Start a Profitable Business in Six Weeks with Courtland Allen
- how he managed to build a lively community from the scratch
- his tips for first-time founders
- why he wanted to code as little as possible, and still coded as much as possible
- his four-phase success plan for kick-starting a profitable community-based business.
Courtland Allen, is the founder and chief-indie hacker of the Indie Hacker community, he started a profitable business in six weeks. After many years of trial and error, Courtland launched the widely successful indie hacker community and the indie hacker podcast.
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Read the whole episode "Start a Profitable Business in Six Weeks with Courtland Allen" (Transcript)
Michaela:[00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the software engineering unlocked podcast. I'm your host, Dr. McKayla, and today I have the pleasure to talk to Courtland Allen. Courtland is the founder and driving force behind the indie hacker community. Indie Hackers is a community of bootstrap entrepreneurs and makers.
I'm hugely inspired by Courtland and many of the Indie Hackers that I have met online through his platform. Courtland is also the host of widely successful podcast, Indie Hackers. So, I'm very excited that Courtland joins me today. Courtland, welcome to the show!
Courtland:[00:00:32] Thanks so much for having me. I'm excited to be on the show.
Michaela:[00:00:35] Yeah. I'm also super excited. Courtland, I believe you founded Indie Hackers around 2016=2017 after you graduated from MIT. Is that right?
Courtland:[00:00:44] So, yeah, it was in 2016, July 2016 and technically it's after I graduated, but a long time after I graduated because I graduated in 2009. And so, I spent a pretty long stent in my twenties starting different startups in different projects, with varying degrees of success before I eventually settled down and started Indie Hackers.
Michaela:[00:01:03] Oh, you look like 25.
Courtland:[00:01:07] Thank you, that's the most flattering thing anyone's said about me in a podcast.
Michaela:[00:01:10] Yeah. So, well, so why do you think that Indie Hackers was different from the other startups that you tried to, you know, get off the ground? Why did this one succeed.
Courtland:[00:01:20] Yeah. There's a lot I could say about that. I think Indie Hackers, out of all the different things that I've worked on, is the one where I put by far the most deliberate thought and planning and strategizing into whether the idea as a whole could work before I sat down and actually started creating it. And, I think that's a direct result of having had those earlier failures and understanding who I am. You know, what my strengths are, what my weaknesses are. Uh, why I failed in the past, why I succeeded in the past, and really putting all of that to work into one idea. And so probably the first realization that I think went into, building Indie Hackers and figuring out what it would be is just a difference in what I conceptualized to be a business idea. So if you had found me around 2009 when I graduated college and you asked me, you know, what my business idea was, I was working at the time, I probably would have described to you a product idea. I would have told you what I was building and how it works and what the features are and how I'm going to code it, and all like the product side of things. But I wouldn't have been able to say very much about the other part of a business idea, which is like, how are you going to get it in customer's hands and how are you going to basically distribute it, and who are the target customers and how much are you going to charge for it? And all those other parts of a business that are absolutely crucial. Um, I would have just described the product, whereas with Indie Hackers, before I decided to write a single line of code, before I decided to do anything, I was very plugged into, you know, exactly how is this going to work? Um, and all aspects of it, not just the product. And I think putting that kind of thought into every aspect of the business helped me build something that wasn't going to run into some of the earlier problems that I experienced where I wasn't able to find customers or it wasn't able to grow or I wasn't able to do all the other crucial things that helped make a business succeed.
Michaela:[00:02:58] So, two things that I mentioned in the introduction: I said "the indie hacker community" and I said "the indie hacker podcast". So, those are two very distinct things. I think somehow, they are, you know, together, plugged together, but somehow they are also very distinct. Was that your vision at the beginning, was it the idea to build a community and if it was, how have you envisioned to build that business and what was your plan to monetize that community.
Courtland:[00:03:26] Yeah, So it definitely was not my plan at the beginning to have a podcast. That's something that, um, I ended up creating by popular demand. I had no interest in making a podcast in the beginning, but I didn't want to build a community, even though the very first version of Indie hacker wasn't a community and didn't look anything like one. Um, and so I had sort of a, a playbook when I started off with Indie Hackers, I kind of had three or four different phases that I knew I wanted Indie Hackers to go through to get to where I ultimately wanted it to be. So phase one would be, it's basically a blog. It's a collection of information and resources. Specifically these interviews I was doing on the website where people like me, who wanted to be Indie Hackers, who wanted to earn some sort of financial or creative freedom by building their own revenue-generating side projects, where they could go and find a lot of information from others like them who are doing the same thing. And then I figured once people were reading those interviews and if they really liked them, they would subscribe to my newsletter and I would send out my newsletter every week and sort of energize the community, tell people what's new, publish new interviews and advertise those and get people coming back to the site so the traffic wouldn't just die and drop off. Like so many other things that I'd built in the past, the day after launch. Uh, and then once I had people come back to the, the newsletter, then I would actually build a community. So I built a community forum where other Indie Hackers could actually talk and contribute to the site instead of just reading interviews. And help each other through all the sorts of problems and, just like psychological issues and challenges and loneliness and that kind of stuff of being a founder, of being an indie hacker. And so I had this kind of three step process and I knew that each step would sort of make sense first step or the next step easier to get to. If I had interviews, it'd be easier to build a mailing list and if I had a mailing list, It'd be easier to build a community cause I gotta advertise the community to the mailing list, et cetera, et cetera. So that was kind of my three step plan. Uh, at some point there's a fourth step that got inserted in there, which is that a lot of people wanted there to be a podcast. A lot of people said they don't have time to read the interviews on the website, and so I, begrudgingly About six months after I started Indie Hackers, started recording episodes for a podcast, and in many ways, the podcast has become a driving force of Indie Hackers. It's just as popular, if not more popular than the online community and the website.
