I Built A Live Chat Tool In My Spare Time And Now Make $90K/Year
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m from a small country called Lithuania. I run an open Source live support application. My main customers are everybody who wants to host live support applications on their stack. Clients vary from small companies to large ones - which have hundreds of operators.
My main goal is to help companies succeed using Live Helper Chat. Their success is my success. As of today, I had hundreds of clients during all these development years. All this project is about having fun along the way, not about making money. I’m proud of my clients and their success stories.
My biggest accomplishment is returning clients and how I keep relationships with them for years. It means I do something right. Not to mention the project in GitHub now has over 1.5K stars.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Everything started more than 10 years ago. I was working in a small web agency when one of their clients asked for a live support script. There were no good open-source alternatives at that time - so the first version I built in two weeks during my holidays. As the Initial version was released I found some other, more interesting projects for myself, to do in my spare time.
After a few years, during the summer holidays, my attention went back to the project as the project was not maintained for a few years and it still got some visitors. So I decided to dedicate more time to it. I was doing that for the next 6 months without any attention from the outside world. Then something happened, I started to get some donations, some requests in the forum, and in general, I felt that something was happening. For the next 3-5 years, I was working in my spare time doing development either by paid orders or just what I thought could be useful for front-end visitors.
Just do what you love to do!
The moment I had to drop my official job and work solely on this project happened once I realized I did not have any spare time at all. That was not healthy, you come from work, and start another work right after an official job. I just realized how much I could do if I had all the time dedicated to that project.
Leaving an official job and starting to work on your own gives you that freedom/independent feeling which can’t be compared with anything else until you experience it yourself.
Take us through the process of designing your initial prototype
First product versions were built using jQuery and Foundation CSS framework and Zeta Components. As written above, the first version was built in two weeks. What touches the costs, the only cost was only my own free time invested. I did not have any funding at that time. I’m not obligated to anyone even today, so it's a completely independent project from any company. I had a few migrations that influenced the look and feel of the product.
From handwritten components to jQuery. From jQuery to AngularJS. As of today, some parts are React, some AngularJS and some still using VanilaJS. I must confess it’s not the best practice, but life is not as perfect as anything else in the world. I just do my best all the time and improve the app gradually. Because of some big clients, I still have to maintain some old parts of the app.
These days the biggest struggle is UX. I wish some things were more simple for front-end users. Today, it's really hard to satisfy everyone and each feature request brings complexity.
In today’s world, there are a lot of choices to choose your software stack, but 10Y ago there were not so many choices. Some choices I regret, some choices I’m happy with. Perhaps the best choice was to choose Zeta Components, they were not as big as Zend Components at that time and they just did exactly what I needed. Hard lifting the project core, and leaving everything else to me. That’s how UI looked 10 years ago.
And today same home page looks like:
Describe the process of launching the business.
The launch itself was very boring actually as there were no fireworks - so-called. There were few launches as the first launch was done just in two weeks, it was more like a bootstrap for further project development. It was a completely new thing to me - having an open-source project. I did not know how to promote a project etc. What I did:
- Had an official website
- Github repository was created just 4 years after the project's launch in 2013. Too little knowledge from my side, I ques or GitHub was just too small at that time
- There were some script repositories where I posted links to my project. E.g hotscripts.com and alternative.to
- I let Google do the rest
Perhaps the most motivating thing was donations and commercial orders. As honestly I never believed it would be possible to live from this project, but time proved that I was wrong. Getting the first few clients was really fun, it was a very small task to modify/install applications just. They all come from google. They come to me most likely because they just saw a project activity, that project is not dead or not maintained. Nowadays everything is much more simple, you just order google ads or Facebook campaigns and see results. As this project was not sponsored I did not order any ads etc. Everything was evolving naturally just. Nowadays there are many channels where you can promote your project.
For a very long time, I did not have a proper website for the product itself. Shoes make problems :). As for investments, the biggest investment was my free time, and that’s the beauty of programming. We all do what we can do either at our job or home. We don’t need any special tools, our knowledge is the biggest tool we have. So why don't we use it in our spare time?
As I did not have any investors and never actually wanted to, I was free to do what I wanted and develop what I wanted and just have fun. As of today, the only boss is me.
And this is how the official website looked back then.
Since the project was part of a collaboration with the previous company I worked for, there was some branding involved. Branding involved logo and some copyright notice mentioning the previous company I worked for. It’s the same company I worked in all my life before I left it for the Live Helper Chat project itself. Since then the project is completely independent as all development was done in my spare time. Since its initial launch, even the logo has changed. How it looks now you can find on the official website.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I never had marketing or whatever, just an official website at the very beginning. Once a person said to be, not products do business, but people. So what differentiates you from others is your personality. Personalities can make it shine or can make it sink.
Maintaining that type of project is very important to keep updates going. Github is the perfect place for that as everyone is familiar with it. No one will install your product if they see that the owner is impolite or the product is not well maintained a.k.a dead.
To retain customers and make them come back is your attention to them. No one likes to wait for a reply for days, for that purpose I give direct access to me personally either through Skype or Discord where everyone can ask a question. Patience is a must because you will encounter very different users varying from very experienced web developers to just starting users and not necessarily all of them will even know what Apache or Nginx.
