Providing a SaaS product to both large enterprise customers and smaller startups means we’ve got a wide range of possible touch points with our user base. One of the benefits to this is the opportunity for 1:1 feedback. Sometimes it’s in the form of a formal business review, sometimes it’s a cold email to an employee that gets forwarded up the chain. In this particular instance, a budding entrepreneur reached out to our VP of Growth Marketing for some potential cross promotional activity, and our relationship grew from there. We hope you enjoy his story and learn how he’s driving real results with email using SparkPost.
Where Indie Hackers Started
Meet Courtland Allen, Founder of Indie Hackers. Started in August of 2016, Indie Hackers is a unique online resource for entrepreneurs featuring interviews of successful startup owners as well as an active community forum. Courtland founded Indie Hackers to inspire developers and entrepreneurs interested in launching their own businesses by highlighting the stories behind successful companies.
“There are tons of news stories featuring the traditional startup path, but there’s a growing trend of devs who are building or growing smaller side projects. These projects are not necessarily making billions of dollars, but are making enough to warrant a side income or small business.”
To date, Courtland has logged 130+ developer interviews from companies of all sizes, projects spanning from mobile apps generating $500 per month to those that have grown their businesses to $100,000’s per month. He prides himself and his content on transparency, so he makes a point to ask each interviewee the same set of questions, including how much income their projects generate.
Where SparkPost Fits
Courtland’s offering is two-fold, the interviews with entrepreneurs and then there’s a bustling community forum where aforementioned entrepreneurs can collaborate. He built the forum from scratch, which meant he was missing several features like email notifications. Around the same time that he built the forum, Courtland connected with Software Engineering Daily podcast owner Jeffrey Meyerson at a meetup. Jeff recommended SparkPost and Courtland reached out to our VP of Growth Marketing, Tracy Sestili. Courtland mentioned that he was looking for software that would notify members in his forum of when they received a reply and Tracy said that SparkPost does this and would love his feedback if he should try it out.
How Indie Hackers is Using SparkPost
Courtland easily implemented SparkPost for email notifications for his forum. In his own words:
“In terms of building the whole system, implementing SparkPost was the easiest. There was a little bit of guess and check and sending a few emails, but overall pretty painless.”
Here’s how it works: Courtland set up SparkPost to send his users email notifications when they get a reply to a comment on his forum. He uses Firebase for storage data for the forum. He wrote a simple script that runs every 15 minutes searching for new comments, then uses the SparkPost Node.js client library to send an email. To standardize the email message, he created a template inside the SparkPost UI that provides the HTML content of the comment and a link to click and reply. These templates use substitution data to provide a customized message to every recipient while still using a standard format. Eventually he wants to implement an inbound domain and relay webhooks, so that users can reply to comments without leaving their inbox.
Between the time of our interview and the publication date, Courtland has announced that he’s selling Indie Hackers! Stripe has acquired Indie Hackers and Courtland will stay on to run the business. In fact, his new title is “Indie Hacker at Stripe”. What this means for Indie Hackers: He’s no longer doing sponsor or affiliate programs. His number one goal is to expand the community and help aspiring entrepreneurs have transparent conversations and learn from each other. He’s also recruited his twin brother to work with him full time.
“Pretty routinely, I get messages on Twitter or emails from people who started companies because they were inspired by Indie Hackers. It’s hard to measure the influence that something you created has on other people, but if even one successful company gets created from Indie Hackers, I’m happy.”
If you ask Jonathan Marks or Alex Wirth which members of Congress Tweet the most about cyber security, they’ll be able to tell you with ease using technology built by their startup, Quorum. Quorum is a government tech startup whose software helps anyone (companies, nonprofits, citizens) to influence the legislative process.
We recently sat down with co-founder Jonathan Marks to talk about the challenges he and Alex faced when launching their startup, how email fits into their business, and the road ahead.
Email is a core essential of Quorum’s business, from using it to send thousands of emails to every staffer on the Hill to to mobilizing grassroots movements. As a bootstrap startup they have not raised any external capital and are not self-funded. When we asked Jonathan what makes Quorum work so well, he says that it’s the fact that he works with an incredible team of people who have been able to build a truly comprehensive product integrating federal, state, local, and grassroots community management into one system.
