Growth November 19, 2020

Why I Quit My SaaS to Become a Writer

José León @jrleonr

I made a big mistake.

It was at the end of December of 2019, and I started working right away on my idea. Nomadmail. A platform to send newsletters.

I spent six months working on it, every day, from Monday to Sunday, until I had an MVP. I was very proud of what I created, and I wanted to share it with the world.

The results, you all know by now. Zero clients.

I was expecting people to try it, at least out of curiosity or to think about using it. But no one did.

Is the project a failure because I have zero clients?

1 - The site only had around 4K visits so far. That's not enough.
2 - From those people, 99% were visits from places like Indie Hackers, Product Hunt, BetaList, etc. Are they my clients?

I have two big reasons to consider this a failure:

I still need to put six or twelve more months.

My two biggest competitors are ConvertKit and Substack.

When I look at these two solutions, I prefer nomadmail. It's easier and simpler to use. And I like that.

ConvertKit is adding more and more features, so that's beyond want I wanted to create. And for many people, those features are not needed. ConvertKit is going away from being a newsletter platform to become a hub for content creators.

Substack is simpler, but I found it a bit confusing. And they take around 12% of what you make.

The problem is...

Substack has more features. Paid newsletters, static pages, a better writing editor, and other things. If I want to create those, I need to spend at least another 6 months. Or more!

And for what? Adding more features is not going to help with finding clients because they won't see them.

Finding Clients.

I am sure that you can make a lot of money from a service like nomadmail. TinyLetter is going to disappear someday, and Substack charges a lot to have paid subscribers.

I see nomadmail as a mix of both. If I add paid newsletters and keep it simple like Tinyletter, I may have an interesting product.

The problem is, if I code, I can't do sales or marketing. It seems to me that there are at least 3 full-time jobs to do simultaneously, and that's too big for me.

I was naive when I started.

What was my big mistake?

I wanted to create a Micro-Saas. I wasn't looking to be a big company. I thought to have 500-1000 clients and make 10/20K per month.

I wanted to create a family business. Pay salaries for a couple of people and flying low. I wasn't looking for attention. I didn't want to be the greatest entrepreneur.

My big mistake was to think that creating a SaaS business was easy. At least easier. I was expecting to have 50/100 clients in the first couple of months. I thought: "Internet is big, they will come."

And there is some truth to that, but I learned after that you need and find them. Or spend money on ads. Or both.

And I don't know how to do it, and I don't have a budget for that or the experience.

What do I mean by "I quit"?

When I said that I quit, I meant: big projects that keep me attached to my desk for years and infinity hours. Projects that you can never say: done. A SaaS is never done.

If you are starting today, you should start small. You need to learn first. Starting by creating a SaaS is too big and risky in time, money, and effort.

Last week I created and launched slideslist.com. It took me a week to create it. It had some visits and no sales, but it doesn't matter. No risks were taken and minimal effort (compared with nomadmail).

And that's why you should think about quitting too. You should quit trying to create a big project or even Micro-SaaS. The "micro" doesn't reflect the effort you need to put in anyway.

So, I quit creating big projects, and everyone who starts should do the same.

Create something small in less than a month and try to sell it. You will see how hard it is and how many people tell you: "nice! I will take a look later" And they will never do. So then you learn, and you keep trying small things until you have enough experience.

Even enough experience to realize that creating a SaaS is NOT for you. Like I learned.

Know yourself and your goals

I started this to be free. And being free involves, of course, having more money.

But how much?

There are two things that we should acknowledge: the ideal and the good enough.

If I dream big, the ideal would be around 10K per month. That's a good amount of money but nothing too crazy. But I did the maths, I don't need more. Plane tickets, hotels, travels, mental peace, rent in a nice place, beautiful food and restaurants, and saving some money, of course.

I don't want to buy a fancy car or a big house. With that amount of money, I will be rich for my lifestyle.

But, there is also the good enough. And it is around 5K per month. With that, I can do pretty much the same things but less often. Like if I travel to New York and want to stay there for a month, I can't, but I could do it for a week. Things like that.

Do I need to create a SaaS for that?

Probably not. The problem with a SaaS is that I gave my freedom away by doing things that I wasn't enjoying. I like to create. But I didn't like spending every single hour of the day adding more features and at the same time trying to find clients.

If that's what you want, that's fantastic, go ahead and start a SaaS. But that's not what I wanted.

I romanticized the idea of travel and writing. And that's what I want. I wanted to make money to write, to share lessons on the things that I think are valuable for people to have a better and more balanced life.

Know yourself.

If I wanted to write. Why was I spending my time creating a SaaS?

What's next for me

I realized thanks to the article I published, I may not have to create a SaaS to start living the life I want.

People paid me for it, and I made a good amount of money. It paid my rent for the month, and that blew my mind.

