April 19, 2019

I bootstrapped to $1M in my first year without knowing how to code. Ask me anything!

Hi Indie Hackers! I'm Christy Laurence, the founder and CEO of Plann — Instagram planning, scheduling and analytics for beautiful brands.

I was on the Indie Hackers podcast recently, where I talked about how I came up with the idea for Plann, got an app built despite not knowing how to code myself, and bootstrapped to over $1M in revenue in year #1, all without raising a dime from investors.

#AMA, and I'll be back on Friday from 11am PST, April 26th to answer your questions about anything from growth and marketing, to bootstrapping, to mobile apps, to Instagram.

Looking forward to meeting you!

  1. 6

    Your hiring process?Please share more about developer team. Considering you have no knowledge of coding. What difficulties you faced?

    1. 2

      This was definitely a big challenge and it took a few horrendous mistakes before I realized that “all developers did all of the develop-y things” wasn’t quite right. Ha!

      When I had the realisation that I didn’t have the control and foresight needed to run my business, I read many books, blog posts and reached out to heaps of people (including AWS themselves!) to ask how they structure their teams.

      In the early days I couldn’t have told you the difference between a front end, back end or even what a full stack was. It was a HUGE learning curve, and still is some days when talking about architecture.

      What did I do to hire developers?

      1. Interview, ask a few key questions where over time friends/mentors/person sitting next to me in a co-working space had taught me what a good answer sounded like.

      2. Ask for previous work and Github.

      3. Give a coding challenge with a time limit (there are some great companies our there that do this.

      4. Buy a box of beers for someone I trusted to read the code and give me very detailed feedback on what they had seen.

      My team are such wonderful people and as we’ve grown, I’ve been very forthcoming about my blind spots and they now reach out to help in the hiring process, and teach me everything they can along the way.

      I’m incredibly proud of my team, my engineers treat me with absolute love and respect and are always helping me upskill rather than cutting me out for “not knowing what I’m talking about” which was something I was scared of.

  2. 5

    Can you give some prove about your revenue ?

    1. 0

      Hmm, sustaining a team of 35 people would be a hard ask without revenue (or funding!) If you have access to any app ranking systems you’ll find us!

      :-)

      1. 2

        @umen242

        That means no, he can't.

        1. 7

          All this revenue porn without solid prove is just new content strategy

          You are number 136 in the free photo apps ,app that make photos effects that even not using some API to send the photos to insta . Just getting alerts when manually send it

          I really don't believe it . Sorry .

  3. 2

    Loved the podcast! I would like to know how did you maintain your developers engaged and with a feeling of belonging without sharing equity?

    Did you pay them top-salaries? If not, as you were bootstrapping, I'd like to know how was to manage and lead them in a day-to-day basis. Thanks!

    1. 2

      Thank you Adam

      :)

      Thrilled that you loved it, Courtland and I had a great time recording it!

      In the early days I had overseas developers and I was able to pay them a comfortable wage to build, but as we grew the local team (in Australia), I was able to offer an amazing culture and workplace, with an OK salary which appealed to those who I wanted in my team too.

      For example, we do team retreats every year and I LOVE spoiling my team! They can travel and work, they can choose their own hours (based on them being given time and freedom to understand how their bodies work best), our culture is hilarious and I encourage absolutely everyone to bring their whole selves to work.

      It’s not uncommon for us to do team rollerskating, send each other gifts for fun, or catch up on video calls purely because we miss each other!

      I guess my answer is, I created a very nurturing, intuitive and emotionally intelligent environment that let people thrive. My team are always asked if they are happy and it’s not uncommon that they share the company wins on their personal social media profiles.

      AWww, I could rave about my team all day - but I hope that answers your question!

      1. 1

        Teri makasi Christy!!

        It's awesome to know this, and I hope I'll be able to create a nurturing and happy workspace as you created.

        I intend to make my company home office since the beginning, and I'm thinking a lot about how I could create a culture without being with my team physically.

