How INDIE HACKERS grew from zero to 170k sessions in 3 months

An interview with solopreneur Courtland Allen.

We’ve all dreamed of starting a company one day. Maybe we crave the heady thrill of independence. Maybe the nine-to-five grind becomes claustrophobic. Maybe there’s a problem out there that we have the perfect solution for. But then our aspirations run into the brick wall of reality. Where do we start? How do we find the time? Shit, the dog needs to go out.

In a culture that mythologizes entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial role models seem impossibly out of reach: Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs. But not all founders aim to make a dent in the universe, and Courtland Allen has made it his business to seek them out and share their stories.

Courtland’s site, Indie Hackers, features interviews with solopreneurs and people who’ve built profitable side projects. The interviews are distinguished by their transparency and granularity. Courtland teases out the grittiest of details surrounding monthly revenue, distribution channels, false starts, and counterintuitive success.

Indie Hackers is striking a nerve. In three short months, Courtland has conducted 50 interviews, grown traffic to 170k monthly sessions and 299k page views, attracted 3k email subscribers, and trended on Hacker News numerous times. But there’s one thing he hasn’t done yet: share his own story with the wider tech community.

So, in his first press interview, I give you Courtland Allen of Indie Hackers.

What inspired Indie Hackers? What are you hoping to accomplish with the publication? In a world abuzz with tech media, what makes it special?

Like many of the companies that I interview on Indie Hackers, the website itself came about as solution to my own problem! I wanted to create something that could solve a real problem and reliably generate revenue, so I spent hours scouring Hacker News reading the stories people have shared about their successful businesses. My hope was that I’d be able to discern some useful patterns that would help me to come up with an idea.

About two days into this process, I realized that tons of other people were doing the same research I was. At the very least, they found the stories really fun to read. I figured that I could do a good job curating lots of these stories in a systematic way and making them easy for people to read through. That idea became Indie Hackers.

The big difference between what I’m doing and normal tech media is that the stories on Indie Hackers really give readers a sense of, “I can do this!” The people I interview are just normal programmers who’ve managed to make a few thousand dollars a month off of decent ideas. For the most part, they don’t have VC connections, MIT degrees, or hundreds of employees. More importantly, they’re all totally transparent about their revenue and their businesses, which is really inspiring for people hoping to follow in their footsteps.

In three short months, Indie Hackers has exploded onto the scene with multiple posts going viral even though it has yet to be picked up in TechCrunch or other tech blogs. Can you share some Indie Hackers-esque details about your own growth? What’s going on behind the scenes? What are your numbers? What’s working and what’s not working? What is resonating and why?

Behind the scenes, Indie Hackers is a one-man show. I built the site, the forum, and the blog from scratch. Every Thursday morning I take 1–2 hours to write my weekly newsletter. The rest of the week is mostly tracking down interesting people and then conducting, editing, and publishing the interviews. I also spend a ton of time tweeting, responding to emails, and posting on the forum. Indie Hackers is definitely the most social project I’ve ever worked on, and despite being an introvert, I love it!

I try to be as transparent as possible, so I share all of my important milestones in a timeline format on the Indie Hackers blog. I launched the site on Hacker News on August 11th, and since then I’ve averaged about 128,000 visits/month and grown my weekly newsletter to 4,000 subscribers. Like you said, I haven’t gotten any coverage on tech media sites like TechCrunch or The Next Web. Instead, the vast majority of my traffic has come from people sharing interviews on Twitter, Facebook, Hacker News, and elsewhere on the web.

In terms of revenue, I made just over $800 in October, almost all of which came from sponsorships. Given my traffic numbers, I’m confident I can double or triple that number if I spend more time focused on sponsors, but so far I’ve spent more time focused on growth instead. As a result, I think I’ve learned a lot about what really makes the site valuable to readers.

Nothing moves the needle more than really inspiring and educational interviews. For example, my interview with Mike Carson of park.io who makes $1.5M/year as a solo founder was shared hundreds of times. The same goes for Chris Chen of Instapainting who was down to his last dollar when he rescued himself by starting a business that turns customers’ photos into paintings. Stories like this get people excited and motivate them to start working on their own ideas!

What are the three most important lessons you’ve learned from interviewing dozens of profitable solo entrepreneurs?

I talk to all sorts of smart people whose businesses have failed to get off the ground, and I’ve been there myself a few times. The top problems I see are: Product. Growth. Time.

