Courtland Allen has built up a community of Indie Hackers, people who want to make money by selling products they build themselves. But how do you become an Indie Hacker? And how good of a coder do you need to be to become an Indie Hacker full time? Courtland shares lessons he's gathered over the years on what it takes to live off of your own product and how you can do it too. He also gives us his take on some popular tech business topics.
[00:00:00] SY: (Music) SY: Welcome to the CodeNewbie podcast, where we talk to people on their coding journey in hopes of helping you on yours. I'm your host Saron and today we're talking about Indie Hackers. (Music) Courtland is an Indie Hacker, and he also started Indie Hackers.
[00:00:24] CA: My name is Courtland Allen. I am an Indie Hacker at a company called Stripe.
[00:00:29] SY: It's a community of people, mostly developers, who wanna make money by selling products they make. No investors, no big, fancy offices, no funding, just them, their technical skills and a business they can live off of, even get rich from. But how does one become an Indie Hacker? How technical do you have to be? And if you don't have a big team or a big round of funding, how big can your product really get? Courtland answers these questions and more. After this.
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[00:02:46] SY: Ok. So Let's start with just the word "Indie Hacker." What is an Indie Hacker?
[00:02:51] CA: An Indie Hacker is someone who has set out to make money independently. The sort of stereotypical, prototypical Indie Hacker is somebody who is not going to raise money from investors who is a developer capable of building their own products or applications and who is seeking a goal of financial freedom. They don't want to have to be beholden to a paycheck. They don't wanna have to have a boss. They want to generate recurring revenue on their own time so they can work from wherever they want on whatever schedule they want and have creative license to do whatever they want. So it's really somebody who's a freedom-seeker and who wants to take charge of their own ability to generate revenue.
[00:03:28] SY: So that, to me, is—first of all, it sounds very refreshing, but it also sounds almost like a rebellion against the current—I don't wanna call it a cult, but kind of—like (Laughing) the current cult of, of startups, right? Where success is raising a ton of money and having a, a ton of users and, you know, growing super, super fast. Would you say that it kinda goes against that? And is it, is it a rebellion against that movement?
[00:03:55] CA: If it's a rebellion against anything, it's a rebellion against working a 9-to-5 job. It's a rebellion against trading your hours for dollars because the thing is especially as a developer, if you work a 9-to-5 job, you might contribute millions of dollars worth of value to your company that'll keep paying...
[00:04:10] SY: That's true.
[00:04:11] CA: ...dividends over and over and over again because you're building this...
[00:04:13] SY: Yeah.
[00:04:13] CA: ...code that can be used repeatedly automatically. And yet you're getting paid on a salary basis. You don't get paid for the actual value that it creates. And so being an Indie Hacker is really a revolution against that. It's to say that I'm worth more than I can get paid at a normal job, and I'm gonna take that destiny into my own hands. And to some degree, it's also a rebellion against sort of the stereotypical Silicon Valley raise a ton of money from investors’ culture. And Indie Hackers are more adamant about being responsible for their own success. And so they don't necessarily want any blockers. They don't want anybody who is a gatekeeper to say, "oh, sorry, you know, we're not going to give you money and so you can't do this." That's what they're trying to get away from. And so yeah, to some extent it's rebellion against that as well.
[00:04:53] SY: Ok. So as an Indie Hacker, how do you measure your success?
[00:04:59] CA: I think maybe the easiest way to answer this is it depends on what phase that you're at.
[00:05:02] SY: Ok.
[00:05:02] CA: If you, for example, have never built anything yet and you've never launched a product or started a company and you're working your normal job, maybe success for you is being able to like be financially independent and quit your job. Or maybe success for you is to supplement your income in some way so you can work fewer hours or you can, you know, live a better lifestyle or save more money. Whereas I've met a lot of Indie Hackers who've been doing this on their own for decades. And for success for them is being well-known or building something that changes the world in some way or achieving like, you know, something beyond mere financial independence: becoming rich or wealthy or being able to finance some other business they'd really like to see. And so I think success obviously depends on who you are. There really is no person above you who can sort of pat you on the back and say congratulations (Laughing) on a job well done. I mean the fact of the matter...
[00:05:48] SY: Yeah.
[00:05:48] CA: ...is you're an Indie Hacker. You're independent. And so success really needs to be an internally derived thing. You need to be able to look at yourself and really tell yourself when you've been successful and when you haven't been.
[00:06:00] SY: So I would've, I wanna talk a little bit about the hacker part of Indie Hacker because it sounds like in order to be an Indie Hacker, to be an independent, creative, do-whatever-you-want, no boss, living off of your own technical skills type of person you have to be pretty technical. Is that true?
[00:06:20] CA: Have to? I would say no. Does it help? Definitely yes. I think there are a lot of things that exist in the world today that make it a better world to be an Indie Hacker than it's ever been before. I mean there have been people who've gone off and started their own businesses since the dawn of time. There have been people who've started very modest businesses since the dawn of time. But I don't think there's ever existed an era where it's as easy to do as it is today. And a lot of the advances and changes that have made it possible are best able to be capitalized on by people who have technical skills. Being a programmer enables you to create systems that will keep running even after you go to bed.
[00:06:54] SY: Yeah.
[00:06:54] CA: And I think that's really the key. That it can reach, you know, as many millions of people. You could code something once, reach theoretically the entire population of Earth or however many people are on the Internet. And that enables you to as a single individual create something that maybe only one percent of people really like or find valuable or will pay for. But that's still a lot of people. And the Internet helps to get out to those people. And the code you're writing helps to continue running on its own so you can generate this passive income and go do something else while you're still...
[00:07:20] SY: Yeah.
[00:07:20] CA: ...making money. And so I think it's, it really helps if you're technical. That's not to say that non-technical people can't make use of various platforms and technologies that have come about to help them. A good example is YouTube. A ton of people living sort of an Indie Hacker lifestyle...
[00:07:32] SY: Yeah, that's true.
[00:07:32] CA: ...off of YouTube. Doesn't necessarily require any technical skills, but it's a lot harder to stand out because you're dependent on YouTube as a platform at that point. And I think...
[00:07:40] SY: Yeah.
