I shared the story of how James and I built Leave Me Alone with Starter Story. Read about everything from coming up with the idea, to making our first dollar, the challenges we faced, the lessons we learned, and our plans for the future.
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello! I am Danielle, a digital nomad and indie maker. I am originally from the UK, but for the past 3 years I have been traveling full-time with my partner, best friend, and fellow developer James. We founded our web development agency Squarecat together while on the road and we occasionally freelance, but our main focus is on our flagship product Leave Me Alone - a service to easily unsubscribe from unwanted emails.
Leave Me Alone is super simple to use, just connect all of your email accounts to see all of your subscription emails in one place, and start opting out with a single click!
Leave Me Alone is for anybody with almost any email account who wants to clear out the unwanted noise from their inbox. You could have thousands of unread emails, be striving for inbox zero, or somewhere in between, recurring emails can be a real drain on your time! There’s no easy way to view only the subscriptions and newsletters in your inbox and be able to decide which ones are worth keeping, using Leave Me Alone makes this a breeze!
We are proud to be an Open Startup. This means that all of our metrics including our revenue, expenses, users, and much more are completely public on our open page. We also build in the open by sharing all of our decisions, progress, milestones, and failures publicly. We believe that being transparent is beneficial for both us and our customers. We are able to better understand their needs and get more useful feedback, and our customers have an insight into the people behind the product which results in a better relationship.
It's been almost 9 months since we launched the first version of Leave Me Alone and since then we have listened to our users and improved the service to make unsubscribing even better and easier than before. At the beginning of October, we launched the official Leave Me Alone version 2.0 with improved performance, multiple account support, fairer pricing, and a much smoother experience.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Leave Me Alone isn’t my first product, but it’s the first one that is on the right path to success. Getting there has been an interesting journey!
I loved computers from an early age but I only started coding at 18. I didn’t develop an instant passion for it and I only considered it as a career 2 years later when I went to university to study computer science. After graduating I worked at the UK government for a year, but the culture and heavy focus on climbing the career ladder wasn’t a good fit for me. I tried a stint in the startup scene in Bristol, but I wanted more freedom to work on my own projects. James and I left the UK to travel the world for a year - that was almost three years ago!
The first few things you try are probably going to fail, or you might have to pivot drastically based on unexpected feedback. This is perfectly ok and normal, and will help you be a better entrepreneur if you learn from your mistakes.
We founded Squarecat while on the road and took on freelance projects to fund our travels, but part of the reason we left the UK was because we didn’t want to work for other people anymore.
Our first product was ReleasePage - which let you create a beautiful webpage for your product release notes. We started ReleasePage before we left the UK with the intention of launching once we were at the beach. We worked on it for 6 months, implementing tonnes of features and perfecting everything but we didn’t have any users. We tried our hand at marketing on social media, emailing companies we thought would be interested, and even went so far as to pay a startup PR agency a few hundred dollars to help us. In hindsight, this was completely crazy but we after months of work were desperate to see this product succeed. In the end, we had to admit that we just didn’t have a product that people wanted, so we started over.
After the failure of our first startup, we had been sustaining our travels with client work but we hadn’t given up making stuff! We launched our first native Mac app UptimeBar - a menu bar app to get notifications when your websites go down. People bought it! When we made that first $5 it was such an incredible feeling. We felt like we were finally on the right path. UptimeBar wasn’t super popular but we made a couple of hundred dollars and learned a lot of important lessons; build products that solve your own problems, get early product validation, and be open. This was the first of our products to be an open startup with a basic open page and we got a lot of positive feedback about sharing these stats.
Leave Me Alone was born because we took our own advice and stuck to solving our own problems. We were both spending a lot of time sorting through our emails, so we went searching for a service that would help us find and unsubscribe from ones we didn’t want. We found a few which would help us for free, but a closer look revealed that they didn’t charge because they were selling all of their user's data for marketing. Faced with the dilemma of a messy inbox or all of our data being exploited, we decided to build our own solution.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We started building Leave Me Alone while we were on a bus traveling from Argentina to Bolivia. Not the most traditional work environment, but the busses in South America are very comfortable, and doing some work is a great way to pass the 18 or so hours!
