Home / Solo founders with profitable businesses, collected stories

People sometimes wonder: can I have a successful business as a single founder?

The answer is: yes.

This is a collection of solo-preneur success stories (with occasional 2 people bands).

I only include businesses generating significant revenues. In this context it’s around $5k/mo or more, enough to replace full-time salary.

Maybe it’ll inspire you to start your own, solo business.

Before you get too excited, keep the following in mind.

This list is the pinnacle of survivorship bias. Solo-preneur software business is not different that any other business, and most businesses fail. You have 10-20% chance of success so pick your idea wisely, work hard and if you fail, do it again.

At the same time, this is only tip of the iceberg. Those are the stories that people shared, cribbed from a few online sources.

There are 100x more successful solo founders that don’t share their numbers publicly. A silent majority of successful solo businesses.

1. Anonymous making $750k/year with a desktop app, sold via his website

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13168965

Adivice:

  • make a desktop app that you can sell for $50-$300.
  • attack a large market that has stagnated or has entranched players with lousy apps i.e. make a better mousetrap.
  • electron is a good technology to write such app.

Important factors of success:

  • SEO
  • good reputation
  • big market
  • staying alive long enough for word of mouth to kick in

2. JollyTurns

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13170798

Web/iOS/Android app for ski resorts.

Income: unknown.

How it makes money: in-app purchase on iOS/Android ($1 per ski resort or $15 for all of them, see https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/jollyturns/id719208522)

First version (iOS only) released in Dec 2013 after 2 12 years of work (https://jollyturns.com/blog/first-public-release).

Insight: code is the easy part, marketing is hardest.

Tried to find a partner in SV but couldn’t. Wrote code himself, hired people to collect data about ski resorts.

3. CRM plugin that finds location of customer’s offices based on address of the hotel you’re traveling to

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13167930

Sold for $50. “made pretty good money”.

4. Niche app, $200k/year after 6 years

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13170346

Most likely USB driver that allows using USB devices remotely over a network (http://www.virtualhere.com/, https://forum.openwrt.org/search.php?action=show_user_posts&user_id=129043 is same user name as on HN post).

No marketing, gets sales via word of mouth and internet searches.

5. Website templates, $100k/year profit

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13935663

Sold on https://themeforest.net/. Working about 4hrs a week.

6. Shopify plugins

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13167990

Makes enough money to hire full-time developer for onboarding of new clients, support and documentation. Does product development himself.

Insight: the trick for coming up with product ideas is to first do custom development. When enough clients are willing to spend a few thousand for a personal implementation of something, that’s when you know you have an opportunity to charge 40$ per month for a SaaS version.

7. $20k/mo from 3 niche SaaS products

Source:

Also in the past ran real estate SaaS, making $70k/mo at its height (it then crashed when real estate market crashed).

Advice:

  • tip for a newbie would be to look for something niche that solves a pain point or allows your customer to make or save money. For example: if your customer can spend $10/mo on your software and make or save $30/mo from that, you will have no problem getting & keeping customers.
  • don’t focus on becoming a unicorn. You can make some serious money and build a very comfortable life running a $300k to $1m dollar business, and your chances of succeeding at that are much greater.
  • Look for things outside of tech. There are so many problems to solve in small businesses. Many will say there is no money to make with small businesses.
  • Learn everything you can about advertising. Get really good at it and be willing to spend money on advertising.
  • Be willing to kill something off quickly if it doesn’t make money. Test your market early to make sure people will pay for it. I have made the mistake of not doing this and I have lost a lot of money because of it. Now, I need to be able to see a positive ROI on my spend within 3 to 4 months. So if I spent $100 to acquire a customer, I want to be able to get that back + more within 3 to 4 months. I know this timeline is probably really short for a VC funded company, but I have always been bootstrapped so don’t have the luxury of risking a longer time-frame for return.
  • it is not easy! Prepare to put in long hours especially in the beginning. Prepare for it to take a mental toll at times. You will second guess yourself, feel insecure, be consumed oftentimes with your business.

8. Ngrok

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13168185

Full time for past 4 years.

Insight: minimize support by improving UX, documentation, error messages.