Michaela:[00:05:32] Yeah. I think the podcast is also what got me into that community. I started with listening to your podcast and yeah, and it got me really excited for everything else. And so I actually took, it took another person to tell me that besides the podcast, there is a, you know, forum and people... So I was like, really? And so I went to the website and it said, Oh yeah, actually, you know, there isn't only the podcast, there's also the whole community, which I really love.
Courtland:[00:06:00] I need to talk about this maybe in the introduction to each podcast episode like, Hey, if you're listening to this, there is a website and there's other stuff besides just this podcast.
Michaela:[00:06:06] Yeah, You should! Because it's much more interactive. Right? I mean, I love the podcast, but then when I realized that when I really start something, now I have a question and we do podcasts, you cannot really ask the question, right? You can go and find episodes that maybe, you know, tackle some of the problems that you're facing, but now with the community you can actually ask a question and people are responding, which I really loved. So, yeah. So you had this three phase plan, and how much time did you allocate for each of the phases? How much, what do you think, what did you thought back then that it will take for each of the phases to, you know, start off well and go into the next phase.
Courtland:[00:06:47] So, even before the three-phase plan, I had like a, maybe we call it phase zero, where it was like, I wasn't even sure what I was going to work on. And so I knew from my previous experiences, kind of the time constraints that I wanted. So specifically when I was sort of going through this process, I had quit my job and I was living off my savings, I had about a year of savings living in San Francisco. If I had moved to a cheaper city, maybe it would have been three years. Um, but I had basically wasted six months of this, just like working on ideas impulsively, not really taking the time to synthesize all the knowledge that I had learned from my previous mistakes and companies, and just doing whatever felt right. After wasting six months doing that, I sat down and was like, okay, let me bring to bear all of my knowledge and sit down and actually create a business idea from scratch that I'm pretty sure is going to work and will avoid a lot of these issues. And that took about three days, three days of just like nothing but brainstorming, about reading other stories from other founders and seeing what work from them and trying to incorporate their learnings and my learnings into a business idea of my own. And that's how I came up with the idea for Indie Hackers, at which point i knew I only had, you know, still six months left in my bank account. And so I knew that whatever I was going to work on needed to be something I could launch in just a couple of weeks, that I could start generating revenue from within a couple of months, and that could ideally get me to the point of profitability so I wouldn't have to go get a job, uh, in six months or less. So, what ended up happening is between the time that I came up with the idea for Indie Hackers and the time that I actually launched was exactly three weeks. between the time that I launched Indie Hackers and I got my first paying customer who actually ended up being a sponsor who advertised on the website was another three weeks. And the time between then and me Bbsically having enough people on the mailing list and I felt comfortable to build a community forum was about a month. And then between the time that I built the community forum and that started growing and the mailing list was growing and the website was growing and it had enough traffic to really get a lot of sponsorship revenue, was another five months. And so to sort of put this all in perspective: I launched Indie Hackers on August 11th, 2016 I was profitable and around February or March of the following year where I was making enough money where I could pay my rent, pay my bills, and I knew that I could keep doing Indie Hackers indefinitely if I wanted to because I wasn't going to start to death.
Michaela:[00:09:08] That's really fast. I mean, from my perspective, it's really fast. It's something, I mean that you can see already. People wanting to, you know, sponsor something that you are making within a few weeks I think is very successful. What do you think? Why? Why was that like that? I see several other communities. I mean, there are some other really successful communities, like the practical deaf and, uh, but some of them are struggling and I think they mostly struggled with finding the right business model. So they struggle also to keep the people engaged on their websites. Um, why do you think that happens and what's your advice for somebody that wants to build a community?
Courtland:[00:09:51] Yeah. So I think, um, I've learned so much by just running Indie Hackers and that was kind of the plan: I get to talk to so many founders, read so many stories, do so many interviews that I will become a better founder myself. And having done that, I've, I've really, I ended up believing heavily that almost all of this stuff you can kind of figure out beforehand. You can examine the fundamentals of your business, what the different levers are that you can pull, why things will work, why things won't work before you write a single line of code, before you take any actions whatsoever. And I think it's worth doing that. Uh, and I think the reasons why Indie Hackers was able to sort of succeed so quickly weren't an accident. So, um, very specifically, I think there are a few principles that come into play here. Number one: if you're going to start a business and you want to generate revenue, you're much more likely to generate meaningful revenue quickly if you're charging for something that has a lot of value to your customers. And by value, what I mean is they're willing to literally pay you a lot of money per customer. And so on the extreme end of the spectrum, you might have someone who's building something and they're charging one or $2 a month, you know, or $15 a year, $5 a month, something super small. Where in order to make that work, you need thousands of customers. If you're going to charge $5 a month for your product, you need 2000 people to pay you if you want to reach $10,000 a month, which is kind of like the point of profitability for most developers starting companies. Um, let's say you're doing the opposite end of the spectrum. Let's say you're charging customers like $1,000 a month or something. You know. Significantly higher than $5 a month. Well, you only really need 10 customers if you're charging that much, and it's way easier to find 10 customers than it is to find 2000 customers. And so I thought about this a lot, um, when I was starting Indie Hackers and thinking about my business model and thinking about what worked for other people.