[00:07:40] CA: ...sort of the ideal Indie Hacker is somebody who has the technical skills who doesn't necessarily need to be dependent on anything except for the infrastructure of the internet itself.
[00:07:47] SY: So I get the mission, the drive of the Indie Hacker, but I'm trying to imagine what kinds of products and things these people actually create. What are some examples of some Indie Hacker success stories?
[00:08:02] CA: Oh, there's so many. One of my favorites is this guy, Mike Carson. I think he lives in—where does he live? Pennsylvania? Some east coast city. But he made a website called park.io. So back in the day, he really likes buying domain names. And he had some domain names that he really wanted to buy, and he was waiting for them to expire so he could bid. And when they would expire, somebody else would snap up the domain names right before he could. Like in the second before he clicked "buy," someone else already bought it.
[00:08:29] SY: Oh man.
[00:08:29] CA: So he ended up building a tool that could sort of automate buying domain names the second they would expire. And then he thought, you know, why don't I let other people use this tool as well? A lot of people wanna buy these expiring domain names.
[00:08:40] SY: Yeah.
[00:08:41] CA: So why don't I just charge them, you know, a modest fee to use my system to snipe up the domain names they want. And I think he is now making somewhere, somewhere like a million and a half dollars a year...
[00:08:50] SY: What?
[00:08:51] CA: ...just by himself. (Laughing)
[00:08:52] SY: Are you joking?
[00:08:53] CA: Yeah. Just by himself.
[00:08:54] SY: Oh my goodness.
[00:08:55] CA: People paying him to use the service. So that's like...
[00:08:57] SY: Wow.
[00:08:57] CA: ...I think the, one of the best examples; one of the most tantalizing examples of what it can be like to be an Indie Hacker.
[00:09:04] SY: Oh my goodness. Wow. Ok so for something like that. A million dollars. Man, that is—I mean, I don't know how much he's charging per domain, but I imagine it's not a hundred thousand each domain. That's, you know, that's a lot of money. How can someone be successful to that level with mostly only technical skills without doing the other business-y things? Because, you know, we hear all the time. There's so many people building products all the time that the whole "build it and they will come" just doesn't work anymore. And now we have to do marketing and content marketing and we have to tweet, and we have to...
[00:09:37] CA: Yeah.
[00:09:37] SY: ...network and we have to—we have to do all these other things that are separate from purely product development that even if, you know, it's easy and we're very technical, what about all the other stuff?
[00:09:48] CA: The other stuff is super important, and I'm glad that you brought this up because I think it's actually one of the disadvantages that programmers have as Indie Hackers. We tend to focus on the code. We focus on the product. We focus on...
[00:10:00] SY: Yeah.
[00:10:00] CA: ...what it is that we're putting into it. To a programmer, every business looks like a programming opportunity. (Laughing) And if only you build the best product and you code it right, then it's gonna work. And so really, if you look at building a business and you look at what it boils down to, it's providing something of value and delivering it to people who are willing to pay you for it. And I think it's very easy as a creator to sort of conflate the effort that you put into something with the value that it provides to the customer. That's sort of an employment mindset. Well ok, you know, a typical...
[00:10:28] SY: Yeah, that's what a job is for. (Laughing)
[00:10:29] CA: Exactly. That's what a job is. It's you're getting paid for your time whether you're effective or not. I mean if you're too ineffective, you'll get fired. But essentially...
[00:10:35] SY: Yeah.
[00:10:35] CA: ...you're getting paid for your time.
[00:10:37] SY: Absolutely. So the, the guy you mentioned. Was it Mike?
[00:10:41] CA: Mike. Mike Carson. That's him.
[00:10:42] SY: Yeah, you, you talked about how he had this personal problem of wanting to get these domain names and him always being just a little bit too late. And it sounds like he built a business off of his own pain point. Is that a common narrative among the Indie Hacker community?
[00:10:58] CA: Yeah. There's sort of a few refrains that you hear over and over again, you know? Make something that people want. Solve your own problem. And a lot of them are hitting at the same thing, which is that ultimately, as I was saying earlier, it doesn't matter how much work you put into things, what matters is that people actually want what you built and find it valuable. And so one of the biggest issues is that it's very difficult to understand what other people find valuable because you're not them.
[00:11:22] SY: Yeah.
[00:11:22] CA: And so one of the best shortcuts to getting around that problem is to just build something that you yourself find valuable. Build something that you would pay for. And if you would pay for it, the world's a big enough place that probably at least a handful of other people out there might pay for what you're doing. And so it's kind of a hack for ultimately building something people want. And even people don't follow this advice explicitly. Like I don't think Mike set out from day one to say, "oh, I should build something for myself and that way I'll build something other people like." I think he just wanted truly to build something for himself. But even then, indirectly it turned out that his problem was a problem shared by other people. And he nailed it because he nailed it for himself first.
[00:11:59] SY: I think one of the really hard parts about starting a business is figuring out when to quit and when to keep going. And I don't remember who said it, but there's a quote I read recently that said, you know, "there's a fine line between perseverance and stupidity." (Laughing) And, and so for the Indie Hacker—and especially for the Indie Hacker 'cause you're independent, right? It's just you. You don't have investors to ping ideas off of or you're, you know, get feedback from. You don't necessarily have a, you know, a board. You don't have... You probably don't have a team of founders, of co-founders. So you, you really are on your own to make all of these judgment calls. How do you know? Or maybe what are some clues that might indicate that maybe it's time to try a different idea.
[00:12:46] CA: That's difficult. And I think people would be extremely surprised by the amount of startup success that is just people trying new things repeatedly... throwing spaghetti at the wall until something sticks. And the only way to really do that is to be willing to call something quits and start something new pretty often. If you let's say save up enough money to take a year off your job, and you spend one year building a product and launching it and trying to get into the hands of customers. It doesn't work out. Then you really only got one shot on the goal. Whereas if you quit your job...
[00:13:15] SY: Yeah.
[00:13:15] CA: ...and you spend your time building these really small products, really small apps that take a week to build, you know, a couple weeks to build and you get them in the hands of customers. And they say, "well no, I don't like that." And you iterate and tweak, you're getting a lot more shots on goal and you're much more likely to succeed. And so the question, you know, when should you quit? Well there is no hard and fast answer for when you should quit. (Laughing) I mean, you're never gonna know when you should quit. And even ideas that haven't worked for years—famously AirBnB. The founders behind AirBnB...
