by Tigran Hakobyan
How I got my first 10 customers for my side-project and what I’ve learned from them
For the past 5 months, I’ve been building Cronhub into a profitable side-business. Cronhub is a cron monitoring tool for developers. It monitors and alerts you if any of your scheduled jobs fail or run longer than expected.
In the past, I’ve shared an article on how I launched Cronhub while working full-time. Today I’m writing about a topic that I had been wondering about for a long time after the launch. Finding the first customers is probably the hardest challenge for every product maker in early stages. This explains why so many people are curious how others managed to find their first customers and read their stories.
In this article, I want to share my story and experience of acquiring my first paid customers after launching my side-project. It’s been a fun and interesting journey full of joy and challenges. I hope I can shed some light on this process and inspire other developers to find their own path by reading my story.
Working on Cronhub
Having a full-time job and trying to build an online business on the side is challenging. The biggest challenge is being very organized with your time and not burning yourself out. Apart from my full-time job at Buffer I usually work on Cronhub 1–2 hours on weekdays and maybe 5–6 hours on the weekends.
I try to get 8-hours sleep each day otherwise I feel tired the next day which really hurts my productivity. Of course, there are some days when I feel down but I know it’s just temporary and I have to wait for the fog to lift. Even though Cronhub is a side-business I pay a lot of attention to prioritize the tasks. I group all my tasks into two high-level buckets.
- Tasks that will improve the product and make customers happy (product work)
- Tasks that will bring more visitors by increasing the awareness of the site (marketing work)
There is also the other aspect that improves the activation of the product like creating and activating a Cronhub monitor but I keep it in the product bucket just for the sake of simplicity. The challenge here is finding the sweet spot where you balance the two buckets. Being an engineer I’m naturally more inclined to prioritize more product work but I’m deliberately practicing to overcome this bias.
Currently, I have 7–10 sign-ups daily. Most of the visitors come from my past blog post articles that are not necessarily my target audience. However, content marketing has been the only marketing channel that I’ve used with Cronhub. No cold emails or ads. Here are some metrics that I thought could be interesting to share.
- Cronhub has around ~1100 signed up users
- 450 active monitors are making around 130,000 pings daily. A monitor is active if it has received at least one ping from an external job or script (e.g. your daily database backup job, weekly digest email job)
- Only in the last 3 weeks, Cronhub reported around 3000 cron job failures to our users. The failure can be either that job failed to run on schedule or ran longer than expected.
- Net Revenue since the launch day is $710 (actual total gross revenue minus any fees, refunds, disputes)
- Trial conversion rate 83% (I expect this number will go down eventually)
- Monthly expenses, $57
My expenses haven’t changed since the launch day and I plan to keep it as low as possible. Something I didn’t expect at all is seeing almost half of my customers choosing the yearly billing plan over monthly. I don’t know if I should make some conclusions here. I may if I see this pattern repeats when I gain more customers and data points.
One thing I’m very proud of but still plan to improve is Cronhub’s SEO score. It’s really cool to see a big chunk of my visitors coming from organic search especially for an early product like Cronhub. I think it’s a great validation for me to continue focusing on SEO and improving the organic growth.
Apart from the basic SEO techniques (like keywords, fast page load, etc) and writing content on Cronhub’s blog I haven’t done anything else. I’ll talk more about this a bit later.
Acquiring my first customers
When I launched Cronhub, I could only dream about having 10 customers. Now when I’m here it seems like I’ve so much yet to cover. Getting my first paid customer was crucial for the product. I spent a couple of months building the MVP (minimal viable product) and I wanted to see the returns of my hard work. Also, I think having a product that people pay for is a great way to validate your idea and know that you’re onto something.
I was very lucky to get my first ever customer signing up for the “Developer ($7)” plan the next day after the launch. At that time I only had one paid plan on Cronhub. Getting the Stripe notification of having a new customer was something special. It immediately boosted my confidence and pushed my motivation to the roof.
Later on, this customer switched to the business plan because he and his team needed more monitors. However, when he emailed me the “Business” plan was still in the “Coming soon” phase. I told him that I’d upgrade him within the next couple of days and I did. I made it my top priority. I had him on the business plan the next week.
For the business plan, I had to build team member support from scratch. It was worth it, because I knew I had to support teams on Cronhub anyway. Cronhub is primarily built for developer teams, so team invitation and management support was a no-brainer. It was just a matter of time. I manually upgraded the customer and offered a lifetime discount on the business plan.
I’m always in touch with my first customer. He has been very helpful with providing valuable feedback. My first customer came from the Product Hunt launch. It took me 2 weeks to get two more customers, and both came within the same week.
After the launch, the number of visitors went down, so I had to think about ways to promote Cronhub. I really didn’t think for too long here and decided to do what I enjoy the most: write.
