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KanbanMail / Productivity / Australia / $ 176 MRR

How 16 Year Old Made Trello for Email App - Story of KanbanMail

Hello ! Who are you and what are you working on?

Hey! I'm Ethan, a 16 year old maker from Sydney, Australia. The main project that I'm working on at the moment is my SaaS (Software as a Service), KanbanMail. It's an email app that displays your emails in a Kanban board. Kind of like Trello for email!

What motivated you to get started with? How did you come up with the idea?

In 2017, I started using KanbanFlow (similar to Trello) to manage my schoolwork. It really helped me stay on top of things and visualize what I had to do, and I thought it would be really cool to have a similar product but for emails instead of tasks!

I really wanted a product like that, and since I couldn't find any products that fit my needs, I decided to make it myself and see if other people would use it too.

Can you tell us the story of your business from idea to where you are now?

At the start of 2018, I set a goal to launch a proper product by the end of the year. The most promising idea that I had was KanbanMail, so I decided to make it! Because I'd never worked with APIs (the things that you use to get data from services eg. Gmail), I found it really hard, and soon lost a bit of motivation and paused. I regained motivation again in June, and started working on it every day! I had a usable version ready by the end of July, and even though it had most features missing (including sending!) thought I'd release it so some of my maker friends could try it out.

Someone ended up posting it on Hacker News, and when I woke up the next morning I found out that KanbanMail was #1 on Hacker News and that I had 22K visitors! The product was definitely not ready yet, so I decided to keep working on all of the features I needed to launch a proper version and release the beta to people in the meantime. The beta was free, since it was really rudimentary and I didn't think that it was worth paying for yet. On the 14th of September, I finally released 'version one' and started charging for KanbanMail! I waited a few weeks to check for bugs or issues, and then I launched it on Product Hunt on the 2nd of October, 2018. It was a really good launch — I live streamed the whole thing and got to #1 product of the day, on a Tuesday.

I got thousands of trial signups. However, I was really disappointed with the amount of people who ended up converting to the paid plan at the end of the free trial — only about 1%. Looking back, it's easy to see why — the version that I launched was really simple, had a lot of features missing, was buggy, and was sometimes hard to use. Since the big launch was over, I decided to take my time making KanbanMail the best it could possibly be for a relaunch the next year (this year). Since then, I've been constantly improving KanbanMail.

Incremental improvement over many months has really added up, and KanbanMail today feels completely different from the version that I launched on Product Hunt! I've been listening to feedback and trying to optimize it for the best user experience. While still relatively low, I can already see my conversion rate increasing! I plan to relaunch KanbanMail in a few months.

What has been your biggest failure or struggle?

My biggest struggle has definitely been getting paying customers. I've had no problem generating hype, getting visitors to the landing page, and getting trial signups. In fact even today, with literally no marketing (while I work on improving the product), I'm still getting 80-100 trial sign-ups per month, and I've gotten over 2000 trial sign-ups since I started KanbanMail.

The biggest challenge for me is getting people to pay. I've seen an increase in conversions by making the product itself much better, but I also need to do things such as improving the onboarding process and experimenting with pricing models to see what works.

And what has been your biggest achievement or success?

My biggest achievement would probably be getting both #1 on Product Hunt and Hacker News. A year ago I never imagined being able to get in the top 5 on Product Hunt, and KanbanMail ended up being #1 PRODUCT OF THE DAY! I'd say my other success has been building a product which genuinely helps people with their lives and makes them more efficient.

Even though I'm still working on conversion rates, I have some loyal customers who KanbanMail is really helping!

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Since the launch, I actually haven't done much marketing at all! This is because I realized that my actual product could be a lot better, and if I make KanbanMail a truly awesome email client, then it will be a lot easier to gain and convert customers. But as I said earlier, I'm still getting 80-100 trial sign-ups per month.

Most of my traffic at the moment comes from Twitter, because I often tweet progress updates about KanbanMail. People seem to really like this, and often go to the website and end up signing up because of something that they see me tweet. So my recommendation would be to tweet often and transparently about your progress on your startup. And include screenshots :)

There's a lot more stuff that I could be doing such as content marketing, but I don't have time for a lot of that. So tweeting is the easiest and most fun option that still brings real results. Some people also find KanbanMail from Google, although it usually only comes up when searching about Kanban and email together.

Describe the process of launching the business.

It was really fun and exciting to launch KanbanMail! I decided to livestream the launch, which helped generate lots of hype. Also, a lot of the people who were watching the livestream went and upvoted the product on Product Hunt, even though I didn't ask them to. So I'd definitely recommend livestreaming the launch.

