illustration for How Courtland Allen Grew Indie Hackers with Content, Consistency, and Community

episode 66 Joel Hooks

How Courtland Allen Grew Indie Hackers with Content, Consistency, and Community

"Indie Hacker" - An entrepreneur that is working to gain some form of independence.

Courtland Allen is the founder of indiehackers.com. He didn't take the venture capital approach. He just wanted to make enough money to support what he was trying to do. Courtland was trying to build a community of indie hackers who would share their stories, help each other, and support one another.

You can't force community growth. It takes good content, time, and consistency. At first, Courtland would make good content and share it with his mailing list, and he'd also make fake accounts and have discussions with himself on the indie hackers forum to try and spark real interactions. The efforts paid off. Over a year, a real community blossomed.

It's tempting to rely on your intuition when you are first starting as an indie hacker. But, Courtland encourages you to take a more thoughtful approach by relying more on the experiences of others. Over time you'll develop wisdom.

You can go too far, though. If you spend too much time preparing and learning, you'll realize how much you don't know, and it can be crippling. In Courtland's interviews with indie hackers, the most common advice people have is to go for it! Be okay with experiencing failures and starting over.

Transcript

"How Courtland Allen Found Freedom with Content, Consistency, and Community" Transcript

Resources

Courtland Allen

Joel Hooks

Transcript

Joel Hooks:
Hi, Courtland.

Courtland Allen:
Hey, what's up, Joel?

Joel Hooks:
Oh, living the dream. How about you?

Courtland Allen:
Doing the same thing. I wonder if we're living the same dream.

Joel Hooks:
Probably not. I think we're probably in alternate timelines. I don't know.

Courtland Allen:
We could be incepeted right now.

Joel Hooks:
It's true. So, I have a question. What is an indie hacker?

Courtland Allen:
That's a great question. An indie hacker is basically somebody who's decided to take an alternate path, besides working for the man, and basically make enough money to give them some form of freedom. Generally speaking, indie hackers care a lot about freedom, that's financial freedom, the creative freedom to work on whatever they want, the temporal freedom to work at whatever time they have the energy, or whenever they feel comfortable working. The location freedom to work from wherever they want.

Courtland Allen:
So, typically, indie hackers are developers building online businesses, but I've interviewed a lot of indie hackers who are not that exact profile. I think the main point of being an indie hacker is that you are working for your freedom. You're working for your independence, hence indie.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, you don't want to be tied to somebody else's cart, I guess. You're out there going it on your own, kind of an entrepreneur, too. I think that's the gist of it, right? We're out there trying to build businesses and create something that we can rely on for our own incomes and kind of sustainable lifestyle.

Courtland Allen:
It's a fancy term for entrepreneur. You figured me out.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, so you run a website, indiehackers.com, as it happens, and what is that? What is indiehackers.com? We talk about an indie hacker, what that person is, but what is indiehackers.com?

Courtland Allen:
Indiehackers.com is sort of the embodiment of a community of these individual indie hackers. And, it's actually several different things, but I think community is sort of the best way to describe it, because really the idea is it's people helping people. It's not me teaching people how to be indie hackers. There's no courses that you sign up for. It's more so the community of indie hackers themselves sharing their stories, sharing their learnings, sharing their milestones and accomplishments, asking each other questions, so that each one of them can help the others like them basically follow in their footsteps, and run these profitable online businesses, and achieve whatever form of freedom they want.

Courtland Allen:
The website is a good way to get to the podcast and some of these text interviews I do on the website, but it's mainly just a community forum. So, you go on the website. You see there's different groups for podcasters, or for developers or for no-code makers or for digital nomads. And, just thousands and thousands of questions that people are asking, and also pages that people can create for the products and services that they're working on, where they can share their milestones, and others can congratulate them and say, "That's awesome," or ask some questions, "How'd you do that?" And learn how to do the same thing themselves.

Joel Hooks:
And was there nothing similar online? Why did you start Indie Hackers? Why was that a project for you?

Courtland Allen:
It's changed a lot since I started it. It was initially kind of ... There were similar things that just weren't that good. So, I wanted to start a business of my own. I wanted to be an indie hacker. I didn't want to raise a ton of money. I live in San Francisco. I did Y Combinator eight years ago. I've been very heavily situated inside of this high growth, VC funded startup milieu, but I never really loved that approach. It doesn't really resonate with me. And so, I was looking for a way to just build a business that would make enough money for me to do what I was saying. I'd gain all these sorts of freedom, and then figure out what I would do from there, or maybe just keep running that business.

Courtland Allen:
But, I couldn't find a good place online to learn how to do this. Most people doing this aren't front page news and not in Tech Crunch, so you kind of have to dig to find good examples. And this is 2016, and the best place that I knew was Hacker News. So, in Hacker News, it's also a forum for tech people, a ton of posts would get made, usually once a month, where hundreds of people would comment and basically share like, "Oh, how are you building your one person SaaS business?" Or, "How are you making a profit from your side projects?"

