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Ask HN: Successful one-person online businesses?
1474 points by gajus 28 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 656 comments
This question was asked 2 years ago (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13326535) by mdoliwa, and I'm curious what it looks nowadays.

> How many people on hacker news are running successful online businesses on their own? What is your business and how did you get started?

> Defining successful as a profitable business which provides the majority of the owners income.




I run a popular Quiz website. I make around $6,000 per month from Google adsense. I work between 2-3 hours a week usually posting quiz links on my Pinterest page. My only expense is hosting which is around $20 per month (Digital Ocean). I have never advertised my website and it gets all the traffic from Pinterest Organically. Compare to my salary, I'm an IT Administrator in my day job and make $400 per month. I live in Ethiopia :) I thought this inspires my fellow HN. Good day.


If your job is less than 10% of your income, why keep it?


Good question, my career is very important to me. It gives me an identity. I just can’t sit at home all day. I’m gonna die with boredom.


I don't think I'll ever quite understand this mentality that "not having a job"=="sitting at home all day". Do people not have hobbies of any kind? They really only find meaning in pursuit of money?


A job isn't solely about pursuit of money. Presumably, you are doing work that adds value for someone and/or society.

It's also a form of security should the online income suddenly dry up. It can also be a source of healthy social connections.

I was a homemaker for a lot of years. I did a lot of life enhancing stuff for me and other people. Trying to translate that into an adequate income post divorce has been enormously painful.

Some people successfully turn hobbies into careers. Others can't pull that off.

If someone's life works, changing some piece of it could cause it to come apart rapidly. Why risk that?


> Presumably, you are doing work that adds value for someone and/or society.

You can do that without being paid for it, and then you can control your own schedule completely.

> It's also a form of security should the online income suddenly dry up.

That's fair, but chances are if you managed to build something that generates enough passive income to live off of then you probably won't have much difficulty finding a job if you needed to.

> It can also be a source of healthy social connections.

I personally thing relying on work for social interaction is a terrible idea.

> If someone's life works, changing some piece of it could cause it to come apart rapidly. Why risk that?

Fair enough, but all I'm saying is I don't really understand how it works for them. To me, my job is just how I put food on the table, and my pursuit of money is purely so that one day I can do that without having to sell my time to someone else.


To me, my job is just how I put food on the table

Different people relate to work differently. Some people have some of their best relationships through their work.

Your experience isn't invalid, but it also doesn't invalidate how other people experience life.

I replied because I started out as a homemaker, then I got divorced after about two decades. I got to have an extreme experience of doing useful things for reasons other than money, and when I got divorced it was financially and socially devastating.

My so-called friends didn't stick around. All the life enhancing, useful work I had done was not readily translated into paid work.

I've spent recent years figuring out how to have a healthy relationship to paid work. It's overall been a better experience for me than the years I did useful things for others without being paid for it.

I actually have a decent track record of being able to put my volunteer work on a resume to help me get a job and I had a corporate job for a while. But it was an entry level job that didn't pay enough and corporate life wasn't really a good fit for me.

I mean, wherever you go, there you are. I'm no less guilty of tunnel vision (so to speak) than you are. I'm just looking at the world through a different tunnel.

But I desperately want to have enough paid work and to relate to the world through that lens. I don't feel valued for the things I've done and I've literally lived in dire poverty for years, including several years of homelessness. No, people don't really care and I feel I've been badly burned for doing good things for other people and not getting compensated for it.

All those people that I did wonderful things for who got serious careers out of it have not helped me create a real career with sufficient income. It hasn't opened doors for me in terms of being taken seriously and adequately compensated.

It's been enormously frustrating, baffling and enraging. It's proven to be a stubbornly intractable problem.

I never want to be 100% financially dependent on just one thing again.

The guy in this discussion making $6000 a month for two or three hours of work each week may have no ability to replicate that success if this stops working. Lots of businesses have been harmed by the rise of ad blockers, losing as much as 80% of their income over night.

One slam dunk success doesn't guarantee you can readily create another. For many people, that kind of success is short-term and will never happen again.

It's why the NFL requires financial education for their players. They are all college educated, but they are also very young and most NFL careers are short-lived. For many of them, the two or three years they play pro football will be the most money they will make in their life.

If they spend it like they think this is their starting salary and it only gets better from here, then they basically party their asses off for a few short years followed by an injury, the sudden end of their career and no means whatsoever to make anywhere near that much ever again. If they didn't save and invest, it's gone and never coming back.

That's an all too common story for a rather wide variety of wildly successful experiences. That kind of extreme success is frequently described as luck because it's so hard to replicate.


In some parts of the world, if you meet people and they ask what do you do, and you say, "I do X, I work for Y" they nod and understand. If you say, "I run my business" you are met with serious suspicion, as a possible scam artist. It can impact you real life social network, dating etc. Not only that, online businesses are not guaranteed for life, things changes fast. But career is. You can say I have been a teacher, IT admin, programmer or XYZ for 20 years. Doesn't matter if you changed job once or 30 times.


In this case, the job appears to be the hobby. Just because you get paid for something doesn't exclude it from being a hobby.


I read that more in jest to be honest.

I know people who work within their industry (health care) in a specific place that tends to be low paying. They could very easily switch (because people have tried recruiting them to do so because they worked with them previously and they know they're good) to a higher paying job with a lighter workload without moving but servicing a different group. But part of the appeal of the job is that they are working in support of this specific class of patients.

Dunno, I could see aspects other than money being a driver in someone sticking with something when a better opportunity or situation seems to be present with little effort.


Not everyone has a hobby or passion and that's totally fine.


I am quite boring to most people.


From a different perspective, the site sounds great but it's not something to be be guaranteed to be around forever. I understand steady employment, both from a security standpoint and from not having a gap in employment history.


I think the better term for it is "occupation", just one that you happen to get paid for doing.


Unless you have enough money to comfortably retire, or at least, the social network that can catch you if you meet catastrophe, allowing your skills to erode or even allowing the perception that they have via not having a day job is probably a bad idea.


Not necessarily pursuit of money. Work. The world is built on work. If we stop working we go back to living in wilderness - literally and figuratively. Hobbies are fun, but they aren’t work. Work provides a different kind of satisfaction.


Maybe it provides satisfaction for you. My most satisfying projects have always been the ones I was passionate enough about to do at home on my own or with a small group of like-minded people. I'd have done a lot more if I weren't balancing it with the necessary evil of a paying job.


Plenty of hobbies are as useful as 'work'. Cooking, carpentry, fixing an old car. Not all hobbies are focused on consumption, many are about creation.


Other way to put it: he likes his job, so he hasnt thought too much about doing something else with his time. If he would quit, he probably wouldnt be sitting at home all day but would end up doing something - however he hasnt thought much about it since he is content with the current situation, therefore "sitting at home all day" is just easy way to put it.

I dont think there is nothing wrong in staying at a job if you like it, even if you dont need it financially.


Some people thrive in structure. Taking away their job wouldn't be freeing. It would remove a big foundation their life is built on. Not everyone want to self-motivate and build their own structure because there already exists large structures you can just find your place in.

So it's not about not having a hobby. It's about having a place and purpose in life.


OP was clear that it is not about money, wasn’t s/he?


It takes a very wise man to realize something that sounds like the obvious answer won't make you happy.


I'm gonna have to disagree that "sit at home all day" is the obvious answer. In fact, that's quite obviously not the answer.


It's also a good cover story that makes it easier to downplay your wealth.

It's also an effective means to make sure you don't spend all your time spending your income and thereby end up broke.


You're a smart man. I wish I had done that.


I believe the smart part is he knows what he wants... and that's hard, btw.


Personally I would say the opposite. You should define yourself by outside interests rather than by what other people pay you to do.


Given the difference between income streams, and the fact that still go to their day job, I would wager their job is an interest to them.


But if you get paid to do what you personally value, isn't that the ultimate win?


This might sound harsh, but if the best thing in life is IT administration for some company then you haven’t looked very far.

But hey, who knows, maybe they work for a charity or something?


At a personal level, I'm not a fan of this generalization that being an IT admin (or any other boring job) is inherently inferior than, I don't know, skateboarding or playing the guitar for a living.

Different people like different things.


That's true, but the way people do things they enjoy when it's a job is very different from how they do them when it's a hobby.

I write code for a living, and I write code for fun. I would never choose to write the code I write for a living if I weren't getting paid to, and it's unlikely I'll ever get paid for the code I write for fun.


Yeah, the question is IT administration for what. I do a lot of stuff in my job that I don't enjoy for its own sake, but I enjoy it because I feel alignment with the purpose the organization is serving.


if i didn't define myself by what allows me to make a living, then i would hate my work. now i am not defining myself only by paid work. but it is part of my identity. if it wasn't i wouldn't be able to do it.


The problem with that is that, outside of our personal lives, most of our meaningful activities and contributions in society are organized as jobs at companies (or various government bodies). In my country even more so than in the US, as there's almost no volunteering here. It's just hard to feel like you're living a meaningful life without a job, or running a company yourself.


