Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I’m Alec Lindsay, the founder of Baxter, the ‘butler for your inbox’. Just like a real-life butler, Baxter helps people organize their lives; now that our most important records and communications live in our email accounts, Baxter helps consumers organize their digital lives.
More specifically, Baxter is a browser extension that helps Gmail users unsubscribe from newsletters, delete thousands of unneeded emails, and automatically label and organize their inboxes.
I’m no stranger to growing tech businesses, having helped grow several Unicorn companies as an early employee, and also having co-founded a VC-backed startup, but Baxter is the first project that is solely my creation, and I’ve bootstrapped it to this point.
Baxter was built mainly for consumers, not business users; most of my customers use Baxter to manage a personal Gmail inbox that has gotten out of control. There’s no specific niche beyond that, which probably goes against typical ‘startup wisdom’.
I just knew that most adults get frustrated trying to manage their lives out of their overflowing personal Gmail accounts, so I figured I’d try to solve that problem. Maybe some narrower audience will emerge over time as the most enthusiastic about Baxter and I can tailor the product for them - we’ll see!
The first version of Baxter was launched to the Chrome Web Store in October 2022, and nine months later, MRR eclipsed $1,000. And now Baxter is finally in a place where I’m ready to introduce him to more of the world!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
After working in growth & operations roles at several successful startups, I went on to get an MBA with the goal of eventually starting a company myself. After graduating, I joined a healthcare startup to launch a mobile app that helped consumers understand and manage their pharmacy benefits. I’ve always been more of a “0 to 1” person: conceptualizing a product, building features, and seeing them used (or not) by customers scratches a creative itch for me.
It so happened that right after I joined this company, the pandemic kicked off. One under-discussed side effect of lockdowns was the accelerated adoption of digital marketing and communication by all manner of organizations. All of a sudden, it seemed that every interaction with a business resulted in another message hitting my personal Gmail.
Compounding things, I had just begun an intense home renovation project, and my inbox wasn’t just a repository for frivolous newsletters. Insurance paperwork, invoices with deadlines, and other ‘adulting’ emails were getting buried underneath the less important stuff.
I realized that just like my pharmacy app users, I was feeling the need for technology to help me manage something complicated: my inbox. Beyond the ability to easily remove unwanted emails, I started to imagine a kind of personal dashboard that would help me manage my life, and I suspected that the data in my Gmail would be able to power such a product.
While the initial concept behind Baxter was borne of my intuition, I did the responsible thing and interviewed dozens of regular American adults to see whether my idea resonated. The concept of a ‘life dashboard’ was a bit too obscure to gauge interest in, but a dead-simple and effective inbox organizer got good responses from interviewees, and that’s what I resolved to build as the first instantiation of Baxter: a “butler for your inbox”.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
I had used various tools over the years to try and tame my inbox, so I knew that Baxter would have to have something different to set it apart. From the start, I decided that as a Gmail tool, Baxter would be useful if it could make labels (or Folders) in Gmail more useful.
When I had used Outlook previously, folders were a prominent feature in the product, with easy drag-and-drop functionality; by contrast, Gmail labels seemed like an afterthought, buried in the product and requiring digging into the settings menus to set up any kind of automation.
While I am not a machine learning expert, I suspected that AI might be applied to automatically label emails more specifically than Gmail did out of the box (“Promotions”, “Social”, and so on). I connected with a few machine learning experts and they seemed to agree. So, I recruited a few willing participants to give me access to their inboxes and provide the initial dataset of a few hundred thousand emails.
Lacking the technical expertise to develop a machine learning model, I went to Clutch, an outsourced development firm directory, and found two different companies in my price range. After discussing the project with both of them and providing a sample of my data, one of the firms - Data Root Labs out of Ukraine - presented a demo that assigned labels with high accuracy based just on an email subject line! Excited to see what they could do with the whole dataset, I signed a contract with them - and the next day, Russia invaded Ukraine.