Within a few hours we had 50 potential beta users, and a load of ideas and feature requests. All this before we’d written a single line of code.
We built the first prototype of Leave Me Alone in 7 days. Motivated by our small success being open with our previous project, and mindful of our failures, we took a different approach to build this startup - we wanted to share everything, get early validation, and iterate. So we picked a name, put together a quick landing page, and started sharing it around on social media.
The response was incredibly positive! Within a few hours we had 50 potential beta users, and a load of ideas and feature requests. All this before we’d written a single line of code. The coolest part was that people were invested in the journey itself, not just the product; they wanted to follow what we were doing! We knew that our decision to be open from the start was going to be a huge benefit for us.
Writing the code is the part of building a product that we are most familiar with, and as we’re beginning to understand, it’s also arguably the least important part. We built a basic prototype that focused on the core functionality - showing users their subscription emails and letting them unsubscribe easily. The first version only supported Gmail and only showed emails received within the past week.
With something ready to use we asked people if they'd like to join the closed beta. We initially reached out on Twitter and in the maker community. The app was basic but the feedback for the concept was overwhelmingly positive.
Beta testing is a scary prospect, letting users into your app before it’s quite ready? What if things break? Well, it turns out that things do break, and sometimes they break hard. But beta users aren’t expecting a finished product, and they are surprisingly forgiving! In our case, we swapped free use of our beta product in return to listening intently to absolutely everything they had to say about the app.
As a result, we found and fixed a LOT of bugs, tweaked the UI, and came up with some new features that we hadn’t thought of that are now essential to the app. We are quite sure that without letting users loose as soon as possible, Leave Me Alone wouldn’t be half as effective as it is now.
Our first users had validated our idea, so we continued building the product, but we were careful not to include any unnecessary features. The list of great ideas we wanted to add kept growing, but we focused on making sure that Leave Me Alone performed it’s core functionality really well - unsubscribing users from unwanted emails. Everything else ended up on the “next version” task list. The first version was going to be lean.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We set ourselves a target to launch before the end of January 2019 and worked really hard on both the app and social media promotion. Even before our official release, we managed to reach some incredible milestones; in the first month, we scanned a mind-boggling half a million emails!
We launched Leave Me Alone officially on 30th January 2019 - just in time to meet our target! We launched from a beach town in Peru which meant we would go live at 3 am. With our alarms set for 2:55 am the anticipation was building and neither of us got much sleep. We had experienced pretty unreliable internet in South America, but we found one cafe with good WiFi to launch from and spent all day there - it may have been a beach town, and I don’t want to shatter anyone's digital nomad dreams, but the work part is rarely done from the actual beach!
Launch day was exhilarating, exhausting, and a huge success, but we encountered several incidents that required quick thinking to resolve while the number of visitors soared. Some of the things that went wrong; our live stats showed that we had zero users, we broke payments so no one could buy scans, and our post on Hacker News caused a 15-minute server outage.
These mishaps could have been critical, but we managed to handle them and they contributed to a good story afterwards! After an exhausting day, we were beyond happy to be holding the top spot and celebrated with beers on the beach - that part of nomad life is accurate!
Overall the launch went better than we could have ever imagined. Not only did we manage to sustain a huge amount of traffic and make an astonishing number of sales, but we also got a lot of incredible feedback and support for our product.
In the past two years, we have built and launched a handful of products but none of them have been very successful. We wanted our launch of Leave Me Alone to be different, so we took a different approach to the whole process leading up to, and including the launch. Our key lessons from this are;
- Don’t waste time building a product without validating a need for it first.
- Ask users what they want instead of wasting time guessing and building redundant features - users love giving feedback.
- Build a user base and hype on social media before launching
Launch day is a great way to get your product in front of people, but it shouldn’t be viewed as make or break. A large community following can help with getting that #1 spot, but for long term success or growth the product has to be good and people have to use it!
Analytics for launch day and the days that followed
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
The best thing that has worked for us for growing our audience is building in the open and being transparent about everything we are doing. We have a community following of people invested in us and our journey to build this product who want to see us succeed.
