account inside the Stripe so that the money was going to some other bank. We had our bank compromised, too, by bank accounts, people making cards, all sorts of crazy stuff.
Operationally, that will shut down the business, shut down money, which keeps the business alive. Our personal bank account has been compromised, too. I view it as, again, just mindset. A lot of it comes down to mindset. Since I started working with Dan Martell, I'm part of his mastermind, his SaaS academy, I think that was the biggest thing that he's taught me.
He's got so much other stuff that he teaches, but mindset. The way you think about stuff really determines your mood, what you do, everything else. In my case, there's priorities. There's family life and then there's business life. Yeah, I'm worried if something bad happens with it, but my phone is this crappy iPhone 5s that doesn't even keep charge anymore.
I have to charge it every four hours or so. I can't do email on it, there's no email on it, there's no Twitter, there's nothing on it. There's just Maps on it and it sucks. I don't spend any time on my phone, so I don't connect through my phone. It's been six years now. When I shut down that laptop, unless I have to go into my office and do it, I'm not going to use it to fix it. Anything can wait for a day. Really, if you think about it, it could wait for a day, usually.
I'm in the PR business, so a lot of the times a pitch has to go in or out or things have to be done a certain way at a certain time. It just wasn't mean to be, I don't know. I just think of it differently. A lot of people disagree, they're like, “Dmitry, you're not a real founder. You're not a real entrepreneur. If you think that way, work has to be first. You have to push yourself to get stuff done and fight through,” and I'm like, “I don't think so.” But I've been doing really well just with this business and I have my course that I do really well with.
I do consulting, as well, but I've built a very comfortable life for myself just doing this and, in fact, I can probably work less and just keep up with this lifestyle.
People like the narrative of them struggling against these insurmountable odds of them suffering. There's no grad student you'll talk to who won't tell you that grad school is the hardest, most miserable thing ever.
There are very few founders you'll talk to who won't tell you that being a founder is just the most terrible, lonely, hard thing ever because it makes it more meaningful, but at the same time, I talk to people like you, who are just cruising and you're enjoying your life and setting your priorities very deliberately and yet, you're still a founder. You can't take away that title from you just because.
Yes, I founded it. We're not going from $1K to $100K in six months. We don't have insane growth plans. We want to grow 10% month over month, but we don't have any investors pushing us in that way and I don't care about it as much as I probably should compared to my kids and my family. I really like spending time with them.
I feel like a lot of founders actually don't want to spend time with their family and that's why they escape into their work. Because spending time with your family is boring, they might need to work more at it, they don't have enough skill sets. Primarily men, who are guys, who have families, that have toddlers, that need to be occupied with different activities.
It's a much more thought-provoking endeavor, maybe, to build a business versus spending time with your toddler. If that's your case, then by all means, do that. I'm not here to tell people to just spend more time with your kids or loved ones or whatever. That's what I do, and I don't know, it's very liberating and peaceful.
Tell us about your business. It's called JustReachOut. You mentioned that it's a PR business. How does it work?
It's a software platform that helps you pitch journalists without some PR firms, so it helps you get featured in press, pitch journalists all on your own. It's meant for Indie Hacker type of folks, people who are one-person team, two-person team, three-person teams that want to be featured in press and can't afford a PR firm but can afford $400 a month to figure it out, or even $200 a month.
That's what it usually costs. It's a software platform that searches different asks that journalist have, so specifically if you're an ecommerce business, there's tons of journalists every day that need to speak to an ecommerce business, so they're like, “Listen, I need to speak to an ecommerce business,” you search that, you find them, you start talking to them because they already have an ask you can just answer it.
We also help you find podcasts that are looking for a guest. We can help you find journalists, specifically, who are covering your topic. We can help you find different links that are broken and different publications on your domain of expertise. There’re different tools in there, we help you, holistically, as well, we guide you through the process, we give you an action plan, we tell you what to do, when to do it.
There's a whole bunch of academy and lessons and stuff that guides you through a week-by-week plan. Our team supports you as you do the PR outreach. It's meant to just disrupt this PR industry all together and help Indie Hackers get press, get featured in press.
