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$0 - $10k MRR in 3.5 Months (a step by step guide on exactly what I did)

Here’s how I started a productized service and went from idea to $10k MRR in 3.5 months and (hopefully) how you can do it too.

stripe rev

Like many of you searching for a business to start, the idea of going from idea to practically a full time income in a few months sounds like a giant load of crap. The kind of thing that “happens to other people”. I don’t want to be so flippant as to say it “happened” to me but throughout this story you should get the sense that much of the outcome feels random. It does to me. I’ve tried to start many businesses (seriously, like 30, and it's taken me 5 years to get here!) and approached them all in essentially the same way as I did this one. That is to say, this outcome is different despite taking the exact same steps in other businesses that failed.

It’s worth it to mention any unfair advantages. I’ve read a lot of posts like these and it’s sometimes the case a founder had an unfair advantage to begin with, and since I do not, I felt as if the article no longer applied. Don’t get me wrong, if you have an unfair advantage, use it! I’m just saying I don’t feel like I did. If I have any, here they are:

  • I write code fast. (probably just like everyone says they’re an above average driver :). This one is irrelevant for this business though.
  • I spent the past 5 years as CTO of a machine learning company (raised $8M) and have had an unusually large number of “character building” moments. This means my pain tolerance is likely higher than average.
  • I used to work at a venture studio and absorbed a lot of startup knowledge by osmosis.

As a software developer mostly working in machine learning the past 5 years, I never thought I’d start a business that involved zero software. It was outside of my wheelhouse. Hell, last year, I couldn’t even sell my own car let alone sell a new service. It wasn’t until a month into Cold Email Studio I remembered the very first “tech” business I ever started was a kind of productized service. I’ve now opened up to the idea of other ways to make money besides pure SaaS, and it feels like a brave new world to me.

If I’m honest with myself, before this company, I had never really experienced product market fit. It felt nebulous, hard to define. I read dozens of articles on it and could never quite grasp it. It shouldn’t feel nebulous. You’ll know when you have it. There won’t be any doubt. I send 100 emails to the right audience, I’ll get 10 meetings and close 6 or 7 of them. Those numbers are holding strong, even as we’ve doubled our price. That’s product market fit.

I hope there’s no click-baity bullshit in here. I’ll try not to teach either. I’m just here to show exactly what I did in as much detail as possible.

The Idea:

I have nothing but love for Indie Hackers, but there’s a ton of mystique and bad advice about picking ideas. This may be unhelpful, but it’s honest: I got lucky with this one. I’m surprised more people don’t admit that. There was absolutely nothing special about this idea. It was literally one of a thousand I have written down. I had just finished writing and self publishing a sci fi book and was doing a 30 day marketing effort around the book (which failed miserably) and needed a new project. As usual, I looked at my never ending list of business ideas in Notion and picked one I fancied at the moment. I have implemented a two-week holding period between when I come up with an idea and when I allow myself to start working on an idea. If I still like it after two weeks, then I’m allowed to start working on it.

my idea list

This particular one stood out because I didn’t have to build anything. I was feeling pretty burned out on software at the time and couldn’t stomach working on something for weeks only to see it fail in the market. In other words, I chose it because it looked like the least amount of work (upfront). This is not a great way to pick a business. It was, however, a problem I knew existed. Many startups execute cold email campaigns. This is a fact. I’d done it myself. I’d seen it done a hundred times at other companies.

Once I selected the idea, which took about 30 minutes, it was time to start working on a landing page, which took about 2 hours. I did write the landing page myself (using code) but I don’t think this matters. I could have (and do now) use webflow so it didn’t matter that I knew how to code given the excellent no-code landing page options available.

Here’s a pic of the landing page (ignore the logos, those came later) of what it was like all throughout our growth from 0 to 10k.

original landing page

Notice the tacky self quote… it’s somewhat compelling, but still. I didn’t have anyone to quote and so quoted why i thought the service should exist 🤣.

I didn’t spend much time on the copy. It was in a voice I’m comfortable with… talking to other founders about a specific problem I know we all have. It’s very informal, and perhaps even a little funny.

Let me point out something in hindsight. The copy I originally wrote got a ton of positive feedback and led to all the initial sales. I got something right here. It was the right message directed at the right audience. It’s important to note how right this was, and how accidental it was. Anyone who read the original copy had zero doubts about what the service did, how we did it, and how much it would cost them. If you don’t have the right message and audience combination, it will feel like “nothing is working”. You might be off by inches and experience complete failure without knowing the cause. Was it the market? Was it the message? Was it the timing? Or was it product? All of these must be aligned for a sale to occur.‍

In fact, the copy on our new site leans into this voice even more.