This has helped us to stay on track, remain accountable, and provided an invaluable support network when things have been tough. We honestly attribute a large proportion of our success to the wonderful communities we are a part of who help to share our updates, promote our launches, and give us the motivation to keep going. The biggest ones are Makerlog and Women Make, but we also receive lots of support on Twitter, Indie Hackers, and recently in person from nomad coworking and meet-up groups in Bali!
All of our traffic is organic; from social media, our blog, and word of mouth since we have not yet run any advertising campaigns. We blog about a variety of topics including changes to the product, privacy, remote work, and coding. These are shared on our Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn profiles using Buffer to post twice a week. Twitter is our biggest driver of traffic, and it is also where we are most active. Recently we started reaching out to other blogs to write guest posts for each other to bring our readers different knowledge and expertise - we have had success writing for Metomic’s Privacy Bible and we hope to continue doing this.
We recently took part in a climate change event to build something which would raise awareness of climate change and facilitate action or change. We discovered that emails have a significant carbon footprint and decided to build a new feature to highlight the impact of unwanted emails on the planet and help people see how much they could reduce their carbon footprint by from unsubscribing. The landing page and blog post we dedicated to this has done really well on social media and generated some more traffic outside of our tech/maker bubble.
We have experimented with sponsoring niche newsletters, but since our marketing budget is practically zero, we haven’t seen much success from this. However, at the end of September 2019 we saw a gigantic spike in traffic and sales for a couple of days because we were recommended in this Recomendo newsletter with 28,000 subscribers. This goes to show that if we can target get the right newsletter audience, then we will almost definitely see growth in this area!
The irony of newsletters driving traffic and sales is not lost on us, but we are not anti-newsletter, we are only against unwanted newsletters. Not all subscriptions are bad, and we want our customers to hold on to the emails that they do read. This is one of the reasons we don’t have an “unsubscribe from everything” button because almost all of our users don’t want this, they just want to clear out the spam and keep the content they enjoy reading.
When we launched our product our pricing model was different to today; we used to charge customers based on how far back in time they wanted to scan for subscription emails - $3 for the past week, $5 for the past month, etc. This had many limitations, so in July 2019 we changed our pricing model from time-based to credit-based. We wrote an entire blog post about this here, but the main reasons were to make the pricing fairer, increase signup to paid customer conversions, and increase the number of returning customers.
New customers now get to use the full version of Leave Me Alone with a few free credits. This means they can see the value immediately, and once they have seen how simple it is to unsubscribe from their first few emails, are more likely to purchase package. It is fairer pricing since the packages are tiered depending on the customer's inbox size, so they only need to buy the number of credits they need. Plus, failed unsubscribes don’t cost any credits!
To further increase the number of returning customers we have a rewards system with a referral program. Customers can earn more credits for free for doing things in the app such as sharing on social media and setting a reminder to scan again. This is beneficial to us as well since it encourages people to tweet about Leave Me Alone and we get additional high-quality traffic from referrals.
The Recomendo newsletter that shared Leave Me Alone actually used a referral link which directly resulted in 624 visitors, 271 signups (43%), and 24 sales (8% of signups or 3% visit to sale) in 24 hours! This is great since the new customer gets additional free credits, and the referrer does too - that person has probably got a few thousand credits now!
Unwanted subscription emails take up a lot of time in the workplace, so we also have a Teams plan with unlimited unsubscribes for a fixed price per seat per month. If someone refers a teams customer with more than 10 users then we pay them a $50 finders fee!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our revenue is growing slowly, but steadily. We have had some ups and downs but overall the trend is upwards with last month's revenue almost hitting $500. Without any paid marketing we saw a 34% increase in sales, a 31% increase in new signups, and a 23% increase in revenue from packages from July to August 2019.
This month (September 2019) we hit some big milestones; 10,000 users and 1,000 sales - a conversion rate of 10%. Our revenue per customer is $0.68 and it has remained almost the same for the past 9 months. The number of signups to sales increase at the same rate, so we just need to get more traffic to get more customers!
Monthly traffic is gradually increasing too. Last month (August 2019) we had ~5.5k visits, which resulted in 750 signups (13% landing page conversion) and 82 sales (11% signup conversion) - 2.12% view to sale conversion.
