I spent 5 years trying to get a micro ISV off the ground which made scheduling software for hair salons. It was a terrible idea for a large number of reasons (described in detail here: https://www.jasonswett.net/im-shutting-down-snip-heres-why/) and I never made more than about $430/mo.
My opinion now is that info products are a better way for a solo founder to get started with a product business. The reason is that a SaaS product can take a huge amount of effort (perhaps pre-traction effort, which is risky) to get off the ground whereas an info product business can be started with a tiny "guide" and then expanded outwardly from there, keeping effort in proportion with traction the whole time.
My current business is AngularOnRails.com, an info product business. In its third month of making money, it made $1580, over 3 times what the SaaS made at its peak. Here's a detailed income report: https://www.jasonswett.net/november-2016-angular-on-rails-in...
Amy Hoy says the best way for solo founders to start off is with in info product. Just to cut their teeth at marketing and such.
One thing, now that you have got that ball rolling I think you might consider another saas product in the future because you have so much learning about that.
The one good thing about a saas product with good market fit is that you will get years of recurring revenue from the same customers.
With pluggio I had some customers hitting $3.5k over time (and higher).
That is the real power of saas and why it's worth considering in the long run.
Edit: I guess it may be useful to note we have a bunch of articles here - https://blog.nugget.one/ - about how to avoid the kind of issues you spoke about in your blog.
Passive info products do seem to be the easier path to a more leisurely success.
Edit: missed a word
I have a couple of ideas I've been wanting to work on, but time is quite scarce as a grad student. I guess it's partly because I tend to overthink (and over-design) my ideas, and end up getting overwhelmed before even touching a line of code! What's even worse is that the majority of my ideas are intended for my home country (EST+6 timezone), since I think it's much harder to be successful in an over-saturated market like the US.
For example, one of my ideas is designing an Uber-like service for my home country. The current roadmap (which I haven't started on) is as follows:
1. Design a basic placeholder site with some info on the app/service
2. Run a limited ad campaign to gauge interest and ideally collect emails (Google, FB, local radio, local newspapers)
3. Try to get interested users to fill out a survey
4. If the results from 2) and 3) are promising, start developing a barebones MVP
5. The MVP will target one city, require manual signup for drivers, and only have a simple web client
6. If successful, start hiring local developers, optimizing server-side, and designing an Android app (iOS is a very small market)
Any advice for someone in my position? I'm open to all types of feedback from any HNer - it's always good to get an opinion before working on something like this!
I am not sure if a web-client would do the job. From my knowledge, interacting with maps on a mobile browser can be an aggravating experience. If an app doesn't do the job, isn't immediately useful, people discard it without further consideration which makes B2C things tenfold hard.
The surest way I see for it to work is to start as boring-taxi company that has a phone number and a person at the end. Then, slowly move into automated app-like way. I am guessing that's how OlaCabs, India's Uber, got started. Automation is awesome but there are so many points of failure in Uber-like venture that it's better to be safe by doing manual tasks.
I've thought about a virtual secretary but I'm not so sure how helpful it would be. They would need pretty specialized knowledge to be able to help much with support requests. I don't have so many meetings that I can't schedule my own.
As far as Uber for your country. Does Uber not exist where you are yet? There was another one in Malaysia called GoTaxi or GrabTaxi that I thought was interesting. It connected you with 'real' taxi drivers for a pre-arranged flat fee for the ride. One guy told me he used it just so he had a record of what taxi he was in incase he got robbed by the driver.
Edit: latent thoughts
That sounds interesting actually. One of my biggest concerns is push back from the local taxi union, so that may be a better way to approach it. I'll definitely look that service up.
As a fellow (though happy) SaaS owner I'm trying to imagine being in your shoes. My goal is spending my time on something (~a problem) that interests me and hearing that customers benefit from what I offer. I think that is the awesome part of it.
This results in freedom and earning money, among other things. I don't earn as much as you but I care very little as long as I can do the above. Obviously you need to be able to cover your expenses, but that's another story.
