Cory Zue (@czue) made over $26,000 in profit from multiple side projects in 2019, including a printable place card business and a Django-powered SaaS template. In this episode Cory explains how his journey began by taking a sabbatical from work, he lays out his plan to reach financial independence by 2023, and he shares some tips for ensuring your indie hacker journey is an enjoyable one the whole way through.
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 do they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions, both in their personal lives and at their companies? 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'm sitting down with the one and only, Cory Zue. Cory, how's it going?
It's good. I had no idea you had that whole thing memorized.
I've said that intro probably 140 times by now. We are in an Airbnb in Cape Town, South Africa, where you live. I think you grew up in the United States.
That's right. I grew up in Boston, in the suburbs of Boston.
How long have you been in South Africa now?
Going on my fifth year now.
Your fifth year in South Africa and your last three years as an Indie Hacker. Your background is pretty interesting. You were working as the CTO of a high-growth startup that had hundreds of people and you went on a sabbatical and decided that you didn't want to come back and that you actually wanted to be an Indie Hacker.
For the last three years, you've been working on a variety of side projects. You choose breadth over depth. In total, your side projects are bringing in about $26,000 annual profit and your goal is to reach the point where you never have to work again by 2023.
That's a pretty wild journey. Why breadth over depth? Why so many projects rather than just focusing on one project that's better than the others, that's growing faster than the others and that can get you to your goal a little bit earlier?
That's a good question. The answer might be that I'm not optimizing properly. I think one thing that I value very highly is enjoying what I'm working on and enjoying what I'm doing. I have a little bit of a short attention span, I would say.
Sometimes I get a project to a certain place and I get a little bit bored with it and so I want to move on to the next thing, build the new thing, challenge myself in some different way.
I think the term for it is Shiny Object Syndrome. You get the new idea and it sounds so amazing and all the old ideas are suddenly boring and you move onto the new one.
A lot of shiny objects.
I think your approach, though, is a good one because you're not just accidentally working on things. You've been very transparent about your entire process. One of your top goals is that you want to enjoy the journey of being an Indie Hacker and that you want the entire process to be enjoyable.
Which, I think is a great goal, because for a lot of people, it's stressful. You're going without the comfortable paycheck that you're used to, stressing over whether or not this thing you're investing a lot of time into is going to work. How do you enjoy the process of being a founder?
We spent so much of our lives working and to not be enjoying your work, to be working just to reach a certain income, retirement level or whatever it is. I think people can do that, but for me it was the idea of just always making sure that I was having a lot of fun has been super important to me.
That's probably the primary reason why I have been doing the Indie hacking for the last three years. It's so much fun. Launching stuff, getting users and having people do something with a product that you built and then send you an email about it. It's such a fun, rewarding feedback loop and it's a blast.
How do you deal with the stress? Actually, is there any stress at all? What are your techniques for actually enjoying this when so many other people find it hard?
I suspect that one of the reasons why it's not that stressful is I probably keep my expectations very low. It might even be a bad thing. It might even be the case that it would be better if I was more stressed out, because I'm probably not trying hard enough to be successful. But, on the same token, I don't want to be stressed out. Maybe that's fine, I don't know.
Courtland Allen: I think I have a sticky note or a note somewhere at home that says, "the secret to happiness is low expectations", which sounds, in a way, de-motivational and not that inspirational, like, "Oh, just keep your expectations low."
But it doesn't mean that you can't achieve something extraordinary. The fact that you're working your way towards independence, towards a life where you basically don't have to do the things you don't want to do and all of your time is free, is very inspirational. The fact that you can do it in a way where you don't have to rush, you don't have to be there tomorrow and you can still get there.
Maybe that's not the most ambitious, Elon Musk-esque thing that anyone's ever said, but at the same time, it's probably the case that you're a lot happier than Elon Musk.
He's probably very fulfilled in his own way, but I agree with that. It's also not the case that stress equals ambition or something like that. I think you kind of said this, but at one point during my Indie Hacker journey, I was sitting there and I was really not challenged at all and I was thinking, "Oh wow, I'm bored and probably even too comfortable," with the whole Shiny Object Syndrome thing.
I was like, "Oh, okay, I need to launch a harder product and I need to do it in a way that is much more challenging to me. Because I'm getting too complacent right now, even though the numbers are trending correct, I'm not stressed out." I think the decoupling the ambition from the stress. You don't have to be stressed out to also achieve things, although maybe you do to achieve them at a certain pace. I'm not sure.
Let's talk about how you got here because, as I mentioned earlier, you're the CTO of a much larger company. You decided that wasn't for you, but that was your life for many years. You were working not as an Indie Hacker, but managing other people, running a larger company. What were some of the lessons you learned there and what was it like to be a part of a company that was that big?
The company, Dimagi, I joined in 2006 and I was employee number one, essentially. It was me and the two co- founders. Then, I was CTO until 2017 when I started the Indie Hacking journey. In that period, Dimagi went from 3 people to about 130. It wasn't VC, we didn't grow super-fast.
