In only 9 months, Mattijs Naus (and a small team) created Pagestead, a self-hosted, fully white-labeled website builder. They launched on spring 2017 and were soon able to earn a great MRR with it. Pagestead now makes $7,000/month and has +140 customers. However, in the development and growth process, they committed some big mistakes.
Hi Mattijs! What's your background, and what are you currently working on?
My name is Mattijs Naus (typically go simply by “Matt”), originally from The Netherlands but living in Thailand for the past 13 years. I run a software business with a fully remote team and our flagship product is called Pagestead. Pagestead is a self-hosted, fully white-labeled website builder. We sell licenses for the software to companies around the world (typically a one-off fee). Additionally, we sell subscriptions giving access to continued support and software updates. With me being the founder, I take on a number of roles, jumping around between front-end development, support, marketing, business and customer development, etc.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I studied both business and CS in university before dropping out and moving to Thailand. During my first few years in Thailand, I was working for a travel company doing web development and other IT-related tasks. I had a tremendous freedom during this job to start projects and experiment with things. This allowed me to grow my coding chops as well as create a taste for starting projects and side-businesses.
After leaving this job, I have started numerous projects and business (ending up selling one as well). Most of these projects didn’t result in anything great, but I simply enjoyed creating stuff. Since not all of these projects were generating income, I was often doing consulting and freelancing work on the side.
I guess you could say most of the projects I started “failed”. However, I don’t really like that word, as they don’t feel like failures too. All of them were awesome learning experiences and great fun to build. One of my more recent “failures” is a product named “Failswitch”. It was a tool which would prevent your website from being down, ever. I think the reason this failed was due to the fact I was not able to define a clear audience for this, beyond simply “people with a website” (which is way too broad). This pretty much ingrained the idea that for a small, bootstrapped business to succeed, having a clearly defined market in the early days, as well as a channel to reach them, is very important. Another hugely important lesson I learned after numerous built-out products without any customers, is that validation before the building is critical. It’s hard, especially for us coders, not to right away dive into code when having an idea for a business or project, however doing so almost always results in a product without users/customers.
I was also active selling WordPress themes and HTML templates on ThemeForest during these years. This lead me to start building my first website builder script. It was mostly aimed at HTML template sellers, allowing them to bundle the script with their products and thus allowing customers to easily modify these HTML templates (even to this day, there are still numerous HTML templates available on ThemeForest which use our script).
I quickly started seeing other types of customers buying the simple site builder script like web development agencies, marketing firms, hosting companies and internet marketers. We started seeing a demand for this type of product (with numerous additional features our product didn’t have at the time). I started building additional site builder scripts with better features and started selling those as well on CodeCanyon. This was a nice business for several years with decent monthly income (around $5,000 a month). However, at some point, I started growing tired with selling through a market site like CodeCanyon. We had now ways to contact our customers and we starting seeing CodeCanyon’s parent company Envato moving into a direction we did not like.
So, we (at this point I assembled a small team) decided to build and sell the next iteration of our site builder tool, now named Pagestead, outside of the Envato ecosystem. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as we’re now 100% in control and are making more money than we did selling on the Envato sites.
Below you’ll see a screenshot of Pagestead’s page builder interface:
How did you build Pagestead?
It took us about 9 months (roughly) to create Pagestead before we launched in the spring of 2017. However, this first version used a lot of code of a previous version, so it wasn’t like we built it from scratch. We also were not working on it full-time (we all had other jobs during those months). While building the first version, we were a team of three: myself, one back-end developer and another front-end developer.
The first version of Pagestead was pretty lame to be put it bluntly. We really launched with the absolute bare minimum in terms of features. Thankfully, we have a large list of email subscribers, existing customers and other helpful people in our network who helped us determine which initial features we needed to have. It’s thanks to our early customers who believed in us and pre-ordered or purchased during the early days that we’re in business today!
Below is an image of the first landing page for Pagestead (back when it was still called SB Pro):
There were, and honestly still are, tons of doubts about whether we’re building a viable business. Just a few days back I was asking my wife if she thought there was some magic number of customers, revenue or profit which would finally remove the doubt and confirm we have a sustainable business. Unfortunately, we were not able to come up with this magic number :) Before launching, we had a pre-order page allowing people to pre-order at a nice discount of 20%. Back then, we said the magic number was $10,000. If we were able to achieve $10,000 in pre-orders, we’d conclude this was enough proof the idea was viable and enough people would be willing to pay for this software. When we reached that number, I still had my doubts. We ended up doing just over $30,000 in pre-orders. The doubts were probably slightly less, but definitely not completely gone. It’s not just doubts about whether we’re building a viable business. It’s doubts about new features to build, how to scale customer support, whether to hire that new employee, etc. You learn to deal with it though. I acknowledge the doubt and then cast it aside and move forward making decisions to best of my capabilities with the information I have at that moment.
One of the biggest obstacles we faced while building Pagestead was FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt). While we were working on the first release, I constantly worried we were not moving fast enough, we wouldn’t be able to attract additional paying customers after launching, not being able to make enough money to support everyone, etc. It’s that annoying nagging voice in the back of your mind. I am sure we overcame a whole bunch of smaller obstacles the past year, but none of them seem worth reminding.