I couldn't imagine starting this with the goal of working as little as possible while getting paid as much as possible. I don't know if that is what you are saying, but I hear this sometimes.
Am I getting too philosophical about it?
Same boat - You can make the most detailed image based walk through FAQ tutorial documentation what have you and you'll still have days filled with customer support.
You'll wake up one morning with multiple emails from billing to product support. The more you grow, the more they come.
PS: You're product hit the nail on the head. I've recommended it to a few podcast clients in the past.
Thank You! I'm relying entirely on word of mouth marketing at the moment so that really helps!
BTW - What's your project?
My experience has been that support requests can be near zero if you actively work on some kind of automated solution for the highest frequency problems.
My new goal is to have every single error or notification have a built-in link that takes them to a solution article. This seems to be effective so far.
One example I heard recently on a podcast was cssanimation.rocks. Basically his thought process was: I want to teach people something regarding CSS. I can't teach people ALL of CSS in a book (too much work). I like making animations. I'm going to focus on practical animations (forms, list boxes, basically things all sites do). He started posting some useful blog posts that taught people some of the basic concepts and captured emails. Now he has paying subscribers to an email course.
Disclaimer: I fail to do everything I'm telling you to do.
There's some great advice in your post about your ill-fated Snip (strong name!) product, anyway!
(I'm not sure I agree about product businesses - I think it depends on the industry and your connexions - but certainly no one should think that going it alone will be easy.)
One key for any potential SaaS market is to make sure you have a way to reach that market. Make sure they are on email or social media in large numbers.
I too pivoted to information products. Good luck with your course.
We concluded very quickly that the problem is reaching the audience. We did have a strategy, but the impending arrival of babies means that the entire thing was put on ice.
It's tempting to revisit the niche because, at least if our numbers are correct, we have a real chance of being able to reach the niche whilst keeping the CAS manageable.
So, not sure if there ks a forum for salon owners, but if there's not, that's the first thing I'd look at building. And if there is, well, there's your marketing strategy. (At least a big component of it.)
For myself, I'm writing desktop software for developers which is a market I know and something that really interests me. On top of that, there is no need for continuous uptime
Truth is that info products are perfect for solo founders as a way to start generating revenue for bootstrapping something else (or simply as additional income). Marketing them is easy. You just have to put samples online, work the SEO, and share it on social (inbound). Building one is also simple. No need for anything fancy. Ive sold info products using a static page and a paypal button.
Depending on your niche you can do some pretty big numbers.
I'm going down this route and making dev tools that help replace the sucky entrenched big players. I haven't officially launched a proper version (early access is going on now) but I'm hoping that I'll be able to be as successful as you are.
It's been a bit over a decade.
Some people might be put off by how competitive those spaces are. Don't be!
The traditional "sell once, offer paid upgrades" seems to be better suited for apps with a stable feature set, where you can take a year or two to produce the next major version. However, a more iterative approach to development doesn't work with this model very well.
The recently popular switch to subscriptions (Adobe, Office, 1Password, Jetbrains, YNAB, etc), while obviously every developer's wet dream, may not sit very well with customers, at least if there's no obvious service being offered (like e.g. Dropbox).
May I ask a few questions?
- What category is your app in?
- What is an "electron app"
- How do you distribute? Mac App Store/Windows/Your own site?
That's one of the annoying (and liberating) things about desktops, they don't have an app-store, so you have to run your own store (without reviews) and people have to trust that you're not going to sell them a virus.
Why electron over native?
How large in scope is your program?
How large in scope was your program when you first started?
Is it just one program and domain or have you diversified to different areas?
Presumably to go cross-platform with less effort.
And there is huge value in supporting both. If somebody wants to buy an organization-wide license, they almost certainly have lots of both and if you're being evaluated against a competitor that only supports one platform it is quite the leg up.
