Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Elad Shaham, and I'm a software engineer. With over 15 years of experience in the software industry, I've worked in all types of companies, in tiny startups and up to enterprises like PayPal. I currently work as a tech lead at Lemonade, a digital do-good insurance startup trying to disrupt this old industry.
I would like to share my journey with SyncThemCalendars, a side project I've been working on for the past year. It is a paid online service which lets you block time in one calendar based on events in another calendar. It is a very robust solution for a niche problem that people that use multiple calendars face - how do I make sure my calendars have the most up-to-date info about my availability. No good existing solutions, no real competition. Perfect for a side project 👌
The service is currently growing slowly, with close to zero marketing efforts, and already making over $500 MRR.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After completing my BA in computer science, I knew I was going to code in my professional career. Coding felt very natural for me, and right after school I found myself coding my first personal project - I created a tool that would send my resume again and again to companies I was interested in (I knew that it was a matter of timing, so wanted my resume to be in front of the recruiter at the right time).
When talking to users, I think that taking a personal approach works better, so most of my automated marketing emails are personal and go out of my mailbox.
I've been creating side projects throughout my career. I believe that side projects are the fuel for a successful career since they drive you to think and improve yourself in many ways. Most of my side projects died along the road, but I believe that I've found my personal secret sauce for creating a successful side project - ship fast and provide value as early as possible, get feedback and iterate.
The first side project that really caught fire was an open-source repo I’ve created to help other developers scrape data from Israeli banks - something like Plaid for Israel. The Israeli Bank Scrapers repo quickly became something people mention in every online discussion about personal finance in Israel.
SyncThemCalendars was born out of necessity - no other tool could really make sure my personal and work calendars were always up to date. So I decided to build a service that makes syncing calendars a breeze. There were many use cases for such a service - it could help users make sure nobody books a meeting over their daughter’s basketball game. Or allow a consultant with multiple customer calendars to have his availability up-to-date everywhere.
Basic functionality was done within a couple of weeks, and I asked a co-worker who experienced the exact same problems to give it a try. After ironing out the main problems, I decided to have an official launch. That was before I even had a payment system set up (but declared it was a paid service nonetheless…) 🙂
A month later, a payment provider was integrated, and not long after I got my first official paid subscribers (at 5$ /month). I was floating midair. 💪
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The first iteration was entirely based on my mediocre designing abilities. I did get a super basic logo on Fiverr, I created a material-design based marketing site, and started rolling.
I wanted to ship as early as possible, but I also wanted it to look professional. So while not taking it through a professional designer, I tried my best to make it real material design. I spent less than a month polishing and tuning the user interface. As I said earlier, the basic functionality was already working very quickly, so this was just making sure everything looked good.
So many things were missing on that initial launch. I didn't have a pricing page, though the home page said it was a paid service. In fact, I don't think I had any pages other than the homepage on the marketing side. But it was definitely enough to have an initial validation of the product.
Describe the process of launching the business.
I must admit I didn't have a bulletproof launch plan. It consisted of a ProductHunt launch (with a special promo for Product Hunters), a Facebook share and emails to relevant people in my contact list. I didn't expect too much but I was hoping I will manage to get into the ProductHunt newsletter. That didn't happen 😉, but I nearly made it - got about 80 upvotes, which brought me to the 6th place.
Overall, it worked well enough for me - I got the first couple of users that were not friends and family. Eventually a few of those converted to my first paying users, so successful launch. 💪
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the beginning, most of the traffic came from ProductHunt obviously. I’m also active at Indie Hackers and posted about progress, but got almost no sign-ups from that source.
At some point, I started replying to relevant questions from Quora. When I saw that was working well, I made sure to answer all relevant questions, including ones from several years ago. It created a constant (though still low) stream of users. Most of my paying users today came from Quora.
The next step to finding more opportunities to get relevant traffic - I added a comment on a related article by Google, I added a comment to a relevant YouTube tutorial that ranked high and claimed to have solved the problem, but as it turns out it didn’t.
Next, I turned to SEO. I did very basic work on the relevant keywords but didn’t invest enough since I have a plan to replace the homepage altogether. I did manage to rank 12 for my most important keyboard, which is progress, but not good enough obviously. I plan to revisit SEO in the near future, after the homepage redesign.
As for paid traffic, I had a very distasteful attempt with Google Ads. It performed so poorly I decided to stop and try again after homepage redesign. I’m also running a basic paid campaign at Capterra, results yet to be seen.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now the user base and the number of paying users are growing slowly - about 5-10% month by month. Since the total numbers are a bit low, and since I’m currently doing almost zero paid traffic, I don’t regard the numbers as problematic. This will need to be revisited once I decide to double down on paid marketing.
Conversion numbers are ok - about 5% of visitors convert to users, 25% of which become paying users. Since I only started in April of last year, I can only estimate the lifetime value of users, but churn numbers are relatively low - less than 10% for the entire period of time or about 1% monthly.
I have plans to cater to more types of users. For example, I plan to add support for other calendar systems like Office 365, which will hopefully lead to another jump in the numbers. I also plan to segment my users better so I create better targeting for each type of user.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned how much user feedback can be motivating. Users love using my service, and they express it in almost every communication I have with them. I think that taking a personal approach works better, so most of my automated marketing emails are personal and go out of my mailbox.
I also realized that since I make a lot of changes to the service all the time, I sometimes created bugs, mostly in the web app. So I integrated mechanism to help me find these bugs more easily - most useful of which is a tool called FullStory, which lets you actually see how your user interacts with the service. Many product issues were surfaced using this tool.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The core functionality of the product is its automated marketing campaign. When I was looking for a relevant tool, I looked at popular products like Intercom (which does so much more). Ended up using Autopilot, a great and cheap tool for getting started. All my emails go through them, and they help me track progress and conversions.
Another important tool in my arsenal is Segment for an all-in-one analytics tracking solution. They help me transfer all analytics events to all relevant services that I use, so I only have to do it once. I registered for their startup program, which gives me free usage.
Finally, I’ve mentioned Fullstory above. It is a great tool for investigating and tracking users’ journey on your website. You can play the user’s session, filter sessions by events, and all for free in the basic plan. That’s an amazing and very useful tool.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Ship fast and iterate. Shipped is better than perfect. You need to feel your users as soon as possible. Sometimes you might realize your core functionality is already product-market fit like I did. Most features created after launch hardly changed the core functionality in the case of SyncThemCalendars. So my advice to you is, get it out as soon as the basic stuff works, get your first users to try it, watch how they use the product and ask them questions and finally, iterate.
Monetization is a great motivator. Assuming you’re shooting for a paid product, have a monetization plan in mind from day one. Getting your first paying user might be difficult, but it will be very fulfilling :-) Try to see the route to getting that user right from the get-go.
Finally, try to stay focused. Friends and family you talk to might make you change your product. Users you talk to might make you change your product. While it’s perfectly ok to make changes, try to always see the big picture - is the change I’m about to make is really the best use of my time right now? Will it be the right thing for most of my users? Will it help me grow my user base? If the answer to any of these questions is no, reconsider making the change (or postpone it)
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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