Growth August 19, 2020

$1M as an indie dev

Chris Oliver @excid3

🎉 I just crossed $1M in revenue on Stripe for my business GoRails. (https://www.indiehackers.com/product/gorails)

Never thought I'd actually see that number happen. I'm not sure I realized how hard it would be going in. Life would have certainly been easier to just get a software engineer role and I probably would have made more money, but I'm glad I persevered.

I posted this on Twitter, but I thought IndieHackers might find this interesting.

You can read the thread here where I shared some thoughts on this milestone: https://twitter.com/excid3/status/1295730795148193792

Just thought I'd share as I know these posts were what inspired me when I was starting out.

❓For those of you working on your first $1M, any questions I could answer for you?

  1. 4

    If you think of all the things you run, what’s something where you spend a lot of time and it wasn’t as valuable in the end? And what’s something you wish you did earlier?

    I feel like as indie Hacker there’s many topics and it’s a bit of trial and error to see what matters and what maybe less. In the beginning you don’t have as much data / feedback.

    Thank you again for your amazing work!

    1. 3

      You know, that's a hard question to answer. I'm sure there's been tons of things but since I've quit doing them, I have mostly forgotten what they were. Haha! Heck, sometimes that's just a product in general. It's a lot more work than it's worth and you have to decide whether you sell it, shut it down, or pivot it.

      I know I spent a lot of time writing little blog posts that never really mattered so I've stopped doing that. Instead I try to write more things that are evergreen and for my email list.

      I wish I had spent more time on my email list honestly. Those are people who specifically want to see more content from you and you just have a more personal connection with them over email than you do on twitter, etc. I'd have invested more time into that consistently throughout the years.

  2. 3

    Amazing and deserved.

    In calculating your compensation for GoRails, I think you left out something very valuable: the value of the personal brand you built and the audience you gathered.

    As someone going into the software education business myself (focus: intersection of software and marketing for founders), I'm curious to hear your thoughts about charging a subscription vs. charging per product (e.g. like "Learn the Hard Way" or like many of the course sellers out there.)

    1. 3

      It's true, the brand is very valuable. There's no way to put a concrete number on it, so it's hard to say what it's worth exactly.

      The subscription is really useful because it's stable. I know what I'll make next month. If you sell courses, you've got to build up hype for a launch and try to maximize sales during that time. It can make a lot more money because people are willing to spend $150 on a course, but only $19 a month for a subscription. That $150 might very well be a higher LTV than the monthly subscription.

      Of course, this depends on your product and what you're trying to accomplish a bit. GoRails is a subscription cuz I want the incentive to continually produce new content otherwise I'd probably take a break and might never come back. 😅

  3. 2

    Congrats @excid3

    I am one of your customer, and probably will continue to be as long as GoRails exists. Keep on rocking!

    1. 1

      That makes my day @1979 🙏

  4. 2

    Did you have to give away much before you could charge?

    1. 1

      Just the first 15 videos originally, but I still give away free content about every other week. It goes a long way to building trust and I end up charging for the more advanced stuff that takes me more time to make which people are happy to pay for.

  5. 2

    Congrats on the $1M, Chris!

    Are you still splitting your efforts between GoRails and Jumpstart? Or do you mainly work on GoRails now?

    Also, would you recommend Jumpstart/Pro for me if I am currently learning Ruby and Rails and want a good, simple example of a Rails app to refer to? I'm not sure if Jumpstart is more oriented toward devs who are experienced in Rails and don't want to repeat boilerplate or if it can actually be used as a starting point for novice Rails devs.

    Thanks so much!

    1. 4

      I split my time on the products. GoRails probably gets 1/4rd of my time, Hatchbox gets 1/2, and Jumpstart gets 1/4th.

      Jumpstart turned out to be really interesting. I definitely intended for it to be a template to save you time, but so many people have told me that it's the perfect app to learn what real production code looks like and how it's tested, etc. I never really planned for that, but it does make total sense to me that it's a great template to learn from. I'd have absolutely bought Jumpstart when I was learning Rails because I know I would have learned a lot from it (like how to model complex things like teams/accounts, invites, etc).

      1. 1

        Ok great to hear! Thanks for the reply!

  6. 2

    This is AWESOME and the Rails community is lucky to have you :)

    1. 1

      Thanks Manuel 🙏

  7. 2

    Congratulations! You deserve it, GoRails has helped me tremendously. Hope you are not retiring to a beach soon, need more episodes :)

    1. 2

      No retiring yet! Gotta keep growing and making things better!