PR is something that, curiously, rarely gets mentioned on this podcast. I talk to a lot of people who are Indie Hackers who mention surges in optimization.
They talk about submitting their apps to sites like Product Hunt and Hacker News. They talk about cold emailing customers, but they very rarely talk about pitching press. Why do you think PR is something that Indie Hacker don't do very much of and should they be doing more?
When we think about PR, I think everybody thinks about PR in the wrong way. If you're an Indie Hacker, you got a cool app or something, the first thing you're going to do is just put it up on Reddit or something, just get some users to use it, that's all you really want. The trouble with that is that the traffic stops and so you got to keep doing it.
You might go to Startup Digest newsletter, or you might try and get on this podcast or keep it going. It's a lot of work to keep doing that. That's the level where a typical Indie Hacker mindset is at. Then, you have other people who have a little bit more money, so like, “I got to find a PR consultant, PR guru who can just get me into Forbes or maybe I can go into somewhere else.”
The trouble is that Forbes or Reddit or Startup Digest, maybe a tiny sliver of those people who actually see your message are the right customers for your app. 99.9% of those people are probably not the right ones.
You'll spend tons of time trying to secure all these placements and then you'll only convert tiny, tiny percentage of those and while you can put those logos and, even if you get into TechCrunch or whatever, you put those logos on your site, you'll still convert a very tiny percentage of those places and you won't get customers that are repeat customers.
PR firms typically feed on this and they are saying, “Keep paying us money and we'll keep doing this for you.” You can, yourself, say, “Maybe I can just keep doing Reddit, maybe I can hire some kind of Fiverr or somebody to just do this for me.”
The trouble is that it's not consistent traffic and so what I like to teach people to do, and that's what a lot of our customers have done, like Pipedrive, HubSpot, a lot of the bigger companies who use our platform or who I've consulted, they marry a CO and PR. Essentially, when you do your PR activities, you're not promoting the product that you're building, the app.
That's not what you want to promote. You want to promote the content that you create and it's one piece of content. That's all. Just one piece of content and you're not doing two, three, five. You have one piece of content on your blog that you want to promote and that's going to be the main piece of content and you're going to do PR around it.
The way you come up with that content takes a little bit of time and effort and our software guides you through it. We have a whole wizard in there and it helps you create the link bait-y type of content and stuff. It's a process, but I'd say when you think of PR, think of a long-term approach that consistently gives you traffic from Google or some other way.
It doesn't have to be that you rank number one for that term. It could be that every single result that's ranking for your term has you as number one. The best photography CRM software, if you see that there's seven articles there, it's very hard for you to outrank those seven articles, but you can try and negotiate with them to try and put yourself into each one of those articles.
Now, without lifting a finger, you did lift one finger maybe, but you just inserted yourself in the top seven places on Google for the top CRM photography software just by negotiating with them. You can say, “Listen, I'll help your rank, I'll link to you, I'll promote you, add me in there.” Thinking about PR in that sense, where it's consistent traffic flowing to you and very specific traffic that will convert, is usually the best way to think about PR.
I think Indie Hackers think about it wrong, they think, “I just got to keep doing this TechCrunch or Reddit thing. Or use that YCombinator thing or whatever. It just doesn't really work in the best way. The ROI isn’t there.
I'm trying to wrap my mind around how all of this works. Let's say I wanted to do PR for Indie Hackers, which I don't do, I never really have done, and I wanted to use JustReachOut, what would that process look like? Where would I start and where would I end up?
The first thing I would say is you'd use our tool called press opportunities. That's a tool that can finds journalists' asks.
Essentially, you're going to put in “entrepreneur” into that topic and we're going show you all these journalists like Forbes or Wall Street Journal or wherever they are at. That could be some smaller blogs, but it's information week and it's like, “We're looking for entrepreneurs to contribute to our article for 2020 trends and investing. If you qualify, please respond.”
So you'll respond to those and you'll start getting some people saying, “This is great, Courtland. I look forward to having you on and we'd love to get a quote from you.”
You'll get a few quotes here and there and then you're going to start thinking, “All right, I'm getting some quotes here, I'm getting a little bit of traffic, but what is it that I really have that is going to be amazing and what am I amazing at that is going to just stir things up on the web?”
