EP18: From 0 to 50k Members Real Quick with the Founder of IndieHackers

IndieHackers is a community that helps developers by sharing the strategies and even revenue numbers behind successful software projects. Courtland Allen is the founder of IndieHackers and joins us on today’s episode on how he built a community with tens of thousands of people from scratch.

To start Courtland got inspiration looking through the poplar site Hacker News, a site run by startup incubator Y Combinator. He found a community called Nomad List that served as an inspiration, instead of showing you where to live Courtland’s community showed you how to build successful software projects.

Courtland built the site himself, he knew that having a unique site and a great user experience would stand out. Even before he finished building everything he had brilliant ways of testing what features people would want. For example, before he built a forum he put a tab that said “forum” and then had an email subscribe option to join the forum when it was live. That got enough traction for him to prioritize him building it out.

There were lots of things that didn’t scale but helped, when he was interviewing people for his blog he would send hundreds of cold emails every week to try get people share how they built their business, with revenue numbers!

For people that are just starting their community he shared that the work might seem daunting at first but once you get in and actually begin it’s not as hard as you think. Also, while it might seem like a lot of manual work that could be automated or outsourced the depth of understanding you will gain from being so in the weeds of the community, at least at the beginning, will help you in the long run know how to build and care for your community.



[0:00:04.1] DA: Welcome to the C2C Podcast. I am your host, Derek Andersen. After holding my first event in 2010, I went on to create Startup Grind, a 400-chapter community based in over a 100 countries. Along the way, I discovered the greatest marketing tool of all time; your customers. Yet, I couldn’t find anyone sharing how to build a community where people could experience your brain in person, or at scale.

On this show, we talk with the brightest minds and companies on the planet about how to build customer-to-customer marketing strategies and create in-person experiences for your brand and customers before your competitor does.

Today we’re going to talk to Courtland Allen, the Founder of Indie Hackers. Indie Hackers is a community of developers who share the strategies, even revenue numbers behind making their companies and side projects work. Indie Hackers was acquired by Stripe.

Courtland started Indie Hackers from scratch and now has a community of more than 50,000 members. Let’s hear how he built it and what’s strategies he used. Take a listen.


[0:01:10.8] DA: Courtland, I would not be doing my job if I didn’t start this out by talking about Kenny G. I know that he is really the person that you've looked up to most in your life. I have to say, I know a lot of people that this is the case for, but I just love to hear your reasoning for why he has meant so much to you. Please tell our audience.

[0:01:30.8] CA: Kenny G has the hair that I wish I could. Kenny G just plays such smooth vibes.

[0:01:37.1] DA: Are we going into the hair already? I mean, do we have to do that?

[0:01:38.9] CA: Going to the hair immediately there. I'm sorry. I know you feel left out of these conversations, but I do too. When I was a kid, I just loved smooth jazz for whatever reason. I don't know why. I guess, my dad always played in the car. When I was in the fifth grade, I decided I wanted to play the sax. Kenny G was my role model. I played the sax. I took lessons. I got really good at saxophone. I was a high school level when I was 10-years-old. Yeah, I was really good with the sax. It was my second love next to computers. If you play the sax, we were also going to look after you. I mean, I guess, well this is the 90s. I could looked up to Bill Clinton, but he had that whole scandal going on.

[0:02:18.0] DA: Well, I mean, yeah, I guess. When you went to MIT, it was like, do I do computer science, or do I do the saxophone major and you just flipped a coin or what?

[0:02:26.0] CA: It was before that actually. In high school, I was in the band. I was in a jazz band as well and I had to decide, “Okay, do I want to keep taking band classes as my elective, or do I want to take some more computer classes?” It wasn't that hard of a decision, to be honest. Financially, much better payoff to be the computing. Honestly, if I look at where my passions actually lied, the sax was something that eventually my parents had to tell me to practice, whereas the computer was something that my parents had told me to get off of, because I was on it all the time. It was a pretty easy decision.

