Growth April 29, 2020

IHers who built a successful product WITHOUT an audience - share your story!

Kevin Conti @Kevcon80

There's too much advice online that focuses on building an audience.

There's an imbalance. People who are building an audience are sharing the way they built a successful company, which is by building an audience.

So when you go to learn about how to build a business, who do you find giving advice? The people who build audiences.

Don't get me wrong, building an audience is a very solid and successful strategy for many. My favorite example is Daniel Vassallo, who started building his twitter following in February of 2019, and has crossed $100k in sales in just over a year from that point.

But building an audience isn't the only way. Right?

If you've built a product with ZERO audience, through some other means, share how you did it below!

I think it's important that people like you speak up. The audience strategy is constantly being shared by people building one. The non-audience strategies are busy doing other things, so they don't get shared nearly as much.

  1. 33

    Great post! To build an audience, you need to do something valuable online and get it into people's hands. But that sounds a lot like building a business, so why not just do that with your business itself instead of as a precursor?

    I didn't have an audience when I started Indie Hackers, so I piggy-backed off of audiences built by other people and platforms. For example:

    • I scoured HN looking for founders, and I cold-emailed them about IH. This is how I got my first few interviewees.
    • I launched on Hacker News and Product Hunt, which got me to about 1000 mailing list subscribers in a week.
    • I interviewed people like Pieter Levels, who tweeted about IH to his audience of many tens of thousands of people.

    I had maybe 300 Twitter followers before any of those, and no mailing list to speak of. Indie Hackers itself built the audience that continues to power Indie Hackers.

    1. 1

      Thanks for the response Courtland :)

      If I have one big takeaway from this thread, it's that "linking" your product to other audiences is the key if you don't have your own.

      Sounds like that's what you did with launches on HN and PH, and of course it's a natural result of doing interviews with impactful people like Pieter Levels.

      Another takeaway is that cold outreach is often how get your first customers (interviews in your case), even if it won't scale. A lot of people have talked about being active in forums and social groups, just like you did with HN.

      I hope this thread is helpful to people! I know I've gotten a lot out of it.

  2. 11

    I have zero online presence (deliberately). To me, the ideas of "building an audience" and "personal brand" etc are crass and vulgar.

    My strategy was always along the lines of - if you build a great product, people will come. I always understood this was a slow burn method but that's fine with me.

    So for SongBox which I would describe as successful*, I relied on building a great product that solved a real problem in an area in which I have considerable (and relatively unique) experience and expertise. The product has been around for a couple of years and it's grown purely organically. I've spent $30 or $40 here and there on ads but I'm finding more and more signups happen every week organically. I'm top of google for my perfect keywords which is new, and might explain the accelerated growth in recent weeks.

    *Successful to me because I have over 1000 regular users (was always a goal of mine) and enough monthly revenue to cover all costs plus buy my wife and me dinner out once a month.

    All of this with zero blogging, zero social media.

    I have a kind of confidence in the back of my mind that because I've managed to get to this minor level of success by doing absolutely nothing other than focussing on the product, I know that if I ramped up marketing and advertising it could probably become something real - however that doesn't suit me and my personal circumstances at the moment.

    1. 2

      I have zero online presence (deliberately). To me, the ideas of "building an audience" and "personal brand" etc are crass and vulgar.

      100%

    2. 1

      This is great! Can you talk a bit about how you got your first customers? Did you do a lot of cold outreach, or did you just let them come in from Google, like they do now?

      1. 1

        Yeah my very first paying customer (who is still a subscriber after nearly 2 years) was acquired by a google search. SongBox wasn't really doing that well in google at the time (company was 3 months old) so he really must have been digging.

        Next few paying customers came from some niche forums related to the music industry that I posted on.

        1. 1

          Cold outreach and google is a recurring theme in this thread :)

          How did you go about interacting on the niche forums? How did you balance mentioning SongBox vs just being an active member? Were you already a part of the niche?

          1. 1

            It was one main forum and I was given "permission" to start a thread about SongBox by the owner of the forum who came across it organically on Reddit (someone else had mentioned it, not me).

            He saw the value that it could provide his forum members (a niche forum for music producers) and invited me to start a thread.

