Season 1 Recap
Last year, I became a full-time indie founder just before COVID hit.
In a matter of 3 weeks, the pandemic’s fallout obliterated my two main revenue streams: my travel blog and SaaS product, Affilimate.
By the time I turned 30 in June of 2020, I earned just $538 in revenue for the entire month. Not even enough to cover rent.
The last 12 months have been an attempt to claw back pre-2020 momentum and stop relying on savings.
This year, I started out with one key goal:
A single month of $10,000 in net profit from my indie businesses.
This was mostly to prove to myself that I could earn more working for myself than at my previous tech job.
Here’s how it went:
As you can see, the path is not linear. But I made it, and I’m proud of that.
If I’m honest though, there were several times this year when I cycled between overwork and burnout.
That’s not how I want to spend 2022. But I do think it’s important to be transparent about what went into my second year of bootstrapping.
I did not get here by subscribing to a 40-hour work week.
Here’s what I learned growing my indie business portfolio from $30K to over $100K in revenue this year.
Not the most productive work environment of the year, but I’ll take it
A double-edged sword
As opposed to 2020, I started the year with three different revenue streams instead of two:
- Not a Nomad Blog, my travel blog which I’ve had for over 5 years. It earns money through ads and affiliate marketing.
- Blogging for Devs, free courses and newsletter and community. It earns money through a paid membership model (and at the beginning of the year, also through newsletter ads).
- Affilimate, my affiliate analytics SaaS product for content site owners. It earns money purely through subscriptions.
Multiple revenue streams are kind of a double-edged sword.
You get diversification in case one goes under. The flip side is, your attention is always divided.
Despite feeling like I couldn’t be 100% committed to anything, I was genuinely shocked to see how much each one made this year.
I’ll dive into each one soon, but I want to start by talking about my blog.
Even in the year of the Delta variant and a slow and incomplete re-opening, my travel blog generated over $47,000 in revenue.
Most months the only expenses are $19 for hosting and $9.99 for Lightroom.
So where does this money come from?
How my travel blog made money in 2021
A lot of people are surprised to learn that blogs make money.
There are a ton of ways to monetize a blog, but the two I’ve chosen are fantastically passive: display ads and affiliate marketing.
First, I’m a member of Mediavine, a full-service ad management platform. People are shocked you can make good money with ads, but it is very possible if you can get accepted to a premium network like Mediavine.
I know what you’re thinking: Nobody loves ads.
I personally try to keep it real by A) not using an adblocker myself B) keeping the ads on “Medium” density and C) foregoing profitable yet annoying display options like sticky videos and sidebar ads.
This year, I earned about $15.7K with Mediavine ads from 670,978 sessions.
But by in far, most of my revenue comes from affiliate marketing.
Whenever I travel, I intentionally book hotels and tours that I can then promote later for a commission on my blog.
My site contains nearly 100% unique photography and recommendations for products and experiences I’ve paid for myself over the last 5 years.
For example, I took a trip to Crete and Santorini at the end of 2020. The following year, I wrote up my Santorini itinerary and now earn commissions from people booking the same cave house I stayed in.
I also review camera equipment I’ve purchased for other fans of Fujifilm.
So, what made a difference in 2021 vs 2020 to go from $15,000 to $47,000 in annual blog revenue?
Honestly: nothing that I personally did made a difference.
The recovery of the blog is tied to countries reopening for Summer tourism.
I kept my rankings by regularly refreshing my content with up-to-date travel restrictions and closures. But I only published a handful of new articles this year.
I both benefit from and got hurt by Google updates.
But on average, I spent less than 1 hour per week on my blog in 2021. Which I find absolutely incredible.
Thanks past-Monica for making this blog *pats self on back*
Revenue isn’t the whole story though
Even though the travel blog is pure profit, my other two businesses aren’t.
My newsletter and community’s expenses are split evenly between software and paying speakers who host live AMAs.
But the most expensive cost is definitely my time.
No matter what I, log in to the community every day, and spend a lot of time helping and connecting people. Which I love doing, especially for people who enact the suggestions and get incredible results!
But I’m so focused on providing value to existing members, I’m not surfacing enough of that externally to people who could benefit from joining.
And that’s probably my biggest failure this year: Not marketing the community.
I had to choose between serving existing members and reaching new ones.
So I chose the former.
What I learned about membership pricing
I did a number of pricing experiments this year for the community.
Memberships are notoriously high-churn and Blogging for Devs’ churn rate is comparatively low (3-7% depending on the month).