It could be a study, piece of data, insights that you might publish or it might be some type of serving all the people that you've interviewed and figuring out the main failures of Indie Hackers and what they need to overcome them. Whatever it may be, it could be some type of study and that study, usually, looks like some type of a page on your site.
I'm looking at one right now before this call other customer virus. They're a law firm. Very boring industry, but what they did is they did this study of states with the strictest texting while driving laws. Essentially, they rated all the states in the U.S. by how strict they are in terms of fining texting while driving. So, now they are pitching every single state local news.
Oregon, Utah, Illinois, Wisconsin, saying, “Oregon, you're the strictest one because you're $1,000 per fine. Utah, you made it into our study.” They're getting coverage in all these local states. That's just an example of a piece of data that's interesting to lots of different publications, but essentially, what you'll be using is you'll be using our action builder and our strategy builder to help you figure out what your story will be and our team before you start reaching out.
Then, you're going to start testing things. You're not going to run the study. You're going to test it, so you might come up with the biggest tailors of entrepreneurs that are bootstrapping. Boot-strapping entrepreneurs. You're going to come up with, say, three. You're not actually going to run this study or anything, you just come up with this idea.
You're going to use our engine to find journalists who are covering this topic and you're going to pitch it to them and say, “Listen, I have this data and this study I've done. Are you all interested in seeing more of it?” Once you get more people responding to that, then you start running your study.
If you don't get anybody responding to it all, then you switch up your pitch, then you switch it to the next one and the next one for you might be, “I had the founder of GMass on my podcast and he shared this insane insight about how the Google OAuth process works and he exposed this Google Gmail API issue,” maybe that'll be an angle.
You take that and you put into search terms and just reach out, Gmail API, and you find everyone who's covering Gmail API and you say, start pitching them, “Hey, I saw you covered Gmail API, I just interviewed a GMass founder who's working with Gmail API and they have a big issue with it.”
You're always looking at the intersection between what you got, what you have that's amazing, and what are people covering. Our engine helps you discover those journalists on different topics, but it's your job to figure out what that topic might be and this is where our software works with you and we also work with you over email, over calls to try and point you in the right direction.
I love stuff like this because a lot of people won't do things that they want to do just because it seems too hard. They won't take a step if they don't know what the first step is because it's just complex in their minds.
They're going to have to do a bunch of work, they're going to have to read a bunch of articles, read a bunch of books just to figure out what the first step is and so if you can create some software that makes something complex easier and more approachable that really teaches people how to do something, then you end up inspiring people to do a thing that a lot of people wouldn't do previous.
For example, I will consider doing PR because of JustReachOut, whereas beforehand, it just wasn't on my list of things to spend time investigating. How did you come up with the idea to build software that would do this?
Just the problem, it's always an issue for everybody. Yourself, right now, we're talking about this. Anybody who is listening to this right now, maybe if you happened to listen to this point in the interview, you're probably like, “I kind of have this thing. I want to get publicity for myself.
I don't have $10,000 a month to pay a retainer to a PR firm or $7,000 a month seems crazy to me as a boot-strapping entrepreneur even if I have the money. It's a lot of money.” I'd say this was the main drive for it because I kept consulting people with this. I kept doing this for people. I can only consult so many people.
I created a course called PR That Converts and I launched it to my list, and I made a lot money with it. More than I ever thought I could make. I thought, “Wow, if I can make money selling a course to my blog readers, maybe I should build a tool to help them actually execute what I'm telling them to do because, of course, it just tells you what you do until you actually follow through and make sure that you execute.”
You're selling videos and a Slack channel. I had some software engineering expertise, so I started building it myself and just this need to really help people. The first version was just on paper. I just drew it out on paper, and I started convincing people to pay me a little bit of money to develop it and I asked for feedback.
That was the biggest thing that I've done that was probably the biggest push for myself. I asked for feedback, people gave me feedback, I incorporated that feedback into the sketch, gave it back to them and did that over and over again to rope them in as my customers. That was my main way to get my first customers in the door before I started building it. Then, once I had my five people that were in it, they were like, “Yes, I'll give you $10 to build it,” and I was like, “Okay, I got five customers, give me $10 bucks and tons of feedback on this thing, I'm going to actually try and build something.”
