Jen Yip (@lunchbag) is the founder of Lunch Money, a budgeting app that's going head-to-head with big names like Mint and YNAB. The catch? She's a solo founder, doing 100% of the work on her own. In this episode, Jen and I cover the wide breadth of experiences and skills she's gained in order to make this possible, her strategies for working hard enough to catch up with competitors but soft enough to avoid burning herself out, and why she's doing this all as a digital "snowmad" who works overseas during the winter.
What’s up everyone? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com, and you are listening to the Indie Hackers podcast. On this show, I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick? And the goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own profitable internet businesses. Today I am talking to Jen Yip. Jen, welcome to the show.
Hi. It’s great to be here.
It’s great to have you. You are the founder of Lunch Money, which your website describes as a delightfully simple budgeting app and that’s at lunchmoney.app. Tell us about Lunch Money. Who is it for and why do they use it?
Lunch Money is a personal finance and budgeting type app, so we’re definitely in the same bucket as Mint or YNAB. I would say that our advantage is that we were built on a modern tech stack for the modern-day spender. Both Mint and YNAB were almost over a decade old, so definitely a little bit dated.
Originally, I built Lunch Money for myself. The main feature that I found most budgeting apps were lacking was multi-currency support and because I travel abroad a lot and I live abroad, a lot of these countries I live in are cash-based societies. So I like to track all my spending and it got messy in the Excel spreadsheet that I was maintaining.
Eventually I thought there must be a better way to track your multi-currency spending and there are other people like me, digital nomads, people that solo travel or just travel long term. So that was my original motivation. As it turns out, digital nomads are not a significant cohort of my user base at all, which is pretty funny.
Really. So you guessed wrong, but it still seems to be working out. You just started working on this app last year. You’re already up to around $800.00 a month in monthly recurring revenue.
What’s cool is that you’re a one-person company. You have no coworkers. You don’t have a cofounder. You don’t have any employees. You’re doing all of the design, and it looks great, by the way. You're doing all the front end and the back end coding, the writing and the customer support and the marketing. A hundred percent of it, you’re doing it all by yourself.
I think that I never really planned to be a solo founder. It just happened. So starting off it was just the design work of it, coming up with the first initial sketches of how it looked. I’ve always been interested in design and starting using Sketch.
I used that to kick off the design, and then obviously the engineering work. That is what I got my degree in so it was easy to do that.
Then everything else came as needed. For example the marketing part, where we are now, we have to think about how to acquire new users, so that’s something new. With every new job that I need to do, it starts with me figuring out what that entails because if I’m going to hire someone to do it, then I need to understand it myself.
Then once I understand a little bit then I’m like, “Oh, OK. Well I can hit these low-hanging fruits for marketing quickly and get the ball rolling on that.” Then it just spiraled and now I’m a solo founder, I guess.
I want to dive into this, because a lot of Indie Hackers are solo founders. On one hand it seems like this romantic dream of doing everything by yourself, not having to answer to anybody, not having to communicate.
But on the other, there are some serious challenges to being a solo founder. First of all, there’s all the different skills you need to have. I want to talk about how acquired those skills over the course of your career. There’s motivation.
Generally, if you have a cofounder that’s another person who’s pushing you to make sure that you keep going even when you don’t want to keep going necessarily on your own, who gets you excited to work on things when you’re not in the highest of moods.
But as a solo founder, that has to all come intrinsically. But then there’s your productivity. As one person working on something, how do you prioritize what to do? How do you make sure you can do all the jobs and wear all the hats that you need to?
There’s your sanity. How do you make sure that you’re not going crazy, that you don’t burn out, that you can take days off and be a sane human being? There are a million other challenges, so I want to get into this. Maybe the best place to start is at the beginning of your career. I think you got a job at Twitter out of college.
Yes, I did. I started my first full-time job as a software engineer at Twitter. During my time there, I was there for three and a half years, I worked on three different teams. They were all up and down the stack which I think provided me with a good foundation.
So I started on an internal tools team, where I was mainly working on the front end part of the internal data visualization monitoring tool. From there I learned a lot of front end skills and also learned how to build customer empathy, because I was talking to other engineers as I was working on Twitter.
It was weird because I wasn’t a user of the product so I had to rely on what they were telling me was useful to them and what’s not useful to them. Then I moved on to growth teams. I was working on new user experience.
I got to work with product managers for the first time and see how they’re thinking about how a Twitter user might go through a user flow and what they’re trying to steer them to do. That was helpful to see how that part of it works.
Then my last team at Twitter was at the infrastructure level. I was writing code in Scala. I was rewriting the infrastructure that would process text messages that would be sent between Twitter and users all over the world. That was a huge refactoring work.