Don't do that... there are quite a lot of cross-platform but native ways to develop fast & slick desktop apps.
> For others, if I see some desktop app made with electron, I just skip it
The Slack desktop app isn't bad, though I'm not sure if you've tried it.
> The only reason it exist is that web devs do not want to learn right tools for the right job.
Qt, wxWidgets, Gtk,...
> The Slack desktop app isn't bad, though I'm not sure if you've tried it.
I have to use it for the job. And yes, I think it is bloatware, memory hog with a non-intuitive UI.
The bigger issue is obviously lazy developers not polishing their electron app, but you can do basically anything with it.
I tried finding a partner to work with, but that's pretty much impossible in Silicon Valley where I live. Most good engineers want to work for one of the glamorous companies in the Valley. Oh well...
I've been working on Jollyturns for the past 5 years. It's been a lot of work, but I do it at my own pace since I still want to enjoy myself. The experience is unique. I write all the software myself, and hired few people to help map the ski resorts. I built a bunch of custom tools for the mapping work, so people can map the location of lifts, ski runs, restaurants inside a ski resort. I ended up having mapped all the ski resorts in the world, about 2700 of them.
Writing the code is the easy part. I found marketing to be the hardest. You need to find a way to make the world know what you built, and that's hard!
Have you tried to reach out to any of your local resorts with a marketing plan? I'm sure they'd love some integration into your app for trade: you promote them, they promote you.
For example, do research that shows that 7% of companies in industry XYZ use certain CRM. Analyze that industry and see what common use cases and pain points are. Somehow figure out what the CRM is missing for that industry. Validate the idea before building it by reaching out to said companies.
There would be a lot more to it, but basically a plugin for established software a company already uses is much easier and less risk to sell when you are a small shop.
My plugin allowed you to put in your hotel when you traveled. Then it showed a list of your current & past customers' offices that were within X miles. Now you can fire off those "btw, I'll be in town in 2 weeks, we should talk about X" emails well in advance.
If I had to do it now, I'd tie into Tripit or Google Calendar to get the most accurate info, pull the data from your CRM, and send you an email with some "last contact" info & links to email them.
Oh.. and I'd make it a monthly charge instead of a one-time purchase.
I think the more important aspect is that the benefits happen regularly. If you close an extra deal a year or lower churn a tiny bit, it's a huge ROI. Which says to me that the price should be non-trivial..
It's since turned there is a demand for this beyond our one client too thankfully.
I think it's helped that this product is aimed at businesses primarily too. With a higher price point we won't need a mass volume of clients to be profitable reducing demand on customer service requests etc.
The harder part about running a solo SaaS company is building revenue takes _a very long time_, particularly if you're new at this. Most of my peers take ~18 months to hit the ~$10k revenue number that lets them durably transition to running the business as the full-time gig.
If you want to run a one-person shop which creates value substantially related to software, but you don't want to bite off the complexity of writing and selling a SaaS app for your first rodeo, I'd recommend a business model like productized consulting (the glide path to shipping a SaaS app!), selling infoproducts, or selling some sort of addon to an existing software ecosystem (WordPress, Shopify, etc).
Just build something that you know people need (meaning: there are other products in that space) that has a small enough scope so a single person can build it in a month or two. Then charge money for it.
The software market is ludicrously large, and because you don't have marginal costs in a software business you can afford to make a lot of mistakes on the business side of things and still make a profit.
You don't need a great product (plenty of lousy products sell well) and you don't need great business sense (many CEOs don't know what they're doing) and you don't need great marketing (same). For your business to work you have to clear the minimum bar in all three areas, but luckily the bar is set pretty low!
The two biggest things that make this possible:
a) Email support only, no telephone support (sales or post sales). Not everyone likes it, of course, but if you're determined to be a one man band, it's essential.
b) Automation of every single thing you can. For you, it would be a different list, but I had to automate things like refunds, tracking numbers, inventory levels, fraud detection, etc.