By the time I launched it, it wasn't even working that well and I charged $99 a month, so it was a steep price point for something that wasn't working. It was just a search engine on Twitter, so you could have just searched Twitter yourself then pitch to those people from Twitter, but I was like, “Mine's going to be different, it's going to be awesome, it's going to have all these features.”
How different was your initial mock-up and sketch you were showing these people that they were committing to pay for versus what you actually ended up launching that was just this Twitter search engine?
It was different. I had some product expertise because I work at a design firm, but I'm not a product guy. I'm a PR, communications, SCO guy. I write really well. My strong suits I know, right now, are these things. Product is something that I know a bit about. I've helped build products always from a marketing standpoint, but I use the experience as something I was trained in a little bit.
Market research, customer development, figuring out product-market fit, pricing, were all completely new to me and I was by myself, so I had to really figure that out. I'd say drastically different. We decided to do a Twitter search engine, which we don't even do Twitter anymore.
We thought that people would just tweet at journalists and we went the completely other route. We ended up building an engine that scans journalists asks, so meaning Help A Reporter Out, JournoRequests, ProfNet, SourceBottle, tons of these different newsletters. That was the initial version because we found that people didn't know what to tweet at journalists when you just give them lists of journalists.
These are people that needed to be trained, so the only way to train them to learn how to do PR outreach or talk to journalists was to show them asks from journalists daily. If you see asks from journalists, you get to the point where like, “I kind of get the idea here with things they ask about.
They ask about 2020 trends, they ask about expert opinion on marketing, they ask about the biggest frauds of the year, data points, things that are more interesting to the general audience and not, 'I'd like to see the best app that can do CRM for photographers,'“ or something like that.
People get trained what to pitch. That was the original version and then we started adding lots of different features.
I think that's super smart and a lot of people who are listening don't know about these newsletters that you mentioned, so can you explain, for example, what is Help A Reporter Out?
Help A Reporter Out, launched by Peter Shankman, acquired by Cision, it's a newsletter. It's a free newsletter that comes out daily. Journalists put in their asks and it gets sent out to everybody who's on the newsletter. It’s really big, tons of people on the newsletter and it's very simple the idea.
You opt in, you check box what your expertise are, and you get these asks from journalists. There's tons of them in there, so it's very hard to search through it, but you can essentially look through all the queries per day and you might get seven of these emails a day and there might be 100 in there per day, it's pretty insane the amount of asks these company journalists submit.
It's just one newsletter. There's also SpotaGuest, that's a podcast one, where podcast hosts need somebody to interview, specifically, “I need an e-commerce entrepreneur with 100k MRR,” or something like that. It was very specific.
There's that #journorequest on Twitter. It's only dedicated to this, so if a journalist needs somebody to talk to, that's what they use, they hashtag their question. There's so many of these. We index all of them and let you search it by keyword, so you don't have to subscribe to all of them and go through in details.
That's pretty cool and you mentioned that you're not a product guy. You're not the one coding all this stuff. You're more of a PR person or an SEO expert and a writer and a marketer. How do you, as somebody who's not technical, get a product like this built, that can search through all these different newsletters and how long did it take you to do that?
It took forever, man. A good friend of mine, at the time when I was starting to think about developing this, was between jobs. It's funny. My wife and I crashed NodeConf in Ireland in this castle. They always have it in this crazy castle on an island. 2014, I hadn't been coding since 2007, seven years behind, I didn't really code much.
I needed a technical guy to build my initial sketch and I was sitting around with a friend who actually said, “You should come and just crash it with me.” He was a developer. We didn't know what we were doing. We were just like, “Sure. We'll go for a ride. We'll just go to Ireland and hang out.” We crashed the conference, we showed up without tickets and were just let in, and we're hanging out with our friend and we met this other guy, who was his friend, and they were like, “What are you doing here?”