Courtland Allen:
And my strategy or my goal really, was just to read a bunch of these comments and stories that people shared, and hopefully, discern some sort of method to the madness and recognize a pattern and figure out what I was going to do. And in a very meta sort of way, while I was reading that, that actually happened. But, what I figured was that, "Hey, there's lots of other people doing exactly what I'm doing, but this forum factor is really crappy. These stories are often missing a lot of crucial information. People are always asking for revenue numbers, or strategies, or tactics, or proof, and it's just not there. And I could do a much better version of this that's actually tailor made for the people who are just like me, trying to figure this out. I can make sure I interview people, rather than just have people impromptu share stories, so I can ask them the right questions, get the right information in there. Sort of filter and make sure only good stories are in there, and turn it into something."

Courtland Allen:
So, that's what I did. Took about three weeks to go from just having that kind of idea, sort of flash of insight. But it wasn't a flash of insight. It was three days of just hardcore research and just thinking, and a bunch of other bad ideas, that I decided not to go with before I had that one. But, three weeks between then and launching it.

Courtland Allen:
And then, for the first two months, Indie Hackers was nothing but just a blog. I would interview people. They would come on, they'd share their numbers. People could jump in the comments and answer questions. And over the next six months or so, I added the podcast, I created the community forum. We started doing in-person meetups, et cetera, et cetera. So, it didn't really become a community until I'd been working on it for six or eight months.

Joel Hooks:
So, it's kind of an alternate to Hacker News, which still goes today and is, I don't know. Some people don't like it. Right? It kind of has a reputation. It's very venture capital focused, which makes sense, just from kind of where it spawned from. So, you build Indie Hackers, and when did you reach critical mass? Because, creating a community is non-trivial, you can't manage a community into existence. So, how do you as an individual foster that and grow it? Is it just kind of sticking with it, or just showing up, or how did you build a community?

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, it's a lot of things. So, when I first started it, I knew that I eventually wanted it to become a community. My biggest inspiration was this other website called Nomad List, started by Peter Levels, and I could see him in all those comments on Hacker News, basically sharing the exact set of steps that he went through to build his community for digital nomads, and I was kind of following that playbook. And so it was like, "Okay, first I'll produce super helpful content that will be useful to people like me. I'll sort of parlay that into a mailing list, and once I'm able to reach people on a routine, weekly basis, then essentially I'll keep doing these interviews, but then I'll work on a community aspect," which for me was going to be an online forum which I built from scratch.

Courtland Allen:
And like you said, you can't just manage it into existence. The first few months really was just empty. It was me doing kind of the Reddit strategy, making a bunch of fake accounts, asking myself questions, talking to myself, and then sending out these discussions in my weekly news letter, alongside the interviews that I was doing. And people really came for the interviews, but every now and then, they would look at these discussions happening on this sort of makeshift forum, which there weren't very many at that time, and it was all just me, and they would jump in. And I would find myself talking to a real person on the internet. And then at some point, I remember the first day I saw two people talking to each other on the forum, and then one of them left and it went back to one.

Courtland Allen:
So, it was just week after week of me making posts and questions, and try to start discussions and sending them out, and eventually more and more people joining. And, I don't think it hit any point that you could consider critical mass until maybe, God, it had to be about a year. Maybe a little less than a year after I started it, where I and longer had to make any posts. I could go away for weeks or months at a time and the forum would sustain itself. That was kind of the basic strategy, of just me making tons of posts. Me having some other sort of method to get people in the door, which is the interviews and the mailing list, and to constantly promote the forum and the community to those people.

Courtland Allen:
And then, since then there's been a bunch of different tweaks to get it to grow faster, to make it more meaningful, to make it more valuable. For example, the forum was never the home page of Indie Hackers the first year and a half. It was kind of buried on this other link you had to click, that said forum. And in January of last year, 2018, I switched it up. So, when you go to indiehackers.com, the forum is front and center. The interviews, you have to click to go to those, now. The forum is the primary thing. And that led to a huge spike in usership, and user base, and just people actually making posts.

Courtland Allen:
We did sort of a product help launch at that time, for the forum as well. So, the forum had been around for a year and a half before we launched it on Product Hunt. That basically caused kind of a step change in the number of people using it, although there were some negative side effects with that. And, also I kind of tweaked the algorithm to make the forum sort of rotate a little bit faster. So, at first basically, I was very concerned with the fact that most forum posts weren't that good. So, you'd go to the website, you'd look at the forum, and right at the top, there'd be kind of a crappy question that doesn't make any sense. So, a weird advertisement that someone posted. I'd just be kind of embarrassed about it, and wanted to showcase the best posts.