  8. 2

    Congrats!

    What are your top three recommendations for someone who is just starting out learning Rails?

    1. 3
      1. Learn Ruby well. Rails takes advantage of so much of the unique features of Ruby that it can be confusing. I'm actually creating a course on all the things I wish I knew about Ruby to help save time. The metaprogramming aspects of Ruby are really powerful and make Rails possible.

      2. Get good at debugging. So many people struggle with this. When you get an error with a long backtrace, learn how to read it. It's telling you exactly what happened, but most people see it and get scared.

      3. Build an app or two you'll use every day. Could be a todo list or calendar. Deploy it to production, add features to it, fix bugs, get friends to use it. Doing this got me my first couple of jobs and taught me a ton in a short period of time. Far more than just following tutorials and building brand new apps would.

  9. 1

    This is amazing - inspiring! What have you found is your best marketing channel for getting people interested in a learning / course work?

    1. 2

      It's a mixture. People are tweeting about learning, asking questions on Reddit, and looking for tutorials on YouTube but SEO is also a great driver. All good places to find people who are trying to get better.

  10. 1

    Congrats Chris, much deserved. Love your videos on GoRails!

  11. 1

    @excid3, congrats! I think it is admirable what you have achieved!

    I have two question for you:

    • Is all revenue generated by jumpstart and hatch, or does gorails have a business model of its own?
    • If you were to do it all over again, how would you go about it?
    1. 2

      GoRails makes about half the revenue and was my original product. Over the years I've added on Hatchbox and Jumpstart and they're starting to make money now.

      I'm not sure what I would do differently. When I started, I had no audience and no idea what I was doing. I'd probably have shared more of what I was doing early on instead of waiting till I polished it up. People like ongoing updates and keeping things secret until they're "finished" only hinders you when you have a small audience. That hopefully would have sped up my first year or two.

  12. 1

    I'm not sure I realized how hard it would be going in.

    That's what she said. Haha.

    When you started making your first few sales, how much of the money you made did you reinvest? No exact numbers needed, just an estimate.

    1. 1

      I reinvested as little as possible actually. I was trying to live on the income, so it needed to be as profitable as I could make it so I could eat and pay rent. Originally my expenses were about $99/mo (Wistia I believe) and that the rest was profit I could use to pay bills.

  13. 1

    Congrats Chris! This is very inspiring.

  14. 1

    Firstly, congratulations, you just crossed a huge milestone every indie developer aims for, and secondly, how much profit did you make?

    1. 1

      I'm not sure exactly. I have between $1-2k/mo in expenses, so that'd come out to like $156k in expenses if it was $2k/mo on average for 6.5 years. That's probably in the ballpark.

  15. 1

    Awesome. I use GoRails all the time. Great product.

    1. 1

      Love hearing that. Thanks for all your support George!

  16. 1

    Happy for you Chris, that's amazing.

    I wish I came across this when I was first learning Rails on the job, instead I had my manager buy me these dusty old 2017 Rails books and I ditched them all for a free version of the Odin's Project.

    Got a few questions about content creation, if that's cool?

    1. I'm assuming that you weren't expert in everything you would would write about when you first started, how did you produce valuable content to those who were ahead of you in Rails? Specifically, what was your process for learning and generating content? And how did you know that you went deep enough with your content?

    2. I'm also curious about your process for prioritizing what kind of content to produce? Is there specific data that you looked at, customers you talked to, or was it a gut feel decision?

    3. What are the quantitative metrics and qualitative questions/feedback that you would get from your users that helped you decide whether some content was a win vs. not?

    4. What docs do you use to organize your content and planning docs? I'm using quip and DP paper and it's a little sub optimal for me, but I'm focusing on market research at the moment, so I don't have time to try out a bunch of other software.

    1. 2
      1. I taught what I knew. Since I had a few years experience, I could teach the stuff I learned over that time. Then I'd push myself, learn new things and try and teach those. Trying to teach stuff forces you into learning it really deeply, so that has really accelerated my pace of learning I feel like.

      Most of the time, I need to learn stuff on real projects and then I can teach it. It's helped to do a little consulting or build other products so I can extract learnings from those and teach them. Makes creating content a thousand times easier.

