November 14, 2018

I created and run Indie Hackers, AMA!

Hello indie hackers! We've invited numerous people to come do an #AMA in the past, but I just realized that I've never done one myself. 🙈

Feel free to ask me absolutely anything below — whether you're curious about the future of IH or you'd like some personal feedback on an idea or business you're working on. I'll do my best to answer over the course of the next few days.

  1. 6

    Finally! :)

    • What would you be working on if it wasn't IH? Which other idea(s) would you like to pursue?

    • Which are your top growth hacking tricks you'd recommend to fellow IHs to generate traction?

    • Do you have a specific ritual to get into "focussed work mode"? Like, specific music, noise reducing headphones, exercising before,...?

    1. 4

      What else would I be working on? This may be a disappointing answer, but I'm sure I'd be working on figuring out what to work on! If you can afford to, I think it makes sense to spend lots of time aiming the cannon before firing it, so to speak. At least that's true for me. IH was the result of a very deliberate and analytical process I went through to come up with an idea to work on.

      There are many things I'm interested in outside the world of internet businesses — fiction and storytelling, for instance. But I'm sure I'll start another business eventually. I'm now convinced that the best/easiest way to change things in the world is to start a business. I'm continually surprised by how strong of an effect IH has had on so many people's lives. It doesn't feel real sometimes.

      My top growth-hacking tricks? Hmm. I don't have any, really. On that note, I should say I don't consider myself an expert. I've talked to lots of experts over the past two years, and I'm happy to help when I see newcomers make the same old mistakes, but that doesn't make me an expert. IH is my only real success, and it was the result of a very small number of good insights I had early on and did a decent job executing on.

      Generally, I think most people (myself included) aren't that disciplined. We all read lots of good advice, but we get impatient and don't internalize it or put it in to practice, and instead follow our intuition. It took me getting burned many times before I started taking a lot of the common startup advice seriously, truly understanding what it meant, and applying it to my own efforts dispassionately. So that's my best "trick" — improve your own knowledge and discipline.

      Everyone is struggling with different things, so one-size-fits-all advice is tough to give. Regardless, here are some things I find myself saying often:

      • Charge more. It generally forces you to target better customers, and allows you to go through easier distribution channels (e.g. sales and ads vs marketing and word-of-mouth).

      • On that note, don't fear sales. I sincerely think it's easier than marketing. Plus it forces you to talk to customers individually, so you learn more. Plus it forces you to charge more to justify the cost.

      • Target businesses, not consumers. It's easier. Businesses spend more money and they spend it more easily.

      • Launch earlier. If you take too long to launch you're more likely to get bored and quit. If you can't launch quickly, choose a smaller idea.

      • Charge earlier. Charge before you launch or even build your product. If you can't charge early, choose another idea.

      • If you want to make money, enter a market where lots of money changes hands. Solve a problem people are already paying lots of money to solve.

      • Yes, you want your product to stand out. But don't confuse providing a unique solution with solving a unique problem. Too many founders end up targeting low-value problems that nobody cares much about, because they think the problem they solve has to be unique. It doesn't.

      I don't have any rituals to get in the habit of working. I just love working and building stuff! I spend an unhealthy amount of time at my computer. I have since I was a kid.

      Sometimes I'm not excited to work on one particular thing or another, and what helps me there is being accountable to someone. Early on it was the IH community — I had to send a weekly progress report email every Thursday and it stressed me out. I'd pull all-nighters just to show meaningful progress.

      1. 1

        Thanks, Courtland! I appreciate you putting so much effort into answering!

  2. 4

    Which episode of your podcast is your mom's favorite? How competent is she in how to start a startup from having listened to all of them?

    1. 3

      I just called her to ask her these questions. (She says thanks for getting me to call her.) Her answers:

      "My favorite episode was the guy who travels from place to place. What was his business? Nomad something."

      "I feel very confident I could start a business." "Why?" "Because there is so much in there about what not to do that people always do. I would try to get something out there as fast as I could. I wouldn't worry too much what people thought before launching it. I would charge money upfront and go from there."

      1. 3

        💕

  3. 4

    Wow about time you did one of these!

    I have a few questions (feel free to just choose the ones you think are interesting for the IH community)...

    • What's next for Indie Hackers?

    • Indie Hackers, December 2018... How different is it to what you envisioned for IH a year ago? What is better/worse?