If you get a long enough break from work your hidden inner voices will start talking. You will discover that your identity isn't tied to your work-for-money activities.

IMO (I can't be sure of course) you simply never got off the hamster wheel for long enough to give your inner voices a chance to speak.


You don't have to work for someone else and be an employee your whole life, it's not the only way. There are other choices available to you.

You can also be your own boss too and have other people working for you, or at least help you out occasionally on a part-time basis.

You can easily rent an office in a shared space if you don't want to work from home and go there a couple of times a week.

Also, you don't have to focus only on your current project if it's not your thing.

You can start something else that you would like to create while living off the income generated by your current project.

But I get it, the social expectation is that you have an office job, its what almost everyone does.

But think about this: someone at your company at a given moment had to quit their job to create the company you work on, right? Otherwise, your current day job would simply not exist.


All those things require certain skills and whatnot though. If someone has a good thing going and doesn't want to plunge into the abyss, I'd say good on them. The abyss is full of pitfalls and ways to lose life savings and go into major debt when the lucrative side gig can no longer pay for the vision. Employment is at least guaranteed no debt, especially while the lucrative side gig is going. Correspondingly, when they have this good thing going, they're not being a drag on society. Their employer is still finding value in them too. To those who want to take the plunge and risk it all, that's cool too. On HN, even honourable. But it doesn't have to be the only way.


There is not much financial risk involved in his case, and it looks like he already has the skills needed. He already makes over 10 times his salary. In one year of employment, he spared the equivalent salary of 10 years.

I think people exaggerate the dive into the abyss thing and risking it all. If you have some savings, you can try to launch a business and if it doesn't work you can always go back to work for someone else.

At a given point, someone is going to give you another job as a sysadmin again. He can even work remotely and easily make more than $400 a month.

If you are not hiring other people and purchasing equipment, starting a Saas business as a sole founder has minimal financial risk involved compared to almost all other types of businesses, it's really not that risky.

I think what holds a lot of people back is the fact that they come from an employee background probably at the family level, and they see the world through the eyes of an employee.

They don't even remotely consider the several options that they actually have available.


What you're forgetting is that running an online business all day is isolating. Going to work with colleagues, all working towards a common goal, gives a sense of community. When you are not dependent on the money from your job, it also gives you a certain amount of leverage people normally don't have.

Then on top of this, for this gentleman to see a big change in his/her lifestyle, considering they are already earning $6K/month, any new business would need to make substantially more than that. Is making another $6K/month going to seriously change his/her life? Probably not. Maybe it affords a bit of a nicer house, staying at 5 star hotels VS. 4 star hotels.

The reality is to see a major difference in lifestyle from a new business, it would need to make $20-30K a month, or more.


There is not a lot of sense of community in most companies these days, its often each person for itself.

Especially in IT, people stay for a couple of years and then leave or get laid off, there is no employment for life anymore.

You can run the business from a shared workspace, it's not an issue. And even hire a couple of people to help you out since the salaries there are relatively affordable, and build your own community then.

You don't have to go to an office working for someone else, that is optional. Nothing wrong with it, it's just not the only choice.


I don't agree with your generalization. When you keep in touch with people you used to work with then some relationships usually expand beyond companies and employment duration. In the future they can become your business partners, employers, referees, spouse or just friends.


Sure, but you can also build relationships while owning a business, via conferences, shared workspaces, or what not.


Perhaps he genuinely enjoys his job? Why should he have to launch another business? He already started one and it's very successful! Let the man enjoy his freedom and have a regular job if he so pleases!


That is highly unlikely, such a mundane job as a sysadmin compared to having your own online business.

If he liked it that much, then probably he wouldn't have started a whole side project that must have consumed evenings and weekends for years.

If he would have found professional fulfillment in his job, he would not likely have started a side project in the first place.

As he mentions in his own reply, he stays because he feels that his job defines him as a person, and he would lose his social identity if he left.

This is a surprisingly lucid reply, he can do whatever he wants and I wish him the best, but it's clear to me that he has other much better options available.


Not true for everyone. I genuinely love being a sysadmin, or more accurately business recovery specialist. Rebuilding systems after a disaster with no documentation is genuine fun for me. Otherwise I'd have gone insane. However, I have other projects that I work on.

I understand his position completely.


Your reply seems rooted in the fairly widespread assumption that having your own online business that makes solid "mrr" is some kind of supreme achievement and you should relish in it solely.

Some people have higher-dimensional desires and interests in life.


I have a simpler explanation, what likely happens is that most people don't even try to do it (even though they could do so like the case here) because it's different than the social norm, which says that you should be an employee working for someone else.

I'm saying that there are other dignified ways to live that are different, you don't absolutely have to be an employee at all costs.

Independent work, running a small business, those are other alternatives to live that are equally valid.


Your comments and parent's interpretation of your comments aren't necessarily in conflict with each other.


Not sure what you mean, mind being more specific?


Have you considered starting your own business out of an office? That’s more than enough money to support yourself and do what you want.


Business is not for all, believe me I have tried :) but I’m studying for my master’s degree.


Very mature thoughts. Sounds like some good life experiences behind them. Kudos on your clarity.


That's really smart. I hope I would've thought of that 5 years ago.


I think it's great that you know what you want to do and like. The income from your website is probably very mentally freeing, because you could do a lot of different things with your life but you can choose not to.


Not OP, but some reasons could be:

What happens if he gets banned by Adsense?

In many countries, people don't understand the concept of lifestyle business (even if it brings multiples of salary in revenue, like this case). It is considered "prestigious" and safe to have a job (It doesn't make sense, but it is how it is).


> What happens if he gets banned by Adsense?

They makes the same amount from AdSense in one month as they do from 15 months of their job. Assuming this has been going on for a few years, I doubt the money from the job is really effecting the size of their financial safety net. If they're spending within their means from the job they have a safety net that will last "forever". If not their real job isn't enough for them anyways.

Non financial reasons for keeping the job could make a lot of sense though.


There are other ad networks.


Meeting other humans? Enjoying the work?

A regular job with regular income looks good on paper if you want a bank to lend you money, for example.

Maybe less likely to appear on tax authority's radar for undisclosed income if people know you as Joe the IT guy who leaves for work at the same time every morning?


Banks are looking for stability in your income. A regular salaried job counts as stability. But proven bank deposits over multiple years also counts. I wouldn't shy away from self-employment just because of banks.

Source: I worked at a bank, and wrote algorithms for loan acceptance which evaluated such things.


For loans, banks are looking for expected future stability in your income.

I would never discourage anyone from self-employment, but right now I'm watching a good friend try to get a mortgage in Germany... and he's been running his own company for 20 years... in a highly volatile industry... and let's say they'd be treating him a whole lot better if he had a boring day job at some big company.

If you're planning on stuff like mortgages and (depending on your passport) visas, "regular old job" is worth many multiples of self-employment. If your self-employment makes enough that you won't need a mortgage (etc.) then great, but I would bear it in mind when thinking about quitting the day job.


> I would never discourage anyone from self-employment

I would, especially if they are in their prime earning years and are trying to become independent contractors. Software engineering jobs command high salaries and benefits these days. The opportunity costs are just too high and the odds of sustaining a one-person contracting show for 5, 10, 20+ years is slim to none.


It's easy to change from independent contractor to employee if you really want. The experience on the CV is just as good and you probably get paid (a lot) more.

The only real risk is that during economic downturns it may be hard to find contracts but your employer could fire you as well.


It depends on the market. I worked with contractors back in 2008 who said it became easier to find work during the crash because they were seen as Capital Expenditure while Full-Time Employees were considered Operating Expenditure and were being laid off en-masse.


This benefit is always true, especially in locations where you can write off CapEx against your taxes. My main point was that if you are a contractor and want a perm role you can just apply for a permanent job. You don't even need to write whether or not you were a contractor in your application form / CV, the hiring manager only cares about your projects and roles within the project.


> But proven bank deposits over multiple years also counts.

That's just one factor. Banks are looking to minimize risk and from the perspective of banks, self-employment increases risk. That's not to say banks won't loan to you, just that the hurdle is much higher for you to prove that you are not a risk. Chances are your interest rates will still suffer even when a bank decides to loan to you.


Meeting other humans, enjoying work and staying on the good side of the tax authority are important. I just imagined that she or he could do these things other ways; hire one or two employees, diversify the business a bit, and incorporate the company.

I actually do think keeping the job is a good idea for exposure to different ways of thinking, but perhaps scaling it back a little (part-time?) in order to invest more time into the primary income source.


Some people stay in jobs not only for money but for other minor stuff. They continue because they don't want to work alone, keep pushing themselves, keeping a routine, etc.


>> but for other minor stuff.

Like it provides deep satisfaction in an area they really value?


