A Year and a Half of Passive Development

A Year and a Half of Passive Development

Mailist Team
Marcin Michalak
April 4, 2020

We read many stories about successful projects. We share the milestones which look like continuous progress. Ultimately, we share stories about the failures of our projects and what we have learned. But today, I would like to share with you another perspective. The story of a side project which has been on aside for too long.

👉 Article also available here

Early minor success

In May 2018, I had naturally come up with a precise idea for a tool I needed myself and decided to develop it. I am a brand designer, and I had (back then) very little coding knowledge. Creating an app on my own was a challenge.

It took me a couple of weeks to deliver a fully functional product. First users loved it. Conversion rate from a visitor to a free user was (and still is) at nearly 5%. I received a lot of positive feedback, and people used the product daily. I wrote an article about how I've managed to learn to code and build an attractive, well-performing simple product. For me, it was a great success.

Slowing down

The biggest problem was I had no idea how to monetize the app. I mean – of course – I had a couple of concepts where to get the money from, but distractions had stood in my way. I've written messages to a couple of the most engaged users and simply asked: "Would you pay for the app if it has some of the features listed below?". And they said yes. However, in my opinion, the MVP version had not enough features for people to buy it. I assumed that to start earning money from the product, I needed to develop a couple of requested features and charge for it when they are ready.

I even have convinced my friend, an extremely experienced developer, to help me with further development. But you all know how it is; we're both on too tight schedules to work on the product. A lack of time, daily business (I run a small branding studio) and not-monetized-side-project — sadly — leads to procrastination.

Organic passive growth

Hence we have left the product to its own for over a year. Except for some tiny releases, where we fixed some obvious bugs, the outcome remained untouched for over a year and a half.

I visited our Metabase (a tool used to analyze the database) from time to time to observe users growth and how many links have been added. Every day we were gaining in avg. 1-3 users, coming mainly from referrals. Because of people sharing the product and big websites were writing about it (like LifeHacker) the app was visited by over 12500 users and 1800 users signed up.

Time to <<chan(r)ge>>

A couple of months ago, I found a free weekend and decided to jump into Figma and design a new feature for the product - link categorization. The straightforward task turned into an interesting outcome – complete product redesign. Additionally, at the same time, the idea for the monetization has been born. Finally, after months of research, I came up with a list of features, which, based on the feedback from the users, made sense to be paid for.

The moment gave me a boost and motivation to start working on the product again. I've turned the designs into code (Frontend) and reached my developer-friend to get him to integrate the payments system (Paypal in the beginning) and wrap everything up in the backend. It took some time, but version two of the app – not an MVP – was born.

Subscription? No thanks.

A year ago, I thought it was going to be super accurate to charge a small amount every month for pro account access. Inspired by small apps like Evernote, Pocket, it made a total sense to me, users would pay €2 for a simple app every month.

Though, I have always been against monthly subscriptions. Nowadays, subscription-based MRR is a foundation for almost every product (and I understand why!). However, I knew that I cannot do it with my product. After research and listing the pros and cons of different monetization models, I decided to go with a one-time payment model. In practice, paying once unlocks access to Pro features. How is it going?

First paying user

You all here, read a lot of stories about first paying customer and the feeling behind it. From my perspective, it is fabulous for two reasons:

  1. For the first time in the history of the app, the income from users is covering monthly maintenance costs (Heroku, domain)
  2. There is no better proof if the app makes sense than someone ready to pay for it

Furthermore, for the very first time in the history of our product, I feel incredibly motivated to keep the wheel spinning.

Setting up the goals

Now, when we know there is an audience willing to pay for the product, we set up clear and reachable goals. First of all, we want to keep a very realistic minimum of 3-5 paid users each month. It should allow us to cover the maintenance cost of the project and invest a little amount into increasing our traffic. Secondary, we have two significant updates in the pipeline, and we cannot wait to start testing. Lastly, I managed to plan affordable (in terms of the time) marketing strategy for the product, giving the whole machine a significant boost.

Better later than never

One year and a half is a long time to learn new things. Now I know that I should have validated monetization much earlier, in the very early stage. I should have done everything to test if there was any market fit for the tool. Hopefully, in upcoming months, the motivation persists, and we will manage to keep the development going. I hope we can reach a sweet goal of 5000 free users very soon and keep growing in the purchases.

Hopefully, in a year and a half, I will be able to write an article about a product which has not been put aside.

And here we start again, with Mailist 2.0.

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