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80 Comments

I bootstrapped a budgeting app to $80k ARR as a company of one and digital nomad. AMA!

Hello fellow Indie Hackers!

I'm Jen– founder, engineer, designer & customer support at Lunch Money!

I've been asked to do this AMA and I couldn't be more excited. I've always been open to sharing my journey and the highs & lows of running a SaaS, either through my blog or my Twitter.

Here's a summary of my journey so far:

  • I studied computer engineering in university and started my career as an engineer at Twitter before co-founding a pet health start-up. We went through YC Fellowship #1 and 500 Startups before I eventually burnt out. I then left the company, the US, and all prior constructs surrounding work & personal happiness.
  • I traveled around Asia & Europe for 7 months where I sought out new experiences like living and working on a farm in rural Thailand, living in a tiny commune in the French mountains with a local family and working as a waitress and living on a campsite in wine country. I also wrote about how much solo traveling costed me.
  • After my travels, I moved back to Toronto (where I was born & raised) and started freelancing for various companies. At the time, my husband and I settled into fully remote work, allowing us to live abroad in Asia during the treacherous Canadian winters and come back to Toronto during the blissful summers & falls.
  • While in Fukuoka, I started working on an idea for a new app to solve my own needs for a budgeting and expense tracker that supports multicurrency– thus, Lunch Money was born!
  • After 8 months of coding, I launched on Show HN.
  • It's been nearly 20 months since then and I've recently reached a milestone of 1000 paying users and $80k ARR!
  • I'm still operating as a company of one and I have recently been hiring some contractors on a part-time or project basis. I feel lucky that I'm finally in a position where I absolutely love what I do and I'm proud of the impact that my work has had so far.
  • Currently I'm living in Taipei, Taiwan.

If you're interested in diving deeper, do check out my blog! Specifically, the following posts on solopreneurship may be of interest to the Indie Hackers community:

AMA!

Edit: since I'm operating in GMT+8, I'm off to bed now but will make sure to get to all remaining questions in the AM :) Thanks everyone so far for your questions, kind words and continued support!

Edit 2: Good morning, I'm back and caught up with all the questions so far! Thanks again for all the love 🥰

  1. 10

    I remember initially hearing your story on the IH podcast last year.

    As a maker whose built and failed a million different products, your own journey was a great reminder of how important consistency is while playing the long game.

    Can't wait to see where you'll be in the next 12 months 🙌

    1. 1

      Thank you!! :D Best of luck on your projects!

  2. 5

    Hi Jen,

    Congrats on your hard work.

    I'm interested in your market position. Budgeting itself is not a new topic (actually my banking app has it build-in). Googling "money budget app" I can see 4 paid ads and the first search result states "7 best budget apps in 2021".

    Where in the market do you position your product? Why did you decide to build your product despite existing (strong) competition?

    1. 10

      Great question! I think it's important to note that I didn't come into this with the goal of taking a significant market share. Even now, I think I would be pretty happy with a couple thousand users since that would be more than enough to pay for my lifestyle. I don't feel the need or pressure to break top 5 or 10 budgeting apps.

      The main reason, as noted above, that I started Lunch Money is because there wasn't an existing solution (that I liked) that supported multicurrency. This was important to me since I had money in CAD, USD and I was living abroad and spending in JPY and NTD.

      Currently, the biggest differentiators between the top X budgeting apps and Lunch Money are multicurrency support (great for digital nomads, cross-border banking folks, etc) and crypto portfolio tracking. Our whole angle now is that we're a personal finance app for the modern-day spender. This permeates beyond our feature set but is also evident in our tech stack and UI/UX. For these reasons, we're popular with high-earning millennials, software engineers and other tech-forward individuals and we can position ourselves as more of a premium product. A lot of the existing top X budget apps are geared more towards people trying to get out of debt so the feature sets and philosophy are fundamentally different.

      Hope that answers your question!

      1. 1

        Hi Jen,

        Really nice explanation. Most of the time, we don’t start the idea thinking how can I compete with big players and just move on. We need to go to the basics like now I relate , how in the town shops selling similar stuff are usually nearby and it doesn’t mean they will not be able to sell. Every shop has their own customers which will go to them no matter they can get the same stuff from other shop also. Its maybe the way shopkeeper treats them and personal biases. So, its all about understanding customer and acquire them and not go in the wild and try to acquire all of them.

        1. 1

          It's a matter of targeting and, perhaps even more, positioning your product.

          I've read a great book about this by April Dunford, called: obviously awesome (aff link: https://amzn.to/3roM6rN)

          It discusses how a crowd market is a good sign, and gives tips on how to set your existing product apart from others by positioning it in a certain way.