Courtland Allen:
So, I made sure the algorithm would basically keep the best posts that had the most comments and the most views at the top of the forum for a very long time, and eventually I realized that it's actually having the opposite of the intended effect that I wanted, which is people to sort of form a habit, to come check the forum and ask questions there and get help from others. I wanted people to come roughly daily, or at least once or twice a week, but if I kept the same post at the top of the forum for multiple days, what happened is, somebody would check the forum, they would see that post and they'd be like, "Oh, I've seen that already. Let me come back tomorrow." And they'd come back tomorrow, and then it'd be the same post at the top of the forum. And so, they would automatically assume-

Joel Hooks:
It's dead.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, exactly. So they would just stop coming. And they'd be, "Oh, let me adjust my frequency of visiting to once a week, or once a month, since it doesn't update that often." So, I made a kind of a tweak also early last year, to make sure the forum moves a lot faster. And that was a pretty dramatic change to how many people started making posts and asking questions, and helping others.

Joel Hooks:
So, you get the quality, but you get the rotation, so it's fresh and people can come back and be interested and engaged, and participate?

Courtland Allen:
Exactly. And, I think the quality is very directly linked to the quantity. Essentially, if you take the top 1% of a hundred forum posts, that's only going to be one great post. But, if you have a thousand people making posts, and you get the top 1% of that, you're going to have 10 great posts at the top of the forum. And so, it's really important to have a lot of people making posts, and then just servicing the best ones.

Joel Hooks:
So, this started out, I assume as a business idea. You wanted to create this community and monetize it in some way. People are always using that word. How are you going to monetize this? What was the plan initially to make money, and make this sustainable for yourself?

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, I had two options that I was looking at initially. I ended up only doing one of them. So, the first option that I didn't go with, was to actually charge money to be a part of the community. Figured I'd keep it free for a while, and then after it hit some sort of critical mass, and it was super valuable and people liked it, I would charge, I don't know, 100 bucks a year. Something, to be a community member. And that would sort of double as a way to also clean up the proven spam, because spammers' not going to pay a hundred bucks a year to join your community and post spam.

Courtland Allen:
I never ended up doing that. What I ended up doing instead, and was kind of my plan to start with, was sponsorships. And so, Indie Hackers basically attracted an audience of developers and entrepreneurs who are pretty lucrative to advertise to. And who are ambitious, who generally have a decent amount of money to spend, and who are willing to spend that money to make whatever dream they're chasing become a reality. And so, I had advertisers on the podcast, and on the email newsletter, and also advertisers who would do interviews basically, and pay for those interview slots, basically sustaining the business.

Courtland Allen:
So, and around March of 2017, which is eight months after I started Indie Hackers, I think I did $7,000 in revenue, and it was 90% advertising and then 10% affiliate links and random other stuff that I played around with, donations, et cetera.

Joel Hooks:
And is that still what you do today?

Courtland Allen:
Nope. So, basically what happened is, right after I got to the point where I could sustain my life, or after I basically hit that point of freedom and I could pay for my rent, and my food, et cetera, I was making seven grand, feeling pretty good about it, I got an email from Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe. And he's like, "Hey, can we buy Indie Hackers? You open to being acquired?" And that was so far beyond my radar of what I even thought was possible. I never even considered getting acquired. I never considered raising money, because it's Indie Hackers. It's all about being indie.

Courtland Allen:
But, I talked to him, and we met, and I think our end just aligned in three ways. Number one, my mission and what I wanted Indie Hackers to do, not just for myself in terms of my own freedom, but for others and helping others achieve things, Stripe was perfectly aligned on that. For Stripe, they actually make more money as a company if more people are starting businesses, so they really like Indie Hackers because it inspires people to start companies, when they read each others' stories.

Courtland Allen:
Number two, I think for the people on Indie Hackers, they're just going to be better off if I'm not spending half my week trying to sell ads. Selling ads didn't make the website any better for them, so I figured if I had full time sort of availability just to make the website and the community better, it'd be a win for them. And financially, it's also a big win for myself. I didn't really like spending that much time selling ads either. I'd grown the revenue to about 7K, but there're definite limits where I was going to have to figure other things out. And I was in the middle of searching for a better business model at the time when Patrick emailed me.

Courtland Allen:
So, about a month later, I joined Stripe. I've been working on Indie Hackers at Stripe, sort of an independent team for the last two and a half years, and we immediately shut down all sort of revenue generating activity for Indie Hackers. It doesn't make a dime. All it does is, basically it attempts to help founders help each other.

Joel Hooks:
And you're still there. I think that's a testament to Stripe and this process, because a lot of times when something's acquired and it requires the founder to go along with the entity, a year later or whatever, you'll see them leave. But you're still there.

