3 Years as a One Man Startup

I’ve spent most of the past 3 years creating one language learning web-app, Readlang.

I wrote about my struggle to get this off the ground almost two years ago and was thrilled with the response on Hacker News and elsewhere. I’ve been meaning to write a followup for a long time, but would always convince myself to wait…

Just a couple more tweaks and usage will explode. Then I’ll have something to write about!

Well here I am, three years later. Usage didn’t explode, but grew in fits and starts. I’ve worked hard for 3 years and am still making less than minimum wage. But that’s not as bad as it might sound.

Money

To survive as a bootstrapper, revenue is essential. But it’s often taboo, despite being very useful information. The problem is that if you report a low revenue, you may not be taken seriously. If you earn a lot, people listen but it invites competition and jealousy. I’m still on the low side, so here goes…

New signups grew from 2,800 in year 1, to 9,300 joining in year 2, and 36,800 joining in year 3. Revenue was roughly $700 in year 1, $4100 in year 2, and $16500 in year 3. Expenses are low so the profit in year 3 was about $14500. That’s roughly equivalent to £9,700 British pounds. I’d earn more working 28 hours a week at minimum wage. I worked a lot more than that, so as an experienced software developer have paid a high opportunity cost.

Will I continue with Readlang?

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

On the other hand, profits have grown 480% over the past year. If this continues, the future looks good. In year 4 (2016) I would make a typical UK software developer salary, and by the end of year 5 I’d be financially rewarded for the risk I’ve taken compared to being employed. But that’s still two years away. And is it even realistic to expect the trend to continue? I don’t know, but I’m making a bet that while I continue to work on it, the answer is yes.

There are easier ways of making a living. But I’m proud of what I’m making, and it seems to genuinely help people to learn languages. Here are a couple of the many quotes I’ve received by email within the past month:

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

If your Spanish isn’t great, try reading the above quote on Readlang.

I’m in a polyglot group, and we all try different language tools constantly (Memrise, Anki, FluentU, etc), but I think Readlang has been the “stickiest” for the majority of us.

On top of that, prolific language learner Alex Rawlings recently wrote of Readlang:

This simple tool has changed the way I learn languages forever.

Feedback like this assures me that I’m doing something right.

Readlang is ramen profitable, helping more people every day, and there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Of course I’m continuing.

Follow my progress

I plan to write more about creating Readlang. If you’d like to ask a question, suggest a topic, or hear updates, please find me on twitter @Steve_Ridout.