And we were like, “We're actually marketing people thinking about building this software company and we want to find engineers to work with and we're fresh off.” I was fresh off that acquisition by Google, which I walked away from, so it wasn't a very sexy story. It was like, “Dmitry helped build from 0 to 40 million-page views, got acquired by Google,” but Dmitry didn't join Google, didn't get any money.
I was like, “What was Dmitry thinking? What are you doing with your life? Are you insane?” That last part, we kept it on the down-low talking to people because you don't know people. We met some engineers and my friend and his friend were like, “We'll help you out,” so we created this Google Doc with 30/30/30 split and we're all just going to be founders.
That just went horribly wrong. Basically, one of the guys didn't do any work, the other guy did work and was pissed at the guy who wasn't doing any work, the engineer, and wanted to get him out of the 30/30 split on this Google Doc. We weren't really earning any money or anything, but just got into this weird fight over equity, and I was like, “Guys, it's a stupid Google Doc. We don't even have a product. What are you fighting about? We just need to build the MVP.”
Eventually, the other guy left, and we wrote this Google Doc and it was just a lot of drama and meanwhile, this guy was like, “You know what? Start-ups are not really for me. I want a real job,” so, before The Crypto Craze joined one of the Exchanges, the Crypto Exchanges. Once he got a full-time job, I hardly got any help from him.
I was like, “Dude, I can't keep building—” I was trying to hire people from Ukraine, Pakistan, and it was just not working out. I was like, “I need developers, I need some help,” so eventually, he left. I hired some part-time developers, contractors, then I started charging a bunch of money, people pre-paid for it or paid for it and it wasn't working, so I used that money to try and hire some more developers.
It was just a crazy journey. Eventually, I found developers that I can trust and for the last three years or so, three plus years now, we've had, knock-on-wood, good developers helping out. The products I've been leading, I've messed it up so many times just building stuff that customers’ request and, I don't know, I was like, “A bunch of people requested this thing. I think it will be useful, let's just build it.”
And I've hired, again, design firms from Belarus to design stuff for me and launch it. Read a lot of books, learned things on the fly. I have advisors now that guide me on stuff. We have a process on deciding with features to add and a road map.
Were you working your 25-hour work week even in the early days? Or was that more of a recent development?
I think that this has been the last three years or so, about--no, maybe two years, more. I think the first year, 2014 to 2015, I was still more like 40 hours. 2016, that's when my second son was born and that's where I started after April, May, June of 2016, so I started doing the 25-hour thing, more or less, pushing towards it.
It didn't just happen overnight. First, it was 30 hours, maybe 35 hours and the 25 hours sometimes is 30, but usually, it's more like 25.
How expensive was it to work with all these different developers and these agencies and design shops in the early days when JustReachOut wasn't really making very much money?
Well, at first, my first few developers, I just gave them equity. I was like, “I'll just give you--”, and I didn't know how to do that properly either, so I was like, “a third of the company, a quarter of the company,” and they were like, “All right. Whatever.” It doesn't matter, right? Then, it starts mattering once you start making money.
Later on, I didn't do a salary or anything for myself, so I just took all the money we ever earned and just paid them. The game would be I'll try and pre-sale, basically like an airline ticket, a bunch of future development for the features and say, “Listen. Pay now and you'll be able to use it for X amount of months down the road,” and I'll bake my services into it.
That's what I use to do for forever now, is just, “I'll bake PR services into it. I'll help you do PR.” They'll pay money, I'll do PR for them, I'll take that money and I'll fund development. That has been a game that I've been playing for a little while just to keep things afloat.
I think we became a pure SaaS company I think early this year. Up until early this year, we haven't been a true, pure SaaS company. There have always been components of services baked into it and we started transitioning to pure SaaS's early this year.
I like that strategy so much because when you're providing a service, if you're an expert at PR or SEO or marketing or something and people just pay you for your service, you get a lot of money upfront. You don't need to spend six months coding something in order to sell a service.
You can sell immediately and then do what you did and use that to fund development and design and other sorts of work. Whereas, if you just have a pure SaaS play, even if you're charging a couple hundred dollars a month, they can take many years to build up to the point where you can afford a salary for yourself, where you can afford to pay any employees or contractors.
