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Three Years as a One-Man Startup (medium.com/steveridout)
718 points by steveridout on Jan 7, 2016 | hide | past | favorite | 218 comments

Hey Man, just my thoughts on this.

Looks like a great product. I may use it later this year as I'm learning Spanish.

However, your business model is weak, because people are fickle and don't stick with language learning (I should know; I've been learning Spanish for 6 years on and off). Plus, the more you use your product, the less you need it.

However, there is a much better target market: businesses. I know a whole bunch of foreign nationals in the UK who have earned money working on rather basic translation tasks for web businesses. I can imagine a tool like this would be hugely useful for those businesses. Sure, I can go use Google translate, but having a polished user experience in-browser looks a lot nicer and more professional if a customer is watching me use it.

So, I say this year focus on selling to SMEs. If you get just a few major business contracts, it will dwarf your income from regular users. You're looking for companies that work a lot on the web and interact with organisations overseas, possibly speak a little of the relevant foreign language but can't afford to pay for bilingual speakers.

Random thoughts:

- the travel industry - travel agents, companies that organise tours, tourist visitor centres, accommodation agents, etc. Anyone who might want to quickly check a foreign website. - government, particularly anything interacting abroad or with non-native speakers. - SME exporters - journalists - researchers

Final point - I'm not so keen on your branding. Learning a language is an exciting, potentially life-changing experience! It can increase your employability and open your eyes to entire new cultures. This is an amazing thing. "Readlang" does not say that to me. However, it's a good name for a business interacting with the corporate market I suggested above, so it may not need changing...

Good luck, I think what you're doing is awesome and you should definitely stick with it!

You may be correct. But I'm not ready to focus on businesses right now because:

1. Businesses would want features that individuals don't care about. More importantly, they would want features that I don't care about. I made Readlang to serve my own needs as a self motivated learner. I feel like I have a reasonable barometer for what's useful and what will appeal to individuals. Creating something for business would be more difficult and less fun for me personally.

2. There's still a hell of a lot of room to grow with individual language learners.

3. Even if the profit is lower, I can probably reach a larger user base with a freemium consumer product. I think that the quantity of feedback and data that this provides helps me create a better product. (On the other hand - I'm sure the revenue that may come from a B2B product would also help!)

4. I can always try selling to businesses later. And with a proven, popular consumer product this should be an easier sell.

Regarding the name & branding. I'm sure it's not optimal but I'm not an expert in this and it was the best I came up with. I'm going to run with it in the short term at least.

Thanks for the advice and encouragement!

> More importantly, they would want features that I don't care about.

> I feel like I have a reasonable barometer for what's useful

Those two statements right there are holding you back. 1) You should ALWAYS be considering features that users want if you're trying to become profitable. If this was a charity app then sure, do whatever you want. BUT this is not, according to your blog. Put the user's needs before your own. 2) You may have a decent feel of what it takes to learn a language but I bet you a day of true market research would open your eyes to features/enhancements that you would have never even considered.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents. I think the app is really cool!

Just to clarify. I certainly listen to my users. I may even err too much on the side of adding everything they ask for, leading to a more complicated product. (e.g. here are the completed items on Readlang's uservoice page: https://readlang.uservoice.com/forums/192149-general/status/..., and more suggestions come in via private channels too)

The thing is choosing which users to listen to. For now, I've decided to make an awesome tool for individual learners. So I'm listening more to them, as well as my own gut feeling.

You should listen to haggy. He's correct about considering features that your users want. In this case, if you're looking to make the big bucks then expanding to businesses is a great route (the businesses would be your users). I understand that you made this for yourself but you don't have to sacrifice the freemium feel while still offering commercial services to businesses.

I agree. Have you looked spoken with businesses?

B2B is a lot easier than B2C. I've also fell into the trap of 'building for myself'. I kind of think that's bullshit. Sure you might start an idea to solve your own itch, but I feel like 'building for myself' is akin to falling in love with the solution vs falling in love with the problem.

You need to be building for paying customers (especially if you're bootstrapping). Would it be too hard to add more features and slap on a 'Pro' or 'Business version'?

Also, any possibility of licensing or 'white labeling' your solution?

It's great that your revenues are going up though. I wish you good luck on your venture!

I did develop some features for teachers and got a few of them using it with their classes. Despite a few shows of interest, no-one actually paid anything for it. On top of that, they wanted a bunch of features that would take my time in development and support, leading to a weaker product for individuals.

Creating a product for schools and businesses requires creating:

1. A great experience for the learners.

2. A great experience for the administrators and teachers.

I'm focussed on part 1, and building a business around it selling direct to individuals. I can always add part 2 later.

Oh HN and unsolicited startup advice. A blog post and 2 minutes and you've pattern matched your way to a solution. Bravo.

Dear OP, please ignore all this sage advice from people in cushy tech jobs telling you what you should do with your baby. Life is hard. We never know if we're making the right decisions. But it sounds like you have a clear vision that is driving you - that is priceless. Don't sell it away for the smart "business" move, when you already know what you should be doing.

It's interesting that you use the phrase 'sell it away'. That's exactly what one should be doing as a business.

I stumbled my way into product-market fit by designing something that was useful to me personally, and finding that actual profitability was in the mainstream--- people who were my exact opposites in terms of tastes but still strained to use my product for themselves because it was the only thing serving a similar need.

Right now they are 98% of my client base and I struggle with the fact that I don't intuitively understand their needs. I don't have a clear vision, and instead have to do user research on a constant basis.

It took me seven years to reach that point. For the first 7 years, I was ramen profitable--certainly nothing to quit a day job about. On year 7, I made a single switch and within 1 year earned 3x the previous years revenue. The 2nd year, I earned 10x the pre-pivot revenue.

I went from being able to feed myself (barely), to being able to buy a house and support a family. Is that a fair trade off, I think it is... but your mileage may vary.

I see the 'don't sell out' motivation from a lot of small business owners in my community. For another example, there is... well was... a small greek chicken joint that operated for 15 years nearby. The owner was 1st generation american, and all he wanted to do was cook his family recipes and share them with the community. Problem is the community changed in the past decade, going from being mostly European-heritage to N. African nationals. His customer base dwindled, and he never changed his stance of doing what he loved.

A month after his restaurant closed, it was replaced with one which served all halal chicken and is now jam packed with more customers than any other business sees. It's success has convinced the owner to expand leftwards into another collapsing business.

Point is... the path to profitability is finding a customer base willing to pay you. It's not important to have a clear vision, if that vision only involves a small number of people.

  It's not important to have a clear vision, if that vision only involves a small number of people.
Absolutely. A clear vision that's wrong does you no good. I know people who work too hard on their idea without testing it. No battle plan ever survives contact with the marketplace.

> [OP] I’ve worked hard for 3 years and am still making less than minimum wage.

> But it sounds like you have a clear vision that is driving you

I merely suggested that he consider expanding to businesses. I'm in no position to give advice about how to run a business but why not try?

"Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

> You should listen to haggy. He's correct

Hm, I must have missed the part of the original post which says "Gosh, I'm so happy to live in a black and white world where my only motivation is monetary."

steveridout, go you. You're quietly making the world the kind of place you want it to be. You're an inspiration.

No, you missed the part of the original post which says that the author is poorer than a minimum wage worker in McDonald's, and is quite unhappy about that state of affairs. Which is a pity, because that was the largest and most conspicuous part of the post.

There is nothing inspiring about living in poverty, particularly when it would be quite avoidable if one would only stop listening to inaccurate gut feelings.

That having been said, if the author has actually made a considered decision that, when all the tradeoffs are taken into account, poverty is what he wants, that is by all means his decision to make. But it's not clear from what he's written so far that this really is his considered decision, so the advice is worth giving.

Yet the post largely focuses on the money he's made?

I believe he's stating that BUSINESSES would want features that he/other users wouldn't care about.

Not that he doesn't care about his users.

I think the main problem for OP are competing tools like Duolingo - Maybe he should try to get in touch with them to see if his product could be complementary to their offering (and work with them)?

This is a long shot but maybe the attention from HN could be enough ammunition to get a conversation started. I think duolingo also shares OP's philosophy of focusing on regular users as opposed to businesses.

I think you're right. Focus on the personal consumers market, its what you enjoy the most so you will do the best work.

I think the splash page need a review by a third party designer. can you get someone on a freelance site to refresh it? I think the spacing is not correct in the bunny and the button. Probably moving the bunny to the left and pushing the title off.

I think the page looks professional, but there is something about it thats not OK can't put my finger on it.

I think the contrast in the yellow bar is wrong. it stands out too much. I would move the content of the bar right bellow the title and remove the yellow background.

I read some design stuff about Content, Repetition, Alignement and Proximity and helps a bit. specially when we look on a page too long and can't see the issues anymore that are apparent to new users.

I think your pricing is wrong, you should not use 5$ its a well known marketing thing.

I would bump it to 6.99$ to new subscribers its probably your optimal price. Or 4.99$ but i think people would pay for it all the same at close to 7$.

Your best marketing tool on the internet is a blog. This gives google a lot more to work with to index your page. You are passionate about the subject I'm sure you would write great posts that would hit front page.