        You gave me some cool insights about how to do it, thank you!

  4. 2

    You didn’t raise any external money but between business investment and personal costs (having to pay bills and such while you bootstrapped, opportunity costs of your time) can you estimate the total investment into the business?

    1. 1

      Gosh, yes you’re right if I added all of this up, it’s a HUGE expense, right?

      I’d say when I launched Plann App in the app store, I would have spent close to 100k in lost wages, (but I was working 18hr days so it was probably more than that!)

      I wrote this article for Foundr magazine if you’re interested in the complete breakdown of getting to launch: https://foundr.com/create-an-app/

      But now that we’ve been live for a bit longer, taking a salary, re-invested all earnings back into growing the team and the tech - and we recently launched our 3rd product: Plann Webapp.

      I’d say the total figure invested into the company would now be close to US$1.5M now. Maybe more. Oh gawd, now I feel like I’m going to throw up! Haha!

  5. 2

    How did your product-market fit evolve? What was the original concept and what kind of pivots were made before you gained significant traction. Also, any stats that you can share on % active users and % paid users?

    1. 1

      The original concept for Plann was literally a mockup Instagram gallery where you could upload images, then drag & drop them around to organise the flow and draft captions.

      To be completely honest, I’d done quite a bit of user research and asking people what they needed - so in my launch week I had 1000 sales (and $10,000) so I felt I hit PMF pretty quickly!

      From there the pivots weren’t really ‘pivots’, it was more about understanding what other challenges people using Instagram were facing and how I could help solve them - they were pulling me forwards right from the beginning.

      Our active userbase grows significantly every month (and even faster now that we have the webapp out!) and we’re above the benchmark for our free to paid conversions.

  6. 2

    What would be your best advice for someone with their own Instagram scheduling platform trying to grow it? Funnily enough, I also have no coding knowledge.

    1. 1

      Understand the competitor landscape, understand the problem that no-one is solving correctly, and most importantly, the PEOPLE who are being underserved by the current solutions and then market like crazy to them. :)

  7. 2

    How did you get customers? Or, where did you get customers? :)

    1. 2

      And one more: Why does Plann not yet post without an app?

      1. 1

        Hey! I’d love you to scroll up to question #1 as I did a huge brain dump on exactly how I did this one! :)

        And one more: Why does Plann not yet post without an app?

        Facebook/Instagram currently have their ‘GRAPH API’ in private beta (and this API is the one that allows auto-posting to Instagram).

        Unfortunately they turned off applications while we were building our platform and it’s not something we’re able to offer our community just yet! It’s all designed out and I can’t wait until we can roll this one out!

        If ANYONE at Indie Hackers has a contact at Facebook that could help me get in, I will send you boxes of wine and thousands of virtual high-fives!!

        1. 1

          @Christy - I can try to help you, please email me the details about what are you looking for

        2. 1

          This comment was deleted 6 months ago.

  8. 1

    My first question would be, how did you complete with buffer? I thought they had the biggest part of the market and 1m a years seems significant

  9. 1

    Wow Christy, congratulations! As a solo-founder who came from a non-coding background myself, I am very much aware of the difficulty of pulling this off. Huge kudos to you!

    I am going down a similar path with my startup (PathBase) and I was wondering:

    1. How you went about finding your early adopters, upgraded your product to become sticky, and gained enough momentum for traction?

    2. Assuming you have a team, how did you get your first few team members? Did you get co-founders?

    1. 1

      Thank you - and congratulations to you too!

      1. It was really about understanding their challenges and goals and making sure the product addressed them. I was a one off payment when I launched to make sure I had some income, then moved to a SaaS model 6 months later which helped with revenue traction.

      2. Yes I have a brilliant team now, we're at 30+ depending on the day in 9 countries. I started with a few VAs that were scattered all over the world, then as revenue grew I got a few part-timers, and then more revenue I was able to start making local full time hires.

      I do not have a co-founder :)

  10. 1

    Christy - your progress with Plann is very impressive, and it's great to hear about another startup that is bootstrapping. I plan on staying on the bootstrapping path as well.