I think some people get shocked of something which may raise from cultural difference, especially compared to highly capital-focused West. Work doesn't have to be modern financial slavery. There are places where there is no overtime or weekend work at all, you go to work to meet nice people, learn interesting stuff and have some common goal which benefits your community. All that is possible.


for all the discussion go to r/financialindependence


How do you manage to kickstart something like this? You mentioned you get your traffic organically via Pinterest, but there had to be something you did initially that set off that growth.


My website started five years ago, It didn’t get any traffic the first three years before one of my quiz went viral. Now I have around 70k followers on Pinterest.


This is important. I have seen this a lot. Persistence. Many people keep pushing,keep pushing even if there is no positive feedback loop for a long time. After a while, they beat time. Kudos.


This. Thanks for sharing. May I ask did you feel demotivated in those 3 years? How you kept up and what motivated you to keep on working on that.


wow that's amazing!

I can't see the link between quizzes and pinterest. Mind giving more details? on why you are there? :)


Could you share your contact details? Or email me at sid at ssiddharth dot com? I run https://jquizzy.com/


Hola. Not related to this post, but I remember you from the early days of Envato when Jeffrey way and you had most of the blog posts. I learned a lot and kickstarted my career from those tutorials. Cheers and All the best..!!!


Wow! Nice to see fellow Habesha doing so well!


May I ask the theme out of curiosity? Geography? History?


What's the quick website?

Well done on getting your operating costs so low, I think that's the key to getting things up and running.


Thank you, Sorry I can’t tell you that for so many reasons.


Good for you! Hope your business prospers


Do you make up the questions yourself or do you have sources for them?


What's the average clickthrough rate on your site for AdSense?


Hey, What's your Quiz website URL?!


Sorry I can’t share the url.


Any specific reason behind it? Though really inspired by your life.


copy cats, unsolicited attention, scrutiny, conversation diversion, business risk

I would think.


I would imagine competition... he already described his leads so ...


Wha tech do you use for your site?


I don't think that would be a significant difference here.


I make $100k per month with clickbaits. Life is great.


Website link?


1500% wow


I have a consumer app with a subscription model. I'm a single developer with no employees. I work between 10-30 hours per week. Last year, my EBIT was close to 300,000€. This year, it's going to be around 370,000€ (and since I live in Germany, my income is in the top 0,5% or so). In the first year, my EBIT was merely 30,000€. It's been going up steadily since then and my product has been around quite a while.

Please don't ask what my business is. I rather share true numbers, but don't link to my product. I see no upside in being super transparent about the financials in a non-anonymous way (although I enjoy transparency from others ;)).

What I think makes my product successful (and I keep this short, because luck plays an important role. Most startup stories suffer from survivorship and hindsight bias):

- It serves a niche and does so very well, better than all others. I have clearly defined my niche, although it took me years to exactly pinpoint it. There's a tendency to want to grab a "bigger audience". Since I make more money than I ever imagined, there is no need to grow bigger or reach a wider audience. This would also make the product less focused on the specific niche.

- Start working on something, release a prototype after 2-6 weeks. Don't invest months or years in something without users.

- For me, marketing = SEO. I never really got into social media. But I have to admit that nowadays, my SEO rankings dropped a bit and people talk about my product in Facebook groups.

- If there are two books I'd recommend: "Rework" by Basecamp. It helps you to focus on a minimal set of features and think about what's truly important. Couple this with "This is Marketing" from Seth Godin, where he explains how traditional marketing is dead and how it's important to find a niche. Don't read more books, interviews or whatever. Get into a "starter mindset" by reading and then do.

- The subscription model helps you to stay afloat. People will pay for a product they use every day (and thus, derive value from every day). If your product is not used every day, but only once per month or so, expect way lower revenue.


Thank you for sharing your success. I hope I can learn one or thing from your sharing.

Currently, I'm selling a consumer productivity app (Android only) in Google Play store.

The characteristics of this category are large consumer demand, and low barrier to entry. Because of this, there are a lot of players in this category.

My pricing model is pretty simple - $20 one time payment to unlock everything. I know I can earn significant more by having subscription / in-app advertising. Since I can make a living with current income, I will leave it that way. I want to sacrifice short-term good profit, in exchange for long term growth.

Initially, I get the first 10k users, by promoting the app, via forum self-post. Later, we notice this is not something scale-able. As, you can only get that much of users from forums.

Right now, I have around 500k users. That mostly attributes to Google Play store organic/search traffic. Because of this, I spend a lot of time in optimizing Google Play store page listing - provide proper localization on product description, performing A/B testing on different product screenshots.

However, that is pretty much risky. What if Google stops sending traffic to my Google Play store page?

I spend some advertising dollar each day in Google Ads, with the hope able to keep our app ranking afloat.

Do you have any suggestion, how I can have a better marketing strategy?

From your post, I will start by purchasing

- "Rework" by Basecamp

- "This is Marketing" from Seth Godin

I also like your suggestion "Write articles that teach people something". Do you have suggestion which publishing platform I should use? Since I don't have a good writing skill, should I hire a freelancer to help me do so? How can I get an idea what to write about?

Thank you, and BIG congratulation on your achievement.


500K users, that's quite an achievement as well, pretty solid!

It's hard to say anything about your pricing model. If it works for you, there's probably no need to optimize. However, 500K users with a $20 IAP – I wonder if you could introduce subscriptions for something like $1-2 per month. Maybe make it cheaper per year, but more expensive on the long run. But this depends heavily on how often your app is used. If it's used daily, it provides daily value and this makes people appreciate it more. If you use it only occasionally, a one-time fee is alright. Just from my gut feeling: a single unlock-all $20 fee is quite high for an IAP and I wonder if there's a way to price it better.

> "What if Google stops sending traffic to my Google Play store page?"

Yeah, that is a very good question for all indie developers. My app is somewhat detached from Google's hand, because a) it used to be a webapp, b) there's also an iOS version, c) I could make it a progressive web app in no time. But still, it'd reduce convenience and discoverability. This is a complex question. On the one hand, I don't think many legitimate apps are kicked out of the Play Store for no reason. There are horror stories, but well, they are rare. Maybe you could find a way to make it more distributed. Offer an iOS app. Offer a web app. Or do make sure to keep Google happy at all times.

> "I spend some advertising dollar each day in Google Ads, with the hope able to keep our app ranking afloat."

It's similar with SEO. If SEO is the only strategy, you get dependend on it. So diversification is the key here. Paid apps + SEO + occasionally forum promotions + maybe a good website with good content for a loyal fan base (but it depends on what kind of app this is).

> "Do you have any suggestion, how I can have a better marketing strategy?"

Not really, depends on the kind of app. Read indiehackers.com for inspiration and the books I recommend. I don't do paid ads, because the CPC is way too high / the conversion rate too low.

> "Do you have suggestion which publishing platform I should use? Since I don't have a good writing skill, should I hire a freelancer to help me do so? How can I get an idea what to write about?"

Absolutely! I wrote probably over 200,000 words and invested a lot of time in improving my writing skills. Good content is easy to read. If your app is in English and English is not your native language, get someone to write for you or someone to correct your rough English. This is about brand perception and if you want to teach someone something, it helps if your written voice doesn't sound off. On a forum/comment site like HN, this is less important ;)

But again, just from my gut feeling: I wonder if there's a way for you to REDUCE the number of active users and turn free users into loyal paid users. This makes for more stable income and lets you focus on improving the app and stressing less about marketing.


> "500K users, that's quite an achievement as well, pretty solid!"

Not quite :) As, majority of them are from tier-2 countries. Purchasing digital goods is not part of their culture.

> "But again, just from my gut feeling: I wonder if there's a way for you to REDUCE the number of active users and turn free users into loyal paid users."

Thank you for your suggestion! What you have mentioned are valid.

Maybe at some point, I want to introduce "ads" + "subscription" model. However, this is a competitive landscape. Most of the similar apps are using ads model. At this moment, I want to offer a compelling reason, for user to use my app instead of others. Luckily, this landscape has high stickiness, because user generated personal data are stored within the app. If they use the app for long enough, the cost is high, when they want to switch to other apps.

So, my hypothesis is that, as long as the free users are using my app, there will always be an opportunity to monetize from them, one day.

Yes. You're right. Currently, there is stress to do marketing. I need to keep attracting new users especially from tier-1 countries, so that new users' one-time purchase can help to cover my monthly living expense. I try to control the CPI cost to USD0.10 for Germany, Japan, Korea. I didn't invest for US, because the high cost is not justifiable. I do notice higher cost is required, if the tier-1 countries are English speaking country. My guess is that, less language barrier, will encourage more players in the market, and drive up the advertising cost.

> Absolutely! I wrote probably over 200,000 words and invested a lot of time in improving my writing skills

I really wish I can build a long term traffic like what you have done. Can you recommend me a publishing platform to publish all writings?

Currently, I am already using google sites (Because I do not have website design skill), to build a landing page to introduce the app features, hosing FAQ, and showing video on how to use the app. But, I don't think that is the suitable platform to host long written article.