It was top 10, 20% a year. I went from 2 to 3, 3 to 7, 7 to 10. Over that course of time, eventually there was, 130-some-odd people. There was a 30 person tech team that I was sitting on top of and my job was, obviously, very different than it was as employee number two in the trenches writing code. In terms of learnings, they were kind of two parallel streams of learnings that I had.
One was a whole lot of skills that ended up being very useful for my career. Obviously, engineering skills. I'm a coder by background. I do everything 100% by myself, basically. Obviously, learning all the technical skills, a lot of how to be a reliable human being stuff. Being good at email, figuring out a backlog and a priority list, how to manage something like that.
I did support for the organization for a long time, did DevOps, so I learned all these skills that would serve me very well in my Indie Hacking journey. The other side of the coin or the other thing that I learned is the types of work that I like and the types of work that I don't like. I'm going to bring this back to this whole enjoyment thing again, but I realized I love building stuff, I love coding, I love the creative process, I love tight user feedback loops, I love seeing my software, the things that I've built out in the wild.
Performance reviews-- I could take or leave, it's nice mentoring people, it's nice seeing people grow, but there's a whole organizational aspect to performance management, to on-boarding and in a growing organization, especially at the top of an organization or near the top, you go from maker to manager.
I want it to be in the trenches writing code, still, but instead I was reviewing architecture docs and chairing meetings and these other things. I realized, "Oh, I can see why this is valuable and I can see why it's good that I'm doing them and I can see why it's really beneficial for the company that I continue to do them, but they're not bringing me joy in the same way that this creative building process, this tight product feedback loop, this user journey stuff."
All the aspects that I've come to really love about the Indie Hacking solo-preneuring lifestyle were slowly getting pulled away from me. Those were the two elements, one, very practical useful stuff and then two, more introspective, figuring out what I wanted out of a job and starting to think through what that might mean for my future.
Every large company that has a lot of employees has a lot of jobs and roles and tasks that only exist to support the fact that there's a ton of people. Doing performance reviews and all this kind of stuff. That's not actually building the product and building stuff is inherently super fun.
The CEO of Stripe, Patrick, has sent several emails where he spends lots of time doing different things within the company and every now and then he'll take some time to just join one of the development teams and write code. Every single time he's super surprised by how much he just loves writing code, how much more fun that is then a lot of other tasks that would seem to be pretty fun.
It's not shocking to me that once you see your job go from employee number one or two, writing the code, building the product to suddenly you're managing a team of 30 people. You're kind of bored, you kind of wish you were doing some other things.
Also, you've worked so hard in your career to get to that point and that's the role that gets the most respect and the highest on the totem pole, so it can be pretty hard to leave that job and say, "I'm going to set out on my own and start from scratch, making $0 on my own projects." What did it look like to make that decision in the middle of your sabbatical?
I should add that I went back to the organization part time after my sabbatical, so I took a six month sabbatical where I was like, "I don't know, I need to figure out my life guys and I'm going to try a few things." Then came back and I was like, "I still want to be a part of this but I don't want that leadership role anymore."
It was tough and it was tough coming back also because I didn't realize how much cachet I had just because I had the power until I didn't have the power and then I would be like, "Wait, why does no one think that all my suggestions are brilliant anymore? It was because, "Oh, they're not just saying yes to me because I'm the CTO."
That was definitely an interesting adjustment and at times was like, "Oh man. I think I'm right here, but okay." Ultimately, I think I took a lot of time during the sabbatical thinking about like, "Okay, if I could just design my life from scratch, what would that look like?" I was like, "Okay, well I have to make money. I'm not independently wealthy. I can't just sit here. I was like, "Okay, I need something that will earn me money."
I was like, "I want to enjoy it." I know that sounds really simple and I should say those aren't necessarily the only two things that you should optimize on. I think Elon Musk wants to save the world and I'm so in awe of that guy, but for me I was like, "What's right for me for right now is I want to enjoy this."
Once that became clear to me, it then became clear to me that I wasn't going to enjoy that CTO role the same way that I would enjoy pushing on the Indie Hacker thing and trying to make that work.
Did you have any fears around financial security and getting rid of what I'm sure was a cushy salary relative to being a broken Hacker with no income coming in?
Well, it was a social enterprise and so it wasn't that cushy, but it was pretty easy because throughout the whole past three years, I've never actually been full time on my personal projects. I have continued to work part time for the Dimagi organization I was CTO of and I continued to do some freelancing, which is extremely lucrative on an hourly basis.
I always knew that I had this easy fallback plan. I'm a good enough coder that I will always have a safety net of being able to take on contract work or get a job if worse comes to worse. I knew I that wasn't really going to be an issue and that at no point did I even really dip below my burn rate, except during the sabbatical where I was earning basically nothing.
It was never really a risk for you to quit. It was always a positive experience of finding yourself and potentially building an amazing life or worst case scenario just working as a developer.
