When Dru Riley (@DruRly) quit his job, he was more than ready for his mini retirement. Little did he know that it would take him over three years to make his first dollar as an indie hacker. In this episode, Dru and I discuss the difficulty of finding an idea with product-market-founder fit, the latest trends in new markets for indie hackers, and how he was able to grow his newsletter Trends.vc from nothing to $20,000/mo in under a year.
What’s up, everybody? This is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and you’re listening to the Indie Hackers Podcast. On this show I talk to the founders of profitable internet businesses and I try to get a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes. How did they get to where they are today?
How do they make decisions, both at their companies and in their personal lives, and what, exactly, makes their businesses tick? The goal here, as always, is so that the rest of us can learn from their examples and go on to build our own, profitable internet businesses.
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In today’s episode I sat down with long-time Indie Hacker, Dru Riley. Dru is the creator behind Trends.vc, a newsletter where he shares the latest trends in tech, business and startups. It’s super popular. I’m subscribed along with many others, and he’s doing tens of thousands of dollars a month in revenue from his newsletter, but it took Dru quite a while to get here.
In fact, it took him multiple years after quitting his job to get to the point where he started this email newsletter, and many months after that to get to the point where he was actually charging money and growing his subscription base. I think there’s a lot to learn from Dru about perseverance and just figuring out the right idea to work on. Enjoy the episode.
You’ve made one of the more interesting posts I’ve seen on Indie Hackers, I think, in part because your story resonated with me when you were talking about how you had quit your job in 2017. You were very transparent.
You said you worked for three years and saved up $250K, which is a ridiculous amount of money, and you just lived for three years off your savings, building projects, trying to be an Indie Hackers and not making, literally a single dime in that entire time until, I think, May of this year with Trends.vc. What was that like, working for so many years and not finding any success?
I wasn’t working the whole time. I was traveling, I picked up Jiu-Jitsu, did some improv. You said something in your comment on that post that really resonated, and I think about it at least once a week. Our urgency matches the amount of time that we have.
As I was running out of money, I got really serious. I was learning and building but not with a sense of urgency until I’m like, “Ok, I can see the end of the tunnel and it’s back to working for the man if I don’t figure something out.”
It was a really short post that didn’t leave room for a lot of nuance. I wasn’t working, trying to make something happen the whole time. I had projects here and there but towards the end of 2019 up until Trends started there were probably six projects back to back, just trying to build the airplane as I was falling down.
On your personal website you’ve got 12 different projects you’ve worked on over the years. There’s a huge variety. Some of them are hack-a-thons, some of them are SaaS products that you’ve built. More recently there’s a lot of newsletters and content businesses. It’s pretty clear you’ve been trying a lot of stuff.
I think this idea that work expands to fill the time allotted is true on so many levels. It’s true individually with a particular task that you’ve been assigned that you’re trying to do for work. If you think it’s going to take a day, but you give yourself a week, it will take a week.
But I think it’s also true with life goals. If you’re like, “I want to be an Indie Hacker and make a lot of money and be my own boss.” And you’ve got three years of runway, or in my case I had a year of runway.
It’s probably going to take you that long to get serious. What I did was I spent all six months just learning and traveling and doing fun stuff and then eventually it was like, “Oh, shit. I don’t have very much runway left.”
What was it that convinced you to stop just doing improv and Jiu Jitsu and start working on projects that you thought could make money?
It was just running out of money and time. It was really time, that’s how I see money in a lot of ways. I just look at it in terms of freedom and time. What does it buy me? I was selling my second place and with that money I would’ve been good for a year, two years, max.
I didn’t want to run it up until the last minute. It would be nice if I could do a smooth transition that’s not really hectic and that’s what ended up happening with Trends.vc. I still have a good amount in savings, but I could pull from that or pull from Trends.vc, which is a nice position to be in.
Tell us about Trends.vc. Specifically, how much money is it making? When did you start it and what is it?
Last month it made just shy of $24,000 for August. All of it isn’t recurring but a lot of it is from annual subscriptions. Trends.vc is a series of weekly reports on new markets and ideas.
It follows a format of problem, solution, players, predictions, opportunities. There’s a haters section that a lot of people like, and more research. It helps people find emerging opportunities.
Yes, I love the haters section. We’ll get into the whole format of how you structure this as a weekly report. It goes out over email. You posted a ton of them on Indie Hackers, that’s how I first got turned on to them.
I think you started with number four or five. Every week you’d release a new one and post it on Indie Hackers and tons of people would read and comment. I think what’s remarkable is you said in August you did $24,000 in revenue. In March I think you’d done $0 in revenue.
In April I think you’d done $0 in revenue. You’ve just been able to grow this thing at a rocket ship pace. What do you think is the difference between all the other things you worked on before Trends, those other 11 projects, and Trends itself, that allowed it to do so well?
I think it’s a sweet spot of what I enjoy, what I’m good at, and what other people need or like. Someone asked me recently, “How did you find your voice?” I told them, “I think I always had this voice, but I could switch and work on another project and if it just didn’t fit what the market needed, it wouldn’t work out.”
I can take the same voice that I have and try to solve a problem that other – if it doesn’t exist, it’s not going to just magically work. So it was like the fitting of all three of those together.
Yes, it’s the elusive product-market-founder fit. It doesn’t really matter if you’re good at something if no one else cares about that thing and you just do what you want all day. Who was it? I think it was Naval (ph) who tweeted about art being something you do for yourself and business being something you do for others.
The ultimate artist is the only person who really cares what they’re doing, and it doesn’t matter, it’s fulfilling for them. That’s a recipe for disaster in business because no one’s going to pay you for doing that just because you get off on doing it. They need to benefit. They need to have value somehow.
Let’s go back to the beginning, then, because I want to go over some of the history of these projects that you’ve worked on. Maybe the best place to start is, why did you quit your job?
Obviously if you were able to save up $250 K, you were doing really well for yourself. You were making a lot of money. You were a software engineer. Why leave that behind and decide to take this mini retirement that you did?
I feel like I was always planning for my escape, whether it was my first job. I’m located in Atlanta. My first job out of college in Atlanta or the last one, which I quit in 2017. I was always saving money, preparing for an escape.
It wasn’t a smooth transition between each. I would always quit, take a few months off. It just happens that the last time this happened it was three years and not a few months. With the last job it was super comfortable, the work was interesting, I loved my co-workers. It was just almost too comfortable. I was super-specialized.
I’m like, “Man, I miss design a little bit. I miss thinking about marketing. I miss all of these other angles.” It was super comfortable. I feel like if I stayed, I could’ve stayed and been ok for life and four or five years.
Not like a super-rich life but my burn rate was low. I could’ve made it happen. But I feel like if I had stayed for three, four, five more years I may have never left. I had a lot of lunches with people as I was leaving and they were just like, “Man, I admire what you’re doing. I planned to do that three or four years ago.” And they just never made the jump and now they feel stuck.