When you write your writing, do you need to hire some graphics designer, to help to decorate your writing with nice graphic assets, to attract more readers?

Thank you!


Sounds like you have a plan, good :)

> "Can you recommend me a publishing platform to publish all writings?"

Whatever works best for you. Wordpress, Ghost, whatever. It doesn't matter. I have mostly static files.

I think you need a somewhat okay design. Doesn't have to be fancy, but it should be clean and professionally-looking. I do design myself. I'm self-taught. If you can't do it, get someone who does it. You don't need a lot of images, but yeah, it should look clean and good. There are millions of themes, which are alright if you just start. Don't stress too much over the design. The message is more important.

Also: This is a bit out of scope of this discussion. There's probably a lot of discussion on the internet for designing articles or blogs :)


“ So, my hypothesis is that, as long as the free users are using my app, there will always be an opportunity to monetize from them, one day.”

Yeah, but each day those users are churning out and you will have missed the opportunity to monetize them forever - that lost revenue will never come back.


I honestly can learn a lot from you.. just launched an app struggling to get users. Would you be able to mentor me and provide some insights??


I would be interested in writing blog posts and articles for you. Send me a message at mnewton2 (at) uw.edu for some samples and ideas.


> This year, it's going to be around 370,000€ (and since I live in Germany, my income is in the top 0,5% or so).

Is your business focused on the German market or the US market? Or is it multi-lingual / international? What percentage of time is spent answering support requests?

> The subscription model helps you to stay afloat. People will pay for a product they use every day (and thus, derive value from every day).

Have you experimented with different pricing models? Is Duolingo / Tinder model (1 month / 6 months / 12 months) the best choice for B2C subscriptions without Spotify / Netflix-like licensing costs?


German market only. Going international is an option I considered, but it is a lot more complex than simply localizing the app. Since I make more money than I need and I don't want my job to become a different one (I still get to code a lot), I didn't do it yet.

> "Have you experimented with different pricing models?"

No, I kept the pricing model very simple. The price increased a bit throughout the years. I charge what feels fair.

There's a trial period and if you like the product, you pay for it. If not, then not. There is no freemium, I never give discounts, I don't sell ads or data or make money in any other way. It's a simple thing :)

Some people claim that it's easy to test prices. But this is not true.

If you serve a niche, people talk. If one person pays more than another for the same product (and signed up for the same version at a similar time), you'd lose trust.

The nice thing about making more money than you need is that it frees you from thinking about "making even more money". Yeah, I like making more money, because all of this could be over one day, but there is no need to stress myself about it.


> If you serve a niche, people talk.

Another thing probably is, that a subscription price of a niche product can be considerably higher than of a mainstream one?

For a single person, it must be much easier to support 1,000 users paying something like $25 / month than 5,000 users paying $5 / month.


Thanks for asking this, because it is a thing that many many people have in their mind: "Will support requests crush me?" And this was actually my biggest fear when I turned my hobby project into a commercial one many years ago. The reality is this:

I have over 10,000 paying customers. I receive maybe 5 emails per day. There was never a time when I received much more than 10. I have three explanations for this:

1. I have a really good FAQ that answers almost any question. On my contact form, I urge people to read the damn FAQ. If they still send me an email, I usually reply with a specific link to the FAQ item. If a question comes up a couple times, I add it to the FAQ.

2. Since my product isn't free (and not cheap compared to a 0.99 one-time-fee app), there's a lot of self-selection. I don't have to support freeloaders with their stupid questions. If people pay for something, it seems to help to reduce the support burden.

3. I wonder if this is a mentality thing and Germans are more likely to help themselves through reading FAQ than others who rather send an email like "yo, shit is broken, fix asap". Most emails I receive read a lot more like a letter and not this one-line blurp bullshit some have to deal with.

In essence: Build a product with a somewhat sophisticated target group. They are more likely to pay, more likely to help themselves by reading FAQ and more likely to send no stupid emails.


This isn’t just because you have a good FAQ, it’s because it’s relatively expensive. The more expensive your product is the more likely people are to respect it and you, and to be the kind of professionals who actually read to find answers to things. Yet another reason to charge more.


> This isn’t just because you have a good FAQ, it’s because it’s relatively expensive.

As a B2C SaaS product it actually seems to be relatively cheap: 10,000+ paying users and 370,000€ in yearly revenue points to around 2.99€ / month and 29.99€ / year subscription fees – similar to Instapaper Premium[1].

[1] https://www.instapaper.com/premium


Yep, I have similar revenue and I charge somewhere between 25-45 per user.


#3 is not specific to Germans, it depends mainly on the audience. The more technical it is, the more likely it is to generate non-trivial and meaningful support requests.

Also the fact that you don't sell at discount likely filters out the bulk of self-entitled users that tend to stress support with trivia.

And your summary is 100% spot on - catering to a more savvy audience and aggressively culling other users is a good way to keep support manageable (and even pleasant!)


How come so much focus on Seo rather than ASO or paying to acquire users directly from the App Store? I’m launching an app soon and Wondering if what the conversion would be from web to App Store and where to focus my marketing


Because I don't want to acquire some random people. I serve a specific niche. This niche is better reached with high quality articles. Writing good articles costs once (and the occasional updates and improvements). Paying for reach isn't scalable. SEO is.


I have so many questions, but let's start with a few ones:

Is this a web application or a smartphone one?

What did you have to learn, tech-wise, to be able to build it?

How long did it take you, from your first line of code until you released the first prototype?

How did you get your first user(s)?

How did you get the business idea (without details)? Was it a personal pain point, or did you work in that field before?

And congrats BTW, it looks like you did an amazing job.


> "Is this a web application or a smartphone one?"

It used to be a web app, but nowadays, most people use it as an app.

> "What did you have to learn, tech-wise, to be able to build it?"

At first, PHP. Then JS. I've been coding for 15-20 years now. The app is made in Ionic + Cordova. As I wrote often here on HN: End users give zero fucks about the technology. Most people (unless they're designers or coders) don't even see the difference between a native app and a hybrid one.

As a single developer, Ionic is great, because you have truly one code base for all platforms. If the apps were native, I probably couldn't do all of this by myself.

> "How long did it take you, from your first line of code until you released the first prototype?"

2-3 weeks, and then I iterated a lot with actual feedback. But: I didn't introduce a pricing model for the first couple years. It was a hobby back then. It also was a different internet. So take this with a grain of salt. I don't have experience on how to start a niche product and get paying customers from day 1.

> How did you get your first user(s)?

Through forums.

> How did you get the business idea (without details)?

A friend of mine said: "It'd be great if there was a software that could do X". It wasn't directly my own pain point, but of a friend. I didn't work in that field before, but read a lot over the years to acquire the domain knowledge.

Thanks :)


How has Ionic and Cordova performed for you? Have you considered moving to another framework?


Pretty well. Performance isn’t an issue anymore, although it’s still faster on iOS. My biggest issue with it is the lack of fine-grained control over input elements. Safari is the culprit here. For example, you can’t really make an input element that allows entering a time in this format "23:30" AND only show a specific keyboard with decimals and the colon.

Textarea elements are also sometimes behaving weird when selecting text, just like your regular iOS Safari.

And of course, all input elements and animations don’t respect your OS accessibility settings. Neglectable in some apps, not in others.

I probably wouldn’t write a diary app or an app for writers in Ionic, but for most other things it’s good enough.

Keep in mind that all development comes with trade offs. Native iOS development gives you maximal control over the platform, but your code isn’t really re-usable. As a solo developer, having a single code base is gold and customers don’t really care.


As a solo developer, I tried maintaining two native code bases for an app. It was first iOS native only. The Android version came later, and never reached feature parity. It was just too much work.

If you were to start over, would you still choose Ionic and Cordova, or go with something else like Xamarin or React Native?


I'd still use Ionic + Cordova. Or to be a bit more specific: The Ionic team released Stencil a few months ago, which is a compiler for Web Components. They also released Capacitor, which is a replacement for Cordova.

I'm considering switching to these, because it gives me a bit more control over all of the code (and I'm not really a fan of Angular). But I'd use JS for apps again whenever I can. It's just so much more convenient and especially since I can release a PWA or web version without much effort.


You weren't asking me, but if you don't have loads of content to display onscreen and your design is relatively straightforward, it might be best to go with React Native, since it gives you proper native controls.

You make a ton of concessions (imo) by locking yourself in a webview.


I'd argue that only the last two questions are relevant.

- Both web and smartphone apps can create this kind of revenue. - The tech stack is 99% irrelevant unless the end customer depends on it, which in 99% of the times, isn't the case.


Please note that I have just edited my answer and added a question, so your comment actually refers to the 2 questions before the last one.


I don't think I'm alone here in desperately wanting to know what business this is. :)


> I'm a single developer with no employees. I work between 10-30 hours per week.

I'm curious -- how much time do you spend on marketing? How do your customers find your app?


Nowadays, I spend zero time on marketing. I have a whole bunch of well-written articles on my subject. They still rank okay on Google and are evergreen. Marketing these days is word of mouth + SEO.