When you say it like that, it sounds like maybe I should have gone bigger or something. I played it very safe, actually. Maybe in hindsight, I should have taken a bigger, bolder step. It's interesting in that our lives are long. Like you said at the top. My goal is to get to financial independence, passive income, fully supporting me by 2023.
If I want it to be more ambitious, maybe I could have done it already, maybe I could do it next year. Three years in the scheme of a life to hit that point, it doesn't necessarily make me think that that's too slow.
Let's talk about your very first project that you worked on out of the gate. You quit working full-time, you decided to be a freelancer and stay on your other company part-time. The first project you made, which is still your most revenue generating project, was called placecard.me.
What is it exactly? How does it work and why did you decide that that would be the very first thing that you would build?
It's almost still embarrassing for me to talk about it and when this comes up at dinner parties and stuff, I'm like, "Ah, I have to explain the Place Card thing.” Essentially, if you've ever been to a wedding, you often will see, either on the table or on a table by themselves, there's a bunch of place cards with people's names and the tables that they're sitting at and then you grab the thing and you take it to the table.
My PlaceCard.me, my app, is basically a way to make those yourself. You upload a spreadsheet of your guests lists and the tables and it just generates that for you as a downloadable PDF that you can cut up and fold yourself. I've got a bunch of different designs that you can choose from. I've done some work to add different layouts for all these different printable paper formats that that exists, but that's basically all it does.
You're basically making weddings cheaper and easier for people who are stressed out trying to plan stuff and figuring how to get these place cards.
What happened was, our wedding was the genesis of the idea. We found out three days before our wedding that we had to provide these things and we were like, "Oh, okay." You could download all these Word templates, but I was like, "I'm a coder, I refuse to sit here and type these names into these into all of these.
It should be automated.
It should be automated. It turns out there is this way that you can do it in Microsoft Word. It's called "Mail Merge" and if you know that that's the thing you need to do, then you can figure that out. Anyways, we ended up writing them by hand of all things, because we thought that would be a little classier.
I was like, "Surely, there must be a better way to do this." Then, when I started my sabbatical, I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to try my hand at, Indie Hacking or, I don't know if that's a verb.
Use it however you want to use it.
I was just throwing ideas at the wall. This was one of the ideas and did some research. There wasn't really anything that was that good and I was like, "Okay." I had this need, probably other people have this need, and that was basically it.
How did you actually get this in the hands of your first paying customers and how long did that process take? Because I know a lot of companies will take many months or even years to get to the point of, "I've got this brilliant idea to the point where someone has paid me my first dollar for this."
Going back to that maybe my expectations are too low thing. My goal for the sabbatical was to make literally $1 in six months, which again is a super risk averse goal, maybe. I would say it took about six months to make the first dollar and it only took like a week or two to actually build the site. I built the site.
Obviously, when you first put a site up on the internet, basically, it doesn't exist until Google decides it exists. I'm trying to figure out, "How do I SEO this thing? Where can I go find forums and link to this thing?" I was learning about these marketing things that you do and then trying them and feeling a little dirty about it because you go into the forum and you pretend to be adding value but then you're like, "Oh, I was just trying to sneak in a link to your thing."
I ran some AdWords stuff. I blogged about all this stuff. At the time, this was in the heyday of Medium before Medium went off the rails. I was blogging and then I was putting stuff on Medium and it was getting picked up by Hacker Noon and free Code Camp. I was cross-posting on Indie Hackers as well. And I was just blogging about the journey, what I was doing, and then all of that blogging, I would stick in a backlink to PlaceCard.me.
I'd be like "Print place cards and wedding place cards", and I would stick it in my blogs and eventually it started slowly climbing up the ranks of Google through that process. Then, eventually, three, four or five months after launch, it was somewhere on page one, bottom of page one, maybe page two or three, for a few obscure keywords and then just a slow trickle of money.
I think it made $1 and then the next week it made $1 again. I was selling templates for $1. Because I started at $10 and I was not making any sales, then I lowered it to $5. I lowered it to $5 and no sales. I was like, "Oh just lower it to $1. I need to make this dollar." Then it was $1 a week and then I was $2 a week and it was $3 a week.
Then, at some point, it reached the critical mass of being high enough on Google that it was actually getting reasonable traffic. Then, that was when it started to go up to what is still very modest, traffic and revenue numbers, but are much better than a dollar every six months.
A lot of people when they start something, expect the users and the traffic and the customers to just magically appear. When they realize that that's not the case, they spend – kind of like you did – months looking at different avenues, different channels to try to get customers in the door.
It's really easy to give up when it doesn't work after a few weeks of doing that. Why didn't you give up and move on to a different idea? Why did you stick it out for six months after your product was already built with nobody paying for it?
I think that was actually the most pivotal moment of the whole process for me was deciding to continue in that moment where I was like, "This just isn't working. This is a terrible idea. No one wants this. Just stop, go do something else." What I did is I sat down and I was like, "Okay, just rationally write down every possible reason why this couldn't be working.
