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I've earned $100,000 on a portfolio of products as a solopreneur. AMA!

More than 4 years ago I posted on Indie Hackers for the first time, declaring my intention to earn $1 by building and selling something on the Internet.

4 years later, I've passed $100k from my own projects. I have three profitable products:

SaaS Pegasus: A code boilerplate for building SaaS products with Django ($50k)
Place Card Me: A site for making place cards for weddings and events. ($47k)
Chat Stats: Silly analytics and leaderboards for GroupMe Groups ($4.7k)

I've built, marketed, and supported everything by myself, while working part-time and contracting so that I never had to dip into savings.

Happy to answer any questions anyone has!

  1. 8

    Hey mate thanks for the great Initiative,

    I have 2 questions if its okay :)

    1] Getting Users
    If you started a product from scratch today, how would you try to get to your first 10 customers other than talking to friends ?

    2] Audience vs Business
    What's your take on "Build an audience then a business" ?
    How much has your online audience impacted your business Growth?

    Thanks and cheers!

    1. 4

      Good questions!

      If you started a product from scratch today, how would you try to get to your first 10 customers other than talking to friends?

      I'm not sure there's a one-size-fits-all answer for this since it totally depends on the product, but some examples from my past:

      Place Card Me was a B2C app at a low price point, so I used $100 of Google and Reddit Ads to drive traffic to it in the beginning. Ads were never going to be ROI positive, but they helped me validate that there was demand and that some people might be willing to pay for it. I think they're an under-utilized "learning" channel.

      SaaS Pegasus had a landing page for more than a year before it launched. I created content and tried to SEO it a bit while I collected emails. Because of this, I was able to make pre-sales before the product was even public.

      CommCare (a product I worked on as part of my day job) is full-blown B2B / enterprise, and many of our customers come from sales and cold outreach.

      Short answer: it depends!

      What's your take on "Build an audience then a business" ?
      How much has your online audience impacted your business Growth?

      I went the audience --> business route, though I think both are valid. Why I started with audience (and when I think it makes sense to), is that I didn't know what I was going to build. And an audience is a great asset to carry around that can be valuable in almost any context.

      My audience has never been large in terms of personal brand or anything. Where it's helped the most has been getting articles published / popularized, and then having those serve as SEO help (since I almost always add backlinks to my products on anything I create).

      In general I'd say audiences are safer long term, but likely to be less valuable short term. But some pitfalls: it's easy to conflate having a big audience with being successful, which it isn't, and go down the wrong path. Also, audiences tend to lend themselves best to certain types of products (e.g. courses), so keep that in mind as some people may not want to build those types of things (I didn't).

      Probably best to do both in parallel, lest you overfit on either side!

      1. 1

        Wow, thanks big time for the in-depth answer, highly appreciate it!

  2. 3

    Hi Cory,

    Congrats on finally finding your niches and making your dream come true.

    I totally feel you on feeling like I started too late, I have a kid & mortgage that I need to tend to. I didn't realize I was losing out by not taking more risks when I was younger.

    But I'm at a point where 2 of my projects are filling about half of my salary.

    How did you approach working part time with your employer?

    What are your metrics for finally doing your projects full time?

    1. 2

      Nice man, half your salary is huge - especially if you're still working full time. Congrats!

      How did you approach working part time with your employer?

      Again, maybe an annoying answer, but it was very easy. I was the former CTO and knew the ins and outs of the organization, codebase, product, etc. better than almost anyone, so they were happy to have me back at whatever capacity I was willing to offer. I didn't stay for the money (though the stability was nice) but more because I wanted to continue being a part of the organization.

      In general, I suspect most small orgs would be happy to be flexible for high-performers if pressed. If you look at the cost of training someone up to be at a level of someone who's been around for years plus the risk that it might not work out with a new hire, it's typically an ROI-positive decision to keep someone on part time. The only big risk to the org is setting a bad precedent.

      What are your metrics for finally doing your projects full time?

      There's not like a specific income target I'm waiting for or anything like that. I try to be thoughtful about how I spend my time and revisit the question regularly, but in general I like being able to be part of teams, contribute to something bigger than I could do myself, etc. so don't necessarily ever see myself fully giving up working with/for other people.

      The big milestone - which I kind of hit in the last 6 months - was earning enough to feel like I no longer ever have to take on work "just for money". So now when I work for others it's because I want to, which is a nice place to be.

  3. 3

    Congrats on hitting $100k, Cory!

    Looking back at decisions around your businesses for the past four years, which decision are you happiest about? Which one do you most regret?