But for someone starting out: Write articles that teach people something (in a niche). Articles get read for many years. Social media posts go down after minutes.


Good idea. Are the articles teaching how to use your software to solve an issue people have, or do you just mention/link to the the software in the end of the article?


The latter. The articles teach people about the niche domain/subject. The app is merely mentioned as an option to make life a bit easier.


Having the graphs in the app is much easier than doing yourself.


Thanks for sharing. Do you have stress or anxiety that some other competitor will gain market? Future technology change worries etc.


Competitors: No, I've seen competitors come and go.

There are some competitors, but they target a broader audience (and have to because of VC money) and thus, their product is less focused on sophisticated users. What would you rather buy, a general purpose app that does many things half-assed or the specialized version that is exactly what you need? I can say that my app is simply the best in its category and there are way too many small details so that a copy-cat can't get everything right. Furthermore, in that niche, most people know my app, which helps.

Future technology changes: Not really. They will probably take a long time to replace the domain I'm in. However, there could be a black swan kind of thing, something nobody expects ;) But I don't really stress myself about this.

I have no daily anxiety, but there's one thing on my mind: The app space will get more regulated in the near future. GDPR was one thing. ePrivacy is coming. More privacy laws, upload filters and whatnot. The entire health and fitness market WILL get more regulated. So far, you can claim whatever health benefits you want with your app. Expect that you might need some kind of light FDA-approval (or the European equivalent) in the coming years if your app claims things. On the one hand, this is a big annoyance, on the other hand, I am in a good position and make already enough money to build up cash reserves to handle regulatory affairs if they happen to affect my app.


Whats your take home (netto) after taxes for all of that? I'm an American living in Germany, wondering what the effective tax rate is for someone like you here.

Danke sehr!


Good question. I have two kids, so there are some deductions. I don't know for last year yet, because the tax forms aren't yet submitted by my accountant (and last year it was a lot more than the year before). I calculate with about 59% take home pay. Give or take 2-3%.


Thanks for the response. Are you GmbH or selbständig for this? Wondering which is better for a situation like a one man job. I'm in a similar situation.


I am sole proprietor / Einzelunternehmer. A GmbH works too. Cons:

- more work to set it up

- more paper work

- unnecessary in some cases

Pros:

- cash flow for you as a founder is more stable / taxes can be calculated and predicted more easily (only relevant if you expect a good year and then a bad year)

Neutral:

- Your personal liability is supposedly limited. This is only partially true. There's still the liability of the owner of the company (Geschäftsführerhaftung) and if you do illegal stuff, they can still hold you liable.

- Also for a GmbH, it is more important to manage risks by getting the required insurances and NOT rely on "limited liability". For apps, this would be "IT-Betriebshaftpflicht", possibly something about data protection with regards to GDPR violations. Maybe add insurance that covers personal liability so that you don't lose your personal cash if something goes wrong. That's about it. Optionally add domain-specific insurance if your domain is complex.

This is, btw. a typical German question. Mulling about the type of business is secondary. Get paying customers first, you can still incorporate a GmbH later. On the other hand: If nobody pays you money, you don't need a GmbH or be a sole proprietor.


You hit the nail on the head, that's for sure. :)

Hit me up and would be glad to buy you a beer if you're ever in Munich! Email is in the profile. Cheers.


Will do :)


> Get paying customers first, you can still incorporate a GmbH later. On the other hand: If nobody pays you money, you don't need a GmbH or be a sole proprietor.

is it possible to sell the product first and then register as Einzelunternehmer later (within the same fiscal year)? Or you have to register before?

After registering as Einzelunternehmer, if the business stops existing, does one have to "close activity" as Einzelunternehmer somehow?


You can only do some occasional work without registering yourself in any special form.

You can check, if you can start as a Freiberufler. It is a bit more lightweight than going with Einzelunternehmen. For example, I am a Freiberufler now working as a consultant / contractor in data engineering and management. I can also potentially sell my product, but I did not check the limitations.

You do not have to close you Einzelunternehmen afaik, if you do not make money, but you are still responsible for sending regular declarations to the Finanzamt.


German here. I am mulling over the type of business because I want to grow a B2B company where there is potential for loss of service for a big corporate customer, and my fear is getting hit with a justified (or frivolous) lawsuit that will wipe me out.

So, to come back to your comment: Is there ever a situation where you as a solo-founder/owner would consider a limited-liability corp (GmbH/UG) for reasons of liability or are the only good reasons for such a corp to be able to employ people, take in outside investments and set up something like a holding structure?


I honestly can’t answer that, because I’m not in the B2B sector. Some people wouldn’t do anything without a GmbH. They say it’s an absolute necessity. Others see it differently.

I just want to add to this discussion: Think about risks and insurance first and then about limited liability. If you think about it: what actually happens to your company if a scenario happens that triggers the limited liability aspect? It goes bust, if I’m not entirely mistaken. Every asset will be seized, except for your personal assets. But the company is basically gone afterwards. This scenario should be avoided in any case I think. It’s probably not fun.

I can only say that in my case with many independent customers paying a small amount of money, I managed my risk with insurance as far as possible. But maybe an accountant would be the better person to discuss your individual case.


Thank you for sharing, I totally agree with numbers over business details, it's very nice to see.

I have a couple of questions too if you don't mind.

1. Is your business salable? If you got bored of it, would it be easy for someone to take over? Sometimes I wonder about small businesses and many seem to rely a lot on the expertise of the founder. Or if you don't want to scale, then having someone manage the day-to-day operations while starting a second product might be liberating.

2. You mention SEO. Is this the nuts and bolts "use the right keywords, in the right tags, the right number of times" type of SEO or do you focus more on writing long lived compelling content with simple language? It sounds like you'd be doing this in German, so I wonder if that changes things a lot due to the competitive landscape (and/or Google's capability to parse various languages).


Curious what in app purchase plugin you use for Cordova. The one I'd been using has been abandoned.


Ionic enterprise has a bunch of plugins that are actively supported by real people.


> release a prototype after 2-6 weeks

I'm in the situation where my product overlaps significantly with others but brings (IMO) some missing features and a better overall experience. I would love to launch quickly but feel I need some feature parity with competitors first.


Remember the Innovator's Dilemma. Worse is better for new products, because competitors over time add so many features that they become bloated, and so a newer entrant can create a basic version that doesn't have all the features, but it has the top 1 or 2 or even 3 features that most customers want, for a lower price. This usually will win out and the cycle continues :)


Also, there is not a way to know if the features being made into parity are in fact all valued.


You can't reach feature parity to an active product.

Say they have 10 developers and 200 features. You can go from 0 to 200 features in 2? years. How many new features have they added in 2 years, 100? So the cycle repeats.

Do a subset of the competitor but do it really well.


If people are looking to switch for a different offering, they will tell you.


> People will pay for a product they use every day (and thus, derive value from every day). If your product is not used every day, but only once per month or so, expect way lower revenue.

This is my takeaway. Thank you so much for that!


I have some German specific questions since I’m currently also looking into registering a company.

Which kind of business form (UG, Gmbh, einzelgewerbe) do you use? Have you used something like a „Kleingewerbe“ when you were starting out?

And how do you handle all the legal stuff? And how much time do you spend on this?


> t pricing models? Is Duolingo / Tinder model (1 month / 6 months / 12 months) the best choice for B2C subscriptions without Spotify / Netflix-like licensing costs?

is it a mobile app or a desktop or SAAS? just curious.


Mobile/webapp, not really SaaS, because there is hardly a backend. It works basically standalone in the browser.


I'm so curious about what your app does I can almost die!

Good for you though, living the dream.


Did you implement the payment process on your own, or does it come within a CMS that you are using? what kind of technology are you using to enable subscriptions after payments arrives?


Thanks for sharing. How do you price a prototype? I have a bias of thinking people won't initially pay for it. What are your thoughts?


I think you can't really price a prototype. On the other hand, people are paying actual cash on promises every day (see Kickstarter, or does anyone remember this blogging engine powered by "AI" that pre-sold at $1 and increased by 1 with every purchase?).

But you need something to get some kind of validation. If you fail to attract users for a free product, nobody will pay for it either. It's a small test if anyone wants to have it – and for yourself: whether or not you want to keep investing time and energy into this project.


How many users do you have on your platform? If there are many, how do you provide "customer services"?


In all those year did your app become top ranking or all the income comes from small no of people?


Rankings plays no significant role for my app, although it does affect downloads a bit. My app has been in the top 10 for a while, but also around 30-40 or so. It was never featured by Apple.

My app doesn't target people who just browse the app store and look for new stuff. It requires people with domain knowledge to actively seek a solution (I offer). So, before people get to know my app, they usually find themselves to get to know about the domain.

As an example: Before you download an app for vegans, you read about veganism first. There is no point in downloading an app for vegans otherwise. It's similar with my app (different domain though). But once your vegan app is somewhat popular in vegan communities, you depend less on rankings and more on SEO and word of mouth.