[0:02:55.2] DA: Well, that's a great segue into Indie Hackers, the community that you founded. We're grateful that you made that personal decision, because if you had founded saxophoners online, we wouldn't be talking or know each other. Tell us about how Indie Hackers got started. I heard you started with a community called Nomad List, if I know it correctly. Just love to know where did this emerged from, where did it come from.

[0:03:22.6] CA: Yeah. I had basically taken a year off of working, because I wanted to start a startup. I've been contracting before that, because I was burned out for my earlier startups and it was time to give it another spin. I spent the first six months of that year basically just wasting my money, paying rent basically and coding all these apps that weren't really going to go anywhere.

Then I looked on my bank account and I saw that I was pretty much half down on all the money I had saved up. I was like, “Jesus. Courtland, you idiot. You need to get serious.” I went back to the drawing board and I said, “Okay, what do I know about startups? What do I know about building successful businesses? Why don't I actually put that into practice, instead of just writing it down on a sheet of paper somewhere and ignoring it?”

I decided to basically come up with a brand new idea that would incorporate all my best learnings for how to start a startup. I started brainstorming and started researching to find out other ideas that people had created to basically give me the inspiration that I would need, because that's the one thing you can't really just get from a book. You need inspiration on something you actually want to work on.

After reading a ton of different ideas online that other people had worked on, the one that stood out to me the most was what you just said, Nomad List. Nomad List is a community created by this guy Pieter Levels. I liked everything about it. I liked his persona online. I liked the way that his business worked. I really liked the way that he got started, his roadmap for building his community from scratch.

I ended up creating an idea that was a combination of Nomad List and a combination of the process that I was going through at that time, which I was trying to find stories of other founders, so I could learn what company I wanted to start. I was like, “Okay, well what if I created a company that was a community similar to Nomad List? Instead of helping digital nomads find a city to go to, I help people like me who were trying to find an idea get their bearings, find an idea, read other people's stories, etc.”

I basically copied Nomad List’s playbook. I started off with aggregating content in one place. I took all these stories that I've been reading and various places online and on blogs and internet forums and I tried to formalize them using an interview format and put them all on my website. I took all the comments that I saw people making online about, “Okay, what business did you run? How did you get your first customers? How did you come up with the idea, etc.?” I baked those into my interviews as questions. Everybody I interviewed had to share how they come up with our idea. Everybody had to share how much money they were making. Everybody had to share how they found their users, etc. It grew from there.

Interviews got a lot of traffic. From there, I was able to build a mailing list. The mailing list got a lot of subscribers. From there, I was able to start a community, because I created a forum and then just continually e-mailed out links to people on the e-mail lists week after week, until eventually started to pick up some steam. Now Indie Hackers two years later is primarily a community before everything else.

[0:05:56.1] DA: Before you'd ever built any of the online pieces of it, you had an interesting tactic to gauge if people would actually be interested. Can you share what that was?

[0:06:04.4] CA: I had a few of these, actually at different points of Indie Hackers has life. For example, when coming up with the initial idea, my tactic to see if people would be interested was basically just idea of validation, right? How do you know someone's going to use your thing? Well, either you test it out on them, or you see them using it elsewhere. For me, I knew Indie Hackers would work. I was confident that Indie Hackers would work, because I saw so many people sharing these stories elsewhere online. I figured, if they like reading these stories on Hacker News, or they like reading these stories on Forbes, then why aren't they going to like reading stories on my site if I do a better job telling them.

For the community part of it, my validation was putting up a fake page. I put up a fake page on the website from day one when I launched and said, “Hey, this is the Indie Hackers community forum. Enter your e-mail address here if you're interested in joining.” Then I would track how many people were joining my mailing list, because they clicked over to the forum tab, how many people were joining my mailing list because they read an interview, etc. Once I saw there was a lot of interest in the community forum side of things, then I decided, “Hey, I should actually build this idea out before I actually built it out.”

