After hearing that people were looking for a way to collect email addresses on their Medium stories, Josh created an MVP solution over a weekend, and has since grown Upscribe to over $4k MRR.
Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
My name is Joshua Anderton. I’m an entrepreneur/full-stack developer from Vancouver, Canada. I’m working on a software product called Upscribe that provides “Embeddable lead generation forms”.
Upscribe is used by writers, bloggers, and businesses — such as Nir Eyal (author of Hooked), Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky (authors of Sprint and Make Time), Product Hunt, Geckoboard, and others — to grow their followings and capture leads by embedding our forms on their Medium publications, WordPress sites, and Squarespace sites.
Since launching about 2 years ago, we have grown to 10,000 users (of which around 260 are paying) and $4000 USD monthly recurring revenue.
What motivated you to get started with Upscribe?
I’ve attempted to start several businesses at different times over the last few years. For a number of reasons those projects did not work out; but the biggest reason was that I kept starting with one of my “amazing ideas” and just assumed that the rest of the world would feel the same way that I did and sign up as soon as I launched (I had the whole “If you build it, they will come” mentality…thanks a lot Kevin Costner). An alternative mentality, that tends to work more often, is to first ask people what they want and then build.
Upscribe came about after I asked members of a facebook group — called Email 1K — if there was something that I could build for them. Two or three members got back to me asking for a way to collect emails on Medium. I already had an MVP at the time that was essentially just a simple landing page builder for email marketers. I only had to change it slightly to support oEmbed (as well as get accepted by Embed.ly).
At the time I was working as a freelance PHP developer and hacking together ideas on the side. Upscribe is still not making quite enough to pay for my family’s expenses . I now have a full-time frontend developer position here in Langley, Canada and I’m “hacking” a lot less on the side (mainly just Upscri.beand Tiers.io).
What went into building the initial product?
It took me one weekend to build the MVP of Upscribe. Developing a simple page builder with a custom WordPress theme meant I could get it into the hands of real users fast and see what they thought before I spent too much time.
There were a lot of ideas I had for features at the beginning that would have significantly delayed launching Upscribe. I thought I needed to have integrations with Mailchimp, AWeber, ConvertKit, and other major ESPs right off the bat. These integrations would have taken tons of time (especially since I wasn’t very familiar with REST API’s at at the time). Instead of assuming people wanted those integrations; I launched without them and waited until people specifically asked for them. It turned out that the real value was just in the embeddable forms, the integrations were just nice-to-haves (side note: when I did add an integrations page I included a section that read “Don’t see your integration? What should we add next?” and provided a field for users to submit their request. At the end of each week I would add the integration that was requested the most by users. This helped me focus on first adding the integrations my current users actually wanted).
Building the MVP was one thing; after that there were bugs to fix, new features to build, customer service to deal with. Not to mention scaling the servers to handle millions of form views each week. At the time I was waking up around 5:30 AM and working for a few hours before going to my day job, then I would work in the evenings for a few hours. Upscribe always on my mind; most nights I would find myself coding away on my iPhone using the CodeAnywhere app after my wife fell asleep.
How have you attracted users and grown Upscribe?
In the early days I was just talking to people in a few facebook groups and forums. Somehow, someone at Medium found Upscribe and they posted about us on the Medium blog. This brought in a couple hundred users fairly suddenly. I remember that was super exciting.
Since then, Product Hunt and mentions on well-known Medium publications have always been a major source of growth for us. However, the marketing strategy from the beginning was to rely on the referral link at the bottom of Upscribe’s forms. This brought in (and still brings in) hundreds of users each month consistently for free.
We also set up a paid referral system (using AffiliateWP) that has brought in lots of paying customers as well. Referral marketing is my favorite; people trust their friends and they are much more likely to stick around if someone they know recommended Upscribe…plus…it’s free!
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Upscribe launched without any way to accept payments. I planned on adding premium features at some point but first wanted to make sure people wanted it to begin with. What caught me off guard though, was that people actually started asking me for a way to pay because they loved the tool so much. Before I even had premium features!
