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The Story of a Unicorn Solo Founder Making $500,000 ARR 🚀

Do what you love, build projects and features people want, and the success will come. I bet you heard that many times. This saying is well known, but I need to point out it takes time to get results. Many founders give up too soon and break their consistency.

It’s not the issue of Ivan Kuckir and his project Photopea. He has been building this online photo editor for 7 years now, and it’s paying off. Last year, he broke the line of $500,000 ARR, and it’s still growing.

We sat down together with Ivan to discuss his startup journey and how consistency and listening to your customer can get your project over $40k MRR.

(btw you can read it on our blog too)

Hi Ivan, can you please describe your project you are working on?

Hello Lunadio, Photopea is a free web-based graphic software. It’s an alternative to Photoshop and other similar tools. I’ve been working on this project for over 7 years now. It started as an experiment and turned out to be my main source of income.

What’s your stats? Can you please share some numbers?

I started to monetize this tool 4 years ago, and it’s growing continuously year by year. Last year, I made over $500k for the first time, and there is still plenty of space to grow for this tool.

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How do you make money from your project?

It might surprise you, but the primary revenue stream is from ads. On top of that, I do license deals. You can customize Photopea using API and integrate it into your projects. I charge a monthly fee for it.

Yep. It is surprising for me for sure. Why did you decide to use this type of monetization?

Well, I was building online games before Photopea. Do you remember those flash-based simple online games all around the Internet? I’ve created some of them. Game developers monetized these games by putting banner ads inside. I knew exactly how many views and impressions I need to get decent money out of the project. It is pure math.

Because I have this know-how, I decided to build the tool for free and use ads to monetize.

That’s cool. So, what are your daily visits then?

300,000 users come to my website every day. They spend 45,000 hours using my tool each day.

Okay. That’s pretty impressive. I can imagine your server costs are huge.

Actually, you won’t believe me, but I pay $45 per year.

Are you kidding me?!

It’s all rendered in the user’s browser. There is no database, no backend. I only pay for the hosting of Javascript scripts and static files.

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Oh my, let me breathe it out. That’s amazing. Do you have any other costs? Any employees or still working on the project alone?

I don’t have any employees, and I’m still working on the project alone. In the beginning, I thought it’s a disadvantage. I didn’t want my customer to know I’m the only one working on this. I was afraid of their reaction when they would find out it’s only me using an old $500 notebook.

Later on, I realized I got nothing to hide, and I want to use it as an advantage. I want to show others what they can achieve when they consistently build projects that people want. That’s why I decided to share my story.

And, thank you for that. Let me take you back a little bit. What was your MVP version of Photopea? How did you start this project?

It all started as an experiment. I know Photoshop pretty well, and I wanted to find out if it’s possible to parse Photoshop (.psd) files in the website browser. I created a simple web tool where you could open a .psd file, and you were able to download all layers separately. It was a technical challenge, and I like working with new technologies.

Compared to what Photopea is now, you started with a single feature. Do you have any advice for founders building their products for years before launching them?

Start with a small product, and add more features on the go. I’ve learned it’s good to launch your projects or features before you are 100% satisfied with that. I still do that now. I’m not trying to do all things perfectly. I launch it as soon as it works, and then I wait for user feedback.

I released a new update supporting .ai (Adobe Illustrator) files, and I know it’s not perfect. However, it works for 80% of users, and others report bugs and all edge cases. Now, I’m going to fix these issues one by one.

When was the time you realized this could be a successful project?

I had like 20 projects back then. All of them had the same importance to me, and my expectations were high for every project. I decided to focus on Photopea because I most enjoyed working on this product. I know I’m building a unique tool, and it motivates me to continue.

How do you prioritize new features?

Photopea is composed of many small functionalities. Each feature is a new challenge for me, and I’m happy once I finish it.

I receive new feature requests over Github. People are reporting issues and asking for new things there. The funny thing is that 80% of these users created an account on Github the day they posted a new request. I bring many new users to Github over the years. 😅

I choose requests from this list based on my current mood and what I would like to implement next. There is no secret sauce behind it. It’s all about building what people want.

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What’s your marketing strategy?

I don’t have any strategy. I’m just building a nice tool people like, and they talk about that. It’s all just word of mouth.

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(stats by Ubersuggest)

I have no growth hack advice or anything for you. I share new feature updates on Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, sometimes on Hacker News as well.

I launched on Product Hunt a few years ago, and I had absolutely zero results, with no success. Then, some random fan of my tool, with 10 followers, relaunched it last year, and it gets to #4 Product of the Week with more than 1000 upvotes.

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Okay, so your advice would be, let someone else launch your project on Product Hunt.😅

Yes, that’s my only marketing advice that worked for me.

Can you share any fuck up or fail?

Once, I forgot to update one script, and Photopea didn’t work for like 12 hours. It was during my nighttime. When I woke up and checked my phone, I found 150 emails and approximately 50 tweets reporting my tool doesn’t work. It catapulted me from the bed, and I fixed the issue immediately.

Do you have any final advice for early-stage founders?

Find a domain you really like and something that you enjoy doing. It’s a long journey. I love programming and creating new things, and I use it as my superpower. What’s yours?


Do you like this article? Read more interesting posts on our blog. 😍

  1. 19

    1,000 copycat products by "indie hackers" incoming in 3, 2, 1 ...

