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Living the Indie Hacker Dream | Jon Yongfook

Listen Up! IH - Episode 19


"If you want to go from 0 to $10K MRR you should divide your time 50:50 between coding and marketing"

👆 That's Jon Yongfook's advice for Indie Hackers.

Jon is the founder of Bannerbear.

Bannerbear is a tool to auto-generate images and videos via an API (application programming interface) or via NoCode tools.

It's is an 'open startup', which means Jon shares all its numbers openly for other Indie Hackers to observe and learn from.

Jon recently blew past the coveted $10K MRR milestone. But it took him 2 years to get there.

Back in May 2021, Jon appeared on the Indie Hackers podcast hosted by Courtland Allen.

They discussed Bannerbear, Jon's experience with the 12 startups challenge, and his advice for Indie Hackers.

Lessons👇

Bannerbear - The Product🐼

Bannerbear is the prototypical SaaS app, which means it solves a problem for other businesses via code.

It helps advertising agencies and design teams generate hundreds of creative assets for social media marketing and promotions.

The typical workflow goes in this order:

  1. The design team at an agency or a startup sets up a template for a creative asset (like a social media image or video).
  2. Bannerbear generates a REST API from that template.
  3. The development team pushes data to the API and gets images back.

There are 2 types of customers who use Bannerbear:

  1. Low volume - Social media managers automating their daily repetitive tasks.
  2. High volume - Digital agencies generating tens of thousands of ad variations for various products that they manage for their clients.

Bannerbear is super scalable, meaning it's relatively cheap for Jon to add more users.

Right now, Bannerbear's MRR is close to $19K, and its expenses are only a few hundred dollars due to Heroku and AWS costs.

But Jon has the cash for it - Bannerbear is a full-time job for him.

It recently blew past his last corporate salary which was $16K a month.

But getting there wasn't easy.

When he quit his job in Jan 2019, he had a 2-year runway.

For almost 1 year he made no money and burned through his savings.

That's because he was doing the 12 startups in 12 months challenge.

The 12 startups challenge💪

12 startups in 12 months is exactly what it sounds like.

You brainstorm, build, market, and ship a startup every month.

For 12 months.

It was pioneered by the legendary Indie Hacker, Pieter Levels - founder of nomadlist, remoteok and many more indie projects.

Pieter did it back in 2014, and has since inspired many Indie Hackers to attempt the challenge.

It's a common belief, that if you do the 12 startups challenge, one of them will hit big and you will be able to build a sustainable business around it.

But that's a surface-level insight.

According to Jon, the real benefit of doing the 12 startups challenge is the knowledge you gain about yourself, and the discipline to ship what you've belt.

This is how Jon describes it -

"I think the number one thing it can teach you is, as you said to, to keep yourself honest and to learn how to time box yourself and to just to know how to draw a line and ship something and get it into customers' hands."

The 12 startups challenge also gives you a compass bearing of what you're passionate about.

Founder passion is a critical component of any business.

A competitor can have the same idea, but not your same passion.

And in the long run, how long you last depends on how passionate you are about the product.

Jon was burned out after doing 7 startups in 7 months, he didn't complete the 12 startups challenge (neither did Pieter originally).

But Jon did figure out what he was passionate about - Automatic Image Generation.

The Pivot🔀

One of the projects during the challenge was Previewmojo - A tool to auto-generate social media preview images from web pages aka Open Graph Images.

He launched PreviewMojo on Product Hunt and it was #2 Product of the day, but the overall response was lukewarm.

He decided to pivot and rebrand the tool to an automatic image generation tool.

In a prior life, Jon had led the design team at an e-commerce company.

His daily task was to post product images on the website and generate hundreds of variations of these images for social media and as ad creatives.

Back then, he wished he had a tool like Bannerbear.

It was then that he pivoted PreviewMojo to Bannerbear.

The products followed a similar implementation process, but the marketing of PreviewMojo was changed considerably.

But sales still did not pick up.

He felt the product was aimed at too small a market.

So contrary to popular advice, Jon niched up, and broadened the pain points he was solving.

A quote from his blog goes -

"🤏 The advice "Niche Down" means niche down your target market
😓 It doesn't mean niche down the pain point you solve"

He rebranded Bannerbear into an API product and relaunched it on Product Hunt.

It was an API that could be used to generate many kinds of images - Tweets to Instagram posts, Instagram story posts, Blog post banners, and of course, the original graph images.

The 50:50 Rule📏

At this point, Jon decided to divide his time equally between building and marketing.

He would code and ship features one week, and then write Tweets and blog posts the next week.

He realized that the more documentation and blogs he wrote about Bannerbear, the more conversions he got.

Jon continued repositioning Bannerbear when he joined the NoCode movement.

He added the feature for NoCode builders to use Bannerbear APIs through Zapier zaps.

So marketing teams could generate images and automate the process without writing a single line of code.

Advice for Indie Hackers🤗

The single biggest takeaway from Jon's journey is to spend your time equally in building as well marketing.

But he has some important insights around pricing your products as well.

Initially, he made the classic Indie Hacker mistake of pricing Bannerbeat at $9 a month.

At that price point, he would need at least 2000 customers to make as much revenue as he is right now.

Conversion rates on the internet are around 1%.

So to get 2000 paying customers, you will need around 200,000 free users.

Which is insanely tough.

It makes more sense to price your product higher and target fewer customers.

According to its open startups page, Bannerbear has 284 subscribers adding up to its MRR of $20K.

And its pricing starts at $49 a month, going up to $399 a month for enterprise clients.


Let's look at some Insights + Ideas + Inspiration from Jon's story

Insights

  • API products are well suited for Indie Hackers
  • The 12 startups challenge is not just about finding that one big hit, it's about knowing yourself.
  • Passion is a crucial success metric in a solo business
  • Scratching your own itch works, but the product should solve a real pain point that people would pay money for.

Ideas

  • Iterate on a product that may not be working, niche up if needed, broaden the pain points
  • Build tools for content creators. The internet runs on content and will continue to do so, creators need help to produce content quickly, easily, and with more impact.
  • Share your journey in innovative ways, have an active blog like Jon or Nathan Barry, share openly on Twitter like Damon Chen of testimonial.to, or have a podcast like Ben Orenstein of Tuple
  • Keep an eye for rising trends, and try to ride them. If you're building a B2B SaaS app, have a NoCode angle to it, that can open up a whole new market.

Inspiration

  • Jon is running a successful Indie Hacker business at 41, after quitting a full-time corporate career. He didn't even start Bannerbear on the side. It wasn't a side project for him, it was one of the many main projects, that had to work, and it did.
  • He went through 7 projects without making any money.
  • Once he found the right balance of marketing and building strategy, he became unstoppable. His next major target is hitting $1M ARR with Bannerbear.

Links


Thank You for Reading🙏

Every week, I share the most actionable insights and inspiring tips from Indie Hackers FOR Indie Hackers

Ideas + Insights + Inspiration for building profitable internet businesses💪

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ICYMI: Last Week I wrote about David Perell and The Power of Writing Online
Check out the shorter version of David's lesson in this Thread -

Thanks to Seth King for editing this post.

Photo credit Tobias Tullius from Unsplash

Cheers,
Ayush

  1. 3

    Pretty good summary, Ayush! Thx.

  2. 2

    Loved this Ayush. Nice job. Huge fan of Jon and Bannerbear and I learned tons here.

    1. 1

      Thanks Janet, glad you liked it.

      And loved your Twitter thread and Essay as well.

      Well done👏👏👏

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