Courtland Allen:
Totally.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, and I'm still there totally because I like working at Indie Hackers, and my lifestyle hasn't changed that much. It's not like I have some sort of golden handcuffs where I can't leave, but the second I get this financial windfall, I'm out. I think you're dead on it. It's a testament to how Stripe has run things, and really just wanting to nurture the community, and having these aligned incentives. Because, I think if you start something where your incentives are misaligned with someone else's, even if it's only by one or two degrees in the beginning, that widens into a pretty huge gap later on. And we're perfectly aligned. So, I don't see myself leaving Stripe anytime soon.

Joel Hooks:
How has the pressure, the lack of pressure to monetize this thing affected your priorities, and how you work, and how Indie Hackers has grown since Stripe came into the picture?

Courtland Allen:
It's good and bad. I think sometimes you need that external pressure to constrain what you can do. A good example would be, before I started Indie Hackers, I basically quit my job as a contractor and I had a year of runway. I spent the first six months of that just messing around, doing ... I don't know, working on terrible things that I should not have been working on, just wasting time. And then I looked up, and six months had gone by, and my bank account was depleted by half and I'd made zero progress. And I was like, "Oh, shit. I need to actually do something." And so, having that financial pressure was kind of like a forcing function for starting something that would actually work, and having much more discipline.

Courtland Allen:
And I think also while I was running Indie Hackers, it was the same thing. I've got to make enough money to pay my rent, so, I need to actually do a good job growing the community, et cetera. The second you take away that pressure, this happens to a lot of companies that raise money, or you get acquired, and the acquirer's sort of funding you, you don't have that pressure. You don't have any sort of driving do or die pressure, to make you make the best decisions. And so I think that for a good while in the beginning, I was just doing way too many things. I tried doing everything, and I didn't have really any sort of signal to say, "Oh, this is a bad thing to do," because I could just do it.

Courtland Allen:
Nowadays, I'm a lot more focused on very specific things that I want to grow and do better at but, so I think it's a double edge sword. I think the pressure you can have, or the incentive you can have to do the right things when you have revenue pressure is good, but also the time that I have to focus on things that aren't necessarily profitable, but are still really helpful to people nowadays is super cool, and I think I can do some things that a lot of other legitimate businesses can't do, because they need everything to be profitable. Or, most things at least.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, I can see where you'd lose ... I guess it's like hustle, right? If you have to hustle and you're trying to survive, and then it's your brain's in one mode and then if not, then you're in another. And you end up needing to be more disciplined maybe.

Courtland Allen:
Yep, totally.

Joel Hooks:
How has working on Indie Hackers and being part of this community changed your overall perspective, if it has?

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, it's changed me a lot. I think before working on Indie Hackers, I didn't know anything about business. I knew a lot about being a developer. I knew how to write JavaScript. I knew some backend stuff, and deploying code on servers, and knew a lot about being a designer. But, I think one of my goals when I started Indie Hackers was to learn more about the other side of things. I mean, you've got a lot of developers that you work with. I'm sure you learn a lot from them. You've got a podcast. I'm sure you learn a lot from your podcast guests. With Indie Hackers, most of what I do is I just meet people, and I interview them, and I talk to them.

Courtland Allen:
And when you talk to thousands of people, you start to recognize patterns, and like, "Okay, what's successful for them? What's not successful for them?" In a way that I think it's harder to do if you're sort of an individual contributor, working a job where you become a super expert at what it is you're doing, but you never really come up for air and see the whole picture. So, I think working at Indie Hackers has taught me a lot of practical advice about starting companies. I think also, it's given me a lot more respect for inspiration. I'd always treated inspiration before Indie Hackers as just one of these fluffy words that doesn't matter that much, but it's been pretty amazing to see that the course of someone's entire life will often change, because they read a story about something else that somebody else did. And that, that can happen at scale with literally hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are like irrevocably changed because they read a story.

Courtland Allen:
So, I think a lot about the mechanism behind inspiration, why it's valuable, how it works, and I think it's one of those things that I'm probably never going to let go of. It's probably going to affect everything I do in the future.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, so you mentioned patterns and that you've seen these recurring patterns, when people were trying to become Indie Hackers, or start their own thing. What are some that stand out to you as maybe outliers that occur more than other things? What are some of the patterns that you've noticed?

Courtland Allen:
A big one is the prevalence of education based businesses, one of which you run, with egghead. There's kind of this common wisdom that if you're starting a business, you really need to target other businesses, because they have the money, they're the best customers. And there's a lot of truth there. I've done a few analysis of all the different products that people have posted about on Indie Hackers, and I think the B2B businesses make something like two or three times as much money as the B2C businesses. But, I don't think that's because selling to consumers doesn't work. I think that's because consumers just buy very different things than businesses.

Courtland Allen:
And one of the things that consumers are really happy to invest meaningful amounts of money into is education. They can see a way that they can make their life better in the future. Some goal they want to achieve. Others, it's a better job, or a better life, or more fame, or something. People are more than happy to pay 50 grand a year to go to a college, to teach them that, or to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for courses that actually help them. And so, education has been just a super consistent trend that I've seen for people who want to help other people, and actually make a living and get paid doing it.