    1. 3

      Ooh, good question.

      Best decision was definitely choosing to build SaaS Pegasus (a Django SaaS code boilerplate). At the time, I just thought it was a product I was qualified to build that likely had market value. However, in hindsight it had a number of other benefits I wasn't aware of at the start. It makes it easier for me to build and launch my own new products. It can be lead-generation for contract work (if I want it). It forces me to stay up-to-date on relevant tech trends and tools and lets me learn all sorts of things. And the marketing is basically creating content about coding topics that I enjoy anyways.

      Regret is a trickier one. I think - both before starting my own projects and since - the biggest regret I have is giving "too much" time to other people. I wish I'd gotten started on my own earlier, back when I had the energy to work 60-hour weeks and had fewer life constraints (a.k.a. kids). I also let some contract gigs run longer than they should have because I felt guilty telling people "no" when they kept asking for more. Basically, putting other people's projects and goals above my own.

      1. 1

        Oh, that's cool! I never realized Pegasus provided all those side benefits as well, but that makes sense.

        Thanks for the answer. Looking forward to following along with the next few hundred grand.

  4. 2

    Hi Cory,

    Have you had any interest (besides me) on including multi-organization tenancy out of the box?

    e.g. i want to build a training/quiz/lms-type tool that has, say, 10 customers (organizations), and each customer/org has 2-100 users.

    Cheers!

    1. 2

      Hey - yes!

      The "teams" feature does exactly that, with a centrally managed billing account, an invitation workflow, and a basic permissions system so you can have different categories of users in your team.

      If you have any questions about how it works I'm happy to answer them here or over email (cory at saaspegasus.com)

      1. 1

        ah, i see.

        trippy.

        i suspected that the 'Teams' feature could potentially be used for what I would call 'Business Accounts/Tenants/Organizations' (what I'm looking for), but it never sank in, even after watching the video on the Teams feature prob 20 times:

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dCfFiydz7Dk

        Somehow, my understanding of the term 'Teams' was so strong, and wrong/limited, that I couldn't even hear what you said in the video.

        So, i guess, the feature can be used for both use cases (creating teams within an org, and effectively creating your own org), maybe with some tweaking.

        I am currently building out a 'simple' CRUD app using laravel, a built-in starter kit, etc., and it's been a disaster in terms of productivity -- trying to learn datatables/tailwind/mix/laravel/npm/vue/eloquent/breeze/inertia all at once is too much if you actually want to get something done.

        So i'm looking at other options, like:

        • the same stack but a much stripped down version
        • Saas Pegasus
        • Gravity
        • Anvil/Bubble
        • maybe with an external server-side like Supabase, etc.

        Just looking for that right mix of quick-to-MVP/cost/control/etc.

        Thanks.

        1. 2

          Haha I almost linked the video, but decided against because it's a bit outdated. But funny / embarrassing that you had already seen it. Clearly I need to work on my explaining better!

          But yeah, Pegasus teams are meant to be more like organizations/tenants than teams within an org. I regret choosing the name "teams" and actually have a roadmap item to change it to "organization". I think ultimately there will end up being two data models in Pegasus, an org and a team within that org. Where billing sits among those is anyone's guess. As someone who's been a part of multiple billing system designs this is very hard to get generically right, and I've been iterating on the model for literally years at this point...

          What's your background? I always recommend starting there. So if you like Python try Pegasus, otherwise pick one of the other ones in the language/framework you know best. All the ones that have large-ish user bases are, I'm sure, good products and will help you along.

          If you're just getting started I can say - and take this advice with as much bias as you'd expect given my position - that Django is a great framework for beginners. Also Pegasus is designed to be useful for people just getting into web development with a nice on-ramp starting with pure Django views/templates and graduating to more complex front ends when they want to (if ever). Many Pegasus customers are data science types doing web dev for the first time and they generally have no problem getting up and running quickly. Also, you're welcome to give it a shot and if you have a bad experience just let me know and I'll sort you out with a refund.