I can honestly say that the process of building the initial version of Pagestead was not an enjoyable experience, in the slightest. It was an intense and stressful episode and there were plenty of moments I was seriously considering abandoning the project and moving onto something else. I guess the thing that kept me going was that on some level I knew it would all be worth it. Additionally, having customers willing to pay us money for a product that has not yet been completed was a huge driver as well.
When it comes to setting the prices for Pagestead, it was really just a matter of experience, talks with customers (and knowing what kind of customer we would be selling this to) and intuition. I don’t believe we have our pricing nailed at the moment, and we’ll likely be making some changes in the near future. We’ll use the information we have at that time, try making some changes and see what kind of response we’ll be getting back from our customers.
I am personally not a big fan of big public launches and we never did this for Pagestead. Instead, we launched quietly to our mailing list. That was all really. A simple email to let everyone know we have finally launched. I love the idea of stair-stepping the launch process and doing multiple small-scale launches. So, whenever we release an update, we do a small launch by email, Twitter, Facebook, etc. We have had a number of people asking if they could “hunt” us on PH, however, we’re holding off until we’re closer to product market fit and have made some other improvements.
Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?
Not an awful lot to be quite honest. We’re still generating a healthy number of leads from traffic coming from other products in our portfolio. Additionally, we have done some SEO and content marketing efforts which are now, after several months, finally starting to deliver some results. We have done some small experiments with paid acquisition, however until we reach product-market fit, or get very close, we’re holding off serious investments in marketing Pagestead.
We’re quite comfortable with the current growth rate. It allows to put critical parts of the business in place, such as customer support, in preparation for faster growth in the future.
We have been seeing traction since before launching. Since we were quite successful with pre-orders and cultivating a mailing list before launch, we have been gaining new customers pretty much since day one after launching.
Revenue data for the last three months:
What were the biggest challenges you faced and obstacles you overcame?
As mentioned earlier, FUD has been, and still is a big issue from to time. Since you’re entering uncharted waters almost on a daily basis, you’re often on your own in figuring out what to do next or how to handle a certain issue. Sure, there are places you can turn to for advice, however, although well meant, advice is always based on the giver’s personal situation and circumstances and does not always help you.
Another big issue for us at the moment is dealing with and scaling customer support. Up until recently, I and my main developer were handling most of the support requests. This obviously is not a good thing, as it drastically slows down our development efforts and delays future releases. As we need to reach product market asap, we’re scrambling to move both of us away from support.
Other than that, we deal with the typical obstacles any software company faces. Things like deciding which features to implement first, working on documentation, documenting internal processes, implementing automated QA, etc. Fortunately, most of these obstacles are of technical nature and fixing technical issues is what we coders do best ;)
Other personal obstacles for me are things like loneliness. Although it’s super easy to connect with people and gather like-minded people around you, building a bootstrapped business as a solo-founder is an inherently lonely undertaking. Nobody but you fully understand everything that’s on your plate. It’s up to you, and you alone, to make the decisions.
Which are your greatest disadvantages?
Some of the personal disadvantages I am facing arise from me being a coder/product person at heart. I used to be most happy and content when locked up in my office and building cool stuff. Talking to customers, making myself available to my team, doing interviews, etc are all things that did not come naturally. I had, and still have to, work at these things to move the business forward.
When looking at the team at large, the same applies. We’re all coders/technical people with limited business experience. This means we all have to get outside of our comfort zones from time to time.
As for the market in which Pagestead operates; the site builder market itself is highly competitive: there are numerous, well-established players with whom we are competing.
Some of the disadvantages Pagestead has compared to competitors, include the fact that we’re relative new, with a young product and the fact that we’re selling a self-hosted product instead of a traditional SaaS product.
During the process of building & growing Pagestead, which were the worst mistakes you committed?
We have spent a bunch of time and money on things which, in hindsight, we shouldn’t have. We wasted time and money on building a collection of 600 templates, which we never were able to complete (due to a variety of reasons). We have made some small “mistakes”, where we spend some time and resources developing features we did not end up releasing. Sometimes because halfway through the feature we found out it would end up being too costly or the demand was not as big as initially thought.
Other mistakes were made releasing features too early, while they were not yet stable enough and not tested thoroughly. We probably also started focusing on automated QA a bit too late.
One thing we got blindsided by was the large support burden; we didn’t anticipate the support demand would be this big.
I guess you could call this a mistake of sorts; I probably should have done a better job cultivating our mailing list since we launched. Sending out regular drip campaigns with tutorials, how-to’s and other useful content could have been beneficial.
If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?
I would probably start spending more time on documentation early on and start implementing automated QA sooner. I would also spend more time working on email marketing and customer relations.
Apart from mistakes, what are other sources of learning you would recommend for entrepreneurs who are just starting?
I learned tons from podcasts like Mike and Rob’s “Startups for the rest of us” as well as from resources like Mixergy and communities like Indie Hackers and HackerNews.
I also read tons of books. It would be impossible to list every single book that has been useful over the years, but here are a few:
- Rework, Remote and Getting Real - Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson
- The Lean Startup - Eric Ries
- The Year Without Pants - Scott Berkun
- Founders at Work - Jessica Livingston
- The $100 Startup - Chris Guillebeau
- The 7 Day Startup - Dan Norris
- Traction - Gabriel Weinberg
- Tribe of Mentors - Tim Ferris
- Start Small, Stay Small - Rob Walling