I like that you sort of boot-strapped yourself by not saying that you're going to be limited to pure SaaS and that you actually started with a course and then services and then eventually became a SaaS business.
Yeah, I think a lot of people should use services and I know there's a lot of people saying, “Not a good way to start a SaaS company, you got services in there, it's too muddy, you can't get services out of it, usually.”
I think it's a great way to start because you can supplement your development and just earn money and then get it to a point where you think you're ready and then launch your pure SaaS. Meanwhile, you've built the company.
The service I'm offering might change, pricing might change, some customers might leave, perceived value might change, but it's still the same company, so I can say JustReachOut has been around for five years.
We've been doing services for a good portion of that, but we've been building a software product for all five years, so it's gotten backlinks and publicity and people have come to the site for five years. PR has been associated with it for five years. It's a good way to do it and I think if you're listening to this, think about it.
Let's talk numbers for a second. In 2015, you made $15,000 in revenue. In 2016, you made $70,000 in revenue from JustReachOut. In 2017, you had huge jump up to $300,000 in revenue. What happened in 2017 that helped your revenue jump so much?
We did something crazy. We did the AppSumo. AppSumo is a newsletter that goes out to people who are seeking deals. It's like Groupon for apps created by Noah Kagan. It's basically a million plus people on the email list who are used to buying stuff cheap and they'll buy anything because it's a great deal.
We made a lot of money that year and it was not for us, for this business, but it was not the most money. It was not the right kind of customers. A lot of those customers, I ended up paying to get rid of. I actually paid them to leave my platform. It did put us on the map, so it did help there. After that, we just started getting a lot more real companies contacting us.
A lot of people heard about us after that. The types of people who signed on that deal, I'd say more than half of them, maybe even three-quarters of them, were just not a fit for us and I've heard bad feedback from many people. I feel like AppSumo was, usually, this newsletter, it's good for selling courses, maybe assets like PDFs, things like that, where you're not using a tool for anything because these people are not very sophisticated, they don't have anything interesting to say a lot of the times and for them to do PR or use a tool, it's a big ask.
It's really geared towards a “life-time deals for free” kind of thing, but it did help us put us on the map. That was the big push and then, I started doing a lot more SEO. I started hitting these keywords like, “PR outreach” and I was ranking number one. Or different type of PR like, “media pitch”, “cold email”, those kinds of key words. That started driving new leads that were good leads.
Have you used any PR techniques to grow your own business, JustReachOut?
I actually have been. I've helped a lot of other PR companies do the same. Presley, our customer, just a lot of different PR firms, PR companies that are good at what they do, they just don't do it well for themselves. I've used the same technique for us for most of these years.
That year, I started pushing hard on it, but my technique is very specific. It's: find a key word like, “PR outreach”. I want to be number one, the baddest piece of content there is that kills, pretty much, all of my competition. Then all my PR is geared towards promoting that piece of content. So I'm trying to get guest posts there, I'm trying to get a podcast interview here.
All these interviews and all these posts out there talking about me or what I do always linked back to that one piece of content: “PR outreach,” “How to do PR outreach,” or “media pitch,” or “PR hacks,” and that's my approach. I get to rank number one for marketing communications strategy, I rank number one for media relations strategy right now.
Once I get there, that's it. I do another key word and another key word. It's very simple: key word research, creating the content on your online blog, and then reaching out to all these people, try and cover me that get links to that piece of content.
That's how I've done, pretty much, all my PR and I've used JustReachOut for it because I use it to find people to pitch to be on their show or find people to pitch to write for them or something like that.
For people who aren't familiar with SEO and how it works, if you have a piece of content and a lot of reputable sources link to it, Google treats that content as more important, so it will show up higher in the search rankings and so by doing PR and driving it all to these articles that you're writing, you're essentially telling Google, “Hey, this is a really important article,” and it helps you get to number one.
How much of our strategies are because you want to be number one on Google and how much of it is because you want just the direct traffic that comes from having these news organizations and press organizations write about you?
I want to be number one on Google. That's priority of the whole thing. It's changed a lot, I see it's changed so much, so these days, the quantity of links doesn't necessarily correlate to rankings anymore. The types of links don’t even help as much. These days, it's more click ability on these links, so if those links are actually getting clicks, then they value, and they actually push your rankings up.