          @lunchbag Love how you've managed to get a certain segment to notice your product and go from there 👌🏻

  3. 2

    Hi Jen,
    congrats!!!! I would like to know what distribution channels you are using to attract users? I am currently working on Sponsorgap and building/thinking about the best way to market the idea as a company of one with limited time.

    1. 2

      Hello! Thank you!

      I mentioned below where our users mostly come from-

      In the beginning, they came mostly from Hacker News and Twitter.

      Now, they come from:

      1. Google (yay SEO efforts!)
      2. personal finance blogs/news sites that have us listed in their "Top X budgeting app" listicles
      3. Twitter
      4. a few other sites where we've posted the product or done interviews or been featured, like Product Hunt, Failory and Netlify
  4. 2

    Hi Jen 👋,

    I've followed your journey and Lunch Money over the past couple months and just want to say huge congrats! 🎉 It's really inspirational.

    What advice would you give folks who are looking to start their solo / side hustle journey while still having a traditional job?

    1. 2

      Thank you!!

      I've summarized in this blog post 4 specific life and career decisions that I consider foundational to my solopreneurship journey:

      • Joining the right companies
      • Optimizing experience breadth-to-depth ratio
      • Building something from scratch
      • Hitting the reset button

      Hope that helps!

  5. 1

    🎉 congratulations

  6. 1

    Random and small question - I love the UI/UX, how did you build out your .com website?

    Thanks and congrats!

  7. 1

    What a life Jen 🥳 I didn't know you worked as a waitress before. Is that just for experiencing a different life, or making some lunch money? 😜

  8. 1

    Hey, and I just got started with your web app and I already love it, I'm a Senior iOS Developer and It would be awesome if we could work together in case you wanted to cerate an iOS Version of your app.

  9. 1

    Hi Jen! Truly awesome post. We'd love to share this in this weekend's newsletter! Keep up the amazing work. :-)

  10. 1

    Hi Jen. Thank you for sharing this truly inspiring journey. I wonder how you chose the techstack in the early day?

    https://lunchmoney.app/stack

    1. 1

      Sorry, you explained everything in the blog :))

      https://lunchbag.ca/lunch-money/

  11. 1

    Hi! Do you feel overwhelmed with the amount of work that you have to do as a solo founder? How do you approach your work load?

    1. 2

      Great question! I used to feel overwhelmed a lot but not so much anymore since I've started outsourcing certain tasks (mainly support).

      A few weeks ago, I sat down and reflected on what I wish I had more time to do and what I rather not be spending my time doing. That's how I decided to hire the contractors that I did, so I could free up more time to do engineering & writing (I wrote about this in my first weekly retrospective). I think it's easier to feel overwhelmed when you're faced with tasks you're not excited about.

      I try to stay very organized and write everything I need to do down with a clear deadline (I use Noteplan) for this). Storing things in my head often leads to anxiety for me (what if I forgot or misremembered something?). I also take a lot more breaks these days because I find that stepping away for a few hours usually brings me back to good spirits when I return to my work.

      Hope that helps!

  12. 1

    Oh wow, that app is awesome. My wife and I have tracked our expenses for almost 10 years in a Google Sheet and a couple of years ago I created a basic Flutter App to replace it. I've been meaning to add more features to it, but I think I'm just gonna use this instead.

    And also because of this: "I'm optimizing for happiness & freedom, not profit!".
    Love it!

    PS. Are you by any chance a "Mustachian"?

    1. 1

      Thank you! I'm definitely a fan of MMM!

    2. 1

      I'm sure tons of ppl here are mustachians, whether they know it or not.

  13. 1

    Hey Jen,

    Thanks for posting your milestone and congrats on your success.

    I really needed a story like yours today. Thank you for sharing, it got me hyped about my own idea.

    Keep it up. :)

    1. 1

      Aw thank you! Remember to enjoy the journey :)

  14. 1

    Thanks for sharing this

  15. 1

    Hey @lunchbag love what you're up to. You've accomplished a ton working on this all by yourself! I read your "biggest mistakes" article and loved it. I also made very similar mistakes with my app (pricing/trial period). Seeing your product is really motivating given that we're up against some heavy competitors too. I'd love to know, what's help you the most with sharing your story and what kind of experimentations have you done marketing-wise to help you get your first few hundred users?

    1. 3

      Thank you!

      I'd love to know, what's help you the most with sharing your story

      Do you mean where do I get the courage to share my story or how has sharing my story helped my path?

      I'll try to answer both quickly... I think it's important to be transparent especially as a minority in tech. Through my writing, I've always loved demystifying paths that others may view as daunting or too unknown. Sharing my story has helped tremendously with growing Lunch Money– a few of my posts were lucky enough to hit front page of Hacker News or get decent exposure via Twitter which always brings on lots of new signups.

      what kind of experimentations have you done marketing-wise to help you get your first few hundred users?