[00:13:41] SY: Yeah.
[00:13:42] CA: ...tried so long to get AirBnB to work.
[00:13:44] SY: Such a good story. Yeah.
[00:13:45] CA: Yeah. They tried so long, and it's like a lot of other people would've quit. Yet they persevered and they made it through. But they weren't just doing the same thing over and over. They were constantly trying new things repeatedly with the same overall mission and the same overall goal. And so I think, you know, probably the right time to quit is—if I had to put a number on it—every two to three months if you're not seeing significant progress.
[00:14:05] SY: Ok.
[00:14:05] CA: You probably are pushing against a wall that you need to change. At the very least, change your approach that you're taking with...
[00:14:11] SY: Right.
[00:14:11] CA: ...your business. You don't necessarily have to start an entirely new business.
[00:14:14] SY: Yeah. Good advice. By the way, you're really great at giving advice. One of my favorite posts on the Indie Hackers—is it platform? Is that what, how you'd refer to it? Ok.
[00:14:23] CA: Yeah. I would call it a, a community forum, platform.
[00:14:25] SY: A community forum. Yeah. Is called "an email from Courtland Allen changed my life (Laughing) and improved my passion project forever." And I, I assume—well I mean, these, this is kind of funny 'cause you kind of published like your email correspondence. I assume you were ok with that.
[00:14:41] CA: I didn't know until he published it.
[00:14:42] SY: Ok. (Laughing)
[00:14:43] CA: I've just now started treating all my email like it's gonna become public 'cause it's happened like three times in the last month when I've sent someone a one-on-one email and suddenly showed up online, so...
[00:14:51] SY: Oh my—ok that, by the way, that's like my worst fear. I try to be very diplomatic on email just in case that happens to me. But, but yeah, but what I loved is—and you gave him some really great advice—by the way, you're very blunt. I really respect that. Personally I, I have a very blunt communication style, so I appreciate that—but there is one thing that you said that I, I really liked. You said, "lots of people have ideas that could be big. The hard part is executing." And that is something that I feel like we hear a lot, you know? It's all about the execution. What is so hard about executing?
[00:15:24] CA: Everything, Saron. It's all hard. And you know, you know (Laughing) the answer to this question just as well as I do. I mean, you're a, a great example of an Indie Hacker with Code Newbies. Execution is tough because there's a million things you can execute on.
[00:15:35] SY: Yeah.
[00:15:35] CA: Right? And even what, even just doing a few things in those lists is taxing and exhausting. You're putting your entire personal I guess the way that you look at yourself as a person and the way that you look at yourself as potentially a success or a failure sometimes goes into your business. And I think—what I was saying to him over email was I was sort of contradicting one of these widely-held beliefs that people believe before they start a startup but quickly learn the truth of after they've done it, which is that the idea is everything. And so in sort of pup culture when you watch a story or a movie about somebody starting a, a company, there's always a flash of insight moment where they come up with this brilliant idea. And from there, everything's just smooth sailing. It's just a montage of them, (Laughing) you know, hiring people and doing the hard work or whatever. That's not the important part. The important part is that they come up with an idea. And the reality is that that's not true, right? What actually is difficult is making your idea work because there's a thousand ways that any particular idea can fail. It's one of those things that I think if you're new to startups, if you're just now thinking "I wanna start a startup," you're probably putting too much emphasis on your idea. And startups in general are not very intuitive. And then you should probably spend some time learning about other people's experiences and reading their stories so that you don't just repeat their mistakes. You hear a lot about first-mover advantage. The first person to do something has...
[00:16:46 SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:16:46] CA: ...this sort of head start over everybody else. But I think more often in business you see the second or third company to come into an industry is what ultimately emerges victorious because the person with the idea spread the idea to everybody else, but then a better executer, you know, Facebook came in and...
[00:17:00] SY: Yeah.
[00:17:00] CA: ...did a better job than MySpace, for example or... Even most of the big companies you can—if you go back a hundred years, most of like the top hundred companies back then no longer exist. The execution really matters, and it's not enough to have an idea.
[00:17:11] SY: I think the other thing we hear often in terms of really important ingredients for making a successful company is passion. How important is passion?
[00:17:22] CA: I think passion is extremely important, but passion by itself is sort of a vague term. Passion for what, right? What is it that you're passionate about? I could start an arts and crafts store, and maybe I'm passionate about art, and I love creating art. Well running an arts and crafts store is not the same thing as creating art. And so I think if you really wanna be successful at your business, it's better to have passion for the overall outcome. Why did you get into this? Is it because you want freedom? Is it because you want creative license? Is it because you want money? Whatever it is that drives you to the ultimate outcome I think you really need to be passionate about because no matter what, there gonna be days that suck. And if the only thing you're passionate about is the day-to-day work, then when these weeks or these months or these days come where you're—the day-to-day work isn't great, you're gonna quit. And that's what kills almost every business—the founder quit before they succeeded.
[00:18:11] SY: I love the way you put that because when people talk about passion, when you hear about passion, you get this idea that you wake up and jump out of bed and you're just like, "oh, today's gonna be so great looking at these emails." (Laughing) You know, you just have this, you have this idea that everything is supposed to be flowers and butterflies, but I think where the passion part really kicks in isn’t' like you said in the day-to-day, I think it's more when things get really hard where you've called a hundred people and everyone has said no. You know when everything is broken. When that, you know, when that feature just like won't freaking finish. Like in those moments where you feel like quitting, I think those are the moments when being passionate and thinking about that outcome really matters. And that's when it, it just pushes you and keeps you going.
[00:18:58] CA: Yeah. And I think, you know, one thing that's, that's underrated is optimism and confidence. Like some...
[00:19:03] SY: Yeah.
[00:19:04] CA: ...combination of optimism and confidence. If you...
[00:19:06] SY: Yeah.