So I decided:

  • To only create small projects that take between one week and a month.
  • Learn more about launching products, hoping to help other people avoid my struggles.
  • To start a newsletter to share my learnings from past and future experiences.

The newsletter is called Balance. The first one is about the effects of writing a viral article, and I will send it next Sunday.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it!

if you like this article, subscribe to the newsletter to learn more about starting a project and designing your lifestyle: https://joseleon.substack.com

  1. 21

    Before I started Indie Hackers, I was working on a SaaS app that I'd already spent months coding, and I had maybe another 6 months of features to build. Quitting that was one of the best (and hardest) decisions I've ever made.

    By comparison, Indie Hackers took less than a week to build, and another couple weeks to get my first batch of interviews done. So it was three weeks from idea to launch, and I immediately got more traction than my SaaS ever had, because I'd thought about my distribution strategy upfront.

    It's extremely easy to underestimate the investment required to build a good SaaS. Even if that's where you want to end up, I don't think that's where most IHers should start.

    1. 4

      Reminds me of this Justin Kan quote: "First time founders are obsessed with product. Second time founders are obsessed with distribution."

    2. 3

      📌 "I'd thought about my distribution strategy upfront."

    3. 3

      Thanks for sharing your story, Courtland. I didn't know it and made me feel good to know that I am not the only one.

      I can see you have experienced something similar. I think that's probably very common between entrepreneurs.

      These stories are very important to share because other people can avoid experiencing the same story over and over again.

      Many have said to me that I was brave to share my failures. I think that it takes more courage to want to build a SaaS and stopped because many people have said start with something simpler.

  2. 12

    To only create small projects that take between one week and a month.

    I also think that this is better way for solopreneurs.
    Product has to interact with users as fast as possible and doesn't matter alpha beta mvp needs to be shipped and if it doesn't sink you drink 🙂Thanks for sharing your inpiring journey.

    1. 1

      Yes. But the most important part of that is to have the experience to try and share it with people.

      There is no real difference between sharing something that took you a couple of days or something that took you a year.

      It is good to start as soon as possible to check if you can find clients.

      Happy to inspire your journey!

      1. 1

        There is no real difference between sharing something that took you a couple of days or something that took you a year.

        This sentence is such an important takeaway. There is just as much value from feedback on a week's worth of work as there is on something that took a year. So why invest so much time before realizing it.

  3. 6

    "I failed and I quit. So you should quit too"

    That's a summary of your message and I couldn't disagree more. I've failed loads of times, at loads of things. Most people who eventually find success have failed loads of times.

    It's largely accepted that perseverance is the most important factor in finding real success.

    1. 1

      The article encourages people to know themselves and to try before going big. So, completely the opposite!

  4. 4

    My big mistake was to think that creating a SaaS business was easy.

    Someone please put that on a t-shirt and start selling them at every hackathon 🙂.

    But on a serious note, everyone here who has started anything will agree with you José! In reality it is anything but easy - you've got to validate an idea, build it, get people to use it, then actually get people to part with their hard-earned cash, and essentially repeat the same process for every new feature that you add. It's a very tough, but rewarding road.

    1. 1

      Thanks, Pavel.

      Please, send me a t-shirt. Haha! :)

  5. 3

    Great read!

    I think this is something a lot of individuals starting out run into. I know I definitely did. When I first started, I immediately tried creating a SaaS and similar to you, it took months to build. After that time, I was able to get some users, but they were all free users and none were upgrading, even after weeks of tweaks and reaching out. Eventually I stopped actively working on that idea and started another, however the results were essentially the same because I didn't "learn" from the first one.

    The moment things started to click for me was when I realized that building a SaaS is something you should work towards. There's so much more involved than simply creating the product. Learning those additional elements (sales, marketing, distribution channels, idea validation, etc) are typically much harder when building a SaaS.

    What ultimately worked for me was building a digital product first. Within the first month, I had more success than both of my preview SaaS businesses combined and the product continues to grow to this day, largely unmonitored. I think this is ultimately because it's easier to convince someone there's value in buying a one-time digital product than it is to convince someone to commit to a recurring price tag. In addition to that, it can give you back time that would otherwise be spent building out your MVP and you can reinvest that into learning marketing, sales, customer service, and all of the other pieces that truly make a business successful beyond just the product.

    With that all said, I'm much more confident now that a really great path for newcomers would be:

    Free value offering (blog, videos, ebook, etc) -> Digital product -> Micro-SaaS - > Full SaaS (this last one isn't even needed for most).

    I look at that order as a ladder, where each previous step helps provide you with the keys to make the next step successful. I still have a lot of steps to go on this ladder, but I feel more confident taking them now than a did previously.

    1. 1

      Were you able to use the audience from your blog, digital products to sell your SaaS after?