One unique thing about this team of 28 full-time employees is that the majority of them, including Jonathan and Alex, live together in three houses in D.C.’s Friendship Heights. Both Jonathan and Alex live in the main house, which also happens to be where the development team works. In fact, all but one or two engineers live in the provided housing. They take the term “WFH” literally. Although it may sound like an extension of college or a scene from the hit show, Silicon Valley, it actually came out of a need to find affordable housing after graduating from Harvard and moving to D.C but has grown into a central part of Quorum’s culture.
In addition to housing, Quorum also provides meals for their employees. When they first started out, Jonathan cooked dinners six nights a week. However, now other members chip in and rotate chef duties. They recruit from all over the country and their pitch of “We have a great job opportunity for you to come work in a startup environment and we’ll even provide housing to reduce the stress of moving (and meals)” is compelling to younger applicants.
What’s the one thing they didn’t see coming when launching Quorum? Sometimes a little idea can take off and develop a path of its own, which can get away from the founders. Jonathan reminisces and says,
“Where we started with Quorum was a much smaller idea and much smaller concept than what we are doing now. Originally, it was nothing more than an analytics tool to help our users figure out relationships of key members of Congress and understand how to use that data of those relationships to be more effective in targeting people to add to coalitions. It was very small, very focused. That piece now forms a minuscule portion of our overall product. It is now one tool of hundreds and not the main thing we do. From that perspective, it’s been a surprise. As we talk to our clients and learn the problems that they have and work night and day to solve those problems we constantly learn more about where this company should go and how we can improve our product.”
Initially, they talked to around 30 political advocates in D.C. to understand their day-to-day pain points when trying to organize their advocacy work. From those meetings Jonathan and Alex created a long list of features they wanted to implement. They are still working through that list, however, just recently they finally crossed off one big item from the list: the ability to get fast access to high quality transcripts of committee hearings and political events around the country. Now within 10 minutes of a significant televised political event, they get the full transcript and push out alerts to all of their clients live as it is happening, in real-time (thanks in part to SparkPost). You can read their full case study on how they use SparkPost’s relay webhooks, SMTP server and API, here.
As with any business, failure is the best way to succeed. As a bootstrap company, it’s always difficult determining when and where to spend money. Jonathan shared there have been a couple of occasions where early on they didn’t sponsor a conference or didn’t move quickly enough to close a deal. His advice now:
“If you can afford it, you should do it because you never know what’s going to come out of it and it will be more beneficial for your business in the long run.”
When we asked Jonathan what’s the best piece of advice he’s ever gotten that he’d like to pass on to other entrepreneurs, he gave us a piece his Dad shared with him:
“One of the things my Dad taught me that is fundamental to how I think about leadership is that leaders have to be willing and able to do any task that they ask their subordinates to do. Even though it’s not my job to fix every bug or build every piece of the product, why should my team respect me if I couldn’t or wouldn’t do a job that enables the whole team to be successful.”
What’s next for Quorum? Read their case study to find out.
An Insider’s Startup Experience
So you signed on with an awesome startup that’s got a killer product and more passion in it’s 10 employees than you’ve seen at some larger companies entirely. You’ve got a macbook covered in stickers, nitro cold brew on tap, and you’re ready to rock. But what happens when that awesome idea isn’t enough? What happens if you just simply run out of money? Today I’m chatting with my good friend Jonathan, who made the jump to Silicon Valley for an awesome opportunity stemming from his connections at General Assembly. His road to SnowShoe was unique (we’ll save that story for another post) and sheds a fresh perspective on the startup scene.
How did your startup get off the ground? How did you connect with the founders?
SnowShoe was founded in 2010 as part of a business plan competition at the University of Wisconsin Madison with a totally different purpose than what it grew into. In 2014, Techstars, a startup accelerator program, hired me. For three months in their first joint investment with Disney, I floated between their 11 portfolio companies as a designer/developer. I built apps and other creative collateral. SnowShoe was one of those portfolio companies, and I always found myself walking over to their table first.
Where did the idea for SnowShoe come from?
SnowShoe started as SnowShoe Food, a mobile app that would allow you to scan a market item and see its environmental impact. Then it built loyalty apps for grocery stores. Only then did it make magic plastic – a plastic that could be uniquely identified when placed on any touchscreen. Almost like a 3D QR code. The company needed a way to authenticate a purchase without integrating with a POS system which is why they created it.
When the founders brought it to an investor meeting (almost as a side note), everybody’s mouth dropped. SnowShoe now had a way to authenticate any physical object – and it used no batteries, no power, no circuitry, no antenna and no moving parts. In a way, we could now make any physical object talk. We could power any physical to digital experience. And for the first time, marketers could attribute digital actions to physical events.
