October 7th 2020
This month I built and launched a website called Earlyname, which lets you claim your original “OG” username on new apps, games and websites (for example @ben, @mike or @mia). This is the story of how it went.
Hello, and welcome back to another edition of man tries strange business ideas on the internet. I’m your host: Tiny Projects.
How are you all doing? I’m doing just dandy, thanks for asking. I actually went on a nice holiday to Crete, where, lying on a beach, slightly sunburnt and eating a budget salami sandwich I’d whipped up in the morning, I had the idea for my next Tiny Project.
In the weeks leading up to this moment I’d been frantically searching for my next thing to build. This time, I thought; this time, things were going to be different.
I was going to go out in search of a problem, then build the solution! That’s the advice every Indie Hacker gives, right?
My god, I tried to do this. I posted in subreddits, facebook groups and sent off a few emails, all looking for people with problems to solve. I even read half a book called “Zero to Sold”, which was about a man who made a lot of money selling software to troubled english teachers (Sorry Arvid, I’ll finish it one day).
My subreddit questions got loads of replies, I focused on areas I knew, but I just wasn’t feeling anything. Perhaps that’s just the truth? Maybe the most profitable businesses aren’t initially that exciting.
Back on the beach I’d finished my sandwich, and was just about to try a Greek delicacy: Pizza flavoured Cheetos. You just simply can’t get this stuff back in the UK.
On my phone I received an email from someone called An asking if they could change their username to @an on Snormal, the tiny social network I’d built the month prior.
It was a reasonable ask, and I was more than happy to oblige. However, my attention had been diverted away from my strange pizza-flavoured snack, and was heading straight towards the bright lights of username city.
I realised, when I first showed my girlfriend that same social network I'd made, she signed up and commented how excited she was to get her first name @alice as a username. The day before An’s email, I had signed up to Amazon’s upcoming MMO “New World”, and was pretty stoked I managed to get my last name @stokes as a username.
I also realised that I’m always trying new stuff online, no matter how bad it is, just so I can snag @ben as a username. And wait, wasn’t that whole massive celebrity Twitter hack over the summer to do with usernames too?
Gosh darn, yes it was.
Well, at this point, you can probably see what I was thinking: usernames, usernames, handles, usernames. All sane thoughts about "product-market fit" and "finding a problem" went straight out of the proverbial window. In the words of Love Island: my head had been turned; turned straight to usernames. I had my next idea:
A website that shows you new products where you can claim your perfect username.
Even if it failed, it seemed like quite a cool project. I like usernames, I like trying new products. What’s there to lose?
I got back to England and two things crossed my mind:
What I wanted to build was a website where I could enter the username that I wanted (ideally one that was rare, e.g. @ben) and my email, then each month I’d get sent a list of new things where I could get the username @ben.
Here, I even wrote it down in a fancy Moleskine notebook to make it official:
If you couldn't read my lefty chicken-scratch markings:
“Earlyname is a website where users can subscribe via email to receive a monthly summary of upcoming, exciting apps, games and websites. The caveat is that these websites allow users to have unique handles. Short original usernames and handles can prove to be valuable if a platform becomes popular, with short handles like @ben @red @dragon selling for lots. There is also prestige in holding these valuable original names - they look cool, and it shows that you are a forward thinking early-adopter.”
“Users would receive a monthly email with several hand-selected platforms where usernames can be acquired, and if they are available.”
I could also see two ways of making money out of this:
Whether or not people would actually pay for these things, I did not know.
Oh, and earlyname.com was conveniently available for the princely sum of £10, so I bought the domain name and christened this invention “Earlyname”. Pro tip: always buy your domain name before building.
Looking back at how you coded something is always a bit of a blur. At the time it always feels super interesting, but then you finish and realise it was actually very boring, sort of like telling someone about a dream you had. I’ll give you an overview anyway.
In total it took about 3 weeks of work alongside my regular job to build Earlyname. I set out to tick off these 5 items in order to have a working MVP:
I tip tapped my little fingers on my light up chroma keyboard for a few weeks and, huzzah, the Earlyname website was complete.
Along with implementing code for paid subscriptions, I wrote some pretty cool stuff using Puppeteer to automate checking if usernames were available on different websites. Firebase was once again my friend for hosting and storing user info, and SendGrid handled all my emails.
So I now have a website where users can:
My initial “new products” were Amazon New World, Makerlog, Reach.at - and of course, my very own Snormal. All of these were websites where you could make an account with a username.
Well, things are looking alright aren’t they, I’ve gone from eating a sandwich on a beach to having an actual product. Now I guess I just need to put it live and start raking in some cash, cash, dollar, dollar.
Ah yes, good point.
I had a plan.
I wanted to test if people were willing to pay each month to see if their username was available on new, exciting products. If they did, how much exactly would they pay?
Once that was figured out, I’d stick Earlyname up on Product Hunt for an official launch.
I had no idea. I thought somewhere in the range of Netflix Subscription price territory of $1 - $8.
I decided to try a price point of $8/month first.
Another problem I had was that I was slightly clueless as to who my end-user was.. People who like.. Usernames? It wasn’t exactly clear.