I don't know this is the specific validation to which you're referring, but probably every step of the way within the hackers, say I did some check to make sure that people would be interested in what I was doing before I started building it.

[0:07:11.2] DA: Yeah. I mean, I think it's really helpful to hear, because a lot of people, myself included, you – you’re doing this as well. You start solving your own problem as a founder of a community. A lot of these interviews, we don't actually have the founders. This is really cool to hear your experience. We're doing it, because it's helping us, or it's something that is solving a problem that we have. At the same time, that can't mean that you can just be complacent and be like, well I don't like that, so I'm not going to do it. It sounds you had a very data-driven approach, which frankly a lot of community people do not take. It sounds like that really helped you to figure out what was going to come next and what were you are going to build next for community.

[0:07:58.4] CA: Totally. I think building a community that solves your own problems that you want to be a member of is super important, but at the same time you can't take it for granted that everybody is exactly like you. People who are pretty close to you might have their own quirks. It helps to really test things out on other people as well. It's inevitable, right? Even if your community is based on people who are just like you, at some point it's going to grow and it's going to include more people. At that point, you're going to have to learn how to talk to those people and find out what they want, and it's going to have to be more than just flying by the seat of your pants and doing whatever feels intuitive to you. I think the earlier you can start that process, the better, even though it's still good to start by building something that you yourself would enjoy.

[0:08:32.7] DA: You're a Y Combinator alum. There's the famous saying there, do things that don't scale. If you think about it that in your own experience, what were some of the things you did with Indie Hackers that might have that scale, but were really helpful to build the momentum behind what became the community?

[0:08:50.8] CA: A ton of things. The very beginning of Indie Hackers, it wasn't a community, it was just an interview website. I needed interviews. I had nothing. I decided okay, the best way to get interviews is just to reach out to these people whose stories I've read online and I'd read hundreds of stories by this point. I sent something like a 150, 200 e-mails, cold e-mails to people, every one of them was customized, written from scratch based on that person's story. I basically told them, “Hey, I'm Courtland. I'm starting this site. I'm going to basically try to interview entrepreneurs like you and get you to show your revenue numbers and how you did it.”

99% of people I talked were just like, “No way, dude. Why would I share my revenue numbers for my business with some no-name website? Your community doesn't even exist yet. Pass.” A few people said yes, and that was enough to get the ball rolling. That was my strategy for the first couple months of Indie Hackers, just sending tons of cold e-mails. It wouldn't scale forever, now I get a lot of inbound requests. I would have killed myself who had to keep doing that for the rest of my life. I don't enjoy sending hundreds of cold e-mails every week, but I think that helped get the ball rolling.

With the community side of things, once I started basically driving traffic to the forum, it also started off empty. How do you get a community from an empty state to a point where people are actually talking? Well, you need to provide some value. What I did was use the Reddit fake accounts model, where for the first few weeks of Indie Hackers, a 100% of the accounts on there were just me, talking to myself, asking questions, answering them, recommending websites and tips and tricks.

Then I would send out these fake conversations over my e-mail newsletter and say, “Hey, look what people were talking about on the forum. Maybe you should join.” Every now and then, someone from the newsletter would click into the forum and start talking to me, not realizing that everybody there talking to me is really just me.

For a few weeks, that was pretty much all I was doing. Then every week after that, I could participate a little bit less and the community would sustain itself a little bit more. Nowadays, I can go days without – I could probably never post on the [inaudible 0:10:33.6] forum again and it'll be totally fine, because there's tens of thousands of people on there who are making their own content.

[0:10:38.3] DA: It's really cool. I mean, trying to put myself in your shoes in A, it sounds like a lot of work, sounds like a lot of thankless grunt work. I think a lot of people don't – who likes to do that work? Nobody. Nobody raises their hand like, “Oh, I'm excited. I can't wait to put that on my LinkedIn profile.” Create a fake profile accounts and have conversations with myself for several weeks. Well, in an echo chamber of my own mind.