Of course, being featured by a vegan magazine would do a lot for you, probably more than being #1 in the app store or being featured by Apple (in terms of customer loyalty).


I develop and sell Cursive (https://cursive-ide.com), which has paid my bills nicely for a couple of years now. Currently I make more than I made in my last job at Google. I never thought I'd be able to make a living selling developer tools, much less into a niche market, but I'm constantly amazed by how well Cursive does.

The work is a mix of fun and boring slog, like most jobs I guess. A lot of my time is spent on support, both technical and sales, so when I work less I actually end up getting more frustrated because a higher percentage of the work is not as fun as writing new features. I've also had a bad year of having to work around IntelliJ bugs, but normally I like the actual development work a lot. I have friendly enthusiastic users who constantly make my day. It's a pretty sweet gig, and being able to decide how I spend my time, and which bits of my time I spend working, is priceless.

I got started during a sabbatical from my last job, just building something that I wanted myself. It turns out that lots of other people wanted it too.


I cannot believe that you make more from such a niche dev tool than your job at Google. I always thought people who use clojure/scheme would be using their custom setup in emacs or vim.

I'm interested to learn more details, how things were when you first started out selling the app and the trend.


You say that but one thing that i always dislike when i consider taking a look at Lisps is how everything seems to be either on Emacs or looks like it'd really like to be Emacs.

Personally I want a full blown IDE that takes advantage of advanced modern technologies such as displays that can draw individual pixels, have a model of the codebase that allows advanced features such as word completion and preferably fits nicely with the underlying OS. A debugger would also be nice, but i understand that sometimes i ask too much.

I wouldn't mind paying for such a tool (though i do mind DRM schemes and subscriptions - i want to be able to pay once and then be on my way). Cursive looks something i'd pay for if i was really interested into Clojure and was using macOS.


Actually, there's completion, and excellent debugging tools for Clojure in Emacs, both step-by-step kind, and investigative. "I don't want to use Emacs" is a completely valid stance (de gustibus...), but it should not be misinformed.


I know that Emacs has good support for Lisps in general, my comment was a joke towards what i consider basic features of an IDE (the whole 'modern' and 'advanced' thing when referring to stuff that were available in the late 80s should have made it obvious :-P). It comes mainly from my observation of the trend where a lot of developers like to jury rig "IDEs" out of text editors and a bunch of other unrelated tools that look as if they are made to be run in 70s terminals that look and feel considerably worse that MS-DOS applications which had 1/100000th of the available resources.


> Cursive looks something i'd pay for if i was really interested into Clojure and was using macOS.

um... it runs on Linux and Windows as well.


Ah, somehow i missed that it is build on IntelliJ. I thought it was a native macOS application.


FWIW I've found Clojure has pretty decent support in a few editors. I know Cursive is quite popular, but I've also used both VS Code and Atom to some extent, and they have nice features.

Somebody else could probably speak more to it than me, since I do primarily use Emacs, but I definitely don't introduce my friends to Clojure with it.


> I cannot believe that you make more from such a niche dev tool than your job at Google.

It's important to note, that there are markets where Google pays 70-90k / year[1].

[1] https://www.glassdoor.com/Salary/Google-Berlin-Salaries-EI_I...


I'm not talking about those markets - this was after an acquisition and I was supposed to move to either SV or NYC. In the end I didn't want to work at Google or move to the US so it was pretty brief.

Thinking about it, I'm not sure Cursive pays more than my total comp at Google, but certainly more than salary + bonus.


There are markets where it pays less - see Warsaw.


I wrote a little bit about this below (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21337892), but I think that a lot of that perception is because lisps (with the exception of CL) have traditionally been things that people tinker with as a hobby. Once you get a significant number of people making a living working with a language, suddenly a lot of people want barriers to getting their work done removed. And Emacs, for all its benefits, can be a significant barrier to getting work done for a lot of people. Plus there are those of us who just think that life is too short :-)


As a Clojure (and Java) dev, I started with Cursive and eventually moved to emacs w/CIDER as I became more comfortable with it. Cursive is great for people new to the language who may not know emacs - learning a new language is challenging enough without also having to constantly refer to an emacs cheat sheet :).


FWIW Cursive is also great for people who have a lot of experience with Emacs and just can't be bothered with it. Popular examples include David Nolen and Timothy Baldridge (and me), but there are plenty more too.

One representative comment that someone made to me at a conference was along the lines of "Since my boss encouraged us to move to Emacs, I've never spent so long fiddling with and arguing about my editor config. After a while most of us moved to Cursive and all that just went away".

I think Emacs is generally easier to get along with these days, but it'll never be as easy to use as a "normal" app where things just work out of the box. Some people like that, and others don't, but it's not as simple as a division between newbies and experienced users. They're roughly equivalent in power these days, some things Emacs does better and others Cursive does better - fortunately there's plenty of room for both, even in a userbase as small as Clojure's.


I think if stackoverflow conducted their survey on HN readers alone, the editor-used distribution would be very different.


A lot of people use Emacs, but I remember as Cursive took off in the Clojure community. It's so wonderful being able to work on a large JVM app that includes Scala and Java in IntelliJ and have first class Clojure features. Cursive is phenomenal, and because it's (or was at the time) the only choice, I would gladly fork over 2x the cost out of my own pocket (though my company would let me expense). It was great too to go to Conj and major Clojure conferences and hear Colin announce new features and talk about the roadmap.


My team is mixed. We have two devs using Cursive, one using Atom, one using vim and then two using emacs. The two devs using Cursive love IntelliJ and being able to work in IntelliJ and do Clojure development is a big win for them


They (we) used to, but with Cursive.... welcome to the XXI century :)


I'm so glad Cursive ended up generating enough to keep you afloat Colin. It's a great product.


I also want to focus on the developer market. How did you do marketing? I found it difficult.

How do you handle sales tax? I found it very very complex.


I think that marketing is one of the main advantages of selling into a very niche market - I really do no explicit marketing at all. I've spoken at various Clojure conferences, appeared on Clojure-related podcasts etc but I've never run a single ad for Cursive. Just by being active in the community (which I would do anyway, it's just part of my job) people hear about it, and it doesn't take much SEO for Cursive's website to appear when someone searches for "Clojure IDE".

Re: sales tax, it is indeed mind-bogglingly complex these days, and really requires using a provider who handles it for you. This is Stripe's biggest limitation and the single reason I'm not using them. I use Paddle, who I've mostly been very happy with. If I were really dead set on using Stripe I'd have to use it in conjunction with something like Taxamo, but that looks like a hassle I don't need and would be more expensive than what I'm paying Paddle now anyway.


Thank you very much for the reply.

I found marketing difficult, because I don't know many potential users from my direct network. I'm doing content marketing. But most people are interested in the content itself, other than the product. The conversion rate is a bit low.


Your story is an inspiration. There seems to be a ton of opportunity in the devtools and RPA spaces. Thanks.


I just wanted to ensure you about my total support as a paid user, and patience during that bad year. Thanks for your product!


Thanks for the kind words, I appreciate it!


I just submitted Cursive to SaaSHub, but it doesn't seem to have any known alternatives. Are there? https://www.saashub.com/cursive-ide


> Are there?

The main alternative to Cursive in terms of user-friendliness is probably Calva[1], but it's not a standalone IDE.

[1] https://marketplace.visualstudio.com/items?itemName=betterth...


VSCode with calva extension seems better alternative.


I love Cursive! I’m glad to hear it is working out for your financially especially the Clojure community. Thank you!


I sell carnivorous plants online. It's not my main job/revenue so it doesn't fit your description of successful. It could certainly be my main income but I like keeping it as a side job.

Here's a few things I do that made it "successful":

- Obviously, selling good quality product is the most important thing.

- Offering rare species that are hard to find elsewhere

- Having a good website that works, is well organized and easy to use.

- Friendly customer support, I like to talk to my customers as I would talk to a friend (to a certain extend).

- Fast shipping after receiving an order, or at least let the customer know when their order will be shipped.

- A good logo made by a designer, this has been super helpful for brand-awareness

- Good packaging that minimize most damage the plants, with printed plastic labels for each plants (with my logo on them)

- Active presence on social media, with good quality picture posts (with my logo on them)

- Always give more to the customer than what they expected to get. Even a small surprise when they open their package will make them feel good about their purchase.

- SEO optimisation so that people can find you on google. I struggle with this because google keeps autocorrecting my name.

Most of these points feel obvious to me, but I would say 95% of the other sellers fail at multiple of them. Mainly the customer support point, a lot of them feel like I'm talking to a robot.

I would say the part that I struggle the most with is staying on schedule and not forgetting about people who order via email/private message. Thankfully cold weather in the winter allow me to take a 6 months break each year. During that time I can relax and dive into other projets.


I could read threads like this all day <3



Whereabouts do you ship to (and if possible can you share a link or something)? I'm always looking for more Europe/UK plant suppliers!