      As I can see from my experience, the people I connected with, were very open to supporting me by buying me a coffee or even buying a book that does not exist yet.

      But joining the SaaS I created is a different story. So I feel like having an audience and selling a SaaS doesn't help.

      What was your experience?

  6. 2

    Then at least sell it. Don't just quit - get some money out of it from some who can push it further.

    1. 1

      Let's see! Some people have asked to buy it! Who knows!

  7. 1

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. Many people face failures because they just get an idea and start working on it. Creating a SaaS tool is not easy itself but marketing it and getting clients is even more difficult. It's not like that build a tool and people start using it. You need marketing techniques to make people know about it.
    Anyway, I am happy that quit something that you weren't passionate about! Failure is part of the journey but if you are enjoying doing something, it's better to quit and do something you truly love.

  8. 1

    I'm not sure why you consider your project a failure. I see the complete opposite. You said you have no clients. But you built a product for yourself and that alone is a huge accomplishment. You don't consider yourself worthy of using your own product? Why would anyone else? You didn't set out to build it for others. Your assumption was wrong, but the product isn't a failure.

    Imagine, for a minute, you created a post that said how much you love this product you've spent a long time building. Even if it's not successful, people would happily try it and give you feedback. Seeing that your posts are all negative, I would suggest changing your perspective and you'll see success right away. Just try that!

    Never ever quit! Success is often found right at the moment after you hit rock bottom!

    1. 1

      Well, the thing is, I don't want to spend more time working on it. That's why I think it is a failure. I was doing it to make money, not because it was something I wanted to do.

      But yes about writing more positive posts!

  9. 1

    Hope you start writing some more amazing and lucid articles I subscribed to Balance, now I wish to read more of your interesting articles

    1. 1

      Thanks a lot and welcome! The first newsletter is ready, going out in a couple of hours!

  10. 1

    Nice projects, Jose. Wonder what technologies you used for nomadmail, especially the designing/ image, they look sharp.

    1. 1

      Hey! PHP, Laravel, Alpine, Livewire, Amazon SES, Amazon Lambda Serverless with Vapor and Tailwindcss and Tailwindui. And a couple of things more.

  11. 1

    Brother. It’s product and distribution. 50% on product and 50 on distribution. If you don’t have the sales DNA, hire cold callers on Upwork. If you do (a) and pray they come, it won’t happen, you will get discouraged and shut down operations, which is what seems like happened here. Acquiring users is a never ending, excruciating, rewardless slog. You need to hustle to get users. Too crowded out there.

    1. 1

      Well, don't know what I will do! Thanks for the advice! I need to think about it!

  12. 1

    If i understand your point, you're trying to get people ot be cautious of Sunken Cost Fallacy

    Which is what causes pain/pleasure for alot of people

    TL;DR Someone mentioned in your previous post, you should be brutal with your ideas

    Which naturally means pre-sale your product, not because of effort or anything

    But as a maker, building is NOT the hard part, even if it's nek level AI, Ops, Infra - you'll figure it out

    But pre-sales effectively means you have, with proof, figured out where and how you can systematically get money - WHICH, is the name of the entire game

    Pre-sales more than validation is the most important step because it lets you work out to yourself if you know how to sell what you're building

    IMO as makers, focus should be finding that beautiful intersection between a problem you love and an easy way for YOU to access customers who face that problem - you've hit gold, the solution is not the hard part IMO

    1. 1

      Yes, something I learned: If you can't find your customers before creating it, how are you going to find them after?

  13. 1

    You are lucky! I spent 12 monthes to understand the same. I confirm 2 weeks for development and 2 weeks for promotion = the best time frame of MVP.

    1. 1

      Haha! Well, it took me longer, I created 6 more ideas without really reflecting.

  14. 1

    The traction you're getting with your writing is amazing, definitely seems to be working both for you and for your readers!

    1. 2

      Thank you, Tommy. I never felt so alive doing something. I hope I can make it work!

  15. 1

    Good title, good post!

    I'll keep preaching it: Kagan Validation, Kagan Validation!

    1. 1

      Thanks! What's Kagan Validation? Any good resource for that?

      1. 1

        A method of validating by getting 3 paying users within a 48 hour window without spending money.

        https://www.younglingfeynman.com/essays/airbnb2?rq=kagan validation

  16. 1

    This is interesting.

    1. 1

      Happy to know that!

  17. 1

    Lovely post. It should be part of every startups curriculum. Good luck Jose, I'll be reading more of your work and buying you a coffee

    1. 2

      You are amazing, Ronana! Thanks a lot! Feel free to copy it and use it anywhere you want! :)))

  18. 1

    I can't resonate enough. Wish you the best luck with your future adventures!

    1. 1

      Thanks O Park! I will try my best to keep improving!