    I have two short questions:

    1. I have a hunch that the customer profile of my startup ShotCrew is similar to yours. What was your #1 growth channel? Did you have the most success with cold email, social media ads, content writing?

    2. Are you currently hiring for any roles, and would you consider remote?

    Thank you very much for taking the time to do this for all of us.

    1. 2

      Thank you, absolutely!

      Delighted to hear you’re doing well!

      Bootstrapping is how the company identifies right now, but I just wanted to point out that I’m not married to it - whatever is best for the business, and me as a human, which might be raising capital, I’m not closed off to, we’ve just not needed it yet :)

      Both great questions,

      I’ve answered #1 in depth if you scroll up a bit you’ll see where I got my first customers! :-)

      1. We’ll be adding 8 people to the team over the next 4 months, and would you believe we’re mostly an entirely remote team!

      Next Hire if anyone is interested in joining my brilliantly passionate team!

      • Senior Product Manager

      (please email [email protected] with your details!)

  11. 1

    How do you differentiate with others Instagram scheduling tools?

    1. 1

      There are a number of tools entering the space, but the reason I jumped in is that I didn’t feel like they were doing it as well as they could (and something I could do better haha!) Here’s that ridiculously optimistic Founder coming out!

      Lots of tools out there give you a scheduling tool and say “Great, figure it out!”, that’s not what Plann is about.

      We’re about helping you create the strategy behind the social, what helps drive REAL business leads (and MONEY, not followers), while identifying that Instagram as a platform is highly creative - and so are we.

      We integrated professional image editing tools, (filters/stickers/borders) to help with content creation, integrate with 3 MASSIVE royalty-free stock image websites when you’re short of content, AND we’ll teach you how to source and find the best hashtags to grow your business.

      When I see people scheduling the same content across multiple channels for the same date and time, I cringe on the inside and wonder WHY did their Social Media tool let them do that?!

      (Marketing Tip: Understand what audience is on each platform and optimize your content for your people. Repurposing is great, but the ‘spray and pray’ approach isn’t the way to go.)

      Our webapp has only been live about 6 weeks and I can’t wait to roll out our roadmap, move to our new market position and show the world we’re much MUCH more than a ‘scheduler’.

  12. 1

    Housekeeping question: where do we find link to join this conversation? Or is this not a live recording? Thanks!

  13. 1

    How did you get to 1M, or put another way, how did you get enough clients to sustain the business, seeing as there are loads of other products that do similar things, and have been doing for a longer time. For Plann, a lot of alternatives exist. How did you get a foothold in a contested market? I have several ideas for services, but am sometimes discouraged because there are so many already existing.

    1. 1

      Another great question, I answered most of this in a Q above, however, to add to this that your brand positioning and voice becomes incredibly important when trying to get market cut-through.

      Our brand is fresh, fun, quirky and highly creative, while maintaining a very high thought leadership position in our industry.

      Social Media is incredibly people-to-people based so I decided our brand would be incredibly humanistic, transparent and real.

      Funnily enough, it appealed to a mass market of Instagram users that thought using a product that was more ‘fun’ was worth spending money on over a ‘corporate’ tool.

      I think it comes down to understanding your exact target customer inside out.

  14. 1

    how did you do your initial marketing and testing of the product ?

    1. 1

      Hey, I’d love you to scroll up as I answered this in detail above :)

  15. 1

    Awesome work Christy. Would love to know the following...

    1. Did you have experience launching software in the past or is this your first ?

    2. Was there ONE thing you can point out that really moved the needle for you? (ex. an influencer promoted you, hiring a certain person, etc)

    3. If you had to replicate your success, how would you start? :)

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      Plann is my first foray into software development, or even running my own company.

      Hmm, ONE thing, the influencers organically talking about me was definitely amazing, but if I have to point ONE thing out I would have to say my SEO strategy right from day one was on the money.