I was like, "Okay, maybe like no one would ever pay for this. Maybe it's just a terrible idea that no one would ever pay for it." Then I would go on Etsy and these people were selling basically the exact same thing, but you couldn't do all this automatic placement of names and all this other stuff and they were selling it for $8 a template.
I was like, "Okay, people will pay for this." I basically went through all these reasons and eliminated the one by one and at the end of it I was like, "I know that this product is better for the thing it's trying to do than anything else on the internet."
I never thought I would say this sentence in my life, but I'm probably one of the top 100 most knowledgeable people about place cards in the world. I know that this thing is better than anything else that's out there. If that's true, it can't be the case that it's not going to make some money if people are also paying for this thing, which I also saw.
I was like, "Okay, it has to be traffic. It has to be traffic. I know that if I can just crack this traffic nut, then I'll get on a path to someone." At that point, honestly it helps to have very unambitious goals because I even remember thinking like, "Okay, if I could just get this thing to like $100 a month, that'll pay for my breakfasts.
I learned a lot. That's six months. I'll have this little bonus in my back pocket every month." I knew I could get it somewhere and I didn't know whether somewhere was $5 a month or $100 a month or $1,000. I still don't really know what the ceiling is. I was like, "Well, if that's true, then it's not time to quit."
I've been on other podcasts before, I was on the YC podcast. I think the title of the episode was, "Your Whole Goal is Not to Quit as a Founder" because the reason why most businesses fail is because the founders quit. They're not making money fast enough, et cetera, et cetera.
If you could figure out a way to structure your life, to spend less money or to grow your company faster and make it more fun to work on, then you're less likely to quit, which means you're more likely to stick around until you figure things out, which is exactly what happened to you because you kept your expectations low enough that it was never a complete failure.
It was never like, "Oh, this has taken six months, therefore I have to quit." Your goal is just to make a dollar. The fact that making a dollar is just so small and so doable, it's cool to see the fact that it helped you get to the point where you figure things out. It seems like you figured things out successfully a few times since then, because that was what, 2017 when you started? Or 2016?
March of 2017 was when I started.
That first year, how much money did you make?
In the last year, how much money did PlaceCard.me make?
In 2017, it was about $1,000. In 2018, it was about $10,000. Then in 2019, it was about $20,000.
It's doubled from its $10,000 revenue run rate in one year. How did you figure out how to make the revenue double? What goes into that?
It's interesting because I haven't worked on it that much this past year, and so, honestly, I think a decent amount of that is just organic growth. Because of that, because of it being the best thing out there, I think it naturally has this positive feedback loop where the more people discover it, the more they want to use it, the more they refer other people, the more they come back to it.
I think that's been a big part of it. I continued to do small things. I've played with pricing a lot. That's always been the biggest lever, raising prices and then making the free tier worse. I haven't eliminated the free tier, entirely. There's a free tier where, essentially, you can make blank place cards without a design that also have the PlaceCard.me branding on them.
Do people want that? Their wedding linked to your website?
Nobody wants that on their wedding, but the people who run the lunchroom at schools who are using it to make chocolate chip cookie labels or whatever, they don't care. They're never going to pay for anything and I'm happy to serve them. This year, I've been experimenting a bit with expansion revenue, so I started adding other offerings in a similar space.
I do table cards now, as well. That was the thing you put in the middle of the table to tell people what the table name is or the table number. I might go into seating. It's all very crazy wedding stuff that I never thought I would be into or focused on. I think the other aspects of the question is just that my attention and my energy has shifted into some other projects.
I'm probably not doing everything I could be to be growing it. That's something I often think about is like, "Well, shouldn't you just suck it up? Suck it up for a year, do some stuff that you don't think is that fun and see if you can double PlaceCard.me, because that's going to contribute way more to your bottom line then launching a fourth product that makes $50 a month." I think about that a lot. I don't know, I haven't decided to do that. I haven't decided to do it all that often.
What would that look like to do things that aren't that fun to you but that you're pretty sure would help you grow the revenue and grow it faster than any other option?
What would I do?
There's a few big ideas that I imagine would move the needle. I think one would be setting up some kind of affiliate referral program. I've learned all this stuff about the wedding industry by being in the space. One thing that I've learned is the entire wedding industry runs on affiliates.
There's all these wedding blogs and there's this whole community of wedding bloggers and they are referring people left and right, and they're all making money from affiliate revenue for getting a kickback whenever someone buys something that they follow a link. I think that would be a huge way to get more traffic, because so many people are just building their wedding based on something on Pinterest or a blog that they follow, or whatever else.
I do well on Google, but if you never even enter the search term into Google, then I'm still missing on that traffic. That's one. I think getting into the printing game would be another huge one, because I charge $5 for a digital template. I need to sell a lot of digital templates to make any money. If you're selling printed cards, people typically charge up to even a dollar per card sometimes.