  19. 1

    Why you tell other maker to quit? I understand your failure from your last post, but come on, that doesn’t mean other people must quit their project too.

    I was like you before, working hard on my project, but quiting to soon, then I realized what make me fail, then trying again, then my project started gaining some traction.

    Maybe I have a lot more failed project than you, but I always try, never stop learning and never tell other people to quit their dream. I always remember about Rovio, which failed for 50 times, apple has failed product on their early day, evernote almost bankrupt.

    Maybe you don’t market your product hard enough, maybe hard for your your standard. Your product nomadmail.io looks good, I can see huge opportunity from it. you can reach out to youtube creator and gumroad seller.

    But, it’s up to you, just don’t tell people to quit.

    1. 3

      I didn't. Have you read the article?

      I said: Go and test yourself, learn who you are, and go do bigger things after that.

      I started a newsletter and launched a small side project last week.

      I stopped working on big projects as I wrote in the article and I gave all the reasons why and the reasons for other people to avoid my mistakes.

      So, if anything I am encouraging others to try!

  20. 1

    I like what you said:

    • create small things first to know how to sell it
    • know yourself

    Just like validation cycle, the smaller it is, the faster you learn. Good stuff!

    1. 2

      Thanks a lot, Kevon.

      I think that summarised exactly what I was trying to say!

  21. 1

    Thanks for sharing your journey. I like to remain myself something like: "Winner Never Quit quitter never win".

    1. 1

      Thanks for reading, Romain! Keep trying, and trying!

  22. 1

    Finding that sweet spot between resource outlay (time/money) and expected returns is something I am struggling w/ as well. Should I spend all the money and all the time for "guaranteed" success or a 10 bucks and a weekend for quick/minimal validation. Thanks for the post.

    1. 2

      You are the only one who can really know that. Don't ask around, look inside.

      Think if you can work on something for 5-10 years without having the results you want, or if you prefer to work on more things and try them out.

      From my perspective, create one thing that is short to create. A small product and try and share it. After that, decide.

      But remember, there is no right path, you have to choose one and learn.

      1. 1

        Thanks. Really appreciated.

        I have basically resolved to enjoy the journey. I mean it’s all one big fun excursion from reality. I have learned a lot from past failures. Some day I may even learn something from a success. Ha.

  23. 1

    If you don’t put time and effort into improving it, then you are going to fail. You have 2 choices:

    • Keep working on it, improving your product, until you get more clients.
    • Discard this product and start a new one. Find yourself in the same situation and post on IH about your issues. Maybe you’ll get one of those projects to stick, but until then you’ll have unfinished stuff and had wasted your time.
    1. 1

      Well, there are no guarantees that if I put more time into my projects I'll fine clients. I save that for the future for now.

      I won't start another product that's so big. I started a newsletter because I think is smaller in some ways, scarier in other ways but more manageable for just one person.

      Thanks for your feedback!

  24. 1

    I really enjoyed your last articles, José! Actually, you might not remember but my first comment here on IH was on your article about your 6 failured side projects.

    I admire people who show their failures and let others learn from their mistakes, I think that we see too much success when in reality, failure is much more prevalent and not explored enough.

    I want to see where you will be going with Balance, subscribed!

    1. 1

      Hi! I am very happy to read from you again!

      Well, honestly I just tell as I go. If I'd succeed I'd be talking about that. Just trying to share my journey as I go. If anything I do help another person, that's the most beautiful thing that can happen to anyone!

      Thanks a lot for joining Balance!

    1. 2

      That's probably the most beautiful sentence I heard today! Thank you!

  25. 1

    Products are never done, they just die when they don't have any users. Windows 1.0 was created on 1981 and Windows is far from done...

    You won't reach 5k or 10k per month with weekly projects. You need to have focus, work on a project you use on a daily or weekly basis and enjoy it. Improve it according to your needs and feedback from users.

    Build something for yourself, and you will always have at least ONE satisfied user.

    "I decided to start a newsletter". "Nomadmail. A platform to send newsletters.". Me thinks you should have a newsletter way back and use Nomadmail to publish it.

    1. 1

      Some products are done. Books and courses. You click publish, and it's done.

      You have to keep creating new ones to keep making money, so it is a different struggle. But for some people can be better. At least you can sleep at night without worrying too much about the bugs on your SaaS.

      Nothing is perfect, that's for sure.

      If I host my newsletter on nomadmail that means that I have to add some features. I don't want to do it right now :)

  26. 1

    Hey - thanks for sharing your learnings! Sorry to hear it didn't work out, but sounds like you're on a great track now with Balance. Will be subscribing :)

    1. 1

      Thank you, Toby! Very happy to hear that you enjoyed the article. It didn't work out but at least I learned many things about starting a product and myself.

      I hope to see you inside Balance.

  27. 1

    This comment was deleted 12 days ago.

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