Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Fed - bootstrapped founder, digital nomad, and maker of two community-focused products.
The Hive Index is a directory of 1300+ online communities, it’s a free resource that helps people find online communities for their interests & aspirations.
GummySearch is an audience research tool that helps startup founders quickly understand the conversations happening in online communities on Reddit to ideate new businesses, validate their solutions, and find customers for their businesses.
Both products are in their early stages, but showing promise. The Hive Index helps 10k people find online communities each month. GummySearch has generated $60k in revenue in its first year.
I’ve been building these businesses over the past 1.5 years, and it’s been one a heck of a ride! I’m excited to share my Starter Story with you today.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My first startup was 9 years ago. I was fresh out of college, and didn’t know much about software or entrepreneurship, and gave it my best shot with some close friends. We learned a lot but didn’t quite make it. However, since that experience, I knew that the startup life was the one for me and that I’d be back someday.
One of my takeaways from the first startup attempt is that if you’re broke, you’ll be making short-term decisions for your company. Building businesses is a marathon, not a sprint, so to stabilize my finances and break my ramen-only diet, I joined an early-stage startup in NYC and worked there for 6 years. I grew with the company as it scaled from 4 employees to 150, and learned what it took to build a product at scale and support hundreds of enterprise customers across the globe.
At some point, I felt like my growth there had plateaued, and I was ready to build my products again. Around this time, I read Pieter Levels’ 12 startups in 12 months blog post (TLDR is that he focused on shipping frequently to get over his problem of taking a project to 90% and never finishing it. In the process, Pieter gets good at making startups). 12 startups in 12 months (or the hardcore year as some call it) was a bit much for me, but I decided I needed a “warm-up project”.
Enter, the Hive Index. I got inspired by online communities at the time, due to a combination of COVID-era lockdowns and me realizing how amazingly supportive the indie hacker & bootstrapper communities are. I started keeping a list (nothing crazy, to this day it’s still mostly just a fancy google sheet) and built the website in 2 weeks to share with others, as such a resource didn’t exist but I felt it had a lot of potentials to help those looking for community.
I intended to launch this simple project, get some experience with running it, and move on to thinking about a bigger product-based business to build. This ended up happening sooner than I thought, as the Hive Index become the inspiration for my “main” product GummySearch. Although the Hive Index is a product I care about (it even makes pretty consistent revenue these days), most of my focus is on GummySearch and I will focus on its story, growth, challenges, and triumphs for the rest of this story.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
I built GummySearch as a “Guerilla Marketing” tool for Reddit, to spread the word about the Hive Index. I discovered that people were asking for “entrepreneurship groups”, “software discord servers”, and “helpful communities” on Reddit quite frequently, they just didn’t know that my website existed and could help them out. So I built some very rough scripts to find these conversations so that I could step in and pitch my tool, which is often called social listening.
Thus, GummySearch was born. It was just an internal tool, but a useful one. It didn’t have a name at the time, didn’t even require a login to use, and I kept it to myself for the most part. GummySearch didn’t have any of the fancy data analysis and alerting functionality that it does now, but it did provide capabilities for an advanced Reddit search with a few search features that weren’t available in the Reddit UI.
Here’s what the first version of the search feature looked like.
Describe the process of launching the business.
At some point, I thought - “maybe I should share this with others?” The tool had been incredibly useful for me, but I wasn’t the only indie hacker out there that wanted to promote their product without a marketing budget. Knowing the importance of idea validation, I made this Indie Hacker post to get a few interviews with fellow product makers to see if this solution might be a good fit for them.
Those folks from the validation interviews were my beta users, and with their feedback, I developed a more fully-fledged SaaS product (where you could log in, save data, and set up your alerts for Reddit conversations). I managed to acquire my first 20 customers by talking about my product on my Twitter as well as on Reddit.
Then, something amazing happened… and of all things, it started with a churned customer.
I had a customer churn and when I asked why, they said “I love your product, but don’t use it every month. I don’t use the social listening features, but use it for audience research, which I don’t do monthly. If you had a lifetime deal, I’d buy it”. I figured why not, and made a lifetime deal purchase option in addition to my monthly subscription.
This little experiment paid off in a big way. My LTD got some incredible word of mouth, I made $50k of LTD sales in 2 months, my MRR increased, and most importantly my product started being used in different ways than I originally intended. There were more people doing research for business ideas, validating their solutions, searching Reddit for content inspiration, and doing general market research via conversations happening in online communities.
I was so surprised and energized by these events, and they were a huge turning point for me. Not only did this surge of 100s of new customers motivate me to continue improving the product, but I also took their feedback and adapted the tool to handle these new (and in a way more interesting) use cases.