But that was good because I was working with probably some of the smartest engineers I’d ever worked with. They were very diligent about making sure I was writing tests, I was writing robust code. So looking back on my experience on Twitter, it was great that I was able to move to so many different teams and gain all these different skills.
It’s interesting that you had such a diverse set of experiences. I think a lot of people when they go work at a bigger company like that, they stick to one team. They become essentially a small cog in a massive machine.
They go super deep on that one thing that they’re doing but they don’t get the broad overview that you got, of getting to see what it’s like to talk to customers and think about growth and deliver products to people who aren’t you, who you don’t know how they’re going to use it and you have to rely on their feedback, and to see the hardcore engineering stuff, too.
What did you learn there that you think stuck with you the most in terms of you becoming a founder and having to build your own company from scratch?
Probably the thing that was the most useful from working at Twitter was the breadth of experience versus the depth, I would say. It was cool to work at Twitter when it was pre-IPO up until post-IPO. It was like going to camp every day.
They would have hack week and they would have all these separate clubs. They would have all these extracurriculars that you could get into. I feel like that helped round me out not just as an engineer but also as a person.
Working with all these different people, meeting different people at such a high rate compared to when I had just come out of college, where everyone is just like me, getting their engineering degree. I think that was a cool experience to have had at a big company like Twitter.
The other thing I think is typically, especially under engineers who work at a big company like Twitter, is that when your time there is over, when you start getting bored, typically what people do is hop to another big company.
They’re like, “Okay. I’ve worked at Twitter. That’s on my resume. Check. Let me go work at Facebook or Google or Apple or something like that.” You took a different path. Tell me about starting your first startup.
While I was working at Twitter, I moved in with a really good friend of mine and at that point she was starting to work on her own startup. Every morning I would wake up, get ready to go to work, and she would already be up working away. That vision always stuck with me.
As I was trying to get tired of Twitter I started thinking of other opportunities. My roommate knew that before I knew that, so I think she started planting the seed very early on of getting me to join as the technical cofounder. Eventually, it worked.
I joined on her startup as a technical cofounder. So we lived together and we worked together. I always say that there should have been a real-world reality show based on our house, because essentially it was three couples living in a house with three dogs, and there was one startup going on.
What was the startup? How was she working on it by herself without a technical cofounder?
The startup is in the pet health space. The original idea was to digitize pet health medical records. When we first met, we clicked. She’s more business-minded and I’m more technical.
So we started meeting up every week, once or twice a week to brainstorm idea of things that we could work on. At the time she had two dogs and she was interested in this space already. I don’t have pets. I didn’t grow up with pets. I don’t really -.
Yes. So I just joined along for the ride to help her out. Then eventually work got really busy for me and she started a dev bootcamp. She taught herself to code and that’s how she made her first iteration of MVP. I’m sure you can see she’s a really smart person. She’s very motivated, so it wasn’t a hard decision to decide to join her startup.
My degree was in computer engineering, not as much coding as I would have liked compared to a degree like computer science. But I would say that I learned how to make websites at a very early age. Around 7th or 8th grade a found my niche on the internet.
At the time it was a group of other teenagers. We all liked to make websites and share each other’s websites and talk about other people’s websites and our websites. It was a fun time.
Then I stopped when I entered the university. I originally was trying to get a chemical engineering degree. I went to the University of Waterloo. You have six internships as part of your degree. My first internship was at a toilet paper factory, which was cool but not super interesting.
One of my major tasks was to do some spreadsheet thing. I ended up automating it. Something clicked in me and I was like, “Oh, man. I need to switch out of chemical engineering cause I can’t do this anymore.” I got into computer engineering.
I think those are two of the best ways to learn how to code, number one, when you’re just playing around because you’re genuinely curious and there’s no real pressure.
But number two, and I think this is more common, when you have a specific project or a problem that you’re facing and you need to get this thing done. You need up looking things up online or taking classes or whatever it is that you need to do to figure out that specific thing.
Yes. Exactly. That’s how I feel about everything I’m doing with Lunch Money.
So tell me what ended up happening with your digitized pet health record startup.
When I joined, it was great. It was so fun. One of the main reasons why I left Twitter was because it was getting very bureaucratic. There was a lot of extra process. Things were getting bogged down and I was just craving having autonomy again in what I was working on.
What was appealing to me with joining a startup was that I would be one of two cofounders. My voice will be heard for sure and I’ll have a lot of control and freedom. That was great at first, and then it quickly turned into too much control and too much freedom I think. We made basically every mistake in the book.
I built probably two or three major features or products that we didn’t even have customers for yet. We took every meeting from every investor, every VC. I was burning myself out because I was working from home. So I took my computer desk out of my room into the living room next to hers, and we would just work all day and all night.
At that time I was in a long-distance relationship with my boyfriend, so I didn’t have any plans. I could work from morning to night until I passed out. It wasn’t very sustainable. There were a lot of highlights, for sure. When we started off we got into the YC Fellowship that was a spinoff they were trying to do off the main batches.
