How I Grew My Side Project to 20k Users Then Sold It for Six Figures

Published on
21-01-2024
Author
Aisys
Category
How to
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A few months ago, I sold my side project for a six-figure sum.


What started as a hobby became a fully functional SaaS platform called MealPro App with more than 40 customers, 20k users, and a peak of $11k monthly revenue.


Reflecting on it all, there are four things I think we did particularly well and four things I would do differently, which I'll share in this article.


But before we dive in, let me give a bit of background.

What Is MealPro App?

MealPro App started as a white-label meal planning app and morphed into an (almost) all-in-one membership platform for food content creators (e.g., food bloggers).


As a content creator, you can sign up, add your branding and your content (e.g., recipes), and launch a membership site/app to your audience – all without writing a line of code.


An example of a customer’s recipe catalog in the MealPro App

An example of a customer’s recipe catalog in the MealPro App


You can share recipes, meal plans, shopping lists, and “how to” content with your members. As well as taking payments, creating sales pages, and much more.


An example of a customer’s sales page in the MealPro App

An example of a customer’s sales page in the MealPro App



Where Did the Idea Come From?

I stumbled upon the idea when a food blogger asked me to build them a custom meal planning app, based on a guest blog post I'd written.


One thing led to another, and before I knew it, we were building a SaaS platform (not a custom app) with two paying customers already signed up.


To learn more, see how I pre-sold the idea and grew to 10 customers in one year.

What Went Well?

Compared to other projects I’ve worked on, there are four things I believe we did particularly well here. These are:

We Solved a Real Problem

As mentioned, this wasn’t some hare-brained idea I dreamt up. Rather, it was born out of conversations with would-be customers over many months combined with my experiences in this space.


This meant everything we did from day one was done to solve a problem. No guesswork and de-risking the entire venture. I believe this is the most important factor in the success of MealPro App – execution feels easy when you know which direction to go in!

We Sold First, Then Built

Even when I thought we were on to something, I resisted the urge to start building. Instead, I tackled the next hardest part: could I reach customers, and would they buy it?


So, I created a landing page with the help of two freelancers from Upwork and an ad campaign targeting Facebook and Instagram users similar to people I'd spoken to.


The original landing page I used to test the idea

The original landing page I used to test the idea


I emailed everyone who signed up (about 100 people) to ask questions and then pitched them a 50% off early-bird offer. To my surprise, two people paid for the early-bird offer meaning we had two customers before we'd even built anything.


Note: if this part hadn't worked out, I probably wouldn’t have built the MealPro App.

We Built With Customers

Thanks to the points above, we had pages of interview notes and two paying customers before we wrote a line of code. So, from day one, we were able to base every feature, screen, and marketing asset on a customer problem or opportunity.


This approach continued throughout my time with the MealPro App, and when in doubt, we were able to lean on our customers to carry out research, for example, by posting in their Facebook group, running a survey with their email list, and more.


Example of survey responses in a customer’s Facebook group

Example of survey responses in a customer’s Facebook group


The result was an ever-growing list (over 50 pages) of notes and verbatim quotes from conversations with customers and end-users.


These were condensed down into a shorter list of customer problems – everything from frustrations with their overall business and life to issues with our product – which was further condensed down into a list of actionable items to be worked on (i.e., a backlog).


An extract from our list of customer problems

An extract from our list of customer problems


This removed guesswork from the design process resulting in – so I’m told – an “amazing” product and customers who felt listened to.

We Had a Solid Team

I started the MealPro App as a side project alongside my day job (a mix of freelance and consulting stuff). So, for my own sanity, I tried to find people to help build it.


Fortunately, I was able to hire a small but capable team, for example, Ken (developer) and Anna (designer) turned loose problem statements, mock-ups, and ideas into working software.


Then there was Justin (copywriter), Adil (designer), and others, who churned out landing pages, webinars, and other marketing assets. And the list goes on.


Short of working with the same people for my next project, one takeaway here is how I hired people – i.e., I didn't overcomplicate it.


I found people through Upwork or referrals. After exchanging a few messages, I'd ask people to work on a small, paid task. If it went well, and there was more work to do, then we continued. If it didn't work out, we'd part ways after the initial task.


I used Upwork to find people for a range of tasks

I used Upwork to find people for a range of tasks


Also, where possible, I hired experts. By paying a bit more, I was able to spend less time training and reviewing work, giving me the headspace to work on my other projects.

What Would I Do Differently?

