What it looks like to promote a pre-revenue side project without an audience

In this post I’m giving you glimpse behind the scenes on how to promote a side project with no audience using Email, Facebook, Quora, and Reddit.

First of all, let me introduce you to my little side project called Kanji Book.

Kanji Book

Kanji Book tries to help Japanese language students remember kanji or vocabulary by using mnemonics. What makes Kanji Book so special is, you can create interactive mnemonics by connecting text ranges to dedicated strokes within a kanji and share them. You may ask: why do you need that? Well, sometimes a student can’t come up with a good mnemonic but another student already did. To make the mnemonic comprehensible even for others, it helps if you can create a visual cue. Like other tools in the education space, Kanji Book tries to use a spaced repetition algorithm to issue reviews at the best time possible.

You may think: Isn’t this project way too niche to make a profit in the future? I was of the same opinion for a long time until I found Patrick McKenzie’s Bingo Card Creator which is probably the most niche product in the world, and still made a profit. Therefore I’m confident that in the near future Kanji Book will make its first dollar.

The nitty gritty

I cold launched Kanji Book around the beginning of October 2017 without any big fuss. Simply put up the page without posting it on any major forums or contacting any news outlets to attract some traffic. We will get to the reason in a moment. Additionally, I didn’t have much to show off, just a badly optimized landing page with a half implemented back-end. Even the editor for creating mnemonics didn’t work and I still had to figure out how to store the data in Postgres in a straightforward manner. Let alone, my shiny (newly taught) tech stack which required countless hours fighting issues I shouldn’t have to worry about, like webpack, server side rendering, and using Typescript. But today most of the quirks had been sorted out and I’m confident to start new projects with VueJS + NodeJS + PostgreSQL+Linode(non-affiliate link) in the future.

Time to start promoting my side project

At the end of November I finally had something to show. Most of the quintessential database structures were set up. I still didn’t have much of an editor but the landing page mostly looked like it does today and I wanted to know if there’s a need for Kanji Book at all, given that I had already 607 commits. Oops. The problem was and still is that I don’t have much of an audience to launch to. If you look at my newly created Twitter account you see I have no followers and my blog has almost next to no visitors due to my inactivity.

So I thought, why not try Facebook ads first. I’ve heard that targeting your ads for your ideal customer group should be a breeze. Therefore I created an ad account, entered my credit number and set a limit of $10 for a single day. I didn’t set any special restrictions for targeting users because I was on holiday in London for 2 days and didn’t have much time. So I set general interests like “Japanese Language” or “Field of study: Japanese language”. 24 hours later I’ve gained a few likes and lots of traffic from India using Opera Mini of which almost nobody converted. Ouch. Not the target group I wanted to reach. Haha. But still a success in my opinion.

Getting back from London, I wanted to try better targeting of my ads but ran into some problems. Because of suspicious behavior with my account, it got locked out several times over the course of 5 days and filing complaints to the support team usually took 24h to be resolved. For the curious, I think due to the fast switching from UK IP addresses to Austrian IP ranges, has put my account on some sort of blacklist. I got so enraged that I looked for an alternative. The worst of it all were the scripted responses with varying signatures.

WTF, just take the little money I have!

Salvation of Facebook’s ad platform

Quora came to the rescue. They just opened their ad platform to the public in May of this year. I thought, why not give it a try 🤷. Compared to Facebook, Quora is a text only ad platform. No images, videos or GIF skills needed. To be honest, this is the perfect environment to start out as an aspiring entrepreneur and to learn about writing compelling ad copy. Therefore I logged in, entered my credentials, credit card number and created my first ad.

For my first ad I used the the following text which I’m using till this day:

Memorize kanji with shared and interactive mnemonics.
If you could remember most of the jōyō kanji with almost no effort, would you do it?

Compared to Facebook, the audience on Quora is much smaller. After I had entered similar interests to Facebook, I got a little discouraged about the estimated impressions. They were not in the Millions as with Facebook if you enter an arbitrary high budget but rather in the hundred thousands per week. So I got a little bit a head of myself and added interests like “Anime” to the topics list (how you target people on Quora) to boost those number. This was a mistake in retrospect which I corrected later on. The generated clicks had a terrible conversion rate and a high bounce rate. But if you think about it, people are in the state of mind of “Which anime character has the most fucked up personality?” or “What are some really good romance anime?”. These people are not in the mindset to learn Japanese or have an urge to solve a problem related to this field. Naturally, they would convert atrociously and I would literally throw money out of the window.

The odd thing were the click through rates, they almost stayed the same after removing the irrelevant clicks. I think this was due to the fact that I’ve set a daily budget limit of $5. After removing the unnecessary topics, my bounce rates went down slightly and the first free trial sign-ups trickled in. Yay!

