How to start as an Indie Hacker
Ideate, Execute, Launch, Iterate, but mostly, just start.
What is the best way to start creating a product as an Indie Developer? Where can you familiarize yourself? What do you have to take into account? In this article I’ll outline the journey from the ideation phase to the lauch of a product and I will discuss some of the obstacles you might face.
I believe we are living in the Age of Indie. This movement has been gaining momentum for almost two decades: more and more people want to make a good income by working on something they love on their own terms and schedule, that is meaningful and rewards them not just for how much time they put in, but ideally scales beyond their own labor, with a high upside.
The possibilities to start earning your own income online are abundant. In this article I will focus on tackling a problem by building a product and going to market as a one-man-shop or small team. Just think of an idea, pick a niche, pick your technology and you are on your way. Being able to program definitely eases the process, but even if you don’t have the technical chops (yet), the No-Code and Low-Code movement keeps expanding the available toolkit for non-technical solo entrepreneurs. You can turn to IndieHackers to get your inspiration and embed yourself into a community, then use Webflow or Carrd to build your product, Airtable and Zapier for data storage and automation, and Stripe and Gumroad to get paid.
Don’t let your fears to start paralyze you. Don’t overthink it, start with a minimum amount of necessary planning and learn as you go. As the founder of Gumroad said:
You don’t learn, then start. You start, then learn. — Sahil Lavingia
As the success of many social media creators, artists, YouTubers and Indie Hackers can attest to, many digital creatives have found ways of combining different income streams to earn a living comparable to the compensation they would earn at their tech firms.
While no longer a novel idea, I believe it’s still undervalued as a means of earning a living: you don’t need to be on the clock, and you can execute your own vision.
Easy right? Yes and no. While it has never been easier to start a company yourself, even if you don’t have an advanced knowledge of programming, making a successful product is not a given. But there are some lessons you can apply to drastically increase your odds of success.
If you’re familiair with the Indie Hacking movement, you might run into some familiar clichés in this article, but if you’re new to the world of Micro-SaaS (software-as-a-service) and Indie Hacking, buckle up and enjoy the ride.
What you will find in this article:
- Some quick points about the journey
- Design & Development
- Marketing & Launching
- Growing & Evolving
The nuts and bolts of starting for yourself, some bulletpoints
- You are in control to create your own destiny, but be prepared to work harder than a 9-to-5, especially in the early phase
- Be consistent, be patient — it takes time to grow the revenue of a product; Do you have a system in place to keep yourself accountable, consistently productive and committed?
- Be aware that for most, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. A lot of the times, successful solo founder have a string of ‘failures’ leading up to their one hit. The lesson here: you can’t fail if you don’t quit. And even if you do determine that a 9-to-5 better suits your demeanor, you’ll have learned some valuable lessons along the journey
- As for commitment, try to solve a problem you’re passionate about, to keep yourself from burning out.
- Ask yourself, what does the smallest version of my product look like; can you find a way to validate the business viability of your idea without writing a single line of code? For example, you could just put up a simple Landing Page pre-built template, with nothing but an e-mail sign-up form to gauge interest in the idea
- #BuildinPublic, find and build your audience while you’re creating it and get buy-in to your company’s brand narrative
- Be prepared to wear many hats: you will design, develop, market and evolve your product yourself
- Ruthlessly prioritize action and making over passive consumption and the illusion of learning— in the end most of your learning will come by doing, that’s the best way to make it stick
- Prefer ‘done’ over ‘perfect’ — better to ship a product that proves to be useless to an audience early on, rather than mull over it for 6 months, only to find out it is received with silence when you finally do launch. Besides, if you launch early and it’s not useful yet, that gives you learnings to iterate on the initial idea.
No-code and Low-code Tools
The current wave of No-code and Low-code tools is really coming into its own. While some of the companies in this space have been on the scene for quite a while, in the last years they have been gaining critical mass.