    • How are you going to get people using this 'Twitter feed' part of Indie Hackers more frequently? I really want it to work out!

    • Lastly (and most importantly) - will there be an official 'Indie Hackers podcasting robe' when you launch the swag? ;)

    1. 2

      What's next for IH? Lots of things!

      Currently, you have to be fairly creative/proactive in figuring out how to get the most out of the IH community. I want it to be more direct in how it solves founders' problems. I literally plan on enumerating problems that founders encounter in their journey, picking the ones that a community can really help solve, and building features for each of them. The new hashtags you see on the homepage (e.g. #looking-for-cofounder) are a cheap way to test out solving each problem before I build anything. Looking at the past year or two of forum threads is also helpful, as people have been describing their problems in their own concise words.

      How is IH different from what I envisioned a year ago?

      It's not as big as I'd hoped in terms of traffic. And it's slower. 🙈 But the community itself is thriving! A year ago IH was primarily a content site, and the community was a minor feature. Today the forum is bustling, people are helping each other, and there are hundreds of meetups happening across the world. (Just posted about this earlier today.) Last week I flew to IH meetups in three different countries with over 150 ppl attending in total, and there were 5 or 6 meetups I missed that were happening in other countries at the same time!

      How will I get people using the new "Following" section of IH?

      I'll just keep making it more useful by adding the features you'd expect, bringing on guests to do AMAs, helping users follow other active users, increasing its visibility via the homepage and the newsletter, etc. I'm fairly confident it'll work out in the end if I keep pushing at it. It's a harder feature to bootstrap than the forum was initially, but this time I know a lot more, and I have a lot more traffic to help. I've deliberately kept the feed semi-hidden while I've been working to improve it.

      Will there be an official IH podcasting robe? Sounds like an e-commerce business in the making…

  4. 2

    Hey Courtland!

    • What was the experience like studying CS at MIT? And how would has your time there affected your problem-solving skills as a developer and knowing what questions to ask for (technical/nontechnical founders) questions on your podcast?

    • What cultural barriers/ challenges both race & skill wise have you faced being a minority in the tech industry (and how have you overcome them) and what advice would you give to a founder raising seed money in this current climate? (FinTech industry specifically)

    • If you had the knowledge now on industry and developer skillsets 5 years ago, how would you teach yourself how to code/ about product?

    1. 2

      I'm not the world's best student. I was ready to drop out of school when I was 16. Going to college was a stretch. The whole time I was there I was thinking about startups, working on side projects, taking contract gigs, etc. I almost never went to class. That I managed to graduate in 4 years with a decent GPA is astonishing.

      I met lots of smart people who pushed me to do things I might not have done on my own. Being in their company and being told "you belong here" was a huge confidence boost, and confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Because with more confidence, you try harder, which raises your chances of success, which gives you more confidence…)

      I learned a lot about developing at MIT, but it was mostly through working on my own side projects for dozens of hours every week. I kept learning throughout my 20s, trying to build and launch startups as the only technical founder. I'm a big fan of learning by doing, at least as it comes to code. My skillset might not be the best for, say, getting an FTE role at Google. But it's great for starting startups.

      My advice for minority founders is to be so good they can't ignore you. I don't spend much time thinking about my race, especially not as a disadvantage or an obstacle to overcome. As I mentioned earlier, I'm big on confidence/optimism. I think that attitude pays off.

      I'm happy about how I learned to code. Again, learning by doing. I ended up picking up the exact skills I needed to build most of the things I want to build. I'm a decent at design, front-end, back-end, devops, etc.

      As for product, I spent too many years trying to build a "high-growth" startup and obsessing over product. There is a lot more to business than product. I wish I'd spent more of my time focusing on market analysis, distribution channels, business models, sales, etc. It's very easy to spend 10 years building product and neglecting all of the above.

  5. 2

    What books on community management can you recommend?

    1. 1

      I haven't read any! The closest things I could recommend are general-purpose books on psychology and therapy, for dealing with people effectively.

  6. 2

    Hey Courtland!

    How has your life looked like before you started IH? Did you have any connections to Stripe before that?

    During the early stages of IH, what did you do there? Was it a side project or did fully concentrate on building this community?

    How does your life look like today? How has your work on IndieHackers changed since the acquisition, how did your private life change?