It’s pretty crazy how if you take any sort of leap in your life and you tell others that you’re doing it, how many people say, “Oh, I wish I could do that.” If you decide you want to leave your job a lot of co-workers will be like, “You’re so brave, that’s so cool, it’s so inspiring.”
Or even me, I just left on this road trip and I just informed people who I thought should know just because they’re my friends and they should know where I am and the percentage of people who were like, “Oh, I wish I could just drop everything and leave.”
It’s this weird dream that so many people have and then very few people actually take. What is it about you that made you so comfortable leaving the comfortable life?
It probably goes back to my first job in Atlanta and I felt like coming out of college if someone would’ve given me a shot in a software development role that’s all I needed. I would’ve been able to, like this is now the new bottom, this is the base, and I could always fall back on that base.
I felt like that skill set just gave me optionality. I knew I could get back to this point if not better. That was freeing, in a way.
That’s the good thing about being a software engineer. There are always jobs. Worst case scenario you’re not going to be on the street you’re just going to go back to being a software engineer. It’s a pretty cushy job.
Right. I would love to paint the picture that I’m just super courageous but that was it. It felt like hedged in a way.
What was the first thing you worked on? You said you spent a lot of time having fun. What was the very first project where you were like, “You know what? I’m going to actually start building something on my own.”
I wouldn’t even be able to remember the very first because at first it was just like I miss building and I’m just building for fun where I would work on things that I wouldn’t have worked on towards the end of 2019 when it’s crunch time.
I don’t remember that early back. I remember what I put a lot of work into and there was something right before Trends.vc which was called SaaS Report. It would do competitive analysis for SaaS companies.
If someone changed their pricing page and it was a competitor, you’ll get an alert. It bleeds into, I’m not sure if we’ll talk about it but one of those parts, I just feel like it’s something I enjoyed doing here where I ran out of steam.
Even though I saw potential pivots I just ran out of steam on that project. Maybe it could’ve worked, maybe it was doomed to fail. I don’t know. It was like SaaS Report and it just took a lot out of me to the point where switching to – at one point Trends.vc and SaaS Report were running at the same time.
I picked up Trends.vc because it felt like something I could do forever, in a way. There’s no end game it’s an infinite game. The previous project was not that. I felt like I wouldn’t be comfortable selling this. There was just an end in mind working on that whereas there is really no end in mind with Trends.vc.
Yes, you’ve got to do something that you enjoy working on but it’s not always easy to predict what you’re going to enjoy working on until you start doing it and it’s like, “Oh, this is a slog. I hate this.”
I think one of the most common things for people like you and me, we’re both software engineers, usually when we decide to start projects we think, “What can I code? I like coding, coding is fun.” Like you said, there’s some muscles you wanted to flex, your design muscles and all sorts of other things.
And you actually did work on some coding projects on your website. You had a Chrome extension that you built, and you had some sort of Twitter sentiment analysis thing to tell businesses who is tweeting about them and what they’re saying.
You even had a Ruby CLI thing for installing Ruby gems. All that seemed to be your older projects. Which for me is the same. All of my older stuff was all pure code. Me just coding stuff and hoping, “I’m going to put this up on AWS or something and people are going to sign up for it and it’s going to pay the bills every month and I don’t have to work.”
What caused you to switch from doing all those code related projects to the newer stuff where you’re doing Trends.vc and you had this SaaS Report and you’ve done a bunch of other newsletters and stuff where it’s not code. It’s you sitting down every day, researching and writing stuff.
I don’t think it was very strategic. It was just about, I went through this identity shift towards the end of 2019 or early 2020. You just hit on it, even picking up SaaS Report. I’m like, “Oh, this is technically interesting solving this problem.”
And I had to put that down because I had to put that down because I feel like as engineers we think, “This is cool if it’s complex.” It’s like, “No, solve a problem.” They don’t care about how the pipes work or how the code looks.
There was this identity shift within the past year, year and a half where I had to put a founder hat on and take a developer hat off in a way. I think that’s what opened me up to exploring content where I’m just looking for valuable problems to solve.
Yes, no one cares what goes into your project. No one cares how you’re building it or what new technology you’re going to use. You might care and be super excited about that.
But if you’re a founder and you’re just thinking about every day what you’re super excited about then again, I think that’s art. Art’s good. Don’t get me wrong. Everyone should have something artistic in their life. But if you’ve got to pay the bills you probably should be focusing on what other people want, which is not an easy mindset shift to have.
Yes, I will say with Trends.vc it solves my own problem in a way, of these are things that I was curious about. I noticed that I’m probably one of those people where I need to solve my own problem and it gives me a deeper level of empathy versus some people they’re just pure capitalist and it’s like, golden teddy bears are selling.
They’ll go out and start hawking golden teddy bears. I don’t know, there just has to be some type of emotional connection for me.
What would you say motivates you? You’re not a pure capitalist. You need to be kind of interested. What if you look out a few years? Where do you want to be? What do you think is going to keep you going with Trends?
I think independence motivates me a lot, control of my time, and that probably links back to why I made the jump from quitting the job. Yes, just independence, controlling my time, a sense of purpose. That’s probably what it boils down to.
I want to talk a little bit about this transition from code to these newsletter products. Let’s say I could go back in time to late 2019. That was when you made that transition, you started writing this book.
What would you say were the lessons you had learned by that point? If I interviewed you then and said, “What have you learned about building companies, coming up with ideas, being an Indie Hacker,” what were those lessons?
I sort of dumped all those lessons in something called 100 Rules to Live By, there was a business section. I have a really aggressive garbage collection. I try not to keep too much stuff in my head, but I remember what I was learning at that time.
At that time I was making the transition, and it was still tough, from engineer to founder. For those three years I learned a lot about myself and how I work best and how to get myself to do things. It’s one thing when your boss or your co-workers are depending on you.
But now everything is on you. No one will care if you didn’t get your commitments done for that day. I felt like this each time I quit my job. I have months or eventually years, to just – I just got to know myself better and how I best work.
I think that helped a lot. I would love if someone had an idea about how to fast-forward that process but for me it was just going through and having all this time to myself to figure out how I work best.
So you spend years learning how you work best. Your bank account is running – I can only imagine, much lower than it was when you first took off work. You started doing things that are more focused on what customers want. You start writing and providing data. You’re trying to balance, “Ok, what do I like doing and what do other people care about? What resonates with them?”
Your product, I think you launched in November or September of last year. B2B SaaS Marketing Playbook. That was the first thing I saw you posting about on Indie Hackers. You made a product page, you were posting updates. I think the idea was that you were going to write this book and you were going to publish one chapter at a time of the book.
Every week or every month you would publish another chapter and you would get people to subscribe to your mailing list and read your book. What was the idea behind that? Why did you come up with that idea? Did you have a business model in mind? How did you get it off the ground?