9. Football betting analysis/predictions website, £75k / year

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11216868

http://betalyst.com/ makes £75,000 per year in advertising/sponsorship/affiliate revenue.

Gets !25k visitors a month.

Works 2-3 hrs a week.

Website traffic generation:

  • Android app with 75k users
  • 10% of traffic is from organic search
  • majority of traffic from email (20k subscribers)

10. Watermarking desktop app for Mac/Windows

Source:

Makes $3k-$5k per month after 5 years.

Sells for $30/$60/$140.

11. Real estate startup, $130k/year of profit

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10887978

Profit:

  • $130k in 2013
  • $100k in 2014
  • $140k in 2015

Source of revenues:

  • 30% AdSense
  • 20% users
  • 50% affiliate marketing

Sources of traffic:

  • 50% organic
  • 37% refeerral
  • 13% direct

No marketing, no blog, no social presence.

12. Dan Grossman, improvely and w3counter, $45k/mo

Source:

https://www.w3counter.com/ uses freemium model, people pay subscription for advanced features

https://www.improvely.com/ : SaaS priced $29/$79/$149/$299 / mo.

First customers for improvely came from $100-$200/month AdWords advertising for the first few months and $79/month banner ad on a web stats site bought via BuySellAds.com.

Used SnapEgage chat widget on the website to talk visitors to sign up.

Word of mouth and referrals started quickly after that.

Now referrals are biggest signup drivers.

13. VNC application for Mac and iOS

Sells for $30 on Mac and $20 on iOS.

Source:

14. NomadList, $400k/year revenue

Source:

Revenue source: membership fees for community of digital nomads and remote workers.

15. B2B Windows desktop app, $1 million/year sales

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12066104

Wrote scrach-my-itch app, was side project for 10 years until it started making $120k/mo. Went full time after that. Is in a very crowded niche.

Insight: coding is easy, marketing is hard. Must be persistent.

16. Pinboard, bookmarking web service, $200k/year

Source:

Revenue history: https://blog.pinboard.in/2016/07/pinboard_turns_seven/

17. s3stat, “equivalent of a nice Senior Developer salary”

Source:

18. StoreSlider, $700k in 2016

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14438303

Makes money with affiliate revenue from eBay.

Built with Lumen on PHP 7.1, Nginx, running on Linode.

Source of traffic: word of mouth, social sharing, Google search.

Did a lot of A/B testing to maximise conversion.s.

19. BuiltiWith.com, estimated $12 million/year

Source:

20. tarsnap, backup service, “better than Google salary”

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14442425

21. Sidekiq, $1 million/year

Source: https://www.indiehackers.com/businesses/sidekiq

Open source library for Ruby, a background job framework.

Sells pro version for $950/year and enterprise version. Only needs 800 customer

22. Balsamiq, $2 millions in revenue after 18 months

Source:

It’s no longer a single person but it was created in 2008 by a single person and within 18 monts reached $2 million in revenue.

It’s a desktop app for creating mockups.

23. John Gruber, $32k/mo

Source: https://daringfireball.net/feeds/sponsors/

Makes $8k per week for sponsorship (ads) on his very popular, Apple-oriented website.

24. Sales tracking & CRM app for small business.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14439284

https://www.bottomlinehq.com/, 6-digit revenue.

Freemium model, $30/year. Web and iOS.

25. https://officesnapshots.com/, full-time salary.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=12065574

Started 9 years ago, full-time for last 4 years.

Revenue: AdSense and later selling his own advertising (ads are sold as $/month and sold in blocks of 1 to 12 months.

26. pubexchange.com

Source:

Stated in 2013, operated solo since then. Profitable since 2014.

In early days pitched his service on linkedin, now people come from referrals.

27. park.io, $125k/mo

Source:

Started in 2014. In his spare time he wrote a script to auto-buy domain when it expires and turned that into paid service by adding registration, payments etc.

Most users find it from either parked domains or word of mouth.

Insight: automate all the things.

28. cronitor, $6k/mo revenue after 3 years

Source:

Started in 2014, written part-time by 2 people. They wrote it because it solved a real problem they had at a startup he worked at.

