2019 was a year of both professional and personal growth for me. In my professional life, I quit my full-time job, started consulting, and began launching self-funded products. In my personal life, I completed my first year of no drinking, began a wonderful relationship, and took a couple of great road trips.
It wasn’t all grand though, I had two big disappointments in 2019.
- I didn’t come close to hitting my end of year goal of $1,500 MRR from products launched this year.
- I canceled a trip to Germany and didn’t end up traveling outside of the US at all this year.
Having said that, I realize how incredibly privileged I am that those are my two major disappointments for the year.
First, if you landed here and don’t know me, my name is Chris Spags, and I’m @c_spags on Twitter (hoping to one day get rid of that underscore 😆). Until 2019, I’d spent the last 10 years employed as a full-time software developer. I started out working at large companies but eventually managed to move out of the corporate world and into startups where I’d spent the past 5 years.
However, I knew that I always wanted to strike out on my own and start my own software business. And yet, I spent 10 years learning about how how to do this, without actually doing it. Prior to 2019, I was held back by fear. Fear of trying and failing, fear of not having an income, fear of being different from most people that I knew, and even a fear of success, and how much I’d have to change in order for that to happen.
I’d read a ton of startup blogs, Paul Graham essays, entrepreneurship books, and countless other resources that I thought were preparing me to start my own business. However, this year has taught me that to truly learn you have to take action and risk failure. The best quote I read this year was, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.
- Thomas Watson Jr.
In July of 2018, I made a goal I was going to start consulting and quit my full-time job by the end of the year. It took longer than expected, but I landed my first client in November 2018. After a few months of working with this client in addition to my full-time job, I decided to finally take the leap and quit my full-time job in February 2019. My goal for the remainder of this year was to build and launch my own products while doing enough part-time consulting work to pay the bills.
I ended up shipping three products in 2019, this is what I learned from each one.
- First pre-launch landing page
- 15 mailing list sign ups
- Blog post with 850 upvotes on Reddit
Accountability Pledge was an idea I had, where people could sign up for challenges like, “write 500 words a day for 30 days”, and pledge a dollar amount that they were willing to pay for each missed day.
Like most developers, I tend to want to dive into the code and start building a product. Coding is what I’m best at and where my comfort zone is. However, for the first time ever, I forced myself to create a landing page before writing any code. I shared the landing page on Twitter, which was terrifying at the time, even though I had maybe 20 followers. Thanks to retweets from a few awesome friends, some people actually signed up for the pre-launch mailing list. All in all, I ended up with 15 emails on the mailing list. Although this is almost nothing, it still felt amazing because for the first time I was building something that people appeared to want.
Two weeks later, I wrote a blog post for Accountability Pledge about my morning routine, submitted it to Reddit, and ended up getting 850 upvotes and was the #1 post in the subreddit that day. This was pretty mind-blowing at the time but resulted in only a few new sign ups. I never wrote another blog post for Accountability Pledge.
The big lesson was that consistency is more important than one-time hits. I naively expected that I just needed one piece to go viral. That’s not enough. You must consistently produce in order for people to learn about you, care about you, and trust you.
In the end, I decided not to build the actual product. I didn’t feel like 15 emails were enough to justify building it. Mainly though, as I’d begun to hold myself more accountable, I realized Accountability Pledge was not a solution that I would find useful.
- Share what you’re working on
- Consistency > one-time hits
- Sometimes it’s ok to quit
- First SaaS product launch
- First SaaS paying customers (thanks to friends)
The next product I worked on was Aspiry, a SaaS tool to help you define and achieve your long-term vision. After signing up, you were asked a series of questions to help you craft your vision and then each day your vision was emailed to you. From that email, you could check-in that you had reviewed your vision. This process was based on the Think and Grow Rich methodology, which resonated strongly with me after I watched Pat Walls’ video, How A Little Piece Of Paper Changed My Life, describing his success with it.
I spent 10 weeks developing the MVP but could have launched it a few weeks earlier. Being my first SaaS product launch, I still had a lot of fear over releasing it and finding out the product wasn’t good enough or nobody wanted it. In fact, ultimately I ended up launching it by pure accident through Makerlog.
