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Interview with a Successful Startup Founder

Growing a SaaS-Related Paid Newsletter to $8k/mo in 4 Months

Kevin Conti
Kevin Conti
November 5, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
United States
Revenue of startups
Interview with a Failed Startup Founder

Growing a SaaS-Related Paid Newsletter to $8k/mo in 4 Months

Kevin Conti
Kevin Conti
November 5, 2020
Category of startup
Software & Hardware
Country of startup
United States
Cause of failure of the startup

Kevin is the founder of SoftwareIdeas, a newsletter that weekly sends subscribers validated SaaS business ideas. It launched in July 2020 and in only 4 months, it has grown to +$8k/mo, coming from 400 paid readers. This was achieved through Twitter and Indie Hackers only, but Kevin is looking forward to experimenting with other new channels.



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

Hi there! I’m Kevin Conti and I’m the founder of Software Ideas, a paid newsletter that sends hand-picked, validated SaaS ideas directly to your inbox. It’s currently sitting at about $8,000 MRR in just over four months, and I’m really enjoying it!

SoftwareIdeas metrics

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

I never meant to make Software Ideas.

I’m a full-time software developer. On the side, I launched CoderNotes.io, a website for developers to take technical notes that can be easily searched. While that product got a lot of interest (including landing as #2 product of the day on Product Hunt), today it sits at around $50 MRR.

I learned from that project that building something people think is cool is NOT the same thing as building something people want to pay for. I also learned that the market you choose is incredibly important. You want to be in a market where customers are already spending money.

I documented everything that I learned from the experience in this IndieHackers post: 5 Lessons Learned from Launching my first SaaS.

After that experience, I decided I wanted to take what I’ve learned and apply it to something new, instead of  trying to pivot CoderNotes.io to be something else. So I started doing market research.

It started by looking at job boards. After all, if they can afford to hire employees, they must be doing something right! Eventually I learned that there were paid databases of company information that would be far more efficient than going through job boards, but they cost up to $1,000 per year.

At that point, the pieces fell into place. I realized that the research I was doing might be valuable to people, and now I had an incentive to try to sell it (so I could make up the cost of the databases). 

So, Software Ideas was never meant to be a product - I was just trying to research some SaaS ideas for myself!

How did you go from idea to product?

After CoderNotes.io, I was experimenting with ways of de-risking my idea validation. I had been burned by getting an email list with ~200 subscribers, over 400 votes on Product Hunt, but still getting close to 0 sales. I was determined to make my business either succeed or fail faster this time - and I did it using pre-sales.

I think pre-sales are an underrated tool. If you come in with the mindset of, “Pay me now and you’ll get in on the ground floor, I’ll build the product to be exactly what you want, at a fraction of the cost it would take for you to hire a contractor”, I think pre-sales are a powerful tool. It also tells you as quickly as possible whether you’re on the right track or not.

So I set myself a goal that out of 100 qualified leads, I would convert at least 10 for a month of newsletters at $19. And after 33 qualified leads, I already had my 10, so I went ahead and launched the product.

I’ve released those email conversations, for free, for people wanting to see exactly how I had those pre-sell conversations. They’re all available in this Notion template (with names hidden, of course).

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

When you look at the template above, you’ll see that one of the things I tested during the pre-sell phase were distribution channels. Not only did I want to test that people would buy the newsletter, but I also wanted to make sure that I could reach them.

To do this, I made experiments on multiple different channels. I posted a free, proof-of-concept version of my newsletter to Indie Hackers, Reddit, and Twitter. That’s how I found the original 33 qualified leads for pre-sales.

You can see that original post on Indie Hackers here.

Since then, Twitter and Indie Hackers have been the two best channels for me, but they take a lot of work. In both places, my goal is to create high-quality content that really helps fellow founders in getting to the same stage I’m at. On Indie Hackers, I’ve also publicly shared my numbers through the Milestones section, which people have found interesting. I’m still nailing down my Twitter strategy, but it basically falls along the same lines.