If I only have six months of runway in my bank account, I can't afford to build something where I can only charge $5 a month. And with sponsorships and ad revenue companies are used to paying many hundreds or thousands of dollars for these deals. Um, when they're advertising on your website, they can see very directly how advertising is going to help them grow and sell their own products and services. And so they're willing to shell out that kind of money. And in fact, a lot of the people who ended up advertising on Indie Hackers had giant advertising budgets. And I would email like their heads of marketing and people in the marketing department who's literally entire job it was to spend their advertising budget. And I think this trips a lot of people up. They think, Oh, you know, you're, you're an anomaly. If you can build a company that grows your revenue super fast, but I don't think that's necessarily the case. I think it's just a choice. If you choose to do something where basically your revenue is going to grow because of sales, because of you reaching out and talking to people one on one and they're going to pay you a high amount per user, then you're going to grow your company pretty quickly. And if you choose to do something when you're charging very little and you're relying on marketing and not doing sales, then it's going to take you a very long time to grow your revenue. And I think, you know, one of the things that goes into that is that it's very easy as a fledgling indie hacker to believe that because you're new and because you're small and you're just one person or two people, you can't build something that you can charge a lot of money for. You think, Oh, you know, in order to charge a lot of money, you have to put in a lot of work and build something really substantial. But that's not actually how it works. It's a little bit counterintuitive, but generally people pay a lot of money, not because you put a lot of work into your product, but because you're solving a valuable problem. And so you could put like 10 years of work and to making the world's best pencil. And it could be like the best designed pencil, looked the best field, the best, have the best led and all this stuff. But at the end of the day, it doesn't matter how much work you put into that pencil, people are only gonna pay you like, you know, five, $10 for a pencil cause it's a pencil. It's just not that valuable of a problem. Whereas you could put, I don't know, a month of work into building a platform to help companies hire engineers. And that's a valuable problem. And even though you haven't put that much work into it, maybe just a month, maybe two companies will pay you thousands of dollars for that, that solution, because ultimately you're solving a more valuable problem. So again, I think it just comes down to kind of a choice as to what you're building. Mmm. And that affects how quickly you're able to grow your revenue. Uh, as for the second part of your question: why do some communities struggle, why do some communities take off? You mentioned dev, uh, they're one of my inspirations, they built one of the most successful communities in one of the shortest periods of time that I've ever seen online. And it's interesting how few people know about dev.to but it's a really impressive community.
Michaela:[00:13:56] It is, yeah.
Courtland:[00:13:57] It's very impressive, but there's lots of other companies and lots of other communities that just struggle to get off the ground. And I think there are sort of a few tricks to building a successful community. First, I think you need to start with your marketing. You don't want to start with the community because the community is kind of one of these chicken and egg problems where the whole value of a community is the people inside of it. You only go to a community because you think there's going to be other people in the community who can help you out or talk to you or provide some sort of value to you. And so, uh, it's really hard to just start with nothing cause there's nobody in the community upfront. So with Indie Hackers, I started off by doing interviews and providing like helpful content for people to read. And that forms the cornerstone of the community. I had many thousands of people coming to the website before I ever tried to build some sort of community where people were talking to each other. And they made it way easier for me to get the community off the ground. Dev is another example. Um, Ben Halpern, the founder of dev, spent years just growing a Twitter account, literally years, just like tweeting funny jokes and helpful stuff for developers. And he built a really huge community around this Twitter account. And so when he launched his online community, his website, he was able to advertise it through his Twitter account the same way I was able to advertise the Indie Hackers forum through the mailing list. Um, the second thing I would say for building a community is that you need to. Even if you have a big audience, you need to start seeding it with discussions. So with Indie Hackers, I literally just made a bunch of fake accounts and I was behind each fake account having these conversations with myself, and then I would send these conversations out to the community that I built through my newsletter or the audience I built in my newsletter. And I think Ben Halpern did similar things, right? He messaged his friends, and had them make the first post on dev. And it wasn't, you know, an organically growing, authentic community at that point. He was sort of doing things that don't scale and brute forcing his community to life. So it would give the appearance of something that was living, try to get those first few users in the door. So I think you need to do some sort of push, some sort of kickstart in the very beginning. Uh, and then finally, I would say, you need your community to be... How do I say this? It's like there's certain dynamics that at any group of people needs, like people aren't gonna form a community around, Um, I don't know, conversations about pizza. Because how often do people really want to talk about pizza? I'll give a few things to say about pizza and then that's it. You've said everything that needs to be said about pizza and you move on, um, whereas certain topics you can talk about forever. So Ben Halpern's community dev, That's all about software engineering. You could talk about software engineering forever. It's the perfect topic for a community because so many people are learning and trying to learn from each other, and there's so many issues and topics and frameworks, uh, there's just no end of the conversations you can have there. Same with being a founder, with Indie Hackers, like trying to go off on your own and become financially independent. There's a million topics and subtopics that people can discuss. They're never going to get tired of discussing it. And so it's the perfect sort of topic to build a community around. so I think you need to choose wisely what your community is built around. And then some other things too, about, you know, the timing that your community gets together and the space your community takes up. So the, the analogy I like to use is if you have a party, let's say you throw a party and it's in a really small room, then you only need 10 people for that party to feel like a success. But if your party is inside a football stadium, you need 40,000 people for that party to seem like a success. And so if you really want to throw a successful party, you need to make sure that like the space that your party takes place in is constrained to the number of people you can invite. Same with a community, a lot of people try to start a huge online forum or they just give the community way too much time and space to exist. But if they constrained it, if they said, Hey, our community is really just one discussion thread and it happens every Sunday at 3:00 PM. Then even with 10 or 15 people, that community can feel like it's thriving because you've set these constraints and then later on as your community grows, you expand it. You add groups, you add more time for the community to be alive and participate. Right now we're in the process of expanding Indie Hackers, we're adding groups or adding a lot more surface area. But if we'd started that way, if we'd tried to start big, rather than starting small, it would have been empty and would, would've felt empty, even if we had a hundred users or 200 users or something, which we didn't. So I think, uh, I can talk about this for hours. How do you start a successful community? But there's a lot that goes into it. And I think if you did your research and you really plan around some of these things, you can start as a successful community, um, and an almost foolproof way. And if you sort of struggle with that and there's probably something that you're missing is some, some crucial aspect that you just haven't really thought through.