I'm also trying to start up a small online plant shop but am finding it hard to a) get the growing space, and b) get the interesting stock - would love to hear about how you dealt with these issues when first starting up! :)


My website is https://phito.be :)

I ship in the EU and any other countries that have trade deals that allows plant transfer without requiring phytosanitary certificates (Switzerland for example)! Sadly after Brexit I don't know if I will still be able to ship over the UK :(

Finding the growing space is hard, especially if your plants are big. Thankfully I focus mostly on the Drosera genus, which are mostly small plants. I can fit multiple plants in a 7x7cm pot. I grow the winter-hardy ones in a greenhouse, the tropical ones are grown inside under LEDs.

Finding rare species is not too hard if you have good contacts in the community (I've been part of it for more than 10 years, so it was relatively easy for me). The hard part is propagation. Thankfully for me, a lot of Drosera are really easy to propagate by leaves cuttings but for the species that are not easily propagated, I work with an university that propagate them in tissue culture for me.

Good luck with your project, it requires a lot of work but if you're passionate about it, it won't feel like work!


Yeah there's been a lot of Brexit talk in the orchid communities, it's a big problem because of how hard they are to propagate - there's only a few orchid nurseries left in the UK that can grow from seed because you need a lab setup, which is a huge shame

I've had good luck growing a few Drosera from seed, never even thought about leaf cuttings, that's super interesting!

Hopefully depending on Brexit I'll be able to order from you next Spring! Do you have a mailing list or something?


Yes Brexit is a real mess for plant collectors (and for almost everyone else, but that's just my opinion).

Looking forward to send you plants, make sure to say you're from hacker news in the notes of your order ;) I don't have a mailing list yet, although that is a good idea and I will look into it for the next season!


Given that any competitors may also face the Brexit problem and it hasn't happened yet, why not start a subsidiary now and ship a bunch of product over before Brexit comes into effect?


For multiple reasons:

- There's basically no competition, except maybe other hobbyists that trade or sell their excess plants (which is basically what I do, but with a website).

- UK residents represent less than 10% of my customers.

- I don't have a lot of stock. For some species I sometimes only have 1 of them available over the span of a few months.

- It would just cost too much to keep them alive in another country before selling them. Some of the plants I sell require very specific conditions and a lot of knowledge about them to keep them alive.

- It's totally out of the scale of what I'm doing, remember that this is a thread about one-person business. I do not want too many customers otherwise I will just run out of personal time (I'm doing all the packaging after work hours)

It's just really not worth it or even possible for me. If some UK resident really wants to buy a lot of plants from me, then I can request a phytosanitary certificate from the government (costs around 100€, and includes an inspection).


From his posts here, it looks like this is just a small side business for him, and he still works a normal day job. If UK customers are already a small fraction of his total customer base, it's not going to make any economic sense to start a subsidiary of a small moonlighting one-person gig just to retain those customers.

There's a lot of small businesses out there that just don't have enough market demand to be turned into something as large as what you're suggesting.


consider moving to a .com domain and go with translating your content for new markets.


Thanks for the advice, translating is definitely a goal for next season (I have a lot of French customers as it's my main language, and they are often confused about the english website).

What would moving to a .com domain do? Help with SEO?


I'm guessing the idea is that a .com looks more "official", but I think that's becoming less and less over time as alternative TLDs get more uptake. This probably depends on your customer base though.


My father-in-law also cultivates and sells carnivorous plants as well as water lilies as a hobby. And he's also Belgian.


That's awesome, maybe I know him!


I thought you might. His name is Guido Lurquin.


Is your father-in-law also on HN? :p


I appreciate your advice. It may seem obvious but obvious is easy to miss sometimes. Anyhow, question, how do you maintain your supply? I would think those plants are hard to cultivate?


I do a lot of leaves cuttings and sow a lot of seeds during winter, then they can reach a good size for the next spring.

For plants that are slower to grow or impossible to propagate via cuttings, I work with an university near me that propagate them in tissue culture.


Can I ask how much profit you make off the plants?


This year I made around 6000€ in profit. I could make more but the limiting factor here is mostly time.

My main goal is to cover my hobby's expenses, which are mostly the electricity bill and acquiring new species.


Would it be worth hiring someone at this stage?

Actually that was what I was curious about reading the title of the question. If you are successful as a one person business, it makes sense to scale it past a one person business.


>If you are successful as a one person business, it makes sense to scale it past a one person business.

That's not necessarily true. A lot of businesses just don't have enough demand out there to justify scaling up. For instance, suppose you make a business selling a custom LED set for a particular mechanical keyboard (or come up with some other obscure niche product); just how many people out there do you think are willing to pay for that? Larger businesses need lots of customers to pay for all the overhead, which for a 1-person side gig is essentially free (they're working in their spare time): you need employees you have to pay by the hour, regardless of demand, year-round; you need a building/commercial space; etc. You can get away with a lot of things as a 1-person side gig that you can't when you take on employees, and those costs are significant.


how did you find your first customers?


In this market, the demand for certain species is much higher than the offer. So I just advertised in the online carnivorous plants communities that I had these species for sale on my website. People rushed in to get them and bought other species alongside.


do you mind sharing the URL for your business ? I love discovering indie businesses outside of software realm


of course, it is https://phito.be/


I wish you had a blog where you share "behind the scenes" stories running this business


There's a few pictures here about how I pack my plants (warning: large sized images will load with this page, still have to fix this...)

https://phito.be/frequently-asked-questions/

and a few blog articles here

https://phito.be/articles/

I would like to write more blog articles, but I am a very slow writer and I don't have a lot of time :/


I see your Belgian as well. How's the tax situation for something like this? Not giving you too much trouble?

EDIT: This also explains why you say "6 month winter" :D


Previously I was under a certain revenue per year that allowed me to pay almost no taxes, but now I have to put the regular 21% tax on


Next feature for website: organize plant by trap's type or insect they eat :)


best idea in this list!


Thanks :)


My business is in my bio, don't want to link it here. Pays about the same as my previous job at Microsoft did, but with a lot less involvement — I haven't touched the main code in about a year now. I probably spend about two or three hours a week on customer support, that's it, really. No marketing spend, all word-of-mouth and Google.

The idea came about when I wanted to post to Instagram, but the API didn't allow it. So I spent about a week trying to automate the process using a phone, with screenshot OCR and a state machine. After a lot of messing around with it, I had a working prototype. Made a website, added a $5/month Stripe plan to see if people were willing to pay for it, sent it to a few friends, posted it on Twitter, and eventually, people signed up and tried it out. It worked, then it didn't work, then I fixed it, then it worked again, this went on and on for a few weeks until it became quite useable.

About two months in, local offices of Toyota and Samsung signed up, and they loved it, money wasn't an issue. That was the moment I realized it may be worth doing it properly.

It grew organically, and I bought lots and lots of Android phones, which are simple workers getting jobs off a queue, and host them in two locations roughly. Phones last for about two years, then I buy new ones (<$100 a phone). Each phone pays for itself in less than a month, server costs are less than $200 a month.

Facebook tried to sue me after I filed for a trademark, we figured it out (I rebranded). Been going steady ever since, but I consider it to be shut down by yet another Instagram move sooner or later. But I said that after 3 weeks of running it, and it's been almost five years I think.

I made it a point to not use any private Instagram APIs, like all my competitors did — instead, I don't emulate the Instagram app, I emulate the person tapping the phone, and use only the official app for it. I think that let me survive this long.


Very cool idea to use the real app. Do you have a rack of real devices or do you use emulators, if you don't mind sharing?

How do you differentiate Busy from competitors like Buffer (with its 69 employees, according to Wikipedia)?

btw, there is a small typo on your "How it works" page: "secure and: affordable" should just be "secure and affordable". :)


Real devices yes! I tried to use emulators a couple of times, but the first few attempts failed due to Instagram detecting it (missing cameras, etc.), and later attempts failed when I realized it's not going to save me a lot if I went the emulator route, because they need quite a lot of resources too, and you can't just run 10 emulators on a regular computer unless you optimise them extremely well and know what you're doing (custom Android build as a minimum). So it actually turned out to be easier with real devices. Plus, there's been some IP/VPN/Proxy emergencies, where it was super handy to pop in a 3G/4G sim card into the phone, and have it work 100% like a real person's phone. The cost is considerably higher (~ 15-50 GB per phone a month), but I am still looking into doing that, as it would allow the "phone agents" to become completely independent from location.

Buffer: I haven't done much in terms of "battling" with competition, simply because my users will tell me what they want, and that's an easier crowd to serve than trying to follow a competitor who may be running down the wrong path without knowing yet. If a bunch of users ask me for the same feature multiple times, then I look into what it takes to make it happen, or I'll explain why I can't offer that, and that's what's been driving it from day one.

Thanks for your note about the typo, I am actually always a bit ashamed of my landing pages, because they feel the least fun to make (to me at least), when they drive most of the conversion of course.


Is it something like buffer? If yes, what your prices?