Now, I’m looking for my next distribution channel. I’m exploring a number of opportunities, just like I did the first time, and hopefully I’ll find one or two more that reliably bring in new customers. Two channels that I’m looking at very seriously are newsletter sponsorships and SEO, but I won’t know what works until my experiments with them are complete at the end of the month.

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

The business has grown linearly, with about 100 new customers per month. The free email list (where I send a preview newsletter each week) is over 4,000 strong and my last email to them had a 50% open rate.

If you want to see Software Ideas’ metrics, they are publicly available here.

My main goal for the business is to help as many founders as I can. I don’t want anyone to fall into the same hole I did with CoderNotes.io - building something for months that people will never buy. To help founders with this, I’m working on a course specifically around pre-sales and validation. I’m calling it The Foundation, and I’ve included it at no additional cost to members of Software Ideas.

From a metric perspective, my biggest goal right now is to expand the marketing and distribution with a new channel. I’m hoping that finding one to two new channels will rocket our growth into the $10k and even $20k range over the next 3-6 months. 

At that point, I hope that I’ll be financially secure and personally ready to quit my full-time developer job and work on Software Ideas full time.

Since starting Software Ideas, what have been your main lessons?

I’ve learned a ton from Software Ideas. It’s hard to put into words. Here are some key ones:

  • It took me eight months to get CoderNotes.io to $50 revenue, and I worked just as hard or harder than I have on Software Ideas, which hitted +$4,000 in a quarter of the time. The market and idea you choose matters.
  • Writing a paid weekly newsletter is an exercise in discipline. You don’t get any weeks off, and you better make sure that you deliver a high-quality issue each week. While the opportunity for recurring revenue is great, you need to be prepared for what you’re getting into with this business model.

And some personal ones:

  • It’s really, really hard to celebrate milestones. I’ve struggled each time to take a step back, breathe, and enjoy myself. I have to be intentional in rewarding myself, otherwise I never take time to enjoy the spoils of my efforts.
  • Starting a company comes with a lot of anxiety, stress, and even depression. I thought these things were at their worst when you aren’t successful, but the more successful you get, the further you can fall, and the more those negative emotions weigh on you. Focusing on your health and mental well-being is key, and something I need to do better on.

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

Software Ideas is the overnight success story right now, but it comes from a lot of mistakes in the past. I’ve talked about CoderNotes.io, but I also have owned and operated a (failed) residential cleaning company, a (failed) textbook reselling business, and a (failed) auction-based reselling business.

No one hits it out of the park on their first try. To quote Ben Orenstein from Tuple, “Start your first three businesses as quickly as possible.”

If you had the chance to do things differently, what would you do?

I think I’ve done a decent job in my first two months, and it’s probably too early to answer this question correctly. But the main thing I would do is to tell myself to be prepared for the content mill. It’s incredibly challenging to keep up a high-quality, deeply-researched publication without help. And I would want to prepare myself for that.

What tools & resources do you recommend?

The two most important books I can personally recommend are:

The Mom Test - which teaches people how to have customer conversations the right way. Customer discovery talks are astoundingly easy to bias, and this book teaches you how to avoid that.

Obviously Awesome - This book teaches you about how to really look at a market, and understand how customers exhibit their wants and needs inside of it. The author calls this “positioning”, although I don’t think others would give it the same name. Regardless, I think this is the most important book you can read to start developing the right mindset on business.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you’re actively looking for your next software or SaaS business, I’d love to see you over at SoftwareIdeas. If you’re looking for an in-depth guide on doing pre-sales and early product validation, that’s where you’ll find The Foundation course as well. The first video is out now, and the rest are releasing over the coming month or so.

If you already have a profitable company, I’d still love to chat! You can find me on twitter @Kev_Conti, and I am very active on Indie Hackers under the name @kevcon80.


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