The blog should be on your domain readlang.com/blog. check if ghost.org supports that otherwise go for a subdomain blog.readlang.com, and make links in both directions. Don't put publicity on the blog, it would like allow competition to advertise. Put a home made add to your own product.

Your comment intrigued me so I took a look at the site - agreed, the hierarchy is kind of strange and the primary green color is overused.

Took about 5 minutes rearranging stuff in chrome console: http://imgur.com/uS7AolF

This made my day, not only are people offering much-needed advice (3 years .... this is so painful to read), you're actually offering a free redesign. Thanks for this (because apparently OP is too busy defending his bad decisions)

I agree, that looks a lot nicer. Easier on the eyes.

Thanks - I like it!

I'll do a split test and let you know how it goes.

Please do! I'd love to see the outcome.

Having spent sometime selling a bootstrapped product, your response here all sound really good to me. A problem we had was saying "yes sir, right away sir" to too many people. By the end, our product was more a mashup of what others wanted and not what we wanted.

If immediate crazy startup growth is your desire, maybe you need to hit up businesses. Otherwise, to me it sounds like you've got good growth going, albeit not yet paying full time like everyone would want. Sounds like you ace a lot of potential to become the 5- or 10-year "overnight success."

So anyway, good work sticking to your guns, as then say. Know what you want, and bring people what you think is best. You might not have people banging the door down to give you large sacks of cash, but so what? Growth is there, and with a couple more years it sounds like you could be living pretty fine if you kept it up.

Tons of money doesn't mean success. Your personal happiness does.

> More importantly, they would want features that I don't care about.

I empathize with and often share this way of thinking, even if it's called out as stubbornness or poor business sense.

Doing what you want to do and getting paid > getting paid for doing something you don't want to do.

On the other hand, usually when you are great at something - whatever that something is - and well compensated for it, you grow to love whatever it is you're doing and develop a sense of pride and accomplishment.

This especially applies when the business grows into a company that needs managing. The day-to-day management of two hypothetical Readlangs, the SME-Readlang and CoolVision-Readlang might not differ much at all, while the financial rewards could differ by an order of magnitude.

But I love the product and will definitely use it, and as a user hope you will focus all effort on this - your - vision. Caveat: The product is great; get more users.

1. True. Being passionate about your startup is super-important, so if targeting business would kill it for you, then forget it.

2. I'm not so sure, because your churn is 50% annually. This is going to severely limit your growth. I guess it depends how far you want to take the business. And I'm not sure you can fix the stickiness of your product, as you've said that people leave because they stop studying.

3. True. I guess you could always hire someone with the money from b2b income, so they focused on the business users and you just had fun working with personal users.

4. Sure.

Good luck, and please make sure you post again so we can see how you progress!

[edit: removed the numbers re: churn, as it was too difficult to give an accurate example!]

summary of things that I would change: change the price to 6.99$, add a blog about tips and tricks on how to learn a new language in general not about the product directly. have the review of the splash reduced. Put twitter and facebook buttons visible above the fold.

The guy who you're reply to is right. Selling to businesses will make you more money. Selling only 10 units at $99 a month will generate you $12k a year. Either that, or you need to raise prices significantly for consumers.

> 1. Businesses would want features that individuals don't care about. More importantly, they would want features that I don't care about.

Yes, but they know you don't care about them, which is why they would pay you to care about them. This is what's called being a professional. As in literally being paid for your company's proven skill and expertise.

Companies proven skill and expertise, thats a joke right?

Heres how it works in the real world. Person in a company who knows sweet FA about software design and UX asks you to add a feature cause 'they want it'. Its not cause users asked for it, its cause this person thinks its good idea and they happen to be the boss/client so you don't have a choice. Thus your project is compromised and you die a little inside because of it.

These are complete guesses, but I would expect you could charge businesses more in the order of $50/month per user, if not higher... and just one business might sign up 10 people, which would be $500/month.

That means that a single business signup could be worth 100x a single individual signup.

Individuals are price sensitive to the point where $5/month is still something they have to think hard about. Businesses can spend a great deal more than that.

keep in mind that B2B requires sales. Assuming you are comfortable making sales pitches, also consider the large time requirement you'll have to put into it: constructing your pitch-deck+supplemental materials, executing the sales conversations, and iterating based on feedback.

Maybe there is a middle ground. Sell to businesses or schools who want to offer it to their people for personal use -- i.e. to help them adjust to relocating, or for schools which can't offer full language programs.

Your mentality is garbage, yo! Compile feedback and consider it deeply. Individuals are stupid but groups are smart. We're each individuals, dawg!

I agree on the branding. The landing page looks like a side project, the message is neither strong or clear. You might want to look at this https://www.goodui.org/

That was more than incredible! Simply amazing, especially for someone like me working in digital but not so much on the UX part.

Awesome site you linked to, thanks.

Small addition: Maybe focus on languages that most people want to learn, Dutch should not be in such a short list especially where mega languages like Mandarin or Arabic are missing.

As I write this I realize there's actually fugitives trying to learn Dutch, but that's a harsh market to try and profit from unless you target the government.

Chinese and Arabic are both there, within the admittedly long and difficult to navigate language selector!

They are both in "beta" and hence further down the list. The reason Chinese is in beta is because it doesn't have word boundary detection, pinyin transliteration, or word frequency lists. Arabic is in "beta" because there were some issues with "right to left" text. I think this is working pretty well now though, haven't had complaints in a while, so I can think about bringing that out of beta soon.

Ohh I checked again and now I see them. I don't know what I did but I got a window with a small amount of European flags and thought that was your entire offering.

Great work on supporting so many languages!

>> I know a whole bunch of foreign nationals in the UK who have earned money working on rather basic translation tasks for web businesses.

One of my best friends worked with me at a large corporation. He's from Bulgaria and knows seven languages - by his account his very fluent in 3-4. Got tired of all the corporate BS so he started his own translation company. They have a web app and provide translation services to businesses.

Within a year, he had more business than he could handle. There is a definite pent up demand for translation services as he clearly found out.

What is their web app? Something like that would be extremely useful for me.

Amazing work - This is a very inspiring story, and I hope things continue to look up for you.

Just my $.02 as a user who came to your site: The landing page is still unfortunately very confusing - what I wanted to do most is to just try it out really quickly to see how it looked.

But, it took me a while (after I had scrolled through to the bottom of the site) to understand that I had to click the start learning. Then, thre was the sign-up modal that showed up on the other page; From how it came up, it felt to me like I had no option but to sign-up, and I would've turned away at that point. BUT, because I had read a couple of your posts, I knew it was possible. So I tried clicking outside of it and then it worked. Then, I picked a language and then I had this list of items which were not clear to me what they were, exactly (from the blogs I knew this was the library). So, I clicked on one.

And then it was beautiful. Like, no joke, the actual reading experience was... perfect. It worked... flawlessly.

Your core product is very, very good! It is definitely your strongest asset. Don't hide it behind the splash page, then sign-up-modal-you-have-to-dismiss, then the library UI... get users to experience your core product as quickly as possible... that'll get 'em hooked!!!

I have to agree with this. I'm a language junky myself - I live in Budapest, have lived in Germany and Puerto Rico, and last year I discovered and fell in love with Duolingo (why yes I do want to be practicing and learning six languages at once), so I'm basically 100% your target demographic.

I also followed the link to the site - the "try it right now" on the Spanish email quote is a truly fantastic idea, and well-executed - but for the low-information user (i.e. me) your UI was a tad confusing. Requiring me to sign in to look at phrase translations was also off-putting, even though I can only assume this is some kind of research usage restriction.

Sign-in for phrase translations is because that's one of the limits of the free plan, you get 10 / day for free and you can upgrade to premium for unlimited.

I could try to make it more seamless by imposing this limit based on cookie or IP address if they aren't signed in yet.

Would love to know what else you found confusing about the UI?

This is one of those questions that's hard to answer, because by framing the answer you're already analyzing the UI, thereby making it less confusing.

One irritant was getting the phrasal popup repeatedly. Once it's appeared, I pretty much already know I can't do that (as noted by others already). The default should be something like deselecting the first word to allow me to look at the other. Put a non-modal message somewhere obvious that says "hey, if you log in you can see phrase translations, too".

I think your idea of seamlessness with a cookie is really promising. Let me see what it does, but warn me that I'm going to run into a limit. Maybe.

There was no real try-it-out-now link (that I saw - I'm not looking at it now, just reporting my perceptions at the time) except for trying it out on the Spanish quote - which again, I found remarkably clever. But the result is that I wasn't entirely clear about what you were actually offering. Possibly a little picture of the main UI somewhere on the front page might help. Not sure on that - as I said, it wasn't that difficult to poke around and find things once I decided I was interested, but I normally don't notice that phase at all, if you see what I mean.

Hope that helps.

I got the popup about translating phrases every-other word I clicked. That bit was pretty frustrating : (

Same here, I got around it by first clicking the translated word a second time (to deselect it) before clicking on the next word.

Point taken - I clearly need to work on streamlining the landing page and first run experience. Thanks for the feedback! :-)

Is it possible to reproduce the user experience on the homepage without installing the extension ? Instead of showing an animation of a user highlighting some text, let the user highlight any text on the homepage and experience the magic.