I think how I came up with the idea, I feel like I have this different way of seeing the world or I see certain aspects of things that other people may not necessarily see. That was one way to get it out of my system. I didn’t have a business model around it.
One mistake I made with that is that project had a definite end. At some point you’re going to run out of chapters and the book is going to be complete and then what? It doesn’t continue to compound past that point. I didn’t really appreciate that until being halfway through. I was probably just trying to get something out of my system, “Is everyone seeing this?”
If you look at it, there’s companies, almost like the training grounds for Trends.vc in terms of comparative analysis and lateral thinking where I’m looking at comparing super human to, it has elements of Tesla here and all of these seemingly unconnected things, connecting them and putting them together.
Some of your posts were talking about getting subscribers. You were so excited in the very beginning. Your first update, “I’ve already got a subscriber. I’ve got 12 subscribers so I’m getting two or three a day.”
And then your very last update that you posted about the Marketing Playbook, “Growth has slowed. It’s not a flat line. I’m used to getting more people.” At that point you’d published four or five chapters but on your website. You eventually got to all ten.
It’s like, you finished the book, and you were done with it. Then you had another post where you launched another thing. What made you decide that you wanted to keep doing newsletters and doing content even though your first Marketing Playbook slowed to a crawl and it wasn’t something you were interested in doing?
I think it came back to problems of thinking about problems being solved where I didn’t see a line between code, media or if we add some other categories. What problem do I care enough about that I think I can stick with for a while? If it doesn’t involve code, cool. If it does, cool. But prioritizing the problem and what I think I can stick with as opposed to the medium or the skill set required.
You started all these different newsletters that I guess you thought you could stick with. You had StrongStack, SaaS Report, and eventually Trends.vc. Did you have a business model in mind with Trends when you started it?
No, it was interesting because it was a hard decision because I always have a list of ideas in mind. I keep a journal and I always have a list of ideas. This was the one thing I don’t know how it would make money. But I was just coming off of SaaS Report which was previously StrongStack and I had this idea for how it would make money and I just ran out of steam in terms of pivots and working on the problem.
So I’m just like, “Let’s just try something different. Yes, time is running out but let’s just try something different.” I remember the moment where I’m like, “OK, I’m going to try the paid newsletter route to monetize this.”
But leading up to that point I’m like, “Maybe this is just a networking tool to meet people and then eventually invest or build a fund or something like that.” It was, I think, report number 11 with the paid newsletter and I was writing about so many examples back to back to back of people monetizing this.
I feel like the more examples you have the easier it is to do something. That became my reality. I’m just surrounded by all of these stories. It’s just like, “I can do this.”
Give me a sense of what your life was like then? A lot of people are in this phase of maybe they quit their job or they’re working on the side of their job. They’re trying to figure out what idea is worth working on.
And they’re also validating those ideas and trying them out and quitting. What was your day to day like? Were you working on multiple things at the same time? Were you doing a lot of research for new ideas? What did your life look like?
At the time I was just looking for a way to blow off steam for SaaS Report. It was a struggle. I wasn’t getting a lot of traction. Everybody had ideas about what you could do with it, but it seemed like no one would be pissed off if it didn’t exist.
I was working on that and I just needed a way to release steam. This was something that I don’t know how I would make money doing it, but I lost track of time working on it. That was like Trends.vc.
Both were running at the same time. I would go from working on SaaS Report, struggling, being in a terrible mood, to Trends.vc being my play. It just felt like play to me.
I remember I had a conversation one night with KP, who we talked about in the pre-interview, and I was just like, “I have this route that I think this thing can make money. I think it can work. I don’t know how this is going to work but I enjoy this.”
After we met in Mexico City that on the flight back, I was just like, “I’m just going to cut it off, stop doing SaaS Report and try to figure this thing out.”
This is newsletter number four or five that you’re trying in a six-month period. There’s some we didn’t even cover. You did Twitter accounts for them. I think there was Product Examples.
You’re doing research, man.
You did so many different things and it’s fascinating to me because you just decided to go hard on this content thing. What’s cool about it is you got so much done. I think most people would try one content thing and then it fails, and they quit.
Or maybe they get two done in six months. You had five or six of them and they were similar in your iterating. How’d you get so much done? Were you working 12 hours a day? Do you have some sort of crazy productivity habits and tricks? How were you so prolific?
It doesn’t feel like I’m that productive being me but I use an app called habit list and I’ve used it for I don’t know how long but I try to pay a lot of attention to how I design my life whether it’s around meditation or reading or how many hours I put into work and I just try to build streaks over time.
It’s easy because I was just telling a friend last night it’s easy to lose track of progress day to day but also do weekly reviews and when you look back over the last week it’s like, “Ok, I did get a lot done.” Maybe I don’t appreciate those things enough. I’m just like a fish in water and that’s my reality. So, if it looks like that from the outside it probably goes to this app, Habit List.
You’re the exact opposite of me. I’m the last person to have any sort of routine or habit trackers set up. I roll out of bed and I think, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I had a daily habit. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had this exact set of routines that I go through?” Then I just do whatever I feel like doing.
Some of the times it works out really well and some of the times it doesn’t. I think I’m really lucky to have a role where usually the things that I want to do are the things that I have to do. And I think if you’re not aligned in that way then it really does help to have some sort of thing to force yourself to do what you need to do. What do you think are your most important habits that you track?
Definitely meditation is number one because I feel like every other habit came from that. It helps lower anxiety. It gives me perspective to not be reactive in conversations when something happens. Then if I don’t meditate that day things get crazy.
I have a habit called comfort challenge where I have to do something new or something that makes me uncomfortable. It’s like if you think of explore and exploit, this is the explore part where it just forces me out of habits, in a way.
It forces me out of my comfort zone, out of a routine. A lot of things, that’s how I picked up Jiu-Jitsu. It was a comfort challenge to even go in there. I remember before I left the house, I’m like, “Do people get hurt?” and in the forms they were like, “Yeah, you get hurt.”
I just have to shut all of that out and go and it changed my life. So many things have come from that. I think those are the two most important habits.
The only habits that I really have are socially motivated habits. For me, I find it pretty difficult to sit down and look at a to-do list and be like because this says this thing, I’m going to do this thing at this time. It’s a lot easier for me to keep obligations. If I have something on my calendar with another person, like my brother and I, for example, every day we’ll spend an hour.
We’ll schedule at the beginning of the day. At 7 p.m. we’re going to spend an hour and we’re going to learn about this topic. There’s no wriggling out of it. It’s not like when the time comes if I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it. It’s an obligation to another person.
And I know that I’m going to learn about Crypto today or I’m going to read some Amazon shareholder letters, or whatever it is that we’re doing. I feel like those are the only ways for me to be consistently productive over time.
Looking at a lot of founders who go from working a job like you’re working where they have all these social obligations, they have co-workers and bosses, and they have a family that they need to feed. Suddenly they quit and they’re just off spinning in the world.
