Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Hari and I built Visa List a year back and is my third successful micro start-up.
Visa List helps you find where you can travel tension free with your passport. You can find all the visa requirements, document checklist, visa application and visa process, all in one place. It also helps you find visa exemptions, visa requirements for couples. You can also find embassy information, travel advice. You can get flights, hotels, insurance and everything related to travel in visa list. I want to make Visa List one-stop shop for all visa related needs.
Currently, Visa List has made $5000/month on average with 350K Monthly Active Users and its growing at 60%. Visa List has helped over 2 million users with their visa requirements
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I quit my job in 2017 as a product manager and started travelling to new countries and building products along the way. I had been working on my second micro start-up, ACrypto, back then. It was successful and was generating basic income for me. It was during one of my travel plans to the Philippines, I realised how difficult the whole visa process is. Two months before my trip, I searched on Google and found that it’s visa-free, so I booked my flights and hotel accommodation. I don't know why but I searched for the same thing a week before my travel date and found that what I saw was a Google snippet and it was for Singapore citizens and in fact visa is required for Indian. So I had to rush to the embassy which was not in my city. I ended up talking to multiple visa agencies where every promised different time frames and prices. At the end, there was a holiday in the Philippines and the embassy was closed and I couldn't get my visa and I ended up cancelling the trip.
Soon I realized that you need a visa to get into most of the countries and that, while a few have Visa on Arrival (VOA), most require that you go through their embassy in your home country. I wanted to find the countries I could go to without having to wait three weeks to get a visa, so I did some research. I had to wade through a few blogs and websites, but I eventually found a list with the information I need, and off I went! After a few months, I wanted to travel to another country, but I’d lost the original list I’d found so I had to start my research all over again. Luckily, I found a new site that listed even more countries offering VOA.
A friend of mine told me that when he was researching visa information for Vietnam, he found almost 10 websites with a .gov address, which was really confusing. In my own research, I found that many blogs don’t have links to official embassy websites, which is ultimately unhelpful.
Trying to find the information I needed was a huge challenge. There was no aggregated visa information shown in any kind of useful way, so each different country required the same amount of tedious research every time I wanted to travel, and most of the blogs and websites I found had very little information and were outdated. It was also very difficult to find official government or embassy websites. which meant I often ended up paying more money to visa agents.
Frustrated, I searched for a product that could help, but everything I came across just had a table with the very basic visa requirements and nothing more. Even though I had no formal experience in travel and visa-related issues, I realized that all of my time researching and traveling had put me in a position to address the need. I decided to aggregate all of the information I could find, organize it, and present it in a simple and useful way. Thus, Visa List was born!
I built an MVP of the site and shared it with a few friends—and they loved it. Their positive responses gave me the hope and motivation I needed to move forward, so I started building a full-fledged site. In two months' time, it was ready. The public launch was a huge success and it’s been growing strong ever since.
embed:instagram In USA as I was planning on building Visa List
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After I validated the idea and decided to build a Visa List, I checked for competition if there were any. All the websites I saw, there was just a list of visa requirements. It was clear that if I wanted Visa List to be successful, it would have to be very different from the rest.
When I sat down to design, I wanted users to find their travel freedom based on their passports, breaking the traditional visa search where you give your destination and your home country. To make it easy and simple, I decided to have 3 screens, Home, List, and Details. I also wanted the visa list to be beautiful and in order to do that, I ended up manually downloading images for more than 200 countries. So when you put your country of origin country(it’s auto-filled based on your IP address), you see a beautiful list of countries where you can visit along with the ease of visa.
When you build something for yourself, you understand the problem very well and that contributes a lot to the success.
This was great but I felt it can be much more pleasant and inspiring when someone wants to travel, so to make it easier and functionally rich, added maps which showed the countries in visa category colors. This was one of the biggest challenges as I had to render all the countries’ borders which were around 20MB. I finally managed to get it under 1 MB but reducing the geojson path vectors.
This was only half of the battle, the other half was to collect data. There was more than 40K country to country combination visa requirements. Some of the information, I ended up automating. Then for the detailed visa process, document requirements and official websites, I collected them manually, one country at a time. I finished 25 countries' full visa requirements for the initial launch.
As I was a mobile app developer, the web ecosystem was very new to me. One of my friends helped me with the backend APIs for the website and hosted the website, the API and the database in Google Cloud Platform, a compute engine. Initially, I was using a basic system that cost me around $15.
embed:instagram During one of my breaks in the Philippines
Describe the process of launching the business.
I started working on Visa List in July 2018 and finished the MVP by August. I was traveling and along the way collecting the visa information till October. In November I decided it was a good time to launch and showed the finished one for another round of feedback to friends.