          Ok, sorry that got so salesy. Hope something useful in there though. :)

          1. 1

            I like to mess around with dev when it's up to me/optional, and in this case i've been catching up on what i missed in dev over the last 10 years, but i usually hate dev when i have to do it, which is fortunately almost never.

            i've lately been flumoxxed by the lack of quality of the various projects I've outsourced, so i thought I could prob just do some stuff myself. turns out i'm not good anymore with any dev/frameworks, and my dev interest is just not that strong.

            and i've actually used django a bit a hundred years ago, along with just about every other framework at one time or another.

            curious if you've thought of having/listing dev 'Partners'? even just starting with one?

            e.g. let's say i want to get a quote on and possibly build an MVP, have it built within a week ideally. I could search my network, craigslist, upwork, etc., and maybe after a few months i'll have a buggy $10,000 MVP that costed me $50,000. But because your partner(s) are legit experts in Pegasus, they can do that $2,000 MVP by Friday -- it takes them 10 or 20 hours to do -- in part because Pegasus handles what it's supposed to. I get my MVP, the Partner/ISV gets $2k revenue and ongoing work, you get the license fee from me and/or a referral fee from the partner, you get more/deeper Pegasus expertise out in the world, probably more interest from folks trying to build addons/plugins/integrations, everybody wins?

            1. 1

              Hey - yeah I'd love to offer this down the line. There's a handful of folks who have done dev on Pegasus that I recommend, but all the good ones tend to be busy. I'm happy to send them Pegasus work without any referral fees or anything.

              At the risk of again sounding salesy - I also offer this as a productized service via the accelerator package if you're interested. I'm pretty picky about what I say "yes" to, but definitely game to have a chat if you're interested and see if there's a project that might be a good fit.

  5. 2

    Have you had products that weren't profitable that you had to sunset? If so, how did you make those decisions + what were the indicators that they weren't going to work?

    1. 2

      I actually haven't yet. Everything I've done has either succeeded (the projects listed above), had ~zero maintenance costs (e.g. this chrome extension to show you photos in your new tabs) or flopped so bad that I never had to worry about support (e.g. this code review analytics tool).

      That last example is probably the closest I've had to sunsetting something. I built it in a week, tried to market it, and got completely lukewarm feedback, so I stopped working on it. But there was no need to sunset it since it doesn't cost me anything to keep the lights on. Maybe I'll pick it back up one day, who knows.

      (This is very related to a comment I made on another thread about choosing products that are easy to support.)

  6. 2

    Congrats Cory! Just re-listened to your IH episode fairly recently. I love to know your thoughts on building a portfolio of small products VS full on a core products, specifically on long term income security, since small products (arguably) won't have as deep an engagement with users as bigger product. And (arguably) harder to reinvest to make a small product bigger (like hiring, acquisition etc)

    Example: When forced to cut cost, users are more likely to cut off some plugins instead of the core product that supports their entire business operation.

    Hope my question makes sense!

    1. 1

      Yeah it's a great question and I think there's not a clear answer / it depends on your goals.

      To date I've optimized for a certain type of business that is low-stress, easy to support, holds my interest, and allows me to take long vacations without having to worry about checking in constantly. I think the nature of these requirements typically lead to smaller businesses, which means you need more of them to get to financial freedom.

      Having multiple projects is also a good hedge. Certainly when the pandemic shut down Place Card Me overnight I was glad that I had another product that was still earning money.

      That said, I've spent most of the last two years working on SaaS Pegasus, and don't see that changing any time soon. And many of the new product ideas I have are somehow adjacent to Pegasus in that they could share marketing, customers, etc.

      Ultimately if your goal is to get rich, probably the right thing to do is experiment until something starts working and then go all-in on that. But at least until you find that thing I think it's good to diversify!

  7. 1

    Is $100k yearly or monthly revenue?

    1. 1

      Haha, neither. :) It's all time , spanning 4ish years.

      I made about $43k last year. Shooting for about $65k this year. Progress has been very linear so far.

      1. 1

        $43K is very good. As long as it is growing, you can always find ways to make it grow faster:-) Good job.

  8. 1

    Congrats!! Just 1 question, how can you earn on GroupMe? I didn't get beyond the landing page, I don't have a groupMe account.
    Is it via adverts, affiliate marketing?
    Thanks for your reply!

    1. 2

      It's a freemium product. You can get reports from the last 500 messages in your chat for free, but if you want to look at more then there's a $10/year upgrade price (though I don't auto-renew).

      I built the whole thing as a fun project for my friends and then tacked on monetization as an experimental afterthought. It seems to pretty consistently earn about $100/month and I kind of abandoned it after starting Pegasus.

  9. 1

    That's amazing! Congratulations!

    Was there any point where you put a considerable amount of time and energy into a project and decided to drop it because it wasn't worthwile anymore? If so, what was your thought process? How did you come to that decision?

    1. 1

      Just referenced this above, but the closest example is RepoStory - a code review analytics tool. I built it during a "hack week", then tried to polish and market it a bit, but stopped investing in it shortly after.

