Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey! I’m Pete, I live in Scotland and I started No CS Degree. It’s a website a lot like Starter Story where I interview self-taught web developers that don’t have a Computer Science degree but have still made successful startups or found well-paying jobs. I was working in bookies before but someone threatened to stab my boss, so I thought I better quit and make a website instead!
The main ways I monetize the website are by getting coding boot camps to sponsor articles featuring their successful students and by having developers with tech products to sponsor my newsletter. I’ve gone from lows of a few hundred dollars to earning over $2,500 in one month. Overall the average monthly revenue is $1,100. I also have a job board for self-taught web developers and a boot camp directory where you can find the best coding boot camps. I’m working on combining those two with the main No CS Degree website.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I had been learning to code for some time and I was looking for inspiration from people who like me hadn’t learned programming at college. I’m a member of quite a few online communities and I had already been asking developers for a while about how they got into software engineering. I knew quite a few people hadn’t been to college and had still done really well in their careers.
For instance, an Austrian developer Richard was making six figures as a self-taught web developer aged 22 years old and I was really impressed by that. Also, Harry Dry made a dating website for Kanye West fans which went viral and he was basically learning how to make it as he went along. One of my biggest influences, Pieter Levels, is also a very successful entrepreneur and makes $600,000 as a self-taught web developer. These stories helped encourage me to keep learning to code so I thought other people would be interested as well.
I knew of course that interview websites like Indiehackers and Starter Story were a good way to start a business so I had some examples to follow already. I figured that over the next 10 years there are going to be so many people learning to code for the first time that I could get ahead of that and making a website for them. I was definitely inspired by the way Pieter Levels took advantage of the trend of remote work with his websites Nomad List and Remote OK aimed at people having a location-independent lifestyle.
I had already written articles for newspapers so I was pretty confident I would take to blogging well. As I was using Ghost for writing the blog there wasn’t too much to learn in terms of the technical side of things. Today it’s really easy to start a blog and make some money with it. I’d say it’s one of the best things an entrepreneur can do as it’s very easy to fit along with another job or other commitment in contrast with a SAAS business where you have to respond immediately to customers.
My career situation was bleak at the time. I was in a minimum wage job that I hated and working in a bookie is reasonably dangerous. There was a lot of anti-social behavior like people smoking crack in the toilets or drunk people passing out in the shop. My managers would also just leave the shop for no reason and leave me to deal with angry customers who were always trying to argue about a bet that should have been paid. Starting a blog seemed a lot nicer way to live!
The final straw came when I was starting a shift one day and I was told that a colleague had to phone police the night before when she was working on her own as she was being threatened. Then my manager told me someone had threatened him with a stabbing that morning. I took stock of the situation and gave my notice! There wasn’t a lot to lose given my situation at the time. I validated my idea just by launching the website and seeing what people thought of it. There was a huge reaction online and that was a big boost for me. I had built up some savings from previous jobs so luckily I had some financial cushion.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Firstly I knew that I needed to decide on a blogging platform. I asked successful founder Pieter Levels what he would recommend and he said “probably Ghost” so I had a look at that and realized it was more modern than WordPress. It generally takes a batteries-included approach so I didn’t need to install a bunch of plugins etc. I quickly got up to speed with how to edit articles there and I just used the basic theme, Caspar, which looks really clean and nice. So I just sent messages to people I knew asking if I could interview them. People were generous with their time and I had about 10 interviews ready to go before launching.
I was able to monetize my website on the very first day by selling a newsletter advert to a developer who had a coding book he wanted to promote.
I use Google Drive to compose my interviews (just like Starter Story!) so it was simple to copy and paste the interviews into Ghost and then add some images and links etc. I knew that having a mailing list would be key to keeping people engaged so I got a free Mailchimp account.