I'm talking 200 person wedding, $200, I have no idea how much that actually costs. One of the downsides of being in South Africa is most of my audience, or the market for PlaceCard.me, is in the States or in Europe, so it's harder for me to figure out how to deliver a physical cut place card. I'm sure I could do it, but it doesn't sound that fun to contact a hundred vendors, negotiate these terms, figure out how that would work and what the revenue split would--
You would rather be coding.
Yes, but you're making me feel bad about it about.
Nevertheless, your revenue's growing and it doesn't sound like you've had to do a crazy amount of work to get it to grow and assuming nothing else changes, it'll probably continue doing that in the future.
I think one of the coolest things about the way that you've run your journey as an Indie Hackers is that you're keenly aware of how much time you are spending in all of these projects. It's not just a nebulous, "Oh, the revenue grew and I spent a decent amount of time on it." You know, down to the hour, how much time you spent working on Place Card Me in 2019, so what is that number?
I'd have to look, but I know that the number for the total is around 450 hours.
450 hours total working on Place Card Me?
That's crazy. That's basically 60 workdays, or something.
I know, it's like 12 work weeks.
That has resulted in you making $30,000 in a project that, basically, not only generates income, but increases the revenue it generates passively on the side for you while you work on more fun things that lets you code more.
This is kind of the Holy Grail, though. I talked to a lot of founders who want to be Indie Hackers, and the ideal thing is that you create passive income, where you don't have to continually put in more and more hours to build your business and grow the revenue.
It's really hard to do that because as your business grows, your ambition grows. You have this feature you want to put in and you have these customers you didn't have before. We want this request, you have more email, et cetera. You end up working even more as your company gets bigger sometimes, or just the same amount. How do you build a company that's actually passive and that grows in revenue?
I think it was done very deliberately almost from day one. It was a strategic decision and it eliminated huge swaths of potential products that I could take on. Pretty early on, when I was at Dimagi, as the CTO, the buck stopped with me when it came to a server's on fire.
I had so many late nights where I'd get an email and was like, "Something's not working" and I'd be out at a bar, or something. I'd have to go home. I was like, "I don't want to be in that position. I need to do something that is not ever going to be mission critical." I came up with all these criteria and one of them was it needs to not be mission critical.
The more passive, the better. It shouldn't be something that scales with people. I knew I wanted to stay very small, if not independent. I was like, "Okay, I can't do any services model. I can't do something that requires a big support team.
As silly and almost dumb as an idea of this Place Card thing is, it was chosen because it had a lot of positive attributes that I knew would allow me to test out or have the type of business that I knew I wanted to run. That's true with all the things that I've been working on so far.
It’s a super important idea in the starting companies. It's the idea of a validation checklist, when you have a checklist items or requirements that your business has to meet in order to be a successful business or a business that's actually enjoyable to run. It sounds like yours is so informed by, basically, your time as a CTO of this huge company.
It was just the list of don'ts, like "don't do this, don't have a huge support team, don't be mission critical" et cetera. Like you said, it was very deliberate and as a result, you have a business that can grow passively and you also have certain things that probably weren't on your validation checklist and as a result, maybe you don't like those.
You didn't have an item on your checklist that said, "Work on a business that I'm proud to tell my friends and family about." Now you're like, "Oh, I'm embarrassed to be running this Place Card business and I don't want to talk about it"
Work in an industry that you want to work in. The wedding industry is strange. Honestly, my customers are great. Almost 99% of the feedback I get, everybody's super positive, but it is a strange space and that was also not on the checklist.
I think having a really good checklist that's tailor-made to you, personally, is one of the best advantages that you can have as a founder. It's something that comes as a result of, basically, working in lots of projects and having lots of experience. Actually internalizing what you don't like.
My own validation checklist for things is, basically, a list of things that I hated from previous projects that I worked on. How did your list change as a result of working on PlaceCard.me for a few years? How have you applied that to the new projects that you started?
Certainly, the project you can tell your friends about is – I wish that was on the checklist because I also can't tell them about my newest project, really. Not because I'm ashamed of it, but just because it's really hard to explain to people what it is and especially people who aren't coders or in the startup ecosystem.
The industry is definitely one. I forget who said this, but I read somewhere that was advice that I wish I'd taken with PlaceCard.me, which is "Choose the customer that you want." I think a lot of developers would love to have developers as a target customer because you understand them. Developers have some downsides, but, by and large, you understand them.
They can overcome bad UX, usually. They're willing to tolerate bugs, they're very understanding about certain things. I think Ben Orenstein, the founder of Tuple, talks about this as well, how nice it is to build a product for developers, so I think that was one takeaway on PlaceCard.me. Stressed out people planning weddings, maybe not the best customers.
Thankfully, if you have a very simple product, then you don't bear the brunt of that too much. Choosing a customer base that you would want to work with is one. I'm interested in recurring revenue. I haven't cracked that nut, yet. I think that's another one where, like you said, Place Card Me will continue to grow passively. I don't believe that is true.