      You can read the details in my August 2020 retro, when I decided to stop working on it. But the main summary was that it looked like it'd be much harder to get over the hump to useful/revenue-generating than I expected, and I didn't feel like I had room in my life at the time to put in that effort.

      More recently, I spent a few months working on a Twitter analytics tool, but recently stopped working on it after I found that it changed the way I used Twitter in a way that made me less happy (stressing to tweet everyday, trying to create content for likes instead of doing what felt natural, etc.).

      Both the above products are still interesting to me, but I don't know when (if ever) I'll pick them back up.

  10. 1

    Gratz.

    Assuming all these projects 4 years old and pricing never changed, 47k for card designs are pretty impressive IMHO, it's around 125 sales per month if my math is right.

    I'm curious tho, don't get it wrong but the sites looked a bit plain to me. Obviously it's working but I wonder if you ever fallen into the trap that they may convert better with more "attractive" designs.

    1. 1

      it's around 125 sales per month if my math is right.

      That sounds about right. Varies wildly depending on wedding seasonality and - as I learned last year - pandemics.

      I'm curious tho, don't get it wrong but the sites looked a bit plain to me. Obviously it's working but I wonder if you ever fallen into the trap that they may convert better with more "attractive" designs.

      This is probably true. I had this weird thing where I wanted to code everything myself, including the design which is something I'm kind of terrible at. Part of my initial goal was to upskill at front-end dev and design, which I did, but maybe not fast enough. Anyway, so instead of buying a nice looking template or using Webflow or something I hand-made everything in CSS frameworks (mostly Bulma). This is particularly ironic given that I now sell a code template.

      Like you said, it does seem to be working, but you're right that I don't know if I'm losing out due to how my sites look.

      1. 1

        I see, I kinda like to do it all by myself as well. Only difference I've gone through multiple redesigns, improving the copy, style, branding. While ignoring the marketing part or actually improving the product or offering. Which in the end exhausted me and lead me to drop it completely.

        It's nice to see live examples that work without following the latest design trends, all those little marketing tricks.

  11. 1

    Hey Cory, congratulations on hitting this huge milestone! How were you able to manage juggling so many projects with a job? Did you have any productivity techniques that you relied on?

    1. 3

      Thanks!

      I am a total productivity nerd and in my years before doing solo stuff I led large projects and teams so had a lot of the base skillset that I needed to juggle these things.

      Probably the two most useful (and novel) tactics were:

      1. I tracked all the time I spent on everything I worked on so I could set targets and make sure I wasn't getting side-tracked on things.
      2. I wrote a public retrospective every week (later every month) with reflections, goals, etc. It served two purposes - one being a "check-in" to make sure I did some high-level thinking instead of just running heads-down in whatever direction I happened to be going, and the second being a form of public accountability/motivation.

      However, probably the most important factor in being able to juggle a lot was intentionally choosing products that would be easy to support! Place Card Me is a simple B2C product and no one paying me $8 once thinks that they're allowed to get great support (even though I try to provide it). Likewise, Pegasus, being a code template, never has any "urgent" issues, since people are downloading and adapting it themselves.

  12. 1

    Amazing progress!

    Impressive to see you've done that while contracting,
    how did you do It?

    I mean getting contract clients also takes time and might distract from your products. So do you always need to find new clients or you just work for 1 company for 6-12 months until you get the next one? Thanks:)

    1. 2

      Thanks!

      Oddly, (and hopefully this isn't an annoying response) this hasn't really been a problem for me. Probably for a few reasons:

      1. I never quit my full-time job. I took a sabbatical and then dropped down to 40% time. This has provided income stability, health care, retirement help, a community, as well as the opportunity to continue to be a part of an organization that I enjoyed and believed in.

      2. I had built up a reasonable network through years of product and project work prior to going "solo". The only contracting outreach I ever did was email 3 or 4 people when I first started looking. That led to my first engagement, which provided as much supplemental income as I needed to get my own projects off the ground. Everything after that was inbound. As soon as the people who knew me knew I was available they started recommending me to others, and I had plenty of options.

      3. My product SaaS Pegasus is primarily bought by people looking to launch a SaaS application. Many of them want help and I'm literally the best person in the world to provide such help (not in general, but on top of Pegasus). So that's a nice source of inbound work when I want it.

      So I've had the good fortune to be incredibly picky about what I work on, and I still say "no" to the majority of people who try to hire me.

      All I ever really did to make this happen is continually do good work and slowly grow a network. It's highly replicable, though as with most things, takes effort and time.

      1. 1

        Awesome sounds like you built it in the right way.
        Thanks for the detailed answer!:)

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