Initial Outreach:

‍Now that I had a “product” (again, just a landing page) I needed to figure out who to target. There was a recent list of YC companies (check out https://ycdb.co) that had just come out and so I thought, hey, 'they would be a good market for this, why don’t I try them first'. I easily grabbed 100 or so founders and just individually messaged them with a very straight forward email.

our original email copy

I sent out 10 of these and in the first 30 minutes, I had 2 meetings booked. Yes it was for a free offer, but at least I could get people interested via cold email. In two weeks I had a full roster of people I was performing the service for (for free). That was it. I knew I had something within two weeks. It had the right message to the right audience at the right time. Most of which was luck.

In the end, I worked with close to 10% of the most recent YC batch. This is another event that would have been close to impossible to predict, and likely very hard to replicate. Now, every time we speak with a YC company there's always at least one or two referenceable customers the prospect already knows. This is insanely powerful since this business has a trust element (which often is neither present nor necessary for a SaaS product).

After the initial free offers, I used the same list (YC founders) and instead of doing it for free, I started charging $500, then $1,000, then $1,500. Same exact pitch, just different price. Each time I increased the price, I grandfathered in older customers. We're still in that process of raising prices and still don't have much price objection.

Today, we still use this subject line for our cold outbound efforts, and it crushes. “Cold Email As A Service.” Nobody has questions about what we do after I say that. Indeed, the same is true when I’m on sales calls. After I’ve given my little “pitch” (still haven’t done a proper deck), the nearly unanimous feedback I get is “Everything you said is exactly what I expected.” I’m not a sales expert (yet!) and don’t play one on TV but this might be some kind of axiom. In our case, no surprises is a good thing. People are busy, they want a yes/no quickly. Will this help me? yes or no. Our customers are almost always doing this work themselves before handing it off to us. There is no question about the value.

Execution:

Execution on a service business kind of sucks when you’re a one man show. We check email accounts twice daily, hunt leads, draft new copy, keep track of responses, etc. Much of this is done manually, and at the beginning, all of it was done by me. I quickly maxed out at 7 free customers and realized quickly I needed to bring on someone to help. I messaged an old employee at one of my previous companies and got her to help out for $20 an hour. This worked for about two weeks until she said she was going on vacation and to this day I haven’t heard from her. I hope she’s okay!

Finding A Cofounder:

It was at this point I decided that I needed a co-founder. I had also (concurrently) been putting together a group to buy SaaS companies (https://xoxo.capital, we’ve bought 3 so far!). One gentleman in the group was the CEO of a dev shop in the UK and after several weeks of chatting, I asked if he would join me as a co-founder. The timing (again, luck) worked out well in that he was already contemplating a move. He started in February and has been helping crush it ever since. This might be odd, but I asked him to be CEO of the company. His background is much more aligned with service than mine is. His ability to make processes out of people (as opposed to code) is better than mine is. I believe the business will be better with him at the helm.

Today:

We’re still in the throes of figuring out how to put people and systems in place to grow. It’s going to take a while. We’re at ~$13k trailing 4 weeks right now, and getting to $20 won’t be difficult on the sales side, it will be difficult on executing the service at a high quality. We do have product market fit though. Generally, the people who get on a sales call with us end up saying yes, and even those that don’t close will likely take a look at us in the future. Again, timing is usually the biggest reason people don’t immediately start with us.

So what went right? I had the right message to the right market at the right time. This is what we pitch every day to new customers for the service, and it’s true. Even getting 2 of the 3 right can prevent a business from working at all. Generally, getting all three right doesn’t happen… ever (for me). The most likely outcome of starting a new business is that it fails.

Lessons:

I said I wouldn’t try to teach, and I won’t, but I have some personal takeaways from this journey so far (and it’s really just the beginning).

  • Pick a single sentence value prop that is impossible not to understand. Ours is “Cold Email As A Service”. Nobody reads that and thinks “I don’t get it”. They might be curious about how it works but they fundamentally understand what the business does.
  • Service revenue is pretty damn awesome. Yes it’s work, yes, our gross margins are not as high as a pure SaaS, but then again neither were the margins at my last company that did crazy ML stuff. Servers can get as expensive as people. I also now get some budget to start building software, which we’ve already begun doing with https://warm.email (not live yet)
  • Picking a “job to be done” feels much easier with a service business than it does with software. Founders spend hours each week doing cold email / cold linkedin, etc. We do this job for them. It’s a complex enough task (lead hunting, personas, copy, sending, responding, overcoming objections, lots of context about what the business does) that it requires humans. The software version of this would necessarily have to limit the scope, and that software would not complete the entire “job to be done”.
  • If you're a developer. Try broadening your horizons by thinking of other ways to make money aside from pure SaaS. It's been a revelation for me.

Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you!

Andrew

  1. 4

    Great writeup, @andrewpierno! Can you explain how this works operationally?

    Do you get an email account?

    Are you using their email outreach sales tools?

    When I was in sales at startups, I've been pitched this service a lot but never understood how it worked. I assume you get an email account but do you use your own lead lists or taking their data?

    Do you plug into the crm?

    sorry for so many questions, i'm curious!

    1. 4

      You more or less have it correct. It's not very difficult, it's (as I'm sure you know) just work. So we come up with the target audience, we hunt the leads, validate them, etc. We then have copywriters work on the copy, all of this is approved by the customer, and then once we start sending we're quite flexible on how we send it out. Some customers have strong preferences about the tools they want us to use, other customers don't care, so we can use something like lemist or mixmax. We then also check the emails twice a day, and try to overcome objections and book meetings.

      1. 1

        those tools are just awesome man, I didn't know about them

        1. 1

          Yep, lemlist is awesome, but they just literally doubled their prices... time to look for an IHer alternative!

  2. 2

    Looks like downloading the lists and guessing founder's email is a hell of a job.
    Brutal!
    But in the end of the day, some stuff will seep through and you will get some replies.
    The question is - Can you get sales WITHOUT offering free stuff first?

    1. 2

      You definitely can. I wanted a bunch of YC logos legitimately using the service and had zero proof the service worked, so I offered it for free.

      I know the power of that brand and felt like it would be worth it to do it for free for them and it has been. It was a month of my time and now we have a really amazing recognizable customer list (to other YC founders). So it may have been possible to charge up front, but it may not have been faster to gain what I needed (social proof).

      1. 0

        Would you mind sharing the contact emails of these entrepreneurs?
        The reason I’m asking is I would like to also launched a free product for them. And that would save a bunch of time.

        1. 3

          sorry, not going to do that. These are customers and (now) friends.

          1. -1

            This comment has been voted down. Click to show.

  3. 2

    Congratulations Andrew on reaching $10k MRR milestone.

    A quick question: How did you get emails of founders from ycdb.co company list?

    1. 4

      Pro Tip: take the company domain and the founders name from linkedin and use hunter.io to guess it. Most emails are easy to guess. <firstname>@company.com or <f.last>@company.com, etc.

      1. 1

        Wow, that's a great tip :) bookmarked. Thank you.

        1. 1

          @andrewpierno Thank you so much for giving out tips! Appreciated!

          I will definitely use this technique to get emails of SaaS founders to offer them the “automated subscription based billing system” which I’m going to write. The idea is in the validation stage.

          Do you use any automated invoicing system, Andrew?

          @IndiePankaj Sorry to hijack your thread! 😁

          1. 1

            Yup, it's a life-saving tip.
            But let's commit not to spam the founders with unrelated emails :)

      2. 1

        This comment was deleted a month ago.

    2. 1

      The link is no longer working. Did we crush their website?

    3. 1

      This comment was deleted 2 months ago.

  4. 2

    Thanks for sharing this!
    It's a good nudge to revisit my single sentence value prop. I've had two and they're both uniquely awful - there's just so much I want to convey while being clear about the product and with minimal copy-writing (copy writing? copywriting?) aptitude.

    1. 2

      single sentence value props are unfortunately one of those things that's super hard to come up with, but once it's done looks so simple and easy. It's infuriating! haha

  5. 2

    This may be unhelpful, but it’s honest: I got lucky with this one. I’m surprised more people don’t admit that. There was absolutely nothing special about this idea. It was literally one of a thousand I have written down.

    Thanks for this and for the rest.

    A typo, https://ycdb.co

      1. 2

        Wow, their redirection is next level.

        https://www.ycdb.co/

        1. 1

          lol. seriously. that www though!

    1. 1

      Thanks, I'll update it.

  6. 2

    Great thought provoking writeup! Thank you

    1. 1

      Thanks! I hope it's useful!

  7. 1

    This is amazing! Congrats.

    It also painfully reminds me why starting something in Europe is a PIA. But nonetheless a great write-up!

  8. 1

    Hey Andrew, congratulation and, thanks for sharing your experience. Super valuable.

    I think what you mentioned as possible unfair advantages are just things you earned with time and experience. I'm sure you didn't inherit the CTO position.

    I'd say you've earned your place fair and square.

    Also about the way you picked your idea, I would argue that it's precisely an excellent way to pick a winner: it's a problem that lots of people would pay to solve and you happen to find it easy to solve. To the point that you could solve it while being burned out.

    Smells like a winner idea all the way through. But the execution was crucial and you did all the due diligence there. Most people don't have what it takes to get a list of startups and cold email them all in just the right way.

    I learned a lot from this. I wish you all the success.