They’re like, “It’s hard for me to get things done day to day.” I think it’s easy for people to underestimate the degree to which obligations to other people can really be a backbone to you being consistently productive. I wonder how much of a role that plays in your life?
Is it all you by yourself willing yourself to get up every day and do these kinds of things or do you have this sense that you’re obligated to other and that you need to produce to get your stuff done?
I related to what you said. I almost feel like social accountability is too effective. Sometimes I stick with things because I committed to them, even though the strategy may have changed or there are new options that make more sense.
I have this thing where I try to avoid – I don’t think it’s good, but I try to avoid social accountability because I know how effective it is.
Yes, it’s almost too effective. You have all these newsletters you’re working on, you’re doing a lot of them at the same time and then eventually you hit on Trends.
It’s apparent to me that it wasn’t obvious to you when you first started Trends that this was a standout idea, that it was going to be better than all your other ideas because you were still working on other ideas at the same time. What was going through your head when you wrote the very first Trends newsletter, which I believe was about Cloud Kitchens?
I was happy to explore, it’s almost like an excuse to explore my own curiosity. I was happy to get that out of my system. I learned a lot doing it. I was nervous putting it out there. For the first four or five, I didn’t collect email addresses.
I would just put them on Twitter. I was nervous posting it and putting it out there because the format was different. It was short. Someone recently asked me, “What assumption has to be true for Trends.vc to work out?”
I’m like, “It’s already true but the assumption was that people appreciate shorter content. It was different.” That turned out to be true and I’m grateful for that. A lot of nervousness and I guess, just joy around having an excuse now.
I have to put this deliverable out there. Now this is my excuse to go learn something.
Why were you nervous? You’d released so many products before. It’s not the first thing you put online.
You tweeted a bunch of stuff and had people subscribing. What about Trends made it so much more nerve wracking than the other things you were working on?
I don’t think this is just me, but I still get nervous before any report goes out. It’s just like, “How will people receive this?” I also think that’s why when you asked about habits, my comfort challenges are so important to me because they condition me to condition that out of me and even though it’s there, by definition it has to make me uncomfortable for me to do it and for me to get credit for something to be a comfort challenge.
You just don’t know how it’s going to be received. I don’t know if it’ll come up, but even the haters section is a way to hedge against that. Let me steelman everything here and it just turned out to be more than that. People see it as a source of entertainment even if they don’t care about the topic that week.
Let’s talk about the format for one of these Trends emails. You’ve got them all online. You can go to Trends.vc/trendsissue0001. I like your naming convention, by the way, your first email is number 0001. Which I’ve done with the podcast as well. In the beginning of the email you say, “This is the problem.”
Traditional websites will lose in the delivery game unless they optimize. You have a bunch of different sections that analyze this whole trend. You say, here are the major players, here are your predictions for what’s going to happen in the future, your opportunities that maybe other founders and Indie Hackers can take advantage of.
Then you’ve got your haters section which is predicting what people might say against you. Like, “Dru, you’re stupid, actually here’s the reality.”
So you put that in quotes and your respond to it. You’re kind of hedging and making sure, that hey you might be nervous about how this might be taken, but you’re proving to people that you’ve thought about it and you’re addressing some of the objections in advance, which I think is brilliant because the internet can be a brutal place if you put something out, people just thoughtlessly tear it down.
You’re addressing that. You’ve got links for further reading so people can look at, what I assume, is all the research that you did to put together the entire issue. How long did it take you to hit on this format and how much work went into just writing this one email?
That’s just a base format. It’s evolved since then. I don’t know, maybe 30, 20-30 hours went into that report. As the format has evolved, to now there’s like solution and sometimes there’s terms if I feel like we have to define what we’re talking about.
There’s a key lesson section. There are Trends pro notes, which week to week go in and out, which are like mini essays. Yes, I’d say that 20-30 hours went into that report and the format for that report is how I think and the format for that report is just how I think and as it’s evolved it just came from conversations I had with readers of the – the solution part came from a conversation I had with someone.
I think those links were just the title of the page but eventually I started summarizing links after conversations with readers. It’s just evolved from there.
How did you decide that your first topic would be Cloud Kitchens?
It’d just been top of mind for so long. I just needed an excuse to put the work in and then organize my thoughts and put it out there because I used to just read and learn voraciously but I feel like the other half of learning doesn’t come unless you try to teach it to someone.
I used to not appreciate the writing or not like the writing part of it. It’s still challenging but I like it. I like it because this is where I learn the other half. Trying to clarify this I expose my own ignorance in a lot of ways. If I can’t explain it simply, then I don’t understand it. It’s cliché but it’s true.
The best way to learn is to teach. Another cliché that’s also very true. A lot of people get nervous. Just like you did. Just like I did when I was launching Indie Hackers, when you’re trying to teach people something.
You’re trying to say, “I know how this works. Here’s my report on it.” You start questioning your own knowledge. Like, “Do I really know how this works?” There are certainly people out there on earth who know way more than me about this.
In fact, that’s who I’m learning from, so what qualifies me to put this information out there? You just have to accept the fact that there’s lots of people who know significantly less than you do, especially if you’re putting 20 or 30 hours a week into just researching this.
Most of your subscribers put zero hours a week into researching Cloud Kitchens so it’s still going to be useful for them, and entertaining for them, and educational.
So what was the result after you put 30 hours into researching this and I don’t know how many hours into writing it up. You tweeted it out, you posted it on your website. What happened?
The people closest to me, they reacted. I remember I had the idea for a few months, and I’m part of a master mind called Zero to One Makers. We do weekly updates. Our weekly updates were done, and I threw the idea out of there of deep framework-based research. The room was pretty neutral. There was this guy, Edmund that was like, “You should definitely do that.”
That was Friday, the report came out Monday and what I realized after posting it on Twitter is no one really understood what it would look like or what I meant because their reaction was like, “Oh, this is cool but this isn’t what I thought you were explaining.”
That was a good feeling. It felt like it exceeded expectations in a way. That was that. For the first four, five or six there was no email collection so I’m not able to gauge how many people were interested enough to opt-in to future reports. I just wasn’t collecting that. Big mistake.
Yes, what made you decide not to collect it? You’ve launched so many different email related products in the past. I assume you have a miniature playbook for, “Here’s how you do an email newsletter. Here’s how you write, here’s how you research.”
At that time I wouldn’t say I had a playbook. Now I feel like I do. To go back to your point of, I feel like success teaches us in some ways. But then if I had a playbook, I wouldn’t have not collected emails. I don’t know why I didn’t do it.
Another mistake, it was on my personal site and I remember when I moved it off of my personal site, it’s hard to quantify but the reactions changed. That’s the only way I can put it. It started being received differently when it was on its own domain.
That’s something I would’ve done earlier if I had a playbook or knew more about what I was doing at the time. It was all failures. It feels like with Trends.vc something happened that never happened before with any of these projects. I’ve closed the full loop. It’s hard for me to express.