      The amount of leads we get to our website is phenomenal (and we’re now ranked in the top 5000 websites in the US), and a DA of over 50, which attests to the quality of content we’re pushing out into the world.

      It’s driven brand awareness on a scale that I can’t describe, led to millions of organic searches and warm leads.

      OMG, I would do so many things differently if I had my time over again, and to be honest it would probably be hiring much earlier! As Plann grew so quickly and I was doing all-of-the-things, it became almost impossible to teach team members (5 at once) while still being the main ‘doer’.

  16. 1

    Are u open to related business ideas?

    1. 1

      Absolutely! :)

      1. 1

        fabulous .

  17. 1

    How did you validate your idea? ask people? survey? sign ups to email? pre-customers?

    1. 1

      I absolutely did all of these things!

      I asked people in person or over Instagram about their IG challenges, talked about the concept, showed sketches and then when I asked “would you pay for this solution?” I would direct those to sign up to my email list where I nurtured them with weekly instagram tips that I knew were unique

      (i.e. what is your best performing colour palette?) and no-one else was talking about.

      Launching to a warm audience definitely helped.

  18. 1

    Hey Christy! I'm sure you had a lot of other skills that are more important than knowing how to code, otherwise, you wouldn't have such a great start. Congrats!

    Two quick questions, if you're kind enough to give your answer:

    1. Can you give us a rough estimate on how much money have you invested before launching publicly?

    2. Like most of us, you must have had bad mouths around you, questioning your expertise in the field. Were you an influencer on Instagram before coming up with Plann business idea? What made you feel Instagram is the space you know the best?

    Thank you for giving a hand to this bunch of indie hackers^^

    1. 1

      Thank you, I really appreciate your thoughts and acknowledging that not knowing how to code could have actually been a positive thing :)

      1. I’d love to share this article I wrote for Founder Mag which gives you an entire breakdown of my costs leading to launch. https://foundr.com/create-an-app/

      It’s definitely MUCH higher now, but shows the very start of my journey!

      1. Gosh, yes, I couldn’t tell you the amount of people I wanted to slap who said “How’s your little App going???” to be honest I used most of it as motivation to keep going - I knew I was onto something and believed in my ability.

      2. I fell in love with Instagram while I worked in corporate advertising - I would go home and night and draw, and put my work on Instagram and started growing my following, but most importantly, earning money! Something I felt too many people lost focus on with the dopamine-like hits and vanity metrics.

      I am highly creative and I love sculpting, photography, sketching, interior design, basically - I was born to create(!) Instagram was perfect for me to get started!

      I have learned I have a crazy level of detail, and a creative eye that is unique, something I have pulled through into my product which I think has led to some of its success.

  19. 1

    Nice!! That's super impressive. What's your favorite tool in your product or analytics stack?

    1. 1

      Great Q!

      Firstly, thank you for not asking me about marketing - product is my favourite part of my business.

      Our analytics stack is fairly full with 3 products, however it becomes incredibly difficult when you are at an enterprise level of users, but don’t have the capital to afford enterprise level products.

      Saying that, UserLeap is my absolute favourite part of our stack!

      So many analytics tools do ‘event triggers’, but you don’t really know what the customer is thinking, or WHY they do something (the human brain is beautifully irrational).

      I was having trouble understanding why people were churning from our brand new webapp, and UserLeap helped me understand the frustrations that weren’t coming through via customer support and we got on it quickly, made some changes in the product that turned many around and made a huge impact on reducing churn.

      They’re fairly new but I loved how they were willing to dive into the emotional response of people.

      They’re actually looking for more pilot companies to work with, so if you’re growing quickly (I’d say anyone over 25k+ MAU), I’d recommend jumping in right now and reach out to them directly - the whole team is brilliant and I can already see they're going to be huge.

      Tell them I sent you! :)

      Email: [email protected]

  20. 1

    Hey! Thanks for giving us a chance to participate in this AMA and for being active in sharing your experience and knowledge with the IH community.

