I am fascinated by the idea of indie hacking for several reasons. First, it minimizes startup risk which allows you to bootstrap and start small. Second, it allows you to keep your job. I like the idea of having a job because it is less lonely. Third, it allows you to learn new skills. It is a good substitute for business school. Being an indie hacker taught me several lessons and help me acquired new skills.
In 2018, I came across an idea of starting a fun project called Wise Charlie. By this time, I had plenty of experience from working at a small and large startup. I learned a lot of great things, but I also picked up on a lot of silly things. For example, what if someone steals my idea? Or what if I raise capital? Or what if I find a co-founder? The list of questions that provides little to no value goes on and on.
However, I was determined to build something for the sake of creating something useful and learn something new.
I decided to be an indie hacker. It means many things to many people, but to me it meant only one thing—being independent. I would not be held by anyone on making project decisions. It was all about freedom-seeking project and I'd be in charge of making money however I want. There is no revenue or user acquisition target. There was only one goal—continuity over a long period of time.
If something didn't work, I would iterate, and find an alternative solution until someone is willing to pay me for something valuable I have created. Four years later, I have ~500 customers. You must be wondering, what is wrong with him? It took him 4 years to acquire 500 customers in hyper growth environment. But you don't understand what I just said, the objective is not growth, but continuity over long period of time.
There are many times I felt like giving up because I wasn't motivated, but the project survived because I took breaks whenever I wanted. If I had associated any success metric, I'd bet the project would've died long time ago. If I have brought on a co-founder, I would've had run into conflict management. I avoided everything that was in the way of creating.
So, what is indie hacking? It is building a project on your own terms. The sole objective is the continuity of the project and iterate over it until you have a paying customer.
With this experience, I'd like to share some of the things that matter when thinking about becoming an indie hacker.
Wise Charlie project was a derivative of Poor Charlie's Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger. I love reading and this book is highly recommended by many people. Charlie Munger is one of the best intellectual of our century. I wanted to take his ideas and make them digestible especially for parents and young adults. This was a hypothesis that I landed on. I ran this idea by people in my inner circle. I followed my intuition once I understood the problem I wanted to solve.
Ideas are everywhere. Cast your net wide enough for ideas and pick one that you feel strongly about. The enemy of greatness is not getting started. Perfection is an asymptote that you don’t want to chase. I could've done more market research, more user-testing, and more on and on, but it would've led me to overthink. Pick a problem and run with it. Your ability to innovate is correlated with your ability to pick an idea and iterate over it a thousand times.
I must CREATE a system or be ENSLAVED by another means; I will not reason and compare; my business is to CREATE. — William Blake
Build your true fans
In my previous startup experience, I didn't treat my customers as fans. I treated them like just another data point. A decade ago, Wired editor Kevin Kelly wrote an essay called 1,000 True Fans. I highly recommend reading this piece. Kevin Kelly was absolutely on the right side of the coin in his prediction of creators leveraging on online platforms. I have come across so many creators who have adopted 1000 true fans mentality. Kevin Kelly argues that embracing true fans can help creators earn $100,000 ($100/user * 1000 users). I am nowhere near those earnings, but I have acquired meaningful relationships with my 1000 true fans. Treating customers like fans forces you to engage with them.
I made a strategic goal of acquiring 1000 true fans through newsletter, social media and/or sales. My thesis was my early adopters would go bat for me if I supported and took care of my fans. They sure did. Zak T, my good friend learned about mental models was the first customer. We are still in touch and talk occasionally about the project. Reciprocity works only when you give others. Be kind to others and offer an extra mile of help. Your fans will remember that. I have several customers who I frequently talk to. Being an indie hacker has re-kindled old relationships and built new friendships. Focus on finding your true fans. They are everywhere on the Internet.
No one has ever become poor by giving. — Anne Fran
It takes time
It takes a very long time to find something that works. My sales were flat for two years. And then it took off! Progress happens slowly then all at once. I was responsible for that flat line because after building the product and website, I abandoned the project. I picked up on Wise Charlie in 2020 back again. I redesigned the landing page, made it much precise and called out call-to-action items. Making things simpler made a huge difference because visitors have a very short attention span. Tell them in 10 seconds otherwise you have lost them.
I also started spending more time on distributing and cold emails. My sales grew, social media accounts grew and newsletter grew. But all-in-all, the spike in the chart below is directly correlated with my distribution efforts. My efforts are still inconsistent, but one thing is clear, efforts lead to action. Building anything valuable takes time, effort and energy. Don't skip distribution.
I have a development background so I was obsessed with building features from scratch. I spent time developing the first version of the website using HTML, CSS and Vue.js. As my features got complex, I wasted more time on managing code rather than building and distribution.
After a while, I let go of the code and starting leveraging on no-code tools. Yes, it cost me $200 per year, but now I use that time on writing blog, content distribution and sales. I am nimble on spending my resources, both time and money. But now I always ask, what is the opportunity cost if I do X? Asking this question helped me prioritize. I was spending more time on managing pixels and layout of the website than focusing on finding Wise Charlie fans. Outsource your least impactful tasks by leveraging on tools available.
Feeling like an imposter
There is always someone who is doing better than you are. Trying to become someone else and replicate their outcome is something you don't want to chase. It will lead to imposter syndrome. It is common to be envious of other people's success. But rather celebrate their success and learn from them.
I have gone down the rabbit hole of feeling uneasy because my accomplishments are not good enough when compared against other projects. But now I look at it from a different lens which is the continuity of the project. The only metric that matters.
To summarize, being an indie hacker gives you autonomy, sharpen your skills, and teach you valuable lessons about building and shipping products. Being an indie hacker is not about starting a business but a journey to experience building a product you have full control over. You end up sharpening your technical skills, marketing chops, product design, and documentation habits.