At least in part because I'm transparent with the numbers and everything else. People saying the same things you're saying, reasonably. "Well, this is a great business. No work, it's super easy to build."
"Let me compete with PlaceCard.me"?
Exactly. I have seen clones start popping up. I think you were talking to, who was the founder of 1 Second Everyday, about how clones aren't really going to threaten you because those people don't –.
Have the same passion and the same work.
Although, maybe in my case, I'm not sure I have that same passion with PlaceCard.me, either. Maybe the clones can come and usurp me.
It's another very common item to put on your validation checklist. Work on something that you're passionate about so you have that competitive advantage against other people and you're going to stick with it. You can't really be threatened by clones of people who don't care that much.
That's a good one.
That wasn't on your list for Place Card Me, so onto the next thing.
Anyways, so that's why I think recurring revenue is much more interesting to me. I know that's a common stair-step approach that people take to bootstrapping, is to get the one time sale thing out, get the e-commerce thing out, and then jump into the harder SaaS models, where it's a slower ramp, but it's much more predictable and much more long-term viable.
That's another thing I'm thinking about, just to protect myself from either clones or Google. I think 90-something-percent of my traffic comes from Google. If Google changes their algorithm in some way that penalizes me, my PlaceCard.me could evaporate overnight, almost.
Let's talk about this business that you said was almost too difficult to explain to anybody who's not a developer or a startup founder because you just so happened to be on a show that's listened to, primarily, by developers and start-up founders. Give it a shot. What is Pegasus and why did you decide to start this particular business?
It essentially sits on top of one of those on Django, specifically, and provides a lot of stuff out of the box, including basic user stuff. User account management, forgot password, all that type of stuff. Login with Google, some team-based stuff. If you have collaboration features and this multi-tenant, siloed areas, where you have different organizations working, then it provides some stuff out of the box for that. There's a UI template and basic Stripe integration and a few other things.
The ideal user is like a Django developer who wants to start a project or a company and they want to get further ahead than just starting with nothing but Django. They want to start a few months ahead in development.
Yes, maybe weeks. Exactly, and again it goes back to this one thing that I think about a lot: people say time is money, but time is actually the only really true currency of anything. If I'm going to sit here and do the same four things every time, I make a new project, then why wouldn't I want to automate that?
The theory is why wouldn't you want to pay for that? If you could save a week of development time, that's a good trade to make. If you want to use Django and you like the way that I've structured things and want these features, then the theory is that this is a great investment for someone to choose to use.
How's that panning out so far? Have people found it to be a good investment? Do you have anybody paying money for it yet?
Yes, I've got a few people. I charge $200 for it, right now. It's a one-time sale for a one year license, which I haven't even really figured out exactly what that means, but it at least means that you got a year of upgrades and once a year comes around, I'll figure out in more detail.
It's averaged about a sale a week, I would say. It's anywhere from the $500 to $1000 a month, right now. I'm excited about it because I think it's already valuable, but it's not nearly as valuable as it could be. It's something that I'm still excited to keep working on it and making it better. I think it has the potential to be really great, but honestly, it needs some love, first.
It took you six months to make your first dollar for PlaceCard.me. How long did it take to make your first dollar for Pegasus?
Almost since I launched PlaceCard.me, because I started working on Pegasus in that period where PlaceCard.me was not making any money. I was like, "Oh, this is not going to work. I should be hedging." Two and a half years ago was when I first broke ground on it.
I had been reading a lot of bootstraper porn, or whatever you want to call it. Since I was just getting started, info products was something I was like, "Okay, that's the thing that people use." Justin Jackson got his start with marketing for developers, or whatever. Nathan Barry had a bunch of eBooks before he started the ConvertKit and I was like, "Okay, I'll build an info product and I know a lot about Django".
I bought the domain “buildwithDjango” and I parked this landing page there. I was like, "What is this? This'll be cool." This info product idea was just spinning in the back of my head and I would work on it on downtime. Then eventually, I was like, "Oh no. I'm not going to try building it over."
I don't actually like writing technical content and I don't really like making screen casts and was like, "Okay, so how can I turn this into code?" That's when the idea for converting it into a SaaS template came. The SaaS template thing, it's not like a novel idea. These things exist in lots of other frameworks and other places and they're growing in the Indie Hacking community right now.
I couldn't find one for Python and Django, so I was like, "Oh, this is perfect. This is my framework. I know this really well and there's a gap here again." That was two and a half years ago. Then I launched Pegasus in, I think it was June of 2019, so about six months ago. Maybe a week before it was live, I made a pre-sale and then within a few days of launch, I had made a few sales because I had been building up an email list over time.
Pegasus had much, from launch to first customer, quicker traction than PlaceCard.me, which was fun, although it hasn't grown at all since. It's been very flat ever since launch, which I haven't been trying to market it, so that's why, I hope.
Where did these customers come from? Why was it so much easier for you to get customers paying for Pegasus than it was for Place Card Me?