One of my friends offered to make a launch video and asked me to postpone the launch by a week. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made for the Visa List. Due to the extra week, I could suppress my itch to release the product without a plan and made a small checklist on Google Docs to help guide my process. It mapped out launches across different platforms and social networks, as well as help from family, friends, and influencers. Visa List has a huge leg up in the marketing and growth game since the problem it’s addressing is so universal; most people will want to travel somewhere at some point in their life, so anyone and everyone is a potential user.
My plan included:
- Which platform I should launch and at what time
- Basic pitch for each platform
- Content for the platforms like images, videos, screenshots
After a week, I launched on platforms like Product Hunt, Hacker News, Reddit, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook according to my plan.
Product Hunt: PH has become the default platform to launch new products and get decent feedback from the other makers and hunters. Over the years people have perfected the art of launching on PH. I showed it to one of my friends, Sid, and he loved it so much that he made a launch video for VisaList. I just followed some previous great launches and used them as a template. It was the #1 Product of day and #3 Product of the week. It also was runner up in PH Golden Kitty Awards 2018. This was a perfect launch.
- Best Time: After 00:00 on Sunday
- Tools Used: PreviewHunt
- Users: 5K
Hacker News: People say you get the most honest and brutal feedback on HN and also it’s very difficult to be on the front page of HN. I didn’t have much hope with this but I guess I got lucky and it trended for a whole day there. Got tons of brutal feedback and it was totally worth it.
- Users: 11K
- Users: 11K
Reddit: This was one of the biggest surprises for me. I thought this will be in line with PH or almost like HN but it was far more than what I had expected. The great thing about Reddit is there are many subreddits and you can post it in as many as you want (but you should comply with each subreddit rules). Here I did a soft launch in SideProject and Entrepreneur where I posted Visa List for feedback and the community was really wonderful. This was where the real Visa List started shaping up based on the feedback and it continued till the official launch on DataIsBeautiful which put it in front of thousands of people. The trick to a successful launch on Reddit is to treat each subreddit as a completely different group and pitch your product as something useful to them instead of just copy-pasting and spamming. You will be surprised what Reddit can bring to the table. Honestly, the tons of feedback that I got was really overwhelming. From this, Visa List got 16K upvotes. I couldn’t ask for a better launch.
- Best Time: PostInspect
- Users: 65K
WhatsApp: I wrote a small message and shared it with my friends for feedback and pointed them to the PH link, as I wanted the feedback to be public.
- Views: 80%
- Views: 80%
Twitter: The same with Twitter. One thing I realized after reading Pieter’s MAKE book, is the title needs to be written in such a way that it creates excitement and stand out instead of being bland. I also asked my friends, Sid and Hemanth, who are both tech influencers, to tweet their feedback on VisaList.
- Best Time: 1-2 PM Tuesday - Thursday
- Views: 15K
- Best Time: 4 PM Thursdays
- Views: 4K
Facebook: This one I posted on my company page. Got decent views.
- Best Time: 3-4 PM Monday
- Views: 5K
News Publications: After the launch, Visa List was quickly picked up by many news publications and has gone completely viral since then. It was covered by LifeHacker, Gizmodo, Gigazine, MakeUseOf, EsquireMag, CzechCrunch and many more all across the world like Russia, Japan, Argentina, China, India, Philippines, US and so on.
- Users: 70K
Then, a month after the launch, Visa List had more than 170K users. I’ve realized that there are two things that are crucial to launching or promoting a product: the title and the timing. There are even studies that suggest the best times to post on various platforms.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Launching on Reddit has been the most useful in terms of feedback which has shaped around 50% of the product which you see today. No matter what others tell you, user feedback is paramount and can make any product successful. Every comment that you get is important, so whenever someone suggests something, I used to make a not of it and added it to my features list. After a month, I had a very big list of things to work on which ranged from bugs to User experience to new features.
Coming to traffic, even before I started to build the MVP, I knew as it’s going a content site, SEO is everything and since that day I have been building improving SEO related things along with the regular features. But the fact is SEO is not easy at all.
As you can see, after the viral launch, it was all downhill from there. From 150K users to 20K. It was very hard to digest. Product launch is essential and put you in the market. But it doesn't give you sustainable growth. SEO was new to me but I believed very strongly in Visa List, so I kept improving and experimenting with SEO, studying the competitors. I never lost sight of what was important from that start, that is user growth and after relentless working on SEO, I finally cracked it. After that, it was growing around 120% Month-on-Month.
Don’t hesitate to dream big. Don’t be conservative in anything that you do. Always be aggressive in what you are chasing and learn to handle failure.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Visa List is profitable currently making $7000 in revenue last month. I just spend around $50 for hosting and other expenses monthly, so almost all the revenue is profit.
The monthly traffic has been growing exponentially since launching from 5K users to 350K users with each user spending around 2 minutes with 50% conversion with users checking out the embassy website or booking visa or flight. With this, I have also got 25K subscribers, whom I plan to send travel related advice and deals monthly.