Let’s keep going through the history and maybe we’ll uncover some of what went into this playbook. Step 1, eventually you started collecting email addresses. Then, as you said, you put it on your own domain which I think, instead of being Dru Riley’s email list, now it has its own professional brand. It’s Trends.
You also started posting them on Indie Hackers around issue number five or six. I think your first post on Indie Hackers you’d already done a bunch of them. I was like, “Oh, what’s this?” What changed once you put an email collection form on there? How many people were signing up and how did you feel about the project once you saw that people were going to subscribe?
It was still slow-going at first. If I go back to beginning, maybe the first week there were seven or eight subscribers and the next week there were maybe there were 30 or 40.
Then it got featured by this guy, Michael Gill, who is in our master mind as well who runs No Code Coffee. It made me the most nervous, not the Product Hunt stuff that recently happened but one week I think it went from 70 to 400.
From a multiples perspective I was really nervous to send that next report out. From there it would keep going up. It was definitely slow-going at first, even once a few reports were out and I was collecting emails. It wasn’t super crazy in the beginning.
Did you have a strategy for how you were going to get more people to subscribe to it? Did you have a Twitter playbook or an SEO playbook?
Yes, from a Twitter perspective I still feel like Tweet threads are underrated. What I would do is break the report down and into tweets, just like a big tweet storm. I would go back and forth between one week I would tag people and the next week I wouldn’t tag people.
It was actually Rosie, from Indie Hackers that told me, “You need to go back to tagging people.” Those are pretty hit or miss but that’s the thing about tweet storms. You can’t – I can’t predict the success of them but if you just consistently do them some things will hit.
A week that would go well maybe there’s a thousand or two thousand subscribers that would mostly, it seems, come from Twitter. Some weeks are more like duds. That was a big tactic, using Tweet storms to grow.
Then at some point you started making money from this. The first Trends emails, maybe you’re tweeting about them, maybe your friends and colleagues are tweeting about them and you’re getting subscribers but you’re still making zero dollars.
You’re still three years into your mini retirement and watching your bank account decline. When did you decide that, “Hey, Trends should have some price tag,” and how did you decide what the business model should be?
It was the report number 11, paid newsletters, of just seeing so many examples of people doing this, I was like, “I’m going to give it a shot.” Even the strategy I used at first, it just failed. In the week leading up to when I was going to try to monetize, I was like, “Hey, you can pre-order the next report. Here goes the topic.”
I think 102 people viewed it and no one bought it. So that following week, I can’t remember whether I charged for the next, but the topic changed. I can’t remember whether I charged for that report, but I was like, “That didn’t work out. No one bought.”
So instead of going bi-weekly where you’re going to get a free report charge, I ended up doing something people close to me told me to do up until that point. They were like, “Just break the report down and make half of it free, make the other half paid.”
I didn’t want to do that because I felt like the reports were already short. But it ended up working. I just ended up doing more research to keep the length pretty much the same. I think that’s when the work expanded but that’s what allowed it to take off in terms of making money.
Why do you think that business model worked better than the some are free, some are paid model that you experimented with first and nobody bought?
I wish I knew because that was one reason, I remember being in Slack, we had Slack for my master mind. There were like five people against me where I’m just like, “Look, can you show me any example where someone is doing this model and is successful?” I got no responses.
I still don’t know anyone following this model of you can buy single reports and then there are like annual subscriptions but now there’s no monthly. I wish I knew. I don’t know why it worked.
I’ve seen some examples of podcasts and newsletters and things where you’re reading – I wish I remembered what show it was. I was listening to the show and it was a great interview.
Then music started playing and they’re like, “For the rest of this episode subscribe here.” I was so mad. I was like, “I’m into this episode and you’re going to cut me off like this and get me to pay?” Then I just literally went online and paid because they already hooked me in, and I wanted more.
As opposed to, I think sometimes if someone is like, “This one is free but the next one is paid.” I don’t care about the next one because I haven’t gotten absorbed with the story or I haven’t seen how good it can be. So I’m not shocked that your new business model where you decided to make half of it free and half of it paid is the one that actually worked.
I think you’re right. Even though it’s not narrative based or telling a story there’s still this open loop that’s left open if you don’t purchase and close it, so I think that’s a great point.
At first you made issue number 11 or 12 half free, half paid. How many people actually paid for it?
A lot. At that point reports were $3 bucks which, I think, I just came out of the gate. I’m like, after coming off a failure I’m like, “How do I lower the bar of success?” I think 30 people bought that report that day for $3.
That day four or five people were like, “How can I just subscribe instead of buying the reports each week?” And I rolled out a way to subscribe. Nobody bought that day. I messaged those people back, but nobody bought. I’m saying it because he’s made it public, but somehow Patrick Campbell found this link and he was the first person to subscribe.
I’m glad he was because I’d been following him for at least a year at that point. So I was on Cloud Nine for a week after that happened. He was the first person ever to subscribe. Again, I never sent him the link. I don’t know how he found it. It may have been on Twitter, a thread that I was responding to someone else. Thirty people bought it and I rolled out subscriptions that same day.
It’s a pretty good feeling, huh?
Yes, definitely better than the week before.
At that point I think you were still working on other projects, in addition to than Trends. What convinced you that Trends was the way to go and that this was what you wanted to focus on primarily?
I’ve seen you talk about online how you might shut down some other projects and that Trends is really your focus. What was the turning point there?
I probably had the feeling even though I think we’re talking about Product Examples. It had more initial traction than even Trends.vc had, but I just felt like I could do Trends.vc longer and get more compounding in later stages.
I think that was a big part of that decision, where it’s like, “What game can I play for longer?” It just felt like Trends.vc was it.
Yes, Harry Dry runs MarketingExamples.com which is very similar to your other website/newsletter, Product Examples. What’s really cool about those example type things is they are usually stories or they’re examples of other people succeeding, which is really cool and similar to what I did with Indie Hackers at first, which is, “Spotlight on this entrepreneur. What are they doing that’s working for them?”
Also hard to monetize because not that many people really feel like they’re getting a ton of value that they can make money from when they read the story of one person, versus what you’re doing with Trends. You’re covering entire industries.
You do a trend on paid newsletters, a trend on lead generation, a trend on gamification. Anyone who is trying to build a business in that industry, that’s invaluable information for them. You’ve done so much research and compiled it all into one place.
It’s really easy to understand how someone could take that and make money from it, versus one individual example or story. That’s interesting and intriguing and I want to share it but am I going to pay you for one story about one company? I’m not sure.
Yes, I’ve never thought about it that way. I know some people still ask for individual deep dives but that’s not as interesting to me as comparisons within an industry. You may see it a lot, but I compare seemingly unrelated verticals to this vertical. That type of comparative analysis, I just find it more interesting to go back to the fit.