P.s. for more info on this lifetime deal promotion, check out this Twitter thread I wrote on the subject with all of my learnings.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Having a product with multiple use cases is a blessing and a curse. To mitigate the downsides, I write content and make videos for each of the use cases on the GummySearch blog. Current users get more success out of the product, and this also attracts new ones. For example, my blog posts on finding problems to solve and validating ideas is quite popular with my customers. People read them, trust me based on what they see, and sign up to try the product.
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that I use GummySearch to find customers on Reddit. I track relevant keywords (here are some examples of keywords to track on Reddit) in communities where my target users hang out and join the conversation where appropriate. There are plenty of opportunities to not just pitch my product, but also promote the blog posts I have written.
Building in Public on Twitter
I’m building my products in public on Twitter, and that has had so many positive effects on my trajectory as a bootstrapped founder. I get a lot of inspiration and support from other indie makers, and building an audience has enabled me to greatly increase the exposure that each of my products receives.
Fun fact, I was nudged into the building in public. Someone nominated me for a free seat in a build-in-public cohort course. It felt uncomfortable to force yourself to tweet every single day for a month about yourself, but I’m a big believer that uncomfortable situations are a disguise for personal growth. I’m happy I did it.
Educating my audience
Reddit gets a bad name for being “anti-self-promotion”, but in my experience, those that can tap into the positive forces from Reddit can speed up their startup’s trajectory. Many startup founders are intimidated by Reddit, so I try to educate them with my startup guide to Reddit as well as my Tweets on the subject.
Word of Mouth & Affiliates
Not everyone “gets” GummySearch. But those that do love it. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people say such positive things about my product, and I try to take advantage of that. I amplify the positive things people say on social media, and for my greatest advocates, I let them into my affiliate program to earn a commission on friends they refer to the product.
In my first month of the affiliate program, one of my affiliates brought in $3k of new business. Both of us were pretty shocked as to how effective his efforts were, and it was such a feel-good moment when I paid him out for his work. He was already an excited customer that bought the lifetime deal and continuously finds new ways to use it, but in that month he paid off triple the LTD cost just by telling people about it.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
GummySearch is profitable and I am so proud of where I’ve taken it as a solo bootstrapped founder in the first year of its existence. However, I’m just getting started, and have some really exciting plans for this next year.
My initial customer base has mostly been early-stage founders that are ideating/validating businesses, but I’m now shifting more towards servicing teams, agencies, and venture studios. I’m particularly excited about what impact this could have on the business.
I’ve also started building out GummySearch 2.0. Sorry to be a tease, but I can’t share many details besides the fact that it’s going to be a real game-changer. If you’re curious, I’d suggest you sign up for a free trial and look out for my email updates.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It’s been quite a journey figuring out what the product should be, and it’s only 1 year in! I had a completely different idea when I started, and have crafted the product to be what it is through lots of conversations with my users. I’m a firm believer in the concept that idea validation is not something you do once, it’s a continuous process.
Positioning is hard but crucial. Especially for products like mine where they have multiple use-cases and there aren’t many examples of similar products in the market, it’ll take some tweaking to get right. The same goes for pricing.
My biggest piece of advice would be to listen to your users, deeply understand what they are trying to do, measure what matters, and iterate/experiment consistently to help them achieve their goals.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
One of the best investments I’ve made is purchasing TailwindUI for the initial UI boilerplate. I end up customizing it a lot, but having that starter package that looks great has proven to be quite useful. Saves a lot of time and people love the design of my apps.
I use third-party services where I can, but also write a good amount of tools in-house, specifically around analytics, activation, and email flows - as those are crucial to the success of my product’s users.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- Zero to Sold & The Embedded Entrepreneur by Arvid Kahl (he gives a shoutout to the Hive Index in the Embedded Entrepreneur!!!)
- Built to Sell by John Warrillow
- The 4-hour workweek by Tim Ferriss
Bootstrapped entrepreneurs I look up to on Twitter: @arvidkahl @levelsio @monicalent
Some of my favorite bootstrapped entrepreneurs who are early in their journey and building in public on Twitter: @ImSh4yy @richiemcilroy @jelanisince94 @amritrupa @AnthonyCastrio @Ryan___Doyle @thegameboyy.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out
Don’t assume you’re smarter than your users. Listen to them, and enable them to help shape your product. Have your vision, but let your users be the extra eyes in the back of your head to help you spot new opportunities.
If you are just starting out and don’t know where to start, being in tune with online communities full of your target customer is a superpower. These communities will be a driving force of growth at each stage of your startup journey.
Give yourself the runway (time) needed to succeed, especially if you are bootstrapping. It takes a while to start seeing traction and even more to sustain yourself off of your business, so be ready for the long haul.
Where can we go to learn more?
- GummySearch - sign up for a free trial to research your customers in minutes!
- GummySearch Youtube & Twitter
- Hive Index Directory of Communities (maybe leave a review for Starter Story)
- Follow me on Twitter @foliofed to see me build these products in public
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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