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Ask HN: Successful one-person online businesses?
221 points by committed on April 13, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 87 comments
This question was asked last year (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21332072) by gajus, 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.

> Has recent shutdown of economy affected your business?




Plugging my brother's one-person business because he'll be too humble to post himself: https://nanagram.co

The product allows you to send pictures in the mail to your loved ones via SMS. It works great for getting fresh photos to your grandparents who might not be super savvy with a computer.

My brother started it a few years ago and makes enough now to keep it going. Probably is the classic definition of a lifestyle business, but I think that's a success even if it's unlikely to be a unicorn.

Also and more importantly, the product helps to bring hundreds of families closer together, which is especially important right now given our elders are cut off from contact.


Thanks for sharing, brother! <3

I would like to take this moment to give a big shout-out to the USPS. NanaGram wouldn't exist without the postal service, in the US and abroad. Apparently, the USPS is struggling financially right now. You can help the USPS by buying stamps, which you can order online [1]. If you're new to the old-school hobby of letter-writing, I wrote some guides [2] to help you figure out how much postage you need for letters domestically and abroad (e.g. Canada [3]). Lastly, a delightful thing you can do for a family member or friend is send them old photos in the mail (just be sure to scan them in first if you're mailing originals) — I wrote a post about sending photos with stamps. [4]

[1] https://store.usps.com/store/results/stamps/_/N-9y93lv [2] https://nanagram.co/blog/how-many-stamps-usps [3] https://nanagram.co/blog/postage-to-canada [4] https://nanagram.co/blog/how-to-mail-photos


Absolutely love the idea of this service.

Trying to sign up now, site is returning a blank page near the end of account creation.

Hopefully this is a good sign and you’re seeing the HN spike. Either way, thank you for making this a thing.


Thank you! You should be good to go now.


Not a customer (yet), but I worked at a startup where we had chatted with NanaGram.

From our interactions, Alex seems like one of the kindest people we've ever come across, and I'd highly recommend anyone to give this a try if they're interested.

I have a lot of faith in it being a good service with Alex at the helm; if you're reading this, Alex, kudos to you! :)


Thank you very much for the kind words. :)


You get a phone number number to which you send SMS that is tied to your billing and destination. You can share the number for others to send photos as well. This is an incredibly thoughtful and simple UX.


Thank you. Credit goes to @andygcook for the initial idea to handle photos over SMS. We also support email. I've thought about web uploads but hardly anyone has asked for it. Behind the scenes, we also support iCloud sharing albums, Google Photos albums, and Google Drive. I've been working on a WhatsApp integration which will be pretty neat; just a couple hurdles to overcome first.


This is easily one of my favorite monthly services I subscribe to. I will say that a good reason why I believe it has been so successful, 1 best its a good idea, but 2 because your brother has responded to all of my questions and issues immediately and gracefully. That is the sign of a business that cares.


Thanks you. It feels like I'm constantly chasing the inbox zero tiger. Words like these make it totally worth it.


This has been a great service for our family to keep in touch with folks who aren't tech savvy. Thank you!


Thanks for being a NanaGrammer. :) If I haven't sent you some already, drop me an email and I'll mail you some sweet NanaGram stickers.


This looks super awesome and the testimonials about the founder made my day - nice guys do win!

No Nanas to send this to :( but will keep it in mind for other uses.

I find the online print services super clunky to print - but I could use this to send myself picture prints to frame? Just a thought!


Thank you. When I initially launched on Reddit, lots of folks asked for an "adopt a grandparent" mode. I talked with some nursing homes last week and we're exploring the possibility now. I've always been hesitant to do this, primarily out of concern for abuse (e.g. elderly financial abuse) but a partnership with nursing homes plus background checks could be the answer.


You gave me an idea. I can use this to send prints to anyone who would enjoy physical prints. My friend's mom whom I dearly adore loves pictures of flowering plants :) Thank you!



Tell your brother he's got a new customer coming up!


Right on! Shoot me an email if you have any questions: alex@nanagram.co.


Will do. I just texted him the HN thread, so he might hop on here.


Does Gumroad count? We raised VC but most of that was bought back or written off. I run it by myself now.

Gumroad helps creators sell digital products directly to their audiences. We're expanding to Memberships this year.

