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
- 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:
- good reputation
- big market
- staying alive long enough for word of mouth to kick in
Web/iOS/Android app for ski resorts.
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 1/2 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
Sold for $50. “made pretty good money”.
4. Niche app, $200k/year after 6 years
Most likely USB driver that allows using USB devices remotely over a network (https://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, $100k/year profit
Sold on https://themeforest.net/. Working about 4hrs a week.
6. Shopify plugins
Makes enough money to hire full-time developer for onboarding of new clients, support and documentation. Does product development himself.
Insight: the trick for coming up with product ideas is to first do custom development. When enough clients are willing to spend a few thousand for a personal implementation of something, that’s when you know you have an opportunity to charge 40$ per month for a SaaS version.
7. $20k/mo from 3 niche SaaS products
Also in the past ran real estate SaaS, making $70k/mo at its height (it then crashed when real estate market crashed).
- 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.
Full time for past 4 years.
Insight: minimize support by improving UX, documentation, error messages.
9. Football betting analysis/predictions website, £75k / year
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
Makes $3k-$5k per month after 5 years.
Sells for $30/$60/$140.
11. Real estate startup, $130k/year of 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% referral
- 13% direct
No marketing, no blog, no social presence.
12. Dan Grossman, improvely and w3counter, $45k/mo
- https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9726951 : how he started
- https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10201718, https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8396497 : business tips
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.
14. NomadList, $400k/year revenue
Revenue source: membership fees for community of digital nomads and remote workers.
15. B2B Windows desktop app, $1 million/year sales
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
Revenue history: https://blog.pinboard.in/2016/07/pinboard_turns_seven/
17. s3stat, “equivalent of a nice Senior Developer salary”
18. StoreSlider, $700k in 2016
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 maximize conversion.s.
19. BuiltiWith.com, estimated $12 million/year
20. tarsnap, backup service, “better than Google salary”
21. Sidekiq, $1 million/year
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
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
Makes $8k per week for sponsorship (ads) on his very popular, Apple-oriented website.
24. Sales tracking & CRM app for small business.
https://www.bottomlinehq.com/, 6-digit revenue.
Freemium model, $30/year. Web and iOS.
25. https://officesnapshots.com/, full-time salary.
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.
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
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
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.
- 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
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
Digital signage for Raspberry PI. Started as a side project, turned into profitable business.
31. Anonymous app, $5k/mo profit on $7k/mo revenue
App hosted on App Engine, ~50 users paying between $30/mo and $500/mo. Analytics API.
32. Wordpress theme, $5k/mo
Sold via ThemeForest.
33. Radio Silence, main income
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
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
36. Desktop app, seating planning, $120k+/year
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
21-year old app for Windows, written in Delphi 5.
38. Video games, making a living
Multi-platform games written in C#, based on Unity game engine, released on Steam. Makes a game every X months.
39. Pinegrow Web Editor, comfortable living
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
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.
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.
43. Website with special-interest news, $!0-15k/mo
Money from AdSense.
44. $5.5k/mo from Udemy course
45. Storemapper, $21k/mo
46. Brendan Dunn, $451k revenue in 2014 from several products
- https://doubleyourfreelancing.com/rate/, online course, $207k
- http://doubleyourfreelancing.com/leads/, online course, $40k
- https://planscope.io/, SaaS app, $71k
- http://buildaconsultancy.com/, live classes, $44k from 3 live classes
- consulting and coaching, $89k from 6 weeks of consulting
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.
48. Few dozens entertainment-related websites, $122k/mo
Revenue from AdSense, 8 million monthly uniques, after 6 years.
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.
50. Webapp in education space, $90k/m
51. Large web community, $90-110k/mo
Revenu from subscription, adsense, other ad revenue, license and royalty revenue
52. Zencaster, $12k/mo
Zencaster is a web-based tool that helps podcasters record their guests in studio quality.
53. Workflowy, $800k/year
Jesse Patel learn how to program building https://workflowy.com/. After 9 months of working on it alone, he asked a friend he knew from college to join him. They got into YC to work on a different idea but pivoted back to Workflowy.
They started charging 2 years after they launched and got enough revenue to pay for living expenses.
They have 100k paying users and $800k/year revenue.