The Fellowship was a program for earlier startups that were not quite ready yet to be in the main batch. The idea was that they would prep you and then you would get an instant interview to get into the main batches. So we did the YC Fellowship. It was cool. It was fun. Then we did the YC interview and we got rejected.
I think that was the first time that I felt that failure, that rejection, and it really hit me hard. But we got back up and we kept working. Before we knew it, it was time for another batch of YC interviews, so we applied again. We got an interview. We got called back for a second interview, which means you’re on the fence. Then we got rejected again.
I remember feeling so devastated. I think at that time when you’re starting your own company and you have your foot in the door with YC, and everyone knows the name of YC so if you get in you have the support that would be helpful for your startup to grow and set up. It sucked to miss that opportunity.
I think I felt at that point that maybe without that opportunity, we wouldn’t be able to make it or at least not at that time. We weren’t good enough. It really hit me hard. So after that there was this very obvious change in demeanor for me. I wanted to work alone most days. I was still into the product. I was still into the company. I just felt myself change a little bit.
My boyfriend at the time, now husband, he was telling me things are changing. I was being a little more frustrated. When he would come home from work I would unleash all these negative feelings to him. I was slowly realizing that it wasn’t good for my mental health overall.
It took a day of reflection to just be like, “Alright. I’m 26. I’m not married. I have no kids. My parents are healthy and I have savings.” They say the average age of a startup is seven years before you get acquired or you die.
And I was like, “Okay. Well by that time I’ll be thirty-something and I don’t want to spend the rest of my 20’s trying to play out the Silicon Valley dream.”
So I reacted in the strongest way possible and I decided to leave San Francisco. I went through the motions of selling everything. I got into minimalism so I went from having the burden and the responsibility of having a company to wanting to have nothing at all or as close to nothing at all as possible.
Where’d you go after you decided to leave San Francisco and quit the startup life?
I went home for two to three months. Home is Toronto, where my parents are. That was the longest time I had spent at home since staring university. That was cool because I realized that when I only go home for a week at a time, the conversations you have with your parents are very much at a high level. You catch up on the basic things.
Then before you have the opportunity to dive deeper into anything, you have to leave again and then it starts back up. But then when you’re home for two months, you get all that out of the way the first week and then you can start having deeper conversations.
It was a nice way to start my sabbatical or whatever you call it, having more profound conversations with my parents as an adult.
Yes. I just got back from visiting my mom in Atlanta and I’m sure she would have loved it if I had just stayed there and didn’t leave. I think this phenomenon, talking about you getting rejected from YC and then going back again and getting rejected again, it’s so interesting how much as an entrepreneur you want that external validation.
It’s just you and potentially your cofounder sitting alone in your room working in this thing, you don’t have a huge team like you did at Twitter. You don’t have a boss assigning you work. No one recognizes all the effort and the work that you’re putting in.
It’s so easy, when you have an investor who can tell you that you made it, validate your existence, and validate that you were good enough to make it over some bar. It’s so tempting to let that affect your mood and let that affect whether or not you see yourself as a success or a failure.
I think one of the tough things about being a bootstrapper, which you are now with Lunch Money, is that you don’t even have that. There’s no one to tell you, “Hey, Jen, you’re doing a good job. Hey, keep going. Hey, I validate that your thing is working.”
You have to get all that from yourself or from your customers. How do you maintain motivation working on Lunch Money without having any authority figure to tell you that you’re doing a good job?
Great question. I would say that right now, since I have a lot of users and they are very enthusiastic, they are my external validators. I do get regular emails and messages from people telling me that I’m doing a great job. I love getting those emails and those messages. It’s very, very motivating.
But before I got that first wave of users, it was very difficult. Until you get that first wave of users, you’ve pretty much just built the product for yourself. So it was definitely very difficult. Also, my first few users were my friends and my family, so it’s hard to know if what they’re saying about my project is genuine.
I’m sure they genuinely want me to do well and they have an opinion about the product, but you’re not sure if like, “Hey, are you trying to spare my feelings? You should just tell me what you really think.”
I think in the beginning, before I had any users, I was very motivated to at least get the MVP out so that my husband and I could use it. For me, that would have been enough. I think as I started to get more users, I started to expand on that, like, “Okay, cool. If I could get 10 users, that would be really cool. Oh, cool. I have 10 users now. It would be really cool if I 60,” and have your motivator advance a reasonable granularity.
On the subject of talking to your friends and family and trying to get accurate feedback instead of having them telling you what you want to hear so you feel better, there’s a whole book called The Mom Test that I highly recommend.