Courtland Allen:
And I think it's interesting to me, how different a lot of these education businesses look. You kind of think about education, you think classrooms. You think courses or videos, which granted, works very well. But, there's also people educating others by interviewing them on podcasts, by writing up their thoughts in a newsletter or a blog. Ben Thompson from Stratechery is a really good example. He's just been blogging three or four times a week, for the last eight years or something. And I think the last time he publicly released his numbers, he had 10,000 subscribers or something who were paying him a hundred bucks a year. So he's making a million dollars a year just blogging, and teaching people about the tech industry and the different trends. And I've heard through the grapevine that he's making more than 10 times that now, which is an absolutely insane number. So, that's a good example of someone who's educating, and doing what he loves, and also helping others and making a killing. Which is kind of like the fully, what is that, three things, four things? Trifecta of what you want I think, as an indie hacker.

Courtland Allen:
Some other trends I've seen, I think being thoughtful about what you build is worth its weight in gold, especially if you're new. I think if you're more experienced and you've been through the ringer, you don't necessarily have to be as thoughtful up front about what you're building, because you've internalized a lot of these lessons at a subconscious level. You're like, "I'm never going to work on a business I don't like again." Or, "I'm never going to work on something out of my personal interest zone again." And then you make better decisions.

Courtland Allen:
But, for a lot of people who are newer, who don't have this intuition built up from starting and failing things a bunch of times, I think it's they tend to fare a lot better if they're really thoughtful up front about their business, and if they can just sort of trust that the lessons that others have learned, that they've read about are true, rather than just kind of following their own blind intuition up front, and saying, "This failed for everybody else, but it's going to work for me." And so there's just a lot of lessons there about picking a market that actually has money, for example. Or, starting by analyzing what you're good at and what people are willing to buy, rather than just building a solution and going in search of people who are going to use it, which is usually kind of a sure fire way to fail.

Courtland Allen:
Building an MVP, even though you might want to build the biggest, craziest thing right up front, and spend 12 months building it and then unveil it to the world. That's the intuitive approach to take, but I think the more practiced, studied approach if you read a lot of what others have done and what's worked for them is to start small, which you did with egghead.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah.

Courtland Allen:
And I like telling people your story about how you basically found another guy's videos on YouTube and his email list, and that's how you sort of validated the idea that you could sell these courses, and that didn't stop you from building something that's bigger and more meaningful later on. And I think that's a hard lesson for a lot of people to internalize, unless they've been bitten by that themselves. So, that's just a few of the patterns that I've seen, that have worked.

Joel Hooks:
I think that once you get experience, you have what we pretty commonly refer to as wisdom, but when you are lacking experience, the thoughtfulness is relying on other people's wisdom to some extent. You are always going to have to make your own decisions, but for me, I didn't know what I was doing so, I read the best books, I find the best mentors, and usually I'm paying them, right? Taking courses myself. It's Amy Hoy, other folks that I looked up to, and were able to supply me with their wisdom, that I'm able to roll in. Because, it's floundering around, but I can look at people that I admire and aspire to be like, and kind of mimic them in my own way. And that was huge for me, and as I've gone, now I have my own ideas and my own wisdom, based on my experience. But when you're just starting, they don't have that. Then how are you going to learn?

Courtland Allen:
I think it's just tough for a lot of people to learn from other people. It's so, when you learn from your own experience, it's so-

Joel Hooks:
Ironic, right?

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, it's ironic. Because, if you learn from your own experience, it's just so real. You never forget the lessons you've learned by getting burned yourself, but it's obviously a pretty terrible way to go through life, only learning lessons the hard way, and never picking up a book or having a mentor, or taking a course or a class, or something. So, I think a lot of being a founder, especially if you're new, is just getting over that hurdle and not sort of becoming a slave to your intuition where you don't really have the experience to have a good intuition for things.

Joel Hooks:
It's interesting, because there's a balance too, and something I fell in is like, "I'm going to get all the books, and I'm going to read this entire stack of books before I do anything." And I started out that way, and I still love the books, and I still buy them and read them when I can, but I'm not as reliant on having to know everything, everything being perfect. So, what's the balance of my personal knowledge versus actually doing something, so I can learn as well. I think a lot of times, failure is part of the process, and it feels like, and I've seen this, maybe it's a trope, that you have to fail and fail fast. And I'm wondering, is that something we have to do? Do we have to go through this failures to get to success?

Courtland Allen:
I have a lot to say about this, and what you said earlier, so the whole process first of just being stuck in a reading and learning phase, and feeling like you're never going to get out, and you can't start because you don't know everything, is super real. It happens to a lot of people. I think to some extent, the more you read, and the more you listen to podcasts like this, and the more you learn from others, the more you realize that you don't know. And the more paralyzing it can be. I have kind of a trick for this, which is to just write down what I've learned.

