Jean-Loup Karst co-founded a small, France-based hiring and staffing startup called Breaz.io. And he was frustrated.
Unlike his competitors, Jean-Loup was bootstrapping it; no accelerators, no incubators, outside of a big tech ecosystem. The playing field didn't feel fair. When he looked around at other startups, ones that did have those things, he realized that they had something he didn't: "perks." These are small yet possibly unfairly valuable advantages, like business tools, access to enterprise-level app tiers, free or discounted products to help a business, etc.
In the end, Jean-Loup sold Breaz.io to Hired.com for over $1 million in combined cash and stocks. But even though his first startup was eventually a big success, he couldn't shake the thought that the road there would have been so much easier if he'd had access to those small benefits so many others had.
Thats when he had an idea for his next project. In 2019, supporting himself with unemployment checks, he started Secret, to give other founders those perks that his competitors had and that he had once wished fo, with the goal of helping anyone become an entrepreneur.
The project, however, was met with immediate, serious challenges. Neither Jean-Loup nor his co-founder, Edouard, knew how to code. Edouard enrolled in a coding bootcamp called Le Wagon to learn Ruby on Rails and StimulusJS, which the site still uses, though they've now hired a freelancer to help handle the tech side of Secret.
"The challenge when you don't have a lot of resources and a full-time technical team is that you have a lot of ideas but you must observe your budget constraints and always be in a "the less the better" mindset."
The next challenge was that he didn't know how to monetize the site's offerings. Secret offers consumers excellent deals on a variety of digital tools, and the point was to make these perks accessible as possible, but companies weren't willing to just offer the deals for free, and most didn't want to pay Jean-Loup a commissioned finder's fee. So, he had to charge his audience for memberships.
Unfortunately, his first pricing plan, freemium with a very cheap paid tier, got no bites. It turned out that users thought the deal was "too good to be true" and assumed it was a scam. This forced him to pivot to a different sort of freemium model, this time with a $99 Premium package and a $199 Unlimited package. Some of Secret's offerings are only available at the higher price points, like deals with big-name companies like AWS, Notion, and Airtable.
This year, one of Jean-Loup's goals is to offer another tier, but he's not in a rush. He'll be the first to tell you that iterating on a pricing strategy is a challenge that you shouldn't undertake lightly.
Jean-Loup had two of the three ingredients he needed for a successful company - a market fit and website - but he still needed more customers to keep afloat. And that proved to be much harder than he anticipated. In fact, Secret failed at most of the "classic" indie hacker strategies.
Product Hunt hid Secret on their platform, due to its similarities with their own Founder Club. Cold emailing and LinkedIn outreach drove virtually no conversions either. Search engine marketing wasn't a good fit for their budget constraints. It felt like nothing was working.
Because of these challenges, most of Secret's of their growth was from word of mouth. They had a free offering, and they worked hard to use that as leverage to build partnerships with organizations to spread the word. They also launched an affiliate program, which drove roughly 20% of the site's total growth. Finally, after May 2020, they finally hit enough of a stride to see partnerships and affiliations truly pay off.
But even when it wasn't paying off, Jean-Loup didn't see giving up as an option.
"We always felt we were into something. What was missing for a while was market fit. We always felt all it took was to do the right pivot. That's what kept us going, the feeling that we were close."
Though things were finally going well for Secret, Jean-Loup had one more big roadblock in his path to success.
In early 2020, Jean-Loup believed that the secret to success would be to onboard as many SaaS tools as possible. A third co-founder, Max, who had been the first employee back at Breaz, to handle it.
This turned out to be a mistake. Most of the new SaaS offerings were unwilling to pay additional commissions, and weren't worth the expense. Jean-Loup and his co-founders instead pivoted their strategy, but that killed the third co-founder's job, and the partnership ended in September 2020.
"Those discussions were hard as Max thought it could still help the company grow, but we realized revenues were not high enough to make three people live out of it, so we had to make a tough decision."
Today, Secret isn't a secret anymore. The platform now has over 10,000 users, and is making $18,000 each month, growing by another $1,000 monthly on average.
But Jean-Loup's biggest pieces of advice have less to do with improving your business and more to do with improving yourself. Tip number one? Go to therapy.
"I’ve been in therapy for five years now. I think it improved the quality of my mind tremendously. It takes a lot of hard work to get to the truth of your personal story, of what your body knows in its cells, and also the untold story and truth of your family. But this process is extraordinarily liberating. The quality of your mind is the quality of your life. Overall today I’m less stressed, less anxious, I better trust my intuition, and my ability to focus has improved. My emotions are more stable."
All things that make you a happier, healthier person and a better founder.
He also suggests that founders take the time to do manual things themselves, and keep in mind that success and failure are cycles not finals. Lastly,
"Talk to your customers on the phone. Ask them questions. Listen. They are the ones that will give you the best ideas for the business."