    My question would be: What was your MRR in the first month, and how fast did the growth happen? (For instance in month #2, #3, etc.). Also, on what strategy/channels did you focus primarily?

    Thanks!

    1. 1

      When Plann launched it was a one-off payment so that I could get money in the door (it had already cost so much to make!), and then after about 6 months of growing purchases I moved the business to a SaaS model when I saw it could sustain itself.

      It was PAINFUL to go from earning quite a bit, to, starting all over again at like $1500 a month and taking another 6 or so months to get back to where I was before!

      It paid off though as the business sustained it's 25% MOM rev growth and we're in better business shape (predictable revenue) for doing it.

  21. 1

    What are your main distribution channels and which was your first?

    1. 1

      Hey - if you scroll up to the top of the AMA I've answered this one for you :)

  22. 1

    Starting from scratch is hard AF. What are 3 strategies that you feel comfortable sharing that helped you get your first 100 clients? How to build trust and credibility when you are just starting out with 0 followers?

    1. 1

      OMG YAS, PREACH. so hard.

      I think I've answered this one in my answer right at the top of this AMA, would love you to check it out and let me know if you still have any Q's

  23. 1

    If someone were getting started with Instagram now, what would you recommend they do to grow their following?

    1. 2

      Number one, acknowledge it's going to be harder to grow being a little later to the game, and a few new tactics might need to be made. For example:

      • Brand collaborations

      • Paid adverts (just to get ahead and get some brand awareness early)

      • Post consistently

      • Have a strategy behind your posts (don't waste them! :) )

      If you're brand new to Instagram I've made a '10 Minute Masterclass' to kickstart your knowledge!

      It's super popular and I think it'll be a great place to start - and yes, it's free!

      www.plannthat.com

      (head down to the footer to find it)

  24. 1

    What were the most creative things that you did marketing-wise?

    1. 1

      Ooo!

      One of the most creative things I did was understand that my people also wanted traffic to their website, so I researched trending articles, where one was 'how I plan my Instagram'.

      So I fed the blog topics, semantics and keywords to people, along with images with correct metatags for them to use where they could show how they Plann'ed and designed and structured their Instagram, which organically gave me backlinks.

      My # of backlinks grew to 1500 quickly, along with my Domain Authority - which coupled with strengthening my SEO strategy (see answer #1 in this AMA)

      :)

  25. 1

    What was the Instagram Graph API approval process like?

    1. 4

      Also, what do think about building a business (dependency) on the Instagram API?

      Congratulations btw!

    2. 0

      Visual representation:

      *pulls hair out

      • slams face on desk multiple times

      After the security breaches etc that FB faced, we had to go through another round of approvals. It's fine really, I'm happy to prove we're not doing anything shady, just a heap of paperwork and screengrabs etc.

  26. 1

    Have you ever tried paid ads? How expensive is it for Plann to acquire customers?

    1. 1

      I've only just started dabbling in paid adverts to be honest, and with a background in marketing/growth, I'm next level obsessed with getting that number as small as freaking possible.

      For example, I've optimised Quora down to 10c per click.

      Being bootstrapped, I need to know where EVERY dollar is being spent and the ROI, ask me again in 6 months I might have something more interesting to say about paid adverts! :D

      1. 1

        that's great! thank you so much! :D

  27. 1

    @Christy Who was the first employee you hired + when?

    1. 1

      When I started suffering from burnout I hired a few VA's to help me (aside from 2 developers working on the app) with some admin tasks.

      I sat down and briefly wrote the job descriptions of all of the jobs I was doing, and I was doing 12, terribly.

      Having the mental space and clarity to split the roles out helped me work out who my first hires should be, which was to replace myself in Marketing (so I could move into product), and then #2 ops/business admin.

      It also meant I created my original business pillers of Ops/Marketing/Product/Developer.

      I hired the VA's about 6 months in, but it was about 18 months before I could actually afford to have full time local team members.