IndieHackers was acquired by Stripe in March 2017 and has been steadily growing under the tutelage of Courtland Allen.
Airtable was founded in 2012 as a spreadsheet-database hybrid, with the features of a database but applied to a spreadsheet.
Is it for you?
Should you quit your job to become an Indie Hacker? Not so fast. Best to have some money set aside to ride it out for at least a couple of months, but preferably half a year to a year, because you most likely won’t make a lot of money in the early phase of your journey as an Indie Hacker, and it might take a string of failures before an idea proves viable as a business.
As an Indie Hacker you are more than just a developer. You are also a designer, a writer, a marketer, a customer support agent. It is of the essence that you execute all these facets of the job with equal zeal, and not have the tendency to let the success hinge only on your productivity as a developer.
No-code and low-code tools notwithstanding, most SaaS products get started by people coming from tech backgrounds with strong experience as a software engineer. If you don’t have a technical background and you’re going to build a software-product yourself, you’ll have at least two steep learning curves: learning to program, and learning to launch and grow a product.
After you read some case studies of businesses that succeeded and are making an MRR (monthly recurring revenue) of $40k, you might think it looks easy. I certainly did. But beware the survivorship bias… The success stories are more prevalent than those who didn’t succeed.
Furthermore, if you listen closely to the success stories, you find that these Indie Hackers generating a high MRR have had to struggle for long stretches of months, sometimes years. This particular product may have succeeded, but it was preceded by many botched ventures.
Just one example of this is the founder of Snappa, speaking at MicroConf 2019. He paints the picture of a string of ghost towns and half-successes, learning lessons along the way. Prepare for a tough grind, and don’t expect to immediately succeed. The important thing to take away is not to give up in the face of those first failures.
Have a system in place to keep chipping away at the product, while looking for feedback from potential customers. It can be a slow grind at first, but when you’re growing, the return-on-effort will compound down the road.
Not all the efforts may succeed, so launch early and get your product in front of users as fast as possible. Find out if they find value in it, if it’s good enough, and leave yourself enough time to pivot or iterate until you have something worth continuing with. But if not, take your loss and kill your darlings; there’s nothing wrong with abandoning a project that is not growing. Don’t do it too soon. Explore the avenues available to you, like different marketing channels and sales methods, but be honest with yourself when you’re facing a dead end.
Okay, onto the actual journey of building a product.
The Ideation Phase
So, you’ve determined you’re definitely going to strike out on your own. Now what will you build? How do you get ideas?
If you’re having trouble thinking of ideas, there are a couple things you can do. Firstly, start by thinking about where your interests are. Are there any problems you can solve for yourself? Things you are passionate about, obstacles you are experiencing? Recurring advice from solo SaaS-entrepreneurs is that it’s going to be a lot easier to persevere in the face of hardship when you are passionate about the problem you are solving.
Secondly, start exploring what others are doing. An idea doesn’t have to be original. Two archetypal examples are Google’s success after Altavista, and Facebook’s success after Friendster and MySpace. You don’t have to be the first. You have to execute better than existing solutions.
“Great execution is at least 10 times more important and a 100 times harder than a good idea…” — Sam Altman, former president, YCombinator
These are perhaps not the best examples for small solo companies. Think of being nimble, moreso than a corporate competitor. Try to find a niche that is difficult or not worthwhile enough for a large corporate to pursue.
When you zoom into the micro-SaaS ecosystem, there are plenty of workable examples on sites like IndieHackers or Starterstory. And if you want to generate new ideas, this topic on How to Brainstorm Great Business Ideas on IndieHackers is a great source of inspiration.
As a solo founder it’s important to keep your project small initially. Many first-timers fall into the trap that they go for too big of a target audience, and they fail because they try to be everything to everyone. Find something, however small, that can improve life or save time for your potential customers, and productize it.