What was your favorite part of the experience?
We had the chance to work with some incredible clients – rappers, storytellers, well-known toy manufacturers. But my personal favorite was Red Bull. They’re fun, they’re smart, and they always think outside the box. Red Bull hired SnowShoe to build an app whereby a stamp touched to a concert goer’s phone would trigger an iTunes download from a band that was playing onstage. SnowShoe didn’t have a developer on staff at the time, and I was still working for Techstars. When the team was on a conference call trying to figure out how they would get this done, I said I could build it when I had absolutely no idea how to build it. But after 2 weeks, I figured it out, at 3AM before our 8AM meeting. If it worked, we won the pilot. If it didn’t, we’d be back to the drawing board. It worked, and I got an offer to join the team the next week.
I know in smaller companies every day looks different, but what did an “average” day look like?
Our startup placed a premium on work/life balance. If we were all going to pull the 3AM night every once in awhile, we made sure most days lasted from 8:30-6:30. SnowShoe was a distributed team so every day began with a standup via Pluot. After reviewing our sprint plan, we’d hop into our daily tasks. Most everybody spent about 70% of their time doing the job they were “hired” to do, and the rest hopping into whatever was necessary. I spent about 40% of my time software engineering, 30% designing, and 30% floating – sales, hardware testing, shipping etc.
How did the funding process work? Were all employees aware of the goals and targets you had to hit to get funding?
SnowShoe had 4 guiding principles, one of which was to sing the bad news. Transparency was a very deliberate part of our culture. Our whole team knew how much money we had in the bank and what goals we needed to reach at all times. It was a slide in our weekly wrap-up deck with exact dollar amounts, burn rates, and how long we had to exist. Some people disagree with this style. And history shows transparent and opaque styles can both work. I think it depends on the type of people you want sitting around you and the type of culture you want to build.
Funding can be a whole blog post in itself. It requires a lot of check-ins, status updates, and knowledge of one’s timelines. You effectively have to start fundraising 3-6 months before you actually start fundraising. We were very vigilant about sending out detailed monthly updates to our existing investors and mentors. Everyone knew our status at any given time.
When did you and the team realize that you were going to have to shut things down?
While we did solve a pretty cool challenge by figuring out how to mass manufacture our product, we figured it out a couple months too late. In January 2016, we had “the” meeting. The Series A market had dried up. And with the money we could raise, it wouldn’t be enough for the runway we needed to make a Series A level return for our investors. We flew everybody into SF and laid it all out. It came down to 2 choices – 1) return the money we had left to our investors and close or 2) take reduced salaries and go for broke to find a home for our technology and the best win we could for everybody at the table. We chose option 2.
What was that process like? How involved were you?
Again, transparency was a huge part of our culture. Everybody had a say, and the chance to step away from the table without judgement. To be honest, it really didn’t make sense for anyone to stay. I think this is where you see the real difference between startups and big company culture. And more so, between transparent and non-transparent startup cultures. Regardless of having skin in the game, your people are your people. I never joined SnowShoe for the plastic. I joined for the ability to see my direct effect on a product and because these were the people I could learn from. And they were the people I wanted to stand next to when I won or lost.
What was the biggest lesson you learned from your experience at SnowShoe?
Hold on to your team even if your startup fails. If you can be around someone and openly say, “I screwed up,” and they still give you the chance to try it again, you’ve found the right team. If you have people giving you the chance to do the tasks that scare you, you found the right team. Timing largely determines whether a startup fails or takes off.
What types of positions are you looking at now?
Making the move from a startup to a larger company has been tough for a variety of reasons. But I miss the creative process – I can’t wait to get back to product design. An ideal position for me would be 70% design, and 30% engineering. So the future is looking fun. I’m excited to start working on a side project so that one day it becomes more than a side project.
You have an entrepreneurial spirit – what do you see yourself doing in 10 years?
I don’t read TechCrunch or VentureBeat every day, but I do explore Hypebeast, High Snobiety and follow more fashion-based Instagram accounts than I care to mention. I could never choose whether I wanted to spend more time with fashion designers or engineers – so I hung out with both. And I’d love to do it again. But who knows! I just know I want cofounder next to my name. And I want to be working on something meaningful with some of my favorite people. Smiling and high fiving.
If anyone ever wants to chat about any of this, would be more than happy to grab a coffee. All of my contact info can be found through my portfolio. – J
Huge thank you to Jonathan for letting us in on his experience and sharing it for those who might be in similar situations.