I'm Courtland Allen, creator of Indie Hackers. Ask me anything! (Thu Apr 18 @ Noon PST)

What sorts of promising projects are you seeing in the blockchain space?

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What sort of exposure to Blockchain do you see an ordinary non-technical user having when interacting with a Blockchain application?

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It varies from day to day, but here’s a screenshot of the last week or so:

There have been 6,615 commits to the Indie Hackers codebase since July 2016, and I’ve made 6,426 of them.

I’d say I spend around half my time writing code nowadays, even taking into account that I block off one week per month for the podcast.

I don’t do much hacking on the side, but I’m rarely tempted to. Indie Hackers has a large enough surface area that I have a bunch of “side projects” that are actually just working on various parts of the site.

Plus I find it really fun! It’s pretty cool getting instant feedback from users on the code you write. It’ll be hard to one day go back to building something that nobody is using. If I’m ever in that position again, I’ll get users as soon as humanly possible. That feedback look of building, shipping, and hearing what people think is addictive… in a healthy way.

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I had a very long idea notebook that I had passively added to for many years. When my last web dev contract gig ended and I found myself with a year of runway in the bank, I decided I wouldn’t find another job, and instead I’d build something on my own from that list.

I wasted about 6 months doing that. It turned out that all of my ideas were :put_litter_in_its_place:. Mostly, I was making the stereotypical mistake of starting with a “product idea” instead of a “business idea”. A business is more than a product. You also have to know who you’re building for, what problems they have, where to find them, how much they’ll pay, etc., but I was neglecting all of that.

Luckily, the pressure of seeing the money in my bank account dwindle forced me to get serious. I made a checklist for evaluating my ideas more fully, eliminated all 100+ ideas on my list, and was forced to come up with new ideas. I had a few that were okay, but Indie Hackers was the best idea I came up with. Probably the best part of it was that I could build it and launch in an extremely short time frame. There was very little risk of me wasting months without showing it to anyone, because it was such a simple product.

It was exactly 3 weeks from idea to launch and 100,000 visitors. It could’ve been faster, but I decided to build everything from scratch. Which made it fun, but has also bitten me in the ass. And yep, I started alone, no co-founder. My brother joined me about 8 months later.

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damnnnnnn!!!

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Thanks for taking the time to ask me a question!

It’s a tough one. The database of thoughts that is my brain is definitely not indexed by the “surprising” column, so nothing is coming to mind, really. Maybe that fact in and of itself is surprising? I’ve interviewed many hundreds of people, many of whom are very successful, and few of them have really shocked me.

There are some great stories for sure. I think it’s crazy that Christy Laurence got an app built in 8 months without knowing how to code herself, and made $10k in week #1, $1M in year #1. That blows my mind. I think it’s crazy that Shola Akinlade (who’s building Stripe for Africa) had to buy a generator and turn a crank so he could power his laptop to write code. People push through all kinds of crazy barriers.

But it’s also inspiring that there are very rarely any shocking answers. The “how-to” for doing this stuff is out there! We’re all so connected to the Internet that the best advice and secrets don’t stay secret for long. If you decide to read how others have done it, you’ll be mostly caught up on the high-level basics in a couple weeks, and ready to dive into doing it yourself and learning the small details via trial-and-error.

A corollary to this is something I tweeted earlier this year:

The dopamine hit from encountering novel advice fools us into thinking it’s better than it really is.

Most of what we should be doing are things we’ve heard a million times already.

Sometimes the boring answers are the ones we need to hear, even though we tend to ignore them because we think we get it already.

Or maybe I’m just not asking people the right questions. :innocent:

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Oh man, you’re asking the wrong guy. :laughing:

I suppose my advice would be to understand why you want to do that. One of the founders I respect most, Jason Cohen, said this in a recent interview I did with him:

Bootstrapping should be the default answer. Almost all companies are bootstrapped and should be. Most things don’t get funding and shouldn’t.

A very particular set of things needs to be true for fundraising to be a good idea, and should be clear on what those are, how they apply to your business, and the consequences of what will happen should you later discover that one of these things isn’t true for you.

If you get past all that, and you’re sure you want to fundraise, then go for it! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with fundraising. When it works, it works! Some incredible businesses have been created in Silicon Valley that would not exist if the founders didn’t get funding.

My primary tip would be to understand what investors want to see. Not every investor is the same, but generally speaking, they want to invest in something that will massively increase in value in the future. They’re trying find signal in the noise, and it’s your job to give them that signal. There’s almost no better signal than rapid growth and success.

Having a vision and a dream, a good team, a beautiful product, a promising market, etc, are all great, but they’re just proxies for the thing that really matters, and that’s growth.

