Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Bootstrapping a SaaS to $145,000/Year in a Competitive Industry

François Mommens
François Mommens
December 10, 2020
Category of startup
Analytics
Country of startup
Netherlands
Revenue of startups
$10k-$25k/mo
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Bootstrapping a SaaS to $145,000/Year in a Competitive Industry

François Mommens
François Mommens
December 10, 2020
Category of startup
Analytics
Country of startup
Netherlands
Cause of failure of the startup

Linkody was born from François’s challenge tracking backlinks on his previous startup. The MVP was launched in 3 weeks and the idea was quickly validated. Through word of mouth and free SEO tools, François has been able to grow the SaaS from 0 to $145k/year.

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Hi François! Who are you and what are you currently working on?

Hey, I’m François Mommens, founder of Linkody. I live in Amsterdam, but I’m planning to go back to France or Spain in the near future.

When I don’t work, I climb, hike, cycle, or ice skate and I love being in nature.

François in nature

My first job was to work as a backend developer for Echo Interactive, a startup that was bought out by France Telecom. I was part of a small team that developed one of the first search engines (a long time ago, even before Google). This was a great adventure. After that, I worked for several companies in various countries but I got slowly disillusioned and realised I wanted to be in control and have my own business.

Linkody is the tool you need if you want to take full control of your backlinks. Everything is there to help you understand your link profile, track your existing links, and get new ones. It’s used by SEO agencies to manage their clients’ link building campaigns and by SMB for their own SEO needs.

Linkody's dashboard

Right now the business generates about $140,000 ARR with several hundred customers and growing slowly.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

Before Linkody, I launched a previous startup with a friend of mine. However, this wasn’t a success and we soon gave up (this could be a story in the failed section ;).

I did learn my first lesson then. Don’t start a business with your friends just because they are your friends.

By working on that first business, I eventually got the idea for Linkody.

Back in the days, the only thing I knew about SEO was the importance of backlinks. I was doing link exchanges and needed a tool to check that my partners didn’t remove them. A lot of the existing tools were providing general reports about new and lost links, but none was offering to manually add links and check them on a daily basis.

I thought it was worth investing some time in this idea so I decided to develop a minimal viable product.

How did you go from idea to product?

The first version was released in about 3 weeks. For this version I received some help from a friend for the design (he’s the founder of Lovehabibi, a great success story).

At the time I was a backend Perl and Java developer. I however chose to learn PHP and Symfony because that seemed more suited for rapid web development.

I had only 3 weeks to spend because I was between jobs. After releasing the tool and starting my new full time job I didn’t touch it, until one day it got a couple of good reviews and started to get some traction (although it really was the MVP you can see in the screenshot below).

Linkody's old dashboard
Linkody’s first version


So I decided to invest some time to release a better version, with paid plans, to see if I could sell it. I used my free time, week-ends, evenings, holidays.

When I sold my first subscriptions, I considered the opportunity good enough to quit my job and start working full time on the business. Fortunately I had enough savings to last until I could make a living out of it.

From there I kept improving the product following the lean startup approach, using a mix of user feedback, looking at what the big players offered, and testing ideas. One thing I always tried to achieve is to keep the interface coherent, consistent, and simple. The tool got a lot of praise for that. And providing outstanding support.

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Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

When it comes to marketing and promotion I had to learn everything. One thing I realised quickly was that SEM wouldn’t be an option in such a competitive industry, and with so few money keywords. Instead I focused on SEO, link building, and content marketing via the blog.

Although I’m self-thought on many topics, writing is definitely not my forte. So I hired someone to write content on a regular basis. The blog got traction and the traffic rose steadily. However, the conversion was very disappointing. It was basically costing me money for nothing and I had to stop.

The good thing with a blog is when it gets enough authority, you start receiving enough guest post offers to keep posting content on a regular basis. It costs time though. I receive tons of offers, or spam, and ultimately reject 90% of posts.

Linkody guest posts

I keep investing this time in the blog because even if it does not generate customers, it is still useful for acquiring backlinks and for giving authority to the money site.

The other strategy was to offer free SEO tools. I started with a Backlink Checker giving limited results for free. This worked pretty well. So well actually that every single SEO tool is now offering an equivalent. I had to diversify and develop more free tools like the Google Index Checker.

It’s hard to measure but word of mouth also has an impact, some customers said the tool was recommended to them.

Finally, I have a few brand advocates that regularly mention the tool or recommend it directly to their partners.

How are you doing today and what are your goals for the future?

Today the tool is very mature and comprehensive in its own niche. All the backlink acquisition/tracking SEO tasks are covered. If I want to grow faster, I would have to get outside the backlink niche and turn the tool into a full fledged SEO tool, something I don’t really want to do because the competition is just too fierce.

So I’m working on something different and innovative, although for the same industry. Very few companies are offering the service I’m working on and I think they are not doing a very good job, probably because the technical challenge is quite difficult to properly solve.

Oh, just before starting on that I released a side project, JobboarPlugin, just to learn a few technologies really, but it might have some potential.

When it comes to personal goals I want to go back to France or Spain, buy some land in the countryside, grow a food forest and have some animals.

Animals

There’s also this crazy idea to create a yoga/meditation/rock climbing retreat (my girlfriend is a yoga and meditation teacher and, as already said, I’m a rock climber). But I don’t see how I could do that while working on two (three?) different online businesses. Unless I sell them.

Since starting Linkody, what have been your main lessons?

Being a solopreneur is hard! It feels like I’m doing the work of 5 different people.

The product design, the UX, the frontend/backend dev, the promotion… If you use the chat widget to ask for support, I’ll be the one to answer ;)

Relying on oneself for every single decision is also difficult. I have a couple of entrepreneur friends I could turn to for advice, and there are always the online communities, but it’s not like having partners.

There’s a good reason why VCs and business angels don’t invest in solopreneurs, but only in teams with a broad set of complementary skills (something I also learned the hard way).

Anyway, I focus on the exciting part, that I’m 100% in control. It’s liberating to accept the full responsibility of my decisions.

Another thing I learned is how difficult it is to get feedback. The whole lean startup method advocated absolutely everywhere is relying on this essential thing, getting feedback from your customers. What is not specified is how difficult it is. Nobody has time to give feedback. When was the last time you gave feedback for any of the 10 tools you’re using on a daily basis? Right.

What were the biggest obstacles you overcame? What were your worst mistakes?

The main issue I’ve been facing is how competitive the SEO industry is. New tools are coming to the market every day. Not only that, but I’m obviously also competing against the best SEOs for organic traffic.

Linkody competitors

Depending only on Google for traffic is already risky in itself. Recently I got hit and lost a big chunk of it. I ran some SEO analysis and I finally identified the reason, thanks actually to my own tool Linkody. I lost 2 very powerful links, one from Fox News, and another from a big national portal. This happened just before the hit. The causality cannot be proven, but I would bet on it (you cannot be sure of anything with Google, don’t trust people who say otherwise). And so I’m back on building new links to compensate for the loss (actually paying someone to do it).

What tools & resources do you recommend?

I use Workflowy to organise my tasks and dump half of my brain. I keep absolutely everything I have to do there. At the end of every day, I reorganise items depending on what I did, and create a mini todo list for the next day.

Where can we go to learn more?

Checkout Linkody and my other free SEO tools; read the blog to learn everything about marketing and traffic acquisition; connect with me on Linkedin.

Tip: Use the coupon FAILORY to get 20% off lifetime on any plan ;D

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