2023: Focusing on a single product pays off
At the end of each year I summarize how the year went, reflecting on how I progressed towards my goal of being self-sufficient as a web developer, here are the previous editions of this article:
- (2022) Just keep shipping
- (2021) Strangers from the internet paid for my MacBook Air
- (2020) Indiehacking: a review of my 3rd year
- (2019) Further reflections on trying to start an internet business
- (2018) Reflections on trying to start an internet business
ROZENMD (my business here in France that runs OnlineOrNot, and sells my products) continued to grow in 2023, approximately twice as fast as I expected at the start of the year.
I have two theories as to how this happened:
- On the OnlineOrNot side, what I learn about running the business compounds. Fixing something that wasn't working results in a slight increase in adoption, improving that fix increases adoption even more, and so on.
- My book about useEffect seems to make even more money the longer it exists. This is likely partly lindy effect, and partly from more and more folks entering web development and using React.
As I approach the point where my business could feasibly pay my salary (still a few years away), I don't think I see myself quitting full-time work - I work better knowing I have two hours to ship something each morning.
Table of Contents
- One big bet
- I changed teams at work
- I built the boring enterprise laptop of my dreams
At the start of 2023, it was trendy to make many "small bets" when starting an internet business.
Popularized by folks like Pieter Levels and Jon Yongfook, and then turned into a paid product/community itself by others, the idea is to keep throwing products at the wall, until you see what sticks.
Folks will point to investment portfolio management theory, saying if 5 or so investments is enough diversification to smooth out risk/reward, surely the same idea follows for building products.
The trouble I find with that argument is the amount of effort to get from $0 -> $500 MRR is significantly greater than $500 -> $1000 and above. Having to repeat the most difficult part of starting a project, where you need to figure out the means of attracting the right type of users (and figure out who they are), and the features they need to solve a problem several times (and you're going for diversification, so the products can't be related) sounds a bit suboptimal to me, compared to doubling down on what works.
I also don't buy the idea that individual makers need diversification. Avoid platform risk (where you build on top of someone else's platform, like Twitter), don't work on things you're not personally interested in, and you're well on your way to reducing the greatest risks to your business running long term.
This year I started having wins that were only possible from sticking around long enough:
- I had folks that rejected my pitch for OnlineOrNot pre-launch (back when OnlineOrNot was literally just a single input form that sent only email alerts) sign up and become customers of OnlineOrNot. Turns out they got fed up with their existing service, remembered my pitch, and checked out what I built since.
- I also had some of the earliest free-tier users of OnlineOrNot subscribe and becoming paying customers.
- This one is kind of my fault though, as early users of OnlineOrNot never got a free trial of the high-value features, it's a lot harder to win them over compared to folks that started on a free trial.
- I fixed bugs this year that took 15 months to start impacting people
A lot more happened this year, though I'm saving that for an article I'm publishing in February 2024, in celebration of OnlineOrNot's 3rd anniversary since launching publicly on Twitter. You can get the article directly in your email by subscribing below, if you haven't already.
I've always had folks interested in how I build OnlineOrNot (particularly on the business/marketing side), though I felt that running a newsletter when you only make yearly updates didn't make a lot of sense.
So I started writing more frequently, and dedicated part of this blog to diary articles. They don't get tons of views, but I write them primarily as a means of reflecting on what I said I'd do, what I did, and what I learned along the way.
It'd be weird (to me) to do a year-in-review post without discussing my full-time job at Cloudflare: without it, I would simply not have the ability to pursue a slow-yet-steady growth project that requires patience like OnlineOrNot.
At the start of the year, a partner team started integrating their early-alpha product into wrangler (the command-line tool for building Cloudflare Workers), I helped out by fixing bugs and contributing ideas for a better user experience, and long story short, I ended up being one of the founding engineers of D1.
Considering my product and writing skills (see the last five years in review), I reckon it's a pretty good fit!
So I didn't just work on software this year, I also had a couple of cute hardware projects like this where I upgraded a laptop over a few hours, or put together an AirGradient sensor.
I'm actually writing this article from that same laptop - at the start of the year, I grew a bit fed-up with Apple, and wanted to build a cheap enterprise-looking laptop no one would want to steal when traveling (it's one asset tag sticker away from looking like my wife's old work laptop).
So I bought a cheap Lenovo T480 off a refurbisher, bought a bunch of parts to upgrade it, put it all together, and wrote about the project:
- On replacing my MacBook Air M1 with a Thinkpad T480
- Getting your own good enough laptop for under $500
The first article ended up getting translated and posted to golem.de, which was pretty cool, and I had a stray mention to running OnlineOrNot's dev server in the article, so that accidentally drew thousands of people to Google what OnlineOrNot is.
The first article also drew quite a bit of anger from random strangers online, and I found it pretty funny. As though I was telling people they had to go throw out their Apple laptops immediately because you can get a good-enough laptop for under $500.