  28. 1

    @Christy I would love to join if I can. I am a bit clueless when in comes to marketing—but I think I have a product that can benefit from Instagram. The thing is, I’m not sure how to make it interesting and authentic to the brand. My side project is https://letterfromyou.com and is gaining attraction from custom jewelry designers and fashion designers (I would have never imagined that would be the case). The thing is, if I have no idea about those industries—yet want to reach that market... where do you even start with branding and marketing when you want to reach industries that you are not familiar with? I have so many questions...

    1. 2

      Just edited the post title. You can ask your questions right now, and Christy will answer on the 26th!

    2. 1

      Hey! You're not alone!

      Many people find Instagram a bit overwhelming

      Re: Branding your company:

      • Think about the lifestyle that your brand stands for. If you're jewelry, are you living the boho/beach lifestyle? Or are you on the hands of those wearing ballgowns, or corporate outfits?

      • Once you've sorted that out, learn about the people who would buy from you and design out your customer personas.

      • Match your imagery and comms to match your lifestyle, and appeal directly to the wants, desires and anxieties of the people you're serving.

      You'll soon discover if the brands you're looking to align and overlap each of your target audiences - collaborations are about winning on both sides!

      If you need a hand with Instagram I created a 10 minute masterclass (it's free) to help you get started with the essentials!

      Check it out here: www.plannthat.com (it's in the footer)

  29. 1

    This comment was deleted 5 months ago.

  30. 0

    This comment was deleted 5 months ago.

  31. 8

    This comment was deleted 6 months ago.

    1. 4

      Hi Anthony, great question!

      As I was bootstrapped and pouring all of my money into the tech (and working for free at a tech agency while I had the tech built), my time was the entire marketing budget!

      The organic channels I used:

      • SEO

      I started blogging 6 months prior to the launch of Plann, and I knew that you have to write about what people are searching for (not what you want to write about), and over the last 3 years we’ve grown to almost 1M unique visitors a month and my best performing acquisition channel.

      • Instagram

      Be social on social media!

      I identified who would be the best early adapters for Plann, then researched 100 people who they could relate to (basically: influencers). I turned on their post notifications and every time those influencers posted I would strike up a conversation. A real one. After a few weeks I slid into their DM’s and let them know what I was working on and asked for their opinions and pain points. A few months later I invited them to my closed beta.

      On Launch day these people naturally talked about being involved, were excited about the problem I was solving, and posted about Plann (yes, for free!).

      Facebook Groups

      • Social Media comes with social media anxiety, and I knew people who would use Plann would also be asking for opinions and help from others so Facebook Groups were perfect for me.

      I would post infographics, helpful tips about the Instagram algorithm, screenshots of the app showing a curated feed that would get followers (it was ALWAYS about helping), and those that were triggered signed up to my email list (and became the first early adopters/customers of Plann.)

      I’m not going to lie, this was hand-to-hand combat at absolute extremes and my mental health did suffer here - but, I would do it all over again :)

      1. 1

        Hi Christy,

        can you give more details on your blog? Is it hosted on your own domain or you use some well-known platforms like Medium or whatever? Can you give a link to it? Thanks!

        1. 1

          Sure, it's hosted on my own domain (I want to own my traffic), and can be found here www.plannthat.com/plann-blog

      2. 1

        The comment about SEO was great. Very helpful. Would you be able to share you Google Analytics SEO traffic stats for like a year or two? I'm just curious on the growth month over month of targeting Google.

        I find knowing what to expect is both VERY motivating for me but also lets me know if I'm on the right track or not.

        1. 1

          I can't upload images here, but I just took a quick walk down GA memory lane for you:

          Here's the unique visitor stats for Aprils'

          April 2017: 47k

          April 2018: 410k

          April 2019: should finish close to 1M

          Hope that helps!

          1. 1

            Does help.. would you say it's pretty linear growth per month?

            Do you have any target on number of posts per month you're trying to go for?

            This is really helpful! Thanks!

            1. 1

              Yep, it's a very nice looking upward trend unless something we post gets viral shares and spikes.