I wrote about most of the story here: https://marker.medium.com/reflecting-on-my-failure-to-build-...

And COVID-19 has been a boon, as we help folks earn a living from home. We'll see if it sticks!


Thanks for creating it. I sold the ebook variation of my book through Gumroad and it was a very good experience.

Looking forward to the membership part, might use it for another project of mine.


I remember hearing Gumroad became it's own acquirer (for Visa/MasterCard), is that correct?

If so, surely that wouldn't have been possible without VC funding?


I read your story on the history of Gumroad and it's inspiring, and a great service!


I've been selling a couple of WordPress plugins since 2013, mostly piggy-backing on other popular services that were experiencing crazy growth and taking care of their WordPress integration for them (unofficially, some already had one that sucked).

Yearly (subscription) revenue is at about $500K USD now. It has been growing by less than 10% for the last few years as I haven't been that interested in growing it - I want to work less, not more.

So far I haven't seen any negative effects because of COVID-19 in terms of revenue. If anything there seems to be a slight uptick in new subscriptions and slightly fewer support emails per week.

- MC4WP: Mailchimp for WordPress: https://mc4wp.com/

- Boxzilla Plugin: https://boxzillaplugin.com/

- HTML Forms: https://htmlforms.io/


Nice to see somebody else in the WP plugin business here on HN!

I'm developing Advanced Forms (https://wordpress.org/plugins/advanced-forms/), not nearly as popular as your plugins but makes for a nice side income.

If you have the time I'd love to hear how you've been promoting and growing your plugins over the years. I find that aspect of the business challenging and have mostly been relying on outside help.


Nice! Html forms brings in revenue?


Not as much as the other two by a long shot, but a tiny bit, yes. I've hidden the purchase flow on the website a while ago so I can retire the paid version sometime soon.


I’m still making almost all of my income from Candy Japan, which is a Japanese candy subscription service that I launched many years ago as a HN post.

The shutdown halted international shipping from Japan to over 100 countries, so I’ve had to pause subscriptions for the time being: https://www.candyjapan.com/behind-the-scenes/on-pause-due-to...

I’m taking this as a much-needed break from running the site!


As a resident in Japan, I was thinking about putting online a small website to sell some items (not candies) to Europe and US residents, however a friend warns me it would not be as easy as I think.

Could you give me some info about how you started? Especially about the legal and taxes aspect. More precisely, can I start without a company? If a company is needed, 個人事業主 or 合同会社? Is this even compatible with student visa? The tech aspect in not a problem, but starting the business side seems super tricky.


Figuring out that stuff is the business.


Oh sweet. I remember reading your post when you launched. I am glad to hear you are doing well.


As do I! I remember sucking candy out of a plastic toilet from my first order.


Bemmu! How do you manage free worldwide shipping? Thats insane for only 12$ a month! Almost impossible?


I write (program, paint, animate, market, and so on) computer games like this one[1]. The recent economic troubles haven't effected me negatively that much, instead it's been a positive thing as more people are home and playing more games. I don't necessarily want to 'profit' from all the hardship around, but I'm glad to provide products that entertain and hopefully make the current situation a bit more bearable - that feels good.

I got started over 10 years ago now, making Flash-based games and licensing them to various web portal and publishers, which was good money for a student back then! A little indie game developer golden age where you'd get a lot of players and also a few thousand dollars per game without too much trouble. I went on from there doing self-published games that anyone can buy on Steam or the Mac Store, both of which provide about 90% of my revenue, and the remaining 10% are from smaller stores and game distributors.

[1] https://store.steampowered.com/app/654960/The_Eldritch_Zooke... <- My current project.


I'm running Alchemist Camp, where I teach Elixir and the Phoenix Framework, primarily through screencasts. It was a labor of love for the first year but now it (mostly) pays the bills. https://alchemist.camp

In 2 days, I'll be launching a second product for a similar audience. https://phoenixigniter.com

Elixir is a tiny market compared to something like Ruby or even Rust, but it's my stack of choice and I love helping grow the ecosystem.


Man, I remember thinking that Elixir was going to take the world by storm about 5 years ago. I was so excited for it. I hope it does though, it has a lot of great things going for it, and I'd love to see it adopted.


