I built, launched, and got paying customers for my side project in 3 hours
Here’s what I learned
Note. Baratunde (capital B) is Baratunde Thurston, the man. baratun.de is the url and working name for this product. It’ll all make sense as you read through the article.
I’d just sat down to my butter coffee and my morning skim through twitter when I came across this tweet from @Jason.
Baratunde Thurston had posted his ad libbed rendition of an article by Jason Calacanis about the new Twitter CEO.
In the ensuing thread, somebody mentioned they’d pay for this as a service — to have essays read aloud.
I’m still not sure why (it just felt right) but I was compelled to drop everything for the morning and turn this into a thing. I wanted to get it out quickly because I couldn’t afford to let it interfere with my bread-and-butter work.
And I wanted to strike while the iron was still tepid.
The 3 hour launch — here’s what I did
2. Built a landing page using the startup framework.
3. Added the google analytics tracking code
4. Created a pay-what-you-want subscription in gumroad and linked it up from the website.
5. Waited for the DNS to propagate (an infuriatingly long 3 hours).
6. Posted to Twitter.
7. Posted to Product Hunt.
Here’s what I learned from shipping
1. Ask for forgiveness, not for permission
At 9am I’d never heard of Baratunde Thurston but 2 hours later I had built a website and borrowed his name to launch a product that didn’t actually exist yet. He still didn’t know about me. If I’d asked for permission and approached him first with the idea, I wouldn’t have his support because I was just a weird stranger from the internet. Now I was a weird stranger that had moved quickly and made something that might be interesting.
I was well aware of the implications of what I’d taken on and there was a reasonably high risk that Baratunde would be pissed. What would you think if you went to bed and woke up to find that a stranger on another continent had turned your half-joke into a product?
So I asked for forgiveness, pepperred with a little flattery and gave Baratunde an easy ‘out’.
Here’s the email I wrote.
I was just about to send it when I received a twitter DM from Baratunde, asking for my email address.
I’d got his attention. But sensed I was right about him being pissed.
I sent the email. Here’s what happened next.
2. Cover the downside
The worst that can happen is that you lose everything.
I had no idea how this would play out. If things were bad, I was prepared to pull out and hand over everything to Baratunde. I had nothing to lose, except the $17 I paid for the baratun.de* domain registration. There was no real downside, apart from possibly irking a stranger. I could see that Baratunde was man enough to handle being irked — I knew he’d get over it.
I also took the risk that I’d disappoint customers by signing them up to a zombie product that never materialised. What if we got paying users but no Baratunde Thurston? I’d just have to read the articles myself. No big deal.
* As it turned out — Baratunde actually used to own that domain. At the very least he’d be reunited with it in some way.
3. Timing helps but it isn’t everything
I’d launched a couple of projects on Product Hunt before (last year I started Letterlist there with over 1000 users in 24 hours) so I knew that posting your listing early is key to getting traction. Launching later in the day makes it much trickier to get upvoted because you’re competing against products that already have a massive head start. It’s a natural filter bubble that polarises the early winners from the rest.
Funnily enough, the top product at the time that I posted was Tim Herbig’s Ultimate Product Hunt Launch checklist which reiterated exactly how important it is to time it right. But I decided to screw it. I was on a roll and just wanted to get it out there. Waiting for the DNS to propagate was torture, but when it did, I took the gamble and posted anyway.
4. Nothing validates a product like paying customers
It’s easy to put up a landing page and capture hundreds of emails. Some people can be cagey about spam, but I’ve found that with the right combination of persuasive copy, most people will enter their email simply to satisfy their curiosity.
It was more important to me to test the hypothesis that some people would actually pay for the service. Joel Gascoigne did a great job of validating Buffer and testing pricing, but I wanted to get the ultimate confirmation: real transactions for real money.
I used gumroad to collect payments using a pay-what-you-want model with a minimum $5 contribution. After a couple of hours 2 people had signed up and paid.
Thing is, I’d missed out on a lot of emails so I switched the minimum to $0 so that users could sign up and then choose to contribute in a true pay-what-you-want model (no minimum).
Some conversion stats from the first 48 hours*
413 visitors from Product hunt
209 clicked through to Gumroad
50 email optins
5 sales (total $19.65 after fees)
Hardly staggering numbers. But for a quick test and a couple of hours of work — it was enough to confirm that we’re onto something interesting.