With the power of hindsight, there are a few things that I would have done differently. These include:

Do More Marketing

Despite the early successes of building a waitlist and pre-selling the idea, I basically stopped marketing for nearly 12 months once we’d started building.


I suppose this made sense given my other commitments, but it still feels like a missed opportunity to test marketing ideas and grow early on (though it did grow a bit).


For example, I could have continued to run the Facebook ads we used to build the waitlist, which was converting well and didn't take up much of my time.


My takeaway here is to prioritize sales and marketing at least as much as building. I like Jon Yongfook's approach of one-week marketing and one-week coding, so I might try that next time.

Do More of What Works

When we did eventually start marketing again, I tried to do WAY too much – Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, search, email, inbound, outbound, paid, organic, and more. 🤯


Unsurprisingly, the results weren't great. It was a stop-start with no consistency, and any content I was putting out was average at best.


Then I was given a sage piece of advice: "Do more of what works."


So, I looked at where our first customers came from and focused there. These were organic search (SEO) and referrals, plus the newsletter was performing OK.


And I pretty much parked social media at this point, posting messages like, "We don't post here often. Find us at www.mealproapp.com", instead.


We ignored social media to focus on other marketing activities

We ignored social media to focus on other marketing activities


The results?


Consistency improved. We averaged one newsletter a week and two blog posts per month. I also did a couple of guest blog posts and podcasts and set up an affiliate program.


Website traffic doubled to over 1.2k organic monthly visitors in year three, the newsletter was getting 40%+ open rates, and customers steadily rolled in.


Website traffic more than doubled in year three

Website traffic more than doubled in year three


Remember, It's a Business

Something I never thought I say about bootstrapping is that it's surprisingly easy to ignore the money.


What I mean is, that start-up costs were pretty low, and I was making decent money from my day job, so I didn’t track spending.


Then, the MealPro App started to grow...


More customers meant more requests and a more complex product (see next point), which, in turn, meant higher costs. It was also starting to take up more of my time.


So, after nearly two years, money was starting to become an issue.


Thankfully, this problem was also solvable. Going into the third year, we began testing pricing models, landing on a subscription plus usage fee as this matched how our customers charged their users (i.e., customers only paid more when they earned more).


I also got more comfortable selling paid customizations to customers (in reality, this was just accelerating planned work, so it worked well for both parties).


Combined with more customers (thanks to our marketing efforts), this led to an increase in revenue of nearly 300% in 10 months, and for the first time, it was profitable.


Monthly revenue grew nearly 300% in just 10 months

Monthly revenue grew nearly 300% in just 10 months


Next time, I’ll track spending from day one, even for hobby projects – if nothing else, it's good accounting practice as we had to reconcile the books anyway. Had I done this with the MealPro App, I suspect we would have increased prices sooner, but who knows!

Focus on One Platform

We built MealPro as a web app (accessed via a web browser), which worked swimmingly – easy to build, test, and deploy. Then, through a series of conversations with customers, we decided to build a mobile app version too.


Little did I know how much extra work this would add.


It effectively doubled our development workload as we were now supporting two products: a web app and a mobile app. Plus, customers needed A LOT more support because most had never been released to the app stores.


Customers could create their own mobile app with MealPro App

Customers could create their own mobile app with MealPro App


Knowing what I know now, I would have stuck with the web app for longer and just improved that. After all, most customers didn't really need a mobile app; they needed to keep their users engaged and grow their membership/business.


Also, since we built the mobile app, there have been improvements with Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) — like Apple supporting push notifications — which means they now provide a viable alternative to a native mobile app. This is something I’d explore next time too.

In Conclusion

What started as a fun side project turned into much more than that, including a small but successful exit.


We did a lot of things right, like patiently listening to customers, and there were a few missteps along the way, usually when trying to do too much on a shoestring budget.


But overall, it taught me about what’s important when trying to grow a new product/business, which I’ll take into future endeavors.


I hope this has been insightful for you too, or at least mildly entertaining!

Frequently Asked Questions

A couple of questions I’ve been asked are:

Why Did I Decide to Sell?

I sold because it felt right.


Financially, it was probably a dumb decision – I'm sure I could have made more money by holding on to it. But other factors were at play, like becoming a dad, which meant that it seemed like the right decision overall (and still does).

How Did I Sell It?

I listed it for sale on Acquire.com though ended up selling it to the developer who helped build it. I still used Acquire.com to manage the transaction (e.g., legal docs and payment).

Still Got Questions?

Leave a comment, or shoot me a message on LinkedIn.

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