I really love writing. I think of writing as a way of meditating. It helps me to stay focused on one thing which is not always possible with my monkey brain. I knew I could write about my experience of building Cronhub as an online business which I’ve been doing ever since.
Writing helped me to grow my audience as well as market Cronhub. After starting to write I started to grow my Twitter following as well. Below is the graph that illustrates the evolution of my Twitter followers after I started blogging regularly. I think you can see the breaking point!
When I decided to make content my primary marketing channel, I started a blog with a new subdomain blog.cronhub.io. With the new blog, my intention was to squeeze out all the SEO benefits. Since I wanted to improve the SEO score to get more organic visitors, I dedicated a week or so to making Cronhub more SEO-optimized.
There are many resources covering the basics which you can find on the web. One example of how my site optimization and content writing helped on the SEO side is this screenshot from Google Analytics. It shows that almost 40% of my traffic on August 23–24 came from organic search. This percentage fluctuates between 20% — 40% every day. I think it’s great, and I have to keep the spirit high. It would be great to know what the industry average is for SaaS products.
I publish all my articles on Cronhub’s blog first and then I republish them on Medium and Indie Hackers. It’s great that Indie Hackers allows setting a canonical URL for your articles which helps with SEO. One thing I do with my Medium articles is trying to get them published on popular publications such as freeCodeCamp. It’s a great exposure and opportunity to get your voice heard by a large audience. I highly recommend that you give it a try. Here is a quick gif showing my post stats.
One downside of content marketing is that its very time consuming but it’s a long-term game. It’s like an investment you make now for a better future.
My hunch is that most of my current articles are read by many developers. The question is whether those developers are likely to show interest in cron jobs or not.
As an example, If I had to write an article about Kubernetes Cron Jobs and how they work, I’d expect that most of my readers know at least what cron jobs are. I want to narrow down the scope of my articles and target to more relevant developers. What I care about most is not the number of visitors but the type of visitors. I have a couple of ideas and am excited to see how they perform in the future.
After having three paying customers within the first month, I was very pumped when I got my first yearly “Developer” plan customer in early May. It was around the time when I started to read and learn more about product pricing. I knew nothing about pricing but I was keen to learn.
I talked to product managers and people who understood SaaS pricing model better than I did. (btw I wrote an entire article where I share all my learnings on pricing). Then, I changed my pricing table and added a new intermediate plan called “Startup”. It was in-between “Developer ($7)” and “Business ($49)” plans because I thought the pricing gap between these two plans was too high.
I changed the pricing, and to my big surprise my next customer signed up for the yearly “Startup” plan. It felt really good. I felt like that soccer manager who brings a substitute player to the field and that player scores a goal. Then, I started to slowly acquire new customers until I got to the first sweet spot, 10 paying customers.
However, looking back it did take me almost 5 months until I got my first 10 customers. This is me being a solo founder working around 10–15 hours per week.
It’s been a slow journey and, of course, there are times when you don’t have a single new customer in the span of multiple weeks and you feel terrible with lack of motivation. But I know these things will pass and I’m excited more than ever to get to 100 customers.
If I reflect on my past journey I can certainly say that there is no universal formula that one can use to succeed in this process. However, I believe that patience is the biggest player. You have to believe in yourself and be patient.
If I could make a list of my main learnings, it would look like this;
- Focus on the core product and user experience in the beginning.
- Do not spend too much time thinking about your pricing in your early days. Think of pricing as a feature that you can always iterate on. Start from the MVP.
- Customer support is very important. Be a human, not a company. Be in touch with your customers and ask for feedback.
- Decide what your primary marketing channel is and focus on it in the early days.
- Share all the cool things you’re working on with your audience. People are genuinely interested in them.
- Ask for help and advice. People are generally nice and want you to succeed.
My next goal is to go from 10 to 100 customers. Today I asked for advice on Twitter and Joel Gascoigne replied with a great one.
I want to talk more to my customers and adjust my marketing strategy around the value that Cronhub provides to them. Apart from content marketing, I want to create more acquisition channels that have a higher activation rate. Finding a product market fit is my eventual goal. I hope I will get there soon.
As a side note, I’m very excited to share that Cronhub got accepted into YC’s Startup School Advisor track. It’s a 10-week long online course where you get exposed to a mentor and a great community. I’m excited to apply all my learnings on Cronhub and share my experience with you! Stay tuned for a new blog article.
Thanks for reading and let me know in the comments if you have questions for me. I’m happy to share more.
If you’re a developer who is using cron jobs or any scheduled tasks and need monitoring, then I’d love if you could try Cronhub. It will mean a lot to me to know what you think. Thanks.
I also want to thank my wife Ani for helping me to edit this article. ❤️
Originally published at blog.cronhub.io on August 27, 2018.