Nick Freiling on bootstrapping his market research firm to $1M and productizing his service into a SaaS.


Indie Hacker: Nick Freiling
Revenue: $1.6M since 2016
Bootstrapped: Yes ⚡
Area of Genius: Market Research

Nick Freiling founded PeopleFish in 2016 with “two credit cards and a cheap Asus laptop”. He was a new father and had just quit his job as a market researcher in Washington, DC.

Now PeopleFish supports over 500 clients including enterprises like SpaceX and Procter & Gamble. The business has also notably surveyed more than 1M consumers for 300+ clients and made over $1.6M in revenue since 2016.

On quitting his job to start PeopleFish

Nick: I remember quitting my job and starting PeopleFish like it was yesterday. I was working full-time at a market research firm in 2016 and I was asked to hop onto a client call. This was rare for someone at my level, but since my boss was out that day I was asked to fill in for him.

I ended up doing the whole presentation, which I loved. That prompted me to start PeopleFish a few months later -- so I could spend more time interfacing with clients.

On combating insecurity

Nick: When I first started PeopleFish I was anxious that people were going to want to know how big my team is. But I almost never get that question. And frankly, people say, "Well who's going to be managing the fielding of this survey?" And I say, "Well since we talked, I'm going to be doing it."

They're always relieved to hear that. There's no gray area between them and me.

On working alone and being honest about it

Nick: Market Research For Startups is my attempt to embrace the truth, which is that PeopleFish has been almost exclusively just me. I've been doing this for five straight years - people want to work with me.

And so Market Research For Startups is a descriptive brand, it's a phrase, a tool. If you click on the founder page, it's just me, and that's all it is. I've seen other indie hackers do very similar things. They create a brand, they are the face of the brand, and they run both at the same time. There's a lot of authenticity when you do it that way.

On finding his first clients

Nick: It started with me calling everybody I knew who might be interested. Then I worked Upwork pretty hard. There were a lot of people looking for this particular service on Upwork, so I would do it under the PeopleFish umbrella. Over time I got referrals from my initial clients and then a few key people reached out to me.

I had written a few articles that went #1 on Google for the “Market Research for Startups" keyword for almost two years. The success of those articles was out of the blue and that's now the tagline of PeopleFish, right there on the homepage.

On turning a service into a SaaS

Nick: My new venture is my attempt to productize that whole market research process, and use technology to standardize the process at the same time.

The deliverable is still high quality, but it allows me to start drawing some fences around what I do offer and what I don't offer in order to scale. People used to ask me all the time, "What does PeopleFish do?"

I wish they would just read them back the tagline. Now with the release of the SaaS, there’s no question what PeopleFish does and doesn't do.

On scaling the business

Nick: These surveys get pretty complex, and it's really tough to find somebody who knows how to do that, that I can afford to keep on.

I do outsource some aspects of the business, but I don’t do it often, because when it comes to talking to the clients, and then fixing survey questions, that's a skill that I've learned over the last 10 years.

On building with No-Code

Nick: Back when I started PeopleFish in 2016 no-code didn’t exist. Building in public wasn't either.

People were doing it, but there wasn't anybody talking about it and there wasn't a roadmap for how to do it.

So I'm trying to take a more feedback oriented approach this time around to building out my product.

On leveraging Google Ads

Nick: Our Google ads got profitable earlier this year which made a huge difference. Over the past several months, I've increased the Google Ad spend by 50% and we are running ads now about 300% more spend than we were at the beginning of this year.

That's been a careful process though, because I want to focus on the keywords that are yielding the highest of value clients, not just the most clients.

I'd rather have one phone call a day, 100% turn into a client than 10 calls a day, 10% turn into a client.

On writing guest blog posts

Nick: When I was in college, I was Editor-in-chief of our student newspaper. My mind goes to, “let me find the Editor-in-chief of a big online publication.” On Medium, I reached out to Startup Grind's editor.

That has 100 times more value on day one than anything I could publish on my own blog. Startup Grind was perfect for me. It was the right audience and they're looking for content, especially high quality content.

You've got a 1% chance of getting something published there, but it could still be worth your while to try.

On learning to say no

Nick: If you don't think you're going to be one of the best people offering a product or service just don't do it, focus on where you add the most value.

I think building a product out of a service is a form of doing that. You decide what is it you're doing and what is it you're not doing.

You're not going to interface with the customers anymore, you're going to present something to them.

They just have to make the decision, and if they leave, they leave.

It's completely different than trying to sell someone on the phone.

On selling a service vs. SaaS

Nick: When your running a SaaS you have customers signing up every month, but you don't know how many you're going to get.

You just know if you have a consistent system, and stick to the plan, business should continue the way it's going or get better.

It's the same with an agency.

You're no less confident as an agency that you are if you're selling a SaaS or subscription product. I think last June we did four times our average revenue for the month - just because two clients walked through the door.

Unexpected things will happen, but good things will happen too as long as you keep selling.

Don't underestimate the extent to which you're an expert at what you've been doing. Your agency doesn’t have to fit a particular model.

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