Also consider having someone you trust have access to documentation, passwords, accounts, etc...in case of some kind of emergency, etc. If it's making money, it would be a shame not to be able to pass it on to a beneficiary if you were to die unexpectedly.
This is important. Redundancy and automation are your allies, but it is prudent to implement some sort of keyman insurance.
It's possible, but here's what I have found:
- Partner with resellers who take a commission on sales -- then they can deal with all of the customer management.
- Set realistic goals for uptime, machines go down (it's not if but when), distributed setups are possible and encouraged for larger customers, but they cost more.
p.s. Wanna get a slack channel for solo founders going?
EDIT: I've created a slack group - Email me if you would like an invite!
What kind of software do you sell? Is it desktop, mobile, web?
Also, is your price point rather high? I would imagine something like a $120 product may not benefit from a reseller as it is small deal for them
He builds plugins for the Shopify platform and ended up hiring one developer to do full time onboarding of new clients, support and documentation, but does all product development himself.
I think it's definitely realistic. You gotta just have a mindset where you try and eliminate all bottlenecks and automate as much as possible.
The trick he found for coming up with product ideas was to first do custom development. When enough clients are willing to spend a few thousand for a personal implementation of something, that's when you know you have an opportunity to charge 40$ per month for a SaaS version :)
Source: I read about Balsamiq Mockups soon after it was created, used it in some commercial projects as a consultant/freelancer, corresponded some with Peldi, and also got a free copy of Mockups early on, for having released an open source product. He had a scheme of giving a free copy to such people. May still have it.
IIRC, he initially had the idea of doing Mockups as a web app plugin (for JIRA, maybe), and did it, but a lot of people asked for a desktop app, so he did that too, and I remember reading that at least in the early years (maybe now too), the desktop app sold much more. I used the desktop app in my work I mentioned.
First got to know of him via his blog:
and have corresponded with him too on a few occasions.
He has many interesting / useful posts about the ISV business on his blog - on many aspects - from technical (he uses C++ and Qt) to commercial, though more of the latter, IIRC. I've read many, and found them interesting. Just got one today in my email, in fact. It's about how one-day sales helped him boost his sales some. (He tries various marketing / sales experiments now and then.) Another interesting thing is that he reviews or interviews other microISVs and their products sometimes - those posts are interesting too. There was one about a file compare tool which was doing quite well - Beyond Compare.
He also started another desktop product, HyperPlan, much after the first, and I read that it too is doing okay.
I ran an advertising agency with employees at one point and grew it to $50k/mo but hated it so stopped and went back to single founder SaaS stuff.
Before the recession hit, I also ran a SaaS product in the Real Estate sector that brought in over $70k/mo at its height. I had a few employees during that time too.
I personally enjoy being a single founder running niche products but it has its downsides. Also, once you reach a certain growth point, it becomes much more difficult to go it alone. At that point, you can either hire employees to help or decide maybe it is best to sell.
I had a soft offer in the $3 mil range from a big company for that real estate product I mentioned. They reached out to me. I pretty much blew it off because it was in a growth phase and I felt I could grow it more. 6 months later, the real estate market crashed and that product lost 50% of its revenue within a year. In hindsight, I wish I took that offer a little more serious.
I wholeheartedly agree that advertising and acquiring users are the most important pieces, and also one of the hardest. Finding a niche and the market to go after (who do I approach? what do I say? what sort of problems can I solve that hasnt already been done? etc) has been a stumbling block, not to mention the fact that I'm far from technically fluent to spin up a basic prototype to demo.
As such I kinda put that aspiration on hold and decided to hone my craft in CS / programming in general, so that at least I have a solid, technical base to built off on.
Anyhow, I really appreciate your response and am excited to hearing back from you.
I went to the conferences when I was a one man startup, and it was helpful.
I am curious, though, what was it about the conference that made it helpful for you?
There was some useful stuff on landing page optimization.
patio11 gave a talk that year that was great.