I think broadly this whole model of curating information for people is really underrated. I’ve been talking about this for three or four years. I was inspired by Pieter Levels who did this with Nomad List.
He was like, “Hey a lot of people want to travel and it’s a ridiculous amount of work to go find information on all the cities on Earth and figure out which one’s the best to travel to. What if I did that research for you and kept it updated and charged for access and build a community on top of it?” Indie Hackers is the same thing. Let me do a bunch of research on a bunch of different founders and companies and put it all together so you can learn in one place instead of having to go everywhere.
Trends seems the same to me. If I really wanted to come up with a business idea or figure out what’s going on in an industry, I don’t want to track everything down online. I can just go to your Trend report and find it all in one place. You’ve actually taken the time to curate intelligently with the readers in mind.
I think being able to save people a lot of time and understanding what people are spending time on and saving them time, it’s just so underrated. All these curating businesses look different. You wouldn’t guess that Trends is any relation to Indie Hackers is any relation to Nomad List is any relation to all these curating websites but they are kind of the same idea over and over again, just for different niches and problems that they solve.
Yes, I love those seemingly unrelated things when you see the through line. That’s the kind of stuff I enjoy.
One of the things that you mentioned, it’s funny because I was really worried about this at the beginning of Indie Hackers. I was worried, I’m going to run out of people to interview. How many software engineers/bootstrappers really are there?
After four or five months I was like, “Ok, that’s silly. There’s more starting to do this every month and I interview every month so I’m never going to run out.” You, with Trends, you’re up to 30 different trends that you’ve identified now.
Why weren’t you worried that you would run out and what is your process like for researching these trends in the first place?
I wasn’t worried from the beginning that I’d run out because you asked about Cloud Kitchens, why was that the first? That was just the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to explore all of these things, but I felt like I needed an excuse to do it and the report was the deliverable.
Even with Cloud Kitchens there were trends that spun out of that and it feels like each time I research one, three or four come from that and I just add it to this list of things to explore. In terms of research, it’s that same list.
Sometimes something is already there, and I’ll just go add notes. Here goes a player I found or here’s an interview I listened to where they mentioned this. Or here’s an opportunity that I just randomly thought about in this space.
So by the time that I start looking into that trend I’ll just copy all of this stuff from this report, dump it into a WordPress document and start researching from there. I’ll find more resources, stuff like podcasts, videos, tech, sometimes books. It’s intense research for a couple of days and then a crazy amount of revising.
I can’t remember which report it was recently, but I cut like 13,0000 words out just to make it less than 1,000 words. There’s a lot of work that goes into reworking text to make it super short and simple.
I think that was the riskiest part. I don’t personally enjoy fluffy, long form content. I didn’t know how many other people saw the world that way. They just seem to appreciate how readable the reports are.
It’s cool because you’ve just built a learning machine for yourself. We’ve talked about this in previous episodes where if you have some sort of activity that’s attached to your job, in order for you to do Trends, you literally have to research.
There’s no option not to research. There’s no way you could do one of these without researching. It’s not something that you have to personally motivated to do, it’s not something you need a lot of tricks to do, it is literally your job. As a result of that you’re just going to learn a ridiculous amount of stuff.
For example, the fact that you decided to start charging for your newsletter after you did a Trend on paid newsletters. That learning for your job helped you do your job better and turn this from a project into a business.
Has there ever been a Trend that you’ve uncovered where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to share this with anyone else. This seems amazing and lucrative and I want to keep this Trend to myself.”
It was within that report you just talked about, about paid newsletters, about the opportunity being so good, I think that was the first and only time that I ever held something back. Maybe a lot of people still don’t know about it.
It was confirmed but there were rumors around how much Ben Thompson was making. Then someone sent me a screenshot, not of the revenue but of how if you reverse engineer this, this is confirmed. I’m just like, “Man, do I say something?”
That may have been the first and only time I ever held something back. Which leads me to another conversation we had in another post on Indie Hackers about these subscription media companies versus SaaS companies.
In just subscription media your total addressable market is larger traditionally they’re faster to get revenue and they still don’t preclude you from going into SaaS. There are these secrets that it feels like some of us are sitting on.
Yes, and this whole paid media, especially the paid newsletter trend, I’ve been talking about it a lot on Indie Hackers, so people who are listening in are surely aware of it by this point. Maybe they’re tired of me talking about it.
I still think it’s underrated. It reminds me of Bitcoin in 2014, 2015. I knew so many people who were talking about it, and investing in it, and predicting it was going to be the biggest thing. At that point I was like, “I keep hearing about Bitcoin. It’s so oversaturated.” I didn’t even want to get into it because I felt like I was late to the game.
You don’t want to be starting off behind. I was like, “Oh, let me find something new to care about.” It’s funny because I’m an early adopter and my friends are early adopters so I’m part of the echo chamber where I think something is played out because that’s because I’m hanging around people who are on to different trends five to six years before anyone even cares.
I wonder if that’s the case with paid newsletters. A lot of us who are Indie Hackers or who are involved in tech, we all know what Substack is, and we all know who Ben Thompson is and we all know about these paid newsletters but does the average citizen of the world really know about this?
Do we feel like this thing might be over saturated and too late to get into when the reality is, most people don’t know about it and the biggest future for it is yet to come?
Yes, you said you say this every week, sort of related is this point I keep making every week about everything being commoditized except for trust and attention. I’m just going to keep hammering that point until I feel like more people get it.
That’s an advantage that subscription media, paid media, subscription newsletters have of like, now you have this trust, you have this attention. I feel like code is being commoditized with no-code.
You have on demand manufacturing where you take a white label manufacturer like Printful. Some people have more success, some people have less success using that business but it’s because people have less and more trust and different audiences work different amounts.
It seems like in terms of value extraction, value add, most of the value is shifting towards who has the trust, who has the attention.
What do you think is so important about trust and attention? When you say those aren’t being commoditized, what does that mean to you?
They’re scarce. They can’t be copied. If someone’s ideas are commoditized, as soon as it’s out there, “Oh, that’s a great idea. I’m going to do it.” Or once someone figures a new form factor out, “To solve this problem, this app needs to work this way.”
This can be easily copied maybe even with no code or maybe it’s even a template that I can find on Zero Code or something. But trust can’t be copied. I think that’s what makes it scarce, that’s what makes it valuable.
Trust, for you in particular means people knowing who you, Dru, are and liking your style and your personality and the effort that you bring, which can’t be copied because nobody else is Dru Riley.
Yes, that’s for a personal brand but for a corporate brand like Apple or Nike. You could make better shoes than Nike, but they’ll still have the trust. It gives them defensibility. I think it applies to personal and corporate brands.
So what do you see Trends as? I know you said it was on your personal website and now it is its own brand that doesn’t necessarily say Dru Riley. Is that a corporate brand for you? If so, how do you build trust?