I spent about a week before the launch preparing. This included tasks like making an animated logo, making a demo video, writing the maker's comment and writing the description. I also wrote out a launch plan with everything that I was going to post on each platform at different times throughout the launch. I think that doing this planning really paid off. I got a hunter to hunt it (Ben Tossell), but I can't really tell how much this helped. I think it did at least a bit though!

I can't really talk much about the process of launching on Hacker News, since someone else posted it while I was sleeping without me knowing and I didn't prepare at all! It was really cool to wake up to a bunch of mentions on Twitter saying "congrats on reaching #1 on Hacker News!" though. :)

What’s your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

When a user signs up, they get access to all the features for a 7 day free trial (although I'm thinking of changing that to 14 days). When the free trial is over, they lose access to KanbanMail, and they get an email with a pay button. If they pay, they can then keep using KanbanMail. The price is $8/month. I'm thinking of experimenting with freemium models, but I haven't tried that yet. I've mainly grown revenue by trying to increase the conversion rate by making KanbanMail a better and more useable product.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and obstacles you’ve overcome? What are your goals for the future?

As I said earlier, the biggest challenge I've faced is converting people to the paid plan. Another challenge I'm facing is Google's increasingly tight restrictions on the Gmail API. I'm in the process of getting reverified, but Google's mostly automated replies can often keep going round in circles or tell me I have to do something really vaguely with barely any information at all. Hopefully I can get reverified by the end of the year, since that is the deadline!

My main goal for the future is to get more people using KanbanMail and more MRR (Monthly Recurring Revenue). My goal is that by the time I leave school, KanbanMail will be making enough revenue to be able to cover my living expenses.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

At the moment I'm doing alright, I'm at $176 MRR. This could be a lot higher, but I think I have an awesome product, and so do the people who use it and send me emails sometimes, but I need to find the right market for it. In the future I hope to be making over $1K MRR and to have hundreds of happy users of my product! :)

You are 16 year old ,How did you learn coding? Did you do any particular courses or bootcamps?

I started learning to code by following some free courses on Codecademy. But after spending a bit of time on those, I decided to just start programming random mini-websites to put my skills to use and learn new things that I needed along the way by looking them up on StackOverflow. You can read more about how I learned to code here.

Did you have any specific people that inspired you to learn coding?

Before learning to code, I used to hang out in the Scratch community. Scratch is a website where people can make things using drag-and-drop coding. Some other people I knew on there were learning text-based coding, so I wanted to as well!

Why should we use KanbanMail?

Personally, I get quite a lot of emails, and normally, they all show up in one long list. You can categorize them, but you still can only see one list at a time. This makes it really hard to get an overview of my emails and to get through my emails quickly. By having emails on a Kanban board, I can keep track of the status of different emails, and see at a glance which emails I need to action, which emails I’m waiting for a reply to, etc. I’ve also built lots of awesome keyboard shortcuts meaning you can clear your inbox down really fast and keep things under control easily!

How are you taking feedback from the users? Using any tool or something else?

I’m using tawk.to, but honestly I prefer crisp.chat. The only reason why I moved was because Crisp deletes your messages after about a month unless you get the paid plan, and it’s not worth the price for where KanbanMail is currently. Also, tawk.to is easier to embed within the app without having to give third-party code access to the app itself.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I've learned so much stuff along the way! I've learned lots about programming, marketing, business and more. This whole process has really made me a true believer in learning by doing. But in particular, I'd say that one of the most important things I've learned is to be transparent, and to act like a human. By being transparent and sharing what I'm doing, I've been able to grow my followers and connect with a bunch of other awesome makers. When you share your progress transparently, you get a group of people who are interested in your journey. These are the types of feedback who will then give you feedback on your product, upvote you on Product Hunt, share your product, and give you advice. And you make a bunch of awesome friends! I also think you should always act like a human. Sometimes makers seem to think that they need to act like a big business because that's what all the successful businesses do. But honestly, I think being able to act like a real human who has a passion for their product is an indie maker's superpower. Don't be afraid to act genuine!

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I use Stripe for payments, Netlify for hosting, Cloudflare for caching, DNS and cloud functions (workers), Porkbun to buy domains, and Sparkpost to send automated emails. And of course KanbanMail to manage my emails from customers 😉

Who’s your most inspirational CEO or founder?

Elon Musk, he's so smart and is really changing the world for the better! He also has a good sense of humour.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I've been really inspired by Pieter Levels' talks and book (makebook.io). He showed me that you don't need an entire team to start and run a business, and you don't need millions of dollars in investments either. He's really shaped how I think about startups! I also love listening to the Indie Hackers podcast when I get the time.

What’s your advice for fellow aspiring entrepreneur who are just starting out?

Be transparent and open right from the start, it will create so many opportunities in the future!

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