I also found it helpful to talk to other people doing the same thing I was. A solo startup can be kind of isolating.
So it isn't anything you need to do. As I mentioned below this, the book "Start Small, Stay Small" has a lot of the practical stuff, if $25 is more in your budget.
Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer's Guide to Launching a Startup
It's not easy though. Assuming you have product/market fit (i.e. something that sells):
Reliability is paramount. It is everything to you. If your system breaks, it will stop new development, marketing, support responses, sales calls. Because there is only one of you, you can't afford to spend time fighting fires and answering pages. It does not matter if your software is slow or fast or if it is pretty or ugly or if your userbase is growing or not if you are down.
Reliability is paramount. Invest your time into building systems that do not fail when one component or one machine breaks. Where you can, you should leverage primitives and services from cloud providers that provide the kind of failure guarantees you need. Then assume that your cloud providers will eventually fail on you, so design with that in mind. Take as few dependencies on them as you can handle or make sure you can failover between them.
Reliability is paramount. Every change you deploy could break your systems and cause downtime. You need good testing and monitoring. Run continuous end-to-end testing of all customer-facing functionality that pages you when it fails.
Reliability is a feature if your software is critical to your customer's business. Some will notice when your competitors are down and you aren't. For those that don't notice, educate them. Explain to your customers the investments you've made to keep your service up and running. You can sell it as a differentiator.
After that, support is the next time-sink you need to eliminate. Treat every support request as a bug that can be fixed so it doesn't happen again. Make it extraordinarily easy to contact you and then try to optimize so no one ever contacts you. Invest in your UX. Your UX should try to illuminate the inner workings of your software. Many support requests are simply failures of a customer to understand what your software is doing and why. Customers can't debug black boxes, but they are smart and motivated and if you invest in their understanding, many will solve their own problems before contacting you.
Design your error messages. Your error messages are a more important piece of design than any other messaging from your product. Finally, if you can't solve the support bug with UX, invest in your documentation. Documentation is your last resort because most users will not read it or they will only read portions of it. By the time they get to the docs they're already frustrated, so it needs to be fantastic.
> By the time they get to the docs they're already frustrated, so it needs to be fantastic.
It appears to working out quite well for him, as he is currently on holiday overseas.
I have a full time job but one client on the side. I built a system for them that I net $1,250 per month on and do 2 hours of work a month at most. Rackspace takes care of almost all host related items for me.
I have a partner who also makes $1,250 from the same contract. In hind sight I could have easily done the whole project without him and be making $2,500 per month.
Been going for almost 3 years now, probably has a shelf life of another 7 years.
If you can get a few customers like this, you are set. The challenge is of course to get more customers, let me know when you solve that issue, I'm still working on it :)
edit: changed gross to net
Edit: hosting includes daily backups
The other thing to be careful of is feature creep to ensure it is valuable for your customer base. If one customer complains that they want something which would be super difficult and applicable to only one edge case, I'd take some pause to evaluate the feedback.
The other thing as ovidiup mentioned, marketing is the absolutely hardest. I would even consider it soul draining if you like coding, but it is super necessary. I would recommend reading this book to help think about your sales channel
I know a guy who continues to run a one-man software shop for some municipal government functions that are important, but too small for a more general software company.
Key factor for him is that his uncle had been a well-known person, which got him in the door early on.
The games are way better :-)
No other data source is capable of providing the content we needed. We were forced to shut down.
We knew this was a possible eventuality and our ToS explicitly disclaimed responsibility for it. Our site required users to check both a checkbox and click OK on a dialog box that served only to inform that they used the product at their own risk, nothing was guaranteed, and no refunds of any kind would be furnished. When we shut down, many angry users demanded refunds and issued chargebacks, often after months of successful use, despite the clear and unambiguous language which confronted them several times and required their affirmative assent before they were allowed to purchase anything.
