How building in the open as digital nomads helped Leave Me Alone grow to 840$ MRR
Hello! What's your background and what are you currently working on?
Hey! I’m Danielle, a digital nomad and indie maker. I am originally from the UK, but for the past 3 1/2 years I have been travelling full-time with my partner, best friend, and fellow developer James. We founded our web development agency Squarecat together while on the road and we occasionally freelance, but our main focus is on our flagship product Leave Me Alone - a service to easily unsubscribe from unwanted emails.
Leave Me Alone is super simple to use, just connect all of your email accounts to see all of your subscription emails in one place, and start opting out with a single click!
Leave Me Alone is for anybody with almost any email account who wants to clear out the unwanted noise from their inbox. You could have thousands of unread emails, be striving for inbox zero, or somewhere in between, recurring emails can be a real drain on your time! There’s no easy way to view only the subscriptions and newsletters in your inbox and be able to decide which ones are worth keeping, using Leave Me Alone makes this a breeze!
We decided that we wanted to work remotely when we were 6 months into a year-long backpacking trip. We knew already that we wanted to travel for longer, and to make this happen we would need to earn some money. We founded our company and started doing freelance work to keep our bank balances topped up. However, our real passion was building our own projects in-between client work with the goal of sustaining our lifestyle without having to work for anyone else!
What motivated you to start Leave Me Alone?
Leave Me Alone isn’t our first product, but it’s the first one that is on the right path to success. Getting there has been an interesting journey!
Our first products weren't very successful. For our first startup ReleasePage, we focused too much on building and perfecting the product instead of working out if people were going to actually want to buy and use it. As a result we never got any customers and it was a complete failure.
Our second product UptimeBar was our first MacOS app. It wasn’t super successful but we made a few hundred bucks and we were almost on the right path.
Our early failures meant that we learned a bunch of important lessons; that we should build products that solved our own problems, that we needed to get early product validation, and most importantly, to be open about our process and journey.
Leave Me Alone is on the right track because we took our own advice and stuck to solving our own problems. We were both spending a lot of time sorting through our emails, so we went searching for a service that would help us find and unsubscribe from ones we didn’t want. We found a few which would help us for free, but a closer look revealed that they didn’t charge because they were selling all of their user's data for marketing. Faced with the dilemma of a messy inbox or all of our data being exploited, we decided to build our own solution.
How did you build the initial product?
We started building Leave Me Alone while we were on a bus traveling from Argentina to Bolivia. Not the most traditional work environment, but the busses in South America are very comfortable, and doing some work is a great way to pass the 18 or so hours!
We built the first prototype of Leave Me Alone in 7 days. Motivated by our small success being open with our previous project, and mindful of our failures, we took a different approach to build this startup - we wanted to share everything, get early validation, and iterate. So we picked a name, put together a quick landing page, and started sharing it around on social media.
The response was incredibly positive! Within a few hours we had 50 potential beta users, and a load of ideas and feature requests. All this before we’d written a single line of code. The coolest part was that people were invested in the journey itself, not just the product; they wanted to follow what we were doing! We knew that our decision to be open from the start was going to be a huge benefit for us.
Writing the code is the part of building a product that we are most familiar with, and as we’re beginning to understand, it’s also arguably the least important part. We built a basic prototype that focused on the core functionality - showing users their subscription emails and letting them unsubscribe easily. The first version only supported Gmail and only showed emails received within the past week. With something ready to use we asked people if they'd like to join the closed beta. We initially reached out on Twitter and in the maker community. The app was basic but the feedback for the concept was overwhelmingly positive.
Our first users had validated our idea, so we continued building the product, but we were careful not to include any unnecessary features. The list of great ideas we wanted to add kept growing, but we focused on making sure that Leave Me Alone performed it’s core functionality really well - unsubscribing users from unwanted emails. Everything else ended up on the “next version” task list. The first version was going to be lean.
It's been over a year since the v1.0 launch and since then we have listened to our users and improved the service to make unsubscribing even better and easier than before. At the beginning of October 2019, we launched the official Leave Me Alone version 2.0 with improved performance, multiple account support, fairer pricing, and a much smoother experience.
We now have over 22k users and made over $16k in revenue. We are still struggling to increase our traffic and stabilize our revenue, but we are making around $700 right now.
Which marketing strategies did you use?
We don’t have any marketing strategies exactly. All of our traffic is organic; from social media, our blog, and word of mouth since we have not yet run any advertising campaigns. We blog about a variety of topics including changes to the product, privacy, remote work, and coding. These are shared on our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn profiles using Buffer to post twice a week. Twitter is our biggest driver of traffic, and it is also where we are most active.
The best thing that has worked for us for growing our audience is building in the open and being transparent about everything we are doing. We have a community following of people invested in us and our journey to build this product who want to see us succeed.
This has helped us to stay on track, remain accountable, and provided an invaluable support network when things have been tough. We honestly attribute a large proportion of our success to the wonderful communities we are a part of who help to share our updates, promote our launches, and give us the motivation to keep going. The biggest ones are Makerlog and Women Make, but we also receive lots of support on Twitter, Indie Hackers, and recently in person from nomad coworking and meet-up groups in Bali and Chiang Mai!