I very much agree with this. Maybe A/B test presenting your a simplified version of your product info in a language other than the user's browser language with a call to action to translate it.

The product feels like magic in the demo linked on medium.

Great job, I admire you for sticking with for so long despite the (slower than expected?) growth. You must be really passionate about what you're building, which is what counts most. I'm an avid language learner myself.

Here are a few things I'm thinking. You probably have thought about these yourself, but anyway:

- Have you ever thought about increasing the price? I find $5/month to be at the very low-end for something that a language learner may be using regularly. If I find the product useful I'd be happy to pay $25/month or more for it. Increasing the price also has the side effect the you'll get "serious" language learners to sign up, which is probably what you want.

- Have you thought about recommending appropriate texts your users based on their difficulty? I don't know anything about Chrome plugins, but I assume that you can collect data about which pages and texts users are browsing, how often they're clicking on stuff, and so on. That sounds like very valuable data that you could use to add more value and data network effects to your product.

- Have you thought about selling to organizations (schools, classes, meetup groups) instead of individuals?

Thanks very much.

- Increasing price. Yes, it started at only $10/year, and I've gradually increased it as the product has improved. It's very difficult to know the optimal price. I use split testing for some things but it feels wrong to do this for price, and with current conversion rate it would take ages to get meaningful results anyway. I'm hesitant to push price too high because lowering it back down would be tricky. Existing users paying a higher price would be annoyed. Also, at this stage I think increasing the user base would be more valuable long term compared to milking the current users for more money. I've been wondering if I could add a higher priced tier in future for more advanced features.

- Yes! I definitely want to recommend texts to people based not only on difficulty, but also on interest. This is something that will become more valuable with more users and a larger, higher quality library of texts. It isn't highest priority right now, but hopefully in future.

- Yes. I developed some features to target at teachers managing a class of students: http://blog.readlang.com/2014/02/12/readlang-for-teachers.ht.... I got a bunch of teachers using it with real classes but decided to abandon the idea because: 1. The response was positive but usage wasn't what I'd hoped. 2. Focus. As one guy I've got enough on my plate making an awesome product for self motivated individuals. Diluting my focus and the focus of the product seems like a very bad idea.

> I use split testing for some things but it feels wrong to do this for price

You can do the A/B testing only on the pricing page. For ex, A would display $5 and B would display $10. When the user get to the checkout display always the lower price and tell the user he got a discount. You can measure the % that get to the checkout and the bounce rate at the checkout.

That's a simple but great idea! I've pondered the difficulty of A/B testing price before and had not come across it (or thought of it myself). Thanks.

Glad I could help, its not my idea tho... credits to: http://www.abtestingbook.com/

Why not grandfather current users in at the current price and only increase the price for new users?

If you need to drop the price back down then drop the price for all existing users too. If you're charging monthly this is easy.

I always grandfather users. And it's easy when raising prices. The old users get to keep the old cheaper price and are happy.

I was referring to the difficulty when I:

1. Raise prices too high

2. Conversion rate and revenue is harmed, so I then revert to the lower price

3. I now have a bunch of old users paying a higher price, and they might be annoyed when they see the price has gone down. At a minimum I'd need to alter their payment plans to give them the new cheaper price in future

I guess it wouldn't be that difficult. Still, it wasn't long ago since the last price rise and for now I'd rather focus on growing and retaining the customer base.

Yes, alter the payment plan. Old users find out their subscription price has dropped -- that's a happy surprise not an annoyance. Assuming monthly billing. Yearly might be more complicated; perhaps extend the subscription length.

Yeah, this would be my recommendation as well. Others have taken this approach and it just makes people like you even more because they get to feel like early adopters who are being rewarded - and you actually then lose nothing at all.

Forgive me for jumping in with yet more unsolicited advice, but I can't help thinking that all your users should be paying at least $5 per month.

An example transition plan:

* switch new users to a free trial -> sign up to $5/month for continued access * observe conversion rate from trial users to paying customers * perform `conversion rate x existing active user base` calculation * send apologetic email to existing users pointing out that free != sustainable, with offer to grandfather in free access to any who feel strongly enough to send you a personal email about it

I second the price increase idea - or perhaps another tier for usage. Ideally the free tier should be enough for a very casual users, or enough to test, but once they get serious they are incentivized to purchase something. You could try doing a timed trial too - 30 day for free usage perhaps. As others have mentioned I wouldn't worry too much if you need to lower prices in the future - as long as you reduce the monthly fee that your older customers get I am sure they will be happy.

Also what kind of marketing are you doing? Often with projects that one is passionate about the drive is to build more features as opposed to build a user base. I think your product is developed enough feature-wise (I am certainly looking forward to trying it now that I have heard of it), and so I wonder what you are doing to build your user base. Off the top of my head I would suggest talking to people in language learning forums & communities, creating a newsletters / reminders to keep your existing users engaged, and possibly running targeted advertisements if you haven't already.

"Also, at this stage I think increasing the user base would be more valuable long term compared to milking the current users for more money. "

It is much, much easier to convince a user who is already paying you money to pay more than it is to convince a brand new person to start paying you at all.

The trick is that most people won't be happy paying more for the same product - so you need to find ways to up-sell new products and features to your existing userbase.

This is another place where "business" accounts could be useful. If you were to launch a more expensive product aimed at businesses, you could market it to your existing individual users. The chances are some of them would be able to convince the company they work for to shell out - and a testimonial from an existing employee is going to be much more effective than a cold-call sales process.

>Existing users paying a higher price would be annoyed.

Just put them back on the cheaper plan and refund them the difference, if this ever happens. It's an easy fix.

I am sure you have thought about it, but how about pricing it per language? It might be a good idea to price it at $50 per language.

Also the on-boarding is a bit difficult, I should be able to see a few words / phrases before I install a plugin. FYI I have never installed a plugin other than an Adblocker

You considered a trial where you keep a low price for 3-6 months then a higher one? They see both in the beginning with no trickery. Just a clear indicator they try it cheap and keep it inexpensively.

Your price points are out out touch with reality.

I've been using readlang for about a year now, and while I love the product, would never pay $25 a month for it.

It's a great product, but $25/mo is 3x more than a netflix subscription, over 2x the cost of 1TB on Dropbox, etc.

This not to mention that the vast majority of users are students and people trying to train themselves to be able to work or study in new countries.

Hundreds of dollars a year might not be a lot to you, but I assure you it is for the vast majority of people who would want this product.

Total revenue from the users who are willing to pay this might still be higher than the amount of users he loses who are not willing to pay $25 a month.

I'm not saying $25/mo is a good price point, however, personal experience has taught me that (at least on products I've launched) increasing prices has always led to more revenue and profit.

Please don't expect an indie software developer to be able to compete price-wise with Dropbox or Netflix.

There's (still) plenty of space in the market for boutique software offerings. I think it's his marketing that needs tweaking, not the pricing. Getting better copy and better targeting could mean 10x more revenue, at which point he can think about cutting prices.

I'm not expecting him to compete with dropbox and netflix, I'm just giving examples of what consumers are thinking when they compare the money they are spending to the value they are receiving for it.

I'm also merely giving my feedback as someone who (1) has a very good salary (2) enjoys readlang and uses it nearly daily (3) enjoys supporting indie software developers, that even I personally would balk at paying such a steep price, as the value would not be worth it to me.

I think feedback from consumers like myself can be valuable, as I also know others who use readlang, and none of them have anything more than a part-time job or PhD stipend which would price all of those people out of the software as well.

Also, I did not say to tweak the pricing, I was responding to the suggestion above to raise prices 5x what they are currently, and that I thought it was a bad idea.

I'd never sign up for $25 a month. That's ridiculous. The value isn't there.

Where his pricing is now is good, and I'm seriously considering getting on board.

If you're serious about learning a language, and it's a tool that you're going to use every day that actually helps you learn, then $25/mo is a good deal.

I pay $30/month for FluentU.com just to watch embedded Youtube videos with the Spanish transcription beneath it as it plays:


ReadLang.com ($5/mo) has much better tech for video transcriptions (Google Translate API can translate idioms and phrases like "lo que ..." instead of only individuals words).

For example, check out http://readlang.com/library/538e3607eef55e3f75000e2c/scroll/... (Extr@ - Episode 1)

An idea for OP is to split apart text and video as a first-class distinction in the Library UI. I didn't even know ReadLang had videos until I was already a subscriber - I thought it was purely for text and websites.

If you can boost the amount of video content, I imagine you can boast about your video transcription offering like FluentU.com does which is the reason they got me to pay $30/mo to them.

One thing I like about the language-learning field is the subscription model. Living in Mexico, I was paying $15/mo for Fluencia.com without actually using it. "Why would I cancel? Surely I'll start learning Spanish any day now!" I finally buckled down and starting hitting the Spanish hard and ReadLang is an essential part of my kit.

Steve - For the love of god, do not listen to any of this! You should 2x or 3x your prices.

Focus on the users that get the most utility out of the product, and relentlessly focus and optimize for them. There's plenty of value there for people that truly want to learn another language. These price comparisons to Netflix are comically misleading.