This ended up being the best thing to happen to me as I quickly learned that people either didn’t understand Aspiry, or it just wasn’t a problem that they were looking to have solved. In the end, less than 0.25% of visitors even signed up for a free trial. I did end up with two paying customers, thanks to two friends, who were gracious enough to use it for a few months. I’m extremely grateful for their support and vote of confidence while I was figuring things out.
Ultimately, it was painfully clear to me that Aspiry was not going to be the success that I had hoped. The best lesson that I learned from Aspiry was that nobody cares if you fail. By spending most of my life as a perfectionist, I had held myself back from ever trying things where I might fail. Now, I saw how much quicker I learned through trying and failing. Even though it sucked and wasn’t the outcome I wanted, it was clear how much better it was to fail as quickly as possible, learn from it, and move on.
- Stop procrastinating and just launch it
- It’s difficult to succeed with a product that requires educating people
- Nobody cares if you fail
- 120 pre-launch mailing list subscribers
- 3.5 weeks from start to first paying customer
- First SaaS customers who didn’t previously know me 🙂
After shutting down Aspiry, I began work on my next SaaS product, Jetboost, an add-on tool for Webflow. Jetboost allows users to easily add advanced features to their Webflow sites, such as real-time, on-page search, without having to write any custom code. Currently, without Jetboost, someone would have to either hire a developer or write the code themselves if they wanted this functionality on their site.
Unlike Accountability or Aspiry, Jetboost wasn’t an idea that I just came up with. Back in March, I had built the search filter for Corey Haines’ job board, Hey Marketers, that he created using Webflow. Over the next 6 months, I had several people reach out to me asking if I could build them a similar search for their Webflow site. Even though I knew that people wanted this, it still seemed like too small of a problem to try and solve. Due to my previous product attempts, I knew I needed to quickly discover the answer to this. I created a landing page offering early access to Jetboost and Tweeted it out.
Working on something new for you @webflow CMS aficionados. Stay tuned...— Chris Spags 🎾 (@c_spags) September 12, 2019
Suddenly, people were signing up!
And over the next few weeks, they kept signing up. I had no clue where people were coming from. Keep in mind that at the time I had around 40 Twitter followers and this was the only promotion that I did, plus a few friends who generously shared it (thank you 🙏).
This felt different from Aspiry and Accountability Pledge. People wanted this. I didn’t have to educate them on how it would help them. They knew they had this problem and Jetboost could potentially solve it for them.
Still, while it was great to collect emails, the bigger question was, would people pay for this? I knew that I wanted to get the answer to this question as soon as possible. I quickly got to work building the MVP, and three and a half weeks later, launched a rather embarrassing, but functional MVP. I began reaching out to my email list, offering a 1-on-1 demo and onboarding session. On the 3rd call, I landed my first paying customer. The MVP was so bad I had to tell them to manually refresh the page after paying for their subscription in order to see the page update. 😅
Feeling optimistic about Jetboost, I spent the remaining three months of the year continuing to improve the product, market it, and onboard new customers. Listening to my customers has been key to improving the product. They are using Jetboost in ways that I never imagined, requiring me to add support for many new use-cases. But after every ask, there’s almost always another customer or prospective customer who wants the same thing. Now, more often than not, when a prospect asks me, “Does Jetboost support ____?“, I’m able to answer yes.
The biggest challenge with Jetboost so far has just been having enough time to do everything that needs to be done. I’m working on it solo alongside my existing consulting contract. I have to balance improving the product with marketing it, and when I’m doing one, I’m not able to do the other. My main goal for 2020 is to grow Jetboost to the point where I’m able to stop consulting.
- Uncover demand before you build the product
- Listen to your early customers
- Solofounding is tough
Thank you for taking the time to read my 2019 review. I’ve learned so much this year and am looking forward to continuing to grow in 2020! I’m extremely grateful for all of the other founders that have helped me this year with their time, knowledge, and support:
- Corey Haines, founder of Hey Marketers, Mental Models for Marketing, and Refactoring Growth, for orchestrating the San Diego Indie Hackers group and bringing a number of amazing founders together in our city. Also, for his expertise in SaaS marketing, email onboarding, growth, SEO research, content marketing, and introducing me to Webflow, which I am most grateful for. Corey opened my mind to the no-code movement and showed me how quickly someone can build revenue generating products without coding.
- Ben Tossell, founder of Makerpad, for being an early supporter and advocate for Jetboost. As one of the leading voices in the no-code movement, I feel incredibly fortunate to have his support.