I used to believe that, when starting an online business, your idea didn’t matter much as long as you executed on it well. Today it’s clear to me that the idea and the execution are both important. If you don’t build something that people love and are willing to pay for, no amount of execution is going to save you. From what I’ve seen, the most successful products often (i) go after boring/straightforward problems, (ii) target businesses instead of consumers, and (iii) solve a problem that the founder herself is intimately familiar with.

The rest comes down to getting your product into people’s hands. So so so many people build something cool but have no clue how to get the word out about it. For developers, focusing on marketing can seem boring compared to writing code, especially when it doesn’t pay off immediately, and so we tend to delay it. Instead, it’s better to thinking about marketing from the get-go, and ideally build it into your product. The most successful companies have some great hacks in this department:

  • park.io owns countless domains that all link back to the main site, driving thousands of hits per day.
  • Indie Hackers is built around interviews that are inherently shareable and basically market themselves once they hit Twitter, Hacker News, etc.
  • Instapainting hit #1 on Google for its top keywords after its founder spent months producing and sharing great content that led to widespread press coverage.
  • Storemapper is easily discoverable in the app stores for platforms like Shopify, BigCommerce, and Magento.
  • SubmitHub was built to handle a pre-existing firehose of incoming requests from people submitting their songs to popular music blogs.
  • Appointment Reminder targeted such a specific niche that its founder was able to easily identify potential customers, contact them, and start making sales from day one.

I could go on and on. Some people have products that are so uniquely amazing that they grow on their own via word of mouth. Instead of counting on that, it’s better to have some sort of concrete sales, marketing, and/or distribution strategy.

The last problem, time, is a real killer. Most businesses are dead before they start, because their would-be founders just never found the time to work on them. It’s hard to juggle a full-time job, family life, and other responsibilities with starting a business. What people tend to do that works well is save up the money to take time off, or they work part-time or contracting jobs that give them extra time on the side. Barring either of those options, I think you just need to put in the hours. Lots of the founders I interviewed were working nights and weekends on their passion projects.

What is the biggest misconception people have about starting their own business or side project? What gets in their way? What should they focus on? What should they watch out for?

Besides all the challenges I mentioned above, I think a misconception that lots of people have is that success will happen overnight. They don’t mentally prepare for the long haul, and when things don’t take off immediately, they get dejected and quit.

But most of the best businesses on Indie Hackers and elsewhere took years and years to grow! If you accept that fact up front, then you can approach your business as something that you can tweak and improve, little by little, month after month, until you’ve built it into something great.

What books, essays, movies, or podcasts have changed your life? How have they shaped your approach to building Indie Hackers?

I only recently got into podcasts, and I’m actually launching a podcast for Indie Hackers soon where I’ll do audio interviews with founders.

Probably the writings I’ve found most helpful are Paul Graham’s essays on startups. Business is one of those scary things where you see lots of smart people failing. That usually means there’s something other than intelligence (e.g. knowledge, wisdom, experience, determination) that contributes to success, so learning from other people’s experiences is crucial rather than diving right in and having to learn from your own mistakes. Paul Graham writes very clearly and persuasively about the things that are most crucial to a startup’s success, and he identifies countless issues that would otherwise be blind spots for new founders.

What does the future look like for new digital media companies like yours? If people are looking to build a publication for the long term, what should they keep in mind? What are your personal goals for the future?

I spend surprisingly little time looking at other companies that are similar to Indie Hackers, and to be honest I haven’t even come to grips with the fact that I’ve started a media company. It sounds surreal just saying it!

In the future, I hope to see the continued democratization of digital media, and I have every belief that we will. There are just countless niches to fill. If people don’t see the stories they care about being reported in the bigger publications, they’ll start their own and probably attract huge audiences.

Personally, I’d like to see Indie Hackers itself turn into one of the better indie hacking success stories. I’m pouring my heart and soul into providing great interviews, and I’m having a lot of fun doing it. From what I can tell, people find it really helpful, and generating a sustainable income would go a long way toward letting me continue this project indefinitely!

If new readers want to check out what Indie Hackers has to offer, where should they start?

I recommend heading straight to the Indie Hackers home page, clicking on any interview, and reading through it! From there, you should definitely consider joining the newsletter or participating on the forum, because the community of fellow indie hackers there is really special.

Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.

Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.