      I wrote about how I got each of my hundred or so users in my last weekly retrospective! Worth noting that I never really had (still don't) a solid marketing strategy, just mostly throwing darts in the dark. For now I think the best strategy is to build backlinks by getting your product (or yourself as a founder) featured or posted in various other places! I mentioned in some other comments how most of my visitors find me these days (Google, listicles, Twitter, other backlinks)

      1. 1

        Thanks for taking the time to thoroughly answer, really appreciate it! I gotta say, I checked out the “rules” feature you have and for Lunch Money and think it’s pretty spectacular. Must have been so much development work on your end!

        Looking forward to seeing your growth! Appreciate all the tips, extremely helpful for someone like me whose a first time founder also in fintech. If you need help in any way, let me know. More than happy to lend a help albeit, ur already doing such a killer job on your own 🥳

        1. 2

          Thanks! :) Best of luck on your product!

  16. 1

    Love your work, congratulations!

  17. 1

    Simple question - how do you present yourself professionally as a solo founder who does everything? Curious if calling yourself "Founder" is sufficient in conversations or if you've needed some additional context, or is this a non-issue since you're so busy ;)

    1. 3

      Hi! I haven't run into this issue yet. My email signature is "Founder and Chief Budgeter" which is a bit cheeky but I've never had any problems (that I know of) because of it. It is likely that my product and my public persona speak for themselves.

      Sometimes if I'm on a call with a potential vendor and they keep talking about "my team" I may eventually correct them and tell them they're speaking with the entire team already.

  18. 1

    now that you've become (more or less) financially independent, What are your next goals in life?

    1. 3

      Keep chasing personal happiness & satisfaction. To me, being financially independent means more freedom to live the life I want. My current goals outside of building Lunch Money are:

      • fitness (started personal training to try to get to a healthier state!),
      • language learning (hoping to get fluent-ish in Mandarin while I'm living in Taiwan)
      • relationships (trying to carve out more time to spend with family)
      1. 2

        This sums up a healthy life! thank you for sharing with us.

  19. 1

    Nothing to ask in particular but I just want to start a cult to you, this is so awesome!

  20. 1

    Congrats Jen! I remember meeting you at one of our IH Toronto meetups when you were at 1k MRR!? We'd love to have you share your journey with the community virtually especially for a B2C app :)

    1. 1

      Haha hi Johnny! That felt like a long time ago. Sure, would love to :)

  21. 1

    Thanks for sharing this. Couple of questions:

    1. What's your tech stack ? Did you build both frontend and backend by yourself ?
    2. Did you build a MVP before the full product, if so how long did it take ?
      1. 1

        Thanks for posting those!

        I built an MVP in about 2 months for my husband and I to start using. From there, it took about another 6 months of polishing and beta testing before launching into the wild.

  22. 1

    How did you get your first 100 users and do you attribute that early traction to luck, hard work or both?

    1. 1

      First 100 users was luck :) They all came from my Show HN post which hit front page for nearly 24 hours.

      Early traction was pretty luck-based and came mostly from word of mouth. Current traction is the result of hard work– doing interviews, writing case studies, improving SEO, etc.

  23. 1

    I haven't seen any mentions in your blog posts about the coding aspects of Lunch Money. When you get errors you don't understand where do you turn when you don't have teammates to lean on? Stack Overflow? What do you do when days go by with no answers to your question? ...or maybe this only happens to me?

    1. 3

      Yup, if I don't know it, I'll Google it.

      I've had a lot of experience in software engineering (software engineer at a large company > technical co-founder who built very early iterations of products > freelance engineer) before starting Lunch Money so I'm pretty comfortable with debugging and resolving bugs. Building real-world experience in various environments is invaluable to being a solo founder.

      Worth nothing that it's always a good idea to know when to take a break. Most of the time, a difficult bug is only difficult because I'm tired/frustrated and I'm only looking at it from one perspective. After a good night's sleep, my head is clear to tackle it from a new angle in the morning.

  24. 1

    Please have another podcast, you're interview was my favorite. You can literally talk about anything, you have plenty of fans.

    & of course, congratulations on the success. No one deserves it more than you.

    1. 2

      Ah, thank you so much for your continued support!

  25. 1

    Hi Jen,

    Congrats on this incredible milestone! I first came across Lunch Money via your post on Reddit, showcasing the tech stack behind it - you've been a big inspiration to me ever since I saw it and then listened to your IH podcast. Really happy to hear things are going from strength to strength for you! Wishing you all the best!

    1. 2

      That's so nice to hear, thank you so much!

