⭐️ Why the indie maker playbook is dead (or how I learned to spend money on ads)

Revenue screenshots always do well on Twitter. But if you supplement your screenshot with a little comment that you achieved this while spending $0 ads, you have a sure winner of a tweet.

In the indie maker world, not spending money on ads is seen as a badge of honor.

Every tribe needs an enemy and the indie maker tribe’s natural enemy are VC-funded startups.

They routinely burn through millions of dollars in ad spend.

So if you’re able to build a revenue-generating business without spending money on ads, you become a hero in the indie maker world.

And for a long time, I did buy into that narrative.

I too was annoyed seeing the same YouTube ad by some VC-funded startup for the hundredth time.

I’m looking at you MONDAY DOT COM.

The indie maker mindset is also definitely closer to my natural tendencies.

I’m quite frugal in my personal life. So being frugal when it comes to my business ventures came naturally to me.

But I’ve started to seriously question if this is really that smart of an approach.

Yes, it’s definitely cool if you build something so awesome that it just naturally blows up and keeps growing ever after.

No one exemplifies this story better than Pieter Levels.

He was able to tap into the digital nomad and remote work trends at the right time with the right kind of story, which was quickly picked up by major news outlets.

There was a huge initial spike in interest that resulted in the explosion of his personal brand and a large number of strong backlinks to his projects Nomad List and RemoteOK.

So he never had to spend serious money on ads. Thanks to the large number of backlinks and the rapid growth of his personal brand, there has been a solid stream of traffic to his projects coming through Google and Twitter ever since.

That’s the indie maker playbook in a nutshell.

Pieter’s story is awesome and continues to inspire thousands of aspiring indie makers every year.

But here’s the thing.

What if none of your projects ever takes off as Pieter’s did?

That’s, in fact, the reality for most indie makers.

Most are only able to drum up a little bit of attention and grow their personal brand to a moderate level. They might be able to make it to one of the top spots on Product Hunt or the front page of Hacker News.

But none of that is enough to build a sustainable stream of traffic to their project.

The playbook only really works if that initial spike of attention also results in backlinks from sites with solid authority or an explosion of your personal brand. Otherwise, your traffic numbers will quickly be back to zero.

Another thing worth noting is that the landscape has changed quite a bit since Pieter started out.

Pieter was able to launch every single new feature as a new “product” on ProductHunt. This allowed him to get another attention spike almost every month.

You’re no longer allowed to do that.

Also the Twitter algorithm has changed significantly, with only a small percentage of your followers seeing your tweets. This makes it a lot harder to leverage the platform effectively as a founder.

And of course, a much larger number of people are nowadays trying to do the same thing. Building in public has become pretty normal and is no longer enough to stand out.

It also doesn’t help that the IndieHackers community is no longer what it used to be with, for example, product updates being removed from the home page.

Considering all of these factors, it seems safe to say that the traditional indie maker playbook is pretty much dead.

It had a good run but like all playbooks it eventually stopped working.

For example, GymShark was able to build a huge brand using influencer marketing before the term existed. Good luck trying to do the same in 2022. And of course, let’s not forget that the first banner ad ever had a clickthrough rate of 78%. In 2021, the average varies between 0.05%-0.16%.

Similarly, Pieter and Co were able to get a huge amount of attention by building in public and launching lots of projects on ProductHunt. But in 2022 and beyond, you most likely won’t find success that way.

There are some variants that still work to some extent in specific niches.

For example, when you’re building a tweet scheduling tool, you can still drive enough organic traffic just by tweeting. Or if you have enough confidence in your business model and are willing to play the long game, you can still win in some niches doing old-school content marketing. Or if you’re building a marketplace app, building in public can go a long way in helping you get over that initial hurdle until you start attracting enough organic traffic through the marketplace.

But what’s the alternative for everyone else?

Luckily, there’s plenty of room in-between relying 100% on organic traffic and burning through millions WeWork style.

Spending money on ads doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wasting it.

Shocking, I know, fellow indie makers.

This is of course perfectly obvious when your customer acquisition cost is lower than your average revenue per user.

But there are also more subtle ways in which spending money on ads can make a lot of sense.

For example, I have a long list of business ideas that I think have some potential. Nevertheless, I know that most of them will fail. That’s just the nature of the game.