  3. 7

    I have a very meager audience (~2,000 followers on Twitter), and Buttondown is certainly successful by my definitions (~4K MRR as a side project after two years.)

    This is a boring answer, but: compounding interest over time works. Community and large audiences are very helpful for quick and explosive growth, but... it doesn't preclude other ways of growing large.

    Buttondown launched to my twitter followers and that's it. It never 'went viral'; I've spent less than a hundred dollars on advertising and marketing.

    It grows through word of mouth and recommendations, slowly and steadily.

    1. 1

      Is your Twitter following of the same niche or is it broad? And how did you go about acquiring the first few customers excluding your friends and colleagues?

      1. 1

        It’s very broad; mostly friends and random tech folks.

        And the one nice thing about Buttondown is that it was self-marketing in a way; if you send out a newsletter with it, everyone who gets it sees that the email is powered by Buttondown.

    2. 1

      Thanks for sharing! Did you have that twitter following prior to launching, or has it built up because of Buttondown?

      Word of mouth is great, but how did you get your first 100 customers? Have you done anything to maximize the amount of word of mouth?

      1. 2

        The former. I think I’ve grown slightly larger of an audience post-Buttondown, but it’s still relatively small.

        The biggest thing I’ve done is be very transparent (I blog and tweet about Buttondown a decent amount, and publish my running costs and roadmap, and Buttondown has some decent self-marketing built in (as mentioned above, emails sent out with Buttondown link back to the main page, as do permalinks.)

        1. 1

          Nice! Do you have metrics on what % of new customers are coming from email links vs things like the blog/twitter?

  4. 4

    Define successful?

    NameRobot was built completely without audience. Exists now for almost ~10 years. From this, a number of services have developed, such as Namefruits or NameScore.

    The Toolbox now has over 100000 registered users. I think we are now at 130k. Is this successful?

    But it's hard to call us successful. We have built up the whole thing on the side.

    I often find it hard to say, hey, we're successful. We haven't quite reached our goals yet but others would say "wow, you've built something up there".

    But we're proud of it :-) ... so maybe you can call it a success after all. :D

    1. 2

      I often find it hard to say, hey, we're successful. We haven't quite reached our goals yet but others would say "wow, you've built something up there".

      That’s definitely the founder’s curse! 130k is a fantastic number. What strategies did you use to grow?

      1. 2

        I am responsible for the tech stack, my business partners are more into marketing. But I can still tell you about a few things, anyway.

        What worked:
        ------

        • Google Adsense: More or less this works quite well. But you really have to pay attention to the keywords, otherwise it is a quick shot for nothing. I remember years ago, a business partner once burned 1000€.
        • Cooperations: In our case with trademark attorneys or copywriter communities. Because we hadn't an audience, we just look at those who have one and with whom you can perhaps form partnerships. :-)
        • SEO: This is extremely difficult and only becomes noticeable after months or years. But prepare your texts (Blog posts, News etc ... It's worth it).
        • Taking part in competitions. This works, especially because you can make contacts. We were awarded a prize by deutsche bank at the past and we were even invited to CEBIT. BUT, extremely time-consuming and sometimes complicated.
        • Write and talk about the product (For example IH. IH is just fun for me and I like to read here but in the meantime some IndieHackers stray on our services.)

        What didn't work:
        ------

        • Google Adsense: I've put it to worked and to didn't work. See above for the why.
        • Cold acquisition. In the form of flyers, stickers and stuff like that. Years ago we once wrote to one of our target groups via flyer. Nicely said: it has achieved nothing. Some were even angry.
        • Cooperations: Some Cooperations are complicated :-)
        1. 2

          I think you mean AdWords, not Adsense?

          1. 1

            OMG yes. Thank you.

  5. 3

    I built userTrack as a side project for the past 7 years and sold it through CodeCanyon. I don't consider it to be extremely successful, but it can be thought of as being somewhat successful considering that it sold copies of around $70k, most of which can be considered to be passive income.

    So although I never had an audience, I posted my product on a marketplace that already had one. I never really did any proper marketing or advertising as all my attempts resulted only in wasted money.

