Traffic-first startups

Finding customers is hard. There's no denying that. And when you're building a startup as a solo developer, this is not something that you can just delegate to a sales team. There is no sales team!

I have many ideas for startups, but they have stayed as ideas for years because I just don't want to go through the whole process of finding my first customers. All these cold emails without a reply and Reddit posts that get me banned. I'm just too old for this hustle.

But one day it clicked for me. I realized there's a different and much more pleasant approach when building small startups as solo developers.

Get traffic first, then build a product

Instead of building a product and then trying to find ways to sell it, start with website traffic first.

Start a blog around a topic that interests you. And do it just because it's fun and interesting for you, not to make money or build a product. You'll figure it all out in the process.

If it's fun and useful for you, it's already worth doing it. But the interesting thing is that when you're writing from a personal genuine interest, it will find readers easily and naturally.

There's no point in starting something as a solo developer around a topic that doesn't personally interest you because when you do it for the money alone you won't last long enough to make it work.

When you have a website with traffic, you can start thinking about what kind of product you could build around it. And then you can build it step-by-step, launching something very minimal in the beginning and sharing the whole process with your audience. This is how you make sure you build something that is actually valuable for them and you don't have a problem finding your customers.

No cold emails, no Twitter DM-s, nothing. You already have your customers.

I've seen so many developers who are disappointed after spending years on their products and then discovering that they just can't find customers. Like I recently covered Yi Lin, who has been building GreenBooks for 10+ years.

Making $100,000 MRR

This is exactly how a simple web analytics SaaS Plausible got started, and it's making more than $100,000 in MRR (monthly recurring revenue) now.

SaaS startups like Plausible are valued at 4-5x ARR, so they could probably sell for 6 million dollars right now.

Plausible is a traffic-first startup. Marko had been writing a blog titled "Learn how to start a site and make it a success" for years and was reaching around 52,000 people per year. Writing about WordPress, privacy, and blogging. Helping others start their own blogs.

Around the same time, Uku started Plausible – a privacy-first web analytics SaaS. He built a great product and put a lot of care and intention into it. But there were almost no customers.

And then, when these two met online, Plausible started to grow very fast. Marko had built traffic and Uku had built the product.

There was never a question of cold emailing anyone. "Do you want to try our privacy-first web analytics" would have probably never worked!

This is also a great example of where you can partner with someone who has already spent years building their traffic and offer to build a product around it.

All startups should have a traffic-first approach

I would even go as far as to say that basically, all startups should have a traffic-first approach.

Most – if not all – startup websites have a description of their product on their front page. A lot of them do have a content part (a blog) of the website too, but this is almost secondary.

But what if rather than describing their features on the front page, they would have some content that is relevant to their clients?

And I'm not thinking specifically of blog posts, but some other relevant structured posts.

Like my own site MicroFounder. While I do have a blog, my main content is startups sharing their revenue built by solo developers. This is the main reason 30,000+ developers visit my site every month. They want to see what others are building. So I need to have some new startups on the front page for them, every day.

I started with traffic, but now I have also built a product around the traffic which made me almost $6,000 last month.

Building a help desk SaaS? What if instead of features you'd have some stories about how other companies are helping their customers?

Building an ATS (Applicant Tracking System) SaaS? What if instead of features – like everyone else – you have some relevant content on your front page for hiring managers?

Even some very big startups have started like this. Like AngelList which got started as a Venture Hacks blog.

You can decide later

When starting a content website around a topic that interests you, you don't have to decide right now which product you'll build. Or even if you will build it at all!

That's freedom! Of course, you can have some ideas for a future product and it's probably why you're starting the content site anyways, but the freedom is to decide later.

It depends if and when the traffic starts to pick up.
It depends if you still have interest in it at that time.
Maybe you'll shelve it for a few years and come back to it to build a product.

Traffic-first

When I will start a new startup as a solo developer, I will not start with a product. I just don't want to go through the whole process of finding customers.

I don't want to cold email some strangers.
I don't want to convince anyone to use my product.

I want to create something interesting and useful and I want my clients to find me through the content website I create.

You can join me in my home office on Twitter where I share my learnings about building profitable internet startups.