Agreed. At an absolute minimum, they should be doubled. If someone is going to buy this, it's worth at least that.

I agree that the value isn't there for $25/month but charging $5/month isn't going to make him any money either. I would change this so customers get one (basic) lesson per language for free then have to pay to keep going. For that I would charge $75 for the year on each language. That would be a small bump on the annual but he'd be getting paid up front.

> I assume that you can collect data about which pages and texts users are browsing

If a plugin tangential to browsing history collects all my browsing history, then I'm not going to install that plugin.

If it was changed to do that, then just outright making the plugin free and selling browsing histories might be more profitable than trying to sell the plugin.

I agree. Just to reassure people, Readlang does not collect your entire browsing history. It does store all the URLs for the words you actually clicked on to translate. This is probably more useful for my use case anyway, since these are the URLs which would likely be interesting to other language learners.

Note that I consider these individual words and URLs to be private, but in aggregate, if multiple people visit the same URL, that anonymous data is sharable. I currently rank the most popular domains that people translate words from for each language within Library -> Web Sites: http://readlang.com/links (it isn't completely automatic, every now and then I need to manually approve new entries in the list - that reminds me - I haven't done it in a while!)

"I wonder if I’m hurting my chances of future employment by working so long on my own."

Based on my recent experience getting back in the game after 5 years of self directed projects (not all of them software related) I would say definitely don't worry about this... you have something good to show for your time (i.e. readlang) and the skills required to make it are sought after. Most other job candidates will not be able to show this degree of self determination / initiative. Just come across as hyper enthusiastic and you'd be set.

I can confirm, worked on my projects after college, didn't work as expected, but with all the gained experience I found jobs as full stack consultant very easily, and for the last 3 years I saved some bucks. Now from this year I'm working back again on my projects. Carry on Steve, the reward can be big!

Just one concern: are you working with more people? That's the only thing I regret from my ventures back then, I was also solo-preneur, now starting to make teams and delegate more and more, and I think that's the way to go...

Can you recommend any books or articles in particular on how to scale operations from solo to a small group? I've been thinking about this for a while and I can't get my head around it in seeing a way to do it without forgoing pay in order to pay the new employee and hoping to acquire more clients to give us both work and repeat with another employee and so on. This just doesn't seem efficient though.

I don't have any book recommendations but it really is just management skills, so look up some business books.

The main temptation you need to avoid is "micro managing", and instead you just need to have faith that people will do what you ask them to do, albeit via a different path than you may have taken.

In terms of justifying the cost of labour versus DIY - it's just an "opportunity cost" argument. If you can get better returns from your time by doing something else (eg not programming, and just dedicating a bit of time for coaching your people) then it will be worth employing others. If not, then stick with what you are doing.

Hope that helps :)

From my perspective, the best "hire" does 4 hours of work per week.

So for other readers here overwhelmed at "hiring", it doesn't have to start big. It doesn't have to get big. But it can still free your time.

I second this one about hiring, you may be helping their dream happen too :)

That may be true for the technical side of things. However, don't forget your earning power (including willingness/energy to put up with dread work) and possibility to build your professional network. Building savings takes time, esp. if you have or want family. Throwing your best years at your own projects has some risks.

There's also the emotional side to consider. There's a danger of falling into a rut when you have put a lot of effort into something and nothing / or not much to show for.

I'm a long-term side project builder myself. I have been freelancing all my life and taking time off between projects to build my side projects. I never hang in long enough though, which could be the reason why none of my ideas have taken off yet.

But I have to say that I have now basically accepted that my side projects are for fun only and my freelancing is for building my egg nest. And that feels quite good. I think I'd only go into a ownership based startup with the right partner and business model.

After three years I'd surely try to put my project on auto-pilot and do some paid work. Also to gain a new perspective on things.

Not to take anything away from the product (it's great) or determination.

(Btw Steve, we met once in Madrid, hope to be able to come back to geek lunch)

Yeah, there's such a difference between a startup like this and contracting. When contracting, you work, you get paid, nice and predictable. With this kind of startup where it's growing say 4X per year, you may earn very little at first, but if you don't follow through when it looks promising and grow it for a few years, what was the point in starting in the first place? The reward on this kind of project is so delayed. You work, nothing, you work more, minuscule revenue, you work more, some pocket money, you work more, you get paid decently, you work more, you're rich!

Or, more likely, at some point the growth stops, and it was all for nothing.

We're actually doing a geek lunch tomorrow, usual time and place, do come along!

That's what I guessed, but it's easy to doubt yourself when you've been out of the game so long. Thanks for the reassurance!

The raw numbers of sign-ups and revenue are interesting as a broad health check, but they don't really provide enough context to give you meaningful feedback of what your chances of continued growth are like.

The stuff I'd be more interesting is data points like: Of the people who sign-up, how many of them are still active in a month? How many of the people who are active in a month become paid users? How many of the paid users are still paying after 6 months? How important is this product to the paid users? Do they regularly refer their friends? How many people would sign up for your premium membership at $10/month? $20/month?

If people are churning left and right, then I'd be less excited than if all the paying customers loved it, but it just hasn't been marketed broadly enough.

Thanks for the advice. Churn is higher than I'd like and that's going to be a big focus for me this year. There's a lot to do to make the product more sticky.

Rough figures at the moment are:

Monthly churn of monthly subscribers is about 20%.

Yearly churn of yearly subscribers is about 50%.

When I ask why people leave, virtually everyone has the same story - they really liked the product, but they didn't have the time to devote to their language studies right now.

I'll dig into some of the other metrics you suggested in a future post.

> they really liked the product, but they didn't have the time to devote to their language studies right now.

It sounds like you've fallen into the trap of an aspirational product, like gym memberships. People want to need it, but often they don't.

Yep, you hit the nail on the head. It's likely that this product will always have a highish churn rate because of that.

But with low running costs, and a large enough supply of new users, it could still be a good business. Also, there are hard-core users who really do use it all the time, for whom the churn rate will be much lower.

I'm a language learner myself, and I also frequent various reddit language subreddits and read all the stories of other people.

My belief is that "don't have time" usually means "I've lost motivation after the initial high". A huge problem with language learning is that unless you have moved to another country or otherwise in an immersive environment then it becomes quite difficult to keep motivation and discipline high. The reward of "I can read/write/speak/listen a little better than last month" starts to pale and people realize they actually don't use their new skill on a regular basis. And like many things, getting to the next proficiency level takes increasing amounts of work. The flip side being that for X weeks of study less and less progress seems to be made.

What I'm getting at is that this churn is not a problem with your product, but a broad problem with language learning. Anything you can do to solve (or lessen) these problem is a big, uncertain task. But it's probably the only way to reduce churn. The upside is that if you do manage to make headway then you've done something major. Really major.

You might want to look at structuring your pricing in a similar manner to gym memberships given that the product has a similar usage pattern. There was an interesting Planet Money[1] podcast recently that noted that many gym memberships are structured to be yearly contracts ... because people like that idea of putting money down so that they feel committed. You might be able to tap into some of the same psychology.

1 http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2014/12/17/371463435/episo...

Another approach I saw a gym take recently was having a relatively high price but then you "earned" back a portion of the fee every month by meeting a certain activity goal.

It seems like it might be complicated to administer, but I think the psychology works well for an aspirational product because people will like the idea of making a commitment to a personal improvement but will probably over-estimate their future activity.

You might also want to look at the techniques which gyms use to extract maximum revenue from aspirational users. In particular, heavily encouraging/discounting annual memberships.

(Then again, extracting a year of revenue from someone who only uses it a month or two might not be your cup of tea.)

Sounds like your product is a poor fit for a subscription. If the majority of your revenue is from new customers, why not switch to a paid-up-front product? With a 20% churn rate, your average revenue per user should be around 25$, so why not just charge $25 up front?

learning languages is one of those things where people will come back to it again over their lifetimes when they perceive they have time or when they create some sort of new year resolution or something. If you have the current pricing they will sign up again, if you have an up-front pricing they can come back for free forever, which in the long run I don't think is as profitable.

If at all I would do something like, if you have been a previous paid subscriber, and your subscription has lapsed, you can come back at 50% of the subscription for 50% of the time you were subscribed for (so if you were there for 6 months you would have 3 months at 50% off), this way you would encourage people to come back without completely losing out on additional income

A better approach might be to offer an annual subscription plan with a discount in addition to a monthly plan. That way you will appeal to customers who want to just trial the product and customers who want to pay for the commitment upfront.

This gets into psychology, eh?

I suggest reading through alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/

He has excellent tips. For example, to paraphrase, "just open up a lesson, don't aim to finish one, because that'll feel like too much work, and you won't find the time".

I have a language learning site, and we changed our suggested method to its users because of that better approach.

That comes down to communicating how to use your product to your users. I have to do more of that too.

True, agree completely. I designed Readlang's Activity Monitor with this in mind: http://blog.readlang.com/2015/09/10/new-learning-activity-st...

It's meant to encourage people to translate or recall just 10 words per day, which is a very small amount which should be doable every day. If they do this they'll build up an "X day streak" - similar to what Github or Duolingo do.