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I’m very autonomous. I still work from home. I went into the office on Wednesday for the first time in 3 weeks. (I remember Patrick being a little surprised when I asked for a desk after I first joined. :joy:) I have the latitude to run Indie Hackers in my own way, so in that particular respect, not much has changed since I joined Stripe.

There are many reasons why this is the case. For example, the people at Stripe are very competent, and don’t want to do the things companies typically do that screw up acquisitions. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It also seems to be a part of Stripe’s DNA to give people autonomy and see what they can do. But just as importantly, if not more, I think our goals have been aligned from the start. I want to see more indie hackers in the world, and so does Stripe. Aligning incentives is incredibly underrated.

All that being said, Indie Hackers has improved quite a lot thanks to Stripe. I have access to some incredible people who are very supportive and are always wiling to provide feedback, ideas, introductions, and occasionally hands-on work if I need it. I have far more free time to work on the podcast and the community than I did before, as I’m no longer spending half my time selling ads, and I have an actual budget to work with. It feels weird being an “indie hacker” who doesn’t need to generate revenue of my own.

Most importantly, the ambitions for Indie Hackers are much grander than they were when I was on my own. Stripe has challenged me to think bigger, and I have. Two years ago, my #1 focus was how I would pay next month’s rent. Today, I’m working for Indie Hackers to inspire many tens of thousands of people to start businesses and achieve some measure of personal and financial freedom.

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The early days were a grind. Some of the common startup advice is to “do things that don’t scale” in the early days, and that’s what I did. I scoured the web looking for indie hacker-esque stories that people had shared on forums and message boards, filtered down to the companies that were still alive, tracked down those founders’ email addresses, and sent each of them a handcrafted email. It took a couple weeks for me to send 150-200 of these. I tried all sorts of different variations.

Here’s one I sent to Vincent Woo:

He told me no (he didn’t want to share his revenue numbers publicly), but almost 2 years later he changed his mind and came on the podcast.

I think I ended up launching with 12 or 13 interviews in total. I honestly wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep up the pace, because sending cold emails was getting tiring. Luckily, after the launch, 30+ people contacted me to come onto the site, and that hasn’t stopped. We still do lots of cold outreach, too, especially for the podcast.

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Amazing! I sure hope that they continue to support you this way far down the road. I also like that you have been very transparent about the Stripe acquisition from the get go and that earns you a lot of trust from people.

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I’ll refer you to this answer I gave to a similar question.

The TL;DR is that I think non-intuitive advice is overrated, even though it’s interesting!

That said, a lot of the advice that many in the “scene” would consider basic is in fact non-intuitive to people who are just getting started and haven’t read much:

  • Your idea isn’t worth much without good execution. Don’t worry so much about keeping it a secret.
  • Building is rarely the hard part. Growth is.
  • Do things that don’t scale in the early days. Don’t copy the big players.
  • Charge more, even as a tiny startup. Especially as a tiny startup. $5/mo means you need 1000+ paying customers, and that takes years. You don’t have that kind of time.
  • Talk to your customers every day.
  • The competition rarely matters. Focus on your own business.
  • etc.

My favorite is probably the “charge more” advice.

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The honest answer is that I didn’t think about the competition whatsoever. I paid zero attention to Reddit in the early days, and I still don’t.

I was more focused on the particular problem I was solving. That was: “Developers who are excited to build profitable businesses and side projects don’t have a good place to learn from others who are doing it.”

Beyond that, I was focused on the particular desires of the market (these frustrated devs, like myself) and the things they cared about, so I could tailor-make a product just for them. They cared about things like transparency and seeing actual revenue numbers, as well as how to overcome common hurdles like coming up with a good idea, finding your first users, and juggling this with a full-time job and/or family. So I realized that if I wanted my product to fit my market, I’d have to incorporate all of this stuff, but it was unlikely to consistently come out on its own, so I’d need to do interviews, ask pointed questions, and reject anyone who wasn’t willing to share.

The result was that Indie Hackers on day #1 was an interview site. There was no forum or community of any kind. I used the traffic to the interviews to build a mailing list, which I used to drive traffic to a forum that I eventually built. But even then I wasn’t thinking about Reddit. I was thinking about problems I wanted to solve.

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I described a little bit here about how I was thinking about building the site to match the people who would be reading it.

Very luckily for me, many of these people tended to congregate in a single place — these threads that would occasionally pop up on Hacker News where people would discuss making money from their side projects (example). Even luckier for me, these threads were massive, and Hacker News itself was even more massive.