That's what it takes sometimes, right? It's just buckling down and doing that work. I wonder if think, put yourself in the shoes of somebody's in a company, maybe they're not starting it from scratch, maybe they're sitting in a cube somewhere, but still, what would you tell as somebody that's running a community and looking at how am I going to get the inertia for this going? What encouragement, what advice would you give them having started your own community?

[0:11:35.7] CA: I think what you point out is very important. It's a lot of work. Before I started Indie Hackers, I remember following this guy, Nathan Barry, and his tiny company ConvertKit. He would send out all these e-mails every week and he would blog all the time and it seemed like he was just putting in so much work. I got exhausted just reading it. I was tired just subscribing to his e-mail newsletter. I was like, “This is so much work. I'll never do this.” Then I found myself doing the same thing with Indie Hackers a year or two later.

My response to that is I think, things seem like more work than they are before you get started. It's like going to the gym. You don't want to go, but once you're there, you just start lifting weights. I went for a run this morning. I haven't run in six months. I just put up this barrier in my mind where I don't want to go, but once you get out and you start running, it's not that bad. I think a lot of it is just get started, figure out a way to start super small, make that first step easier to take. Then once you start making those fake posts, or sending those cold e-mails, or writing this blog posts, or doing whatever it is, it's the grunt work that's thankless, you end up realizing it's not as bad as it looked from the outside-in.

The other thing I'll say is that a lot of times doing these things that don't scale, they're just – they're important because you're actually communicating with people, right? When you're doing things that don't scale, generally that means you're talking to people one-on-one, right? That means you're having those conversations on your community. That means you're sending these e-mails. When you do that, you end up getting a lot of valuable information that you wouldn't get otherwise. I heard no a lot of times on people who didn't want to do an interview on Indie Hackers. That helped me refine my pitch for how I could entice people to do interviews.

I heard a lot of questions on the forum, because I was participating that if I just tried to automate it away and make sure it ran out on its own without my participation, I just wouldn't have learned the things that I learned. I think it's important to do that as much as you can in the early days, because you really need to learn. Later on when you no longer need to do these things that don't scale, ideally you still take the time to participate and be involved one-on-one, because otherwise, you're going to stop learning.

[0:13:24.1] DA: You have this really thriving customer-to-customer community as well with events that have been popping up. Can you just tell us how that's come together and how big is that at this point and what are the plans for that?

[0:13:37.0] CA: Yeah. Around a year and a half ago, I think we had the first Indie Hackers Meetup. It was totally unofficial. Somebody on the forum was like, “Hey, let's meet up at SF.” A bunch of other people replied and said yes. I'm a huge introvert, so I'm like, “Ah, I don't want to go to a meet.” I don't think I even went. I think I stayed home and a bunch of people in the Indie Hackers community met up and got drinks. Then they had another one a month later, so I decided I got to get off my ass and go to this. They just kept happening. Eventually around last summer, my boss Patrick was like, “Hey, Courtland. Why don't you do something to support these? Why don't you appoint people to become official ambassadors or something?”

[0:14:12.2] DA: Patrick as in Patrick Collison, the CEO and co-founder of Stripe?

[0:14:15.1] CA: Yes. The CEO of Stripe. He’s my boss.

[0:14:16.6] DA: Okay. That's a good push. That’s a good person to –

[0:14:18.9] CA: It is. He has nice things I tend to listen. I’m like, “Okay.” Well, at that point, I think I had put up a little meetup forum on my website where people can meet up in real life, just so they could organically do it and it was happening a few times a week all over the world. Then we put up a forum that said, “Hey, apply to become an official ambassador.” It was no different than the forum already. It was just more hoops to jump through, because the forum that existed was poster meetup. This one was tell us why you want to do this, tell us what your ideas are from meetups, tell us how you're going to grow, tell us all these things about yourself, so we can vet you. Hundreds of people applied to become an ambassador.