Hey Steve, just hopping on a random comment to tell you - this is fucking cool, man. I really enjoy your approach to building this tool. It is apparent that you've put a ton of time into thinking about the structure of learning - and that is much appreciated.

With such a high monthly churn, you should consider testing out a discounted 1-year pricing plan.

Oh and read everything by Patrick. Here are a few worth reading in your situation [0,1].

[0] https://training.kalzumeus.com/newsletters/archive/free_book...

[1] https://training.kalzumeus.com/newsletters/archive/saas_pric...

With figures like those I think you need an annual subscription option ($50/y, two months free for ex.)

Just some quick feedback. When clicking on the link in medium to translate the spanish text, it went to the readlang library page and I could click around on the words to get translation.

This wasn't immediately obvious to me because I accidently clicked a phrase first and it told me I had to sign up. I considered leaving at that moment, but pushed through and got the one word translation so I understood what it did. I liked that a lot. But reading through the comments, I realized I missed out on the core product. That it is a browser extension and I could do this anywhere on the web.

Without HN comments, I would've never gotten that from the example because I thought it was a bit cool, but didn't see the use case and thus didn't visit the splash page.

I'm not your target market, but now that I know what it does I will probably tell people I know who would be interested. My recommendation would be to make it super easy to understand what is going on in any of your demo's. Especially if you plan on going that route in the future.

Best of luck!

One problem is that there's no one "core" reading experience. The distraction free e-book style reader in the web-app and the extension both have similar usage.

The small quote I linked to isn't at all representative of the kind of text people typically read. So not the ideal introduction to the product I agree, but it did was a neat way to get a lot of people to click through into the app to see it working.

Thanks for your encouragement!

Awesome product!

10 years ago when I moved to Germany I had a similar learning system. I read books, I highlited the words I wanted to learn and once or twice a week I wrote them up in a small book. After a while a wrote a small VBA flashcard app for tracking my progress and randomizing the words. And that took a hell lot of time. With an app like yours I could have saved 30-60 minutes every week (2-4 hours every month) which is worth of 20-40€ a month (on minimum wage). That´s why a recommend you to spend way much more time marketing your app and finding the right customers, which means:

- already learning languages (don´t get fooled by "If I had enough time, I would use it")

- learning languages because they have to (living abroad or working international)

- saving 2-4 (or more) hours a month is worth them at least 10€ (no students spending more money on boose than on books)

IMHO you can find a lot of young professionals on forums like the "new in wahetever city" groups or expat groups in facebook.

Good Luck!

Thanks very much!

I've had many responses from people who had an idea to create something like Readlang, but only a handful who actually built their own app like you did :-)

I agree I need to get better at finding those ideal customers, for whom Readlang should be a very easy sell.

Actually I was yesterday thinking about rebuilding my old app for the web, but if your app works fine I'm gonna pick me an other pet project. :)

Anyhow, I signed up for a premium account.

I couldn't figure it out how I can terminate the account if I take the monthly payment plan. You should make this clear at the beginning of the sign up process and not at the end:


and should also put it here:


I anticipatied some trust but I generally don't sign contracts without knowing how I can get out of them. This may scare the customers off.

If I were you I would do this:

- instead of building new features I would make the site look professional, this means all the boring stuff which makes you money, like easy sign up, better landing page (for that part you already have tons of advices here), a proper terms of servie, privacy policy, etc. and after that I would go hunting customers until I doubled the revenue

- or I would find somebody who has experince with the business side of this, I would share the profit with him (the 50% of something is better than 100% of nothing)

It is up to you, but if you want to stay a one man show you have to learn how to make online business. Otherwise you have to find a business guy.

Good Luck!

Your article on HN reminded/convinced me to sign up, have just done so. One thing I noticed is that the 'Premium' option is quite hidden, I wouldn't have gone looking for the 'Pricing' page unless I was following this HN discussion.

I do think your pricing options should be more prominent. Perhaps you could have a 'Go Premium' link in the top bar for those who haven't signed up for this yet?

Hey Steve, great product and as a fellow bootstrapper and somebody who wants to learn a language (Spanish) you've got my attention.

I was looking around your site and checking some bits and couldn't help but notice that there's not a lot of SEO specific marketing activity on the site. I couldn't help but feel that there must surely be some very common phrases in various languages that people naturally tend to search for online when they have an interest in a language. If your site could provide this information, you might rank well and people would naturally progress to try your app?

I also thought there there must be LOTS of content on your site that people have curated for their own learning that you might (without breaking privacy of course) be able to capitalise on for search engine ranking. I'm thinking something along the lines of the music lyric websites where people tend to submit their content and it's publicly visible? You would need to curate it, but it just seems like madness that there's so much well organised translated content that is currently locked away from Google's view.

Tell me to shut up if this isn't an area of marketing you're interested in, but maybe something in the above will spark an idea. Regardless, all the best with this, it's lovely to see another semi-UK based bootstrapper on he HN homepage :)

Thanks for making Readlang. I love it - one day I thought, I'd really like a product that does x, y, and z, and Readlang does exactly it and more, so I'm happy.

I have a premium subscription, but the only reason I got it was that I wanted the product to not disappear :) The features you get with the premium subscription would not have been a reason to upgrade for me at all. I don't know if this is a problem (I used to feel that way about Evernote as well), but maybe something to consider.


I even made a prototype (roughly two years ago) that looks _a lot_ like Readlang. I wasn't motivated to continue because I mostly wanted to learn French, not build this app, none of the apps I tried (Duolingo comes to mind) worked well with the way I like to learn.

This is even better than my fantasy, the ability to upload ebooks, for example :D Great job. You have my subscription! Good luck!

I've had this feedback a few times. Others have said they paid more to support the app rather than for the extra features.

One question - do you translate many multi-word phrases? If you do then you would find the free plan restrictive. If you mainly translate single words then the free plan is probably fine.

May consider restricting the free plan a bit more in future. For now I'm happy to have a lot of free users to help spread the word and grow.

Almost never, it's almost all single words for me.

Being a little pedantic, but I think the usage is important:

Profit is not counted before wages. Wages are the primary expense in a software company. This means that the company is sort of break-even, but only when paying below market rate wages. Perhaps a little confusing is that the term "ramen profitable" is mostly a euphemism, not actual profitability.

The owner of a business is not an employee (at least in Austria). Therefore a one man company doesn't pay any wages. The owner just gets the profit that the company makes.

AFAICT he's in Madrid, Spain?

Anyway, it's different in the UK, a company needs a minimum of 2 officers, you can be a sole-trader though. A sole-trader takes drawings from their business account, but it's not necessarily the whole revenue less costs - you might be saving for capital investments and you wouldn't want to pay income tax and Nat.Ins. on that money.

In the UK the owners of a company can be employees too, you can then get money as wages as well as getting dividends as an owner.

[Disclaimer: I'm not a financial advisor, check this detail before relying on it.]

In the UK you can have a one person limited liability company, where the same person acts as the sole director and the company secretary. That sole director can either be an employee and a director or just a director. The difference is that their portion of income from being a director will be in the form of dividends, and the income from being an employee will be salary.

That must have changed (in the Companies Act 2006?)? I'm director and secretary of a ltd co but when we formed our company I'm almost certain we needed two officers at minimum? [http://www.companybug.com/how-many-officers-must-a-limited-c... - suggests I haven't dreamt it up!]

You're quite right though, see Ch.2 at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachm....

or see https://www.gov.uk/limited-company-formation/appoint-directo....

Unfortunately I can't add an errata above as editing that post is no longer allowed.

in a one or two man shop this is actually called the sdi:


To be more pedantic, if you're talking about gross profit, it can be counted before wages, depending on the attributes of the wage.

I am in a similar position myself. Me and a friend have been developing a SaaS for 3 years while also working full time. Lately things have started looking up though!

Having a steady 400% yearly growth is awesome, this could really turn into something big in a few years.

Btw, how much time do you spend on developing vs marketing?

Must be very tough to start something like this while still holding down a full time job.

Hard to say how much time is spent developing vs marketing. Probably something like 90% design, development, user support, and 10% marketing. Where marketing means writing blog posts and engaging on social media (mainly reddit, facebook, twitter).

I tried some paid advertising experiments a couple of years ago but they didn't work well at all. May try another experiment this year now that the product is more polished and has a higher value.

Having a full time job is a timesink, thankfully I find it easy working abnormal hours. Plus on the other end it gives me a good salary + whatever I make on my own.

Regarding marketing we are in a similar spot. Only 10% of time goes to marketing and paid advertising doesn't work. I recommend reading Traction (http://tractionbook.com/), it gives you a good model on how to go about growing your company.

Do you have a life outside of working though?

If you have the time, Hubspot offer a free "inbound marketing" certification course. It's about 4 hours worth of videos and might help you with your marketing planning. It's totally non-product focused so you can apply the methods they teach with any technology (although theirs of course does it all very well).

Good stuff with your software and I enjoyed reading your post. You need to increase your pricing though - and it seems to me you haven't fully figured out the true value of your product, so that you can "value price" it.

Email me if you'd like help putting the value proposition together. (My contact details are in my HN profile). I'm by no means an expert in what you do but I've been in sales for 15 years... so can probably still help you a bit.