[00:19:06] CA: ...are optimistic that something can work, what ends up happening is you just stick with it for longer. I gave a talk at MicroConf a couple months ago, and I, I drew this analogy where, you know, I said let's say I invited you into my living room. And I told you, "Saron, I've, I've misplaced a million dollar watch somewhere in my living room. And if you find it, I'll give you...
[00:19:23] SY: Oh.
[00:19:23] CA: ...five hundred thousand dollars." Like how long are you gonna search for that watch?
[00:19:26] SY: Forever. (Laughing)
[00:19:27] CA: Probably a very long time. Maybe years you'll be unscrewing my furniture, looking inside everything. And the reason you'll do that, that's because you're confident that my watch is there, right? You know that the outcome exists and that you can reach the, the desired outcome. It's really just a matter of finding the right path to get there. And you're, you're confident that you can get there, so you'll explore every path. Whereas...
[00:19:44] SY: Yeah.
[00:19:44] CA: ...when I tell you, you know, instead, "hey Saron, I may or may not have left a watch in my living room. And maybe anywhere in California. Who knows?" How long are you gonna spend searching my living room for that watch? Ten minutes? Fifteen minutes before you conclude "I'm not confident that it's here. I have better things to do. This might not work. I might be wasting my time. I'm gonna go do something else now." And I think the same applies to working on a startup or doing anything that's difficult. If you have passion...
[00:20:06] SY: Yeah.
[00:20:06] CA: ...that's great, but if you have sort of the confidence that you can actually get to the end goal, then you won't be stymied by these sort of short-term failures and, and roadblocks. You'll push on because you know that every single thing that you eliminate just means that you've reduced the options, reduced, you know, the amount of work necessary to find the right path to find out where that watch really is.
[00:20:26] SY: That is a really, really great way to explain it. (Music) Yeah. That optimism. Yeah just certainty, right? That almost foolish optimism...
[00:20:33] CA: Exactly.
[00:20:33] SY: ...to a certain degree. It can be super helpful. Yeah. Coming up next, we do a special little segment where we go through a list of hot topics in startup land. Things like VC or self-funding; growth or profit; build it yourself or outsource. And Courtland has to pick a side. He gives us his take on these popular tech startup debates. After this.
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[00:22:37] SY: Ok. So now we're gonna do something a little different, a little fun. I have made a list of conversational topics—let's put it that way—in the entrepreneur startup Indie Hacker world. And I just wanna get your, your take on it. So I'm just gonna go through a list of, of two kind of opposing ideas, and I just wanna know what you think.
[00:22:58] CA: Yeah, let's do it. Sounds fun.
[00:23:00] SY: Ok. Number one, VC vs. self-funded?
[00:23:03] CA: Self funded hands down. Going the self-funded route gives you a lot more control. It gives you the ability to set your eyes on I think a more realistic outcome. You don't have to do something incredibly risky just to please these investors who need a, a thousand times return on their investment. You can do something that's more realistic that you like doing that you think is positive for yourself, make the money that you want to make, achieve the freedom that you want to achieve. And then maybe, you know, the next time around go raise a bunch of venture capital.
[00:23:28] SY: Number two, co-founder vs. solo?
[00:23:31] CA: Solo. I think that one of the biggest issues that kills a lot of companies is issues between co-founders. It's just very difficult when there's some sort of project that is all meaningful to you that you've sort of defined your life by to share that with somebody else. And it's much easier to do it on your own. That, that just depends on the skill set that you have. I can say solo because I'm a designer slash developer with a lot of marketing and sales experience as well. And I've been doing this for a long time. And so I don't feel like I'm missing any crucial skill set right at the beginning. If you are, then you should for sure partner up with somebody because it's better, you know, fifty percent of, of something is a lot better than having one hundred percent of nothing all by yourself. And so if you can't bring something to fruition by yourself, find a co-founder. Just be aware that having issues and arguments and flare-ups with a cofounder is extremely likely and sinks a lot of companies on a regular basis. I think a good compromise a lot of people make is they start something by themselves. They take it as far as it can. They get a lot of momentum going. They make it something valuable, and then they bring on a late cofounder, somebody who's not necessarily...
[00:24:32] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:24:32] CA: ...your fifty-fifty partner, and so disputes are easy to iron out with somebody who also takes responsibility for the business. Maybe it's seventy thirty or maybe it's eighty twenty, but someone who's a late co-founder who can help you in the capacity of a co-founder but who's not going to sort of kill your business if they leave or disagree with you.
[00:24:48] SY: Number three, side hustle vs. quit your day job?
[00:24:53] CA: That's a tough one. I've been on both sides of this one in the last couple of years. So I quit my day job to start Indie Hackers. And so I was very much on the side of quit your day job. And before that, for the previous three years, I had a side hustle. And what I found was that when I'm working on my side hustle as a job, I didn't feel a sense of urgency. I didn't feel like I have to get this out the door in the next three months. There's nothing pushing me. And so I just never really launched what I was working on. I didn't build something that was great. I just didn't have a fire under me because I was getting this regular paycheck. A similar thing happened once I quit my job. I ended up saving up a year, a year and a half of runway. And for the first five to six months, I just kind of fooled around. I didn't have the urgency...
[00:25:34] SY: Yeah.
[00:25:34] CA: ...because it was such a long time period...
[00:25:36] SY: Yeah.
[00:25:37] CA: ...that it was like, "oh I could build something massive." And I had this super ambitious product that I wanted to build that took way too long and wasn't—I just didn't do my due diligence to make sure it was really gonna work. And so I, I just wasted six months of time where I wasn't getting paid a salary where I wasn't really getting anything before I really sat down and said, "woah, Courtland. You gotta get it together. You're draining through your bank account. It's time to actually build something serious and actually like plot the timeline. So I think best-case scenario you quit your job, but you don't give yourself too much time. Maybe second best scenario you give yourself a side hustle, but you, you know, you take precautionary measures to make sure that you also have deadlines in that situation.
[00:26:10] SY: Yeah, constraints can be a very good thing.
[00:26:12] CA: You need them.
[00:26:12] SY: This is also what I've learned because Code Newbie for me is as well was a side hustle for two years, three years before I quit. And now I do it full time. And same thing, you know, when I was doing it as a side hustle, I actually had a huge sense of urgency because I had so few hours in the day just I, I felt a lot of pressure to get the Twitter chat and get the podcast...
