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❌ Failed startup
✅ Successful startup

Bootstrapping a SaaS to $4k/mo in a competitive market

Alex is the founder of Unicorn Platform, a landing page builder for startups. He started the project in 2018, when he built and launched the MVP in 160 hours. That got him a lot of traction, bringing +$9k in lifetime licenses. Since then, Alex has made his way to $4k in MRR in a market led by huge players like Wordpress, Wix and Squarespace.

Russia
SaaS
Up to 50K

Alexander Isora

November 19, 2020

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

Salut! My name is Alexander Isora. I'm 27 y.o. solo-founder of Unicorn Platform — the landing page builder for startups. The bootstrapped project is profitable and currently serves 5,000+ websites.

If you are curious how did I managed to launch this $4,000+ MRR SaaS, welcome to this interview 🤓

Alex from Unicorn Platform
Hi!

I live in Russia. This country is just awesome to kickstart a tech company because the cost of living here is small.

I live in a beautiful city - Saint Petersburg. Happy me can behold heartstopping architecture every day. 

It is important to me to be constantly inspired. Beauty around gives me pushes to bring more beauty in the world.

My $114/m workspace is located in this building. Photo by @malyushev.

Unicorn Platform today is a team of 3 passionate people:

  1. Asad, the COO. A young man with a colossal potential. His keenness often surprises our clients and me.
  2. Artem, the frontend developer. Artem has the diligence of a soldier.
  3. Me, the CEO. I do UI/UX design, coding, marketing, business development.

The story begins in July 2018, when I built and launched an MVP… 👇

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

Idea picking is the hardest thing: you are afraid to invest time and money in a pointless project. I understand this fear 🙌

I believe the only true way to pick an idea which you will be able to carry on for years is to follow your heart. What do you truly love? Traveling, databases, bikes, cats, websites, music? Pick an industry first.

If you do not know, perhaps you need to start becoming interested in a wider range of things: make new connections, visit local events, try something new. 

Keep being curious and you will notice real problems to solve. Then just do some customer development to validate your ideas.

I simply did this: started being interested in coding and fell in love with the websites 🥰 

I started my career as a web developer in 2014. After 100 created websites every web developer starts to think about making their own website builder. There is nothing romantic about finding this idea 😅
The problem is to get confidence and quit the job to follow the dream.

It took me 2 years working as a web developer and 2 years of working as an  entrepreneur to get to the point where I could say “I can do it!”.

After gaining enough experience, wisdom and confidence I decided to quit my current job position and build the product.

I remember that moment very well: a crystal clear understanding of what and how should be done.

I’m sorry for saying it like this is an easy-peasy question. This is definitely not. 

Idea picking is hard and requires diligence and luck.

Let me know if you have problems with ideas. Perhaps I can help or at least show you my ideas list to give some inspiration.

How did you go from idea to product?

The MVP of Unicorn Platform was built in just 160 hours. I have explained the whole journey in this popular article.

The biggest question in developing an MVP was to decide when to stop. 

We imagine our future product so huge and grandiose and scalable and powerful and and… 

But in reality the simpler your MVP is the better. It is hard to shut up your inner Steve Jobs, but it is required if you want to deliver real things, not words.

I had a solid experience in the market. And I knew exactly the amount of features which would be required to start sales. Thus, building the very first version of Unicorn Platform was a breeze (~˘▾˘)~

The next step was to launch the newborn project. I published Unicorn Platform on Product Hunt. Yet I was sure about the product quality and its market need, I did not know how good the sales would be. In case of zero or low cash flow I would need to get back to a desk job.

So I crossed my fingers and clicked “publish”.

Unicorn Platform on Product Hunt

The crowd was awed by the quality of the MVP version of Unicorn Platform.

That launch brought me $5,892 of subscription sales and $9,271 in lifetime deal licenses sales.

Unicorn Platform's revenue

As I said, living costs in my city are low. This is why the sum was enough to build a more powerful version of the website builder which is now available to the world and used by thousands of users. 

Let’s talk more about it 😄

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How do you plan to outcompete existing website builders?

Wix added their stocks on NASDAQ before I even learned to code. 