One approach would be to validate my ideas one after another by building in public and trying to get some organic attention for each one of them. I would launch them on ProductHunt and share the story of how I’m building them on Twitter and IndieHackers.

That’s what I did in the past and what most indie makers are trying to do.

And even though this approach costs you zero dollars, it does come with a high cost.

The most underappreciated factors are emotional attachment and public pressure.

Both are inevitable when you blend product marketing with your personal story, a cornerstone of the indie maker playbook.

When you’re building in public and leveraging your personal brand to get a new product idea off the ground, you will always feel like a thousand eyes are watching every one of your moves.

This makes it so much harder to abandon ideas that didn’t quite work out. You don’t want to be seen as a quitter, as someone who fails, or as someone who’s not able to stick to one thing and constantly jumps from idea to idea.

That’s a very real concern for myself and quite a few of my indie maker friends.

For many it feels easier to just vanish than to declare publicly that you failed and move on to the next idea.

More obvious problems of the traditional indie maker approach are it’s slow speed and the fuzzy nature of the data you’re getting.

Consider this: How many ideas can you validate organically in parallel?

I’d say just one at a time. Getting attention organically is difficult enough, so splitting it further up is not a smart thing to do.

And it’s extremely hard to judge ideas purely based on the organic response you’re getting.

How many people in my target market saw my offer?

I have absolutely no idea. There very well could’ve been zero of them even though I got thousands of visitors on my landing page through ProductHunt and Twitter. Maybe that’s why I made zero sales.

So even though this is hard for a frugal guy like me, I now have to admit that spending $500 to validate an idea isn’t that dumb.

I can set up a landing page, use the money to drive laser-focused traffic to it, and then look at the conversion rate to see if the idea has potential.

Why spend months building an audience in a specific niche, when I can also pay some money to get a shoutout from someone who managed to do just that?

Why hope that enough qualified leads will be among all the fuzzy organic traffic my landing page is getting, when I can get those leads directly in exchange for some money?

Why spend days crafting Reddit posts hoping that one of them will go viral if I can also pay a few cents per targeted click using Reddit ads?

Yes, there are of course people who don’t have enough money to pay for traffic.

But many indie makers have well-paying jobs or savings and could easily afford to spend a little bit of money to validate and grow ideas faster.

The only reason why they’re not doing it is the general negative sentiment towards ads in the indie maker community.

That was 100% what was holding me back.

$500 is a significant amount of money for me. But would I be willing to spend $500 to avoid wasting a month of my life on an idea that has no legs?

Absolutely.

And if you can afford it, my modest suggestion is you start doing the same.

It’s truly a game changer and I feel like I broke out from some invisible prison.

When you’re testing ideas in private and running multiple experiments in parallel it’s so much easier to kill projects that are just not working the way they should.

It’s also a lot easier to focus on what truly matters.

Many traditional indie maker activities do cost a lot of time but yield no measurable returns.

Yes, that neat side project or that post on Indie Hackers might have netted you a few hundred new Twitter followers and improved your standing in the community.

But did any of that truly move the needle?

A lot of it is fueled by the vague hope that eventually everything will work out just the way it did for Pieter. Just keep shipping, keep building in public, keep growing your audience.

Sorry but that’s just a dream, not a real plan. And it’s a dream that doesn’t work out for most people, especially in 2022.

With my new approach, I’m now more focused than ever on crafting compelling offers, thinking about who really has the problem I’m trying to solve, and how I’m able to reach them. You know, all the things entrepreneurship is really all about.

And I can now see that many things I did in the past were sophisticated distractions I came up with to avoid doing more uncomfortable things like, for example, spending money on ads or facing the reality that some of my projects are dead in the water.

As usual, I wrote this first and foremost to solidify my own thinking on the topic. And I’m sharing these earned insights because I’m hoping more people will do the same instead of producing insight porn.

But I’m quite confident I can anticipate people’s reactions after reading my thoughts here.

  • Indie maker fundamentalists will get angry.
  • Anyone not familiar with the indie maker community will probably have no idea what I’m talking about here. Spending money on ads is not only completely normal but also a no-brainer for most founders outside our little bubble.
  • And last but not least, a few people will hopefully say, thanks Jakob, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.

But regardless of what camp you fall in, thanks for making it that far. If you have any feedback, I’d love to hear it!

Written on August 15, 2022

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