My initial costs were very low: $36 for Ghost per month and a $7 domain from Namecheap. I had to start paying for Mailchimp once I started sending a certain number of emails. Initially, though, it was free. I knew from the outset that I would start with the blog and then branch out into things like the jobs board and a community. I would even doodle plans while I worked in the bookies.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My launch started on Product Hunt. I didn’t get to no 1 which I had done the year previously with another newsletter. I was disappointed at the time but it was still in the top 10 so in hindsight, it did pretty well.
Deliver what people want in whatever platform you are on. So instead of being lazy and just sending out a link to your blog article, add a few quotes from it to get people interested.
What really kicked things off was sharing No CS Degree on Hacker News! It went straight to the top of the board and stayed there all day. I got a huge spike in traffic with about 49,000 people visiting the website in a few days.
My launch thread on Hacker News got hundreds of comments and I got 30 emails in one day from developers volunteering to share their stories! This actually helped me a lot with the content production side for the first few months as it meant I wasn’t having to actively search for developers to interview as I do now.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a very good newsletter sign-up call to action, which is one of the flaws of the default Caspar theme in Ghost. I didn’t know about testing a site on localhost first so I was adding a subscription form while thousands of people were on the site and breaking things, etc. haha. I learned from this though and when I launched my job board for self-taught web developers I made sure to have my email form in place ahead of time and in that case, I got 1,000 subscribers in a week.
I was able to monetize my website on the very first day by selling a newsletter advert to a developer who had a coding book he wanted to promote. It was $15 for two newsletter spots. I then charged him $15 for one spot, then $25, then $50, etc. Now the newsletter spots go for $125 which is good money and I’ve just released a course on how to make money from a newsletter.
I started selling sponsored articles to coding boot camps a few months after I launched and that was a lot more lucrative as they have big marketing budgets compared to a solo developer. I had built up savings from various jobs to get me through the first hard months and so fortunately I didn’t need to get into debt.
I really didn’t have many costs initially. In the first month, I was easily spending less than $60. My blogging software Ghost costs $36 per month. I paid about $20 a month for Mailchimp once my newsletter started getting more popular. This is why I’d say a newsletter is a great product to make because the costs are so low! You can easily run a profitable newsletter business for $100-$200 a month.
My main takeaways from launching would be:
- Have your ducks in a row e.g. have a newsletter sign up form set up correctly
- Promote your product where a lot of people hang out e.g. Hacker News or Product Hunt
- Charge customers as soon as possible to test demand for your product
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As a blog, I have to attract more visitors to be appealing to sponsors. From the beginning, I had a newsletter and that’s been a good way of keeping people engaged. I get about 30% of subscribers from an exit pop-up. I know most people hate pop-ups but they definitely work and I think it’s fine to use them when someone is leaving a website. Just don’t bombard people with a pop-up as soon as they come to your website because you’re not giving them a chance to like your site before asking them to sign up for your newsletter.
I’ve grown my list recently by adding “autofocus” to my input form’s HTML. This means that instead of having to click on my email form to put in your email the form is ready for you to just give me your email straight away. So it takes out that tiny step for the user but it has increased my conversion rate 4 fold.
I also get a lot of website traffic from social media. My Twitter account is popular and has over 5,500 followers. This is a good level to get to as it means I can follow an unlimited number of people. I’d say the key is to deliver what people want in whatever platform you are on. So instead of being lazy and just sending out a link to your blog article, add a few quotes from it to get people interested. I sometimes do long Twitter threads which work as well. You want to help people in some way and then add a link at the end to your website. But lots of people just put the link and don’t make much effort.
I have also taken some steps with SEO recently. My URLs used to be so long and would contain superfluous words like “to” or “and”. Now they are aimed at keywords so I have things like software-engineer-salary in the URL and then those words in the title and meta description as well.
In terms of sales to customers, sometimes I’m lucky enough to get emails from people wanting to sponsor my articles or my newsletter. Usually, though I have to do things like cold emails or sending private messages on Twitter. Having a decent personal following on social media helps with this as I can put out a tweet to 4,500 followers and get sponsors from that. I’ve also had success getting newsletter sponsors from making posts on LinkedIn as well. It’s definitely not a trendy social network or my favorite but you can definitely earn money from it.