[00:26:33] CA: Yeah.
[00:26:33] SY: ...and do all these things, you know, before nighttime came and I had to go to sleep. But then when I quit my job, I was like, "oh my goodness look at all this room and time (Laughing) and space." It was hard. Like the first couple months it was hard to get my act together. Yeah. Number four, growth vs. profitability?
[00:26:48] CA: I think that for the vast majority of people profitability is what should come first because that's the biggest hurdle to get over. Most people who start a company never end up providing something of value. When I say providing something of value, the real measure of that is will somebody actually hand you cash for the thing that you've built. And I think most companies following the sort of Google or Facebook model where you grow first and then figure out revenue later rarely works out.
[00:27:14] SY: Yeah.
[00:27:14] CA: It's working out I would say decreasingly often. Today, if you look at the biggest companies in Silicon Valley if you look at the unicorns—GitHub or Stripe or AirBnB or Uber of Lyft—all of them have revenue models that they've had since day one that are very obvious and straightforward.
[00:27:28] SY: Ah, I remember reading some, somewhere that "freemium" is not a business model. It's a marketing strategy. And that just changed my world, you know, (Laughing) just reframing it that way, you know? If you're giving it away for free in hopes that maybe one day someone will pay for it and it, it's a marketing strategy. It's a way to get people to know about it, but it's not actually a business model.
[00:27:46] If you look at the things that people do online and compare them to the real world, a lot of them look ridiculous. Like if you imagine that your business that you've built online is actually a brick and mortar store, well how many brick...
[00:27:54 SY: That's true. (Laughing)
[00:27:55] CA: ...and mortar stores just give away everything for free? Very few.
[00:27:58] SY: That's true. Yeah.
[00:27:58] CA: But somehow when you remove like the tangibility of what you're working on, all of those rules and common sense things go out the window. And so I think in, in reality like being an Indie Hacker is really return to like these foundational business practices that have existed for millennia. So it's funny to be rebelling against, against something that's so new and, and relatively unpopular.
[00:28:16] SY: And it's also tricky because we look to these companies like, you know, Google and, and Facebook and Twitter as potential blueprints, idols, you know, companies we aspire to be like in some way in terms of business success anyway, and we kind of forget that they were built at a completely different time. It's tricky to try and apply lessons from companies that were made even ten years ago because nowadays technology, consumer behavior, expectations—all those things are just so different that you don't know what is still relevant and what doesn't really work if you're trying to build something right now.
[00:28:51] CA: I think and the other thing people do is we look at companies that are very late in their, their life cycles.
[00:28:57] SY: Yeah.
[00:28:57] CA: We say, "ok this company's worth a hundred billion dollars. I want a hundred-billion dollar company. Let me copy what they're doing." Well...
[00:29:02] SY: Yeah.
[00:29:03] CA: The thing that they're doing right now today as a hundred billion dollar company is not how they got started. It's like going to the gym, seeing some guy lifting, I don't know, bench-pressing five hundred pounds and then you get under the five-hundred-pound bar. (Laughing) I mean, it's not gonna end, it's not gonna end well for you.
[00:29:14] SY: This sounds so silly.
[00:29:15] CA: It sounds silly. Again, you put it into the real world, you're like oh that makes no sense, but when it's...
[00:29:18] SY: Yeah.
[00:29:18] CA: ...intangible, it sounds like a good idea. The reality is that almost all of these companies started with much more modest goals, much more modest products that they built. And if you really wanna learn how to build those companies, you need to actually look at what they were doing in their early stages. I think you need to be learning from people who are just a couple steps ahead of you not a thousand steps ahead of you.
[00:29:37] SY: Yeah. And especially if you look up founder stories and try and read or listen to interviews from founders of these really big companies. One thing that I found really helpful is not to read anything recent. But if you go back and find interviews when they first got started like in their first year or two, you'll get a lot more honest answers, and you'll probably get more applicable stories...
[00:29:59] CA: Totally.
[00:29:59] SY: ...that, you know, better mirror where you are right now. Ok, next up, consumer vs. enterprise?
[00:30:06] CA: Enterprise, hands down.
[00:30:08] SY: Oh, tell me about that.
[00:30:09] CA: So this comes down...
[00:30:10] SY: You got to that fast, too.
[00:30:11] CA: Yeah. Well it's, it's (Laughing) everybody wants to build a consumer product.
[00:30:14] SY: Yeah.
[00:30:14] CA: Everybody wants to build something that their mom will understand, that their friends will understand and use 'cause that's the cool stuff. You know, you wanna be a musician making an album or you wanna like make some sort of popular game or anything. But the problem is that when it comes to delivering something of value to somebody, consumers are very unpredictable, and they don't necessarily have as much disposable income whereas when you're trying to deliver something of value to a company, well companies make a lot of money. And it's really easy for them to justify big expenditures because they see how much money they're making. They see how much money that what you've built is saving them or making them, and they just say, "ok, that's fine." And I think a lot of the best consumer products end up just being fads.
[00:30:52] SY: Because, you know, the thing about consumer is not only is it easier to understand, but it's a lot less intimidating, right? I can say like, "hey Courtland, do you mind, you know, checking out this app? Let me know what you think?"
[00:31:05] CA: Yeah.
[00:31:05] SY: Versus, you know, being like, "hey Google, do you wanna try, (Laughing) you know, do you wanna try this app that may or may not help your ad searches?" You know what I mean?
[00:31:13] CA: Yeah.
[00:31:14] SY: So is a—when I'm thinking of an Indie Hacker, if the idea is that I'm doing it by myself with my coding skills. I don't have a big team. I don't have investors and all these things, how realistic is it that I can have a successful enterprise company?
[00:31:29] CA: Oh, very realistic. Still more realistic than a consumer business. And I think (Laughing) you know, what's funny is if you wanna start a consumer business, what you should do is start your consumer business. And in the course of you trying to run your consumer business, probably in the first like two weeks, you're gonna buy a whole bunch of stuff for your business from other businesses. You're gonna get...
[00:31:45] SY: Oh.
[00:31:45] CA: ...Google apps to help you manage your...
[00:31:47] SY: Oh my God. That's so true.
