How 'Sharing In Public' Led Me To My First Customers [Zero Paid Advertising]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey folks! My name is Dominik Sobe and I am the solo founder of multiple bootstrapped and profitable software products which are all run under my umbrella company called Seven Degrees Labs.
The most successful product that I am spending most of my time on right now is called HelpKit which turns Notion pages into a professional knowledge base. HelpKit is the perfect tool for creating your knowledge base, help center, or documentation page in the shortest possible time. It is powered by the best content management system in the world: Notion. You write your help articles in Notion and HelpKit takes care of the rest.
You can also embed a widget on your website to provide embedded customer support on your site. HelpKit is also fully customizable, has analytics, and third-party integrations, and is optimized for SEO so that search engines easily find your website.
When I initially started HelpKit my goal was to grow it to around $3K MRR which would allow me to go full-time Indiehacking. HelpKit surpassed this goal by another $2K now, so I am extremely grateful for being able to build a really valuable company while simultaneously being able to work from wherever and whenever I want.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Before I started HelpKit, I was working on some mobile apps and another SaaS product. Whenever I was building a new product, I found myself in a position where I needed a help desk tool because I knew that for me as a solo founder handling support tickets can become a huge time investment. Furthermore, customers love to get instant answers to their questions and not have to wait hours or days for a response to their support ticket.
At the same time, I realized that I'm already documenting my entire business in Notion. Then it just clicked. I thought you know what? Is it somehow possible for me to just write my help articles in Notion (which I enjoy!) and then expose them externally on a website that looks like a proper professional knowledge base that I can easily customize and share with my customers?
Sure, I could just publish a standalone Notion page but it might come across as unprofessional to customers due to multiple reasons such as the Notion URL, distracting branding links pointing to Notion, and the lack of customizability. Furthermore, it should feel similar to tools such as Intercom or Zendesk. Since I couldn't find the right FAQ software solution – I built HelpKit.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
It’s amazing that by just sharing your process in public you get your first customers for your SaaS. No paid advertisement, no crazy growth hacks, just genuinely sharing your story building a company.
I didn't act up on the idea right away because I learned from previous failed projects that every idea feels shiny and amazing in the beginning but eventually might not be the best one to pursue.
The thought was to keep the idea in the back of my head for another one or two months and if I still think the idea is worth pursuing I am going to give it a shot. Two months passed and I just could not stop thinking about this problem. How awesome would it be to write all your support articles in Notion where you keep most of your business documentation anyways? Furthermore, employees can easily hop in and help write content without the need of learning yet another editor and software tool. It seems like such a value add.
And so I decided to give it a go… without actually building the product. I wanted to validate the idea before building it. I hopped into Figma, created some mockups of how the product could look like, and then quickly built a landing page with the option to preorder one year of access to HelpKit for a discounted price to test if someone would be interested in building a help center with Notion and buy it.
In July 2021 I then tweeted out the page to my 300 followers. I did not expect much given the low follower count I had back then but luckily to my surprise, I started to get interested from members of the Notion community and almost gained 100 followers overnight.
I promised myself to build the product if I got 10 pre-orders. But no one pre-ordered for the whole week. I kept posting and sharing updates and finally the following week I received my first two pre-orders. Another week passed but unfortunately no new pre-orders.
I became slightly skeptical but then one day I woke up to this amazing email from someone who had noticed HelpKit and loved it. It was a long email. It took me more than 10 minutes to read it and had so much advice, suggestions, and support.
Even though I did not reach my goal of 10 pre-orders this email alone was worth more than that. It was someone who I did not know and was convinced that HelpKit has big potential. So, I decided to go full-in and build the first MVP in 30 days.
Describe the process of launching the business.
At the point of officially launching HelpKit, I have already started my build-in public journey and shared dozens of tweets documenting my process of building the MVP and being fully transparent with all the stats around HelpKit.
This helped me a lot when it was time to announce the first fully working MVP and improved landing page on Twitter. As you can see, the launch tweet was quite successful and eventually led to the first few customers signing up. It’s amazing that by just sharing your process in public you get your first customers for your SaaS. No paid advertisement, no crazy growth hacks, just genuinely sharing your story building a company.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
HelpKit’s marketing strategy is constantly evolving and I am still experimenting with the best growth strategies (If you have some ideas, feel free to reach out to me please). In the early days, two distinct strategies worked great for me.
The first one is sharing my story of building a fully bootstrapped company as a solo founder on platforms such as Reddit and Indiehackers. Two of my IndieHackers posts made it into the Top Milestones newsletter and the Top Stories section on the homepage.
The second one is what I call “Engineering as marketing”. The idea is simple; creating free useful tools for your target audience. Up until two months ago, Notion did not have a simple table block. You could create complicated databases but not have a simple table view of your content. I found a hack where you can use the math equation block and LaTeX notation to create beautifully-looking simple tables.
Creating the LaTeX code from scratch is a very cumbersome and boring task so I decided to build a simple and free table generator so that Notion users can easily generate their tables without messing around with the complex LaTeX notation. The problem of not having a simple table is a very well-known problem in the Notion community and there are countless Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook threads demanding it. I called it Notion Simple Table so that I can benefit from all the SEO juice that is already out there as this is exactly what people were searching for.