What minor problem can you solve for a user, so that it eases their lives enough for them to pay you? One good example is Jon Yongfook, an Indie Hacker who started Bannerbear.com; he got his idea from his prior job at an agency. He built Bannerbear as a way of automating image generation for agencies and creatives — you can find part of his story here.
However, as I’ve mentioned before, ideas are only part of the equation. Executing on your product and distribution is equally, if not more important.
Designing a Product
I find that it helps to know what you’re building, visually and functionally, before you start building. Keep in mind that what we’re trying to do here is to launch a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) to go to market and get it in front of users as soon as possible. As the Lean Startup professes: Build, Measure and Learn.
When you’ve nailed down your idea, start sketching out user-flows and turn it into a low-fidelity prototype. Use pencil and paper in this phase, and know which screens and pages you will need to develop. No need to get overly attached to it, as this is a throwaway form of creation.
Once you have a general idea of how a user can use your product, take a tool like Figma or Adobe XD to create it in a little more detail, but only so much that you have enough clarity to build the product MVP, whether in code or using a no-code tool. Ultimately, these design decisions are based on the constraints in flexibility of the tech-stack you will adopt later on. So it’s essential that you take the technological affordances of the tech you want to use into consideration at this stage of product development.
At this point in time it’s also important to constrain yourself. Having so many options in your design direction can be paralyzing. A problem I’ve recognized in my own creative process is that I grant myself too much time to dabble in different design directions. Restrict yourself; just pick a quick color scheme, determine which components the minimal featureset of your product needs to entail and get your designs ready to be processed. Be deliberate on a direction; don’t fall in love with early versions of your product. You can always change course later on.
Remember that, while UI/UX is important, animations and micro-interactions should be an afterthought, and most likely do not have a place in your initial MVP. Keep yourself leveraged. The initial version of the product should ideally do one core feature well. Function over form.
If you can, make an interactive clickable prototype in one of the aforementioned tools and get this in the hands of some early users, by teasing your process through some of your social channels or on Indie Hackers, for example.
Developing & Building a Product: the Tech Stack
Now you have a blueprint of what the product should look and feel like, it’s time to start building. As I noted, prior to building you should have already determined the tech stack you will use to build the products.
What you should use depends on your own experience. Advice I like to adhere to is ‘Build what you know’. Easier said than done when you have no technical background. In that case, pick the road of least resistance. Familiarize yourself with no-code tools. Watch a few tutorials on YouTube. But don’t lose sight of the goal: to build an MVP as soon as possible, and get a working product in front of potential customers to validate the viability of your business. Learn from their feedback. Iterate on that.
A note on different technical backgrounds
In the following sections I’ll quickly discuss three scenario’s at the start of your indie journey: someone with a technical background in backend engineering, a technical background in front-end, and a non-technical background.
You are a (former) software engineer with backend skills
Great! You’ve got all the tools in your toolkit to build a product. However, there are some subtle but harmful pitfalls specific to founders like these.
- Overengineering. Just because you know how to set up a complex relational database in PostgresQL or MySQL, doesn’t mean you have to. Try to validate your idea early on — it’s about business viability, not complexity of tech stacks.
- Losing sight of the other aspects of being a solo SaaS founder. You’re wearing many hats: a focus on UI/UX design and Marketing are essential for the growth of your product. Remember, you’re building a product for the user. While your software should be performant and fast, the user doesn’t care about your tech stack, she/he just wants it to solve his/her problems. So put a sizeable amount of care into the front-end of things.
- Shiny object syndrome: in this day and age of ever advancing and new technological tools, don’t be distracted by what’s currently trending.
You have some front-end experience building websites
So you’re fluent in developing the front-end of an application. Some pitfalls overlap with the previous category:
- Remember your end-user. The points mentioned above also apply here.
- Specific to this group: what do you use as a backend? Should you learn to create and manage a database from scratch? Fortunately there are a lot of options allowing you to be operational sooner and with less hassle. There are ‘serverless’/Cloud Databases, or backend-as-a-service (BaaS): Firebase, Supabase, FaunaDB.