Kudos to the author for being open and honest about ReadLang's turnover and his projections. As he says, people usually play these cards very close to their chests. Personally I find it very encouraging to know that I'm not the only person who's grappling with the question of how long to stick with a minimally profitable project.

Hey Steve, This is really inspiring, man!! I know what its like. I would suggest that you keep going at it. Especially since things are finally working out.

I see you mention user support as a potential time suck in one of your comments. I founded a startup which essentially provides user support on behalf of busy founders. I'd be willing to offer free support credits to you (in addition to a helpdesk software which is free for all) if it would make life easier for you. I'm hoping it might save you some time. We love people who bootstrap and let me know if we can help in any way. My email is in my profile. You can check us at: busibud.com

I know how hard it is for a solo founder to take care of everything himself and what it feels like to put 15 hours a day without an end in sight.

Good on you Steve!

Reading something like this is quite encouraging. I too left my day job and one of the things that I am focusing on is my own projects. I make apps and in the last few months I haven't made more than 20$.

Anyway, working on my apps gives me more time for contributing to open-source and writing blog posts explaining how I solve problems, which can be rewarding on it's own.

Cheers for sharing your story and good luck! Bhuman

I tried to use the Chrome extension to read a Spanish website but it doesn't work unless I enable 3rd party cookies. That's quite rude. I cannot allow a single extension to compromise my browsing experience by letting anyone set 3rd party cookies.

Could you please add a field on the site where I could paste the URL of a webpage? That would work for me as a workaround to using the extension.

I understand where you're coming from, but it's for purely technical reasons. The extension just plain wouldn't work without this enabled.

I avoided the "paste a URL" solution because that would mean that my server would need to fetch the content from other websites instead of each user's browser doing the work.

Until I have a better solution, for now you could resort to copying and pasting articles you'd like to read into the upload page: http://readlang.com/upload - it's not ideal perhaps, but should get the job done.

Does it really take you fulltime to maintain it now that it's developed?

Couldn't you keep it alive by working a few hours a week, and take on contracting jobs in addition to get additional income?

I could certainly do that. But even though it's a very useful app right now I don't consider it fully developed. I have a huge list of improvements I'd like to make. And I don't expect the current growth to continue if I just put it into maintenance mode.

Based on opportunity cost alone, do you think you could work part-time/contract work and have some additional development resources to work on your backlog? Have you been able to assess whether the new improvements will increase retention/monetization/user acquisition and ultimately the top line? As someone who also did a one-man show these questions helped me prioritize and create the appropriate leverage.

Thanks for sharing this and keep trying !

I've been also working alone on a project for 3 years in my spare time (SaaS). I'll soon switch full time on it.

News are usually full of startup stories funded with millions. As readers we're blinded with only the tip of the iceberg when the real hard work and pain is rarely mentioned.

It's great to read a true story like this and for people like me it gives a invaluable point of comparison both in terms of personal experience and business success. It's also a source of encouragement.

Related, could someone shed some light for my dilemma:

If you're making a freemium (upgrade using in-app) mobile app that, every time you spend $5 in FB, you consistently get ~100 new users, but none of them ever upgrade (let say you're targeting people who apparently can't afford to pay), what would you do?

It's like a "good problem to have" (predictable user acquisition), but it's still a problem (no money coming).

You split test your upgrade CTA until you find something that works. If you can't find anything that works, you find a source for "higher quality" users, unless there's an inherent benefit for you in having users.

thanks, but what's CTA?

Call To Action

Is it possible that you aren't getting real people as new users? I don't know how you do your metrics, but it's possible they are bots/clickfarmers/etc.

they are real, because they post content and I review manually.

Hi Steve, always love your posts but I have a question, are working on this full-time? Do you have major features planned? Have you ever thought about focusing on maintenance on i.e. weekends while working a "regular" job?

I did put it into maintenance mode for about 4 months in 2014 while I did a freelance gig. During that time I did no new development, just fixing the odd bug and user support.

I wouldn't consider a full time job at the moment. I'm not sure how people manage to hold down a full time job and build a startup on the side. I can imagine doing it while working a job which wasn't mentally demanding. But people working as full time programmers, I can only guess that they don't give 100% at work, or perhaps they have more energy than I do!

I've considered taking on the occasional short contract. But I'm not actively looking, I've got enough to keep me occupied with Readlang right now. (Plus, I've got a 1.5 month old baby, and they tend to reduce your free time!)

I'm assuming you get a lot of support financially from your partner / have a big runway? I can't imagine living on £9k a year without such? How do you survive?

edit: I Worry this comment comes across the wrong way. I've been desperate to do a startup for years, but the financial aspect of it has always scared me. I was told at a Hacker News meetup that I probably don't have the entrepreneurial spirit, which the more I think about it, the more I agree with. I'm curious as to how your mindset works :)

We both contribute equally, and we live in Madrid where cost of living is relatively low. Two people living together can live on £9K / year here no problem (that's about 1000 euros / month each). That said, I do have savings that I've been eating into.

I've never felt the need for lots of money to be happy. What I really value is being able to do interesting work that I'm proud of. So I'm very motivated to make money to the extent that it provides freedom to work on interesting things. And perhaps even to contract people to help out. I guess that's a philosophy shared by many of the people here.

> What I really value is being able to do interesting work that I'm proud of. So I'm very motivated to make money to the extent that it provides freedom to work on interesting things.

I couldn't agree more. I'm in the same ramen profitable situation (very similar amount). I love the challenges the product throws at me. Money is indeed just a means to be able to work on those.

For those who don't agree: the average person has about 60-ish years in his/her life where he/she is able to decide what they do with their time? Why postpone doing things that interest you?

When you decide to have a kid it's not just about you anymore.

Did you consider adding an option for a one time purchase? I really don't like re-occuring subscriptions if I can at all avoid them, but I'd happily buy something like this (like I payed for sublime, etc).

For a short time I had a lifetime membership option for $100 and then later at $150. It even had a few takers. But I removed it mainly because:

1. It feels strange to promise to provide an ongoing service for a one-off payment (I'm guessing Sublime Text doesn't have a server component, there's a big difference there). It sounds risky from my point of view. Am I still obliged to keep providing you the service in 20 years even though you only paid once?

2. The people willing to pay up-front are probably the ones most likely to stick around for the long term and provide a lot of recurring revenue. (Hypothesis - may not be true.)

3. More one-off payments makes my revenue graph much spiker and less predictable.

That said - perhaps you're right. If people are much more willing to pay up front I should trade some of the predictability of SaaS for the lucrative but volatile one-off payments. Something to consider when I revisit pricing.

>>I wonder if I’m hurting my chances of future employment by working so long on my own.

You built a business, designed and built a product grounds up, you made profits, you have users. You did this all alone.

You are in the top 1% of the product/engineering managers out there.

Believe me, those who do not hire you have more to lose. Any sensible company would want to hire a person like you.

Keep up the good work. Already referred it out to a bunch of people. Think it will work great overseas where people actually need to learn another language for work. I have referred it to the people who live in Italy and work for me to help them learn english faster.

Well done!

I have a profitable sidebusiness and so I feel I can relate.

You have proven a need for your product and you've done it the best way you can. You built it for yourself and it turns out other people like it too.

If your growth trajectory continues you can be doing 6 figures in a couple of years. If you have the patience and can support yourself I would recommend you do that.

Now here comes the tricky part.

To grow your company into those 6 figures and beyond, you probably now have to stop building for yourself and start building it for other people too.

But good luck it's great to see others out there doing things from scratch.

Thanks for the advice. I encourage feedback all the time and always take user suggestions into account. Sometimes I feel it's best NOT to act on too many suggestions since it leads to too much complexity and bloat. Like most things it's about getting the right balance.

Hey this is great - something I've been looking for.

A small thing: could you please support https, especially for logins?

I would love to switch the whole site to https, but it's not that easy.

The login request is always sent via https, even when you are using the site over plain http. So your password should always be encrypted.

The site does work over https (try it - https://readlang.com), and at one point I redirected all http traffic to https, but there was a big problem. I use external dictionaries in an iframe to provide additional definitions and these are almost always only available over http: https://readlang.uservoice.com/knowledgebase/articles/279539...

It worked OK for a short while, but then Chrome and Firefox both refused to display http content within a https page. Chrome displays a very subtle shield icon that the user must click on to reload the page allowing mixed content. This is far too unfriendly to expect my users to do, so I had to resort to using http again :-(

Of course, the ideal solution would be for me to have access to dictionary definitions so I could integrate them properly instead of using an ugly iframe, but with 50+ languages supported, that's a tall order!

> The login request is always sent via https, even when you are using the site over plain http. So your password should always be encrypted.

Though it doesn't stop someone (eg. malicious software on a wifi router) altering the login form itself to submit passwords to a different URL...

If a router can change the HTML it can load JavaScript and so it's already game over.

That's very true.

You might be able to proxy the dictionaries from your own server? Unless something in the t&c's of the dictionary providers prohibits you from doing that of course.

I thought about that but don't like the idea:

1. As you say, could be against t&c.

2. Tons of requests for the dictionary page coming from my server's IP address may lead to being blocked.

3. The user can edit the URL template to fetch any site they like, and I don't like the idea of my server fetching content from any arbitrary website.