That's a good question. After I built that domain and I parked it, when I thought I was going to build an info product, I was always trying to build artifacts on the internet that might be useful one day. I had this “buildwithDjango” site. I published a few blog posts, I was starting to collect email addresses, I had a small audience from the people who had been following my blog.
There was just this parked asset that was targeting the people who I wanted to target with Pegasus, that was collecting a handful of email addresses a month. When I launched it, I could hit up that list and, leading up to the launch and then the actual launch, announce that it was available and a few people were still interested.
That was another thing I did much better the second time around. When people would sign up, I would email them a set of questions, I'd ask if they'd be willing to jump on the phone. I think it was a lot more mature of a product development process, as well. I was actually talking to my customers before launching the thing, which –.
I think it was a better informed product that I expected to be more successful from day one.
It's not shocking that the project where you actually found yourself talking to customers was the one where you were selling to developers. People you like talking to you versus the one where you're selling to stressed out people who are planning weddings.
Yes, although, I did talk to several of my friends who were getting married.
One of the difficult things about selling to developers, even though they are a demographic that you might understand well, even though they are a demographic that has generally a lot more disposable income than average person, is that developers are kind of spoiled.
They all think they can build whatever app they're using and don't want to pay for it. Then we're so used to open source projects giving us so much stuff for free that we kind of sneer when someone wants to charge, in your case, $200 for a project that would even save us, maybe, dozens or hundreds of hours of time. How do you convince developers to actually pay for something?
I don't really try because a huge percentage of developers do think like that. Some of them don't. I'm not interested in trying to have an argument with a developer who thinks that they can build Twitter with Open Source Linux clients. I would rather spend my time making something great and having the people who want it, take it then trying to convince people who are going to sneer at it, to try and convince them to give me money, because I just don't think they're going to.
What does the marketing message say? If I were to go to Pegasus's website? What do you say to get people interested and explain to them what this arguably complex product even is and then who it's for?
I think the tagline is a “Django SaaS template for your next big idea” or something like that. That's probably part keyword optimization and part actually what it does. The basic message is start with a good foundation, because it's one part "this is done for you" and then it's one part "this is done for you by someone who, hopefully, knows what they're doing."
I don't claim to be this remarkable coder or anything like that, but I have been using Django for almost as long as it's existed--pre 1.0, which is seven, eight years ago, or something like that. Most of my customers are not the Django gurus who've built a hundred applicants. Those guys already have templates. They already have systems like paradigms that they like.
But if you're someone who's just getting started and you are interested in, like "how does someone with a bunch of experience do things?" I think those are the people I'm trying to speak to. I'm saying you get all this stuff and there's a hundred ways to do everything, but it's done in one way that someone thinks isn't terrible, who knows something.
It's pretty cool to see the specific niche you can target because, like you said, it's not just all Django developers. It's only kind-of novice or newer Django developers who also want to build an ambitious new product from scratch. It's like a bunch of different overlapping circles and you're right in the middle of all of them. But the internet is a big enough place where if those overlapping circles are each big enough, you can still have many thousands of customers and have to potentially sustain your entire lifestyle off just the revenue.
Absolutely, and I view it as in, with the Place Card thing too, you establish a foothold in the most tiny, specific niche that you possibly can. Then once you own that niche or once you're sure that your product is really good for that particular niche, then you can start expanding out.
To get those first users, the more you can niche, the better. Right? Then you're really speaking to them and they feel like, "Oh yeah, this is for me" and that's a huge advantage, I think, in any endeavor that you would do.
PlaceCard.me has done pretty well as a relatively passive endeavor. You don't spend that many hours on it in the present. What about Pegasus? Do you think it will succeed as well as a passive business? If so, what do you think will contribute to the fact that it is a passive income generator rather than something that takes a lot of sustained effort on your part to maintain and grow?
It's certainly designed that way. The first thing I'll say is like, Pegasus doesn't feel close to finished yet, so it's certainly not passive, yet. I think it's worth, what I believe, an obviously biased perspective, what it costs, but it could be way better. I know that, so my first goal is to just make it way better.
Could it ever get complete? Not in the sense that libraries are always upgrading and there's always bug fixes, there's always patches. The whole product is, again, designed like it's a code template. You get the code template, you're kind of done.
No one's going to call me in the middle of the night because the code template is down, it's a code template. Again, it was pretty deliberately chosen to be a future passive income machine that fits the same lifestyle goals that I have.
It's kind of like the same template for PlaceCard.me, where because you didn't do something that has recurring revenue, you're able to provide a one-shot piece of value to your customers and then they buy it, they download it, they print it, whatever, and then you're done with them.
You're not going to get a ton of customer support calls, you don't have to keep adding new features to make this particular user happy, but on the downside, you don't get the recurring revenue that makes it easy to grow and become a self-sufficient Indie Hacker. What do you think you're going to do in the future about that? You said you were exploring this idea with recurring revenue. Will that come in the form of a totally new product or are you going to add that onto Pegasus?