- Shiny object syndrome: okay, so you know Vue or React, but what if you built this product with Svelte, or not with Next.js but with Remix? Everyone’s raving about that. No. Focus on what you know, and get to shipping!
As for point 2, Firebase is arguably the most mature product in this space. It takes a lot of maintenance work off your plate: authentication, a cloud database called Firestore, and cloud functions. There’s a generous free tier, allowing you to test your product without paying. If you want to scale up you can ‘pay as you go’ on their Blaze plan.
But even here, you might not need a back-end for a first version of your product.
You have a non-technical background
You’re a non-technical person, like a marketer, a writer, a designer? No-code/Low-code is the way to go: Bubble, MakerPad, Webflow, Carrd, SquareSpace, or you could go for WordPress, or Shopify of course. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you have a good idea you can see through a product to completion.
Keep the product simple, start with one simple task or feature that your clients would be willing to pay you for. Keep your design simple. The design does not have to be super slick and on par with a Big Tech company, but it also shouldn’t contain any egregious UX faults. Educate yourself on some UI patterns and best practices (Don’t Make me Think and The Design of Everyday Things) are some well known entry level books on website and real life applications of user experience. UX Collective on Medium is a good starting point as well.
The main thing in this phase is to test your idea, your assumptions, and validate your business thesis without spending too much time on winding paths and distractions. Get your product in front of users, and see what they want.
The best feedback is the fact they pay for your product, so actually forking over money. Words only mean so much: ‘Could you add this feature, and then we might buy it’ is a definite red flag.
Monetizing & Pricing your Product
How will you price your product? If you offer software-as-a-service, the most popular pricing model is the subscription model. The subscription model offers you a predictable amount of income, allowing you a stable way of planning the future of your product, so you can determine if you can keep working on it. However, the psychological barrier for a customer to commit to a subscription can be higher than if you go for a one-time model, which is more common when selling retail or info-products.
There are some fundamental strategies to pricing your SaaS. You don’t want to be competing on price, as that’s a race to the bottom. Price your product based on the value your customer attains by using it. I could write a lot more of this but I think it would serve you better if I point you to the writing of Patrick McKenzie, an entrepreneur and current Stripe employee, who has written with a lot of clarity on the subject, and from whom I adapted these points. See for example:
Former Wired founding executive editor Kevin Kelly is famous on the internet for arguing that getting an audience of 1000 true fans would be enough for a person to build a sustainable career — in the case of a micro-SaaS this might look more like 100 true clients that give you recurring revenue through a subscription model.
Other models include advertising and sponsorship: Indie Hackers was sustained on this model prior to being acquired by Stripe.
Finally, I’ll refer to the open source business models here.
Marketing & Launching your Product
It is generally advisable to build your product in public as a way of both getting early interest in your product and validating whether you are addressing a pain point.
The knife cuts multiple ways.
You get interest from your audience, you build and define your audience, you keep yourself accountable for progress, you can source beta testers from this early audience to validate your product, and you get people excited about it, creating a group of early supporters when you finally launch on different platforms.
Be thoughtful about the distribution channels you focus on. It’s best to go all in on one or two of them, than to do too many of them half-baked.
Depending on whether you are building for consumers or businesses, this determines the marketing/sales path you choose.
Let’s first take the case of marketing to consumers: early channels can include paid marketing via social media and Google Ads, but you should mostly engage with your users where they are: on Twitter, specific Facebook Groups, Discord or Slack channels, whatever makes sense for the product you’re selling. Be helpful when they have questions, and engage if your product can solve their painpoints. Don’t be too on the nose with the marketing, nobody likes to be sold to. Mostly be helpful and offer value, solve your customer’s painpoints.
SEO (both technical on-page SEO and content-marketing) is an essential and viable long term, scalable strategy. Although it may take a while for your site to be indexed by Google, and get domain authority.