Courtland Allen:
So, if I'm going into a new field, I did this before I started Indie Hackers, and I was sort of reading all these stories. I was just writing down lessons that I'd learned, and trying to categorize them, and at some point, I just found myself writing down the same lessons, over and over, and over again. And it was pretty rare that I would come across something new, which I think gave me some concrete confidence like, "Okay, I'm getting diminishing returns here, I need to start." Whereas, I think if you're not writing things down, it's kind of harder to track your progress. It's easier to think that you haven't made that much progress and that you haven't really learned that much. So, that's one kind of hack there.

Courtland Allen:
As for your second question which is, do we need to fail to succeed? I mean, the technical answer to that is no. I've interviewed so many people who just straight up succeeded on their first business. But at the end of the day, there's also a lot of luck involved, and there's also a lot of knowledge that you can take into maybe your first business from other things you've done in life. Even working a job, that can help you, and so I don't think you necessarily need to fail. But, it's good to embrace the high likelihood that the things you start won't work out, and that you might need to tweak them or move onto other things altogether. And I think if you want to succeed over the long term, it's good to be comfortable with failure over the short term.

Courtland Allen:
I started a bunch of things that did not work out before I started Indie Hackers. Even some of my role models like Peter Levels, he did a 12 startups in 12 months thing, and none of those things really took off until month seven or eight, when he started Nomad List. And I think just having that repeat experience of working at all these different projects taught him so many different things. It's just something so valuable about starting over from scratch. Even as a developer, I remember learning how to code, and the first that thing I did was, I worked on this one giant slog of a project for a year. And then, when I started something new, I'd completely forgot how to star. I had to relearn a bunch of stuff, and I ended up just learning a lot faster when I was launching lots of small, new projects that I could start from scratch at the beginning, over and over again, and use my learnings from the previous projects to start better the next time around.

Courtland Allen:
So, I think being willing to fail, which sort of implies being willing to start lots of different small projects is super helpful as a founder, and you learn more lessons that way than working on one sort of singular business that you push through, even though it's not going that well.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. Egghead's my first business, but I also look at it like a sequence of small failures and slightly larger wins, how it's ended up panning out for me over time. There's plenty of things that we tried, and they don't work, but we were able to kind of push through and try something different. And I kind of miss the idea of starting. I wish I could kind of rewind the whole thing sometimes, and start from scratch, but once it's in flight, you can't. It feels like you can't, anyway.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, you get a lot of momentum, but the good thing is that once you're profitable, you can launch this kind of side projects, and side businesses and efforts. And that's kind of like starting from scratch, though with the added advantage that you've got an actual main business that's working out.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, and we've been doing that. We launched micro sites and kind of have this service business, where we have testing JavaScript with Kent C. Dodds, and Pure React with Dave Ceddia. And we're able to take what we know and then almost start from scratch. We get to use our platform and leverage these assets that we have, but then also roll that into something new, so we get to explore modern technology, and keep our ... Because, another thing, especially the business that we're in, you let your technical skills atrophy over time. You get comfortable and it just kind of works, and then you wake up, and then you have this legacy mess, which is a risk that we kind of run into. It's fine, but that's one of the kind of the drawbacks I think, to having some moderate success and not failing is that you just kind of roll with that success, and you lose some of that hustle that we talked about earlier as well.

Courtland Allen:
Totally. And I think the concept of technical debt is a funny one, because I see so many successful companies like yours, even like Stripe, where it's there's just a lot of technical debt, and there's a lot of stuff that was hacked together in the early days. And then a lot of founders are like, "Oh, well how do I avoid that? How do I make sure my code's perfect in the early days?" But for me, it's kind of the opposite because it's if you see all these successful businesses that were able to make it to where they are now despite having all this technical debt, and that's kind of proof positive that technical debt is either, maybe not a good thing, but at the very least, it's not the most important thing to focus on.

Courtland Allen:
But the skills atrophying, that's definitely true. You got to pick a tech stack. You sort of coast off your knowledge and you ride that while the world around you changes. Every time I've started a business and then come up for air a couple years later, especially in the world of front end engineering, it's just been so much new stuff and I'm way behind on it. I feel like I have to spend a few months just catching up and learning.

Joel Hooks:
My friend, Chris Biscardi, who's an egghead instructor has a podcast called Ohm Goals. And they had an episode and they got into this idea of planning for deletion, or optimizing for deletion where when you write software and you write these modules, you think, "This is something that we need to be able to delete. It can be completely removed or replaced." And I never did that. I didn't build egghead with that mindset, but it really changed how I look at these things, because if you do that, if you think, "Well, this is going to get deleted, it's good for about a year and then I'm going to delete it," that felt like something that I could truly optimize for and would improve, versus some of the other things that you might optimize for when you're developing software.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, I certainly didn't do that either with Indie Hackers, but it sounds like a great idea in hindsight.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, so you said that you built indiehackers.com from scratch. You built your own bespoke forum software. What's your tech stack? What is it running on right now?