It’s surprisingly difficult to ask customers questions that are non-biased. But that book does a good job of teaching you how to do just that. How long did it take you to go from having the idea for your app, Lunch Money, to getting it to the point where it wasn’t just something for your friends and family to use, but that random strangers on the internet could start beta testing?
The timeline is, it took about a year and a half to quote/unquote “perfect” my spreadsheet, which is what Lunch Money is based on. From there it took about two months to be the very, very basic MVP for my husband and I to use.
From there, it took about four and a half months before I opened it up to a private beta. I think about a month after that I opened it up to a public beta. So all in all, it was about eight months of coding before my actual public launch.
Let’s talk about this spreadsheet that you had, where you were traveling around, being a digital nomad and trying to reconcile the fact that you were spending all this money in different currencies and it was hard to budget. When you were working on the spreadsheet, did you have any idea that it was something that you would turn into an app or a company some day?
The spreadsheet didn’t start until after I finished my travels. I think it started because I was like, “Oh, I haven’t been tracking any of my spending during my travels.” But having moved back, I moved back to Toronto permanently after my travels, and I think having that permanence of being in a place, I was finally like, “Okay. I can start a spreadsheet and it won’t change so much every month because I’m in a different place and my circumstances changed a lot.”
Also, my boyfriend at the time also moved to Toronto and we moved in together. I was like, “Oh, we should do the spreadsheet that couples do and see how much we’re spending.” That spreadsheet started and it grew and grew and grew to the point where every time I opened it, it would slow down because there were so many sheets we were trying to track. On top of that, we had multi-currency to deal with. The whole time it was a fixed currency exchange rate, which is not right.
A lot of people when they’re trying to come up with an idea for a business, follow this advice of looking to solve problems in their own lives. Here you had a spreadsheet that was getting bogged down because it couldn’t keep up with all the information you were putting into it. Did you have an aha moment where you realized you could solve your problem by building an app?
I didn’t open a spreadsheet and go like, “This is going to be an app one day.” It was a very slow process. I was proud of my budgeting spreadsheet to be honest, but it’s not something that you can share with the world. I guess people on reddit do that.
It was something that was really personal. The only people that I ended up showing it to were my sisters-in-laws when they visited. They were fresh out of college and I was trying to talk to them about budgeting. I showed them the way that we do it and I set them up with a template, not really thinking.
I would explain the way I do things like taking out your recurring expenses into a separate sheet and categorizing. I didn’t think that any of it would stick until I saw one of them three months later and she was like, “Oh, I’m still using your budgeting spreadsheet and I’m going to get my boyfriend on it.”
And I was like, “Wow, that’s really cool. I have one person that’s using my budgeting spreadsheet,” and to me that was validation enough to pursue turning it into an app. The timing was good, because at that point my husband and I were getting ready to move abroad in Japan for the winter.
At that point I was freelancing. I didn’t have a steady job. I knew that I would have extra time to work on a new side project. I just didn’t know what. So it fit perfectly into that void of what to do.
So when you’re starting a brand new project, you’re someone who’s already done this before. You’ve already started a company, it didn’t go so well, and you quit because of it. What’s going through your mind this time around? Are you thinking of any mistakes that you made last time that you want to avoid?
For sure. The main thing was that I knew it wouldn’t be a free product. My other startup we had, it was freemium. We had a basic offering, and then you could upgrade for $5.00 or $10.00, and the majority of our users were using the free product.
I would do customer support. I would spend so much time on users that will probably not convert cause they’re happy with the basic product. So I knew definitely that if I were to work on something that I would charge right off the bat.
One of the things you mention being frustrated with your first startup is that it was just so much work. You had a cofounder then so it wasn’t just you by yourself. You had somebody else to take a load off your shoulders and do half the work.
Now here you are with Lunch Money as a solo founder doing all of it. How do you go into a company and make that decision to do everything by yourself, knowing how much work it could be?
I don’t think that the two are similar at all when I think about it. I think the main difference is that when I was working on a startup with my friend, it was mainly her idea and her passion. She had the two dogs. I just lived with them. I was there as the founding engineer. I was making the vision come alive in code.
In some ways it wasn’t so different from working in a big company where you’re working on someone else’s vision. Of course it was fun to be able to talk through the product and talk to customers, but at the end of the day it wasn’t something that I was using every day, that I found value in. Sometimes I still don’t understand the whole landscape of what the laws are around pet medical records and stuff like that.
So this being a hundred percent makes a huge difference. Also when I was working the startup, I was mainly doing product and engineering. There are a lot of things I’m interested in that I didn’t have an opportunity to work on because you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, mainly design and marketing.
I’ve always been interested in design but it was never something that I could pursue. Being an engineer in Silicon Valley, you’re either an engineer or you’re a designer. The two don’t really mix. So now, with Lunch Money, I get to wear all the hats that I’ve always wanted to wear and that, to me, keeps things fun.