Why do you use phones for that? Couldn't you do the same through headless browser sessions?


I've wanted to automate posts to Instagram / find a way to post without using the phone (I spent a 8 months doing daily photography posts, then life happened). Turns out their API TOS is pretty strict, and requires posts to come from a phone.

A low-cost social media posting service is intriguing.


https://business.facebook.com/creatorstudio/ lets you create and schedule posts on Instagram


Interesting, I hadn't seen yet they offered Instagram posting. Usually, this would throw me into panic and worry, but I run another site (barely working anymore), which offered Twitter analytics. When Twitter launched their free and super extensive analytics platform, with super interesting data not available on any of the APIs, I thought I was done. It didn't do anything (I am not kidding) to my sign-up rates, and when people asked for certain features, I often just pointed them to Twitter's analytics instead. Still stayed with me because of one or two odd features I had, that Twitter didn't offer.


Yep this feature is also very hard to find, I just recently stumbled over it


If you change the user-agent in your browser Instagram will think you use it through a phone, thus allowing you to upload posts and/or videos.


You can probably also use an Android emulator


Main issues with the emulator are: camera needs to be simulated for some features, and they are actually quite resource-intense. Buying (or cloud-renting) a machine that runs between 5 or 10 emulators is actually severely expensive. And I'd need lots of them.


Great idea :) My only question is how the authentication works there...? User has to be logged in on the worker phone's app in order to do something on Instagram. I mean, I don't think anyone shares his Instagram password with an 3rd party software. Or you provide the services which can be done from another(your) Instagram account - which is then signed in on all worker phones?


> I mean, I don't think anyone shares his Instagram password with an 3rd party software

You'd be surprised.

They already share the passwords with their marketing agencies, where interns basically type them in on their personal phones (in sometimes quite large companies!). My service lets all of those people use the Instagram account, but only their admin knows/sees the password. If we can keep it as secure as their own internal processes, then this is a fair-enough trade off for many companies.


Incredible :) amazing idea and amazing story!


What a great, original idea. Congratulations on your success. I love it when simple and obvious after the fact ideas take off.


Thanks! The great/sad thing about it is that there are hundreds of thousands of such ideas out there, but they'll only come to you when you actually follow up on a need someone has and try to fix it. I know this will be over soon (I've been saying this two weeks after it started, and it's been five years), so I am this mega-weirdo now listening extra hard on any conversations people working in 'actual' jobs have. I am the guy who stares at you all like a real creeper in the coffee shop, when you and a friend argue over why a tool your company makes you use, sucks. Always looking out for what could be next, if this one goes down.


How did you get access to Instagrams posting images API? Was it a long wait?


He said he doesn't use their API at all. He has a bank of cheap Android phones that run the normal Instagram app and simulate button presses.


Congrats on executing this idea. Question: Why is Facebook not shutting you down? Doesn't this break their terms and conditions?


I am not touching their private APIs, and I am not automating posting by letting people spam-fill an account — every single post going out over my system has to be planned by a real person, and the only thing I am helping them with, is to avoid sharing their Instagram password between 3 people in 3 different offices on partly private and partly corporate phones, just so that they can all post to the same account.

That said, they threatened to sue me because my first product name had the word "gram" in it.


I have a one-person lifestyle business. I like it primarily because it gives me the flexibility to live anywhere in the world. I hated my old desk job and the idea of 2 weeks vacation every year.

I run a SaaS product that integrates with ERPs. I pretend to my customers that I have a team (so much so that I have multiple email addresses to people that don't exist that actually just forward to me). One of our customers thinks they're paying for a team of 6, but it's actually just me.

My monthly billings last month was 73k USD. I am a tax resident of a tax haven although I do live 3-6 months at a time in a different country.

The only advice I'd give anyone looking to build a lifestyle business is to keep your ambitions and by extension- product feature set in check. I know several other people who operate like me, and the common thread is we have businesses that can easily take VC funds, hire, and expand. But for lifestyle priorities, we chose not to.

A lot of people I've met (particularly in Chiang Mai, Thailand) copy popular, common, and easy online businesses such as drop shipping, social media XYZ, or coding. Unless you live in a really low cost area, it's not a good life. The key is have a very specific niche that can be scaled upwards if you want, but you always have the option not to. Those the ideas and businesses that seems to provide the ideal balance in lifestyle.

EDIT: The product came about at my last job where I built it to make my own job easier. Essentially it did 95% of what job which at the time enabled me to be the "best performer" while not actually working that hard.


Don't you find that whole pretending part to be unethical? With those kind of revenues it shouldn't be hard to either hire 2 and make factual claims, or just drop the whole we're-a-team claim.

I can't imagine that building a foundation on these kind of lies towards your clients is going to be sustainable in the long run?


Pretending to be a bigger company than you are is not fraud, it's perception management. Whether justified or not, many potential customers will choose a seemingly bigger company over a smaller one (especially a one-person company).

Now if they were billing based on number of people working for a client, and they were charging for phantom people, that would be fraud.

This guy just has an optimized workflow that he presents as if it were a team of people. If the customer feels that's unreasonable, they wouldn't pay. There's nothing unethical about that.


> Pretending to be a bigger company than you are is not fraud, it's perception management.

That's some pretty fancy doublespeak right there.

No. I'm sorry, but this is flat out lying. You can rationalize it all you like, but if you are lying and inventing people that don't exist, it's fraud.

This isn't even lying by omission, but actively working to deceive.

Sure, the customer may be getting full value for their money, but then why is the lying necessary?


Now, wikipedia may not be right, but I imagine there's been plenty of effort by legally knowledgeable people to define "Fraud" well.

First statement in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fraud :

"In law, fraud is intentional deception to secure unfair or unlawful gain, or to deprive a victim of a legal right."

And later, a clarification:

"the requisite elements of fraud as a tort generally are the intentional misrepresentation or concealment of an important fact upon which the victim is meant to rely, and in fact does rely, to the harm of the victim."

By your definitions, most businesses would be committing "fraud". Many, many, many companies have multiple emails, multiple phone numbers, even multiple mailing boxes that may all be handled by one person but which serve to filter and separate incoming contacts and certainly also present a level of professionalism that some customers find comforting.

And what about companies that have the same service but present it differently (to look niche or specific) to different audiences via different websites? Are they being fraudulent by making their potential customers feel uniquely served?

There are so many more examples I could bring up related to marketing, presentation, etc.


Not really. Many companies do it with AI. Ziprecruiter is one...the emails you get are from "Phil" (phil@ziprecruiter.com) but Phil doesn't exist. Granted, if you reply to Phil you are explicitly told 1) Phil doesn't exist, it is AI, and 2) email replies to Phil are ignored. But making up people as a customer service interface is pretty common.


Except one consideration that lead to paying what they are paying is that they also get the risk reduction and redundancy of a team and not a single person who could easily end up out of action taking all productivity with them.


These days, companies much larger than one person can shut down overnight, without warning. It happens.

Frankly, barring some accident, I'm betting the solo company is more motivated to keep things running than the larger company that might sell out to a larger rival and allow their service to be shut down or changed negatively (with little or no warning to customers).


I agree with most of the other comments on your statement here. What's interesting is that your arguing from a factual point of view, while I was considering it from a social point of view. I can't imagine running an (imo) unethical company like this and feel comfortable with it.

Your last point isn't valid by the way, customer don't know whether it's reasonable or not, because they don't know. They are buying something else then what they are told they are buying, which is unethical by my standards.


It is unethical, whether they find it that way or not. Nearly $1MM/year in revenue and they feel the need to email multiple times from different fake emails? Pathetic.


I rather find it stupid that in B2B companies seem too only "trust" bigger companies than small startups. We also always have to claim how big we are and how successful just to build trust. Companies don't seem to understand that you can be good in what you're doing even if you're small or a one-man-show. This is the real unethical part imo.


>One of our customers thinks they're paying for a team of 6, but it's actually just me.

Isn't that fraud?


It is lying but not fraud. Fraud is you pay me to do X but I take your money with no intention of actually doing X. If I take your money and tell you my 6 partner and I are going to do X for you (for values of X that do not depend on the number of people actually involved eg send out invoices to your clients or post to your social media) but do all the work myself then it most certainly is not fraud.

I get the temptation to misrepresent yourself this way, but I would not do it. My experience is customers really don't care how many people are in your company as long as you deliver something valuable and are professional in your execution. That said, I would not, in the slightest, look down on anyone that employed this tactic


What happens if you get hit by the proverbial bus? Do you have contractually binding SLAs with your customers?


Contractually binding SLAs are usually not worth sewing someone over. And in fact the vendor may drop you making things worse if you insist on getting them.

So in many places they are routinely measured very conveniently for the vendor, or even completely ignored. Or the credits or whatever compensation mechanism is just complicated enought that you don't get money. Or worst case for the vendor they return up to 20% of the cost of the contract.. for the month in which the incident happened.

I really wish this wasn't the case..

Protip: never bet anything on an SLA.


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