It's really just overall traffic and engagement on that piece of content. Is it being shared directly offline? Is it being sent like an email, for example, or chat? Is that time on site on that piece of content really high? All these different metrics are dominating the ranking behavior these days. I'd say, for me, number one is just ranking on Google.
I don't really care about the little bursts of traffic I get if I get mentioned somewhere. It's really making sure that I have some of these links pointing and these links start getting clicks. I don't focus on the links as much as people focus on – you talk to any SEO person and they're like, “Link building, we got to build links.”
I don't focus on links as much. I usually focus on the quality of the content, I focus on sharing the content properly, promoting it, that type of thing, and then links as a secondary type of effort.
What if I'm an Indie Hacker who's trying to figure out if PR is right for me? You mentioned that you did this AppSumo deal and you got a ton of customers and that's how you're able to make $300,000 in 2017, but a lot of them weren't particularly right for you, their companies didn't need to be doing PR. Is PR something should only be doing if you're trying to win the SEO game or are there other reasons to do it?
No, you don't need to go into SEO. SEO is complex. Anybody listening to this, it's just a lot of work and this is not where you want to start. What you should start with is figuring out who are your customers and where are they hanging out? What podcasts are they listening to, is it offline, is it a meet-up?
Maybe it's a blog, maybe it's some kind of forum, a slack channel, maybe. There's a very popular slack community like online geniuses or wherever they are hanging out. Then, how do you target that audience? How do you go after them? That's where your PR starts from. Basically, don't go “lights over Broadway” PR. “Lights over Broadway” is, “I want to be in Wall Street Journal.”
Don't start there. Start with, “Where are my customers hanging out?” and then, “How can I get in front of them? Should I do a guest post? Should I do an interview? Should I offer a webinar? Should I do something to try and get those customers to see my message for that publication?” because that publication, that blog, that community, that podcast already has your audience.
You just need to figure out the ones that have 80% of your audience. 80% of your listeners are already your target market. Then, you go after them and you build relationships with them and you do PR to promote yourself. Then, when you see those little bursts of traffic and they actually convert, then you're like, “I think I've got something here. I can continue doing that, but I can also marry that with my SEO stuff or maybe I can work on my SEO game and keep doing this thing.”
Take it in stages. Try and find a podcast that has a thousand listeners a month or maybe 500 listeners a month that is in your industry and in your domain of expertise. Try to get yourself on there and see if you get five new email subscribers after that podcast goes live. That could be a little step in the right direction in the PR world.
Then, get somebody who has 2,000 listeners a month and maybe you'll get ten new email subscribers on your website. One step at a time that way to get going. That's where I'd start. PR would help with anything. It's just targeting the right people. PR can be joint ventures with a blog or something.
That could also be PR, so don't think of PR as featured on CNN or in Wall Street Journal. It's like getting on Indie Hackers podcast, this could be your PR initiative or something like that.
There's a lot of advice to start small with the scope of your product, but also, it makes sense to do what you're saying and start small with your promotional efforts and your PR and your outreach.
You mentioned that the first step is to, basically, figure out where your audience lives, figure out where they hang out and congregate online. How did you do that with JustReachOut and how can other founders do the same thing for their businesses?
I start my PR with interviewing my customers, really interviewing them, and being like, “Where do you hang out? What kind of stuff do you read? Send me your best blogs, best books. What kind of information are you interested in?”
I learned about what they do. I have tagging so I know when people sign up, I can see where they come from so I can get an idea. Essentially, when I think back to talking with them, I always have a customer persona. I know what they're like. I know that they're not communication professionals, they're not PR consultants, they're not PR firms, they don't typically have a job withing a large corporation.
All my customers are like your audience. They're Indie Hacker type of folks, they have ten people on their team, five people, they're Hacking away, they got amazing businesses and they want to scale them. They're doing at least $3k spend on marketing and they have a content marketer on team.
I know who they might be and so, I literally research “the best content marketing blogs.” That's the type of stuff that my customers would be interested in, content marketing. I'll see who's very popular in the content marketing space and then, I'll figure things out. I might figure out a conference to go speak at and figure out, “Is this the right kind of crowd or Meetup?” or something like that where I don't speak, I just show up.