I run Trunk[1][2] which is a SaaS that helps businesses manage and sync their inventory in real-time between everywhere they sell (e.g. Amazon, eBay, Shopify, Etsy, Squarespace, Square, Faire). It's my main source of income.

Starting out, I got my first 10 customers for Trunk by talking to users on e-commerce forums and focusing only on features that would help solve their problem. I didn't have any account management features (forgot password, change password, etc) or even obvious features that would make their lives easier (filtering, proper search, etc) for an embarrassingly long time. I still don't have a lot of these things! And the pricing page still... the horror. Instead, I dedicated all my energy to making sure inventory syncing covered all edge cases and worked reliably.

COVID-19 has actually contributed to an uptick in business, especially with brick & mortar businesses that are now looking to also go online.

1. https://trunkinventory.com

2. http://apps.shopify.com/trunk


This type of tool is really interesting. I have a couple of questions related to this:

1. What are the alternatives if they don't use a service like Trunk? 2. What have you seen as the "source of truth" for inventory? Is it Trunk or one of the services that Trunk connects to?


Hey appreciate the interest!

1. The alternative is manually adjusting stock levels on your other sales channels as things sell. For small shops, this is not too bad. It's usually the owner or some assistant who handles this but it can be a huge timesink. For high volume stores, this is a sisyphean task. Or you can just set stock high enough and not worry about it while emailing customers if you're actually out of stock and can't fulfill. Not a good idea though since you can get banned on marketplaces for overselling + it's a bad customer experience. Sometimes the sales channels themselves have their own integrations (e.g. Shopify integrates with eBay) but they have lots of issues

2. The "source of truth" before using Trunk is typically either Shopify/Squarespace or Square POS (for brick & mortar). So initially, Trunk can sync your most accurate sales channel to others that are out of sync. Once using Trunk, the inventory within Trunk essentially becomes the source of truth but it doesn't necessarily need to be managed there. For example, you are free to adjust stock levels within Etsy and Trunk will pick up on those changes automatically and sync them to Shopify, just as you'd expect. So it's flexible in that sense and gets out of your way/adapts to your workflow

I hope that info helped :)


Does DarwinMail[1] count?

I'm a one man[2] team and have been since the beginning. I built it with PHP, LESS, JS, and good old HTML. I love answering all support emails because DM's users are so helpful and often have tremendously kind things to say. I guess it's because I took on the task of replacing Google Inbox.

DarwinMail is not as successful as some other companies run by solo-founders making 10k+ MRR however I feel really happy with what we (the users and I) have accomplished so far.

It's been almost two years since I wrote the first line of code and I very much enjoy working on DarwinMail each and every day of the week (even during dinner sometimes).

[1] https://www.darwinmail.app [2] https://twitter.com/joeytawadrous


Hoping to start something free today that can add paid features in the future: https://www.upcount.app/


Just a heads up, there appears to be a typo on the front page. I think "Invocing" should be "Invoicing."


Thank you very much for the heads up. I have updated the title to fix the spelling mistake.

Thank you!


Just putting this out there. Indiehackers.com is a community of people building solo-small team profitable businesses.

Check out the top products.

https://www.indiehackers.com/products?sorting=highest-revenu...

There’s also a massive longtail of people making no money too.

Making something that people want and will pay for that sustains a business is hard. It takes a lot of time and effort to get the first few paying customers.


I run an aftermarket board game accessory business.

https://burgertokens.com/

Last year, I shipped nearly 4000 packages. My customers love our products, and most of our growth comes from word of mouth.


That's an awesome idea, great work! I'm curious, any legal/copyright issues with making replacement products for existing IP?


I found this Twitter thread (https://mobile.twitter.com/zenorocha/status/1249348452095373...) that explains the origin of https://draculatheme.com/pro.

It's a single person selling a terminal and IDE color scheme for developers.


hmm. is it dracula or is it darcula theme? intellij idea is pretty persistent calling it darcula


I run Nomad List and Remote OK by myself. Nomad List brings in ~$336,000/y with 972,480/mo pageviews and Remote OK ~$301,000/y with ~628,210/mo pageviews. I do everything myself from coding, designing, front end, back end, marketing, etc. I have one person on emergency call in case the server goes down when I sleep but that hasn't happened in years.