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, so I am using Ember JS, which is sort of like a front end framework for making single page applications. One of my favorites. I am using on the backend Firebase, which handles both, it's kind of like a database and also authentication. And it also plugs into Google Cloud, so you can do ... It's kind of an alternative to Amazon S3 for storing files and images, and user avatars in my case. And that's pretty much it. It's hosted on a website called Render, which is not too different from maybe Heroku or something. But they just kind of host this node express app which runs my Ember app, and what's called fast boot mode, which is basically just server side rendering for an Ember app. So, essentially, we come to the site, and I can actually show you a rendered version of Indie Hackers, even though it's a JavaScript framework while it sort of boots up the JavaScript.

Courtland Allen:
I have a lot of regrets about my tech stack choice. If I could build it today, I would probably have used React, even though I love Ember. I think it's a joy to work with. There are just certain things that are complicated about it. The payload size is huge, because the entire site is in JavaScript and it's tough to split it up. It's a joy to work in, but it's not necessarily best user experience for the kind of site that I built. But again, I didn't build for deletion. I built everything in a way where it's on and connected, and it'd be very difficult and time consuming to rewrite it. And people like the site anyway and it's been quite fun to actually build what's essentially, not just community software but almost kind of like a social network at this point, from scratch by myself.

Joel Hooks:
Why not use something off the shelf like Discourse?

Courtland Allen:
When I started Indie Hackers, I had my whole list of mistakes I'd made in the past, and things that I had learned from, and some of that was intuitive and some of that I actually wrote down. And one of the biggest things that I had done in the past as a software engineer is spend way too much time coding. I had so many apps and projects I worked on where I didn't release it or launch it for six months plus, after I started coding it. And I just neglected everything, because I loved writing code so much. And so, I resolved to basically avoid that fate with the next thing I worked on, because again, I only had six months of runway in my bank account, and I couldn't take six months to launch something.

Courtland Allen:
And so, that's one of the big reasons I picked Indie Hackers, because it was just kind of a glorified blog at that point, and I knew it wouldn't take very long to release it. But, then I gave myself kind of the caveat that since there's really no code to write, I could just use Word Press, or Ghost, or Medium for Indie Hackers. That, I would allow myself to at least build my own blogging software, which didn't take very long. It only took a week, or a week and a half, or something for the very bare bones, Indie Hackers blog. And that eventually ballooned into, "Well, I'll allow myself to build my own forum software," which again, only took a week to build the basic forum section where people could make posts and respond to each other, and leave comments and stuff like that. But, it just ballooned. You know how these things go.

Joel Hooks:
Yes, I do.

Courtland Allen:
You just get more and more features you need. It gets more and more complex. It's bigger and bigger. Strategically, I'm still glad I did it this way. I think that it's pretty important if you have a business that's kind of in a crowded market, where there's lots of people doing what you do, that you differentiate it in some way. And when I looked out into the sea of all these other websites that are interviewing founders, that are sort of sharing entrepreneurship stories, they all looked the same. They were all blog posts on Medium, or just the same thing. They were all white, so I made Indie Hackers dark blue.

Courtland Allen:
Is it more readable to make a dark blue site? Certainly not. Lots of people complained about it, but it's memorable. Where if you came to Indie Hackers and read a good interview, and you came a couple weeks later, you would instantly recognize, "Hey, I've been on this blue site before and it was pretty good." And so I had a lot of things like that, where I was doing things just to be different. And I think coding from scratch kind of helped me do that.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, I mean I can see that, because I had a friend recently tell me that egghead should probably be a Word Press site with a few plugins, and I was like, "I mean, that might be true," but I also felt the need to indulge myself a little bit in the same way that you do. I like to hack. I take the hackers part of being an Indie Hacker fairly seriously, and it's something that I personally enjoy. It's my puzzle and what brings me a lot of satisfaction for better or worse, to actually build and create, and form something, and mold it to the needs of my community.

Courtland Allen:
Coding is so fun. I was just talking to my brother about this, this morning. It's just this super tight feedback loop from typing something, and then it gets transformed, and you go over to your browser to see what it looks like, and how it works, and it works, and it's great, and there's just nothing else that's like it. And it you're going to start a business, you should indulge yourself. You should enjoy running your business. And even if that means you're not as efficient or as fast as you possibly could be, who cares? Your life is better, and that's the whole point.