    Finally, how are acquisitions of a tiny bootstrapped company different to big multi-billion acquisitions we see in the media?

    1. 2

      I spent my 20s starting startups and working as an contract web developer in stints. I learned a ton about design, back-end and front-end programming, and how to build something that nobody wants. 😂

      In the beginning of 2016 I quit my contract job to live off my savings and try my hand at startups again, after a 2-year break. It took me about 6 months of messing around on projects I never released before I came up with the idea for IH.

      The early days involved doing lots of emailing, interviewing, and coding. After I got the interviews streamlined, I had more time to focus on growing the forum, starting the podcast, and making money via sponsorships.

      I didn't have any connection to Stripe (except as as user) until the day Patrick sent a cold email asking if they could acquire Indie Hackers. It really was out of the blue! Although Stripe was at the top of my list of ideal sponsors.

      My life has barely changed since joining Stripe. I still work from home for the most part. Stripe is fairly hands off. However, I don't have to worry about generating revenue to pay my salary, so instead I spend all my time focused on making IH bigger and more impactful. Additionally, I think joining Stripe and talking to Patrick greatly increased my ambitions for the site.

      Acquisitions of tiny companies are much faster than with big ones. It was all super informal and largely happened via text messages over the course of a few days. 😶

  7. 2

    Have you ever wanted to quit IH in the beginnings ?

    1. 1

      I actually haven't seriously considered quitting a single time, especially not in the beginning. The first three weeks I spent all my time building and interviewing people, and there was so much traction when I launched it that all I could think about was, "How do I not fuck this up?!"

      I think I would've been more likely to quit if it had taken me more than three weeks to get it launched. I've given up on projects before that I spent months working on without any users, which is why I was adamant about getting IH built and launched quickly.

  8. 2

    Hey Courtland! I've been lurking on IH for a while now, think it's time I started posting.

    Prior to the Stripe acquisition, IH was using a sponsor-based revenue model.

    • What are your thoughts on it being a viable business model for niche 'content' sites (Like IH, NomadList, Dev.to)?

    • Do you think it's sustainable over the long term?

    • And if you hadn't sold IH, what do you project your revenue from sponsors would be now?

    Personally think it could be a game changer for individuals (like yourself) starting niche content sites. Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated.

    1. 2

      I think finding sponsorships is totally a viable business model, indefinitely. Companies are always looking for a way to find more customers. If you create a niche content site in a valuable area, chances are high that some industry is really interested in reaching your audience. If the businesses in that industry have an ARPU high enough to justify spending money on ads, then they'll likely pay to sponsor your site if you give them a call and the price is right.

      It's not my favorite business model, mind you. I'd rather provide something of monetary value to my audience and charge directly for that. But most people won't pay for most forms of content, sadly.

      What would my revenue be now? Hmm. It was around $6000 last April if my memory serves me correctly, off significantly less traffic than IH has today. I could probably make around $20k/month in podcast ads alone nowadays, to say nothing of the newsletter and the website, which have both grown a similar amount. Maybe $40k/month or something, or more if I got clever.

      That said, IH certainly wouldn't have grown to its current size had it not been acquired by Stripe, who've provided the resources that allowed me to stop focusing on revenue.

      All-in-all I'm really bullish on niche content sites. If you're considering starting one, go for it!

  9. 2

    If tomorrow you were told to no longer focus on IH and to work on a new independent project, how would you start? What would the first month or two look like?

    1. 1

      I answered a little bit here and here.

  10. 1

    What did you do before Indie Hackers?

    1. 2

      Check this answer and let me know if it isn't helpful!

  11. 1
    • How do you balance building the business vs. improving your technical skills?

    • It would be very kind of you if you could offer some feedback on an open source project of mine to combat medication shortages

    github: https://github.com/newvicklee/ineedmymeds

    website: www.ineedmymeds.ca

    Thanks for all your hard work on indiehackers =)

    1. 1

      Improving my technical skills has almost always come as a side effect of building things. When I get stuck trying to build something, then I read whatever I need to get my technical skills up to par. Every now and then I'll have a period of learning tech stuff just for fun, usually in between projects.

      Cool project! It's hard to give feedback without knowing what your goal is, so I'll give different types of feedback:

      Assuming this is a project meant to help you get better at coding, I think it's great. Doing lots of "small" projects like this over and over is one of the best ways to improve.