If I get to the right kind of crowd, I'm like, “All right, I think I met the right kind of group,” and this group is called Content Marketing Gurus, so I'm like, “Maybe I'll go after content marketers, specifically, and see how that works because a lot of my customers are content marketers already.” That's the process I go through.
Before I do any PR, before I do any outreach, any of that. That's usually the case when I try and find somebody that can do any kind of PR. Then, that next step was figuring out what to pitch and doing all that stuff and outreach and stuff.
We are reaching the end of our time, which sucks because I have so many things that I want to ask you. How do you turn a course into a product? There's so much more about what kind of content is actually compelling that you should be promoting through PR, so I'll have to have you on again at some point, Dmitry, if you're up for it.
I'm curious on what's driving you today? You have gotten your business to the point where it's generating $30,000 a month. In the last couple of years, you've really ramped down on your working hours, you're working super light hours and taking the evenings spending time with your family. What gets you up every day to work on JustReachOut?
When I think about it, my entire career since that day when I showed up at my software engineering job and said, “I don't want to work anymore,” has always been communications.
That's been my thing. I've wanted to help people build relationships with whoever they want, whether it's Bill Gates, Ashton Kutcher, who I've gotten responses from, Winklevoss twins, Tim Ferriss, Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, some of the biggest folks in the industry I've gotten responses from.
Whoever needs to build relationships with high profile people or low profile, anybody else, that's been my mission, my vision, just helping people build relationships to further their businesses. I love doing it, it's exciting, and I love sending those emails out or sending those messages out and getting responses back and teaching people how to do it and seeing success that comes from it.
I think that's the main vision. I don't want people to give money to PR firms. That's another thing that's pushing me. Every day, I know that there's tons of PR firms who close crazy deals and tens of thousands of dollars and I just don't want that to keep happening.
I want people to take PR in their own hands, think about it differently and pitch journalists and build relationships on their own. If I can inspire five people today, maybe three people today or maybe even one person to do so, I think it's been a good day because the less people outsource PR, the better. It's for everybody.
That keeps me going everyday professionally and running this business, even if this business gets sold tomorrow, I'll probably still run my course. I'll probably still run my blog. I'll probably still help people do the same, I just won't have a software company.
I feel like it's my life's mission to try and help people do this on their own. I've been able to do it myself and I believe, strongly, that anybody who is dedicated enough can do it themselves, too.
What's your advice for an aspiring Indie Hacker who is just getting started and who doesn't know yet what they want to work on or what their personal mission is?
Dig deep into your passion. What motivates you in the past? Look through all the different situations you've been part of professionally, personally and try and think what got you to a point where you just feel so good about it? You felt excited about something? Try to translate that into a mission statement or a vision statement.
Google mission statement, Google vision statement, to figure out what your purpose might be. It's an interesting exercise to do, but you need to know what your purpose in life is or your vision or mission, one of those three, and then the others will come around. If you don't have anything, just get experience by working with other people that you look up to.
You're always a product of the two or three people that are your best friends or people you interact with, not your best friends, but people you're interacting with all the time, so get into the company of people who do know what they're doing and are very passionate about what they're doing and then you can figure out things by working with them or even conversing with them working on something.
That's great advice. It's easier said than done to surround yourself with the kind of people who will push you and inspire you to do the sorts of things that you want to do, but it's so valuable if you can find a way to put yourself in that situation.
Dmitry, 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 JustReachOut?
Check out justreachout.io, is my platform, and then criminallyprolific.com is my personal blog.
All right, thanks so much. Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, I'd appreciate it if you took a minute to let Dmitry know. You can just go to IndieHackers.com/podcast to find the episode and leave a comment and I'm sure Dmitry will see it there.
Also, every Monday, I send an email with my thoughts about the latest episode of the podcast. I talk about what went into making that episode, my relationship with the guest and my take-aways and conclusions from some of the things we discussed, so if you're interested in getting that email, you can sign up at indiehacker.com/podcast.
Thanks so much for listening and I will see you next week.
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