That's a good question. I don't even know if I should bring this up at this point. I actually have a third product that I built on a whim. I built it over the holidays in 2016, it was a toy project I want it in the world. In 2018, I decided to just add a paid tier to it, so this product makes almost nothing by my current standards, which is like a hundred dollars a month or something.
I'm first going to add it there because it's a nice testing ground. One of the reasons why Pegasus is such a great product for me is that I love building and launching these products and I can use them to inform how Pegasus should be built and what should be in it.
I can add subscriptions to this thing and I'll be like, "Okay, that's how subscriptions works. That's how recurring revenue works." Then now, Pegasus gets a recurring revenue module or it gets this subscription module however you want to describe it. That's where I'm going to start. Then beyond that, I have a big internal struggle right now over, "Okay, am I going to actually do the B2B subscription thing and sign myself up for a little bit more of an on-call?
I might have to have a support SLA and these other things or am I going to continue to try and find ways to continue to do this lifestyle project hack?" I haven't figured out the answer to that yet.
I'll let you know in a year.
You've been doing, from my perspective, great job, Cory. You've gotten a lot further than a lot of aspiring Indie Hackers have gotten so far in their journey and I think you're making it look kind of easy launching all these different projects and sticking with them and never really quitting, even when the going looks tough.
What for you have been the ups and downs of being an Indie Hacker and making the transition from working a full-time job to depending on your own projects to bring in some of your income?
Like you said, I guess I haven't taken enough risks and it has felt relatively easy because I had the freelancing income and the part-time job and these other things. Certainly, with the Indie Hacking stuff, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. I'll go three weeks without making a sale with Pegasus and I'll just get like really down in the dumps and I'm like, "Oh, this product is stupid. I hate it." Then I'll make a sale and I'll be like, "Oh, this is amazing."
My identity is tied up in it much more in a way that I think only founders really get their identities mixed up with the companies that they have, I think. That's a big one and it's both a positive and a negative. I think I've been very fortunate in a number of ways. One of the ways that I suspect will end at some point is this whole passive up and to the right behavior that I've been seeing with Place Cards and with all of my projects, really.
I have to believe that, at some point, something's going to happen and I'm going to go through this crisis and that's going to be really bad or I'm going to be like, "Oh, I thought this was so easy, and turns out that, no, it's only easy until you start to make enough money that someone actually cares enough to usurp you.” Maybe I cross that threshold and then everything plummets. I am nervous about the fact that things have been a little almost too smooth, so far.
Every founder I talk to has this fear at the back of their mind that everything's going to come crashing down and there's some future point where it's going to stop working. It's pretty normal to have a job where someone's giving you a paycheck and you're like, "Whoa, there's this magical fountain of money that pays me every two weeks."
But when you're the one creating that revenue stream and you see every aspect of it, you're just like, "When is it going to stop?" Right? "When are people going to stop paying me?" Luckily, for most people, that fear never gets realized and it's something that you eventually just grew out of. It's funny to see that you're still in the midst of wondering if that's going to be the case.
Yes, definitely. That's reassuring to hear.
It goes away.
It helps getting bought.
What's your advice for somebody who's listening to this and they're maybe working a full-time job and considering quitting or moving to part-time so they can become an Indie Hacker and maybe advice for someone who just got started and is trying to figure out all of this on their own?
We've been talking about it the whole time, but I think my advice is it's actually much easier than you, I think. Again, maybe I'm just a product of luck or something, but for me it feels like success is inevitable if you keep trying and you give yourself the time. I think for a lot of people, the problem is they have day jobs.
They maybe don't have savings that they can lean on, or in my case I had a partner that I could lean on. If you can give yourself the time, you are very self-aware about what success looks like and how you're marching on the path to it.
I've tried to monetize three products. One of them is so crazy stupid and still somehow it makes a bit of money and the fact that it's true, it just makes me think that all you need to do is just try and not give up. It's like you were saying. My advice is the same as your advice, basically. I probably stole it from you.
Well, thanks so much for coming on the show and telling us about your journey, Cory. Can you tell us where we can go to find your products and find the space on the internet where you write about the things that you're doing transparently?
Yes, @CZue on Twitter, C-Z-U-E, not like the animals, and CoryZue.com is where I do my writing. I do this monthly, very public retrospective process where I like looking at my time and my revenue and everything else. I'm very transparent about all that stuff that's going on. And if you need place cards, PlaceCard.me. If you need a Django SaaS template, SaaSPegasus.com.
Thanks so much, Cory.
Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode, I would love it if you reached out to Cory and let him know. He is @CZue on Twitter. That's C-Z-U-E. Also, if you're interested in hearing what I thought about this episode, you should subscribe to the Indie Hackers podcast newsletter. You can find that on the website at IndieHackers.com/podcast or just go to IndieHackers.com and click "Podcast" at the top. Thanks so much for listening and as always, I will see you next time.
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