[00:31:47] CA: ...documents and your email. And you're gonna get...
[00:31:49] SY: Yeah.
[00:31:49] CA: ...you know, you might pay for advertisements. You might pay for all the stuff to help your business run. And then if you take a step back and see what you're doing, you say wow. I just spent like I don't know I'm spending two or three hundred dollars a month...
[00:31:58] SY: Yeah.
[00:31:59] CA: ...on my business...
[00:31:59] SY: It really does add up.
[00:32:00] ...right off the bat. Right?
[00:32:01] SY: Yeah.
[00:32:01] CA: In terms of how easy it is for you to sell to other businesses, the model that we always have is, you know, you're selling to this massive business, and you've gotta put together a formal presentation. It's like Don Draper or something. You know, (Laughing) you go into the office, put on your suit, trying to convince...
[00:32:14] SY: Yeah.
[00:32:14] CA: ...these people to buy what you've done. In reality, most businesses are much smaller than Google. The conversations you have are pretty informal. And if you can solve someone's problem, they're happy to pay you. They're happy to throw money at you. And so more than likely you wouldn't target Google as your first customer, you would target other tiny businesses that are around the same size as yours and maybe a little bit bigger.
[00:32:32] SY: Ok, next up is our last one. Building it yourself vs. outsourcing?
[00:32:37] CA: Ordinarily, I would say building it yourself. In recent months, I've switched to outsourcing. I think...
[00:32:42] SY: Oh.
[00:32:43] CA: ...being able to delegate your tasks to other people is such a magical feeling once you start doing it and trusting that it works and seeing that it does work. It's crazy. It's like multiplying yourself. And there's a thousand things that you can do...
[00:32:56] SY: Yeah.
[00:32:57] CA: ...now that you couldn't have done otherwise. And that work adds up over time and it becomes just a huge anchor around your, your leg if you let that add up and you don't delegate it to somebody else. And so I've become like a huge proponent of delegating. I've got probably ten people on Upwork who do very various tasks on Indie Hackers.
[00:33:14] SY: Wow.
[00:33:14] CA: And it's really cool because it just frees me up to do things that are a lot more high-impact and a lot more, have a lot more leverage in the long term. So outsourcing for sure. Only build things yourself when you absolutely have to.
[00:33:25] SY: Yeah, I remember the, the first time—so I, you know, I edited the, the podcast, the Code Newbie podcast myself for a long time. For, for two years, I think. And then...
[00:33:33] CA: Oh wow.
[00:33:34] SY: ...finally—yeah. I did a lot of work. And then finally, I was able to afford to hire an editor. And oh man. I remember the first time just getting the files back and everything was clean (Laughing) and cut. Oh. Oh my goodness. It felt so good. I was just, I was just in awe that I was doing something else but then another thing happened.
[00:33:57] CA: Right?
[00:33:57] SY: You know? Like literally in the background of it and it appeared and then it was complete. It literally felt like I duplicated myself. It was amazing. So if you are a code newbie, if you're listening and you're wondering to yourself ok this Indie Hacker lifestyle sounds really great, really awesome. I'm still pretty new in my technical skills and abilities, and I'm trying to decide what to invest in, what tools I should learn, languages, frameworks should I really dig into to have this Indie Hacker lifestyle? What should I pick? What are some ways to invest in my technical skills so I can be one of your success stories?
[00:34:34] CA: What I would say is dabble a little bit in everything. And the best way to do that is to actually just try building a product from scratch, Try doing the entire thing yourself. Try conceiving, you know, an idea for a product. Try finding the customers who might use it. Try writing the code to get your application out the door. Try deploying it on servers. Try designing it. When you go through this process of trying to do everything yourself, you're going to uncover the places where you suck. It's just inevitable. (Laughing) You're going to see like wow this design looks really bad. Or wow, I have no idea how to even put this project online. And that's when you should do the learning. And figure out how to do that thing that you're not good at. I don't think there really needs to be any sort of Indie Hacker course that walks you through all the skills that you need. I think you should just try doing things. And wherever you are, you know, your skills are less are less than adequate will be obvious, and that's what you should work on. And eventually over time you'll build up sort of the ideal unicorn Indie Hacker skillset where you're pretty good at everything.
[00:35:28] SY: Yeah. So so far I feel like we've talked up the Indie Hacker lifestyle and all of the awesome things that come with it, but I'm assuming there are some downsides to this lifestyle. What are some downsides...
[00:35:40] CA: Oh yeah.
[00:35:40] SY: ...of things to maybe be aware of?
[00:35:42] CA: Well it's, it's risky. I mean, the obvious downside is that your company might fail. You might invest a bunch of your money. You might go into debt. You might give up on an opportunity to work a really good job and start something on your own. And then ultimately it doesn't succeed. And you don't achieve financial freedom. And you don't achieve the things you set out to achieve and, you know, you look back on that and you might think you wasted your time. And I think that's a big risk that dissuades a lot of people from getting started. It's, it's just the opportunity costs of what you could've been doing instead of running this business that ultimately ended up failing. I've failed a lot in business. I've started at least five or six companies that...
[00:36:15] SY: Really?
[00:36:15] CA: ...ultimately didn't do well.
[00:36:17] SY: Oh, can you tell us some of them?
[00:36:18] CA: Oh yeah. So in college I worked on this project called Cypher. And the basic idea behind it was that it would be advanced filters for Gmail. And so in Gmail you can filter your email automatically. You could say, you know, if I get an email from Saron, then automatically star it 'cause it's important. And if I get an email from so and so, then put it in the trashcan 'cause I don't wanna see it. I built a product that would greatly expand what these filters could do. And so you could filter an email based on how many recipients it had or what time of day it arrived or how many attachments it had, etc. etc. And you could do all sorts of actions. You could make it hide in your inbox and come back later. It was really, really cool. I thought it was a cool...
[00:36:53] SY: That sounds really useful. Yeah.
[00:36:54] CA: ...nifty product. Yeah. I would love for it to exist today. Took me about eight months to build it. Then we launched it, it kind of fell over at launch. It got way too much traffic.
[00:37:03] SY: Oh wow.