There is a difference between Trends.vc and me but I think they are very tied. It’s in my voice and it’s hard to separate those. But if I go out for drinks, I might go out tonight with my friends, they’re not getting Trends.vc Dru. They’re just getting Dru, Dru. I think it was Sahil and a few other people who talk about sticking to your talking points on Twitter.
People aren’t interested in what you had for lunch. You went to the park with your kids for a picnic. Cool, they don’t care about that. Talk about Crypto, talk about no code. I stick to those aspects of me in Trends.vc but that’s what the world wants. People want your talking points. They don’t necessarily want all of you in a way.
Twitter is one of the most interesting social networks that way, at least tech twitter. Because everyone on every social network puts forward some sort of front, sort of curating their life. Instagram it might be like, “Here’s how much fun I’m having.” Twitter is like, “Here is my work self. Here is all I know about work, etc. Here’s all I know about marketing or trends or being an Indie Hacker.”
You’re right. That’s what people want from you. It’s how you build a following. You could probably be your full self somewhere else. If you give people not necessarily what they want or if you give them two different faces of you, some people will like that but it’s much harder than giving them the face of you they actually, clearly want because they’re subscribing to your newsletter and paying for this every week. So that’s what they want from Dru.
It’s a game I play, I see people. They’re well known but why isn’t their following on Twitter bigger? You look at the thread or timeline and it’s super random. I think that they’re not sticking to the talking points.
And credit to them for not playing that game but if you want a bigger following it’s a game people play.
Yes, and for you I think a following matters a lot because you do a distribution on Twitter. You’ve got these amazing Twitter threads that will cover your trends. If that’s your channel you probably need to play that game and if it’s not your channel maybe you can just post about making pizza or whatever it is that you’re doing.
How do you think about competition with this theme of trying to avoid being commoditized, trying to build a brand and build trust? How do you think about the fact that there exists another newsletter called Trends?
How do you think about the fact that there are other people who might be getting into the paid newsletter game, who want to take away some of your market and do what you’re doing?
Yes, I don’t think about competition. I don’t think there’s any direct competition. We all have micro-monopolies of they can’t do what I do, I can’t do what they do. There’s a perception that this is a zero-sum industry. I’m talking about paid newsletters as a whole. It’s just like, Ben Thompson has his voice, his perspective, his point of view. It’s not like, he’s a business strategy writer. No, he’s Ben Thompson.
If something happens, there will be no other Ben Thompson. If something happens there will be no other Trends.vc. There are people who gravitate towards that. I see this whole space, you’re either selling news, which is a commodity, you’re selling insights, which probably comes from this unique perspective that you have, or you’re selling signal, which is probably the best position to be in because this thing, you can say some crazy stuff that doesn’t even make sense but all of the sudden it’s valuable because of who said it.
You see that a lot. It’s a nice position to be in, just having the value of what you said attached to the person who said it. Insights can be copied, they can be stolen, but the source can’t be stolen. The results can be copied but the source can’t be copied, if that makes sense.
It makes total sense and when I look at Trends, part of me wishes you put more of yourself into it. I want a picture of Dru on this page somewhere. I want to know this is Dru. As you get bigger, one of your advantages is that you’ve been so active as an Indie Hacker, you are part of these mastermind groups, you’re active on Twitter.
You had an amazing Product Hunt launch in part because everybody knows who you are. As you grow, you start to reach new people who don’t know who you are. As you grow you start to reach new people who don’t know who you are. They’re like, “Who is this guy? I have no idea.” They don’t necessarily have good will toward you.
Maybe that grows on them over time as they read your stuff. Do you think about injecting more of your personality and who you are as a person into your newsletter or do you want the content to speak for itself?
I just took a note down as you said that to think about that more. It’s not something that I’ve thought about a lot. I remember one week I removed the haters section and people were like, “That’s where your personality came out.”
I think at this point I know that people appreciate that. It’s just about how to do it more. Something else I think about a lot is ethics and objectivity. Even though the haters section may seem sassy, I do try my best to be objective.
That’s why I have to be really careful about how I approach. If I want a fund, how to do a fund if I’m investing in the same company I’m writing about. I don’t want it to come out in the way of being too biased or anything. It’s something I’m thinking about, especially since you said it.
What are your favorite trends? We talked about the ones that are the most impactful to you, the ones you wanted to keep secret because you realized there was such a lucrative opportunity.
You’ve done 30 Trends now, which ones do you think are the most promising? Which ones were your favorite to research and write about?
My favorite was probably Startup Studios because I don’t know for how long, but maybe ten years leading up to that report I wanted a Startup Studio just because it sounds like, this is my idea generator. It’s like my science lab. I get to experiment with all of this stuff.
For an entire week, being surrounded with all of these examples, all of these stories, all of these interviews, you’re just like, these things are spun out. There’s less compounding than say, like an Amazon or something. It became less appealing to me.
In way there are elements of a Startup Studio within Trends.vc where I’m able to deal in a completely new vertical each week, and that’s enough. There’s still compounding between audience and I’m carrying people from week to week. Some people drop off, but more people come each week. So there are elements of that.
So Startup Studios, paid newsletters, just because that’s when I realized this could possibly work. This could be a way to make money and not have to go back to the work for the man. I guess the first one, Cloud Kitchens, just because that was getting out there, that was stepping out there.
You asked why it made me nervous but the reaction after that, number two made me less nervous than number one and three and so on. I’m probably forgetting a lot but those are the major points.
Startup Studios is really interesting because it seems fun. I don’t know what company I’m going to work on, so what if I just made a company to work on a bunch of different companies. That would be cool. They’re not often that successful.
Not that other companies are super successful all the time, either. The hit rate for many companies in the aggregate is pretty low. I think there really is something to focus. Like you were talking about, compounding.
If you have one newsletter and one subscriber base and it gets bigger every week, that’s so much easier and more successful than having a bunch of small things that end up not amounting to very much.
To go back to Amazon, it’s interesting because I talked about Trends.vc being my outlet of my Startup Studio in a way. I once heard Amazon described as the company that generates companies.
It’s like, they still get to reuse their customer base in a way or remarket to them. But they’re still spinning up AWS and then even within AWS other companies, services. So it’s like a fractal in some ways.
They’re getting more compounding than a B2C Startup Studio that’s going to spin this out, find an EIR to run it and do all this other stuff.
I think a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s not like Amazon came out of the gate and in year number one and they’re like, “We’re going to do 50 different things.” They built this extremely powerful ecommerce platform, got a ton of market share. Customers love them, got a ton of revenue and then they used that to spin off the alternative businesses like AWS off the back of their infrastructure.
We’ve seen so many bigger companies do the same thing. I worry when Indie Hackers, two months into a project start doing 15 different things. I’m like, “We don’t have an advantage to build on. We don’t have a giant mailing list to build on, etc.”
I think that’s a great point.