Besides my audience on Twitter, I made a quick explanation video and tried to look for some other places where the Notion community hangs out: A Facebook group and r/Notion That was it. I gave the post the name: "How to create a simple table in Notion" and boom… The community loved it! It's such a great feeling to provide people with a tool they truly wanted. You won't believe how many "You are god sent" comments I have received.
Pick a product idea in a niche that is growing and ride that organic growth of that niche to grow your product too.
In addition, another growth factor for HelpKit is that supports two different layouts which cater to two different types of companies. Besides the help center layout which has a wide variety of use cases, the documentation page layout is specifically designed for companies that want to create more documentation sites like knowledge bases such as software documentation or API documentation sites.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I am doing great these days. The year started a bit rough for me with a little head surgery but I have fully recovered and I am now fully enjoying the nomading lifestyle. I am currently living in Bali, Indonesia, and have an amazing community of other Indiehackers around me here.
HelpKit is currently serving over 150 companies building their knowledge base with Notion. As you can see in the image below customers seem to love HelpKit and even one of my favorite YouTubers Thomas Frank is a happy customer.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Pick a growing niche
Last year, while doing this amazing boat tour on the river of Lisbon I met an Indiehacker who told me about the concept of building something in a growing niche versus building something in a declining or stagnating niche. His TLDR was that building a successful business does not have to be ultra-hard and that a lot of Indiehackers shoot themselves in the foot by building a product in a category that is naturally really hard to market.
This short 10-minute talk changed my entire perspective on finding business ideas and building products. What he meant is that you should pick a product idea in a niche that is growing and ride that organic growth of that niche to grow your product too. Think of it sort of like if you're sailing and you have the wind that is in your favor, pushing you towards your goal rather than away from it. I think that for founders starting out building on top of an existing ecosystem can be a great kickstart for a successful business and is well worth the potential platform risk.
Get to know your customers
Try to personally get to know your first few customers and make them love your product. Ask for a short 10 min introduction call on Zoom. It will tremendously help get better and more honest feedback. At the same time it will also make your customers more forgiving should you happen to make some errors in the beginning.
It's ok to grow slowly
I must admit that HelpKit's growth sometimes felt a bit slow. In retrospect, however, slow growth, in the beginning, can allow you to polish the product, fill in the missing bits or fix minor issues from early customers. After all, that's the big benefit we bootstrapped Indiehackers have over VC backed startups, isn't it? We can allow our products to grow slower, improve them along the way and learn from the steadily growing customer base one step at a time.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I write my bits and bytes preferably with these tools:
Nuxt.js - Frontend
Tailwind CSS - Frontend
Strapi - Backend
Figma - Design
VS Code - Dev Tool
Fig - Dev Tool
Notion - Productivity
Alfred - Productivity
Texts - Productivity
Spark - Productivity
Setapp - Bunch of other cool tools
There are many more tools I use. If you are curious, I tweet about them from time to time.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I could go on and on about all the little things that have influenced my founder's journey. I will deliberately restrict myself to only a few remarkable things. A book I can highly recommend is Start small, Stay Small by Rob Walling. In general reading, Rob Walling’s books and Patrick McKenzie's blog posts shaped me a lot. I aove the first 100 Indiehacker podcast episodes and can also recommend Indiebites which condenses founder interviews into bit-sized episodes of just 15min (Love that concept!).
Lastly, I am inspired by people that seem to have an interest in a variety of different, seemingly unrelated things and try to excel in all of them. One example is Ryan Kulp who built a couple of successful businesses but also speaks Korean fluently, dabbled in K-Pop, and who knows what’s next. I highly recommend checking out his blog.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Be honest and fully transparent
I have had multiple larger companies reaching out in the early days and asking for features that were neither currently available nor planned on the roadmap. Whenever requests like that come in, I try to ask for a short call and talk about their pain points. While you would initially think that these requested features would be a showstopper for them, most of the time they are not. They will happily sign up after getting to know you and your future plans. In the words of Michael Seibel, director at Y Combinator:
“There is no benefit to you to make those first customers hard-to-get customers. You should be looking for customers who intensely have the problem that you're looking to solve. Don't target early customers who are too hard, who don't want to pay, who aren't interested in working with early-stage companies, who don't actually have the problem and just kind of think that they might have the problem in the future“
Have and stick to a routine
Pieter Levels talks about 95% of everything he ever built failed. Being an Indiehacker is a numbers game. The more you do it, the better you get, and the more skills you will acquire.
You need a routine and stick to it for a long time. If you are curious I have written about the grinding mindset and creating a routine in depth in my blog post here. Create your routine, acknowledge some temporary sacrifices and stick to it and I am sure you will succeed. Lastly, go to the gym like it is your job. Being a founder is demanding – physically and mentally. I cannot stress enough how exercising helps me keep a healthy balance.
Where can we go to learn more?
- The HelpKit Website is where you can create your professional help center without ever leaving Notion. No code required
- My personal Twitter where I tweet about my lessons learned building HelpKit, new ideas I am working on, and random bits on life
- My personal blog where I write more in-depth about my journey bootstrapping SaaS on the internet
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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