      I always try to almost over-explain things. I don't want to gloss over anything because those are the crucial things to fill in the gaps sometimes. I've seen plenty of tutorials that skim over things and you end up just as confused as you were when you started.

      1. It's a lot of gut feeling. Stuff I wish I learned earlier is always great content and something a customer couldn't tell me they wanted. Sometimes people need help on a specific topic, so that's another good source of tutorial ideas. And new libraries and tools coming out are always good too.

      2. Number of comments I got was the main metric. If it got people talking, then I knew it was something we should dive in more on. Simple metric and easy to keep an eye on.

      3. I actually don't plan too much. I have a general idea in my head and I try to create the content as I would in real life if I wasn't recording. I want to try to record my regular workflow as opposed to following a script. That said, I'll usually practice building the feature 2 or 3 times while explaining it out loud so when I sit down to actually record I don't run into as many issues. It gets distracting if you're debugging in the middle of a video and takes away from the main thing. Debugging is important to teach too, but it is so distracting that I prefer if things are more streamlined and we talk about that separately.

      1. 1

        Insightful, appreciate it! Do you mind if I reach out for some advice on building an audience?

  17. 1

    Wow congrats and well deserved! Have fun with achieving the next $1M!

    1. 1

      I'll be sure to share the story when I get there. Seems like it'll be a lot easier for the second million.

  18. 1

    Hello Chris 👋

    thank you for sharing that! I’m curious about what kind of analysis are you applying on your customer base in order to grow the LTV.

    Thank you 🙏

    1. 1

      I'm mostly looking at the type of product. Education subscriptions typically have very high churn, so I've expanded my offerings to sell other things with higher LTVs. Other education SaaS owners I've talked to have all had the same struggles with churn. Once you teach people what they need, they don't have a reason to stick around.

      1. 1

        A tip... I have had a client with educational subscription business, I found interesting segmenting his customer base, using these metrics: subscription tier, time on platform and scoring.

        For scoring: define your best client, analyzing his journey and actions he made in order to give him the max score, and sub sequentially give a score to all others.

        Survey to churned users help me to recover back their subscription (you should use, after the survey, a Soap Opera Sequence for example).

        Always, thanks for sharing with us your experience! 🙏

  19. 1

    Amazing stuff Chris, enjoyed reading your Twitter thread and awesome to have you open up an AMA here as well.

    I was wondering how do you go about marketing your new products? I imagine brand plays a big role now, but before you got to that point, how did you go about spreading the word and building the userbase?

    1. 4

      Brand makes it about a million times easier now. In the early days, I'd spend my time creating content (videos, blog posts, tutorials, etc) that I couldn't find online. Those are things that are easily shared on Reddit, Twitter, etc and tend to rank for SEO easier because they're not oversaturated topics. Finding inspiration for those topics can be hard, but if you pay attention, things like google searches you do but can't find the answer quickly are prime candidates for a topic you could write about.

  20. 0

    It's always surprising to me how much money people spend on video courses. I guess there are different types or leaners.

    Personally I prefer reading books and documentation, after that I just build something.

    Though sometimes it is a very nice low effort introduction in an area where I have no prior knowledge.

    1. 1

      I personally only like learning by doing. I just start creating something, and if I don't know how to do something, I Google it. I hate the idea of spending tens of hours reading/learning something just to forget it and to have to search for it again when I start building stuff.

      I understand that many others prefer written courses or watching videos, but I also think many of those just do it because watching a video is easier than creating something, so they feel like they are progressing or doing something for thei future, when actually they just learn information that, unless used to create something, is useless.

      1. 1

        Doing something is definitely the best if you want to truly understand the subject, which in turn makes it easier to remember. I used to go straight into building things more often, but in the long run, I wasted a lot of time debugging errors, that would have been obvious had I taken more time upfront.

        e.g. If I start working with a new AWS service I spend an hour or two reading the documentation front to back, at least the parts that are relevant to me. DynamoDB is a good example, there is no way in hell you are going to get modeling your access patterns right the first time, without a lot of research and even than you will get it wrong a couple of times.

        In my opinion spending more time learning in the beginning instead of hacking around, produces code that is more idiomatic and easier to maintain, which might not be something you care about as an indiehacker when you work alone and that is fine too.

    2. 1

      Video fits visual learners well. I know I learn a lot watching someone else work, so video is great for that and not something you could ever do in books or documentation.

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