Our credits pricing model is the fairest for our customers, but it is not the most stable for us to live off. Our goal is to become ramen profitable - which for me and James means reaching $2,000 in gross revenue per month. Growing our subscription customers on Teams plans is one of our priorities since recurring revenue is a more sustainable form of income for us that will mean we can continue to build and grow Leave Me Alone for all of our customers.
One of the main ways we are doing this is through direct sales. I recently listened to the Indie Hackers Podcast episode with Pat Walls (the founder of Starter Story!) where he and Courtland talked about direct sales, and how it is one of the most effective ways of growing a startup, but that nobody talks about it.
Well, I’m talking about it. I have tried direct sales in the past but with generic templates and poor attempts to add that all-important personal touch - so it’s no surprise that it didn’t work. This time I am following what has worked for Leave Me Alone all along - being honest, open, and genuine. It may sound cliche, but being myself and just reaching out to people as a real person actually works. Faking interest in someone’s business just to make a sale isn’t going to get you very far, and it goes against everything that Leave Me Alone stands for. We don’t want to be sending generic spammy emails! So, we make sure that people we reach out to can actually benefit from Leave Me Alone.
This is made miles easier because Leave Me Alone really does help people and we can demonstrate it! We have a bunch of numbers about how much time can be saved over the course of a month or year by unsubscribing from unwanted emails and we use these to show people the value they would be getting from using the service. They are a combination of our anonymous statistics and research papers on email usage which power the estimators on our pricing page and teams page. Since neither of us are marketers, doing the selling part is still outside of our comfort zone and we are still working on the pitch, but when people read our emails they respond with genuine interest.
The next step for us is to get more people interested in Leave Me Alone who are outside of our maker/indie hacker audience on social media. We have started getting involved with groups and attending events in nomad hubs like Canggu, Bali to meet other like-minded people building or founding things to sustain the nomadic lifestyle. A welcome side effect of this is meeting people with whom we can share skills and knowledge, and who might have contacts that can help us. Last week we met a developer who interned at The Next Web, which gave him contacts to help grow his first app to 10 million users. As the saying goes; it’s not what you know, it’s who you know!
Our long term plans for Leave Me Alone stem from our mission statement, to help people keep control of their inbox. The current response to unwanted emails is primarily reactive - you unsubscribe if you don't need them in an ever-lasting battle. Our goal is to stop this cycle. We believe that this requires a shift from being reactive to being proactive, meaning we will be trying to help users decide which mailing lists are deserving of their attention before they subscribe to them.
We think that our Subscriber Score feature, which currently ranks each of the subscriptions in your inbox so you can quickly tell if you should unsubscribe from it, will be a powerful way of addressing this. Our next goal will be to figure out how we can apply this in a way that brings our users closer to our vision - watch this space!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
It is still early days for Leave Me Alone, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but things are going really well!
Our biggest challenges as developers are marketing and sales. We are very much learning on the job, tweaking emails and asking for feedback on our pitch, experimenting with blog post topics and sharing to various social platforms, but we are getting better! We have learned not to agonise over the content too much, and to focus on reaching more people instead. The same goes for blog posts, after reading this article on building better writing habits, I try not to overthink the content and proofread only a couple of times before posting - even though this is difficult for me as I am very much a perfectionist!
The hardest part is not being able to work on Leave Me Alone completely full time since it doesn’t yet bring in enough revenue for us to live on.
Our single best decision was to share our journey of ups and downs, and give people an insight into our lives as we build Leave Me Alone from various locations around the world - our audience has proved invaluable when we needed feedback, advice, encouragement, and even beta testers!
However, there have been several events like this Fast Company article and being mentioned in the Recomendo newsletter which has given us a much-needed boost, and these were all luck! In fact, as I was writing this story one of our dreams came true, we were featured in Lifehacker! This is a huge win for us, as Lifehacker is one giant tech publication that we have always aspired to be featured in. Hopefully, this is the start of more press coverage and increased growth!