Marketing tactics:

  • did ShowHN
  • answered questions on StackOverflow
  • added a link from a popular, open-source PHP library they had
  • created Stackshare page
  • submitted to startupli.st (site defunct)
  • submitted to “One Thing Well” website
  • wrote high-quality docs for SEO (topic-based articles on ‘how to use cronitor to do X’)

Raised prices after 6 months from $7/$20/$50 => $10/$25/$50 and then $24/$70/$150.

29. bugmuncher, $4k/mo revenue

Source:

Web-based bug tracking software.

Started as a side project in 2010, went full time in Nov 2015, reached living wage in Nov 2016.

30. https://info-beamer.com, close to living wage

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13514865

Digital signage for Raspberry PI. Started as a side project, turned into profitable business.

31. Anonymous app, $5k/mo profit on $7k/mo revenue

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/threads?id=gaeappthrowaway

App hosted on App Engine, ~50 users paying between $30/mo and $500/mo. Analytics API.

32. Wordpress theme, $5k/mo

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8107836

Sold via ThemeForest.

33. Radio Silence, main income

Source:

Mac app (https://radiosilenceapp.com/) that evolved from side project to providing main income for the author. Sells for $9.

Author was able to quit his job.

Business tip: build related free app and host on the same domain.

34. Ryan Clark, 10 Games, $3+ million over 10 years

Source: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RyanClark/20150917/253842/What_Makes_an_Indie_Hit_How_to_Choose_the_Right_Design.php

Working full time since 2004 on his games. Wrote 10 games in 11 years. 8 been profitable, 3 grossed more than $1M.

35. https://PhantomJsCloud.com, ramen profitable for Seattle

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13327835

36. Desktop app, seating planning, $120k+/year

Source:

2 desktop apps for Windows, written in C++.

Over 10 years, sold 40 thousand licenses of first desktop app, the cheapest is $30, which is at least $120k/year.

37. Desktop app in construction industry, making a living

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=11659140

21-year old app for Windows, written in Delphi 5.

38. Video games, making a living

Source:

Multi-platform games written in C#, based on Unity game engine, released on Steawm. Makes a game every X months.

39. Pinegrow Web Editor, comfortable living

Source:

Desktop web editor built with NWJS/Electron. Started by a single person, grew to 3 full-time people.

Launched in January 2014 after 2.5 years in development, sold $100k the first year. Sells for $49/$79.

Marketing: website and asking for e-mail address when starting the trial to build e-mail database to send promotions to.

Tried Carbon, Google and Reddit ads but was losing money on them.

40. https://ipinfo.io, full-time job

Source:

Wrote and launched in a couple of hours as a response to StackOverflow question about. Posted as a response, forgot about it, it became popular so he implemented paid plans and started charging for it.

41. http://duetapp.com, $3-4k/mo

Self-hosted, web-based invoicing and project management app.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8630931

42. https://betterexplained.com, $6k/mo after 10 years

A website with math tutorials. Started in 2006. Content is free. Makes money selling ebooks (on Amazon kindle and directly from the website), amazon affiliate links and newsletter sponsorships.

Source:

43. Website with special-interest news, $!0-15k/mo

Money from AdSense.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8630369

44. $5.5k/mo from Udemy course

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8631035

45. Storemapper, $21k/mo

Source:

46. Brendan Dunn, $451k revenue in 2014 from several products

Source:

His income:

47. Cooking blog, $5-6k/mo

He does the design/programming/marketing/monetization work behind http://www.theyummylife.com, his mother does the writing. Revenue from Amazon affiliates, ads and ebook.

Source:

48. Few dozens entertainment-related websites, $122k/mo

Revenue from AdSense, 8 million monthly uniques, after 6 years.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4468067

49. https://www.tiki-toki.com/, $5k/mo

Web and desktop app for creating pretty timelines. Makes money from premium accounts and selling desktop app.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4469672

50. Webapp in education space, $90k/m

Revenue: AdSsense.

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=4468535

51. Large web community, $90-110k/mo

Revenu from subscription, adsense, other ad revenue, license and royalty revenue

Source: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2567487

52. Zencaster, $12k/mo

Zencaster is a web-based tool that helps podcasters record their guests in studio quality.

Source:

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