4. Would add extra bandwidth and load on my server.

The story is nice and congrats for not giving up. However, I think you are on a level where you need to take a decision, would this become a real business or you'll keep it like it's now.

As a side project it's awesome, as a business not so much. IF you want to make a business from this you need to start thinking on how to market, price and develop new features for clients that will pay more or at least to find ways to get power users.

I saw on a reply of yours that you don't want to add some business requested features because individuals don't want them or you don't want them. Well, do you want higher revenues, higher growth or do you want to keep it like it's now(not saying that current state is bad)? Saying also that you know what's more useful is quite wrong, it's a mindset you need to change, once you target someone that is not you, you must at least assume that they have different needs.

Even though individuals don't want those features, they are not the ones who'll bring the most money and if you really wanted you could create a business version like many other SaaS do, and you know this.

From your replies I sense that you want to focus on individuals, that's great. In this case, forget about pricing, revenue, etc focus on building the user base, more likely a good stream of word-of-mouth sign ups. That's what most B2C apps do.

Neat use of an extension!

(Long ago, I led the design of the Chrome extensions platform)

This is really cool. The free demo and the $5 price was just enough to convert me to a paid user for at least for a month. Seriously, this is exactly what I was trying to get to work in a desktop ebook reader or on my Kindle, but unsuccessfully.

Any chance for integrating the Yandex Translate API? (I am learning Russian. The MT quality between Google and Yandex for Russian is sort of a toss; I would say 70% of the time Google is better, but 30% of the time Yandex is.)

Interesting. I've been thinking of incorporating extra translation services for premium users. Microsoft Bing would be another one. It would be nice to show alternative translations although not sure how the UI would work yet. No promises at the moment but I like the idea!

your main page would seriously benefit from several 1 line phrases in various languages that you can translate right there on the page.

so basically what you show in (#2 Click to Translate) should be an embedded within the page itself. you obviously don't need the extension if it's on your own page.

you won't know until you try but I'm going to call it out now that it will increase your conversion rates

Oh man, I feel your pain!

I'm three years into bootstrapping a company - still pre-revenue. Most of it has been done while dayjobbing in the enterprise.

On the positive side, things are changing rapidly. I've recently picked up two valuable co-founders, so I'm not alone and have more bandwidth. The current revision is strong and on its way to production-ready (the last revision I thought was a beta, but it turned out to be an alpha and a learning experience, sigh). The product is really targeted at the enterprise space, and between the three of us, we have over 50 years of enterprise computing experience. My co-founders are with me because they've directly experienced the pain that drove me to writing it.

Hopefully, in a year, we can all make a living at it. But it's going to suck for a while, because we're also all three used to the incomes of enterprise contracting, and we all have kids in college. This is why older founders are so rare - it's really a huge financial risk in a way that startups aren't when you're in your 20s.

I love the product and am still trying it out while learning Russian (very tempted to purchase a subscription, and it's sitting in my toolbar, which is a good reminder). A couple feedback things about the website because you seem to be receptive to it, after reading some of your comments in this thread:

The "loading" page was a bad first impression for me. It was super fast, and I wouldn't have minded at all if the page were loading "normally" during that time, but the fact that you put up a loading page reminded me of Flash sites and over-developed crap in the mid 2000's. It was odd, and not in a good way.

The site design, as another person pointed out, needs a little work. I know that you like serif fonts, and want it to feel "warm" and inviting and non-threatening, but you have to be really careful about piling too much on at once, especially when you're trying to promote how fantastic and slick the extension is :) The rabbit logo was a little childish. Rabbits connote "speed" books connote "learning" but the logo design itself didn't really make me say "Oh, super fast, slick, easy learning in a browser extension I should definitely download and trust with my personal data!" I put together an example of what might be improved (note: the logo here is just something random I found on Google images. Probably super duper copyrighted!) http://i.imgur.com/Ix7ubvR.png Getting rid of some of the border-shadow/rounded corner stuff might help, as well. It looks a little out-of-date with modern design trends. Not saying you need a trendy site, but you probably want something a little more timeless :)

Also, adding a little more variations on the "green" theme could probably help. I really like this website for color palette inspirations: https://color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel/

Loved the About page, the testimonials, and the obvious care that you had in the product. After exploring the site and installing the extension, it felt like a really cared-about (if that makes sense) well-maintained company and product. The fact that you had your personal address and mobile number there was awesome!

Not a designer, I'm a software engineer, so take my advice with a grain of salt!

I wouldn't be worried about it: your app is useful to a lot of people and I can't see that changing soon. It's one of the few extensions that I keep instaled even without using it right now. And again, "it's only because the lack of time/motivation". It's for sure something I'll come back to in the future.

Congrats man! This is the first time I stumbled upon your extension and I have to admit, it is pretty neat and useful. I too have created one vocabulary trainer extension, but haven't released it as it way too unpolished and I am using a paid dictionary.

However, do you mind sharing some of your stats? Which language pairs are mostly used on Readlang?

From the entire user base (mostly free and not active users right now), here are the top 6 languages people are learning:

- English - 16,037

- Spanish - 13,840

- French - 5,857

- German - 5,187

- Russian - 1,776

- Italian - 1,760

The first language is almost always English, except for those learning English, whose first languages are:

- Russian - 3,799

- Spanish - 2,263

- English - 1,440 (haha - this shouldn't be allowed and the users will get a notification when they try to translate something)

- Italian - 1,220

- Chinese - 713

And of the paying subscribers, here are the top 6 languages:

- Spanish - 174

- French - 105

- English - 89

- German - 86

- Russian - 47

- Italian - 24

This is inspiring Steve.

Did you try different price points? Do you have data to share about this?

Did you have a full-time job while you were building it?

I've increased prices gradually from $10 / year to the current $48 / year or $5 / month.

It's really hard to give you good data since the numbers of conversions are relatively low. The conversion rate from signup to paid has stayed at roughly 1.5% the whole time. But the product has been improving too. If I charged the current price 2 years ago when the product wasn't as polished, the conversion rate would probably have been lower. But I can't know for sure.

Didn't have a full time job. I saved up and have lived fairly frugally. I did take a break to do contract work in 2014.

Your extension is similar to many other instant-translation extensions on Chrome store. I.e. Google Translate extension (which I use and am quite happy with) is free and has 5M+ users.

IMHO your real problem is that Readlang do es not offer enough features that would differentiate it from other free offerings.

Do the other extensions:

- Store all your translations, along with their contexts, to your account?

and have a accompanying web-apps which let you:

- review those translations with flashcards, prioritizing the most frequent words in the language, and utilizing a spaced repetition algorithm so that you spend more time on the words and phrases you find difficult?

- export of those flashcards for use in other apps such as Anki

- upload novels to read in a distraction free, paginated reading interface which works well on mobile devices?

- watch videos with sync'd transcriptions?

- share and vote on native texts and videos with a community of language learners?

If so, please let me know!

And if you didn't realize any of the above - I take the blame for not communicating it better on the landing page. The problem is that overwhelming users with info usually isn't a great idea either. Hard to strike the right balance.

I don't expect everyone who installs the Google Translate extension to install Readlang - since mine is targeted mainly at intermediate and advanced language learners.

The flashcard feature caught me by surprise, and I loved it! I just started playing around with the in-page translations, went back to the site, and was very pleasantly surprised! Much better than any of the language learning browser extensions I've used before!

> I regularly question my decision to continue pouring so much time into Readlang. I wonder about the lucrative life of a contractor, or the cushy job of software developer at a large tech company. I wonder if I’m hurting my chances of future employment by working so long on my own.

This has been on near constant loop in my head for the last year. It's really, really hard to be productive when you're worrying about the future. I don't know if I could do this if I wasn't married. I mean, I'd probably be living in a rural hell-hole somewhere and getting by financially, but that would ruin me emotionally.

You're doing a good job. I've spent 10 years building a product in a very very saturated domain and I've made about $400 out of it. But that doesn't really matter, since I primarly wrote the application for myself.

Oh wow, this is _exactly_ what I've been looking for lately. You might want to work on your advertising, because I've literally been looking for exactly this, because I'm currently learning Spanish, and never came across your app. I thought about asking Instapaper or someone to implement clickable word translation, or even considered writing my own web app.. I'm stupid enough that I never even thought about turning it into a business. But I'm happy that now I don't have to! I'll test it on my Android e-paper tablet for you and post a review.

Cool! I've been thinking of getting an Android eink tablet to try Readlang on.

I'd love to hear how it goes! If you don't mind, after giving it a whirl, let me which model you have and how well it works :-)

The word is getting out about Readlang. There's no paid advertising and I'm a n00b at marketing but slowly learning. It seems to be growing, but please lend a hand by telling your friends :-)

As someone currently working their ass of on a new project launch, this is inspiring. I think what you've made is pretty impressive, and the I dig the name. However, three years in, is it really consuming that much of your time that you can't use this as a very big supplemental income? 16,000 pounds is nothing to scoff at for extra income. Especially if your day job can be consulting. I think once you nail down the marketing(which I think you're lacking), this can easily become your primary source. Well done, and stick with it!