You would do well to maintain a corporate blog where you write extensively on the obstacles your customer experiences. Write about use-cases and show the benefits your product offers.
SEO is an art and science in and of itself as well so I’d advise you to do some research concerning strategies and tactics that fit your product.
Some very helpful posts I found are:
- https://foundationinc.co/lab/canva-seo, about how Canva applied SEO principles to fuel their growth
- And check out Indie Hackers for different useful posts categorized under SEO, such as: https://www.indiehackers.com/@czue/seo-for-developers-reaching-the-front-page-of-google-without-being-spammy-7bc350d171
- A beginner perspective: https://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo#home
However, if you are addressing a Business-to-business (B2B) clientèle, there will probably be more sales activities and direct outreach (cold e-mails, Twitter DM’s) involved.
As a generalist myself, I have to say sales is a non-existent skill in my toolkit as of yet. My best advice would be to think about creating e-mail marketing drip campaigns, have a good onboarding flow for your product.
Own an e-mail database of interested clients and leads. Acquire their e-mail by creating a landing page and offering something like an info-product like a free whitepaper when a person enters her e-mail.
You can then send them different messages in a personalized way, depending on their stage in the customer journey. Have pre-defined templates of subsequent e-mails to send your interested audience. For example, you can follow up with them seven days after they sign-up with some informational e-mails.
A note on Analytics
When you’re doing paid (and for that matter organic) marketing, it’s important to measure what your efforts are netting you. Data can give you insights in how your product is used, and also important, where there may be friction in your funnel, where there may be users dropping of, or being confused. I won’t dive too deep into it here, but I’ll leave you with this video by YCombinator where the founders of Reddit and Twitch discuss measuring metrics.
Where do I launch?
Look at you! You’ve built a product and are ready to launch it. But where? The best is of course tailored to what your product is trying to solve. There are the usual suspects:
Also, read this blog by Pieter Levels on how he got his product to #1 on ProductHunt and HackerNews: https://levels.io/product-hunt-hacker-news-number-one/
Growing & Evolving your Product
An often heard phrase is that a digital product is something you don’t launch once, but that’s an ongoing process. Ask yourself how you can better serve your user, build a roadmap, and prioritize those features that have the biggest impact on your product. Don’t neglect improving the conversion rates of your landing page.
Work hard, but at the right things. After all, being busy is not the same as being productive. Be deliberate about what you do. People waste too much time, not following through — don’t squander it. Sit down, do the work.
Some parting words
Alright, thanks for making it this far! I’m excited to start this journey with you.
Now, start your journey. You’re ready. The rest you can learn along the way, by doing and continuously shipping and launching new features. If you’re interested, in the coming weeks and months I’ll dive deeper into more aspects of the journey!
I will write more in-depth articles on several more of these topics, so be sure to follow me at cfhendrix.vercel.app or on Twitter if you’d like more resources and follow my own journey as Indie Hacker.
Resources to help you along in your journey
Familiarize yourself with this list of resources. There are useful forum posts, users offering their service and their knowledge, and the thing I like most are the podcasts, where succesful solopreneurs share their journey and their obstacles. It’s very inspirational.
- For who doesn’t know him, Pieter Levels, OG Indie Hacker, lists all his projects and many more interesting blogs on his website: https://levels.io/projects/
- IndieHackers.com, the platform where all aspiring indie hackers come together.
- There is also a nice idea validation model by CSAllen from IndieHackers.com and a post on how to brainstorm ideas.
Some lessons from succesful Indie Hackers:
- One year of indie hacking, I’ve learned a lot!
- Monica Lent on Twitter: “Second year as an indie founder & creator: complete ✅ It was not easy. And I don’t have everything figured out. But after a disastrous first year, my self-funded business earned more in 2021 than my former tech salary. Here’s a look at what made a difference this year:” / Twitter
- Mastering the Lifestyle-First Approach to Indie Hacking with Daniel Vassallo — YouTube