Adrien Joly

@adrienjoly

12 months to become an Indie Hacker

September 17th 2017
Musician in Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles. Photo: Adrien Joly.

One year ago, I stopped freelancing to live off my own projects. It was not as easy as expected. This is my retrospective.

ℹ️️ This article is a quick translation of “Développer et vendre ses propres produits: mon retour d’expérience” (🇫🇷). Sorry for the grammar mistakes, literal translations, and thank you for your understanding!

Mid-September, 2017. I have just enough money to survive 3 months without a salary. It’s now time to get back to financial stability. *

For the last 12 months, I’ve been trading 1–2 days per week to earn a teaching salary. Besides that, I was free to do what I wanted!

What did I do during that time? What are my results? This is my story.

* If you’re curious about accounting: I’ve been living off 2500€/month since last summer. Including a 1000€/month mortgage, and 600€ of taxes. I was earning 1300€/month from my teaching job, and used my savings from previous jobs.

1. Six months to make some income

In March 2016, I met a collective of young freelancers and digital nomads called Mangrove. They motivated me to spend more time to develop my own projects.

I had also heard of a website on which several developers were sharing their story of how they made a living by developing their own products: Indie Hackers. I was excited!

I could already see myself coding all day on my own ideas, become my own boss, and earn enough to live an enjoyable life. I couldn’t wait to start! 😋

Summer 2016. I decided to say good bye to my clients, and sail my own boat: develop and live off my own ideas!

So I published my long list of ideas online, to see which of them was most likely to succeed, based on interest feedback. Then I committed to the goal of making 100€ per month of revenue before spring, and adopted a strict productivity routine. I was excited by my ideas, confident of my skills, and determined to succeed! 💪

October 2016. I launched my first product: Next Step for Trello. A browser extension to track progress more efficiently on my Trello boards. It was a great start: I had convinced 3300 users in 2 months, without too much effort!

I was getting a lot of positive feedback from users, so I asked them what improvements would make my product really essential. Based on their answers, I launched two crowdfunding campaigns:

  • a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development of Next Step for Trello v2.0, with the most requested features;
  • and a Patreon campaign, for users and friends who were more interested in donating in return for exclusive rewards related to the development process of my craft.

In order to boost donations, I streamed several live sessions during which I was developing features and replying to questions, on Twitch and Youtube.

Despite the promising feedback users had given me, those two crowdfunding campaigns ended up failing. 🏜

2. An opportunity for productivity workshops

Disappointed by this first failure, I decided to try a different direction. Seeing that I was working efficiently and had been writing a lot about productivity, several friends were very interested in some productivity advice from me. So I decided to propose a productivity workshop.

After planning my workshop “Improve your productivity: learn how to procrastinate less” for January 2017, we ended up canceling it, due to a low number of sign-ups.

Fortunately, I was able to convince one of the registered participants to convert her ticket to 2 hours of personal coaching.

=> First income: 100€ earned in February 2017, finally! 🙌

That being said, I quickly realised that I was not that motivated about teaching or coaching about that topic. So I decided to move on to another project.

Besides, during her presentation in Paris, Poornima Vijayashanker made me realise that, like many developers, I had some difficulty to ask people to pay for my software.

At that point, it also became clear that I had a lot to learn about marketing. Especially at the era of information overload we’re living in.

3. Edtech and collaborative projects

After accepting that Next Step for Trello was not going to be a financial success, and that I was not motivated enough to teach about productivity, I decided to explore other possibilities:

  • monetise the student evaluation software I had been developing for 1.5 years, to help me cope with grading the code of my students;
  • and partner up with a few talented friends to develop the next products.

So I produced and published several videos to promote my educational tools, while getting started on two collaborative projects:

  • New Day”, a task management tool integrated into Google Chrome;
  • and “Clear”, an application to enable discussions on customer forms.

My teammates and I were also working on other projects during that period, so we decided to spend just one day per week on each project. We also set a 2-months deadline.

Two months later, we gave our products for user testing and were disappointed by their results. So we decided to quit both projects.

My analysis is that we were lacking proper leadership and role distribution, especially for critical product decisions. I also think that spending just one day per week was not enough to cover for the communication overhead.

Simultaneously, I was discovering the art of marketing and client prospection on my Edtech project, thanks to Justin Jackson, Sean McCabe, and Clifford Oravec. I had set a goal of convincing 3 teachers to try my software in their classroom, out of a list of 100 leads I had written down. At the end, I did reach that goal after contacting 67 leads. But no trials happened yet. Wait and see!

4. Taking a step back

In April 2017, I understood why we say that entrepreneurs feel lonely. Starting a business turns heaps of time and energy into failure and self-doubt. But the worst is to be seen as an alien by your family and friends. Most of them did not understand what I was doing, and did not dare to talk to me about it. And, as I was spending most of my time building my business, we did not have much else to talk about…

I also understood that I was spreading energy into too many projects at the same time. I had to focus more. To get rid of some of them. So I made a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) for each project, to help me decide wisely.

Last but not least, I realised that I had mistakenly thought I was a “10x developer.” While, really, I was acting like one, just to cover my insecurities. My lack of self-confidence and trust towards others.

Extracts:

“If I want to craft and ship great products, I need to fight my insecurities and become a better communicator, a better teammate, a better human.” (May 2017)
“I need to know what I want, and what I don’t want. And, these days, I’m having trouble figuring this out…” (June 2017)

5. Letting go and closure

In June 2017, I knew that my savings were almost over, and that my chances of making an income were at their lowest. I knew that I was reaching the end of this adventure.

So I decided to follow 3 directives:

  • Leave my projects in a functional and clean state;
  • publish quality content to show what I had done during the 12 months;
  • and invest time on the most exciting projects, rather than the ones that I thought were more likely to monetise.

I ended up publishing:

  • an informal report about what I learned during my first 2 years as a teacher;
  • a concise video to demonstrate my student evaluation software,
  • a landing page and mailing list for teachers who are interested in trying it;
  • and I launched a crowdfunding campaign to sustain Openwhyd. The least viable but coolest project to work on.

Against all odds, Openwhyd’s crowdfunding campaign was a success! We raised enough to pay for 4 months of hosting, and it motivated volunteers to contribute to the project!

In July 2017, I decided to participate in the Atlassian Codegeist contest, by submitting a Power-up for Trello: “Comment Editor by AJ.” I did not win the contest, but Trello did integrate my Power-up. So I take it as a validation of my quality as extension developer. “Next Step for Trello” was also an extension, but it was not integrated into Trello. Feeling accomplished!

On a side note, I opened a community of product developers called “Work In Progress,” in order to help and praise developers like me who are developing their own ideas.

And, before leaving to the USA, I rediscovered the joy of soldering!

Soldering a Velleman kit. So satisfying! 😌

Conclusion

I hope that this article will help my family and friends better understand what I’ve been up to since last summer. My intent is also to ease the feelings of other developers who, like me, did not succeed as indie hackers. That’s ok!

I may write a second article to share a few actionnable tips for those who would like to try becoming an indie hacker too. Please let me know if you’re interested. [EDIT] I linked it below:

Can’t wait to read your reactions, and questions, if any!

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