SquareSpace booked an ad at Super Bowl (~$5 million for a 30-second commercial).

WordPress serves 50% of the entire goddamn Internet!

And there are other competitors. A lot of competitors. Trust me, I tested ~all existing website builders and I know the amount. It is crazy.

So how is there a space for a new self-funded russia-based website builder founded by a single person? 

Oh my friend, I see a huge HUGE space out there! 😌 

Allow me to explain myself.

The products of big popular companies definitely have good parts. They are stable, reliable, they have solid community and infrastructure.

But with complexity some disadvantages come. Your feature requests and ideas will never be heard, you will drown in help guides, plugins and themes. If there are any problems with payment or the product, you will be on your own.

Squarespace reviews
Wix reviews

When people are fed up with ignorance, confusion and bad experience, they start to look around. Thousands and thousands of people start searching and sometimes find newborn projects like Unicorn Platform.

We are 2 years old. It is enough to build an initial trust to give it a try. And this is where we need to make a good impression and show that you are in good hands.

People choose Unicorn Platform because of 3 main reasons:

1. Focus on a small audience. 

Our website builder is niched down. It is made for founders and marketeers from SaaS companies, mobile and desktop apps and other tech startups.

Narrow focus gives us an ability to provide a product that fits the needs of this small audience very well. For example, you can frame your apps screenshot into a realistic 3D device:

Unicorn Platform's tweet
Click here to see it in action.

None of the giants will care this much about the owners of mobile apps because the strategy of the big companies is to conquer the whole world. They need to serve 1,000 different audiences, whereas our goal is to satisfy a small group of people.

2. Simplicity.

Since our product is small, we do not have all the endless features that the major website builders have. Cut down the loose, keep it simple - this is the secret recipe of a good user experience.

If someone needs more power or a feature that we do not have, our support crew will provide a piece of custom code for free.

3. Support.

A+ blazing fast passionate support crew which contains engineers-only 😎 It makes a huge impression on our users.

We will cover this part later in this interview.

Which were your marketing strategies to grow your business?

Most of the time we are working on the product.  I’m interested in growing our MRR and user base, but our top priority will always be the product.

I’m a fanatic. My passion is the product. And I want to continue shaping it. 

I do not feel like I want to spend much time on promoting Unicorn Platform. Instead, I believe a good service can grow by itself. I will talk about it in the next chapter of this interview.

Nevertheless, I regularly discover new marketing channels. 

My current bet is side-project marketing. I believe I can bring value by building something useful for startup folks and therefore drive attention to Unicorn Platform. 

My current side-project which I’m evolving is Broadwise.org. Broadwise.org is an old school online forum for discussing tech, design, marketing and other startup-related topics. I believe in the subforums-based form of communication and have big plans for the project. Welcome! 😁

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

We have 5,091 users in September 2020 and the number is growing.

See the report in Twitter.

My goal, metric and the main purpose why I wake up in the mornings is to make these 5,000 people as satisfied as possible.

There is a simple trick to make a user happy: bring more value than the price is.

By shaping our product we bring joy to our users. When they get requested features, people feel cared for and listened to. It gives a deep feeling of warmth and helps to build a strong connection. 

Next, exciting product updates make users feel like winning a lottery. Imagine, you already agreed to pay X for the Y amount of features. And then there is a surprise: an additional feature comes out and you can use it for no additional cost. Cool!

We try to bring such gifts every month. 

And the last but not the least: good user support. Not just good - splendid, astonishing, lightning fast and thoughtful. Just like if you have a skilled engineer on your team.

Thanks to the COO Asad, our support process was dramatically boosted. It is so well maintained, users send us odes.

Unicorn Platform team
3m 18s! This man is crazy.

We spend a limitless amount of time to make their experience smooth and fun. I believe that support is a huge part of Unicorn Platform (at least a half!). 

When a new user joins - no matter on a free or a paid plan - we take them as a part of the family. And when a user feels like being truly accepted to a family treated accordingly, they become loyal and spread Unicorn Platform around the world. This is how we manage growth - we get by giving.

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Since starting Unicorn Platform, what have been your main lessons?