[00:37:03] CA: Code wasn't very good. Barely ran. And by the time it got working again, we were out of money. And we weren't making any money because we were giving it away...
[00:37:10] SY: Yeah.
[00:37:10] CA: ...for free. And so that was a wreck. You know, that was a painful lesson that I learned, which was you can't just count on giving something away for free. Our, our sort of dream scenario at that time was give it away for free, get a lot of users. Then investors will invest more money in our company, and we'll be saved. But if instead we had let's say found a bunch of clients up front who needed this and we collected these pre-payments or deposits, then I probably could have funded my lifestyle, which was a very cheap college student lifestyle pretty easily with not that many easy customers and been able to work on this idea indefinitely and continue to improve it, throw a liability in the features and built it into a real business. And so that's the lesson that I took away from that that I've applied to almost every business since.
[00:37:51] SY: So you have learned so much between the hundreds of interviews you've done with other founders to you yourself having a business to you having tried other businesses in the past. Of all the lessons that you've learned, all the pieces of advice you've heard or maybe given, what is the one thing that you think could be really helpful for people listening who might one day hope to be an Indie Hacker?
[00:38:15] CA: Start with something small. The reason people don't get started is because they think they need the world's best idea. They think they need, you know, some sort of amazing product that's gonna take an entire team of people years to build. That's paralyzing. It's very hard to get started...
[00:38:30] SY: Yeah.
[00:38:30] CA: ...when you think that's the first step you have to take. And you'll just never take that step. What you should do is start small. Start with something that's extremely unambitious, something that you could get built in I don't know two or three weeks. Something that's almost downright silly that might never work. Just start with something that's a baby step. It'll put you in a better position to start bigger, more ambitious businesses in the future. And to be honest, most really big successful businesses also started as like these little toy-like things that no one would've ever taken seriously in the beginning. It's sort of a stay or step path to get, you know, one advantage and take one small win and parlay that into a bigger win and keep going and so on and so forth until you build something huge. So not only should you start small just to make that first step easier to take, but also it doesn't preclude you from building something really big and significant in the future.
[00:39:12] SY: Yeah, I think the one thing that we forget is that the decisions that we make now are not—or they don't have to be permanent. You can start with a really small, really hyper-focused customer segment or really, you know, a silly idea. And then once that works, you can grow that idea, grow that customer segment. You can pivot. You can change. And I think we get so caught up in—and I do this myself all the time—we get so caught up in the big picture in, you know, what do we want that final headline to be when we reach our success...
[00:39:41] CA: Exactly.
[00:39:41] SY: ...that we forget that there's, you know, little, little headlines along the way...
[00:39:45] CA: Right.
[00:39:45] SY: ...that lead to that bigger thing. And, and the story can always change.
[00:39:48] CA: The path to get to almost anywhere significant is a winding path. You can never just get straight there, and if you try to get straight there, you're gonna run into trouble. So I, I think...
[00:39:56] SY: Yeah.
[00:39:56] CA: ...what you said is exactly right. There's all these little things that happen on the way to get to where you're going, and that doesn't mean you should take your eye off the ball, but it does mean that you shouldn't be paralyzed and refuse to start because you're trying to start at the end.
[00:40:07] SY: Yeah. Don't start at the end. I like that. So next, let's do some fill-in-the-blanks. Are you ready?
[00:40:13] CA: I am ready.
[00:40:14] SY: Number one, worst advice I've ever received is...
[00:40:17] CA: Worst advice... I think "be a 'real'—with real in quotes—software engineer."
[00:40:22] SY: Oh.
[00:40:23] CA: I think that would have been very bad advice for me to follow. And I think it's something I see a lot of people learning to code struggling with on a daily basis. What does it mean to be a real software engineer?
[00:40:31] SY: Right. Yeah.
[00:40:31] CA: Oh, you don't know this? You need to, you need to learn this. Or you don't know that? You need to learn that. Software engineering at this point—being a programmer is so wide, so broad of a field, so complex, so deep, that there is nobody who knows everything. There is always going to be someone else who's really famous or really legitimate or really good who knows something that you don't know. And so I think the idea that you need to be a real software engineer that you're not a real software engineer unless you know "X" is terrible advice. Chart your own course. Figure out what you want to accomplish. And learn the skills that you need to do that thing.
[00:41:02] SY: Yep. Number two, my first coding project was about...
[00:41:06] CA: My first real coding project that I would say is the one that made me think, "wow like this programming stuff is really cool," was something I did in college. It was a, an app called f-mail. So this is right after Facebook released their platform to allow you to build Facebook apps, and my friend and I in college decided that we wanted to build an app that would let you check your Gmail inside of Facebook. Don't ask me why.
[00:41:26] SY: Oh. Interesting.
[00:41:27] CA: There was no real reason for doing this. (Laughing) We just wanted...
[00:41:29] SY: It's fascinating, though.
[00:41:30] CA: ...to do it. It could be done. We're gonna do it. And so we found this library online that someone had written that would sort of connect to your Gmail account and give you the emails once you logged in. So like ok we'll take this library and then we'll build an interface that uses it and make it live inside of Facebook. And so it actually was skinned to look just like Facebook. It had Facebook-style colors and buttons, but it was your Gmail email. By the end of it, I went from someone who only really knew HTML and CSS to someone who actually knew how to do the guts of a traditional web application. I was doing the job of...
[00:41:59] SY: Yeah.
[00:42:00] CA: ...I was doing the Ajax calls and setting up a server.
[00:42:02] SY: Look at you.
[00:42:03] CA: It was, it was janky. I mean, I think I had one file that was like twenty-five hundred lines. That's where all my code lived, but (Laughing) it worked. And I was proud about, proud of doing it.
[00:42:11] SY: But it worked.
[00:42:11] CA: Yeah, and I think it's...
[00:42:12] SY: There you go.
[00:42:12] CA: It's just a good example of taking baby steps.
[00:42:16] SY: Number three, one thing I wish I knew when I first started to code is...
[00:42:20] CA: You know, I think it's more fun sometimes when you're competent at what you're doing. Nowadays almost everything I wanna build I know exactly how to build it. And as a result, coding almost has this zen-like feel to it where it's like I can get in the flow, and it just feels great. And I remember early on when I was first learning, I would just get so frustrated sometimes. And I had this...