You can see live revenue/traffic here, as I share it all:

https://nomadlist.com/open

https://remoteok.io/open

I have no funding, no debt, no employees, just revenue and profit margins are somewhere in the 80%-90%.

Nomad List got started when I was traveling and working remotely ~2013/2014 and wanted to discover more cities that would fit the criteria of nice weather, affordable and fast internet. Since then I've added hundreds more criteria and it's become a giant database, and also a community. The community is how it makes money as people can pay to join the site and access a chat, a trip planner, a forum and many more features.

Remote OK is a much more simple business as it's just a job board. It got started because after building Nomad List a lot of people around me wanted to start working remotely and traveling but didn't have remote jobs. There was like one remote job specific job board back then and it was quite limited. I thought "why not aggregate remote jobs from traditional non-remote job boards". So I did that, and slowly started selling my own job posts on the site which is how it makes money now.

The Coronavirus has substantially affected my business:

Nomad List especially has been affected losing over 50% of its revenue. The site is made for people working remotely and actively traveling so that is to be expected during this crisis. You can even see the complete disruption the Coronavirus brought to traveling members of my site, scroll down to "Trips Taken by Users" on https://nomadlist.com/open.

Remote OK is less affected and might even get a positive effect out of this crisis since remote work becomes more popularized and mainstream during and after this. There is in fact a rise in jobs posted, scroll down to "Job Posts Sold" on https://remoteok.io/open.

Personally I'm less affected financially since I don't have employees and I've saved most of my revenue over the last few years, hardly spending anything. Most people have told me to repeatedly over the years to hire and spend more, but I did the opposite. That means I have a very solid cash buffer now so I can weather this storm quite well. I feel sad/scared about other businesses with high costs that might not be so lucky, especially the employees involved.


Hi Pieter,

Thank you for sharing your story again.

I am one of your biggest admirers and you have been a constant source of inspiration for me for a very long time. I'm currently working on my MVP to do something similar to you.

Thank you so much for everything. Hope to catch up for coffee or something when it all clears.


Pretty useful websites.

Also impressive what you've accomplished with them as a solo dev.

Congrats, Pietz!


Solid work. Nomad List has really improved over the last few years.

Is most of your NL revenue from user subscriptions or ads or ...?


Thanks! Yes, 17% is from ads, and 83% from memberships.

It's mostly non-recurring memberships because I don't really like subscriptions as a customer myself either, and most people go nomad and actively need the site only for the first few months and then go off on their own, and a subset of those stick around. Which is fine with me. I don't like to create a very addictive product. I think I have a healthy balance of new people and long time members right now.

Ad deals are really hard to predict, usually a VC-funded company (ironically) asks to promote their remote work or nomad related product and they'll pay anywhere from $5k-$30k/mo to promote it on my sites. But those deals can last just a month, to 6 months for example. But ads are not stable income like memberships are for me, so I try not to rely too much on them.


Thanks for the insight. How did you aggregate for Remote OK — manual or did you scrape existing sites?


Scraping or using their APIs or XML/RSS feeds. I first thought they'd not like it but I've only had one site ask to get removed from Remote OK and a lot more who I've been in contact with regularly who appreciate it, including a very big one most of you all know. They get very targeted niche traffic from the rising attention for remote jobs towards their regular not-all-remote job boards.

I have slowly transitioned to reducing the reliance on other job boards as I got more job posts myself.


Thanks for the response and best of luck on continued success.


This is awesome. Shouldn't this be every engineer's dream? Why do someone else's bidding in a boring corporate megastructure, or in a startup bullied by sharky venture capitalists into making a compromised product, and making less money while at it? I hope in the future we see an explosion of VC-less bootstrapped tech companies and microSaaS. The desire is there, for sure, but the courage is lacking. More examples like this will inspire courage. Thanks!


I think so! I do think more people should try to build their own thing and monetize it.

But then I also have to add there is probability involved in here. I'm rational enough to understand it's a probability equation of who actually makes it to the other side and can sustainably pay their bills with something they made for a long period of time. Most fail, some do okay and a few do really well.


a simple business is doing a paid newsletter. i see a lot of these going up... and it can be profitable fairly quickly.

also, doing anything in the education space is worth checking out... in other words, charging people for what you know is a well-worn strategy! an ecourse or online course isn't hard to put together... i did one literally with gumroad and notion docs!