No worries though, I had a good friend who’d help me figure out exactly who would like Earlyname the best:
It’s the ultimate lazy-man’s marketing. Just throw your product to the ad algorithm and Facebook will slowly figure out who exactly your perfect customer is.
I crafted a video advert and set it live. My budget was set at £20/day so things couldn’t get too wild. All that was left to do now was sit tight and wait.
So, I went about my week as normal, peeking at the ad statistics in between doing proper work for my regular job.
One day passed, two.. three. Nothing. People had initiated the checkout, but no one had actually completed that $8 sale to subscribe to my email. It gave me hope that people were at least interested. Perhaps my price was too high?
At this point I was simply testing if people would actually even pay any money for this.
Another couple of days went by. I was getting increasingly nervous seeing ad money leave my bank account and into Zuckerberg’s. No sales, but at least Stephen thought Mitch would like it though.
Facebook ads were clearly not going my way. Maybe my creative was bad, Facebook’s algorithm hadn’t warmed up yet, or, most likely, the idea was just something people didn’t want to pay for.
Either way, the ads were killed, and I directed by Chrome tab towards ogusers.com, where everyone loves rare usernames.
Now, OGUsers is quite a scary place. A lot of the people on there sell Instagram accounts with rare handles that they’ve obtained in, what I can imagine is, not the most ethical way. However, they seemed like my perfect target audience: people who loved rare usernames.
I sheepishly put my website onto the “General Discussion” forum. It got a fair bit of interest, but no bites.
I’d created Earlyname.com, a website that sends you new products and tells you if your super rare username is available on them. But, nobody so far seemed to want to pay for a service like this.
It was time for plan b.
Or should I say: Plan Free.
Earlyname was going to be free to use. Free would mean lots of people would give me their email and sign up. I’d then have a massive email list, and revenue would be generated from all the companies who wanted to feature on that list.
I didn’t want to completely scrap all the beautiful paid subscription code I’d written though. Therefore, on a whim, I left a little checkbox that you could click with the text: “(Optional) - Reserve usernames for me - $10/mo”.
At this point, apart from the 18 people who’d clicked my facebook ad, I still hadn’t validated that this was a thing people even wanted.
I knew my answer would come from putting it on Product Hunt and letting the people decide with their upvotes.
If you’re not familiar with Product Hunt, every day at midnight the Product Hunt homepage refreshes and people can submit new products that they’ve found or created themselves. The products then compete throughout the day to be the most popular.
The more upvotes the product gets, the higher it moves up the page, the more visibility it gets and the more traffic you’ll get to your product.
There was not a more blunt way to tell me whether Earlyname sucked than a Product Hunt popularity contest.
After my previously tragic Product Hunt launch where I clicked “Launch Now” about 3 days earlier than I was supposed to, I was determined for this to go smoothly. I had a strategy:
With all this in mind, I finished up preparing my Product Hunt post on Friday night, pressed “Schedule” for 00:10am PST the next day, and went to bed. I live in England, so it’d be live sometime in the morning.
I woke up at 7am sharp and refreshed the Product Hunt page - it wasn’t there.
Ah. It was okay.. I’d messed up my time zones and had woken up an hour earlier than required. Midnight PST was actually 8am in the land of her majesty the queen.
I made myself a cup of tea and watched series 2 of The Boys whilst I waited until 8am (great show btw).
Then, it was finally live.
I wrote down my thoughts in my notes app throughout launch day as Earlyname did battle on Product Hunt:
After a really slow start, things were now looking good. Earlyname was nearing the top of the front page of Product Hunt, and I now had over 100 people signed up to check if their username was available. That number seemed to be exponentially growing too.
Oh, and I actually did hit level 40 on WoW. Me and my friend had been grinding for months to achieve this. Look at our mounts. Pretty cool, hey? Could it get any better?
Well, I was about to be blown away. I went for a run, came back, and saw this on my Stripe dashboard:
Yes!! Someone had actually paid for the Earlyname username reservation service. That tiny checkbox I’d left on my homepage. My first proper Tiny Projects internet money. I couldn’t quite believe it.
It has to be one of the sweetest $10 I’ve ever made. It was more than $10, it was $10/month, and it instantly validated this whole weird username idea and the past 1 month of work I’d spent building it.
I was excited. We were only 10 hours into the “Product Hunt day” so far, and the Americans were just waking up across the pond. I continued in my notes:
After my lamb kebab I went to bed, it’d been great up until this point. I was very happy with now two people paying $10/month. I was excited to see what would happen overnight.
I was not disappointed.
I woke up, yawned, rubbed my eyes, stretched, then instantly grabbed my laptop and opened the Stripe Dashboard. What I saw was beautiful.
I now had 13 paying customers commiting $10/month. Earlyname had 10X’ed overnight!
I also had 400 people enter their email address and username to receive the free monthly email, and had hit 5th place on Product Hunt. Look! I have a little Internet trophy now:
As a side note, Snormal also got 70 new users from being included in the Earlyname email, which completely revived my little social network. This validated my theory that startups might pay to feature in an Earlyname email to get new users. To compare, Snormal only got 4 users with it's own dedicated Product Hunt launch!