    Cheers!

    1. 2

      Thanks so much @BeardScript, so glad it was helpful!

  9. 1

    Nice writeup and sharing!

    Question-
    how did you do your landing page in 2 hours + already have all those case studies? Did those come after you did your initial push with a bunch of YC companies?

    1. 1

      I put a little disclaimer up there (ignore the logos, those came later) and same for the case studies. Literally remove those logos and remove the links to the case studies (which ended up being notion documents when I did them a month later).

      As for the landing page, I did it using https://tailwindui.com and copy pasted most of the design and just filled in the copy :)

      1. 1

        Gotcha, yeah, making the landing page I knew would be fast (I also did the same with tailwindui), but I just didn't know how you already had case studies. I missed the disclaimer :)

  10. 1

    Question: is this MRR, or is this just top-line revenue?
    In a productized service business like this, what's your churn been like?

    I guess what I'm trying to understand is how steady a growth curve people starting a service like this can expect.

    In a traditional SaaS you see a pretty slow but steady compounding effect month after month, but in a service business like this... what's the norm? I would expect pretty dramatic swings in churn and revenue, but I'm curious specifically what your experience has been.

    1. 2

      Hard to get all the nuance in a post like this but I treat this like a saas company and bill monthly, but technically it is top line revenue.

      Churn has been lumpy we have a few that have stayed on since the beginning, so going on 4 months strong now. We're also getting better at identifying which companies are likely to stay longer.

      Early customers got a worse service than new customers since we've improved and gotten better ourselves so many early customers churned but sales have been strong so we never went down in revenue. Also as old customers churned, new ones came on at a higher price point.

      In terms of target LTV we're hoping to get 3-6 months and more of our most recent customers look like they're going to fall into that range.

      I don't know if this biz is the exception or the rule but here's roughly what our monthly has come in at:

      Month 0 - $500

      Month 1 - $5k

      Month 2 - $8k

      Month 3 - $10.5k

      Current Month - $14k (expected)

      Currently we're a little bottlenecked as we've had to properly build an operations team around the product. Up until month 2/3 it was not bad to be doing all the work myself.

      Once we're more confident in the people operations to scale I don't see why we couldn't get to $50k top line (roughly MRR) by the end of the year but I will happily report back to see if that was wayyyy off or not ambitious enough :)

      1. 1

        Cool! Thanks for the transparency. I'm rooting for you!

  11. 1

    Hey I pretty much copied and pasted your cold email to some people on reddit and less than an hour later I get this

    https://i.imgur.com/THEFsVi.png

    Pretty awesome! Thanks for this write up!

    1. 1

      Hell yeah! go get em!

  12. 1

    Good read, thanks 🤙

    1. 1

      Thank you for reading!

  13. 1

    Great writeup. Thanks for sharing. 👍

  14. 1

    Hey @andrewpierno, thanks for sharing!

    So would you say cold emailing leads is your only and current marketing strategy?

    1. 1

      It has been so far, but we're now at the point where we can think about getting fancy. But I'm confident we could get to $25k MRR using cold email as our primary channel.

  15. 1

    Thanks for taking time to write this Andrew!
    I really like the tip about ycdb :)

    You describe how you got the first free clients, but I don't read clearly how you got paying clients and reached 10k? Just continued to reach out to companies or any other channels?

    1. 1

      Oh, same exact way. Same pitch, same market. In that initial list of 100, instead of the free offer, I asked for $500, then $1,000, then $1,500.

      1. 1

        Nice! Good luck Andrew

        1. 1

          Did you add the cases studies? In the email?

  16. 1

    Very insightful read, Andrew! Thanks for sharing!

  17. 1

    Very motivating!. Thanks for sharing

    1. 1

      Thanks for reading! Glad you found value!

  18. 1

    I wonder how you charge this service? Thank you for your time to share this.

    1. 2

      By the metric ton... kidding. Our prices are on the website!

  19. 1

    Nice work @andrewpierno, this is a nice product, you let this slip on your page https://snipboard.io/D8XIsU.jpg in https://www.coldemail.studio/careers XD

    1. 1

      haha, yep, fresh webflow site, we def missed a few areas. Thanks!

  20. 1

    "If I still like it after two weeks, then I’m allowed to start working on it." that's me. :D

    1. 1

      haha, it's been a super useful rule!

  21. 1

    Really interesting story @andrewpierno, thanks for speaking this openly about it.

    You've mentioned that you worked as CTO of a ML company. I'm currently working in that space and would love to hear your thoughts on my current project approach.

    Can I send you an email?

  22. 1

    Thank you for sharing!

    1. 1

      my pleasure, thanks for reading!

  23. 1

    Super interesting insight and well written!

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