Just don’t expect to build a perfect product from the first attempt, it rarely happens.
Having detailed documentation for that type of product is a must. There will be two types of users. Frontend users and developers who will do integrations for the clients. One UX mistake I’m dealing with till this moment, I don’t have very good documentation inside a product itself. No one likes to go to an external website and read docs there.
As for a resume - if you decide to build that type of project - get ready to answer users’ requests, spend a bunch of time chatting and pull requirements from clients. The pulling I mean - asking a bunch of questions before their level of knowledge meets yours. Misunderstandings are the biggest risk here. They have different views/experiences than yours. You need to get it in sync and that’s hard. It depends a lot on general user experience, knowledge, and intelligence.
Here is how traffic at the moment looks like just for the main repository. There is no specific strategy or promotional efforts involved. Live Helper Chat is now a very old project which has a lot of articles about it over all these years.
Discord was a success as a communication channel.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
As of today, I would say Live Helper Chat is doing pretty well, more and more big companies are finding it and its capabilities. As of today, you can do anything you want with it. Integrate third-party API, integrate AI, have voice/video calls. It’s all there. For the future, I’m keen just to simplify the UI for inexperienced users and it’s the main blocker at the moment.
Having an open-source project, which is not a library type - you always have to decide with new clients' requests.
If a client comes and they want a custom feature to be done only for them, but you see that project would benefit from it. You have to answer these questions yourself:
Either make it only for them, but that can be a bad decision because if someone comes and agrees to make it open source you have no choice just to refuse and that’s bad. You also remove an opportunity from the community to improve it.
Either refuse to make it or just convince clients to make it open source.
Some clients just don't understand that having closed source modules in an open-source project in the long term can harm the project itself because of obligations. It’s a separate topic. Just have in mind time will come and you will have to make these decisions.
Sometimes I invest my own time when I see that an improved request by a client can be done more generically and reused afterward. E.g instead of having a static image in some part of the widget, have it dynamic.
The main business is not the automated hosting I’m offering to the clients, but the personal support and integration services. At some point, I would like to dedicate more time to it as it would mean fully automated business. Now my time is limited, as income also, by the number of hours I work per week and that type of business is not scalable just.
Talking about client types - there are two types
- Clients who use Live Helper Chat as their main product and resell, rebrands it. Yes - you can do all that.
- Clients who use Live Helper Chat are a self-hosted solution. These clients I like the most because it means
- They agree to open source most of the jobs I do for them. They just want to improve Live Helper Chat for everybody, as the app is not their main business it’s a tool for them.
Talking strictly about plans, the main plan is to keep the project thriving. I already have a few new modules implemented, but because of NDA, I can’t share the code at the moment. It will be done only after a few years.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Your great idea doesn’t need to always be useful for the customers. The most valuable thing is the attitude to your clients and patience. Just let your customers decide what next thing they want, but not too much.
Keep pushing updates to the project - even if no one notices, it is a must. For me, it took like 6 months of constant work without any significant feedback - until I started to notice some valuable feedback or donations.
One thing with this project I did right - is the timing. At the time I started this project to develop more, there still was zero competition in the open-source field. Today of course there are more competitions, but none of the projects is so advanced as Live Helper Chat.
There is good advice I once heard - money follows eyeballs. That was my main motivation at the beginning. Seeing an increasing number of visitors means there is always a higher chance someone will want something. As long as you see some increased interest in the project you are doing, there is a big chance something will come out of it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
There are a few types of tools I use mainly.
Communication tools include:
Discord is now the main channel where everybody can ask questions. I always try to do my best to answer them, but it’s hard sometimes because of the lack of basic knowledge from the visitors themself or the patience from my side. So-called - ‘Great Answers Require Great Questions’ and that’s not what I get most of the time. All the other channels are just for the client's convenience. I even have a dedicated monitor just for chatting.
- Google keep - that’s all I need to keep clients’ details in one place.
- Google Doc - writing specifications
Over so many years it’s very easy to forget one or another client and I did not want to have some dedicated CRM or Project Management solution just for that. Instead of asking who this person is writing to me, I just do a quick search in Google to keep track of his nick or website to refresh my memory.
What’s nice about PayPal is not its high fees, but the ability to write an invoice and mark it as paid by Bank wire, that way I have an invoicing app without giving PayPal any fee.
As for development tools, the first tool was Eclipse, then eventually I migrated to PHPStorm. What touches the environment, I have a personal server in my basement now just where I do all the developments.
Not to mention other small utilities I use daily such as notepad++.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The most influential thing was a story I came across when no one believes that you will succeed, but you do exactly that. It's not about some books or podcasts, but about people, you met through your lifetime and knowing their stories.
From my own experience, most success stories are the ones where someone starts a business and there is competition already, but persistence and devotion are all you need with a little bit of luck.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I always dreamed of doing what I love. So my advice would be just doing what you love to do. If your best weekday is Monday and Worst Friday (because you won't be able to do what you love) - you found your dream job. And don’t get fixated on one idea, as before finally deciding to go with Live Helper Chat I had a bunch of other spare time projects. Just don’t expect to build a perfect product from the first attempt, it rarely happens.
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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