Let’s talk about the hats that you have to wear as a founder. None of these hats is trivial. Learning how to do marketing, learning how to be a designer, that could take years by itself, even as a full-time job.
You could spend eight hours a day learning to be a designer and still spend a year before you get to a point where you’re decent. How did you pick up these skills that you wanted to learn while also building and getting this fully-featured product out the door in eight months?
With design, it’s funny. There’s this running joke between my husband and me, where I’m like, “Oh, am I a designer yet? This person, Tribble (ph) accepted my design. Am I designer yet?” It’s maybe a little bit of imposter syndrome, or there’s a little bit of a protective nature around calling yourself a designer.
I just like to fire up Sketch and make designs and I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a designer until I worked as a startup and we hired a designer, and she sent over mockups. I was like, “Oh, cool. That’s how they do it.”
They send in a nice pdf with a cover page. It’s funny cause with one of my freelancing jobs, their designer was late with designs and I was like, “I can design as well. Would you like me to send you some mockups?” and then I did the same thing. I put together a pdf and stuff and it looked pretty legit.
Also, at Twitter, I was getting mockups from designers and seeing, “Oh, I see. You write the margins on there and you put the padding, and that’s how you do it.” So I was picking up real world ways of doing things mixed with my own dabbling with programs. I think that was an interesting combination that got me to designing everything for Lunch Money today.
What about growth in marketing stuff? It’s not easy to get people to come to your app once you’ve built it. How did you get your first users in the door? How did you learn how to do marketing for Lunch Money?
Marketing is hard, especially for an engineer’s brain to comprehend, because results don’t happen automatically. You do something and then you wait three months to see if maybe it moved the needle.
Yes, it’s tough to learn from those really slow feedback loops.
Yes, and right now I am learning that. The needle moved, but it’s not going to stay there. It might move back. Just like, “No, why?” So marketing is hard. But Indie Hackers has helped me with that a lot.
I went to the Indie Hackers Toronto meetup and I met someone who’s well-versed in SEO and he demystified it for me and allowed me to see SEO in a different light. That night I went home and I read all these blog posts about different methods of SEO, all about backlinks and keyword research.
So it was really helpful. Even throughout the online community people have reached out with marketing tips and resources. It’s awesome that even though I have no experience in marketing at all, there’s this awesome community full of people that know that, and they’re willing to help.
Cool. The Toronto meetup is one of my favorites. Is Henry still running it? Do you remember?
Yes, he is.
I was in Toronto a little over a year ago. I think it was November. I remember it being so bitter cold. It snowed and I was not happy. The highlight of the trip was the Indie Hackers group there. You Canadians are super nice.
Yes, for sure.
While we’re on the subject of marketing, one of the things that stands out to me about Lunch Money is that it’s a budgeting app and there exist other budgeting apps. You were not the first person to build a budgeting app.
You mention YNAB, which is huge. You mentioned Mint, which is also extremely popular. I think a lot of Indie Hackers when they’re considering an idea and they’re brainstorming, if they come up with an idea that’s already been done before, they rule it out.
They figure, “Doesn’t a business idea have to be super unique? Won’t all the distribution channels be saturated? Isn’t everybody already using the existing apps? Don’t they have a ton of features?” Why didn’t any of this stuff discourage you when you were deciding to work to work on Lunch Money?
That’s a great point. The main reason I felt that way is because of multicurrency. The two big players, Mint and YNAB, neither of them supports multicurrency natively. That was the thing that I baked in from the very beginning.
But I think you also bring up a good point that a lot of people feel that the personal finance and budgeting app space is oversaturated. I don’t think that at all, because I feel that personal finance is a very personal thing. Everyone has their own way that they like to do things.
I don't think that this is something where you’re going to find over 50% of people share the same budgeting philosophy. So I feel that if you have a preferred way of doing something, you could probably find a cohort out there that feels the same way.
That makes perfect sense. It’s almost like teaching, where so many people can enter the space and teach others to do something like learn how to code, and yet the space never gets saturated because everybody has their own different learning style that they prefer.
Yes. Also there was a Fast Company article that came out maybe two weeks about the downfall of Mint. Mint has 13 million customers, and they’re all frustrated with the product. If you could capture .05% of that, I did the math last night. It would be enough.
I think someone on the Indie Hackers forum a few days ago was like, “Oh, should I build yet another budgeting app?” and I was like, “Yes, you should do it.” If you can find a use case for it, I don't think it should be discouraging that there are so many out there already.
Yes, I’m one of those frustrated Mint users or ex-Mint users, because I used to use it years ago. I would go in and categorize all my credit card transaction, put things into categories and do budgeting. And then I just stopped because it was frustrating to use, to be honest.