We have experimented with sponsoring niche newsletters, but since our marketing budget is practically zero, we haven’t seen much success from this. However, at the end of September 2019 we saw a gigantic spike in traffic and sales for a couple of days because we were recommended in this Recomendo newsletter with 28,000 subscribers. This goes to show that if we can target the right newsletter audience, then we will almost definitely see growth in this area!
The irony of newsletters driving traffic and sales is not lost on us, but we are not anti-newsletter, we are only against unwanted newsletters. Not all subscriptions are bad, and we want our customers to hold on to the emails that they do read. This is one of the reasons we don’t have an “unsubscribe from everything” button because almost all of our users don’t want this, they just want to clear out the spam and keep the content they enjoy reading.
The Recomendo newsletter that shared Leave Me Alone actually used a referral link which directly resulted in 624 visitors, 271 signups (43%), and 24 sales (8% of signups or 3% visit to sale) in 24 hours! This is great since the new customer gets additional free credits, and the referrer does too - that person has probably got a few thousand credits now!
Why did you decide to operate as an Open Startup?
We are very proud to be an Open Startup. We believe that being transparent is beneficial for both us and our customers. We are able to better understand their needs and get more useful feedback, and our customers have an insight into the people behind the product which results in a better relationship.
Unfortunately our revenue trend is downwards right now. Since the big spike for our launch in October it’s been decreasing gradually. Though it’s been the same for the last couple of months, and we are on track for the same this month (April).
Our daily revenue is quite unpredictable - one of the downsides to having most of our sales from one-off purchases.
However, our conversion rate remains the same. On days where we see bigger spikes in traffic or more signups then our sales also spike. This means that we need to really get off our arses and do some more marketing to get more traffic, more signups, and more sales. You can see our public Simple Analytics analytics dashboard here.
We keep our expenses low by choosing cheaper technologies (such as using Mailgun instead Mailchimp for sending emails), managing our own hosting on Digital Ocean, and not scaling before it’s necessary! Our living costs as digital nomads are also significantly lower than they were in the UK. If you’re interested I wrote a blog post about how much we spent in 2019 here.
What were the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?
Our biggest challenges as developers are marketing and sales. We are very much learning on the job, tweaking emails and asking for feedback on our pitch, experimenting with blog post topics and sharing to various social platforms, but we are getting better! We have learned not to agonise over the content too much, and to focus on reaching more people instead. The same goes for blog posts, after reading this article on building better writing habits, I try not to overthink the content and proofread only a couple of times before posting - even though this is difficult for me as I am very much a perfectionist!
The hardest part is not being able to work on Leave Me Alone completely full time since it doesn’t yet bring in enough revenue for us to live on.
Our single best decision was to share our journey of ups and downs, and give people an insight into our lives as we build Leave Me Alone from various locations around the world - our audience has proved invaluable when we needed feedback, advice, encouragement, and even beta testers!
However, there have been several events like this Fast Company article and being mentioned in the Recomendo newsletter which has given us a much-needed boost, and these were all luck! In fact, as I was writing this story one of our dreams came true, we were featured in Lifehacker! This is a huge win for us, as Lifehacker is one giant tech publication that we have always aspired to be featured in. Hopefully, this is the start of more press coverage and increased growth!
We have definitely learned to keep it simple. Leave Me Alone v2 has a bunch more features than when we first launched, but our main product remains the same - unsubscribing from unwanted emails. Even the unsubscribe toggle is the same as our first prototype! We get requests for features every single day and building them would be simple - it’s what we do after all. What is difficult, is to remain focused on growing and marketing, when we would much rather bury our heads in some code and keep rolling out new functionality. To keep ourselves on track we are super strict with our roadmap, and only work towards features which are improving our core offering or costing us a lot of time in support requests.
Working online and promoting your products on social media can also be a source of distraction. At the beginning I found myself spending hours looking at analytics and Twitter - they used to be pinned tabs in my browser that were open all the time so I could check them quickly. This was terrible for my focus so I have a rule where I am only allowed to look at analytics once a day (in the morning when we wake up), and I am working on condensing my time on Twitter into shorter, more meaningful sessions.
What's your advice for makers who are just starting out?
The best thing you can do is get started right away. You’re not going to build anything successful by being afraid to start, but you also need to realise and accept that the first few things you try might fail. This is totally ok, and can even be turned into a positive so long as you reflect and learn from your experiences.
It’s also important to understand that overnight successes rarely happen. The reality of many people’s success is years of hard work, pivots, failures, and challenges.
Don’t hold onto a bad idea or product just because it’s the easy option. It’s difficult to admit that something you built or are building isn’t working, isn’t getting users, and isn’t growing. If you can recognise when this is happening and be objective about it, then you will waste less time bouncing back and working on your next idea.
Imposter syndrome is incredibly real and something I suffer with. What’s helped me is documenting my journey, publicly or in private, and when I am struggling, I look at my early prototypes and blog posts to see how far I have come. Join communities, meet people, and ask for help. Being a founder can be lonely - even James and I have experienced this despite traveling and founding Leave Me Alone together. I never thought I would be asked to do interviews about something I’ve built, but here I am!
Just get out there, out of your comfort zone, and start doing. It’s scary, it’s hard work, and it’s stressful, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you succeed and you have customers telling you how much you have helped them. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Leave Me Alone. I hope you’ll follow along with our journey :).
Where can we go to learn more?
Personal Instagram: @dinkydani