Do not listen to the ones who teach you how to be an entrepreneur (not even to me! 😂). 

Each entrepreneur’s story is unique. It is like writing music: you can learn notes at music school, but you will still need to compose them in the right order to create a symphony.

Same with business: you can learn how to run a Google Ad, but you need experience on how and when to launch such an ad. No one knows when your particular project needs this. 

And you yourself will not know until you spend a few grand either.

This is why I encourage you to try and fail, try and fail. 

Watching smart videos may feel like progress, but without actual practice this is nothing but old good procrastination.

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

There is one thing I can not get over for many years. This is a dead simple, obvious and quite a popular problem: I work too much.

When I work a lot, I can finish many things. This sounds fine in theory, but in reality it is not true. It turned out that the less I work the better my results and the longer run I can go. Let 's see why.

First, working too much makes me feel low energy and in the end - burn out. Gosh, I burn out 2 times a year! 

Burning out means I can not do any other job that is responding in the support chat. No strategy planning, no hiring, no creative posts, no product improvements, no updates, no new connections. Each burnout removes 20-25 productive days of my life. 

Now we will do some simple math. Imagine, I work 10 hours a day instead of 8. 

Ur-r-rrgh, I can go even more hardcore! Let’s add an extra working day - Saturday. 

It will add 104 additional working days per year.

Yay! I can do more coding, more design, more this and that. This is just a-w-e-s-o-m-e, isn't it? 😁

Unicorn Platform meme

But this lifestyle will end in 50 wasted days during the burnouts and restoring. Besides, each hardcore 10 hours day ends with falling down in the bed with zero energy in the batteries. It means I can not spend quality time with the family. Also, I can not contribute to my hobbies which make my life brighter and eventually help to be more productive, focused and creative at work by giving me a mind relax. 

So I try to follow this simple rule: work as little as possible.

Here are some tips that help:

  1. I leave the laptop at the workspace. If there is something urgent, I can use my spouse's laptop (there were 0 urgent accidents since 2018).
  2. Tick-tack. It is 7 p.m. You stand up and go out of the work space. Just shut down the Mac and go away. No questions asked. Just do it.
  3. 2 vacations per year. Unfortunately, I can not afford a vacation at this moment. But this is something I want to bring back to my life.
  4. Weekends were invented to have a rest. So rest!

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

There is one thing that I’m missing and it can not be fixed: a partner.

If I could invert myself in time, go back to the past and talk to my former self in the past, I would spend some time and try to find a fiddy-fiddy co-founder who will share responsibility and help me during hard times.

Being alone, I need to constantly work on myself and improve my discipline, learn new huge skills (e.g. managing a team). I also need to take care of the slippery biz dev parts such as legal and finance by myself.

This is tough. I often feel exhausted. A partner would be a great addition.

However, moving solo gives me enormous decision making speed. Boy, I move 5 times faster than when I was working with partners!

What tools & resources do you recommend?

I want to recommend 1 tool, 1 resource and 1 book.

Tool: Mozilla Thunderbird. It is the best email inbox management tool out there. I tried the fancy javascriptish Spark and Polymail. Slick old school native Mozilla Thunderbird beats them all.

Mozilla Thunderbird

Resource: YC SUS aka Y-Combinator Startup School. It is a free online school which teaches you how to do things right.  Besides useful content, you can also get: friends, followers, clients, partners, discounts (it saved me thousands of $) and inspiration.

YC SUS

Book: Influence by Robert Cialdini. This book will teach you marketing, relationship, and psychology. My understanding of myself and people around significantly improved after reading this book. This book gives you real power. So please act ethical and do not use the described techniques to push people to buy things they do not need.

Influence book

Where can we go to learn more?

Thanks for the interest in my humble person.

My personal blog is frozen until we ship our own fancy blogging tool (coming in November 2020) and I will be finally able to migrate away from naughty WordPress.

Today I write on Telegram channel where I share the coolest insights on bootstrapping profitable projects.

I also tweet tweets on Twitter.

If you want to try Unicorn Platform sign up here.  If you tell the secret word “failory” in the Intercom live chat we will provide you a nice recurring 20% discount on any plan 😉

See you!

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