*I didn’t segregate the optins before and after dropping the entry price from $5 to $0. But if I were to try this again, I’d collect emails first and use the welcome page to explain more about the product and ask for payments to crowdfund development.
I’d like to test the true $0 minimum pay-what-you-want model — I suspect both email optins AND total revenue would increase.
5. Feedback + traffic = short iteration cycles
Aside from lighting the kindling, Product Hunt is a great sandbox for field-testing. The feedback loop and traffic surge means you can tweak things in real time as you learn. Move quickly and break things, so to speak.
No formal A/B testing, just a heuristic view of the anecdotal feedback.
For example, a couple of users were confused by the gumroad payment page so I switched it out altogether for a simple optin form — I didn’t even style it at first, I just used the raw html from Active Campaign (my email provider).
By the time I did this, the project was 4 days old and I was already satisfied that the “would people pay?” hypothesis was validated.
But there still wasn’t really a product so I decided to focus on collecting email and then sell the product when it’s ready. The goal now is to get as many email subscribers as possible without the confusing pay-gate.
Users also requested other features like sample tracks and playlists and I’ve added these to the Trello board I’m using to manage an ad hoc product roadmap.
6. You don’t know anything until you enter the abyss
I had a hunch that this could be a cool little side-project, or even a real business, but I didn’t really know that any of this would work out. Would people want this? Would they pay for it? I had no idea how Baratunde would feel about it, least of all that he’d end up putting his weight behind it, contributing content, and promoting it to his network.
I also had no idea just how big that network would reach. Just 4 days later I received another email from Baratunde. Now he was getting right behind the project and was going to promote it that night on This Week in Tech (one of the biggest podcasts ever). During the show, traffic peaked at 34 visitors on the site which resulted in hundreds more signups.
It’s not a strategy, but when it happens serendipity is a powerful ally. And it only kicks in when you enter the abyss.
“Being an entrepreneur is like staring into the abyss and chewing glass.”
— Elon Musk
I can’t attest to the oral lacerations yet. But the abyss is real. It’s the black box of unkown unknowns where you have to trust your instinct and know that the next step will reveal itself once you jump in. You’re committing yourself, trusting that you’ll figure shit out when you need to.
As it turns out, wasn’t actually that dark, it was more like looking through frosted glass. People love the project and are already rallying for it to succeed. People really want the convenience of multitasking and listening to essays in an entertaining format.
But I believe that you need to learn to deal with frosted glass before you can think about colonising Mars.
7. Some problems are so obvious, we don’t even see them
When I first read about Joel testing the Buffer concept, I just couldn’t see that scheduling tweets solved a real problem. It didn’t seem to be significant enough to form a product per se. I thought the same when I first saw Product Hunt — I didn’t see the value in a HackerNews for products. I’m glad I was wrong — the best ideas are sometimes staring us right in the face.
Chris Dixon argues that the incumbents always miss out on the next big thing because it looks like a toy.
And just yesterday, I was chatting with Benedict Evans about this kind of incrementalism on twitter: he reminded me that “small changes can add up to a huge change.”
Cutting the boot time for your OS by a second might seem trivial for an individual, but multiplied out over millions of users it saves lifetimes in time and anxiety.
Curating articles and reading them aloud means people can digest content without taking time out of their day to sit and read AND fill up the dead time when they’re doing laundry.
8. Great artists steal
There’s no need to build anything new when you’re experimenting. I didn’t write a single line of code. The key to building an MVP (and even a great full-scale product) is hacking together open source software, free trials, existing hosting accounts, free distribution channels. And if things get too complex, Zapier and IFTTT are the digital duck tape that turn moving parts into a cohesive engine.
Beg, borrow, copy, steal.
Truth is though, none of these learnings are actually new. It’s more of a list of fundamentals I notice resurfacing whenever I ship something new, a set of principles I’ve picked up over time.
You can read other articles just like one over and over and the ideas all make sense at face value. But it’s when you build things then pause to reflect, that you realise they’ve become part of your modus operandi.
Anyway, if you’re too busy / lazy to read articles, you might be interested in having them read to you by awesome people like Baratunde Thurston instead. You can sign up at baratun.de
Finally, massive thanks to Baratunde Thurston for going along with this crazy experiment. You’ve been an utter gentleman. I’m so glad I followed my gut and started this thing.