I’d say it’s a lot easier to sell to people who have bought from you in the past. So I will send emails to previous sponsors every so often and see if they want to do another deal. Companies like coding boot camps are usually good for repeat business as they have big marketing budgets. It’s also a good deal to be active on social media so you are visible to people. A recent sponsor sent me a DM out of the blue on Twitter a week ago and from that, I managed to make some good money from them.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’ve been profitable from the get-go. I managed to get an advert in my first newsletter and I’ve actually just released a course on monetizing newsletters. It helped that I was in good tech communities like WIP where I was able to find sponsors quickly.
My monthly costs at the moment are about $200. A lot of that is things like web hosting for my blog and my job board as well as sending lots of emails. I’m working on a custom website just now using Django which will cut out some of my costs. Still, compared to a brick and mortar business like opening a cafe, $200 a month is peanuts.
I’d definitely like to grow the business more in the next year and work on selling more to businesses. I’m particularly keen on working on the job board part of the business as there is a lot of money on recruitment. I’d also like to build the best resource for finding which online courses to do so hopefully there is good money in that as well.
I’m happy with my social media growth in particular. Getting to over 5,000 followers is a nice marker. After SEO, Twitter is my biggest source of website traffic. It’s good as well because even if I have a bad month or two in sales, I still have a reserve of fans online.
I have two newsletters: one for job seekers and another for people reading the blog. The job board newsletter has over 3,200 subscribers and the blog is at about 2,200 just now. The average time on site is about 2 or 3 minutes so basically the time it takes to read an article. It would be good to improve that and get people reading more content on the site.
I think there is a lot of potentials for the website to grow in the future. I’d like to get to $10,000/m in revenue and hopefully in years to come build beyond that. As I don’t have many costs that would mean a very high-profit margin. I’m more interested in building a business that fits my lifestyle. I’d prefer to be happy and make six figures than be unhappy and be a millionaire.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I had some pretty embarrassing problems with the website initially. In the early months, there were things like the navigation bar wouldn’t show on individual blog posts. And then I had a new navbar but it was really busy with about 8 different items. Like I said previously, not having a proper email sign up form definitely cost me, subscribers, at the start. The site’s navbar also didn’t look great on mobile for a long time. It’s easy to just look at your website every day on a laptop and it looks great but you have to see how it looks on other devices and screen sizes.
I’ve been happy to learn how to make sales and convince people to buy advertising space. This was something I had no experience of before but it’s just something that takes a bit of practice. Plus, if you are in a niche business like I am you know everything about your business and the industry so it’s easier to answer questions and sell because it’s your specialist area.
I’m glad I’ve been able to charge so much for ads in the newsletter particularly. Whereas the sponsorship deals with boot camps are more lucrative, they typically take longer. This is the curse of B2B sales. It always involves a video call and then a wait while the company discusses it. So it’s nice to be able to sell directly to other entrepreneurs who want to advertise their products as this process is very fast in comparison.
It’s good that lots of people are learning to code these days. I think it was smart of me to witness this trend and take advantage of it. I am glad as well that my site has a niche and doesn’t just target all developers. There are riches in niches, as they say, and it’s nice to create a sort of tribe behind the product. I have a lot of goodwill from developers without CS degrees which helps the website a lot. It’s something people like to share with their friends. It’s positive content.
It’s very important to become a member of a group of entrepreneurs. It’s very hard to start and run a business, both financially as well as emotionally. So you want to have a group of people that can support you along the way.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I use Trello for my to-do list. It feels great sending a completed task to my “DONE” column! I track the companies I pitch to in a simple CRM I created myself in Google Sheets. It just shows who I contacted, when, and what platform. It’s a great way to keep me honest as I can tell when I have been doing lots of outreach and when I’ve not done enough. It also reminds me of when I need to follow up with someone and what stage of the sales funnel they are in.