Michaela:[00:18:04] So you mentioned at the beginning of that, you mentioned actually how you monetized your community by advertisements and by sponsors and things like that. I know that right now, at least that's my impression, the main sponsor of indie hacker is Stripe, but I'm not really sure what the relationship there is. Um, it also on your profile, it says you are the Chief Indie Hacker at Stripe or something like that. So it seems like you are actually an employee of Stripe, or how does that work and um, you know, how does that influence your business and your business side? And is that the main monetization behind Indie Hackers right now?
Courtland:[00:18:45] So I am an employee of Stripe because in April of 2017, about nine months after I launched Indie Hackers, Stripe acquired it. So Indie Hackers is no longer a standalone business, and it hasn't been for the last two and a half years. It's actually just one product of many at Stripe. Um, to sort of tell the story behind that. Like, my first sort of monetization efforts were just legitimate sponsors, advertisers. So I would email people, uh, like I mentioned earlier, the heads of marketing at different companies who I thought would materially gain from getting their product or their service in front of the Indie Hackers audience. So I would just send a lot of cold emails, like, Hey. This is Courtland. I'm the founder of a community called Indie Hackers. You know, they're 40,000 developers who visit this website every week and talk about these issues, and I think they would love it if you could share your story or your product with them on the podcast or the newsletter, et cetera. And so I did that for a few months, just sort of building up my revenue. And always at the top of my list, like the number one company who I thought there was alignment with, who I thought Indie Hackers really loved what they were selling and who might benefit from selling to Indie Hackers was Stripe. Uh, and so I saved them for last because I wanted to perfect my sales skills and I wanted to streamline the entire process before I reached out to ideally my number one partner and sponsor. But before that ever actually happened, I got an email from Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe in March of 2017 saying "Hey, I've really been admiring what you're doing at Indie Hackers. Would you ever be open to Stripe acquiring it? And you know, if so, like, let's get brunch and talk about like what that might look like." And so I said yes. And we did, uh, end up meeting and talking about it. And about a month later we ended up signing a deal. So, Indie Hackers is no longer a standalone business. I immediately canceled all my partnership deals with other sponsors and advertisers. There's no ads on the podcast, for example, or the website anymore. Indie Hackers is 100% owned at Stripe, owned by Stripe. And we're sort of run as an, almost, not quite autonomous, but like pretty independent team at Stripe. So I report to the CEO. Um, we check in every few months and he sort of gives me some ideas and asks me what I'm up to. Um, they sort of support Indie Hackers financially, pay my salary, give us a budget to work with, in the hopes that Indie Hackers can grow and inspire more people to start companies and you know, Stripe's doing its job right and building a really great product. And a lot of those people who start companies, a lot of these Indie Hackers will end up using Stripe. And so that's kind of our relationship and I think it's really a win, win, win for everybody involved because as an Indie Hackers user, you no longer have to listen to ads. You don't have to read ads, and you know that I'm spending 100% of my time making the website better and more impactful rather than trying to basically sell you ads.
Michaela:[00:21:18] yeah. That's wonderful. So now that's a probably a naive question, but if you sell the company right or it's acquired, would you still hold parts of the company or you, you know, it's 100% with Stripe now?
Courtland:[00:21:33] I think, honestly, what I learned during, through this acquisition processes, is an acquisition can look like pretty much anything. There are a million variables that you can tweak. There isn't just one way to get acquired, but typically if you sell your company, um, the acquire now owns all of it. In terms of like what you get in return for that, like, do you get some lump sum payment? Do you get payments over time? Are those payments conditioned on hitting certain milestones? Do you get equity? Do you get cash? Um, what's your role? Who do you report to? How much do you have to work, what's your budget, et cetera. Those are all open questions that can be negotiated. But at this point in time, like Stripe owns Indie Hackers. It's now no longer its own independent business unit. And I am just as much an employee of Stripe as any other employee at Stripe.
Michaela:[00:22:13] Okay, so. Yeah. it's very interesting, I think. And do you right now, for example, you told me also that you have several employees, right? So there is, for example, Rosie Sherry, it adds really, you know, becoming now the heart of the community, I would say as well. And there are other really fundamental, uh, people involved. Your brother is working at Indie Hackers. So are they also employees of Stripe or how does that work?
Courtland:[00:22:40] Yeah. So our team at Stripe consists of two people full time. That's me and my brother Channing, who joined as sort of a late co-founder for Indie Hackers. So. A couple of weeks before Patrick reached out and asked if Stripe could buy Indie Hackers I actually emailed my brother who's also a software engineer and said, Hey, this Indie Hackers things really working out. Do you want to help me a little bit on the side of your job? And he said, yes. And then when we joined Stripe, I asked as sort of one of my conditions for joining, you know, can we hire my brother to work alongside me? So I'm not just working by myself. And Stripe said, yes. So we are the only two full time employees at Stripe who are part of the team Indie Hackers. But we've used our budget to sort of build up our team regardless. And so we work with, some contractors of which Rosie Sherry is, one of our wonderful contractors. So she's our community manager. She is, as you said, becoming the heart and soul of the Indie Hackers community. She is always online and she's helping everybody out. She's doing our Twitter account as well, and making sure the forum is alive and well, and that it's a useful community for everybody. Um, and what's cool about Rosie is she actually was an Indie hacker who I interviewed and the first few months of the website, she has her own community called the ministry of testing that she bootstrapped from zero to over $1 million in revenue. Um, well before joining, uh, the Indie Hackers team, we also have James and Tila, two other Indie Hackers who work with us in a sort of contractual role. And they help us produce a series we call growth bites, which are just practical examples of how to grow your startup. And we're still working on that. And we might make a sort of a bigger launch with that later on this year. And then we have Holden Ingwerson who is herself, a writer and an editor who helps us put out our text interviews on the website. So in total, there are five of us working on Indie Hackers and then countless other people and services and companies that we use. For example, Bradley Denim, helps me edit the Indie Hackers podcast. Chris Deerman helps us write transcripts for the Indie Hackers podcast and through his company, Expedited Transcripts. So there's lots of different services and people that we work with and other Indie Hackers whose companies we paid for.
