Lessons learned after 6 months of my first “successful” business
Like many other technically-minded people, I’ve gone through many failed “business ideas.”
My first one was some polling app, but I couldn’t tell you what the point was. I only know that I spent too many hours during my senior year of college learning the “right tech stack” (read: not building a business).
From then on, I’d come up with a new idea every couple of months, work on it until I was sick and tired, launch it to 0 fanfare, then quit.
Enter Stadio. What began as an easier way to run Stable Diffusion for myself quickly became a “successful” company. (Success here being I earned one single dollar from it). That number has now grown to $4000 MRR - much more than I ever expected.
The story itself is simple: I built one thing, and a guy on Reddit said, “I’ll pay you $20/mo for another, similar thing”. $20 per month sounded pretty good, so I built it and sent him a reply the next day. He was true to his word, and I was $20 richer (minus the hundreds of dollars in GPU rentals, cloud infrastructure, domain registrations…)
Without further ado, here’s what I’ve learned slogging through the first six months:
Find something you want to work on
There are two parts to this that are an absolute necessity. First, you need to find something you’re willing to work hard on.
Building a company is incredibly difficult. You have day-to-day troubles like “What of these 100 things do I work on right now” and “Everyone hates me,” as well as the longer-term uncertainty around your product, your market, etc. No one will answer these questions for you: it’s all up to you.
You will be working a lot. To put it in perspective, I work two full-time jobs: my day job as an engineer and then on my company. You will be sacrificing hobbies, times with friends, and your sanity in no small measure. So make sure you are starting on something you could put the hours into.
The second requirement is to find something you have an intimate understanding of. You need to know what your customers value and where they hang out to figure out what works.
If you don’t have this understanding, you will build the wrong thing.
You will work for hundreds of hours, and it will be time wasted because your work doesn’t actually help anyone. You’ll get your jollies sitting in a coffee shop and looking productive, but your work will result in 0 benefit to anyone.
If this sounds specific and personal: it is. I have done this an absurd number of times. Don’t waste your own time.
Be where your customers are
Amy Hoy calls this finding your audience’s “watering hole.” To discover viable business ideas, you need to be capable of hearing them when they are said. That means being around your audience, whether physically or virtually.
From there, your job is simple: figure out the pain points, and find a way to solve them. That could be building a product or sharing advice through a blog post - whatever solves the problem.
If you solve a problem that people want to be solved, they will pay you money.
Honestly, there’s not much to say here except to pick the tech stack that allows you to build quickly. Half the battle is against your own natural laziness, indecision, and general apathy. If you have to learn a new tech stack on top of building a company, you’re probably done.
Start with what your first customers have said they are willing to pay. If you are still getting signups, raise the price for new customers. People will say, “I don’t think it’s worth this price” - are you still getting signups? Then it is worth that price.
It’s easy and enticing to imposter-syndrome yourself into starting and keeping a low price. But think of it this way: is your price sustainable? If you kept it, could you continue working on this business? If not, you are doing yourself and your customers a disservice by keeping the price low.
One small tip I’d recommend: announce a price increase a couple of days beforehand for non-paying users. It’s as simple as a big banner at the top of the page - “Sign up now and save $5 per month”. People love a deal, so it’s done well to convert people on the fence.
This one is very easy to overcomplicate. You’ll want to build out webhooks and alerts and all the fun stuff, but in reality, you probably only need two things: a Stripe link and a way to talk to your customers. I’d also highly recommend ntfy if you want the little dopamine hit of payment alerts on your phone.
One thing I didn’t expect: tax registration is complicated. It turns out you need to register separately in every state and most countries, and they all have different rules about when that must happen. So that’s fun.
Just be as responsive and as honest as possible. One on one, people (in my experience) are incredibly understanding of any issues as long as you make them feel heard.
Your customer service is actually a significant advantage as a solo founder of a company: you can be responsive and genuine in a way that other companies can’t be. Use this to your advantage.
I’ve also been surprised by how accurate the Ben Franklin effect is. My most loyal customers have been the ones that have helped me troubleshoot/people I’ve asked for help.
Work comes after pay.
This one was a hard lesson to learn. Long story short, I spent weeks and hundreds of dollars building custom infrastructure for my first “enterprise client.” When it came time to pay, they completely ghosted.
You will be duped too, but in smaller ways. Non-paying or potential users will say, “Oh, I’d absolutely pay $10 per month if you did this”. It’s sometimes true, but mostly not. So try to limit your work to people who have already shown a willingness to pay.
Thanks for reading!