[00:42:42] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:42:42] CA: I had this, this fear that I would come up against some sort of bug or some issue that I just wouldn't be able to solve. And just like the frustration of having to constantly Google everything and not remembering things that I'd just done the day before was really frustrating to me. I found it hard to get over, but it's a lot more fun now for me then that I feel like I know what I'm doing. And it's a gradual—it's not like a one or it's, you know, a black or white thing. It's a gradual thing where you just gradually become more and more competent, more comfortable.
[00:43:08] SY: Yeah, I've gotten better at that over the years 'cause they're, you know, so many skills that I have to be able like I have to have in order to do a lot of stuff that I do, and a lot of them I've picked up along the way. And there have been a few moments where it's just been really painful. I've tried to do something—it just, it, I keep banging myself, my, my head against the wall. And it's, it's just painful and it's slow and I've had to go ok let's pause on this project. Let's take some time. Let's actually develop this skill, and let's learn about this tool, this technology, this whatever. Once we feel like we know what we're doing, then let's go back and apply it. But before that when you're in that space where you don't really know what you’re doing but you still have this goal, it just hurts. It really hurts. And things are a lot more fun when you aren't busy fiddling with a tool and trying to figure out, you know, where all the buttons are and what they do.
[00:44:00] CA: Yeah. And I think it would've helped for me at least if someone had just told me, "oh this part hurts." Because I thought ok, maybe this is what programming is all—it's always gonna be like this.
[00:44:08] SY: Yeah.
[00:44:08] CA: It's always gonna hurt. But it, it got better for me at least.
[00:44:11] SY: Yeah, managing expectations is, is huge and especially with coding nowadays. I'm, you know, when I'm doing something I've never done before, I'm just like, "this is gonna suck." And it's just gonna be really crappy time. But once you're on the other side, it'll be fine.
[00:44:23] CA: And what I've found for myself is that programming is almost like these miniature feedback loops where you put in a lot of work. And maybe the work isn't that fun, so—or maybe it is. And then you end up at some goal. You know maybe you built this feature. You changed the color of the spots or something. And that's like a miniature win, you know? You can kinda feel it if you pay attention to it that it just feels good to have gone to that little win. And then you go on to the next thing. You know, you're sort of cycling through over and over again. And for me, I'm much happier when that loop is happening quickly.
[00:44:48] SY: Yes.
[00:44:48] CA: And it's like the worst when I've been working on something for three weeks and it still doesn't work, and it's not ready and it doesn't come together yet. And I just feel like this huge weight on my shoulders where I just want to get to the next win.
[00:44:59] SY: Yeah. I, I noticed that about myself, too. And tell me, tell me if this is just me being weird or if this is like a thing people do. But when I get really stuck and I don't have a win and I, I don't see, I can't see when the win is going to, to come, I will take a break and I will just clean my place (Laughing) because if I fold the clothes, the clothes will be folded.
[00:45:20] CA: Yeah.
[00:45:21] SY: Those are my wins. That's how I get through.
[00:45:21] CA: It will work. (Laughing)
[00:45:23] SY: Yes. It will work.
[00:45:24] CA: Yeah. It's funny because it's, it's analogous between running a business and coding. So nowadays it's like you're, it's pretty rare that I, you know, am working on something for the code for Indie Hackers for example and it—things don't work. But what's much more common is I try to work on something for Indie Hackers as a whole.
[00:45:38] SY: Oh, yeah.
[00:45:38] CA: And like the feature doesn't, doesn't go over as well as I planned. Or like...
[00:45:41] SY: Right.
[00:45:42] CA: ...you know, the numbers don't more the way that I want. And my fallback is programming. I'm like ok, I know the...
[00:45:46] SY: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:45:46] CA: ...I know I can get this code to work. I'm just gonna write this code for like a few days.
[00:45:50] SY: Yeah.
[00:45:50] CA: And that'll make me feel better 'cause it's at least something that I can have control over. And I think it's, it's something that a lot of Indie Hackers, especially developers, end up doing. You're really comfortable with the code. It's what you feel, you know, a sense of control over. And so we often end up ignoring these more challenging parts of our business where there's a lot more uncertainty and where the wins are harder to come by, and we ended up putting too much emphasis on the code, which, you know, might feel good to work on, but isn't necessarily the right answer for how we get our businesses to the next level.
[00:46:17] SY: So if you find yourself reassigning those sales tasks and those talk to sponsors and potential customers tasks over and over and over again, that's probably a sign that you're maybe running away from the, the real part, right? The part that makes a business a business.
[00:46:31] CA: Yeah. Exactly. If you can, if you can sit down and really just have a conversation of your, with yourself. What are you avoiding doing that you know you should be doing? There's always gonna be something.
[00:46:40] SY: Yeah.
[00:46:40] CA: There's always gonna be something that we're not doing that we should be doing. And I think a lot of it just comes down to having the discipline and the self-control to actually sit down and do those things. And it turns out that most of the time (Music) they're not as bad as they seem from the outside looking in. you just have to get started.
[00:46:52] SY: Absolutely. Well that's a wonderful way to end this interview. Thank you so much, Courtland, for sharing all of your wisdom and your stories in the Indie Hackers community. You wanna say goodbye?
[00:47:01] CA: I would love to say goodbye. Thanks, Saron, for having me on the show. It's been a pleasure of mine to be here. Got the opportunity to have you on my show a while back.
[00:47:09] SY: Yeah.
[00:47:10] CA: And so it's really cool to come on yours and see how you do things.
[00:47:12] SY: Really, really great community. Thank you so much.
[00:47:13] CA: Thanks, Saron.
[00:47:14] SY: And that's the end of the episode. Let me know what you think. Tweet me @CodeNewbies or send me an email email@example.com. Make sure to check out our local CodeNewbie meetup groups. We've got community coding sessions and awesome events each month. So if you're looking for real-life human coding interaction, look us up on meetup.com. For more info on the podcast, check out www.codenewbie.org/podcast. And join us for our weekly Twitter chats—we've got our Wednesday chats at 9PM EST and our weekly coding check-in every Sunday at 2 PM EST. Thanks for listening. See you next week.
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