For any bootstrapped startup, your first paying customer is a huge milestone.
Near the end of September 2018, I’m proud to say we hit that milestone, converting our first free community owner on Threadbase.io to the $19/month tier.
I’ve read a ton of blog posts about how some startups hit this milestone with ease. They came up with an amazing idea that “just clicked”, made an Instapage landing page, and got their first paying customer in just a day. Or, how after pitching a big name VC and getting funded, they were able to acquire hundreds of paying customers in a matter of days.
Unfortunately, that is not our story.
It took us 2 months of work to get our alpha build in front of people to realize we had something really good.
We then got three rejections from three different big VCs saying our idea wasn’t there yet.
And then, it took another 2 months of pushing through the rejection, believing in Threadbase’s mission to empower non-technical people to easily create communities and make scalable income off of their community, and working with our earliest supports to hit our milestone and acquire our first paying customer.
Today, I’d like to share our story of how it went down to hopefully inspire others to never stop building.
Cam and I started Threadbase because we believe that online communities are vital to how people connect. As avid Redditors, Imgurians, Product Hunters, Indie Hackers, and Hacker Newsians, Cam and I have seen how vote-based communities allow people to discover democratically voted content, and then connect with others around the world through shared interests. And even when those viewpoints aren’t exactly our perspective, vote-based communities give us a glimpse into how others are thinking and what matters to them, unlocking new perspectives and ideas we may not have discovered through friends-of-friends algorithms.
But, we also know how hard it is for other people to create their own vote-based communities. There isn’t a Squarespace or a Shopify for vote-based communities, but people desperately want to connect over democratically voted content and so they find alternatives.
These people make new subreddits and grow them to literally millions of followers. These people take on open-source tools like Telescope or Discourse. Or, if you’re like me, you learn how to program so you can make a vote-based community for something you’re passionate about.
But, Cam and I felt this fragmented experience allowed only certain people the privilege to make a successful online community. So we decided to do something about it and started Threadbase.io.
Threadbase allows anyone anywhere to build their own Product Hunt, Hacker News, or Reddit-style community in just a few clicks. You can customize the look and feel of your community with pre-built themes or make more robust changes with our paid tiers. And, on our paid tier, you can even insert your own AdSense pixel to make sustainable, scalable income off of your community.
We shared the idea on IndieHackers, and in one day, we received a ton of support and 100 email subscribers interested in trying out our alpha.
After two months of programming in our free time, we felt we were on to something really amazing.
Unfortunately, three people were about to tell us we were wrong.
While working on Threadbase, we could feel a sense of momentum behind what we were doing. Friends and advisors we talked to said the idea was interesting and had potential. Sharing it on Indie Hackers let us know that other hackers and founders were interested in building their own communities with Threadbase.
It’s fair to say that with all the positive feedback and momentum we were getting a little high off of our own supply, and we thought we had something so great that we could get it funded.
We pitched three big VCs, and as you already know, it didn’t go as well as we had hoped:
“…unfortunately, we do feel we need to hold back on investing right now…”
“Unfortunately, Threadbase isn’t a fit for us.”
“I don’t think this is a great fit for our partnership just yet”
Relatively speaking, these aren’t the worst rejection letters out there. In fact, they said they liked us and the idea, but as much as they liked us, they all couldn’t get over one big blocker in our way:
You don’t have any paying customers yet.
How could we possibly think we had a viable SaaS idea if no one was paying for what we were selling?
Sure, we had a lot of free community owners, but in 2018, VCs aren’t interested in a “we’ll acquire free users now and monetize them later”.
In a sense, all of our pitched VCs were telling us that unless you can prove people — and hopefully a lot of people — are willing to pay for your product, you don’t have a viable idea…yet.
Although we knew their feedback was valid, it still sucked hearing so many no’s.
And so, Cam and I had a decision to make. Do we put Threadbase on the back burner to try some other ideas or do we push through and keep building Threadbase?
For us, the answer was crystal clear because we knew what we building and, most importantly, why we are building it:
So much of our life is done online. Whether it’s dating, reading the news, or finding something funny to watch, you must engage through some online community to find what you’re looking for. And, when that content is voted up democratically, then you are able to discover rich, interesting content that you may not have discovered if it was recommended to you via an algorithm based off of your previous behavior or your friends and friends of friends.
I think if it wasn’t for our mission being so clear for both of us, we probably would abandon Threadbase like we have other side projects, but when you’re building an idea that is grounded in a mission that both of your founders believe are true then no amount of rejection will stop you from pushing forward.
And so that brings us to today.
After almost four months of work, rejections, and most importantly, working with our early supporters to build a product they liked, this happened:
It was an insane feeling to see that money show up in our Stripe account, and it validated all of the hours we spent on breathing life into an idea. And, it wasn’t easy.
And, I think that’s the biggest takeaway from this entire experience is that building an idea from nothing and acquiring your first paying customer isn’t easy.
You will face hours where you can’t figure out why a component isn’t rendering. You will spend days preparing for a pitch meeting that won’t work out. You will spend months breathing life into an idea that people may not even want to pay for.
But the moment when Stripe tells you someone just subscribed for your service at $19/month, you’ll feel how we felt — that this may be the hardest we’ve ever worked for $19 but it was totally worth it.
Chris is the co-founder of Threadbase: a platform that non-developers to build their own Reddit-style communities in just a few clicks. Before Threadbase, Chris worked in marketing for startups including Quidsi and ComiXology (both acquired by Amazon) and Bonobos (acquired by Walmart).