Learn how Pat found a successful niche interviewing entrepreneurs, growing his website from 0 to over 300,000 visitors in under a year.
Davis Baer: What’s your background, and what are you working on?
I’m Pat Walls and I created Starter Story — a website dedicated to helping people start businesses.
We interview entrepreneurs from around the world about how they started their business and how they grew it. We also share revenue figures for every business we interview.
It’s been about a year since I published my first interview (yay!) and to date, we’ve interviewed over 120 founders, and over 300,000 people have visited the website. Starter Story is currently monetized at ~$1.7K revenue/month.
What motivated you to create Starter Story?
Starter Story was the result of a failed business.
I was living in San Francisco, and a couple of friends and I tried to start a business that would help small brands sell to retailers. Here’s our old landing page.
We spent 4 months building the MVP, and then fell flat on our face trying to get customers. We applied to YC and got an interview, but ultimately were turned down.
The idea was cool, but user acquisition was really tough, so we shut down the company and moved on. One of the reasons it failed was because my two co founders and I had full time jobs. We were hopping out of work to jump on sales demos, and fixing critical bugs while on the job. We realized how hard it is to build a B2B SaaS app when you also have a full time job.
After that failure, I went heads down for a bit. I continued on with my full-time job but never lost that urge to start another business. I knew I wanted to start something and I knew I had to do it alone. I just didn’t know what yet.
Then I came across this reddit post. It’s since been deleted, but I found it fascinating. This guy found a niche, hired copywriters, and ultimately made a bunch of money through the Amazon affiliate program.
I immediately got started. I wanted my niche to be pets. So I bought the domain, hired some copywriters and got started. A couple weeks in, I started losing interest. I really wanted to build a blog but quickly realized I wasn’t passionate about pets.
What was I actually passionate about…?
Entrepreneurship. Duh! I immediately pivoted to that. At the time I was also a big fan of Indie Hackers. I decided I wanted to create the Indie Hackers for non-technical founders.
What went into building the initial product?
There were two elements to building the product, (1) building the website and (2) finding people to interview.
Building the website
At first, I started on WordPress. Even though I’m a developer, I figured I should just use that and focus on getting the stories. Why reinvent the wheel, right?
I sucked at design (still do, just less) so I asked an old coworker of mine to help me mockup a good design for the site.
When I got the design back, I tried to implement it into WordPress. After four hours of banging my head against the wall, I said fuck Wordpress, I’m building this on my own.
I ended up building it with the create-react-app and deployed on Netlify. I’m familiar with both and I wanted to just deploy something quickly — since then I’ve migrated the website to Ruby on Rails though.
An early version of Starter Story
I’m quite embarrassed to say this… but my initial application was so primitive that I was saving the story data inside of a JS object in the app and wrote all of the content of the stories inside JSX! If you’re not familiar with React, basically I was hard coding everything (including the content) inside the codebase!
I did this because I really only cared about how it looked at the time and I’ve later built a much more robust CMS :)
Finding people to interview
Like Indie Hackers did, I planned to launch with 10 interviews.
I started reaching out to friends to ask them if they knew anyone who had started a business. At the time, I wasn’t really a part of any “entrepreneur circles” per se, so I just started utilizing my existing network.
My first interview was with my friend from college, and my second interview was from my old roommate. My third interview was a friend of a friend. It was kind of a natural extension of my network to find these entrepreneurs.
In the early days, I would actually interview founders over the phone and transcribe it into a text article. This turned out to be a really challenging and time consuming process. It took me like a full month to get three interviews!
Instead of staying quiet and waiting until I had 10 interviews, I decided to just launch with 3 interviews. This is where I began to discover some of the power of content. Each interview I released was like its own little launch.
I learned a little bit on each one — where to share it, how to write better titles, what works, what doesn’t, etc. This also kept me motivated to keep working on it, because I would get “rewarded” in some way after each one.
I did all of this as a side project on top of my full-time job. Like I said earlier, working Starter Story wasn’t so bad with my full time job. I was able to make a lot of progress on nights and weekends.
How have you attracted users and grown Starter Story?
After about 2–3 months I had accrued 15 or so interviews and I decided to launch on Product Hunt.
Looking back, that launch was not a breakout success, but at the time it felt like I was on top of the world. I remember feeling like the launch was a massive success.
As far as getting users and traffic, I’ll break down the most effective ways I’ve gained users.
I have to give a lot of thanks to the reddit community because I don’t think Starter Story would be as successful (as quickly) without them.
For many of my interviews, I cross-post them to Reddit. Although this doesn’t drive a significant amount of traffic to my website, the traffic is very high quality (stays for a long time, higher likelihood to subscribe to the newsletter) and most importantly, it attracts new interview candidates.
Companies want to get in front of 50k people, and although StarterStory.com the website can’t do that (yet), Reddit can, and that’s really powerful.