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=22548620


I once worked for a very successful small firm whose primary product was a weekly email / newsletter: subscriptions start at around £20,000 / year.

Their product was analysis (energy markets), their customers were the banks / hedge funds, etc.

The analysis was provided by, um, analysts. These guys (and women) were Phd's, they were extremely well qualified and experienced.

Anyway you don't have to be a phd: the point is that if you have knowledge / expertise there may well be people who are willing to pay for it - the medium doesn't really matter.


A friend of mine runs a web hosting company. Using Parallels he is able to partition his bare-metal machines and offer them as VPCs all on his own like it's 2006. Apperantly many website builders / small businesses still use those.


I did that from 2002 until now, though I'm shutting down. It was a decent source of income, I could've made WAY more and probably made a good living, but I never charged people enough because many of them couldn't afford to go anywhere else. It was a great hobby and it got me my current day job. It was interesting work, but the internet has become too dangerous, it's impossible for one person to keep up with all the attacks.


Similar story over here. I started by offering shared hosting with supervision as added value, expanded into reselling VPS'es and eventually leased bare metal servers that I partitioned into VPS'es. I could have made a lot more money if I didn't treat every customer with utmost care and attention. Now I'm stuck with clients that can't afford to go elsewhere and clients with grossly outdated software that would be a nightmare to migrate. I kinda miss the passive income although there wasn't much. On average I had to fix something every few months and would get a major outage/bug once per year. I always hesitated that scaling up would result in more customer support work, more major outages and more everything that would take the "passive" out of passive income.


Sounds familiar! I really did enjoy the work and helping people, but I could never find anyone to help me, and it's a 24/7 thing. I have basically never been offline since 2002. There's been a few exceptions, but I'm always on call. It's been a good ride, and I know I'll be sad when I cancel that last server next month. Let me know if you need help, I'm available now :-)


Define "success"... I make a few bucks a day from https://unitprice.org and it doesn't require any effort from me on a day-to-day basis. (I calculate the best price per unit on Amazon for a variety of different products, so the money I make from the affiliate links is typically enough to cover the cost of hosting plus an extra Lego set or two for my son.)

Sadly, I have seen an uptick in revenue as a result of COVID-19, because my website is showing up a lot in search results for toilet paper.


I mean, if you’re really concerned about people buying more than they need, just so say on your site - obviously a valid concern and don’t think any reasonable person would be offended by a reminder that everyone can make a difference by individually making an effort to do what’s right for them AND everyone else too.


Oh no, sorry if there was a misunderstanding. I said "sadly" because it is so unfortunate that we are all in this current situation -- a pandemic. And it feels "sad" in this specific context because I am seeing an uptick in searches for toilet paper, a result of people being unable to find it anywhere else. It's a sad state of affairs all around. I have no judgement on people buying extra toilet paper.


Do you compile this info manually or do you scrape Amazon? If you scrape, how do you get around the blocking restrictions?


I do not scrape Amazon. That would be practically impossible, especially if you want to keep your costs low.

I utilize their product advertising API, which provides enough data for my needs (since I'm not interested in every single product and I only update once a day presently).

The manual part is figuring out how many units are in each item. For Lego, it's pieces. For Poptarts, it's individual pastries. For toilet paper, it's individual sheets of TP. Every product is slightly different, and it's often times not obvious. Once this manual part is done once for an item, I never have to do it again -- it gets an updated price from the API, calculates the unit price (because it already knows the total units), and then it updates the website.


Teaching my girlfriend Japanese inadvertently lead to the creation of a whole new curriculum and style of language teaching which I have been embodying in https://japanesecomplete.com/

Originally the idea was to create a new textbook, but I found it easier to pair lessons with browser-based multiple choice quizzes that would hit the material home. Given the success of the first student, I thought it might be something people would be willing to pay for.

Since then, we have been adding a steady stream of helpful learning tools in addition to the textbook/curriculum that we are rolling out. There are dialogues with audio recordings so you can listen along. The entire curriculum is frequency based, so you are learning the most frequent terms first, which has proven invaluable with our students.