I told Data Root Labs to take their time, but to their ultimate credit, they never stopped working; six weeks later, they reported that they had successfully come up with a model that labeled emails with 95% accuracy! That seemed like a fantastic result, and I did a little dance by myself when I read their results.
I had a product that automatically labeled my emails: Health, Finance, Travel, House and Home (for those renovation-related emails), Career, and 10 other categories that made it easier to sort through my inbox for emails that I needed. It was something that I didn’t see available elsewhere, and it was time to get other people to try it and see if they found it useful enough to pay for!
Describe the process of launching the business.
Before I ‘launched’ the product, it had to pass a fairly strenuous and expensive security review from Google. After all, if a user was able to give me access to their email inboxes with one click, they would rightly need to trust that nothing fishy was going on with their emails.
As I was undergoing that security review, a friend tipped me off to a Chrome Extension that was for sale on Microacquire for a fairly low price. It was a simple and free utility that enabled users to unsubscribe in bulk from emails, right in their Gmail inbox.
This seemed like a no-brainer functionality to offer alongside Baxter’s email labeling, but the kicker was that this extension received hundreds of installs per day thanks to excellent SEO ranking for high-volume keywords on Google search. Maybe this would be useful in the future to drive new installs of Baxter?
I bit the bullet and paid $10,000 to acquire the product.
After months of back-and-forth with Google’s security team, I was approved to access users’ Gmail inboxes. I emailed a list of a couple hundred people - mostly friends - informing them that Baxter was now available, and little by little, they started installing and using the product. We fixed bugs - most of them minor 😁- and got Baxter to a place where it labeled emails automatically.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The time came to put the $10,000 thesis to the test. If I started to direct users of the Gmail Unsubscribe extension to install Baxter and try the additional functionality, would they do it? I added a simple pop-up that asked users of Gmail Unsubscribe to upgrade to Baxter for increased functionality and released an updated version of the extension.
In the middle of October, we pushed the release to the Chrome web store… and it worked! Dozens of users immediately started installing Baxter every day. The ‘launch by acquisition’ had worked, and a one-time payment of $10,000 had successfully resulted in a source of ongoing organic users. As Baxter has already generated over $10,000 in revenue, the acquisition of Gmail Unsubscribe has paid for itself in under one year.
It’s important to note that this strategy of acquiring distribution by acquiring an existing product worked in my case because of the alignment between the existing product, which helped users unsubscribe from newsletters, and Baxter, which ‘organizes inboxes’ in a more holistic way. Even so, the users that were installing Baxter were uninstalling at a high rate. I realized that to retain these users, let alone convince some to pay regularly, I needed to develop a deep understanding of the value that they were seeing -or not- from Baxter.
Still, I would heartily recommend that other founders - especially in B2C - focus initially on acquiring some initial distribution strategy, even if it means launching with a half-baked product, as I did with Baxter.
Another advantage of investing in distribution early on is that it provides lots of opportunities to speak to users! I emailed every single Baxter user with an offer to extend their free trial in return for a 15-minute Zoom conversation about their usage of Baxter and what they hoped to get out of the product. I held dozens of those conversations with Baxter users, which resulted in lots of feature ideas and helped me hone my sense of the product’s value.
Early on, I considered just releasing Baxter under the Gmail Unsubscribe name, but for a few reasons, I decided to keep Gmail Unsubscribe as a lead-generation source for Baxter, the separate and ‘premium’ sibling product. Firstly, Gmail Unsubscribe had been quite buggy under its previous ownership and its rating in the Chrome Web Store leaves something to be desired.
Secondly, if I were to change the name of the Gmail Unsubscribe extension, it would lose some of its SEO potency, and I wouldn’t be able to take the extension in the ‘life dashboard’ direction as originally intended. About 10% of Gmail Unsubscribe’s users try out Baxter, and I hope to increase this ratio going forward.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The focus since launching Baxter has been on developing a stable and useful product, as opposed to growing revenue as quickly as possible. With that said, as of today, for every 1,000 users who install Baxter per month, 100 of them will subscribe to a paid plan. While Baxter is not yet profitable, all of this monthly growth is organic, so our marginal customer acquisition cost is $0.