Here’s an example of one of my bigger Reddit posts:
Finally, I’m starting to see some organic search, which is an amazing feeling.
Organic search isn’t something I thought about too much in the beginning, but since it’s been over a year, I’m starting to see the benefits of it.
Here’s my organic search graph over the last 12 months. It’s going up like crazy, especially in the last few months!
Lately I’ve been getting ~400 visitors per day through organic search. I don’t do much to optimize my articles for SEO. I do the basic stuff like good title, correct tags, etc, but I don’t spend too much time on that.
I believe the quality of content (and lots of it) will win that game.
I’ve had a couple interviews go bonkers on Hacker News.
This one in particular drove 35,000 visitors to my website in one day. This also attracted a lot of attention to my website. I had someone interested in acquiring Starter Story that day.
But, although Hacker News is a great source for traffic, it’s not very quality traffic. Hacker News isn’t my target demographic (non-technical founders) so this makes sense.
What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
Starter Story wasn’t monetized for the first couple months.
After that, I started monetizing through sponsors. Sponsors pay me and I put a native ad on the site or in the newsletter. I also make some money from affiliate programs, but that’s pretty small right now.
At first, I just found sponsors through cold emails. I sent out around 10–20 cold emails per week. Here’s what those cold emails looked like:
A small percentage of them got back to me and we came to a deal on how much per month it would cost. To get paid I would just send a Paypal invoice.
Last month, revenues were $1,700. Here’s a graph of how revenue has grown since I started:
Doing various native ads and one off newsletter ads was a great way to monetize and get traction, but over time it becomes tiring to manage short term advertising agreements.
I’d rather have a 6-month sponsor for the half of the price of 6 one-month sponsors. That way I can focus on just growing the site.
I was very lucky to get connected with Klaviyo, an email marketing tool, who agreed to sponsor Starter Story for the next year!
Going forward, I’m working on finding more long-term sponsors like this so I won’t have to deal with finding a new sponsor every month.
What are your goals for the future?
I’m super excited about the future.
It’s kind of crazy to see how far it’s come after 100 interviews as a side project, I can only imagine what it will be like after 1000 interviews!
About a month ago I quit my full time job to focus on Starter Story.
In terms of the future, there are a couple things that I want to accomplish.
The most important thing for me is more content!
When I started out, I was just publishing one interview per week. Nowadays, I’m publishing 6–7 pieces of content per week.
Over the next few months, I plan to ramp that up to 15–20 per week. I’m still doing this all on my own so it should be a fun and challenging experience. I have built (and continue to build) a lot of internal tools and automation to help.
Create a community
I’ve been putting this off forever!
Next year is the year of the Starter Story community! I want to create a lot of features that engage users, like a Hacker News style forum and AMAs.
Expand to other types of businesses
Although e-commerce and consumer goods have been the main focus of the interviews, I’d like to start interviewing other types of businesses.
Some that I’m thinking about are bloggers, software & tech companies, makers, and podcasters. There are so many people starting businesses and I’m just scratching the surface.
I’d like Starter Story to be more than just a content & community.
I want it to become a hub for data about businesses and entrepreneurs, allowing for more people to connect with entrepreneurs and businesses.
Kind of like LinkedIn but not so shitty.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
If I had to start over, I would have been less distracted about unimportant things. And focused more on the big picture and creating more content.
For example, when I post something to big to reddit, I will compulsively check back on the reddit post like every 3 minutes, looking at every single comment.
A few other things I wish I just did less:
- Checking Google Analytic
- Seeing how many subscribers I got today
- Viewing my affiliate accounts
- Checking email
I think I’ve become better at avoiding these things, but there’s still so much progress for me. I could have saved a lot of time if I cared less about these things and focused on features and content.
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Lose the ego and embrace rejection, because it’s a numbers game.
I’ve sent out thousands of emails to no response and been rejected by tons of people while trying to get interviews. It still gets me down sometimes, but you start to realize it’s all just a numbers game.
If you email 100 people for an interview, you might end up with 5 published interviews. And that’s amazing!
More people should think like a salesman. Once you start thinking like this, you stop caring about that one amazing interview (that won’t make or break you). Overall, you can just think more logically.
There are millions of businesses in the world. If I can make a deal with just a small fraction, I will be MORE than successful.
What’s your advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
The biggest mistake I see people making is just not doing anything. Talking about how they want this, or that, or making excuses about why they can’t do something.
If there’s something you want, go do it and go get it. Why are you waiting? Take control of your life and be the person you want to be.
Getting started really is the hardest part. It took me 26 years. But once you get started, your momentum will carry you wherever you want to go.
Where can we go to learn more?
Follow me on Twitter @thepatwalls
Check out Starter Story at starterstory.com.
If you have any questions feel free to reach out! My DMs are open.