Here were my final stats from the Product Hunt launch day:
https://t.co/QLJmsCWEWO launch day stats:— Ben Stokes (Tiny Projects💡) (@tinyprojectsdev) September 27, 2020
🌍 1.2k website views
🧙♂️ 402 users signed up
🧛♂️ 13 paid users
💵 $130/mo MRR
🏅 5th place on Product Hunt
What a day! Got so much work to do now ahhhh
$130 MRR is pennies for some, but for me it was perfect.
Now, although I may have sounded a bit OMG LOLZ in that tweet saying “Got so much work to do now ahhh”, in reality,
I now had paying customers for a “Username reservation service” that didn’t even exist yet. What did that even mean?!
I also had an ever-growing list of 400 people waiting to receive an email telling them where their username was available on some new products next month.
Did I mention that I had said on the Earlyname website that these emails were going to be sent out on the 1st of the month?
And, oh yes, what day was it again? Oh that’s right. September 27th. September isn’t even one of those cool months with 31 days. Nope, I had literally 4 days to get everything ready by October 1st.
The next four days were chaos. I neglected everything that wasn’t to do with getting Earlyname ready for October 1st.
Here is everything I needed to do:
My sleep suffered badly. One night I woke up at 3am, couldn’t get back to sleep, and ended up just staying awake and figuring out how to setup virtual phone numbers for my paying customers in order to receive mobile authentication codes. What a night.
At the back of my mind I also knew that these 500+ people who’d signed up would be at their most captive right now. They were warm traffic. Therefore, it was significantly more likely for them to convert from the free email to the paid username reservation service.
A lot of my efforts therefore went into improving the username reservation service for my current and potentially future paying customers. For example, I made this micro-dashboard to store the usernames I'd claimed on the customer's behalf:
It was a very tough four days. I felt such an obligation to myself to hit that October 1st deadline.
On the night of September 30th, I had done it. I had a celebratory Deliveroo burger whilst watching my code process the list of 600 customers, checking whether their usernames were available. I truly live a wild life.
It was a new dawn, a new day, and I was feeling good. Everything was ready. All I needed to do was hit launch. I’d programmed a script, so all that I needed to do was type one command and hit enter for all 600 emails to be sent out. It felt like a “launch nuke” button.
My final challenge was to again figure out how to price this thing. The username reservation service had launched with a monthly price of $10, which was such a throwaway last minute decision that I thought it deserved at least a little bit more thinking time.
I dared to charge more. The right people would probably pay a lot of money to get their username @ben, @noah or @mike as a handle. Amongst my 15 paying customers, I’d also noticed a trend: some users seemed to be associated with talent agencies.
It hit me instantly. Who cares most about securing their perfect username on the internet? Why, the most ego-centric name-loving internet dwellers of them all:
I don’t know why I hadn’t considered it before. It was such an obvious market, who actually might find reserving their perfect username really useful. I decided I’d prefer to have a higher-priced smaller customer base targeting influencers & talent agencies, and upped my price slightly.
It was time:
Finally, it was over. I’d crammed a month of work into four days and come out the other side. My email had been sent out to 600 people, including my now 15 paying customers.
This is quite an underwhelming end. Emails are a bit weird in that there’s no immediate feedback. Users will just open them over the next few days slowly. The statistics showed a 60% open rate, which is apparently quite high though.
I sat up from my chair, closed my laptop, got up, and went outside for some fresh air. It was done.
Holy guacamole. We’ve come from a salami sandwich to an online business bringing in $150/mo. It’s not mega-bucks, but it's definitely a start.
The best thing is, I think I’ve found a niche business that is interesting to me, and that I can realistically see myself sticking with and trying to grow. My plan now is to target talent agencies and influencers, and try to get more customers under my belt that way. This feels like a level 1 business ready to start its adventure.
I’m not going to pretend to say I’ve figured out how to make internet money, because I really haven’t, $150/month is laughable to most. However, I think I’ve discovered my secret to coming up with ideas.
Like I said at the start of this post, I went out searching for a problem, hoping to find an idea for a business to work on, but it just wasn’t working for me at all. It kind of felt wrong posting questions in subreddits I had no reason to be in, or snooping around facebook groups looking “for a niche” with a problem. It feels like a completely unnatural way to come up with an idea.
My most natural bolts of inspiration hit me when I’m building stuff. I’ll be giving my full focus coding an arbitrary feature on a project, and then I’ll start thinking how that feature could be applied to a new project. Then I build that project, and the same thing happens again.
When I think about it, Earlyname was essentially a mashup of the payment system I built for One Item Store combined with the username selection box in Snormal.
Working with virtual telephone numbers on Earlyname has already given me an idea for a new project, which I’m certain I’ll end up building, which will probably lead me to another new idea.
It’s a never-ending idea farm that doesn't give up unless you stop building. So, my small nugget of advice if you’re struggling to come up with an idea is to just build something, anything. It might be terrible, but it will give you 5 new ideas that you can pursue which will be better.
If that fails, maybe just eat a salami sandwich.
Thanks for reading.