How I Bootstrapped My SaaS Company To $2.5M/Year In 5 Years As A Solo Founder

Develop A Seo Software
About The Company
Coming Up With The Idea
Launching The Business
Growing The Business
Revenue + Financials
Lessons Learned
Recommended Tools
Advice For Founders
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
$220,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
product
Prerender.io
from Boulder, CO, USA
started October 2013
$220,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
85.8K
alexa rank
Discover what tools Todd reccommends to grow your business!
customer service
social media
productivity
payments
other
Discover what books Todd reccommends to grow your business!
Listen to the audio version of this story!

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Todd Hooper, and I’m a software engineer. I founded Prerender.io in 2014. Prerender.io allows search engines to crawl SEO-friendly versions of React, Angular, and Javascript websites.

As a solo founder and employee, I bootstrapped Prerender.io from zero to $2.5 million in ARR over 5 years!

how-i-bootstrapped-my-saas-company-from-zero-to-2-5m-year-in-5-years-as-a-solo-founder-without-employees

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I graduated with a degree in Computer Science from Georgia Tech. I’ve worked at a few different places but I really appreciate my time at Rally Software and Collective IP for being able to work alongside some amazing people and learn about the coding side of things as well as the product/market fit side.

If you can open source your product but have a SaaS service to charge people that don't want to host it themselves, the open-source server almost becomes a marketing tool for your SaaS service.

As a software engineer, I’ve always loved the process of finding the product-market fit for an idea. You learn so much and see things from different perspectives by working on new problems with friends. I’ve built plenty of things where I struggled and failed to build product/market fit... like a social network for action sports which worked similar to youtube+foursquare+soundcloud where you could tag the skate spots in each section of your action sports videos.

In retrospect on my projects that didn’t work, product/market fit was something that I thought would come later and that I just wasn’t finding the right people but the reality was I wasn’t building something that people needed.

In the early AngularJS days, I kept running into the problem where the new products that my friends and I were building were hamstrung by not being able to show up on Google. Over a weekend, I hacked together a way to turn a JavaScript website into an HTML document by basically just visiting a URL in a browser (PhantomJS at the time, but we use Chrome today). It was super simple, and I just released it as an open-source project on Github with a little webpage explaining how to use it. I ended up having 24,000 website visitors in a single day.

At that point, I knew I was onto something so I set out to build a business around the open-source software that I had released. Prerender.io was definitely a side project at first where I answered emails and worked on things after my normal day job at the time. I didn’t have too many customers at the start which really allowed me to continue to work on Prerender.io on the side until the monthly profit was close enough to quit my day job and have Prerender.io become a full-time thing.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I started out hosting our open source software and charged customers for how much they used the hosted service, which enabled Prerender.io to be profitable from day one.

In the beginning, I had a perfect amount of users converting into paid customers that allowed me to spend equal time talking to customers, adding features, and scaling our servers. It felt more like I was constantly putting out fires (while juggling too) at the time, but when I look back that was the best way to force me to work on the most important thing at each moment in time.

I was at first surprised to see that customers would pay for Prerender.io to host everything for them instead of running our open source code on their own servers. I learned, however, that the value of Prerender.io to the customers was in its ability to take nagging SEO problems off their plate. So instead of our open source code competing with our hosted service, our open-source code turned into another avenue to attract customers.

I mainly spent my days talking to customers/fixing things that were causing issues and then spent my nights scaling to handle new customers. Talking to customers while you’re building something that fixes an urgent problem for them is so much fun.

Launching an open-source product and monetizing it is totally doable...it just really depends on what problem your code solves and what the market is willing to pay for. If you can open source your product but have a SaaS service to charge people that don't want to host it themselves, the open-source server almost becomes a marketing tool for your SaaS service.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I mentioned previously that our open-source server was an unexpected avenue for us to attract new customers. With Prerender.io being a developer tool, many blog posts were written about Prerender.io because they could show our open source code and then just include a link to our hosted service at the end.

Our open-source code also allowed prospective customers to give it a test run before signing up. It also gave our larger customers peace of mind since they could run our open source server if they thought our hosted service might somehow disappear one day.

Those early blog posts helped give us a huge boost in our own SEO. For the first few years, we put zero money into advertising, and to this day most of our traffic is completely organic.

We didn't do ads, no webinars, and no partnerships. I just got really lucky in that we solved a specific need that companies were willing to pay for and javascript frameworks were growing at such a fast pace for all different kinds of websites.

I’ve learned that as a founder you should personally answer support questions as much as you can. So much of Prerender.io evolved from listening to customers and just slowly changing things over time.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, we are still doing great! Still growing completely organically and still helping our customers solve SEO issues. Google now recommends using Prerender.io in the Google developer documentation on Dynamic Rendering.

We render more than 50 million URLs every day in Chrome. That’s like opening almost 600 tabs in Chrome every second!

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I’ve learned that as a founder you should personally answer support questions as much as you can. So much of Prerender.io evolved from listening to customers and just slowly changing things over time.

You have to be careful about feature creep, but the great thing about SaaS products is fixing an issue or adding a new feature means everyone else is going to benefit from those changes as well. Similarly, don’t be afraid to remove features that don’t provide much value or make things complicated.

I was able to grow Prerender.io being the sole employee for such a long time because I would relentlessly automate any manual processes. Answering support emails helps with this too because you’re going to get the same questions over and over. It forces you to optimize your time.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

HelpScout is a super awesome tool for handling support emails. All the other tools I tried gave you really gross HTML in an email and I love that HelpScout just feels like a personalized, normal email. The UI is great too.

We use Amazon Web Services which helps us move fast and handle scaling with ease. I’m sure everyone knows about AWS these days, but just being able to focus on the code and not the infrastructure is a huge boost in productivity.

I started out creating my own internal invoicing system which was great in the beginning but it ended up taking up too much of my time to manage as we grew. We recently started using Chargebee for subscription billing and it’s been really nice to automate our billing a little more.

Other notable tools are mostly internal things like Redash (internal graphs/dashboards), Sentry (internal code error tracking), Slack (mainly gif sharing? Some chatting too).

Anything that helps us move faster is a great thing!

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

For entrepreneurs who are just starting or entrepreneurs who are veterans, this is really cliché but don’t be afraid to make mistakes. I’ve built plenty of things/products that have fizzled out but I always learned something along the way.

I’ve felt really stupid and had customers get upset but that’s always in the back of my mind so I don’t repeat the same mistake. You’ll never stop making mistakes so stay humble enough to learn from them!

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Not at the moment. We are looking to grow carefully, and so far that has worked really well for us!

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Todd Hooper,   Founder of Prerender.io

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