"I'm a software engineer, entrepreneur, and writer. I believe that a bootstrapped business is a good business."
FeedbackPanda is a collaboration between myself and my partner Danielle Simpson. She was an English as a Second Language online teacher, and she figured out that all of her thousands of colleagues had the exact same problem: quickly writing student feedback. Together, we built a usable solution for this clearly defined critical problem and started promoting it to Danielle's colleagues.
With Online English schools booming in China, a lot of North-American part-time teachers have started teaching online. For every lesson they teach, they're required to write a number of paragraphs of feedback for the student's parents to read. That usually takes a few hours, after an already long day. FeedbackPanda turns those hours into five minutes by automating the tedious parts of the process.
At its core, FeedbackPanda is a CRM for students and a templating system for student feedback. It was always supposed to solve just this problem, and never tried to do anything else.
Since Danielle was both an entrepreneur and a member of our target audience, she was in the perfect spot to conceptualize and prototype solutions. For validation, she used the product herself to make sure it would solve the problem she experienced. Also, we made sure that the problem was actually critical to every other teacher, which we did through social media research, conversations with other teachers, and scouting the software landscape to see what other tools teachers used to solve this problem.
PersonalIy, I didn't. Before FeedbackPanda, I might have had 200 followers on Twitter, and I wasn't active there at all. But I wasn't a teacher either. Danielle had no audience, but she was part of the community and a member of the teacher tribe to which we intended to sell. We understood where the audience was, it just was not aware of our product yet.
Community participation was the biggest part. Enabling other tribe members to share our content that we provided on our blog was very important to us. We engaged with community influencers on Facebook and Instagram, talked to them, gave interviews, and interviewed them ourselves. We became part of our community.
In particular, we had a very tight feedback loop with our customers through our customer service chat application. Whenever a customer would reach out with an issue, Danielle or I would make sure their problem was solved quickly, exceeding their expectations, and that we would continue to have a chat even when we had resolved the problem. Lots of very interesting conversations happened through our Intercom integration, and it was worth it: we always had our finger on the pulse of the ESL online teacher community that way.
When we sold the business two years after founding it for a life-changing amount of money, a wondrous thing happened: all of a sudden, our business was not ours anymore, and we needed to find other things to do. I started writing, and I noticed that I liked that even more than coding! I started a blog in November 2019, and vowed to release one post every week for a year.
To keep me accountable, I started publishing a weekly newsletter as well. After a while, I started compiling the blog posts into an extensive 25,000-word guide, which looked very much like a skeleton version of a full book—and a number of people on Twitter and Indie Hackers suggested that I should write one. Well, at that point I decided to turn it into a "real" book, and Zero to Sold is the result of that.
In addition to releasing content every week through the blog post, newsletter, and podcast, I shared progress updates wherever I could. I told people when I reached new milestones with email subscribers. I told them when I started engaging editors, and shared the good and the bad of the whole journey. I'd often share screenshots of what I was working on, or I'd talk about what I was concerned with and asked the community for help. A lot of people reacted very positively to being asked their opinion, and I always appreciate getting a second opinion.
The main difference between writing a book and building a SaaS is that the SaaS grows in public, and changes to it are immediately reflected in customer service workload and churn percentages. You don't have that luxury with a book, particularly if you offer it in print: if it's good, it's good, but if it's not, it won't sell. Rapid iteration after releasing a book is much harder than pushing a new version of your software to the cloud.
But in most ways, building an info product and a SaaS product are very similar. You need to find an audience that is willing to pay money for solutions to their critical problems. This concept is the core thread of Zero to Sold, and it worked very well for creating the book as well. In a way, the learnings taught in Zero to Sold all went into making the book happen.
The best example for this has been Pieter Levels with Nomadlist and his MAKE book. Seeing him engage with the community he build was eye-opening, and I've come to understand that it's not a gimmick, it's an honest, clear, and empowering way of interacting with other people.
The secret ingredient is vulnerability. If you can show that you sometimes don't know what to do, if things will work out, or if you're making mistakes, people will start trusting you. A relationship built on trust is so much stronger than a relationship built on admiration or imitation. If you can genuinely relate with your audience as other people on your level, good things will follow.
FeedbackPanda was built in public, as we were actively sharing our progress on Indie Hackers, even hooking our Stripe account into the page to display our MRR figures.
The private equity business that eventually acquired us found us through our public product page on Indie Hackers. Sharing our revenue numbers literally set the foundation for a life-changing exit.
There is always a risk of sharing too much of your business. I wrote about this on my blog, and it boils down to where you are in your journey. If you're just getting started, being transparent is very helpful, as you get a few more eyes on the business. At some point, this can turn into a disadvantage. You've validated a lot of things painfully for your business, and then someone takes all your knowledge you have so graciously shared and builds a competitor. This can hurt a bit. Depending on how much of a moat you have, this might also be an actual danger to your livelihood. We chose only to share our MRR figures instead of giving other people access to the actual underlying data, like churn, retention, plans. That solitary number was good enough for us to be acquired.
I ignore them! I have trained myself over the last decade to be able to look at white numbers in red boxes and not care. At this very moment, I have over 15.000 unread emails and 50 notifications on Twitter. I'll get to things eventually, and I am in no rush. For email, I started using hey.com, and for anything else, I just get to it when I get to it.
The most important thing is to understand why people clone your product, and which people do this kind of thing. People clone products because they work. They clone products because the original got a lot of attention, and they want to cash in on that attention. And that's also a hint at who clones products: founders who don't have a vision of their own; founders who want the attention without putting in the work.
If someone copies the product that you put so much work in, often over many years, it feels really bad. It feels unfair that they should even get one single customer when they don't deserve it. My advice here is to look inward before you take any action. Nobody ever said that building a business will be easy, or that it will be fair. And still, you chose to embark on that journey. You painfully learned every single lesson, overcame every single challenge that the world put to you and your fledgling enterprise.
Here's the secret: that's why no clone will ever become as successful as you can become. You are the moat. You are the force driving the product. You're the founder of the original, you built this from nothing with just a vision of things should be. A random person who copied your UI down to the smallest button has no idea what awaits them out there. They will flare up and burn out quickly. They don't know where to go, and they have no idea where they come from.
That's why you should focus on understanding that you alone are what makes your product better. If you want to, reach out to your competitor and ask them to take down the clone. In some jurisdictions, you can file takedown requests to the services where your competitor hosts their software and things like payment and authentication third-party providers. Reach out and tell the community about the clone, and they will help you take them down as well.
Most importantly, understand that they can clone your product, but they can never clone you. That will be your life-long advantage.
I want to write more. I want to teach more founders, and I want to see them succeed. Anyone who wants to start a business right now happens to find themselves at the perfect time: tools are abundant, founders are happy to share their knowledge, even bootstrapper-compatible funding sources like Earnest Capital are showing that there is no better time to start being an entrepreneur than right now. I want to help with that.
Selling FeedbackPanda happened just over a year ago. That decision changed my life. While we had built the company with the "Build to Sell" strategy in mind, we only made the choice to actually be acquired shortly before it happened. This decision has changed my life. Financially, I have a level of security that I would have never thought possible. Personally, I have found myself building connections and relationships with people I thought I'd never be able to talk to. Professionally, I found that I am an author just as much as I am a programmer. Yeah, that was a good choice.
If you're interested in learning about how to start, run, and sell a bootstrapped business, please check out my book Zero to Sold. On my blog The Bootstrapped Founder, you can also find the original 25,000-word compendium that's still available for free and will remain that way.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @arvidkahl. You can find me on Indie Hackers as well.