Before we were forced to shut down, other people had caught on to the market and started copying us. We had about a year where we were in it by ourselves. Once serious competitors showed up, they ate our lunch by using a sophisticated spam network to promote their offerings, which were sloppily made by offshore contractors and far worse than our offering in every way, technical and aesthetic.
I refused to engage in similar tactics and felt righteous about it, but it sure cost us a lot of money. They somehow brokered deals with the niche forums that had blacklisted us from day one (or just outspammed their moderation capacity), afraid that we may eventually expand into something that would threaten them directly (which I now plan to do, some day). Perhaps we could've prevented the copycats by acquiring software patents.
These competitors pushed the envelope to the point where it became a visible PR issue and the F100 was forced to respond by C&D'ing every site that operated in the sector I launched and instructing their users to never use anything not distributed directly by the company itself again.
Now, about 16 months post-shutdown, I still get emails from business owners who depended on us begging me to turn the service back on, and saying that their business has been seriously hurt by our absence.
Some of the people in this thread evidently picked much better niches than I did.
Perhaps you've considered this and it wouldn't work for some reason or another. But I thought I'd offer some unsolicited advice.
As much as I wanted my business to be able to live on, I wanted to stay out of prison more.
The only option would've been to abandon all US assets and essentially go into exile in a state where the law was more friendly and the F100 would have a harder time getting me shut down (and there are very few jurisdictions without a law substantially derived from the CFAA; the wording of the Telecommunications Act in many Commonwealth nations gives marginally more protection). I didn't think that was a very good option for a relatively small business, I wouldn't have been able to afford it at the time anyway, and it would've had meteoric impacts on my family, so I didn't do it.
On top of that, The Pirate Bay and MegaUpload have proven that the long arm of American corporatism knows no borders.
To their credit, however, Sweden did seem to hold out a long time. They had to be threatened with sanctions from the WTO in order to take down TPB. At that point, Sweden ignored their own law and pushed through a sham trial against TPB's proprietors, who went into exile in non-extradition countries, from which they were eventually stopped at border crossings and extradited to serve time in Sweden. Can't hide from Mickey Mouse.
The most ironic part of this is that the world's largest companies regularly violate the same rules with impunity. Google, for example, routinely and flagrantly violates the CFAA and the Copyright Act, going by the standards that are applied to everyone non-Google. However, Google has been sued over this and won, with their use specifically ruled fair, because they're Google -- and that's essentially the reasoning the judges give if you read the decisions, talking about how it's a "transformative use" that has changed the world, etc. etc. Judges have declined to apply the same logic in later rulings (Ticketmaster v. RMG), on the basis that the defendant was not Google.
The moral of the story appears to be break rules and get too big to fail fast, and then you can do whatever you want. If you don't big enough fast enough, you will be destroyed by a large company that's afraid of you.
Too many pay apps and even games with DLC have gone poof in recent years because of the latter situation or because the cost of maintaining the DLC no longer justified itself.
If everyone felt like you did, it is a deal-killer. But you need to do enough research to know whether or not that is true before giving it any weight in your decision making processes.
Eventually, either due to growth or a desire to have free time again, you'll probably want to bring aboard other persons.
I'm ok on the sysadmin side (backups, Ansible, etc) and uptime. I'm subpaar on the support side, because I can't develop features fast enough and I have a problems prioritizing things that my various customers need and, at the same time, I panic at the idea of telling them that "I don't know" whether I'll deliver their tiny feature in 1 week or in 8 months. Anyway, it's all problems you can solve by being more efficient or professional, just keep in mind that support/bugfixing will creep up as you add features, up to 80% of your time, at which point you'll either have enough money to hire, or notice that the business model doesn't bring enough money.
There is definitely room for us, micro ISV: Do it as long as you like it / enjoy the lifestyle.
Also, "don't talk to corp dev" (cf Paul Graham's essay) unless you want to sell, in which case use an acquisition broker marketplace (cf patio11's essays).
Your clients will eventually thank you because you'll sustain the service longer if it's worthwhile for you.