But I do remember being inspired by the story of Mint’s creation. The founder is this guy named Aaron Patzer. I think it was the mid-2000s from what I remember. He just locked himself in his apartment and coded this budgeting app for six months, and it eventually grew to be this $200 million company. How familiar were you with Mint’s story and their feature set, and also YNAB’s features before you started coding Lunch Money?
I wasn’t familiar with Mint’s story at all when I started. I was pretty familiar with YNAB’s story. Fun fact, I applied to be an engineer there and I got rejected, which was probably a good thing. There would probably have been a non-compete clause or something. But with YNAB, I was familiar with their remote culture which I thought was cool. That was the first company that I’ve ever come across that had this.
What about the features behind both apps? Because if you’re going to build something in a space where there’s these two huge competitors, I imagine you’re going to be inspired a little bit by what they’ve done. You might feel obligated to catch up to them on features. How are you assessing the two competitors on that note?
Mint and YNAB are good case studies. I think that they’re very, very different. Mint tries to do everything. They try to present all the information, then they try to add a bunch of magic to it, and also there’s a lot of ads everywhere, whereas YNAB is a very fleshed out product but only for a very specific budgeting method. One of them is very, very rigid, and the other one tries to do way too much.
So I tried to find the happy medium of being more pragmatic, like “Hey, here’s the information you need. You don’t need to follow any one budgeting method, but we’re going to present the information to you in a way that you can analyze it, and we’ll give the tools to organize your transactions in a way that makes sense to you. We don’t want there to be a steep learning curve to that, either.”
So I find a lot of users resonate with that. They really enjoy that sweet spot in between those two major budgeting methods right now.
I’ve seen you say online that your ideal user is somebody who doesn’t use Mint or doesn’t use YNAB, who isn’t already sucked into a particular budgeting method but who wants to get started budgeting.
That’s a good example of me thinking that I knew who my target audience was and being totally off. I sent out a survey recently and 40% of my users came from Mint. That was really surprising to me.
Yes, it’s quite a lot.
Yes. I think Mint users are ready for a change, so in a way I feel that this a good time to come out with a budgeting app. I’m asking for competitors to come out.
Yes. Be careful what you wish for. Let’s talk about your productivity as a solo founder, because all of these budgeting apps have been around, as you said, for 10 years. They all have dozens and dozens of advanced features that have been coded by giant teams of engineers. And yet here you are building your own budgeting app.
I imagine you had to achieve some degree of feature parity or probably build a lot of features to get your initial beta testers to find any utility in your app. At the same time you were doing that you had to do all the marketing and the design work and the customer support and also try to live a normal life as a normal human being. How did you budget your time and get all that done?
Great question. I wonder that often myself, even after having lived through it. Doing the whole digital nomad thing in one set place for a long time, we were in Fukuoka, Japan for four months and having a routine, I think that was helpful for the first few months of development where I just had to be hands on every day working to get those core features out.
That was fun and it was very interesting to do in Fukuoka because it was winter then so we wanted to hole ourselves up in a coffee shop all day and work. It worked out well because at the time my husband was also had a lot that he wanted to do on the computer so we both made it normal to be on our laptops all day.
I would work on Lunch Money I had certain core features I wanted to get through, and I got through them. The way that I worked is I’d pick a feature, so say the budgeting feature. I’ll start with the design and then I’ll do the coding and then I’ll do the testing and then I’ll launch it.
So everything is siloed. So I did that for four months and by the end of it I had not a full-feature product but MVP-worthy of a product. And from there once I started having people use it, the feature requests would come in and I would be able to see, all right, this is the thing that I need to work on next. It turned into this feedback loop that would dictate what I worked on next.
By then I had a method to every new feature, so it was like clockwork at that time for me.
So on one hand it’s impressive to hear, but on the other it should serve as a warning to people who are listening in as to why simply building lots of features isn’t a good competitive advantage.
You could be Mint or you could be YNAB and you could have tons of developers working on an app for years, and yet a single solo developer could sit down in Fukuoka for four months and build a competitor.
Looking back on the time you spent, do you think you worked more back then than you’re working now? Do you think the rate at which you were working was sustainable over the long term?
I was definitely working a lot in Fukuoka. That was our first what I called a digital snomad journey. We picked Fukuoka because it was a new city to us and we wanted to live in Japan because the food there is awesome. We didn’t have any friends there.
We didn’t have any obligations, social obligations. We weren’t active in the community or anything. So we were able to work eight-plus hours every day, even on the weekends, and that was fun to us. We enjoyed it and we have no regrets from doing that.
How does that compare to your work schedule today?
It’s interesting. In the beginning it was probably around eight-plus hours a day, and then right after I launched, for those first two to three months, it was insanity. I was probably working more than I was in Fukuoka.
But then now, for the last two months, I feel like I’ve caught up and the product is at a state where most people are satisfied with it. I finally feel like I can take a day off and it’s not like I’m disappointing users cause this core feature that is so important is not out yet.