    Since 6 months ago I started working full-time on userTrack (after the gaming company I was working at went bakrupt), and I am trying to see if I can actually make it successful, that is, earn enough money out of it to sustain myself. The path I'm planning to take does not really involve building an audience, but creating an awesome product and initiating a broader movement towards self-hosted software, which userTrack will be a part of.

  6. 3

    I built a community, which is very different from an audience. Does that count? 😍

    1. 1

      If you built a community without an audience, that's definitely a feat!

      And, if so, this guy would probably love to hear from you!

      1. 3

        pssssssssssssssst

        https://www.indiehackers.com/rosiesherry

        Community Manager here at Indie Hackers! Previously founded Ministry of Testing.

  7. 2

    We launched EmailOctopus without an audience, and even now, with the business pretty successful from an IH point of view (millions of revenue) we still don't have an audience as individuals.

    I've got 700 followers, and I mainly talk about British public policy. Jonathan has 200 and last used Twitter 3 months ago to raise a customer service question with his gym.

    Our business is our brand and voice, but even then we focus very much on tangible metrics. Revenue and customers.

    So, how did we do it? I don't really know exactly! What we did do is built a very simple, yet solid product which served a small area of a massive market. We launched it as a completely free product on Reddit, iterated on the product, introduced pricing, then over time we've increased that pricing as the product has improved.

    If you launch a good product, which serves a need, in the right place (we launched initially on /r/marketing then with future launches on Product Hunt) then it'll pick-up traction. These platforms, much like Indie Hackers, don't rely on followers or nepotism to reach the top and even an initial 50 active users can mature into a successful business as word grows and spreads.

    1. 1

      Thomas, thanks for responding!

      I'm definitely seeing a theme with everyone who has posted here. Seems to go like this:

      • Launches are important and often help with that initial traction
      • If you don't have a personal audience, you will still need to launch to an audience. Figure out where your potential customers live
      • Long-term, inbound marketing is key, using things like content marketing and good old word-of-mouth referrals

      Do you feel that the above matches how EmailOctopus grew?

      1. 2

        Yep, very well summarised.

        And again, content marketing you probably won't have your own audience for. So post sensibly on Reddit/IH/wherever is relevant for your business.

  8. 2

    Hi @Kevcon80 great article!

    Don't take me wrong but I'm with @csallen here. Rather do it before than after.

    The problem we all face nowadays is no longer how to build great products, not even how to build great businesses. Thanks to YC, FirstRound, a16z, StartupGrind, Greylock Partners, and many many other great companies, groups, and individuals, there's tons of content on how to build great products and businesses on the internet.

    The REAL DIFFICULTY NOWADAYS is how to get distribution right. How to find your niche and explode from there. How to grab attention from those who are always jumping from page to page.

    Like Peter Thiel puts on his YC Stanford class: "you want to go after a monopoly in a small market" - talking about how Facebook managed to grow from College campuses due to the strength of the network effects they had built there and by ruling the "College world", even when everyone else was competing on the "World wild market"

    Building an audience, even a small one, is way better than to be the next Enzo Ferrari. Just because you may well have the best product in town, if people don't know it, you won't sell. And people will only know about it if you put it in front of their eyes.

    Even though the problems with this audience-first-strategy are:

    • manage to deal with product building, customer development/interviews and creating good content that actually delivers value;
    • finding your niche and start to build something they actually care about and want to pay for;
    • know how to build and nurture a community/audience, even if a small one.

    If you just read one article about this topic then please read the one on Drift's growth I leave you below. A company we all can learn a ton from.
    https://www.spyfu.com/blog/drift-case-study/

    1. 2

      Don't take me wrong but I'm with @csallen here. Rather do it before than after.

      I think Courtland was saying to do it during, not before.

      Like Peter Thiel puts on his YC Stanford class: "you want to go after a monopoly in a small market" - talking about how Facebook managed to grow

      I'm curious if you worry about taking advice that was aimed at companies who are trying to be the next facebook. Is it possible that the advice isn't the same for a YC company vs a bootstrapped one?

      1. 1

        During is perfect but starting even a little earlier is way better. Courtland started to talk about it even before he started to build it. And that's what I want to say here, start to spread the word and reach people you think may want to hear, even before you start to build the product. Most often than not the first versions of our ideas are all sent to the trash, with all our long hours of hard work.