So I just tailored what I was building to the people on Hacker News to ensure they would like it, and of course I launched it on Hacker News and it unsurprisingly did very well there. I continually posted new interviews on Hackers News on a regular basis after that, until the mods banned me from posting more than once per month, because they were actually too successful!

Of course, the danger with this approach is — once you’ve tapped out the original distribution channel, how do you find a second one? Especially when your product was tailor-made for the first one? Still working on it. :sweat_smile:

I’ve never actually asked! I assume the same way that others did, via Hacker News.

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This is truly non-intuitive. But makes sense now as I keep thinking about it. Thanks for sharing!

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This is a great question. I don’t know! I rarely think about it. But I like to think that I would’ve moved to charging money for access to the community itself.

I’m a big believer in aligning incentives. If your customers are paying you to do something, you’re incentivized to do that thing well. The part of IH I love the most is running a community that actually helps people succeed where they would’ve otherwise failed, that helps people keep going where they would’ve otherwise quit. If I charged for it, I would’ve been forced to make it increasingly valuable, and it would’ve also weeded out people who weren’t serious.

Of course, that’s not 100% a good thing. I like that lots of people who are on the fence can be a part of the community. Often you need to dip your toe in the water for a bit before you decide to start a startup. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s a big decision. So there’s something great about the community being free.

And of course there’s the value proposition. Generally, people pay more for things when it’s clear how much value they get in return. We’ll pay $20k/year for college tuition, but we won’t pay $5/mo for a to-do list app, in part because we perceive the ROI of college so clearly: it will help us get better-paying jobs that hopefully add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars of extra income over the years.

For that reason, communities are tough. They’re a bit intangible. People aren’t quite used to paying for them. It’s not super obvious how being a part of one will make you more money in a concrete way. You don’t exactly get a degree. But I think it would be a fun challenge to tackle!

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I honestly know nothing about the Blockchain. It’s been on my “to-learn” list for years. It’s actually pretty embarrassing at this point. But maybe I made the right decision? It’s quite rare that a profitable blockchain-based company applies to do an interview on Indie Hackers. Then again, that might just be a result of my own bias and ignorance.

If I had to guess what was promising, I’d say anything that starts with an actual valuable problem first. What are people having trouble with that they’re paying money to solve today?

What I see with a lot of blockchain enthusiasts and businesses is a passion for the technology above all else. I get it, because I’m a developer myself. It’s really tempting to play with shiny new things. But it’s very difficult to build a product and then go in search of valuable use-cases. The space of “cool things to build” is many orders of magnitude larger than the space of “things people find valuable enough to pay for.”

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Thanks for the kind words, David, and thanks for hosting me here for this AMA!

My #1 KPI for the most part has been daily unique visitors to the site. (With the constraint that the site needs to stay high-quality, educational, inspirational, and on-topic.) While this plays heavily into my software design choices, it doesn’t always mean my choices work out. I’ve actually done things that have lowered DAUs and had to revert those changes. I’m a fan of experimentation, but I’ve perhaps been too ambitious and contrarian at times.

The good thing about running a community is that your members are vocal by definition, and they’ll set you straight whether you like it or not.

Generally-speaking, for Indie Hackers, my focus nowadays is on taking what works and doing more of it. There’s actually a great quote from Charlie Munger about this. He calls it the “essential algorithm to life” or something lofty like that: find what works and do more of it.

Luckily for me, there’s all sorts of data on IH from the past two years regarding what kinds of discussions people like vs don’t like, comment on vs ignore, etc. I haven’t paid enough attention to it, but it’s top of mind for me now.

A healthy community is one where people feel like they can participate and derive real value from, and that feeds directly into retention, which in turn drives growth in DAUs. So that’s how I think about KPIs.

There’s also the qualitative element. You really have to talk to people, or you can miss things. Being 100% metrics driven is dangerous. (See: Facebook.) I’ve recently started doing lots of surveys. I think I’ve made 10 different surveys, and so far I’ve emailed 4 of them out to small percentages of our members in the past couple weeks, about 4000 people. Most of the questions are long-form. I’ve got quite a lot to read over!

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Okay, I think I answered everything. This was a lot of fun! Thanks to everybody for the excellent questions, and I hope my answers were useful, or at least amusing. :innocent:

If you’re a developer and you’ve ever wondered how to get people to pay for the projects and things you’re building, check out Indie Hackers! There are a lot of people just like you, working together to build profitable online businesses. It’s not easy, but it’s a ton of fun.

Don’t be too shy to share what you’re up to and ask for feedback, and tag me as well! @csallen

You can also find me on Twitter, tweeting my thoughts on startups and life: https://twitter.com/csallen

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