      As a product, I think you could do a better job helping the user solve their problem. For example, all of my searches revealed nothing, but for some of them you provided a list of alternative suggestions. That's great! But maybe some metadata for those suggestions would be helpful, so I know which ones to choose. Also, if there are no search results, let users know where they can go to find what they're looking for. And instead of telling users to check back tomorrow, perhaps allow us to subscribe to email notifications so we don't have to remember. Etc.

      As a business, you need a business model! How will this make money? Affiliate/referral revenue from people buying drugs that they found on your site? Also, what's the distribution strategy? How will people find this, and why won't they use Google instead? These are some obstacles you'll need to overcome.

      Overall great work and thanks for sharing!

  12. 1
    • What do you use for transcribing your podcasts?

    • Do you see an SEO benefit from including those transcriptions on the podcast episode pages?

    • What do you use for hosting?

    • Care to share any other details about your podcast setup/flow?

    1. 1

      I use Podwords.co for transcription. They're great! (And cheap.) I use Backtracks.io for hosting. No huge SEO wins from the podcast. IH overall does a pretty poor job on the SEO front. I don't know many business/startup sites that are killing it with SEO without publishing tons of low-quality general purpose articles, e.g. "10 inspirational quotes for 2018".

      I record my podcast using Zencastr. As a backup, I make a local recording via Adobe Audition. I have a program called Loopback installed that allows Audition to record my voice and the guest's voice (coming in via the Zencastr call in Google Chrome) to separate audio channels.

      After the recording is done, I lightly edit it, then send to my real editor who makes it sound great and adds the music/intro/outro/etc. Then I send it to Podwords.

  13. 1

    Awesome, Courtland! 👏

    @robwalling gave a great talk at MicroConf Las Vegas earlier this year talking about some of the negatives he saw after Drip was acquired by a venture-backed company. He mentioned some big advantages as well (which of course can't be ignored) but at the end of the day, there were some major changes that took place, many of them a bummer. 🤔

    How have things changed for you and @channingallen after IH was acquired by Stripe? Are there any negatives, even if they're small things, that came out of joining Stripe? 🆕

    Thanks for rocking! 🙏🏻

    1. 1

      Things have been stellar! Stripe has been very hands-off for the most part, except in terms of providing support where they can. The few things they "make" us do, e.g. long-term planning, have actually been quite helpful.

      Joining Stripe also ratcheted up my ambition for the site by a couple orders of magnitude, which I think is a good thing for everyone involved.

      The only negative is the obvious one, i.e. I no longer control IH and can't simply do as I please 24/7. Of course, that's true by definition when you sell your business. But in practice, I haven't run against any walls here.

  14. 1

    Hi Courtland. I'm a big fan of your podcast, I think you ask really insightful questions and are great at pointing out when an entrepreneur's experiences go against the common tropes of startups these days. It's helpful that you point out how many different paths there can be. My question is about the state of indie hackers as a forum. Have you considered other models besides the hacker news / subreddit upvoting model? Maybe this is crazy but I feel like so much of this forum is based on giving good feedback to other indie hackers on their site, that you could add special votes / karma to incentivize that constructive feedback. I think upvotes work great for link aggregation but less so for community discussions and threads where the ideal outcome is everyone who posts getting real, solid feedback. A "simple" idea is that top-level posts in feedback threads are ordered based on which posters have given the most / best feedback to other users in the threads.

    1. 1

      I've thought about that kind of stuff. In a sense it's dangerous to try to reinvent the wheel. Lots of other sites have shown what tends to work. I think Q&A sites like Quora and Stack Overflow are probably the closest to what you're describing. They aren't a bad model for IH, exactly.

      The IH community needs to help founders with numerous challenges, and that includes getting feedback on their startups/ideas/landing pages/etc is a big one. I think that as time goes on, the community should become increasingly tailored to solve these specific problems rather than being simply a general-purpose discussion board. That said, the broad nature of the forum as it stands is great for learning.

  15. 1

    A meteor destroys Stripe and IH. What would you do instead?

    1. 1

      If it was a huge financial hit to me, I'd start another revenue-generating internet business. I don't know what the idea would be yet, so I'd start by trying to come up with one. It would have to score pretty high on my idea validation checklist, which I'd have to take some initial time to refine. Sorry, I don't have any ideas to share at this point. 🤷‍♀️

      But at the top of my mind as of late is making sure whatever I do has a high ARPU and targets an existing problem that I already see people paying for.