        But why can't be a bootstrapped business the next facebook? There are dozens of huge companies that started with bootstrapping (but yeah I know none of those have the Facebook size obviously).
        If a bootstrapped business means a lifestyle business, then we are talking about something different obviously.

        Even though what I take from the Thiel's lesson is not necessarily the "how to be the next facebook kind of company" but rather the "focus on a little market/niche where no one is watching, then scale from there", which was what I intended to say.

  9. 2

    I only have 1,400 followers, and am closing in on $5K in sales on my newly released eBook. I went through a phase being discouraged seeing the success of other authors, but I think the key is to have realistic expectations.

    Growing an audience isn't for everyone. Not everyone is destined to have 50K followers. You have to be OK with that, and just focus on forming connections with a smaller audience, and doing what you can to help others

    1. 1

      Actually, this is one of the more impressive feats in this thread I think.

      I can see how someone could build a SaaS product without an audience. But content, to me, feels like it's all about who follows you. $5k is quite a feat in that case!

      Do you have any insight into who is buying your product? Is it 100% coming from followers, is there some decent amount of traffic from IH and other forums?

      1. 1

        Thanks!

        My book is on Ruby on Rails, so it's hardly a popular topic. Mostly new developers are my audience, because I teach simplicity over popularity (utilizing simple, mature tooling instead of the JS flavor of the week).

        Twitter is the main source of traffic. I do a lot of posting here on IH, but too many IH"s want to just "use the same tech that everyone else does" , instead of using something mature and proven.

        It's been really hard, but I spent a lot of time on the book, and on the design.

        When you are a nobody, you have to go the extra mile.

  10. 1

    This!

    You said it, man. Whenever I read any good how-to articles or inspirational stories/interviews, it's about people who already have an audience. Yes, building an audience first is a great precursor to any ventures but for those who have no prior audience, there aren't much else out there except run-of-the-mill advice about paid acquisition or heck, even "build an audience " type of advice.

  11. 1

    I see your point but I honestly think that the real problem is people have misconceptions about what it really means to build an audience.

    A lot of people think that the only way to build an audience is to have a YouTube channel, podcast, blog or the latest fad. The reality is that you're already building an audience simply by being active on the internet.

    For example, you made this post here on indie hackers and I hovered over your name to see that you're the founder of CoderNotes. I am now part of your audience.

    One of my favourite ways to build an audience is to help people by answering their questions :) A few years ago I did this by actively answering questions on StackOverflow on a topic that I have a lot of experience with. Sometimes I would slip a link to my project into the answer (as long at it was relevant and non-spammy) and other times people would just find my profile.

    This is not particularly hard stuff. Just pick a strategy and do it consistently.

  12. 1

    I have 62 followers on Twitter (pretty much everyone I know IRL) and launched Trunk without an audience. Instead, I grinded on forums and talked to lots of customers, learned about the problem space really well, and focused on building something that did one thing best-in-class.

    1. 1

      Thanks for posting!

      So it sounds like the way you primarily gather customers is through a few forums where your audience hangs out, is that right? Can you talk a bit about the specifics around how you sell in those forums? Are people often asking questions around how to sync their inventory, or are you generally just responding to posts with hopes that someone sees your company in their signature, etc?

      Would love to hear more, or metrics on conversion, if you have them!

      1. 1

        Initially yep, how I actually got the initial idea was just spending time on those forums and being very engaged with those who seemed to be looking for a solution to their problem. I also built crawlers on a multitude of forums so I can always be alerted and respond right away to anything related. I still have lots of customers find me from my posts.

        In terms of selling, it's more and less some people asking for it but in various ways (you start to notice patterns) and then reaching out to them directly. The amount of people asking for it actually wasn't that many. The most important thing is finding that core of 5-10 users to develop with since they can be very engaged. And if you can find those, there are bound to be a lot more just like them since most people are lurkers.

        Sorry, I don't track conversation metrics but I really should :(

  13. 1

    Literally posted something about this a minute ago since it was bugging me. Commenting here so I have a bookmark :-)

    1. 1

      Great minds think alike :)

Recommended Posts