Below I’ve added the statistics for the first month for buying Quora ads. I’ve spent roughly $140 on ads yielding me 2001 clicks. The click through rates are rather low. I don’t mind them because I do not seem to get penalized for bad rates at all. Moreover, Quora uses a pay per click ad model instead of a pay per view model. Therefore it’s only a loss in potential customers and not a financial one. Nonetheless, I still managed to max out my $5/day budget on some days. There was just a small loss on December 7th. Because of a bug on Quora my ads suddenly stopped being delivered to some countries and I had to re-enable them all. I wasn’t outbid or anything because my maximum bid per click was set way higher than the average bid from the first few days. I don’t know what happened. Anyhow, here is the graph for my impressions, clicks and dollar spent per day:

Using Quora was probably one of the best decision I’ve made. If you’ve signed up for Kanji Book by now, you will notice that till this day (beginning of January 2018), it’s still in beta and I’m greeting users with the following message:

This site is still in beta. Thanks for giving it a try. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me (Martin) under hi@kanji-book.com. There won’t be any charges as long as the public beta is running. After the beta is over, your free 30-day trial will start. By the time the trial has ended, if you haven’t selected a plan and a payment method, you won’t be able to access various parts of this site.

My current strategy is to find possible prospects for Kanji Book as soon as I feel ready to bill users. The software is still too clunky and I still want to change some data structures which will inevitably require me to delete all user generated data. This is just bad user experience if they had submitted data and the next time they log in, everything is gone. If you add to that, a user that has potentially paid me money, they wouldn’t want to see Kanji Book ever again. Hence, my website is just an email collector for future customers which I could contact. Moreover, I ‘m sending each new sign up an invite to my newsletter, and so far the sign up rate has been around 40-50%. This makes me actually quite confident in Kanji Book’s future.

Sending my first newsletter

Come mid December, I wanted to send out my very first newsletter to my newly acquired subscribers from Quora. I thought, people aren’t yet using my website and to not be forgotten, I would send out a weekly “Progress update” newsletter to keep Kanji Book in their minds. Therefore I simply summarized what I got done during the second week of December in layman’s terms and sent my very first newsletter to my measly 16 subscribers long mailing list:

Hi {XYZ},

This week I added the first vocabulary sets called "JLPT N5" (with lots of elements) and "Simple set" (with 4 elements). You can find them under Goals > Vocabulary Sets > Predefined sets. If you enable a set, its items will automatically queue up for you to learn on the "Learn" site. You can disable them anytime as well and the items will disappear from the learn queue.

The learn site is still a little mess, but it works if you know how :D. The general work flow is:

  1. Create a mnemonic for some of the translations.
  2. Select words from the mnemonic and associate them with single strokes from the kanji by clicking on the lines.
  3. Create a mnemonic for some of the readings.
  4. Click remember to tell the system that you have internalized both mnemonics.

Instead of the various create parts above, you can select one of the existing random mnemonics listed below the text editor. If you press "View", it will be selected for you. You can undo it by pressing back. Pressing next on a translation mnemonic will take you to the editor for creating a mnemonic for the readings. Here, you can select an existing reading too, if you want to.

The "Review" site is still in alpha (not working so to say). I don't yet check whether enough time has passed for you to take a review or not. Also I'll delete any reviews periodically because the data wouldn't be correct.

The data entered on the learn site could potentially be deleted anytime as well. So don't write any long essays just yet :-).

Cheers,
Martin

12 hours later, the inevitable happened. Because I use Mailchimp to manage my mailing list, I’ve turned on email notifications about new subscribers and any other activities. I received a mail that 2 people had unsubscribed from my mailing list. That’s 12.5%. It felt horrible.

I just lost my very first customer leads because of a reason I couldn’t fathom. My email was friendly, simple and fairly short, just about 2 iPhone screens long. I didn’t sell anything nor did I do anything else wrong, I think. It took me a while until I pulled myself together but this was no time to wallow in self-pity. I had to figure out what had caused them to unsubscribe.

So I put on my safety googles and looked around. I’m a big fan of Indie Hackers, so I listen to every podcast. Right around the time I pushed out the very first versions of my landing page, I had listened to the interview with David Darmanin of HotJar(non-affiliate link). Therefore I had set up their analytics software and had luckily a recording of that day’s visitors. It turns out that one of the two had simply rage quitted. Due to the fact that you can see that person’s name and email address in the recording, I can’t show it, but it’s brutal. I thought I had basic knowledge of good user experience being an iOS developer for a few years but I was so wrong. Viewing the recording the first time, I could really tell how fundamentally frustrated that person was. I wanted to yell at the screen: “Please, you can’t click there, that’s not a link!”. As you may think by now, my ass was lit on fire. I had to get this fixed before the next users read the newsletter and went onto Kanji Book. As for the other person, I can’t tell because there was no user activity.

Add another 15 hours and I receive the following response on my newsletter from a user I had acquired from Quora:

Hello Martin,

Wow, that is so cool! I can’t wait to get started! Thank you for your work, I’m glad to finally have found a way to learn > kanji as easily as learning hiragana and katakana!

ありがとうございます(^-^)

[Name censored]

That email felt really great. I was so happy. Somebody appreciated what I had been working on for the past 3-4 months. It just amazes me how a simple thank-you email can get you hyped up. A thing, I will try to practice myself in the future even more.