So that is actually what made me add a $10 monthly plan. I moved some existing features into the premium plan (grandfathering those features to any free users that already had access to them — this is key as it let’s me iterate without alienating my longtime users) and then I was making money! In the first month that I launched the premium option I made $200. It has gone up at a rate of about 10–15% each month since then.
After a few weeks I tried doubling the price. This was totally scary for me as I assumed people would just stop signing up. The strange part was that the signups didn’t slow down at all. I realized that there was nothing to compare the product to (since there were really no competitors) so, to a certain extent, it was up to me to tell them what the service “should” cost. I’ve since added a $9 tier for users that want to remove our referral link on their forms but don’t need integrations or other features, and a $50 tier that offers a few enterprise integrations.
One of my favorite things about software is the lack of expenses. All I pay for is a handful of software tools (Baremetrics, FreshBooks, Intercom, etc.) and AWS fees. Eventually I will — hopefully — need to pay people but other than that, there are generally good margins.
What are your goals for the future?
Currently, the goal is to graduate the online Y Combinator program we are participating in :).
Revenue-wise; we are working on getting to $20K MRR in 2019. It’s a pretty massive goal but that’s part of the fun. We are getting very intentional about partnering with influencers on Medium and talking to customers as much as possible to ensure that we are continually solving the right problems.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
The biggest hurdles have been scaling technical infrastructure. The first big roadblock was transitioning from GoDaddy shared hosting to AWS. I had to teach myself AWS and get things moved over as smoothly as possible in a couple of days.
More recently we had another big issue with servers and had to upgrade our resources significantly. This brought up our costs by hundreds of dollars literally overnight. But it’s been so valuable learning all of this. Eventually I will be able to — hopefully — hire a developer to handle these things for me. But in the meantime I feel like I’ve learned enough to keep things trucking along.
Startup life is constantly stretching you; if you’re not cut out for it I can definitely see how things can just get too overwhelming (e.g. going to your day job and trying to focus while your email is lighting up with customers complaining about server outages!). But it’s so rewarding to build something that people really love using and that solves real problems.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Recently I asked a business person to whom I look up to; “how much of your success do you think is due to luck?”. His response was so exciting to me. He said “the harder I work, the luckier I get”. I think this has been one of the most import concepts for me as I’ve been learning. I‘ve observed that, a lot of the time, the difference between someone who “fails” at business (you define this for yourself) and someone who becomes “massively successful” (you also define this for yourself) is just that the latter keeps pushing through when the former calls it quits. Of course there are some ideas that you should quit; but usually you can tell the difference.
I’ve learned a ton listening to Josh Pigford & Baremetrics’ podcasts Founder’s Journey and Founder Chats. The books The Lean Startup and Rework were also very integral in staying motivated, as well as only working on what has been most important to launching and the early stages of growing Upscribe.
Something else that I learned early on was how important it is to try and make the user touch-points memorable in some way. For example; our welcome email used to include a GIF of Jim Carrey dancing around in a tutu (from the movie Ace Ventura). It was just something that I thought was funny. But people loved it. Several people actually took screenshots and shared them on Twitter. This was free publicity that just came from doing something unique. My theory is that if you can get someone to feel emotion while using your product (positive or negative) they will remember you and if the emotion is extreme enough, they will tell their friends about you.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Talk to customers (and potential customers). It seems like busy work but it’s the only way to build something people actually need and to continue to stay relevant.
You can launch almost any business in a weekend. I hear/read people bicker on and on about what MVP (Minimum Viable Product) should mean. Some people change it to Minimum “Love-able” Product or Minimum “Remarkable” Product. The point is this; on your list of a hundred features you want to add to your product there is probably one or two features that really make it different from everything else. It probably won’t take you 2 years and 2 million dollars in funding to build those couple features either. So build it and see if people care!
Where can we go to learn more?
Feel free to check out Upscribe at https://upscri.be. You can reach out to me on Twitter via @upscribe_ or @joshuaanderton. We are also adding lots more email marketing tips and resources to Upscribe’s Medium publication in the coming weeks.
If you want to start growing your following using embeddable signup forms, go ahead and use the discount code HACKERNOON at checkout to get 30% off for life!
A word from Davis:
Here is what an Upscribe signup form looks like:
Yes, I am using Upscribe to collect emails in an interview with the founder of Upscribe 😊