Michaela:[00:24:34] Yeah, that's super cool. I can also imagine that now that, you can really solely focus on that community, on the podcast, and whatever you find, you know brings value and don't worry about, you know, how to make money. That's, uh, it must be quite relieving. Um, but on the other hand, now you're actually an employee, not, eh. a business owner or entrepreneur anymore, which also restrict a little bit I think what you can do with the company, you probably have to get the buy-in of the CEO of Stripe. I guess if you would say, for example, Oh, I want to cancel the podcast, or now I want to start a YouTube channel or something. I guess that you have to negotiate with them. , if you can do that and if they are okay with it and if they think that's a good business strategy.
Courtland:[00:25:19] I mean, I think, uh. It's very true. Like I'm now an employee for the first time in my life, actually, I am a full time employee of a company and I had been for the last two and a half years and in a lot of ways that's really weird, but if you look at my life, like the actual day to day of what I'm doing, the decisions I'm making, it's pretty much identical to what it was before I joined Stripe. And this feeds into a point that I, I've always kind of harped on, uh, which is that pretty much every employee is a business. And every business, every business owner is kind of an employee. And what I mean by that is that being an employee, you basically have the same exact concerns as a founder does. You are trying to provide a service to a customer who pays you money in return for that service, and the sky's the limit in terms of what you're allowed to negotiate to do. So if you're an employee, you have to do sales in the form of like pitching your services to a customer. That's like your interview. It's your job interview, right? Why should this customer buy your services? Why should they hire you? Well, you need to prove your worth during the sales call, your job interview. You have to do marketing that's putting out your resume, finding potential customers, in other words, companies to work for. You can negotiate your prices. In other words, negotiating your salary with your employer and your, the way that you provide that service, right? How many vacation days do you get? Do you have to work from the office or not, et cetera, et cetera. I think employees have an infinite range of what they're able to negotiate. If they choose that option. And so my particular job at Stripe doesn't look like a more stereotypical employee's position, right? Like I don't really meet with that many people at Stripe very often. I don't go into the office very often. I don't really ask permission to do anything. So if I wanted to start a YouTube channel, I just, what if I wanted to shut down the podcast? I just would, I love being at Stripe because it's full of really intelligent people who are well meaning, who have a lot of skills that I myself don't possess. And who are all working in the same direction that I'm working in. And so I can go to the design team at Stripe and say, Hey, what do you think about this design? Or can you help me collaborate on this particular website. I can go to Patrick and say, Hey, what do you think about my strategy, um, for what I'm doing and the direction I'm headed in? But generally they help us, you know, run the site and grow it, and we sort of maintain it autonomously. And even though I'm an employee in terms of like what that really means on my goals, in the way that I sort of work at Stripe, it has very little effect. I think one of the reasons why the acquisition has been so good is that Indie Hacker's direction and Stripe's direction were so aligned from the get-go, but even after joining Stripe, I didn't really have to completely change what I'm doing. You know? I'm doing literally the exact same thing with the exact same mission that I had before I joined Stripe.
Michaela:[00:27:47] Yeah. I think that especially your situation also makes that, you know, marriage somehow really unique and very beneficial for you as well. Also beneficial for the other side but now beneficial for Indie Hackers because somehow you are the face of Indie Hackers, right? So it's not easy to. Um, you know, put another person in, in your shoes and say, well, now he or she is the chief indie hacker, right? People would scream the whole, you know, forum, but probably boycott or something. Right? So, and I also think that probably because you're doing it so well, right? They see, and they probably trust your, your instinct and a direction that you're going.
Courtland:[00:28:25] I mean, I hope that at some point, um, it's not that I don't want to be the face of Indie Hackers, but I hope that with every passing week, every passing month, that it becomes a more resilient community that's less focused on my particular input. And I think that's one of the cool things about having a community, especially a community that's growing, is that ultimately 99% of the value that people get from Indie Hackers, people learning lessons, people being inspired to start things. Aren't because of me. It's not because, you know, I'm a Gary Vaynerchuk or Tim Ferriss type figure who gets on and tells people lots of stuff they never heard before. It's more like Indie Hackers is a stage. And we can bring on founders like you McKayla and basically say like, Hey, um, why don't you share your story and your learnings with the community? And people are learning from you and other people like you. And I'm just hopefully a facilitator and a, an increasingly invisible one. So, uh, besides the podcast, I'm really not that visible.
Michaela:[00:29:14] yeah. I like that. I like that idea as well, and I think it's, it's really visible in the community that, each member is somehow valued. based on their contributions and just that they are as well. I also feel like newcomers, for example, are very welcomed in this space, which in other communities, it's sometimes harder, right? But when I started with Indie Hackers where I just joined and I had, you know, only questions, I wasn't providing any answers. Because I didn't feel like I can talk about any of that. Right. I always felt like people are, you know, having an open ear and just, uh, providing genuine answers and I felt very, very welcome. Yeah.