[0:14:51.5] DA: Wow.

[0:14:52.2] CA: A lot of them in repeat cities. We have 10 people apply from New York City, for example. That was the birth of our meetups program today. Today we've got – I think this month we're going to have around 55 or 60 meetups and cities all over the world. I mean, these are just Indie Hackers who are eager to meet each other. They're very going to meet other people who have an interest in starting online tech companies and their cities. A lot of them don't live in tech hubs, like San Francisco, or London. It's novel for them to meet somebody else. I think the Indie Hackers website and community is a little bit of the backbone that allows them to find each other when otherwise, would be very difficult.

[0:15:25.8] DA: Yeah. I mean, has it changed things? Do you sense a shift in how A, people view what Indie Hackers is because of that extension? Is it created negative impact? I mean, has it created positive things? How has it changed the perspective?

[0:15:43.2] CA: It's a lot of things. It's certainly positive. There's nothing negative that's come about as a result of the meetups.

[0:15:47.8] DA: Except that you have to go to them.

[0:15:49.0] CA: Except that I have to get over my [inaudible 0:15:50.4] and see some action. We go to them. I spend a lot of time actually flying around and going to cities I've never been to just to check out the meetups there. I went to Hawaii. I’ve never been to Hawaii just to start a meet-up there. Then somebody else who attended, took it over and now they do it every month.

[0:16:02.6] DA: It sounds like you go in disguise or something. I mean, do they know you're coming, or you just –

[0:16:08.2] CA: Sometimes I say so. Sometimes I drop in.

[0:16:10.7] DA: Oh, wow.

[0:16:12.4] CA: I think one of the coolest things about them, the end-person meetups is the energy. People when they meet up in person, it's just palpable. You get to see what does 10 people in a room look like? What do 20 people in a room looks like? Our London meet up sometimes has hundreds of people. What does that look like? Online, our community is something like 50,000 people. You don't really get a feel for what is 50,000 people. You don't really know. When you see how significant and how energetic 10 people together can be, it's really powerful.

I think the meetup numbers overall are much smaller than the online community numbers, but the people who go to the meetups tend to be the most engaged people on the online community as well. I think it's infectious. The pictures they post from their meetups, the write-ups they do from what happens at their meetups, they'll get people on the website charged up, to get me charged up as the community organizer too.

[0:16:58.4] DA: As you're tracking success with the C2C program, what does success mean? What does it look like? What makes it worth the time and the energy to do all of that work?

[0:17:09.0] CA: For us, it's very difficult to measure, because the goal of Indie Hackers is really, we want more people to start companies. We want to see people who start companies to make better decisions so their companies succeed. How do you measure whether or not people are making better decisions to the companies? How do you measure how many people are starting companies? Well, we just send out surveys and we ask. We ask, “Okay, well what parts of Indie Hackers do you engage with? Do you engage with the podcast? Do you engage with the community forum? Do you go to meetups, etc.?”

Pretty consistently, people who go to meetups start more companies. They find co-founders. They solve all sorts of problems that founders have that are very difficult to solve in an online format. I like the C2C, the customer-to-customer part of it is crucial I think to any community, right? There's only so much I can do to help you top-down. I can't find everybody a co-founder, right? Everybody needs to do that work on their own. It's helpful to have this in-person format where you can have these fluid conversations and engage and walk around the room and talk to different people and find out what they're working on. It really helps Indie Hackers solve each other's problems in a way that's far better than I ever could deal with a blog post, or even a newsletter.


[0:18:12.1] DA: Thank you so much for listening. If you like the show, please leave a review wherever you listen to this. If you like to see more about how to create your own event community, go to bevylabs.com/pod. Again, that's B-E-V-Y-L-A-B-S.com/pod.


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