Joel Hooks:
It's essential to me, long term. If you're in a business and you want to run this thing, and you want to do it for a period of time, longer than a year or two, if you don't enjoy it, it's going to kill you slowly, and maybe quickly in some cases. It's just, that is not sustainable to me.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah. I just gave this talk at Hustle Con about ID validation, and most of the talk was about the actual business idea, your market, how you're going to distribute it to customers, the product, the business model. But, the first part of it was, just examining yourself, and asking yourself questions about who you are, and what your goals are, and what your skill set is. Because, if you don't really have a control over that, if you don't really understand those things, you're much more likely to build a business that you don't act enjoy running, which happens all the time. I have so many podcast guests who after we finish recording, they're like, "Yeah, I can't wait to sell my business and stop something I actually like running, because I don't like this company that much."

Joel Hooks:
Well, and sometimes you'll grow the thing, and it gets to the point where it's not what you started or not what you thought it would be. And, you're here in a position where now you have a thing that you just don't really like, or you don't enjoy running. Which, I talked to Rosie Sherry who's your community manager at Indie Hackers which you know, but that's what she said. She started this thing and she loves it, but at the same time it grew into something and the day to day just wasn't something that she enjoyed, and she wanted to progress her career and had to figure out a way to get out while leaving her community intact.

Courtland Allen:
Yep, exactly. And it's kind of like a death by a thousand cuts. It's your business and so you're the one who runs it. You're the one who's faced with all these decision points for how to grow, and sometimes you just see these opportunities for like, "I could do this thing and make it so much more profitable," or, "So much more impactful or bigger, but also it goes against what I would enjoy running." And I think when you're faced with those decision points, it's a tough choice. Do you do the thing that makes your business more successful, that maybe even makes your customers happy, or do you do the thing that you like running? And it's pretty easy to eventually get trapped in a place where your business is big and successful like Rosie's was, but also you can't wait to exit.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, I think that's to me the independence of when you talk about the indie part of Indie Hackers. The independence, the not being beholded to venture capitalists or some other entity. We're able to kind of make those decisions, too, and you're able to drive your business in a way that you want to without that sort of external pressure which can seriously undermine that idea and move your business into a place where you don't like it anymore as well.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah. Exactly. The independence is huge. I mean, even there's just so many subtle ways you can lose that independence, too. At Indie Hackers, since I was monetizing through ads and sponsorships, I saw kind of first hand in a very small way how your customers being these advertisers shifts your priorities and your focus when you're running a business. I can't even imagine what's it's like to work at a big media company, for example, where that's 80% of your profits and it's hundreds of millions of dollars. But for me, even when it was in the low thousands, it was advertisers had requests for certain episodes I would produce, or certain ways my website could function or look, et cetera. And suddenly, I wasn't just doing things that were for my users or for myself. I was doing things for these other customers. And I really didn't like the way that, that was shaping up and I can only imagine it would have gotten worse as I got more dependent on that.

Courtland Allen:
So, I think there's just a ton of ways that your business can sort of get away from you and you could become less independent. It's not just venture capitalists, it's not just investors. It can also be your business model itself, or your customers.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah, money's the ...

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, it's money.

Joel Hooks:
The common thread, right? We all need to live and eat, and sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and whether it's VC or advertising, or whatever you need to do to sustain your business. It's fine, but now you're servicing an additional client alongside of your community, and the clients that are using your product.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, I think you nailed it. Money's the common factor.

Joel Hooks:
Yeah. So, you've interviewed a lot of really interesting people that started businesses, that are indie hackers. Is there any common advice that you've seen across those, or common threads of interest that might help other people get started and kind of build their own business?

Courtland Allen:
The most common piece of advice that people give, because I ask everybody at the end of the podcast, what's your advice for these fledgling founders or maybe aspiring founders, haven't gotten started yet. And the most common advice is, "Just get started." And this goes back to what you were saying earlier, where it's so easy to get trapped into this educational wormhole, where you never escape from just reading and dreaming, and you never start anything. But, there's just so much of an advantage if you just start, especially if you're not too worried about failing, and just start something. And see how it goes. And you're going to learn a ton on the job. You're going to do a lot of just in time learning, which is fine. But if you never start it, it doesn't matter how much you read. It doesn't matter how much you learn, you're not going to get anywhere, and oftentimes all that information's going to paralyze you.

Courtland Allen:
And I'm probably sounding a little contradictory here, because I'm a huge fan of being very thoughtful and deliberate, and learning these lessons, but if you're one of these people who had consumed a ton of material and you just haven't started something, just start something. Start something small, start something easy. Don't worry too much about how it goes. Start an education business. Teach somebody what you learned and see how that goes. And I think that's kind of the best advice that I've heard so many people give, even though it's simple and kind of boring.

Joel Hooks:
Oh, no. I think it's good advice, and I would definitely agree with you. And I want to say, I really appreciate it Courtland. I appreciate you coming on and talking to me today. Thank you very much, and I'll talk to you soon.

Courtland Allen:
Yeah, thanks so much for having me, Joel. It was a blast.

Joel Hooks:
Cheers.

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