Courtland:[00:29:53] Yeah. I think it's a, it's nothing of my own doing. It's just a, an intrinsic part of any founder community of founders, which is that everybody's new to this. Everybody's trying to figure it out. Even people who are experts, you know, in other's eyes, feel themselves to not be experts because they're sort of looking ahead at all the things they don't know. And they know how hard it was for them to get to where they are. And so we found that people on any actors tend to be really nice to each other and really understanding and compassionate because we're all sort of struggling through this together. And building a company is hard. It's not an easy thing to do.
Michaela:[00:30:22] So I want to switch gears a little bit because one of the things that I'm also very interested in is the technical aspects of everything of the business, for example. So I would like to understand. early days. How did you, you know, how did you build Indie Hackers? You said, I know that from, one of the interviews that you gave, you said that you wanted to write as little as possible code, right. And not, you know, work on something that requires a ton of code for several months on end. But still, you didn't use a out of the box, a forum, for example, or website or community platform. You just built that from scratch as a single page application. So why did you choose to go down that road and, how did it go?
Courtland:[00:31:08] I simultaneously wanted to write as little code as possible, but also wrote as much code as possible. So I think in the phase where I was deciding. The idea that I was going to work on where I wasn't even sure that I would build Indie Hackers. I hadn't even conceived them of Indie Hackers. One of my constraints was I know that in the past I spent months and months and months building projects and businesses without ever telling anybody without ever launching, without ever marketing it. And it's just a death spiral. It's such an easy way to get way behind and take way longer to build a successful business. And I know that I have a penchant for doing that because I'm a developer and I just like writing code. And if you give me something that takes a long time to code, like I'm going to take a long time to code it cause I love doing that part. So I said, okay, if I'm going to work on an idea, it has to be in some area where the actual software product isn't that complex. And like I just. Even if I spend all my time coding, it can't take that much time. And so that's kind of how I settled on the idea for Indie Hackers. Cause I knew it was just going to be a blog at least to start. And then at most it would be a community and a community, at least the bare bones features of it wouldn't be that long. That code, once I decided that's what I wanted to do, uh, the gloves are off and I was like, okay, I can code this as much as I possibly want to. So it was like, do I make a Medium blog or do I set up a community on Discourse? No, I'm going to create my own blogging software from scratch. I'm going to write my own community software from scratch. And because I put that thought into it beforehand where I made sure that I wasn't entering any sort of arena where the code would take too long to write. It was okay for me to do it by myself from scratch. So it really only took three weeks for me to write the blogging software and also, you know, reach out to hundreds of founders and get a bunch of interviews on the site and launch. It only took me eight days, I think from the day I sat down to code the forum to the day that I released the forum and started emailing people about it. Um, because I knew that these weren't things that would take a long time to get a bare bones version out. And I also thought it'd be important to do it sort of custom because I wanted, I was pretty ambitious with the plan for Indie Hackers. I knew I didn't want it to just be a community, but I wanted it to have a really strong brand and it's hard to have a strong brand if the thing you're building looks like everything else, if Indie Hackers was just a Facebook group or a Discourse forum or a blog on Medium and people would come and they might like get a lot of value out of the things they're reading and the people they're talking to you, but they're not going to think of Indie Hackers as its own distinct movement and brand. Uh, and so I put a lot of time into like, how can I make it unique? I put a lot of time into what names should I use for the community. And I decided to give it sort of a demonym, which means that the community is named after the people who are part of the community, the Indie Hackers themselves. Um, what should the website look like? I decided I wanted to make it dark blue. Not because dark blue means anything, but because there aren't any other dark blue websites that I know of. And so when people came to Indie Hackers and read an interview and then they came back a second time, they remember, Hey, I've been here before and it was great. And what is it about this site that I like. Whereas if you go to a blog on medium, they all kind of look the same and it's really easy to not even pay attention to the author or the community or the organization that wrote what you're reading there because it just looks the same. So a lot of what I did was because I knew that I wanted the brand to be strong and to have a strong brand, it needs to be distinct and have a personality of its own.
Michaela:[00:34:04] And now that Indie Hackers actually, you know, grew into a large community, I think there are many, many features as well that you provide for the community. Is it still maintainable, is it still sustainable that you think, well. I myself, and I don't know if your, your brother helps with this as well. We are the only ones that are actually developing the software and that's okay. Or do you feel sometimes that you need a team to maintain and develop the features.
Courtland:[00:34:33] I think it all depends on how fast you want to move, because we're owned by Stripe because Stripe is funding the project. We're not going to die if we don't run at a certain speed and the flood site is going to collapse, like that's not gonna happen. So we could go as slowly as we want to. I could build one feature a year, and I'm sure Indie Hackers would still be a valuable, fun place. And so I want to add, I don't feel like, you know, we need a massive team and things we've got to break without that. Uh, we're not Facebook, we're not moving fast and breaking things and trying to outpace the competition to become $1 billion company. But on the other end of the spectrum. It would be nice to have more people. I think it's, it's in the cards. Like we're planning to hire another full time engineer for Indie Hackers and even my brother has sort of got the content machine for Indie Hackers streamlined nowadays. So he's going to start coding more and there's just so many cool things we want to build that we think would be, um, really cool for Indie Hackers themselves. I think this is one of the advantages of having built custom software. Like there's some, there are certain features on Indie Hackers where if we had gone with some sort of existing platform, like we just couldn't have built the features that we have now and the features we have now are tailor-made from the ground up to be something that helps Indie Hackers. So a good example would be we have a whole directory of products. So you can make a page for this podcast and say that's your product, and you could share how much revenue you're generating. You have a timeline where you can make posts about different milestones that you hit, and all those milestones you post go into a daily leaderboard. Where the top milestones by upvote counts sort of get featured in our newsletter and they show up at the top of the homepage and they sort of help you build in public and show other people what you're working on and get like kudos and celebration from the community. And that's a feature that was designed from the ground up, like nuts and bolts to appeal to Indie Hackers. And we had to have something custom. To build that. And there's a lot of other custom features that we want to build too that will make Indie hacker specifically really good as a website for Indie Hackers, the people. Mmm. And so part of me is impatient. I want to build all these things as fast as possible, but another part of me likes that we're, we're sort of slow and deliberate. We put a lot of thought into the things we add. And we spent the bulk of the last two years really experimenting with lots of things that we've tried and shut down and tried and abandoned or try it and stuck with because they ended up working.