  26. 1

    Jen this is great. Your journey is inspiring.

  27. 1

    Hi Jen, amazing accomplishments!
    I'd like to know if you see yourself hiring people in the near future?
    If so, when would be the tipping point?

    1. 1

      Thanks!

      Great question. I'm pretty happy with the situation now, where I handle engineering & design and I have contractors helping me with marketing and support. When I eventually hired the contractors, I was already passed my tipping point which was when I realized how much time I was spent doing those tasks (thanks to time tracking). I rather be spending my time coding & designing so right now I'm optimizing for that.

      As for when or if I'll hire engineers to work alongside me, I really can't say yet since I enjoy doing everything myself too much!

  28. 1

    Hi Jen,
    Amazing work. Congrats!!

    Technical question, What is your stack?

    Financial question, What is the way that you move money between countries?

    1. 1

      Thanks!

      Our stack is listed here: https://lunchmoney.app/stack

      For moving money, I use Wise (fka Transferwise).

  29. 1

    Would you do YC again or do you prefer the bootstrapped route?

    1. 1

      Bootstrapped 100%, especially because I'm optimizing for freedom, not profit.

      I think it's great that YC exists but I personally don't think I have the DNA, willpower or desire to grind away at a business the way they expect you to. For me, at least right now, it's not worth any number of millions (though maybe one day this will change. Who knows what life will throw at me?).

      1. 1

        ok, good to know! Yeah, I'm probably the same. The dark side is tempting though sometimes :)

        1. 1

          haha maybe we'll be in a cohort together someday 😂

  30. 1

    Hi Jen, I have a question about distribution.
    Where do your visitors/users come from.

    1. 2

      In the beginning, they came mostly from Hacker News and Twitter.

      Now, they come from:

      1. Google (yay SEO efforts!)
      2. personal finance blogs/news sites that have us listed in their "Top X budgeting app" listicles
      3. Twitter
      4. a few other sites where we've posted the product or done interviews or been featured, like Product Hunt, Failory and Netlify
      1. 1

        Out of curiosity, how many visitors from Google end up using the app?

        1. 1

          About 7% sign up for a free trial coming from Google but hopefully that will change in the next few months since I just re-launched our marketing site with brand new copy :)

  31. 1

    Hey Jen, so wanted to understand how did you handle customer engagement and what were your main traction channels in the beginning?

    1. 2

      In the beginning, I wrote a lot about the journey on my blog and was lucky to hit the front page a few times which is where I would experience spikes in signups. I also had a few notable tech influencers Tweet about us which drove interest, but these quickly faded.

      To be honest, the first few months, there wasn't a sustainable, long-term way of getting users. We were mostly experiencing spikes.

      I wrote about how we acquired users in the beginning in my last weekly retrospective.

      1. 2

        this is the answer i came here looking for 🙏 the technical side i understand but marketing a product has always seemed like magic, reading about journeys that started in a similar place to mine is super helpful. Awesome product by the way!

  32. 1

    What's your favorite lunch place in Taipei?

      1. 1

        Definitely. Those pictures look so good!

  33. 1

    Hi Jen, two non-related questions:

    • Why did you decide to run Lunch Money as a company of one?
    • How did you get your first customers for Lunch Money?
    1. 3

      Hi Leo! Thanks for the questions.

      Why did you decide to run Lunch Money as a company of one?

      I started Lunch Money as a passion project and as it grew, I never felt compelled to search for a cofounder or grow a team. My guess is because my prior work experience at Twitter & as a co-founder of a start-up left me really craving full autonomy and freedom over my work.

      As it stands now, I still feel sustainable as a company of one and I honestly feel that it's more fun this way. I've read stories of founders who eventually built out a team and they no longer code or they spend most of their time managing or doing administrative tasks and I'd like to avoid that. I know that would lead to slower growth of the company but to me, it's worth it. I'm optimizing for happiness & freedom, not profit!

      How did you get your first customers for Lunch Money?

      I posted a Show HN and it was wildly successful. Got my first 100 paying users from that!

  34. 0

    Hi Jen,
    I have two questions.
    1.Do you need a tech partner?
    2.Do you need a partner to practice Mandarin?

  35. 0

    It’s inspiring and neat @lunchbag

    I’m wondering what was the biggest obstacle so far and how did you resolve it? Also, what would be your next milestone?

  36. 1

    This comment was deleted a month ago.

    1. 1

      Thank you!

      I don't have nor have I never had a long-term strategy. My travels, the freelancing, starting a company, etc... I would not have believed you if you told me what was in store for me when I started my career as a starry-eyed new grad. I prefer this way of living– less expectations and adapting to whatever life throws at you, even if it's complete burn-out :)

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