/r/LearnJapanese - Act I

Before I can elaborate on the next success, I have to stand corrected. I actually did reach out to one forum to advertise my project on. I wanted to see if people are interested in my vision before I write my very first line of code as it’s preached by everyone in the Indie Hackers space. Therefore I had set up a simple site with the basic idea explained, a pricing page, and a sign-up page with a credit card collection field using Stripe. I wanted to know if people got so excited that they would hand out their credit card details. Man, was i wrong. Although I do not follow the Japanese subreddit /r/LearnJapanese, I thought it could be worth a try to post my site there. Obviously, I got rejected by the mods. I reached out to one of them that it didn’t show up and he explained that only resources without payment restrictions were admitted. His words were: “Because the content is only accessible with payment, you’ll have to go through the proper Reddit advertisement system. I only allow free advertisement for a free service.”[emphasis added by me]. A subsequent reply went unnoticed and so I moved on.

/r/LearnJapanese - Act II

Forward to December 19th, I already had changed my strategy and added a 30 day free trial period to my landing page. I suddenly got an email by Bemmu a fellow Indie Hacker, active Reddit user, Hacker News community member and maker of Candy Japan. He said that he had seen an ad, most likely on Quora even though he mentioned LinkedIn, for Kanji Book and posted it on the same subreddit I had tried 3 months ago. Jeeze, did I get excited. I already imagined the hundreds of sign-ups rolling in, eager to use Kanji Book. But then, I realized that I had already tried to post my site there. If you look at my emphasis from above, it accurately describes what the community on that subreddit is like. They want free stuff. So I dialed back my expectations and watched.

That day was horrible. My mind was constantly fixated on what people would say. I didn’t get anything done. Just 3 commits:

Depending on my productivity level, I would push out 7-15 commits a day. I constantly refreshed the site for any changes. That’s the reason why I avoid posting my project to any major outlets. It just distracts me from getting anything done.

/r/LearnJapanese - Act III

The first votes came in. Right around the time, I waged with a friend that this post will get a 40-80% upvote rate. I wasn’t too far off. I got an upvote rate of 83%. Not too shabby considering the circumstances. In the future I may submit blog posts relevant to Japanese but I won’t push my luck on selling them anything anytime soon. Looking at the rest of the comments, I’m jubilant that nobody blew apart my idea. One person whose account got deleted lamented that it would be yet another mnemonic tool if I recall correctly. Luckily, the community on that subreddit objected quite fast. This gives me even more confidence than any sign up or payment.

[ Bemmu, in case you read this: I am sincerely grateful for your post even if it didn’t have much of an impact. 🙇 ]

So how many sign-ups did I get? What did the traffic look like? That bump below was the impact of this post:

Over the course of the next 24 hours I got 16 new sign-ups of which 5 signed up for the newsletter. I can’t tell if those people came from Quora or Reddit given that the previous 2 days had 3 and 4 sign-ups respectively. Actually I could, but I would have to skim through 200+ recordings on HotJar. Nonetheless, the word got out and maybe one or the other visitor will remember my site. It may be a success in terms of search engine rankings, one I didn’t pay for at least. Haha.

Here’s the network traffic in relation to its usual level. I’m using the IPv6 graph because the IPv4 graph is mixed with traffic from my continuous deployments.

IPv6 Traffic

And here’s the Google search console which started to pick up some impressions the last few days.

My guess is that the post was sufficiently upvoted that Reddit would remove the “nofollow” attribute from the link and improve my overall search rankings. You can see it in the following screenshot using a handwritten WebExtension for Firefox to highlight regular (green) and nofollow (red) links:

Highlighted follow & nofollow links

In retrospect

Here are my statistics since I started advertising Kanji Book:

December 2017 stats [large]

The sign-up rate stayed fairly stable between 4-8%. As you may notice, the sign-ups for my newsletter picked up a little bit in the middle of December. The reason is that I tried to optimize the copy of my landing page and observe what people where doing when visiting it. Over the course of December, I continually added new frequently asked questions I came up with myself. They could also be a reason why people didn’t bounce of so much. Right around the holidays, the sign ups went down. I hope they will pick up after the holidays again.

I never would have expected that buying ads on Quora would have had such a big impact in such a short amount of time. The quality of users that I’m attracting is just phenomenal. I’m very grateful that this month has turned out so great.

To be honest, it has been a hell of roller coaster. I think I’ve become addicted to this bootstrapping stuff. Right now I’m unemployed and an almost-master-dropout (not yet decided), who is living of the few savings he has left. I’ve about 3-4 months leeway before I’ve to go job hunting for a typical 9-5 job. This seems like the worst nightmare. If this worldline comes to fruition and you’re my prospective employer, for the love of god, let me do something that’s remotely as exciting as this, or I will succumb to unimaginable dissatisfaction even if I don’t show it.

For the next month I will try to finally get my database ready for production and switch from the public beta to the free trial period. I hope that by February 2018 I can celebrate my very first dollar on Kanji Book. There is one thing I would like you to take away from this article. If you’re building something yourself: Just show your work, you never know what will come of it.

A special thanks goes to Cory Zue for giving me feedback before publishing this post.