Michaela:[00:36:36] Most of the time people don't have not enough features they have too many features. Right? And then people somehow get caught up in that feature hell somehow. Um, so I think that a lot of discussions on Indie Hackers are also about the features, you know, one, one person likes to feature, "I think it's awesome", the other thinks "no, it's actually not." And "I don't like it and I hate it". You know, maybe even, right. And people get very passionate about features, right? So either they are in love with it or you know, they hate it, something like that. So how do you, how do you balance that? How do you make decisions? Um, is it really just your, the impression that you have, the feedback that you got, or do you run also some experiments and you have some data on how people are using the features and things like that?
Courtland:[00:37:18] Yeah. I think there's, um. And this goes back to the whole thing we were talking about earlier, like what are the limits of your team? How do you build something that grows quickly? How do you grow when you only have a small number of people? I think you always have to realize what stage you're at and what resources you're working with and just deal with those. So for us, it's like we have a very small team. I'm the only person writing code for Indie Hackers right now. I can't really afford to spend a whole bunch of time. Beta testing everything and AB testing everything and making perfect decisions. I just don't have that much time. If I had a team of like 50 people, I could do that. Uh, I could have a person who's dedicated job it is to do nothing but talk to customers, another person who's dedicated job, but it's do nothing but run AB tests. But since I don't have that, I just want to prioritize and figure out what's the most important and what things have to slide. And so a lot of it is intuition. Well, a lot of it is talking to people. I send out tons, like thousands of surveys a month to, Indie Hackers at various, you know, parts of the process of signing up and being members. I talk to people constantly and I ask them for feedback on kind of the more, I don't want to say boring, but like straightforward parts of Indie Hackers. Like what do you not like about the site? And I get really basic feedback like, okay, I wish this, it was faster. I wish this didn't have this loading page. I wish you had a feature for DMing people. I wish you had X, Y, Z. Why isn't there a poll? I can embed a YouTube video. And that's a lot of the nuts and bolts that I would sort of file under iterative incremental improvements to the core product of Indie Hackers as it is now, and I tried to spend a lot of time on that because of the product should be getting better. The things people are doing every day should be, uh, improving on a regular basis. So people know that this is a living, breathing community and that it's getting better and that we care about it. But then there's a whole different set of, development and goals and features that we build that people generally aren't going to be able to tell you what to do. Um, these are the more imaginative things, like for example, the milestones leaderboard I was describing earlier, where we're building those from the ground up based on problems that people have, uh, that we want to solve. So when we think about our mission, it's, it's basically we have this vision for the world where there are. You know, 10 times more, a hundred times more thousand times more Indie Hackers out there building their own profitable side projects and becoming financially independent. And we think about, well, what are the things holding people back from doing that? Well, they're not inspired enough. They're not educated enough. They're having trouble coming up with ideas or having trouble meeting partners or having trouble taking time off work with finances and finding the time. They're having trouble growing their products once they get started. And so we spend a lot of time just asking people what problems they have and then thinking about the resources that we have and how we can build new things from the ground up. To try to help founders solve these problems. And that leads to ideas that generally speaking, no one's going to suggest for us to build, uh, on their own. We have to sort of come up with those ideas ourselves, try them out, see what happens, and continue to iterate. So it's really just a balancing act between building the sort of obvious incremental improvements that we know we should be building and building these bigger more experimental things that are not quite obvious and that we have to really put a lot of time and thought into.
Michaela:[00:40:12] So what I really like from what you are saying, and you actually repeated it in several, you know, variations all over this interview is you are talking about, you know, faces. And I think this is so fundamental, faces, because. When you're, so let's say you want to start your business and you're reading up on all the different things that you should do and you know, you can get so hung up in the end state that you actually want to reach, right? That you don't see the steps that it will take. To get you there. And for example, just from my example, when I started, um, my business, my side project, I thought, well, obviously I have to have a social media presence, but I couldn't decide which one. So I started a Twitter account, or I revived mine. Um, I started also a, Pinterest account, and then I had an Instagram account. And somehow I tried, you know, to do it all and read up on all the strategies for everything. And it was just dreadful. First of all it didn't work right. But then I felt like, wow, but if I'm concentrating on trust one, then that's so limiting and that's not safe, you know? Things like that. But, actually it's faces, right? So why not, as you said, the practical dev, why not start off with a Twitter account? Um, it means that you are putting all your eggs into one basket, and probably that's not a long-term strategy. But if you're focusing here on that first step, right, you can put much more energy into it. Right. And you can get much further than if you're spreading yourself very thin. And again, with Indie Hackers you had like these phases in this plan. And now when you're talking about the features, I see again, that you're thinking in phases. And I like that very much. I think it's such a valuable lesson. And especially for people, I think a lot of Indie Hackers are probably like me, which are relentless. And, um, you know, I'm very, I'm very impatient. I would like to do everything today, right? And I'm really stressed out if I haven't, you know, finished all my tasks forever, right? All the tasks, whatever I have on my list, why can't I finish this today? And so thinking about those phases, I think is really. Really valuable. And that's something that I learned within the last year of, you know, starting my side business. Just to think of, you know, what's the long-term goal here? And I'm thinking in five years right now, and not in, in one year. Right. And then have incremental steps, how to, go there.
Courtland:[00:42:35] I think that's so smart. And you know, one of the biggest challenges as in indie hacker, you're trying to get information for what you should do. But most of the examples out there are companies and people who are just much further ahead than you are, and they probably have more resources and money and time than you do, right? You might be working a job, you might not have very many savings. You might be by yourself. And so you're right, like you have to think in phases. You have to think about, I might have this ultimate end goal that I want to get to. You know, maybe I want to be on every social media channel and maybe I want to be doing all these things and be this big, but like, I can't just. Magically start doing that from day one. Day one, you need to like work your way there step-by-step. One small step at a time, and each little foothold you take sort of each step you take up the staircase, gives you that advantage that you need to reach the next step a little bit easier. It's much easier for me to build a mailing list. When I had interviews that people were reading then it would've been for me to build a mailing list if I had nothing to show for it. Well, it was much easier for me to build a community if I had this mailing list, I could advertise to you. Then it would have been if I'd tried to start a community from scratch, even though that was my ultimate goal, I had to get there step by step. So that's been one of my biggest learnings from years of starting things that didn't work very well. And it's, uh, something, you know, like talking to other Indie Hackers and seeing the things that they're struggling with. I think so many people would be doing much better if they were okay with starting small. They're okay with just focusing. And saying, you know, there are all these other awesome things that I could be doing that I want to do, that I should be doing, but like I have to focus. And focusing is hard because oftentimes it feels like saying no to things that you should be doing, but like you have to say no to the, to the good things so that you can have time to do the great things.
Michaela:[00:44:07] It's super hard. So I spent, I think four or five months is just trying out everything so that I don't feel like I'm missing out if I'm focusing and niching down. And that's also, I felt like I needed that I needed to just try crazy things that I didn't even want to, you know, make a business out of it. But it just felt like, okay, I have to try it once. And, uh, then I can say, okay, I've done that. Right. And now, now I'm, I'm niching down. And I say, well, that's actually, and you know what happens if you niche down. And you try to do the smallest that you can imagine and you start it, you find out that it actually expands and suddenly you can even do, you do the small thing. This small thing has so many facets and so many ways you could do it and you, you know, that it's actually not small anymore and it's not boring or, you know, limited. It's actually very, very rich in what you can do. That's at least what I found out over the last months.
Courtland:[00:44:59] I would call that depth over breadth. And so, you know, for my specific example, uh, there's a part of me that was sad when I decided that Indie Hackers was what I wanted to work on. Cause I thought I have all these skills as a developer and as a designer and like, I could do so much more complex stuff. But then when I started building this blog and I had nothing else to worry about except for just a really simple blog, I realized that there's a ton of depth to a blog. You know, like what can I make it look like? How can I make it work? I could make this blog, uh, so much different and better than other blogs because I had nothing else to focus on. All my attention was pointed in one direction. And I think for a lot of people, they underestimate like how good you can make something if you're really focused on that one thing rather than spreading yourself thin over every single possible idea that comes to mind.
Michaela:[00:45:41] Yeah. Yeah, I think so too. So for example at Microsoft, I worked with engineering teams on different things. I worked on build test coding and code reviews, right? And right now I'm only working on code reviews. At the beginning, I was very scared of that. I was like, Oh my God, what happens to all the other things that I'm so passionate about? But somehow, you know, the big world is in the small things. So even in code reviews, there are so many facets to it that I cannot stop thinking about different aspects of it. Right? And, and I find that really fascinating. And that's really the difference to when you just look at it, and you spend, you know, a week on it, or if you spend months on it, then you just have a very different understanding of it. I think it's true for, for most of the things that you can do whatever it is, what you choose. So I know that we are running a little bit out of time, so Courtland. Thank you so much for being on my show. Thank you so much for taking the time. I will link Indie Hackers and your Twitter account and every other place where people can find you and reach out to you. Is there something that you want to add to the interview at the very end?
Courtland:[00:46:48] No, I think that's, that's pretty much it. If you're interested in Indie Hackers, if you've ever thought that, Hey, maybe you could build something on the side and sort of, you know, make some side income or maybe even become your own boss and work for yourself, check out Indiehackers.com. Um, the two ways I recommend getting started. Well, the three ways are all basically in the top bar. So there's a link on Indie Hackers that says, start here. If you're really curious what this is about and how to get started in a practical way, just click that and you can see everybody else who's gotten started this year, what they're talking about, and some articles that are really helpful for helping you figure out what's going on. If you click interviews at the top of Indie Hackers, you'll see literally a giant list of 450 interviews that you can sort and filter. That show all sorts of other Indie Hackers and how they've gotten started. And I just recommend reading through a few of their stories and that'll sort of orient you with what's possible. Or if you prefer audio, just check out Indiehackers.com/podcast so this is a podcast link at the top, I've done 140 episodes with different founders. Every one of them has had a completely different path. A completely different background to how they started their successful online business or side project. So, uh, whatever your preference is, there's lots of different ways to get involved and sort of get your feet wet and learn how you can change your life by being an indie hacker.
Michaela:[00:47:58] Yeah. Sounds good. I can totally recommend it. I am also dare in that community, so thank you, Courtland. Thank you for being on my show.
Courtland:[00:48:06] Thank you so much for having me.
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