I Built A URL Shortener Tool With 350K Active Users [Side Hustle]
Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Tim Leland, and I am the creator of a simple URL shortener and link management tool, T.LY.
My goal is to make creating short links a one-click process. This goal led me to create a browser extension that makes it easy to create, share, and track short URLs.
Currently, T.LY has over 8 million short URLs and has tracked over 80 million clicks. The Link Shortener extension has over 350,000 active users. T.LY is an affordable alternative that has thousands of users and is currently making over $2,600 a month.
What's your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
I graduated with a computer science degree in 2010, and I've been working as a software developer for the past 11 years, primarily on online payment applications. I enjoy working on side projects in my free time. My first side project that gained traction was a Weather browser extension that now has over 200,000 users. The extension was featured in Lifehacker and got me hooked on building browser extensions. The extension is free with a one-time upgrade for “Pro” features.
When I read that Google was shutting down its URL shortener service in March 2019, I realized that there would be a significant demand for another link shortener service. I also saw a need for a link shortener API for a texting application in my day job. I figured this service was something that other companies would need. This news gave me the idea to build my shortener API.
One of the most critical parts of a link shortener is the domain. It has to be short and easy to type and remember. Short domains are hard to acquire! Through IndieHackers, I met the founder of Park.io, a service that helps users register expiring domains. Partnering with them, I was able to get T.LY which was perfect! Next, I had to build the MVP.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Building the MVP for a link shortener was pretty straightforward and only took a few days. The MVP included an API to shorten and expand links. I also stored stats on clicks, browsers, and locations with plans to create a stats page similar to Google link shortener. I also incorporated the API into the Link Shortener browser extension. The domain T.LY being so short is what helps the service to stand out. Currently, if you create a short URL using the top competitor, it’s 15 characters long, while T.LY is 9 characters long. We are also more affordable than the competition, which is great for smaller companies who only need a few short URLs a month.
Creating a business is just finding a pain point in people's lives that they are willing to pay for to solve.
Once the API was up and running, I started working on the UI to allow users to sign up. When users create an account, they can manage their URLs, see private stats, edit a custom ending for short URLs, add custom domains, and more. There is also an option to add other users to teams to have multiple employees manage their links.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My goal at first was to make creating short links a one-click process. This led me to create a browser extension that makes it easy to create, share, and track short URLs. The first version once the extension used Google’s URL shortener service and others. I used my existing browser extensions and knowledge of how to market extensions to quickly grow my extension into the top URL Shortener extension in the marketplace.
Once the browser extension started gaining traction, I quickly realized I needed my URL shortener service that was reliable and had the features I wanted. This led me to create TLY. T.LY has over 8 million short URLs and has tracked over 80 million clicks. T.LY is an affordable alternative to other URL shorteners and offers features such as custom domains, stats, smart URLs, and more.
Launching the API was exciting because I was able to see 60,000 users immediately using the service through the Link Shortener extension. I updated the extension to use the T.LY API in July 2019, and by August 2019, I already had 100,000 short URLs created and tracked millions of clicks.
It was exciting to see T.LY’s short URLs being shared all over Twitter when the service launched. Since I was building a service to an already popular extension, growth was organic, and users started signing up accounts to manage their links.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
With the goal to keep T.LY as simple as possible, I have tried to limit new features to stay true to my original plan. Features such as custom domains, teams, analytics, OneLinks, Smart URLs, and Link Retargeting are features that I have added over the past year that users have requested.
Being a link shortener, T.LY advertises itself every time a user shares a short URL. As more users create short URLs, we continue to see month over month increase in traffic to the site. Our goal is that when users need a short URL for their marketing campaign or application, they automatically think T.LY. I’ve also shared my journey on Indie Hackers, where I post updates and share tips and tricks on building a successful browser extension.
I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas, and most have been terrible. I like to write down my ideas and come back to them a couple of weeks later to see if it still excites me.
Early on, I tried some Facebook ads but did not feel confident that they were working. I didn’t have the time to spend on the advertising and felt like I was wasting the money.
How are you doing today, and what does the future look like?
The top priority of T.LY is to stay true to keeping the service simple and low cost. To do this, we have to keep server costs low by optimizing our code to be performant and scale to billions of redirects. With cloud hosting getting cheaper and so many excellent services that allow auto-scaling of infrastructure, we see a great future where we can be a simple/more affordable alternative to compete against other services that cost much more for similar features.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Many URL shorteners have come and gone. They usually stick around long enough for spammers to find them and abuse them until they are blocked from the internet.
Fortunately, I was able to develop automated systems to detect malicious URLs and have been able to fight the spammers who intend to abuse the service. My goal is for T.LY to still be around 20+ years from now, with billions of short URLs spread all over the internet.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I highly recommend adding Cloudflare to all your websites. Not only do they offer many of their services for free, but they will also help to protect your site. When running a URL shortener, many people will attempt to take the site down. Cloudflare helps to protect sites from DDOS attacks and more!
I’m also a fan of using open source projects such as Laravel and VueJS. Not only are these remarkable frameworks, but they speed up development, have excellent documentation, and have amazing community support.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m a big fan of podcasts. If I’m driving, running, biking, or doing yard work, I usually listen to a podcast. Some of my favorite podcasts are:
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I recommend writing down ideas whenever you experience a problem or something that you think could be improved. If it's a problem you encounter, then most likely, a group of people has the same issue. Creating a business is just finding a pain point in people's lives that they are willing to pay for to solve.
I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas, and most have been terrible. I like to write down my ideas and come back to them a couple of weeks later to see if it still excites me. I then will research the problem to decide if a solution exists. I usually discover an app exists for the problem because there are no “new” ideas. I then think about how I can improve or simplify the problem and create a better mousetrap. This is the approach I take before building a new app.
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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