I use a combination of Email Octopus and Mailchimp for sending out newsletters. I send the blog out in Email Octopus as it’s cheaper but they don’t have a pop-up option yet. So for the pop-ups, I use a free Mailchimp account. I keep within the free limits and use Zapier to send the sign-ups from the Mailchimp pop-up over to my Email Octopus. It’s a bit cheeky but it’s a good hack!
My job board and boot camp directory are both made in Google Sheets using the Sheet2Site program. It is a way in which you use a sheet as your database and it sends this information to your webpage. It’s definitely a great way to test an MVP. However, I am working on combining my three sites on a custom website I’m making using the Python framework Django. It wasn’t smart to have three different domains. You are spreading yourself too thin that way. It’s a lot better for SEO purposes to have one strong domain rather than three that are so-so. I sometimes automate social media posts and I use Buffer for that. Although usually I manually post as Twitter is a big source of traffic for me and people prefer to interact with accounts where there is clearly a human behind it.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
One of my biggest inspirations has definitely been the Indiehackers podcast. I vividly remember walking around Edinburgh listening to an interview with Lynne Tye, the founder of Key Values, who makes $300,000 a year with her business. She had no business experience and had learned to code from a friend. So hearing her amazing story was a big source of inspiration as I was walking around the city after I quit my job wondering if it was going to work. There is a mountain of knowledge in this podcast series so I’d say it’s a great place to start.
I’m not actually a huge fan of startup books - I think you can learn most of what you need to know from interviews with founders and by actively using Twitter to find tips and encouragement from other entrepreneurs. I would say though that I love Mindset by Dr. Carol Dweck. The book talks about the importance of having a growth mindset and this is really crucial for entrepreneurs. If you see your abilities or current status as fixed I think it’s unlikely you will grow a business. You can also apply it to lots of other things like fitness or even relationships.
I would also recommend getting on Twitter and finding other people that are starting businesses. Some of the best inspiration and motivation is just seeing other entrepreneurs I know to become successful. I’ve seen some people start from nothing get really far in just a few years.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
It’s very important to become a member of a group of entrepreneurs. It’s very hard to start and run a business, both financially as well as emotionally. So you want to have a group of people that can support you along the way. If your friends and family aren’t positive about entrepreneurship it’s going to be very hard to just do it all on your own. Habits in general are easier to keep with a like-minded group of people. So if you want to lose weight, join a running group or a gym where your ideal behavior is encouraged. The same idea applies to business. The Atomic Habits book talks about this a lot.
The more businesses you launch, the easier it gets. There is a big advantage in not caring what people think. I’ve started lots of websites that were stupid and never went anywhere. But all that time I was getting used to showing people the things I had made. So I’m a big believer in exposure therapy.
I think as well it’s best to have a flexible approach to your business. If you merely “prefer” it does well then you accept the fact that it might not and it’s more realistic. If you tell yourself you have to succeed and if you don’t you’re a loser then you’re piling on a lot of pressure on yourself. I don’t think about seeing things in black and white like that is particularly helpful. Even if you fail you can probably pick out some things you did right and build on that.
People often get wedded to a business idea and don’t quit soon enough even when it’s not working. It’s very hard to swallow your pride and admit you need to stop the business or make a pivot. if something isn’t making money and you’ve been working on it for a while you clearly need to change something.
A lot of people also work in secret on a business idea and then after a year they show it to people and nobody wants it! So building in public is definitely a good idea. There is a much greater risk of people not being interested in your idea than from people copying it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I’m probably going to be hiring someone to help me with sales and marketing but I plan to use a UK government scheme which helps unemployed young people learn skills. I’m looking forward to training someone up and passing on my knowledge to them. I have done a lot of internships myself in the past that didn’t really help me at all so I’d like to help some people avoid that!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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