We have definitely learned to keep it simple. Leave Me Alone v2 has a bunch more features than when we first launched, but our main product remains the same - unsubscribing from unwanted emails. Even the unsubscribe toggle is the same as our first prototype! We get requests for features every single day and building them would be simple - it’s what we do after all. What is difficult, is to remain focused on growing and marketing, when we would much rather bury our heads in some code and keep rolling out new functionality. To keep ourselves on track we are super strict with our roadmap, and only work towards features which are improving our core offering or costing us a lot of time in support requests.
Working online and promoting your products on social media can also be a source of distraction. At the beginning I found myself spending hours looking at analytics and Twitter - they used to be pinned tabs in my browser that were open all the time so I could check them quickly. This was terrible for my focus so I have a rule where I am only allowed to look at analytics once a day (in the morning when we wake up), and I am working on condensing my time on Twitter into shorter, more meaningful sessions.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Cookie consent: Metomic
Metomic makes data compliance and managing users' consent preferences easy. They provide us with a customisable widget that tells users what data we are asking for access to, with whom we share it, and for what.
Analytics: Simple Analytics
In-app support chat: Custom
Our chat is hosted on our servers, the transcripts are stored in the users client (never by us), and the messages are sent to Telegram. As we already use Telegram for messaging this service is a perfect privacy-focused alternative to apps like Intercom and Drift.
Error handling: Sentry
Sentry is super valuable to capture and view unhandled errors when they occur. We have made use of their webhooks to post new Sentry errors to a Telegram chat too.
Email tools: Mailgun
Mailgun is super cheap. It only costs us a few dollars to send thousands of emails a month. It’s not quite as friendly to use but are happy to send emails using our server code instead of a UI which makes it simple. Mailchimp costs hundreds of dollars for the same thing.
This tool has changed my life! We use it for a variety of things at Leave Me Alone; we fetch our open page expenses and our press coverage, and we have forms for reporting bugs, providing feedback, and gathering our Wall of Love testimonials.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I don’t listen to many podcasts but I recommend the Indie Hackers Podcast because I love learning about other indie founders journeys. First-hand accounts of their experiences remind me that almost everyone who has found success struggled at some point to get there. Courtland interviews a huge range of people, from small side projects just getting started, to the founders of companies turning over millions!
As for books, I have a huge amount of startup books which I have never read past the first chapter because I can’t relate to them. This is not a critique of the books themselves, but they are covering business at a much larger scale than James and I are doing right now and I can’t apply the advice to our situation. The next on my list to try is Company of One by Paul Jarvis - the title suggests it might be a bit more up my street even though there’s two of us :).
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
The most important thing is to realise that the first few things you try are probably going to fail, or you might have to pivot drastically based on unexpected feedback. This is perfectly ok and normal, and will help you be a better entrepreneur if you learn from your mistakes. It takes time to find an idea that sticks. Don’t hold onto a bad idea or product just because it’s the easy option. It’s difficult to admit that something you built or are building isn’t working, isn’t getting users, and isn’t growing. If you can recognise when this is happening and be objective about it, then you will waste less time bouncing back and working on your next idea.
Imposter syndrome is incredibly real. Document your journey, publicly or in private, and when you are struggling, look at your early prototypes and blog posts to see how far you have come. Join communities, meet people, and ask for help. Being a founder can be lonely - even James and I have experienced this despite traveling and founding Leave Me Alone together. I never thought I would be featured in Starter Story, and receiving advice requests from other makers that I feel confident answering, and feeling oddly calm at the prospect of live streaming our upcoming launch - one day I will be doing even bigger things and looking back on this.
Just get out there, out of your comfort zone, and start doing. It’s scary, it’s hard work, and it’s stressful, but it’s incredibly rewarding when you succeed and you have customers telling you how much you have helped them. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for Leave Me Alone. I hope you’ll follow along with our journey :).
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: leavemealone.app
- Facebook: @LeaveMeAloneApp
- Twitter: @LeaveMeAloneApp
- LinkedIn: @LeaveMeAloneApp
- Blog: blog.leavemealone.app
- Email: [email protected]
- Personal Instagram: @dinkydani
Originally published at Starter Story on 24 Oct 2019