I launched Sqlify.io back in November, 2016. And in just four months after the launch, it became profitable at $300 MRR. Today, it's averaging $600 MRR (at $900 monthly revenue) and it's growing steadily.
This post is about my journey as a solo founder bootstrapping a side project to a profitable business, while working a full-time job as a CTO. I'll try and keep this one short and to the point, giving way to more advanced articles down the road. I hope you find it useful!
- Make sure you understand the problem you're solving, solving a problem that YOU have is a big plus
- Start with an MVP to prove your core product idea, don't spend months building the wrong thing
- Analyze how users engage with your product, automate customer feedback and make it guide your product development
- Product releases are important to get right, they'll give you a spike in traffic and a lot of links back to your site
- SEO, SEO, SEO
- Do price testing very early on until you find the sweet spot, this can significantly increase your revenue
Initial idea and MVP
The idea behind Sqlify sounds simple at first, you give us data in a format, and we convert it to another format. But as with everything, the devil is in the details, and those details make a huge difference when people choose a product over another.
As with most businesses out there, Sqlify started out as a product to solve my own problem, to import some JSON data into MySQL. Solving your own problem is great because you are your own target audience and you know a lot about what kind of solution you are looking for.
It also keeps you motivated to work on it, nothing is worse than the feeling of working on something that you're never going to use, I have done this countless times with small projects and I've always ended up burnt out.
It might sound obvious, but when you encounter a problem, chances are that a lot of other people will or already have encountered the same problem, and are also looking for a solution.
Now that I knew what problem I wanted to solve, I started working on a solution that would work for my use case. I built a very rough MVP in a weekend that looked like this:
I didn't spend hours designing a logo or coming up with a color palette, I didn't spend weeks developing the perfect architecture, I didn't spend days designing a great UI, and I probably chose the least creative name ever. But it allowed me to test it and see if people were using it, which is what matters.
This is very hard to do at first, specially for people with a technical or creative background. We strive for perfection, we need to religiously follow test driven development, use the latest shiny framework or technology, and we end up losing sight of the original objective. As much as I enjoy coding, it's a means to an end.
Measuring the MVP
I did not release this version on ProductHunt/HackerNews or anything like that, I sent it to all my colleagues and got some very quick feedback. I also shared it in smaller forums, and Q&A sites.
Something that proved very important was to properly set up product analytics to understand how users engage with your website. At this stage it is very difficult to get big amounts traffic to your site, so any insight you can get from the small amount of users that reach your site is gold.
In my case I set up some Google Analytics events to cover the few features I had. Some very good alternatives to GA are Mixpanel or Hotjar (great if you still don't quite know how your UI will be used or have lots of things to track).
After a while, I started noticing that:
- People mostly used the upload file feature as opposed to manually pasting the content
- My server started to crash because people were trying to convert very big files
- I reached out and most of them told me they were willing to pay to get those big files converted
- Some people wanted an API to convert files programmatically
I started working on the second phase of the product with a special focus on big files, this meant that the user experience needed to make file uploading and downloading first class citizens.
After a few long nights and weekends, the second version was finished:
As you can see, the design is much cleaner, and converting a file is the core feature and is friction-less.
I was happy with the result, so I proceeded to release it, and it went surprisingly well. It took me from a couple of users a day to a big spike of traffic, and then consistent traffic from other forums and new aggregators linking to me during the following months:
Here are some things I wish I knew before I released:
- Release on ProductHunt just after midnight San Francisco time, to have a bigger window of voting and consequently better chances of being at the top.
- Get an established user to hunt your product in ProductHunt.
- Prepare a checklist of where you are posting your product, as soon as you put it somewhere you will get easily distracted by all the comments.
Charging for it
At this point, ignoring my own time working on it, running Sqlify was almost free:
- .IO domain ($28/yr)
- SSL certificate from LetsEncrypt.com ($0)
- Emails with Mailgun.com ($0)
- Server in DigitalOcean ($5/mo)
This means that even if I got a single paying user, I would be "profitable".
So I set up a Stripe account and decided to start charging for files bigger than 100MiB with a flat rate of $21/mo and an initial release discount of 30%:
Scaling & Growth
Getting those first paying users was very hard, because of the nature of the product, that initial traffic coming from the release probably thought the product was cool, but never used it because they didn't have a use case for it at that moment.
I mean, who's got a CSV just laying around waiting to be converted?
I spent time and money trying to get those initial users with Google Ads, and it was all for nothing, unless you have deep pockets or your niche has no competition, it will always be too expensive. If I were to do this again, I would always invest my time and money on SEO first.
A week after the launch, Sqlify started to rank in Google for most of the keywords I was targeting and I started to get some organic traffic. Before launching, I used the AdWords Keyword Planner to figure out what keywords made sense for me and SEMrush to track rank changes, both tools are free to use!
All my first paying users came from organic search.
Something that worked great was to make every combination of conversion options have their own landing page, even though they share the mostly same UI:
As you can see, they have enough differences to not count as duplicate content for search engines. And it means that I automatically have relevant pages for all converting options, which is great for ranking and getting a better click through rate in the search results.
These optimizations can be very helpful, and you should definitely work on them, but it's easy to keep optimizing your page and expect changes to happen: without other sites pointing to your site, you're not going to rank for anything.
Overall, 70% of the traffic came through organic search and it is something I have been growing through relevant content and link building since then.
At this point, organic traffic was growing steadily but revenue wasn't growing at the same rate.
I added a step when cancelling to automatically get feedback from customers:
The most common response was that they only needed to convert a file once.
So I kind of gave up on reducing my churn rate, just because the nature of the product being a one-off tool made it very difficult to tackle, my time was probably better spent doing something else.
So I decided to improve my revenue via increasing the AOV with price testing, I tried charging more, charging less, but what really worked was introducing different plans with different size limits, and charging a lot more for bigger files:
This change doubled my monthly gross revenue from $300 to $600.
Finding the right price to charge is hard, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later as it's easier to increase prices when you're small, and it can significantly impact your revenue, more than any other optimization.
I haven't paid much attention to Sqlify until now (this was July 2018), but I am not working a 40-hour week job anymore and with new-found time and energy I plan on taking Sqlify a lot further.
I hope this was inspiring for folks looking to launch a profitable side-project or bootstrap a business. Thanks for reading !