We were talking earlier, and you mentioned that you wanted to stay a solo founder forever. I think a lot of people like that idea, and I once did too. But then I think about how much help I get from my brother working with me on Indie Hackers and Rosie helping to manage the Indie Hackers community.
Now I can step away for a few days or weeks and things just go on. Why do you want to stay a solo founder forever? What’s your plan to make that work?
Well the dream is definitely to stay a forever one-woman show. But that’s not to say that it’s 100% me. I like to chat with other founders and other Indie Hackers and see what we’re able to teach each other and help each other out with in our respective journeys. That’s been beneficial for Lunch Money.
For example, whenever I meet someone who’s strong in digital marketing, I love to talk to them and pick at their brains a little bit. More often than not, they end up helping me uncover blind spots in Lunch Money. So having a good support network and a diverse support network is a big part of the long term journey.
But aside from that, on the engineering point of view, which is arguably the more laborious side of things, I feel like right now I’m on top of most of the moving part and more importantly my users seem satisfied with my current pace of development. So it feels sustainable now. I’m definitely cautiously optimistic.
I’m curious/excited to see how things change as my user base goes and how I personally grow and scale as a solo founder and a one-person engineering team. But I hope to stay a solo founder though.
But yes, it was just a matter of, I think I can do this on my own sustainably. I don’t have huge ambitions for this. I left that all in Silicon Valley. I’m not trying to get a million users. I think having a million users would be a little bit of a headache. But I want to make a cool product that a couple thousand people like and use, and I can make them happy, and that would make me really happy.
I’ve always said that my dream is to be a work-from-home mom or a stay-at-home mom but not because I married rich or whatever but because I built something myself that can work for me on the side. Then I can spend more time with my family, my parents, my husband, things like that.
You have the unbridled optimism of a solo Indie Hacker founder.
Now you’re talking about motivation and what keeps you going, and you have this strong vision of a lifestyle for yourself that, quite frankly, I think a lot of Indie Hackers have. I think what gets a lot of us out of bed in the morning is this vision of this lifestyle that we want to lead.
I think that can drive us to do some difficult things that ordinarily we wouldn’t do. The question sometimes is how much is too much? How driven should you be? How hard should you work? And how do you in particular, Jen, deal with burnout when you’ve worked too hard? I know that’s something you’ve dealt with in the past.
Burnout is very, very real. If you were to ask my husband, I think he would say that I burn out more than I would like to admit. For some reason he can just look at me and be like, “I think you’re burning out” and I’ll be wired on caffeine, like, “I don’t think I am. I think everything is fine.”
My body doesn’t respond to stress very well. I’ve had shingles three times from stress which is something you usually get when you’re over 60. Personal wellness, self-care, is at the top of my mind, cause when I am in the zone it’s hard to think about that stuff.
But I’ve noticed that my working cadence is, I’ll be deep into a major feature or maybe a group of improvements that I’d like to make on a particular feature and I’ll work on it for three days. Once I deploy and I notify my users, it’s like this wave comes crashing down and I lose the motivation to work a little bit.
I think that’s my body telling me, hey, I need a break. So my schedule is basically work really hard for three to four days and then take a day, day and a half off. I find that that works well for me.
I need to try that, because I think I’ve been trying to do this very balanced schedule within a day, work eight hours and then take the rest of the night off. It just doesn’t work. There are so many days where I get obsessed with something. I’m really into it and I really want to finish. It's hard to have any semblance of balance when that’s going on.
But at the same time, obviously, you can’t do that forever. You can’t continually get obsessed with stuff and never take a break cause then you’re going to burn out. So maybe a more natural schedule is a few days on, a few days off, or a few weeks on and then a week off or something, kind of go hard, pedal to the metal, and then take a big break.
I think it’s important not to disrupt that zone that you get into. Once you’re in the zone you can hammer out so much and you’re a different type of worker. I think it’s important to not disrupt that and it’s equally important to let yourself recover after you get out of that zone as well.
A lot of founders are increasingly becoming digital nomads. You are yourself. You call yourself a digital snomad. You’ve been doing this for quite a long time. You’ve traveled all over the world. What are your tips for somebody like me who hasn’t done this and yet is considering becoming a digital nomad and a founder at the same time?
I’m such a big advocate for people to carve out their own alternative lifestyle, but I would never tell someone, “Hey, this is what you need to do.” I just want to share my story and show people that, “Hey, this is within reach.” Everyone’s journey is going to be different and catered to yourself. Only you can figure that out and it’s okay if it takes you a year or two to figure it out.
Figuring out what works for you is important. Some people enjoy traveling every two weeks, every month. For me, I did that when I was on my sabbatical and it was very tiring. I didn’t enjoy it at all. I felt like I barely grazed the surface of every city that I was in.
