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.”
Who’s my partner?
Startups and startup founders don’t operate in isolation. And whether you’re starting a company or a family, partnerships are hard — but they matter. A lot. They say business partners are like spouses: you’re with them everyday, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. There’s usually a honeymoon phase, and then, inevitably, reality settles in and the illusion of perfection crumbles. But all partnerships — even the good ones — take work. And despite all the hurdles and headaches, partnerships are a key factor in both success and happiness. It’s no coincidence many of the most famous companies are a result of partnerships: Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Hewlett and Packard. Ben and Jerry.
Remember that successful partnerships are not just about finding someone perfect and exactly like you. The brilliance often lies in the gentle tension. The slight difference in perspective. The ability to tease out ideas and qualities in another person (and ourselves). Our output wanes when we isolate, so don’t go it alone. But choose your company wisely. It’s easy to get caught up with the technical stuff, but the partners you choose matter. We truly are the sum of the company we keep, and this matters more than ever when you’re launching a startup. Two general rules of thumb that have served me well: 1) If your partner’s brilliant, but they’re personally a mess, it will seep into your business. Avoid. 2) Choose someone you wouldn’t mind getting stranded in an airport with. Life is too short to not spend it around enjoyable people.
Which assumptions need invalidating?
Just like technology, our ways of thinking are only cutting edge for so long. Eventually, even the most breakthrough idea expires and becomes outdated — but that can work to your advantage: outdated assumptions that are still largely perpetuated in the marketplace are a perfect place to start eyeing your next opportunity. Ask yourself, “Which assumptions are no longer valid? Which mental models are past their prime?” Most large companies don’t ask these questions or interrogate their way of operating until crisis strikes — when it’s largely too late. But as an entrepreneur, you have less to lose and aren’t accountable to all the stakeholders, so use your smallness to your advantage and discover what the big companies and industries are currently taking for granted. These are the areas most ripe for innovation, most likely to find investment (should you decide to go the VC route), and with the longest lifeline. You could be the next Netflix nudging out Blockbuster if you ask the right questions and look beyond the status quo.
Where is my sweet spot?
As a society, we’re passionate about passion. We want to be passionate about everything we do: our jobs, our hobbies, our life goals, what we eat for breakfast — everything. That passion can push us beyond our comfort zones to pursue our dreams, to take the risks necessary for success. But can passion alone be the X factor that catapults your next venture to the top? Every good entrepreneur needs passion to succeed, but the most successful entrepreneurs understand that passion must be balanced with real skills and demand from your audience. It’s the intersection of those three ingredients — 1) what you love to do and are interested in, 2) what you’re good at or could become good at, and 3) what the market is demanding — that creates the startup sweet spot. So, interrogate your passions, then check them against the practical components before you launch. In other words, ask yourself: Why this? Why you? Why now?
About the Author:
Guest Author Anna Akbari, PhD, is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and the author of Startup Your Life: Hustle and Hack Your Way To Happiness.
Interested in hearing more startup advice? Check out the resources linked below!
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.
Wow. We know it. Our customers know it. Even some of our competitors know it. Since we launched SparkPost a year ago, we’ve been helping companies do some pretty amazing things with API-driven email, and our service has transformed the market for email delivery services. But we were genuinely thrilled this week to learn that SparkPost was named a recipient of the Red Herring Global 100 award.
SparkPost CMO Steve Dille was on hand for the award ceremony in Los Angeles last week. Judging from his glamorous appearance on the red carpet with Red Herring Publisher and CEO Alex Vieux, a little Hollywood style may be coming home to our to San Francisco office!
Since 1996, the Red Herring 100 lists have named the most promising private ventures from around the world, and the awards are widely recognized as one of the industry’s more prestigious honors, with hundreds of candidates from each continent competing for a spot. SparkPost joins the formidable global list after having been named a North American winner earlier this year.
In making selections for its list, Red Herring evaluates a pretty exhaustive list of factors, including technology innovation, market disruptiveness, business performance, growth rate, team quality, and customer adoption. All of these are important parts of the SparkPost story, but it’s the last two that I’d like to especially acknowledge, something that’s especially opportune now that Thanksgiving is almost here.
All of us at SparkPost very thankful for the ways our customers have trusted us to help their businesses. And, to that, I’d add that I’m personally grateful for the amazing people that make up our team. And, of course, a big thank you to the folks at Red Herring—we’re thrilled to be named to the Global 100 list.
So, a very happy Thanksgiving to everyone in our community. We’re taking a couple days off the celebrate the holiday, be we’ll be back next week!