I introduced a pro subscription where users can subscribe and get visa advice and use advanced features on Visa List. It's improving at a very brisk pace. Most of my traffic comes through SEO, the rest comes from referrals, other social media and news channels. Everything that I have grown till now has been nothing but organic and never spend a penny on ads.
Currently, I’m working towards collecting data from the remaining 100 countries to complete tourist visa data. After that, there is a huge scope to include other types of visas like work, business, etc. This will improve the SEO and will help grow Visa List even further. To make things easy for users, I plan to build tools that make visa related tasks easy.
Coming to the revenue, I have 4 channels of revenue. Everything in Visa List is free but there are some advanced features, community chat, visa advice for which the user has to be a pro member to use.
I also have a partnership with a visa agency and Skyscanner which I have been tweaking and improving for the last 6 months, now they generate 50% of the monthly revenue.
The biggest revenue generator has been ads. I personally don't like ads but for a content site, at least, in the beginning, you need ads to sustain. At the beginning with 500K pageviews, I was hardly generating $1000 per month from ads. I soon realized there is an entire profession dedicated to improving ad revenue and its called AdOps. I tried to improve it myself but initially had no luck, I found a few companies who would do that for you with no guarantee on the revenue but a 30% on the total ad revenue and 1-year contract. In the beginning, I was restless as huge amounts of traffic we're getting wasted but for some reason, I resisted these companies and started learning AdOps myself. It took me 3 months and with a lot of experiments on ads sizes and places, I kind of cracked this was as well. Currently, ads generate around 50% of the revenue for Visa List.
My plan is to get exclusive sponsorship from travel-related companies as they will very targeted audience and it will be useful for the users as well, so it will be a win-win.
📈 Some of the stats of Visa List over the year:
🏆 1st place on Product Hunt
🏆 1st position on Hacker News
🏆 Top position on Reddit
🥈 2nd position in Golden Kitty Awards
🌟 Got featured on Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Esquire
🙌 2M Total Users
🚦 6M Total Page views
🔎 25M Search Impressions
👥 300K+ MAU
💸 $15K Total revenue
💰 $5000 Monthly revenue
🛠️ $500 Total cost
🙅♂️ 10 buyouts rejected
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The thing that has always worked, at least for me, is when I build solutions that I need personally. In my opinion, that is the biggest validation for a Product/Market Fit. All my micro start-ups have been successful as I started to build them just for me. Another take on this is that when you build something for yourself, you understand the problem very well and that contributes a lot to the success.
Also, my experience as a developer, product manager, designer, and growth hacker has easily saved me a couple of months which I would have otherwise spent learning. Having said that, once you become good at picking up things, it hardly takes more than a week to learn new technologies.
Over the year, I have realized the need to have sustainable growth, unlike SEO or ads which can go up or down, and thus built subscription features. I have also partnered with Visa agencies, flight aggregators and Insurance providers in that regard. In the short term, things will be working very well, and during this time we should think of the long term and build towards that goal. I hope I'm on the right track in that regard.
How Visa List looks today:
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- NuxtJS: The entire website is built using this framework and it took me two weeks to learn. Best Framework for indie makers.
- Vuetify: The best frontend material library for VueJS
- GoLang: I used this for building the API and so far it has shown amazing performance
- MySQL: For storing the data
- Firebase: For Auth, Community Chat, Functions to import data
- Stripe: For Subscription payments, extensive and has everything one needs.
- VS Code: Best code editor I have seen so far
- Telegram: For ChatOps to deploy code to the server, receive feedback and reports from users.
- Sketch: For designing and creating all the assets
- Google Analytics: Trustworthy analytics
- Adsense: For generating revenue from ads
- Google Data Studio: For showing the open startup stats
- Cloudflare: Definitely use this if you want to improve your website performance
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
MAKE book by Pieter Levels is really amazing and I have to give credit to it for my successful product launch. Every single page in this book is a goldmine for indie makers. You have a solid refined process which has been tested, all you have to do it just follow it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Many people tell you to use ReactJS or some other tech stacks. Don’t listen to them, instead, you need to find what you want to build and based on that, find the tools/ technologies which can make that happen with the least amount of time and effort.
- Just build and launch. One of the mistakes people often make is to think a lot and take a lot of time to get the product out. I say take not more than 2 weeks and get your MVP out. This, I think, is the best strategy for Indie hackers.
- Always plan for the launch and how you would want to sell it to the people as this is half of the whole battle. A great product is still useless if nobody is using it.
- Don’t hesitate to dream big. Don’t be conservative in anything that you do. Always be aggressive in what you are chasing and learn to handle failure. It’s the hardest thing but once you get over it, nothing can stop you.
- Always believe in what you are building, even if you fail in the beginning, don’t stop believing. If you keep believing, you will find a way to make things successful. This is the success mantra of makers.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Currently, I'm not looking to hire anyone but if anyone wants to partner with Visa List, I'm all ears.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Visa List has provided an update on their business!
10 months ago, we followed up with Visa List to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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