Here are a few things I tried, in order:
- Getting rid of lifetime memberships. I was originally worried that I’d have to keep growing the community if I offered lifetime options.
- Offering quarterly memberships instead of monthly. This helped, but developers don’t think in quarters. They thought they were pre-paying for 3-months of access and not subscribing to a membership.
- Offering only annual + lifetime (again). After I realized most people canceling did it because of a lack of time and many wanted to re-join later, I decided to re-introduce lifetime memberships.
- Offering team pricing for 3 developers. So far, the only team members who’ve joined are individuals so this hasn’t led to any results.
Then there’s my SaaS, Affilimate. Which didn’t have a profitable year, but more or less on purpose.
I’m investing 100% of the profit back into growth. Slowly, it’s working.
Affilimate’s MRR grew over 500% this year
At the beginning of the year, I thought I was going to massively grow all my projects.
Turns out, that was impossible. I had to focus on maintaining the others, and growing just one. So it had to be my SaaS.
After spending the first half of the year investing in foundations, that work finally paid off in the second half.
There were a few key things I did, but I’ll share the ones I think might apply to other people running SaaS businesses in general:
- Shorter trial. I used to have a 30-day trial. It was way too long and there was no urgency for the person to evaluate the product quickly.
- SEO content. Ranking in the affiliate marketing niche genuinely sucks (you’re mostly competing with horrible content propped up by backlinks). But I kept going and now it’s working!
- Hiring a team. It was expensive, but hiring a writer helped me keep publishing content when I was swamped with other work. I now have two writers and a Marketing VA (virtual assistant).
At the end of the day, to grow my SaaS I “just” needed more traffic.
“Just” is an understatement as I have a ton of things to improve, but getting out of the $500 MRR rut was at least ameliorated by more traffic.
I don’t have an amazing CTR, nor is my trial-to-paid conversion anything to write home about. I’ll be working on both of those in 2022.
But you can clearly see the connection between MRR and website visitors:
There’s also more that goes into growing website traffic besides just publishing on our own website.
I also did a fair amount of link building, guest posting, and even ghost writing to bring up our Domain Rating (DR) from 24 to 42 this year.
Such. a. grind.
I’m excited to do less of that in 2022 if possible.
Either way, my goal is to join the $10K MRR club in time for my birthday.
Not all fun and games. Or is it?
Nothing will compare to the 200+ hours of Animal Crossing I played during the first pandemic outbreak in early 2020.
But there were definitely times where I just had to escape work for weeks at a time. And typically, I do that by spending a lot of time on my Switch.
This year, it was Pokemon. Lots of Pokemon.
Someone on Twitter asked what the contributing factors for getting burned out are. I think I’ve figured it out.
When I’m working super hard and not seeing any results, it feels like the only solution is to work more. More hours, more experiments, and more stuff that doesn’t work out.
It’s like a loss of agency when you can’t seem to move the needle.
Now that things are moving, I feel more relaxed than ever.
What I tried that didn’t work.
I asked on Twitter and some people wanted to know about failures.
Or, things that didn’t yield the ROI I’d hoped for. So here they are.
- Paid newsletter ads. I spent nearly $1,000 and got zero attributable conversions. Although one of the newsletter creators ended up subscribing himself, so I’ll get back that investment in ~25 months 😂
- Experimenting with different CTAs. I tried a bunch and they all convert “average”. Oh well, more traffic it is.
- Self-hosting docs. Only 0.2% of all our organic traffic goes to the documentation. And there’s no special CTR to speak of.
Goals for 2022
Revenue-wise, my main goal is $20K MRR for my SaaS, or a nice round $250,000 annual run rate. I’m hoping to reach $10K by my birthday in June as a midway checkpoint.
Otherwise, I just want to have more fun!
Now that things are “working”, I’m less stressed and see a clear path forward. I just want to be able to blend building my businesses with traveling, seeing friends and family, enjoying life, and being healthy. On my own terms.
That’s why I quit my tech job in the first place ☺️
P.S. If you liked this post
I published one year of income reports you can read through for many more details on exactly how this year played out.
As I shared in November, I’m no longer going to be publishing this level of financial detail about my business. My original goal was to publish for 12 months and as of this post, I’ve achieved that.
However, I’ll still be sharing what I learn along the way on Twitter.
Find me over there @monicalent 👋
Second year as an indie founder & creator: complete ✅— Monica Lent (@monicalent) December 31, 2021
It was not easy. And I don't have everything figured out. But after a disastrous first year, my self-funded business earned more in 2021 than my former tech salary.
Here's a look at what made a difference this year: