Every single step I took to get my side project to $1k/month
🆕 Update 08/10/2020: this was written almost a year ago and I have since quite freelancing to work on my side project full time. As a result it is no longer a “side project,” but all the info here is still relevant!
Often you will read enticing SAAS growth stories of up to $50k/month in X months only to discover that the writer had a previous audience that they cultivated for years and years or they are a professional marketer.
This is not one of those stories.
I only have 27 followers on my personal Twitter. I do not have a personal blog and did not have any pre-existing audience. I grew my side project to $1k/month by focusing on product and doing some minimal grassroots marketing which I will detail here.
👥 How do you get users?
I love startup summaries such as IndieHackers showing current monthly revenue and how they got there. I have learned an immense amount and more importantly have been inspired to build projects of my own. One thing I find myself wanting more of though is specifics on how to get users:
- What exact steps were taken and when to get users?
- What worked and what did not work?
- What was the state of the product at each step?
I would go as far as to say that when it comes to growing a SAAS product, the most important thing is to figure out how to get users. It is not enough to have an amazing product. There are over 200 million SAAS businesses in the world all vying for eyeballs and you need to figure out how you are going to get people to even know your product exists.
🏁 Starting out
I wrote the first line of code for my side project Bookmark OS (an online desktop for managing your bookmarks) in mid-2015. Since then I’ve been working full time as a web developer and building my side project any chance I can get.
While 1k/month in 4+ years is not the curvy sexified growth that a VC would salivate over, I have been quite content with growing my business on the side. I haven’t taken any investment, don’t have any pressure to hit any growth metrics, and have been able to mainly focus on building a product that people love.
The product was born out of my own needs. I had always used the built-in Chrome bookmark manager, but there eventually came a time when my bookmarks became so jumbled that I stopped using bookmarks alltogether. At one point I started to drag the URLs from the browser address bar to folders on my desktop. This way I was able to keep everything organized by leveraging the graphical user interface (GUI) of my mac.
I then thought to myself that I could probably build a better browser-based version. That way my bookmarks would be safely backed up, I would be able to access them from any device, and I could add screenshots as bookmark icons to make them easier to recognize.
It took about 6 months for me to build the first version in my free time. The result was more than a minimally viable product. I wanted the first version to be truly valuable for users and went as far as building in both Paypal and Stripe subscriptions so I could see if users were willing to pay for it. I had both a free and a $12/year option.
The first thing I did was submit the website to a couple of subreddits (/r/UsefulWebsites and /r/productivity) on February 18th, 2016, and got voted up relatively high (60 votes on UserfulWebsites). There were positive comments and I received my first 10 or so paid subscriptions. This validated that people were willing to pay for the product which motivated me to devote more time to it.
😺 Preparing for Product Hunt
I took the next month to add a few more features and prepared the site for a launch on Product Hunt. I direct messaged Jack Smith, a prominent user of PH, from my Bookmark OS Twitter account telling him that I was looking for someone to launch my product. He responded within an hour:
Jack ended up submitting to Product Hunt on March 15th, 2016. The site did pretty well, barely missing the top 10 of the day. In the month that followed the site ended up getting coverage in several smaller tech blogs. Many of them outside of the US. Surprisingly most of my paying users ended up being in France at this point.
Here’s an example of one of the blog posts from France.
I took this as a great sign that the product was easy to use and intuitive since it was being used in different languages even though it wasn’t translated. I ended up with around 1500 users, 100 of which were paying.
🛠️ Product iteration
These early users really helped with improving the product as I was able to determine what features people were willing to pay for. I kept head down for the next 6 months, listening to users, and iterating on the product.
On September 23rd, 2016 I submitted the site to Built With Bootstrap, a website dedicated to showcasing websites built using the Bootstrap framework. It cost $6 bucks and led to 5 paying users. Despite this being such a small amount, this was encouraging for me because I was able to get an instant return on my investment and got some users in a new way.
🔑 Key takeaway: in the beginning getting even the tiniest amount of real user validation is a huge booster for morale and motivation.
I kept building and adding new features such as folder collaboration, improving mobile, and tags. I was still getting random traffic from previous sources and from users sharing the site.
😺 Product Hunt round two
In April of 2017, I figured I had enough new features to do another post on Product Hunt . I reached out to Kevin William David, another Product Hunt influencer, who helped me submit the site on April 7th, 2017.
This PH post was very similar to the first. It barely made the top 10, got some great feedback, more exposure, and new users. Also, similarly, the site received a fair amount of coverage from other countries including the Russian Lifehacker. At this point, the site had around 4000 users and was making around $150/month from “Pro” subscriptions.
💬 Comment marketing
I continued to get good product feedback, improve the product, and finally started thinking about doing more active marketing. I started commenting on relevant web pages such as blog posts, Reddit threads, Quora questions, and forums. For example, if someone had a question such as, “what is a bookmark manager recommendation?” I would answer and suggest my product.
I set up Google alerts to alert me when there was a relevant mention of a topic such as, “bookmark manager.” While not the most scalable solution, it was encouraging to be able to pro-actively get new users.
🗞️ Paying for PR
It was at this point on May 31st, 2017 that I started to look into paying for PR. I ended up trying out a PR service called Publicize for $500, which essentially has some lower level PR people come up with a pitch and then mass emails a list they have. This was the pitch they ended up using: “Bookmark OS finally puts an end to your cluttered bookmark bar.” Not the most exciting pitch but to be fair, bookmark managers aren’t that exciting or newsworthy anymore in general and I didn’t really have a newsworthy event to pitch.
I got a few small blog posts from this but not sure it was worth it. In retrospect, it would have been better for me to wait until I had a newsworthy event. I also realized at this point that I probably should have tried to pitch Bookmark OS to tech blogs before submitting it to Product Hunt the first time. I could have put the site in Beta mode to get feedback from users before then. Then I would have been able to pitch a newsworthy event such as coming out of Beta.
🔑 Key takeaway: you should pitch the launching of your product to tech blogs before posting it to Product Hunt. Your product launch is one of your best newsworthy events.
💰 Removing freemium
I went back to what I knew best and went head down building product. I kept adding features and improving the site in my spare time for the next 5 months until December of 2017 when I decided to remove the free tier and go paid only.
☠️ The death of a competitor
After removing the free plan I saw an immediate increase in revenue which was encouraging. Revenue went from around $200/month to $300/month the next month. It turned out to be good timing because a few months later on March 30th, 2018 I received emails from some users telling me that they had been notified that Xmarks, a browser bookmark syncing tool, was going to be shut down on May 1st.
The users were telling me that they were happy with my product and were recommending it to others as an alternative. Another auspicious event was that I had recommended my product as an alternative on an Xmarks forum some months before and now users were finding it through the forum and recommending it as well.
Over the next 2 months, a lot of Xmarks refugees found my product and paid for it. I ended up making around $5k just in those 2 months.
🔑 Key takeaway: you need to do some kind of marketing in tandem with your product. If I hadn’t done a little commenting, I wouldn’t have gotten a lot of this traffic.
🗞️ Paying for PR again
After the Xmarks traffic started to die down a few months later I went through traffic withdrawal and talked myself into trying PR again. This time I reached out to smaller agencies and freelancers and ended up hiring an individual through Upwork. This time I tried to create a newsworthy event and pitch two new features: stand-alone note taking and time-based filters.
I worked with this PR person for about 6 weeks and did get a few small articles but didn’t end up seeing the results I had hoped for. I understand that the key to PR is consistency and you need to do it for long chunks of time, but I had spent $6k at this point and cut my losses.
I also realized that bookmark managers just are not that interesting for tech writers anymore. There are hundreds of bookmark managers and they are all probably trying to pitch the same journalists. It’s probably difficult for any PR person to get results.
🔑 Key takeaway: It is a good idea to truly understand all your competitors and do an honest analysis of if you have a newsworthy event or not.
In the end, working with a PR person was not only expensive but time-consuming as well. Time spent hiring, telling them about my product, answering questions, and looking at pitches was time I could have been building product or doing PR myself. I plan on doing my own PR outreach from here on out because I feel as though it will take me that same amount of time but cost less.
🔑 Key takeaway: when you pay for PR you are paying for connections. PR people that have the connections you want are really expensive, so if you are bootstrapping it is probably better to just pitch journalists yourself.
💸 Charge more
By the end of 2018, the revenue for the site had leveled off around $750/month. I kept grinding away at product and on March 1st, 2019 I increase the cost from $12/year to $24/year. After the increase, the site now consistently does over $1k/month. It has been a super fun journey as I truly love building useful products. I have also reached a point where users have stopped asking for the same new features, so I am confident that the product is feature-rich enough for me to now focus more on growing the site.