Many solopreneurs develop slightly underachieving or barely profitable IT businesses. It is often a problem of time or committment or strategy or resources but, more often than not, it is not a fully viable business. That said, it may still come good for some passive income and, if a cat can't bark, three or four cats may still make a dog. He knows how to make a cat already, so the implied value of his current barely profitable business is higher than the nude money it is making just now.

Listening is another great way to learn a foreign language. I recommend adding the ability to hear a passage. Create functionality for people to read a transcript and input it.

People can share YouTube videos with sync'd transcriptions which are great for this. Check out this selection for German:


Songs tend to be popular, here are a couple of good ones:

http://readlang.com/library/551261a4573e272265223327 - Je Veux, by Zaz - French

http://readlang.com/library/55da3bacfe102b520f05d9ba - Lento, by Julieta Venegas - Spanish

It seems you're only uploading free content that's already been spoken. Instead, I think you should have a button on every text [1] with something like: "[count] listen now" (where count is the amount of uploaded natively spoken texts read by native/proficient speakers of the language.) But if nobody has uploaded a "listen now", then it's a button that says "0 listen now".

Of course then, have a button right next to that one, that says "read text?" with a picture of a microphone. Which can be used for people to upload the spoken text.

Written translations

Do the same thing, but with written translations. Therefore, people can translate the text to their native language and upload it to the community for other people to read.

Finish/next button

Next, I think you should add a finish/next button to the top of the text OR to (one of the) the sidebar(s). I know there's one at the bottom. Add one to the top/sidebar.

Clicking the finish/next button should go straight to the next text. Instead, you seem to hound people with 3 straight pop-ups! Then return them to the list of text. Wrong, in my opinion. Take them immediately to the next unfinished text that they haven't read yet.

Sharing via social media

Move the share on social media dialog to each text page, just always present. Don't make the user click past it everytime they read a text.


Stop congratulating people when they did something, or keep it to a minimum don't make them click past it.

In general, I just think you're not utilizing the community enough. Use them to upload free and quality content. That way, they become more engaged, and you get free content.

[1] by text, I mean the foreign language text that they're trying to learn, for example: http://readlang.com/library/568a5501ddb6ae5b165d2c33/from/0

This is an incredible product, which I of course just now heard about. I have shared it with my family. But I was wondering if there's a way to get a family rate.

Good idea!

If you want to a discount right now for upgrading two accounts, do the following:

1. On the checkout page, there's an "I'm feeling generous" button which increases the yearly price from $48 to $60 (idea borrowed from NewsBlur) 2. After upgrading, email steve@readlang.com letting me know the email address of the other person, and I'll upgrade their account manually.

This'll work out at $30 each instead of $48. If you have an odd number of people, email me and we'll work something else out.

I love it to read honest reviews of products I use and love!

Nice work Steve!

How does it feel to know that your product, some day, may become obsolete? I mean, you cannot deny the fact that real-time translation tools are improving a hell of a lot (you can watch some video about a demo from Microsoft already doing this through Skype). So there will be one day in which everybody will be able to communicate with everybody without learning languages at all :)

As someone whose dream is to do something similar, is it too rude to ask how much money you started off with and what other income you have, if any?

Yes, society generally deems it rude, but I don't :-)

I'd managed to save about £40,000 GBP by the end of 2012. Then in 2014 I took some months off from Readlang and earned roughly £30,000 GBP doing some contract work. No other sources of income. I've never been close to running out of money, if I did I would certainly ease back on Readlang and look for more freelance work.

BTW: The freelance work I did wasn't using technology I enjoy or want to focus on in future, and was offered to me without having to look for it. I did it because of the money and because I liked the people. I've never actually had to actively look for freelance gigs myself. So I'm still not sure how easy it is to find good clients with interesting work.

Thanks for the info! I have, coincidentally, almost exactly the same amount in savings, although I don't have one single idea I'd like to pursue - yet.

I currently work for a small start-up also working in the education sector (albeit more directly). The general story isn't too dissimilar to yours, though, in that it's been a bit of a slog for not a huge amount of profit, although things are slowly looking more and more promising.

I wish you continued success with Readlang.

Huh, I had a very rough prototype of a similar project, but never actually moved much past that. Congrats on bringing readlang to the world!

I have just tried the Web-App. I find it is a really good app. It has high accuracy in translating from Chinese to English. It is a really big surprise since even Google Translate cannot perform this well. Maybe the developer need more cooperation with the NGO learning organizations. He can get more support and fund in this way.

Keep on and I think people will love it!

Thanks for sharing .. Its a great inspiration !

When I first saw the article I was excited for it, because I thought Readlang had an "immersion"-type feature, where it translates every page I visit to french and un-translates on demand.

Not saying that would work better, but it's something I thought would be cool.

There was another Chrome extension that did what you're describing: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/language-immersion...

Was covered in Lifehacker here: http://lifehacker.com/5907432/language-immersion-for-chrome-...

Seems like it's broken now though. I have a hunch he was trying to use Google Translate without paying for their API. Either that, or he really was paying for the API which is unsustainable for a free extension.

I don't think it's a great idea anyway. If you want to learn French, you should read French written by a native speaker, not a machine translation of English into French. Readlang uses machine translation as an aid to understanding native texts, which is far more acceptable IMO.

I understand the limitations, but I was excited to be able to read sites I usually visit while still immersing myself in the language.

Wow. You've built a business with real cash revenue that's been increasing 300% per year, and approaching the threshold where it could support you. That's a very impressive achievement that very few people have ever matched.

>> En primeras palabras quiero decir, que me gusta muchísimo tu pagina. Es de verdad grande trabajo.

Don't know who wrote this; these are Spanish words, but as a sentence, it is barely understandable.

This is really cool! I'm starting to practice my Japanese again and on the lookout for different tools to help.

Thanks for sharing your numbers and story. Super helpful as somebody trying to bootstrap my own thing.

Good luck. Small warning that the experience learning Japanese may not be as good as with other languages since it can't detect word boundaries, doesn't offer Furigana transliteration which I'm told is pretty important, and doesn't have word frequency lists. Still, please try it out and let me know what you think!

Yeah, I expected to find it in the beta section given all the difficulties it presents as opposed to say, Spanish. I have a ways to go learning Kanji before I'll be able to properly use it but I'll definitely be in touch with feedback when I do.

This is a great app,some time I really want to quite my job and do my own project like him,but I don't really know what is stoping me to do it,maybe I just don't have the courage.

Would you mind sharing your technology choices (languages, libraries, frameworks) and maybe why you picked the technology and if you'd do something differently now? Seems pretty cool, congrats.

## back end

- Servers running Ubuntu hosted at Linode (outages recently have been worrying)


- NodeJS & express framework

- MongoDB replica set with primary, secondary & arbiter

## front end

- BackboneJS

- JQuery

- gulp for build & deploy script

- RequireJS for modules

It's been going fairly well on the whole. This is my first web-site with a back end, so I don't have experience with Python, PHP, MySQL, etc... to compare it to. Given that, it's hard to say whether I'd choose differently if I started again. I would probably play around with PostgreSQL since a relational DB may suit my needs better. Also, MongoDB can be worrying. I added a replicaset member running the latest stable version 3 with the WiredTiger storage engine to try it out but it kept crashing - not what you want from a database! I'm still using the older, very disk-space hungry version 2.6.x for now.

Oh wow! This is something I always wanted, but I never knew it existed!

how did you survive? or are you already rich and just doing this for fun? i mean you got to pay rent/mortgage&stuff...

only if i lived with my parents could i survive on so little money. lots of people including myself would do this if they were able. I'll do this some day when my landlording project earns enough (now its just enough to live for free but i still need my salary) & I dont have any chick.

in any case congratulations on your succes :) . its a great achievement.

I admire your commitment.

For what it's worth; really cool product! I wonder if you could get hooked up with some language schools or teachers so that they'd use it for homework assignments.

I don't think that spanish quote is real...

I assure you it's from a real user, and one who says that Spanish is easier for her than English. Then again, looking at her name I would guess she's Polish rather than Spanish. I found it perfectly understandable but my Spanish obviously isn't advanced enough for it to set off alarm bells. I just ran it past my girlfriend who says that it indeed doesn't sound native. I should have checked that before using this quote. Oh well.

I'm native Spanish speaker, the problem is at: "grande trabajo"... should be "un gran trabajo", then it would sound legit.

I would say that the fact that is not grammatically correct makes it more legit, since if it were fabricated any decent translator would have it done perfectly :)

Must be that!

It's obviously a best-effort from someone who's learning Spanish through Readlang.

Thanks for sharing your story. Fingers crossed your product takes off seriously and you achieve your goals.

I just tried to create a trial account and sign in with Google isn't working :(

Ahh it seems to be broken on a couple of pages. Selecting to view all languages seems to always break login from that page for me. But going to the phrase from his blog post it works fine. Strange.

By "selecting to view all languages" do you mean clicking on the "I'm learning" selector at the top of http://readlang.com/dashboard ?

I'm trying to reproduce this but I can't, although I do have error logs that show some users are getting google sign in related errors - if you could give me instructions to reproduce this bug I'd be really grateful!

Great story, good luck!

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