    Great story and amazing success though.

    1. 12

      Hah :D I suspect this is a steep hill for copy cats to climb

      1. 4

        Never underestimate the power of hunger. A quick scrape of his site and done! He shouldn't have given the game away about his back end infrastructure, that's practically proprietary information and makes his app incredibly easy to clone.

        1. 1

          Whats so secret about hosting static files? His tech is very simple, a SPA and a server that serves files.

          Incredibly easy to clone? ROFL, ok sure go ahead and clone photoshop then.

          1. 3

            Comparing a web-based app running via JS to a desktop app is ridiculous. If you seriously think they're the same then I can point you to some online courses.

            1. 1

              His app is a javascript spa of a photoshop clone, which you're saying just requires a quick scrape to clone! ez! ok do it then.

              You're looking for a desktop app tutorial? Here you go https://lmgtfy.app/?q=electron+app+tutorial

          2. 1

            I'm not sure you understand what his point is. He's talking about cloning the tech; which is incredibly easy, not cloning the business side of things or the ARR.

      2. 4

        Probably. 😅 Still, I have the feeling there will be a lot of people trying anyway

    2. 4

      Yeah, like I just opened the console and saved everything to my HD and beautified all the files, replaced his google ad with mine, and replaced every occurrence of string photopeak to mine and in 30 minutes it's a brand new app now running on my servers. I'm not advocating for people to do this, but he should safeguard the product against this.

      1. 3

        Well, to be honest, I believe Photopeas true asset is the insane amount of backlinks to the service. Even by copying his codebase, you've gained nothing unless you can drive a decent amount of traffic.

        That said, he really should somehow safeguard his codebase. 😅

        1. 1

          I was not saying that I'm launching a new clone to compete but was just mentioning that it's easy to clone the way it's written.

          1. 1

            How would he do that? It's JS?

    3. 4

      good luck with that & see you in 7 years :D

    4. 2

      300k DAU would take years and years haha

    5. 1

      Hopefully copycats of the business model :)

  2. 11

    Really impressive, I use it for years but had no idea it's just a single founder behind it.

    Many solo founders focus on solving "simple" problems. I can't imagine a situation where someone actually rolls out of bed and starting to build a free alternative to the entire Adobe design stack without funding and without a team.

    I guess sometimes you just need to keep on going, even if it means to ignore the (terrifying) scope of what you're building.

    1. 5

      Well, I got the same thoughts. But, he didn't really want to create an alternative to Photoshop at the beginning.
      He literally started with a single feature and just adding more and more features over time. Now, he has better functionality than Photoshop, lol.

      1. 3

        Yeah, obviously it wasn't built over a weekend, and this was probably not the intention to begin with, but it's still quite challenging/intimidating to build such a large project on your own.

  3. 4

    Impressive!

    Loved the talk Ivan gave in 2019 and shared some interesting technical challenges.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZmaeC_Ma5A

  4. 3

    Great stuff. I have mentioned your product to several young digital designers, and it allows them to create without concern as a financial burden.

  5. 2

    @ctw I love this article. And I really like Photopea. It literally exited any regrets from me deleting PS6 from my Mac.

    I even remember that outage you mentioned. Haha.

    Keep working on that awesome tool and cool to see you're taking in serious ARR now.

    I always felt a little like a thug because I use your tool for free. But it just works nicely 👌🏻

    Keep shipping awesomeness 🤟🏻

  6. 2

    Recently broke $600k ARR with my design service, and “coming out” as a company of one was one of the single best things I’ve ever done. Good for you dude. Seems like the sky is the limit 🚀

  7. 2

    What a great story!😍

  8. 2

    Thanks for sharing, I use Photopea at least once a week and have always been curious how the development team could maintain the software. Turns out it's one guy making bank on a great tool. Very inspiring!

  9. 1

    There is a lot of zen wisdom in how he thinks and does things. Congrats! Can clone code, but can't clone 7 years of traction. Also context is key. AirBnB had many clones but the cloners missed context all the time. Copying without context is useless which might be relevant here.

  10. 1

    Very impressive. In addition, I think it’s amazing that you’ve had a long term view on the project. Good for you!

  11. 1

    Amazing story! Great to see what is possible to build with determination and focus. Showing up and working each day. I would like to know more about his tech stack and what it takes to build such a complex application for the browser.

  12. 1

    Can you share what you tried before Photopea? I would like to know what are the 20 ideas

    1. 1

      Yeah, we asked him about that, and I remember he said he made a couple of games and some small projects/tools. One helped people to learn to play on guitar, and some schools even used it. But none of these projects are active now.

  13. 1

    What amazing history 🙌🏼, Indie Hackers like you inspire the rest of us, thanks for share your experience.

  14. 1

    I only just discovered this tool last week and realised how amazing this was. And Indie Hackers just recommends this article to me today. Genius. 👍 Props to the ingenius idea of the founder Ivan too. 💪

  15. 1

    This a great success!👍👏💪

  16. 1

    Nice unconventional yet aspiring stuff going on here. Congrats!

  17. 1

    Very inspirational story... "Do what you love, build projects and features people want, and the success will come" 🔑

  18. 1

    Great Journey Ivan! You are an inspiration.

  19. 1

    so very neat! what a great story.

  20. 1

    This is just amazing

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