So when my husband and I set out to do this, we decided that we wanted to focus more on depth instead of breadth of the place. So we picked one city that we decided we would spend four months in and we would get immersed in the culture cause that was really important to us.
When we were in Fukuoka we spent time learning Japanese, so we were able to have very basic conversation with locals, order food, all the important stuff. But this time we’re in Taipei, and we chose not to go back to Fukuoka because of the working café culture wasn’t so great. It’s not very welcoming to just plop down on your laptop for six hours in a café and take up space. They don’t have outlets and Wi-Fi.
That was important to us, and we realized that while we were there, so we made sure to take that into account when we would pick our next destination. So now we’re in Taipei, which we’ve spent time in before and we understand that the working café culture is very welcoming. It’s been like night and day, our digital snomad journey in Taipei and Fukuoka.
I’m having a little bit of a similar story to what you went through where you were in San Francisco working in tech and startups for five years and eventually you got tired and you said, “I’m done.” I’ve been in SF for ten years now. I love the city but I think it’s time for me to move on.
There’s so much online. There are so many resources. We have a digital nomads group on the Indie Hackers website. There’s Nomad List, of course, where everybody’s sharing all this information about what cities to go to and which cafes are the best. Are you using any special tools or websites that let you know where to go and what to do once you’re there?
Let’s see. It’s interesting. We don’t do so much research, I think. We found Fukuoka because we were in a coffee shop in Taiwan and I found a random magazine that had a little bit of English in it. There was a little section about Fukuoka.
It was randomly opened up and I was like, “Oh, there’s a city in Japan that’s in the countryside but it’s got a lot of hip culture and it’s up and coming.” The mayor of Fukuoka likes Seattle so they’re trying to make it all bike friendly. That stuck with us and we literally decided to move there.
We didn’t really do so much in-depth research. I think we just trusted, like, “All right. We want to be in Japan, but we don’t want to be in a big city.” I think that’s a big thing for us. Then with Taipei we had spent time here before and we liked it, but we were only able to graze the surface because of the language barrier, I would say. So this time around we prioritized learning Mandarin.
It’s been awesome because we’ve been taking classes. We’ve been taking online tutoring sessions. That has a two-fold benefit of being able to speak to locals more and uncover more of Tai Pai, but also it provides a hobby on the side from all the Lunch Money work, and a parallel goal that doesn’t overlap but is something that keeps another part of my brain running.
Yes. That sounds nice. It’s funny, if you go out in San Francisco, pretty much everybody’s got a startup. So you end up not ever getting out of the startup zone, which is cool sometimes and it’s energizing. But also if you’re looking for a break, I don't know if we can compare to the Japanese countryside.
But anyway, Jen, it’s been great talking to you. I’ve got one more question before I let you get out of here. There are a lot of Indie Hackers listening who haven’t gotten started yet. You’ve been working on Lunch Money for the last year and a half.
What’s your advice to them and what do you think they can take away from the lessons that you’ve learned over the past year and a half, and also with your previous startup?
Reflecting on my own experiences so far, I would say that an overarching theme is self-driven change. I know that’s not easy for everyone. It can be scary to change things up. But personally, I realized that I have a tendency to leave when things start to get too comfortable. That has always been a net positive for me in the end.
For example, changing teams at Twitter helped me round out may skills as an engineer. Stepping away from the grind of Silicon Valley and moving away from SF reinvigorated my love and passion and for programming, and it also helped me to regain a sense of personal purpose.
Even now, as part time digital nomads, changing our environment every winter forces us to reestablish new routines, which is sometime easier than just trying to change one aspect of an otherwise rigid routine.
So I feel like not being afraid of change and embracing the unknown and the unexpected would prepare you to be an Indie Hacker, because once your product is out there, you put a lot of yourself out there and it’s scary.
Things come at you left and right, and most of the time you can’t plan for these things. All you can do is have a prepared mindset and a good attitude about the whole thing.
I think that’s a great point, that as an Indie Hacker you’re going to have a lot of things coming your way that you can’t necessarily control, so the best thing you can do is learn to get comfortable with it. It’s cool to see that you’re forcing these changes on yourself so that you develop a mindset where you can handle it graciously.
Jen Yip, thank you so much for coming on the show. Can you let listeners know where they can go to learn more about what you’re up to and what’s going on with Lunch Money?
Sure. You can find out more about Lunch Money at lunchmoney.app. We have a coupon code for Indie Hackers listeners. Put in IndieHackers, all one word, and you’ll get a 25% off any plan. I am on Twitter, @lunchbag, and I also have a personal blog where I try to write about entrepreneurship and the digital nomad lifestyle. That’s at lunchbag.ca.
All right, Jen. Thanks so much for coming on.
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