The recent shutdown has definitely affected our subscription rates, and I suspect the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 did not do much for the enthusiasm for learning Japanese this year, but you never know. On the brightside, it gives people more time to prepare.

Learning a new language is an investment in yourself and your brain health for life. Language learning is building a bridge where there is a chasm.


I've been running a World of Warcraft TCG loot website for over 13 years. I started it because my wife needed me off the game because I played too much (she was right), but I still wanted to do something with the game.

https://www.wowtcgloot.com

The recent shutdown has increased interest organically.


I run a web book publishing company in Washington D.C: https://bubblin.io

Covid19 has been a blessing to us since all our books are online and both writers and readers get to chat with each other alongside the story they are on.


I run Textbelt, a simple SMS API (https://textbelt.com/) and Quickchart, a chart image and QR rendering API (https://quickchart.io/). Combined they cover my living expenses.

Both started from open source projects of mine. I love building open tools and stumbled upon the fact that I could sell services around these projects after people started reaching out for support and extra features. I improve the products incrementally every week and eventually it adds up.

The virus shutdowns have affected Textbelt a bit because many of my users are small businesses doing appointment reminders and such.


Late to this, but this is our son-in-law, Benjamin. Seems he is an effective teacher of 2D game development (godot, gamemaker, pixel art), with good pacing, honest/golden rule type treatment toward customers (and pleasant to be around). Some examples of his work, which supports his wife & children:

https://www.youtube.com/user/uheartbeast/about

https://www.heartgamedev.com/1-bit-godot-course-youtube?r_do...


Not mine but Pinboard and Stratechery are both 1 person shops which are wildly successful.


I'm not positive, but I think Stratechery might have an employee now? I vaguely recall Ben mentioning something along those lines in his yearly "how things are going" report.


Running Raccoon as a one one show:

https://raccoon.onyxbits.de/

It's a privacy solution that allows you to download apps from Google Play without having Big G claw into your smartphone.

The tech stack is quite extensive: Java for the application itself (Eclipse toolchain), LAMP for hosting the billing system (build on php, bootstrap and fatfree) and the website (build with Hugo using bootstrap).

COVID-19 hit hard. Even though I see more downloads, people seem to have become cautious with spending money.


I’m doing around $2k/month with https://divjoy.com, a tool for a React developers. Not wildly successful, but it pays the bills and I’m optimistic I can grow that to $10k+.

If anything I’ve seen a slight bump from COVID. Lots of people with time on their hands who want to launch an MVP.


I run https://www.checkbot.io/ myself. It's a Chrome extension that checks websites for SEO, speed and security problems. I wrote it to help with my own contract work then packaged it up for others. Sales are slightly up after the shutdown.


Mine's not paying the bills yet, but I'm getting a couple new customers a week which is surprising.


As is, unless I am missing something painfully obvious, after looking at you HN profile and HN submissions - my guess is “Mike” is a typo for “Mine” — if so, suggest you edit your comment with a direct link to the one-person business you’re referring to with a quick pitch on its intended value/use too.

If I had to guess, the business is the “FastComments” SaaS mentioned a few times in your recent HN submissions:

https://news.ycombinator.com/submitted?id=winrid

https://fastcomments.com/


Right! Edited. Thanks for posting the link for me. I didn't since I want to seem more like a person than an ad ;)


Isn't there a whole community dedicated to this: indiehackers.com


IndieHackers was inspired by posts on HN just like this, got a lot of traction marketing it here, and was acquired by a YC startup too; basically, IndieHackers is an unofficial YC spin-off.


I think this has been asked before?


Yes, multiple times. No harm in asking again though - newer businesses launch all the time, people who didn't want to share before might want to share now etc. Everyone learns and benefits.


Agree, not only that, but per the HN FAQs it is official okay to do:

“Are reposts ok? — When a story has had significant attention in the last year or so, we bury reposts as duplicates. If not, a small number of reposts is ok. — Please don't delete and repost the same story. Deletion is for things that shouldn't have been submitted in the first place.”

Basically, even though the topic is being reused, unless the responses are significantly similar, there’s no harm and if the community is not curious, it won’t get upvotes.




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