In the near term, we plan on going back to the Gmail Unsubscribe extension and redesigning it to optimize for sending even more users to Baxter. It’s a completely free tool, so perhaps by putting some more limitations around it, more users will be incentivized to switch over to Baxter.
I also plan on running a month-long paid advertising campaign on Facebook with the help of a customer acquisition specialist. I have also sourced a freelancer on Upwork to begin creating SEO-optimized content to attract more traffic. If these efforts are successful, I hope to get Baxter to get to profitability within 18 months.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
While I got lucky with the successful acquisition of Gmail Unsubscribe, I still believe strongly that one needs to view growing a product as a multi-year commitment. We all see plenty of examples of bootstrapped solopreneurs with large followings who seem to get products up to tens of thousands in MRR in months; these are rare examples. You don’t need to obtain immediate Facebook-like growth to build a product that is useful and adds value to the world.
Also, I’ve learned that bootstrapping Baxter was dhe right call for me. Even though it’s only making $1,000 a month right now, I own 100% of it; if I can unlock a few more growth channels and get Baxter to profitability, I’ll own an asset that gives me the freedom to do whatever I like with my time and my energy. I can even take profits and use them to start another product. Baxter doesn’t have to become a unicorn for me to reach my goals, which gives me the motivation to keep improving the product and growing the business, steadily and every day, even at this low level of scale.
It also helps to have been a part of numerous VC-backed businesses from the earliest stages, because I know what that alternative is like. Raising money from outside investors puts you on a path to grow a large business; that path, ultimately, is not necessarily the surest one to financial independence and also comes alongside a lot of stress and sacrifice.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Anyone building a SaaS product should check out Chartmogul. If you use Stripe for payments, you can install it in one click and view your churn rate, lifetime value, and many other metrics that help you understand how your business is running.
I also use Strapi as a headless CMS for Baxter’s blog. It’s convenient for outsourcing content production, as I can invite outsourced writers to write and upload blogs there, along with all of the necessary SEO metadata.
Finally, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of automatic Slack notifications. I have several setups that inform me when the server is slowing down or things are breaking, which helps me direct engineering efforts and ensure that Baxter is providing the ongoing service that customers are paying for.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Although Baxter isn’t a mobile application, the Sub Club podcast is a fantastic source of knowledge for anybody building a subscription product for consumers. The podcast tells the stories of dozens of successful digital consumer SaaS products and how their founders and operators think about growth, value, retention, and the project of building a business-oriented around providing recurring value to consumers.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The aforementioned home renovation project resulted in a cash-generating rental property that produces the income for me to dedicate my time to Baxter, which currently isn’t profitable. Maintaining that property still demands my time and attention every week, and I consider it a part-time job that “pays the bills” while I focus on growing Baxter.
Whether it be a rental property or a day job, I would recommend budding entrepreneurs make a plan to support themselves while they get started on what will hopefully end up being their primary source of income. Even if they take investment later on, having the resources to make progress beyond a mere slide deck gives an entrepreneur legitimacy and makes their idea real.
By the same token, I would recommend simply getting started on whatever project an entrepreneur has in mind, with the full understanding that it will likely take several years to receive the dividends of such an investment of time.
I don’t believe in rapidly pivoting at the first sign of difficulty; as has been said, we humans often overestimate the progress we can make in one year, but underestimate what we can build in 5-10 years. If you’re ready to dedicate yourself to a project for 5-10 years, the best time to take your first step was yesterday.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
No hiring at the moment. But if anybody is interested in Baxter and the mission to make digital life more organized for everyday people, definitely get in touch, and let’s see how we can work together!
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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