At some point your revenue hockey sticked with Trends.vc. You said you were making over $20,000 last month. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve made to help your revenue grow so quickly over the last few months, because that’s an insane number.
Yes, I’m thinking about a lot of it came from Product Hunt and even before Product Hunt there was consistent growth in terms of raw subscriber numbers of new daily sign ups. It sounds silly in retrospect, but I didn’t know if this part would work, of each week a new report goes out and there’s a prompt to upgrade.
I still don’t have a funnel built in where there’s an automated sequence or anything like that. This acts as that funnel with each week Table Stakes report has to go out and some percentage of the audience is going to convert.
So by growing that base number, the percentage of people that converted just goes up. I don’t have any crazy conversion hacks or anything yet. I’m looking at that, how to increase the conversion rate but it’s just raw numbers at this point.
Let’s talk about some of those numbers. You had one of the more successful Product Hunt launches that I’ve ever seen. You launched in August. I think you’re the number one Product Hunt product in all of August, which is not easy to do nowadays. Product Hunt is so big. Why did that go so well?
I think it was just stored good will. A lot of people are just like, “I don’t feel the need to upgrade because I get so much for free.” And a lot of my friends are like, “You give too much away for free.”
It’s like social capital and some other type of capital that isn’t money, will store it up and that when you give people a chance to support you, all of that – not all of that but some of that gets released and they just show as much support.
The comments more than the product of the day, product of the week, product of the month just the comments seem like, “I started this company after this report was released.”
Everything people were saying, I go back to that and read it whenever I’m having a bad day or whatever. I think it was all that stored good will of giving away so much for free that came out in the launch.
It’s the genius of launching late. A lot of people build something new and they’re like, “I gotta launch on Day 1. Everyone needs to see this.” And it’s like, “Well, do you really want to blast out your thing to anyone and everyone before you’ve iterated on it, before you built up any good will, before you know if it works, before you have email capture, before you’re charging money?”
Shouldn’t you try to grow things organically first and then once you know things are going well, then launch. I don’t know if this is intentional or not for you and Trends, but that’s exactly what you did.
By the time you launched on Product Hunt you already knew you hit on a good formula, you’d already iterated on it and improved the format. You already had a bunch of Trends emails so people could see in the past, and you’d already built up a bunch of good will by giving away stuff for free.
I wish I could say that was some grand plan I had but it was really just being nervous to launch before that point. I don’t know what I would advise people to do because the longer that I went without a launch, the higher my expectations went up, like, “This thing better work because I waited this long.”
So it’s an advantage. I wish I would be able to say it’s intentional but I do think that at least for people close to me it’s going to change the way they go about things and opening their product in more of a concentric circle instead of Product Hunt being the first stop to launching something.
It should never be your first stop. I don’t think it’s ever great to be your first stop because it’s kind of like the easy, where should I launch Hacker News, Product Hunt kind of way to do things.
When you don’t really have a growth strategy, when you’re not sure how you can repeatably get more customers, that’s often the first answer that comes to mind. So I think it should often be the last thing that you do.
I don’t think anything is worth working on if you don’t have some way to repeatably get customers. If that’s the real challenge, you should probably front load that and figure that out and only then spend your time trying to blast it out to everybody once you’ve confirmed, “Hey there is a repeatable way to keep getting people in the door for this particular thing I’m working on.”
That’s what I’m writing about this week, of audience first products. Instead of going to a Hacker News or Product Hunt, having an audience that you’ve been forced to understand, knowing how to reach them, building that up instead of going through this launch with this hype hangover that’s eventually going to happen.
Tell us about that. What does it mean to have an audience first product?
Think of it as you’re building trust with your audience before you even have a product. That might come in the form of a blog, a newsletter, a podcast, a personal brand. Having that ready before you have a product ready.
You understand what problems, what struggles they have. You have people willing to give you feedback. They may be more generous and more lenient if your product doesn’t work. Even if they don’t need the product, they may be willing to help you spread the word. To go back to having good will stored.
You’re forced to deliver value to build an audience. You’re also forced to deliver value to build an audience. You’re also forced to understand your future customers, your audience, so it’s a forcing function in a way.
I think what’s interesting about this audience first product idea is that you can actually do both at the same time. You can build something that generates an audience, and you can build something that builds revenue, and they can both be the exact same thing. One doesn’t have to come before the other.
You’ve done this with Trends. Trends is one product, it’s one newsletter. Early on it helped you build an audience and now it’s making you tens of thousands of dollars a month. I did the same thing with Indie Hackers. It was a collection of interviews, it was a blog, and it was free.
My Twitter audience went from 400 people to tens of thousands. Then later on I added sponsorships – but not that much later. I think three weeks after I launched it, I was making money from it.
You don’t necessarily have to make two different things and I’m curious in your report how many of these companies are going to be doing one audience building and revenue generating product?
I think you made a great point. I heard a story from Dan Shipper of Superorganizers was supposed to just be his way to build an audience before he released productivity software.
And he was just like, “No, I can just turn this into a paid subscription.” That’s his way to monetize. Who know if he continues walking down that path and take the software route? But to your point, that’s a great route to take.
What do you think is the difference between something that builds an audience that people can charge money for and something that builds an audience that is forever going to be free but maybe just results in more people following your or subscribing?
I’m not sure what the answer is to that because my mind goes to whether it’s utility based, or education based but I can find examples of both working. It reminds me of the conversation around newsletter fatigue right now.
I feel like that’s mostly BS. It just forces quality up. It probably just comes down to quality whether it’s about utility or entertainment. People have to get enough value out of it to justify charging.
That’s what I like about Trends. It’s pure value. I can use Trends to improve Indie Hackers as a business. Which Indie Hackers should I be writing about, who should I be interviewing? Instead of doing a ton of research myself I could just read Trends.
Dru’s going to tell me. I think if you have that value for people who are actually engaged in industries that make money, if you’re teaching people how to be better foodies – I don’t know, maybe there’s not that much money in eating food. But there is a lot of money in building businesses and educating people around that. I like what you’ve done. It’s pretty inspiring to see your revenue growth.
As is tradition here I always ask, “What’s your advice for other Indie Hackers who are in the position that you were in just six months ago, really, not making any money, trying to figure out which idea is going to work?” What do you think they should take away from your story?
I just say try to find something that you can stick with for a while. It matters, the market needs to have what you have to offer but I think that V0, version zero, never survives and you have to be willing to stick it out through pivots, through iterations. That’s hard to do if you don’t love what you’re working on.
Love what you’re working on, stick it out through pivots and iterations. Dru Riley, thanks for coming on the show.
Thank you, Courtland.
Listeners, if you enjoyed this episode and you want an easy way to support the podcast, you should leave a review for us on iTunes or Apple Podcasts. Probably the fastest way to get there if you’re on a Mac is to visit IndieHackers.com/reviews. I really appreciate your support and I read pretty much all the reviews you leave over there. Thank you so much for listening and as always, I will see you next time.
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