      Assuming it wasn't a huge financial hit to me, I'd probably do a passion project. That might be another revenue-generating internet business, but I'm not sure. Hopefully it would involve me learning a lot of new things.

  16. 1

    For validation and keeping things lean. Would you recommmend either:

    Option 1. Releasing the 1 most important feature as beta, letting users sign up for free and weigh in on what features come next. Then once you have a few main features, start charging.

    Option 2. Try to presell your app before building with the promise of more key features when it's released.

    With option 1, You get more valuable user feedback. But I'm also worried that the feedback may lead you to build the wrong things since it's not coming from paying customers.

    1. 2

      Option 2 hands down. I don't think feedback from free users is all that valuable for the reason you stated.

  17. 1

    Hey Courtland :)

    Could you possibly feedback on my product idea http://www.presspal.co

    What it does:

    PressPal helps press advertising sales teams easily find new brands to buy their unsold / discounted inventory. A common problem when approaching a print deadline.

    The current solution is mainly people desperately calling existing clients or giant media agencies (e.g. Carat/Mediacom). I think there's potentially an interesting marketplace opportunity there.

    Also these deals are currently inaccessible / time consuming to find for brands, who often need a direct relationship with a publisher... or be a client of a giant media agency.

    So far I've had a super cool magazine agree to sell some of their inventory with me when I fully launch, and positive feedback from a couple of conversations with people who work at brands (who would buy the inventory), but need to talk to a few more customers.

    Any initial thoughts, let me know!

    Charlie

    1. 1

      At first glance I think this looks promising! You're solving an existing problem that doesn't take much explaining, which makes things easier for you. It also means you know, roughly, how valuable this problem is your customers. And I like how this will be mostly sales driven. You'll have to actually call people up and talk to them individually to get them to buy in, which means you'll be more effective at learning. Finally, this doesn't require a whole lot of code to build, so you can start testing your hypotheses immediately.

      Of course there are still lots of challenges ahead. Who in the press do you call and what do you say to sell them on your solution? What brands should you work with? How do you reliably bridge the gap and make both sides of this marketplace work? Etc.

    2. 1

      Also - do you have any go-to mental models for making decisions?

      1. 1

        Probably the biggest one is the standard cost-benefit analysis. I treat every decision, without exception, as a cost-benefit analysis. If the benefits outweigh the costs then I make the decision, otherwise I don't.

        I try my best to avoid the common mistakes when evaluating the costs and benefits. That means ignoring sunk costs, accounting for opportunity costs, etc.

  18. 1

    Always thought you should be interviewed :) Think I missed a recent podcast you were on!

    • Any features you really want to see in IH?

    • What do you think IHers are doing wrong often? And things we're missing and should do?

    1. 1

      More features tailor-made to help solve specific founder problems: finding cofounders, ideation, hiring, launching, fundraising, getting feedback, etc. There are many dozens.

      IHers are launching too late, charging too late, charging too little, worrying too much about competition, and picking problems that nobody's willing to pay to have solved.

  19. 4

    This comment was deleted 2 months ago.

    1. 1

      In college I worked on a side project called Fmail. It's how I taught myself web programming. It was sort of pointless, and we didn't charge any money for it, so we ended up letting it die. But I was proud to actually launch it and get some press for it, which led to some lucrative contract gigs.

      Later I teamed up with some grad students to build Syphir. It let you set up advanced filters for your Gmail account, e.g. "If I haven't responded to an email in 5 days, archive it," or "If an email arrives between 2-8am, hide it until 8am." It was fairly popular, but again, we didn't charge any money for it, ran out of funding, and it died. (Beginning to see a pattern here…)

      I worked on another app called Taskforce and once again tried to give it away for free. But then Stripe entered beta, so I charged for it, and it worked! Sort of. Growth was tough, and I moved on to other things. This was back in 2011, but Taskforce is still around, and it actually reliably generates anywhere from $100-$300/month in revenue. I touch the code maybe once a year, when things break and I get angry emails. 😆

      I've done a lot of other things, too, that I never launched. For example, I wanted an app to help me categorize my finances as soon as possible after making the transactions (when I would still remember what they were) by sending me push notifications. I got halfway through building it, then quit to start Indie Hackers.