Bootstrapping on the Side for 8 Years

I got the chance to chat with Noah Bragg on the Product Journey podcast. We talked about some of my projects, including T.LY URL Shortener and Weather Extension. Project Journey is a weekly podcast where Noah talks about building his online businesses, what’s been going on and what he is struggling with at the moment. Join him on his journey and listen as he builds, works through failure, and hopefully, succeeds in creating a profitable business.


I’m Noah. And I’m Ben. And you’re listening to Product Journey. Hey, Tim. How’s it going? Good, how are you doing? Doing good. Glad to have you as a guest on the Pod. So just a little bit about Tim is you are building two different businesses kind of on the side, a URL shortener and then a weather extension. So I’m curious to hear more about these businesses and it will just be fun to kind of hear about your journey. Kind of bootstrapping indie hacking. So thanks for being on. Yeah, excited to be here and thanks for having me. Come on. And you got the two main products I’m working on, or weather extension that has around 200,000 users and it’s across all the major browsers. And then more recently, past two years or so and working on a URL shortener. This T Ly is the domain, and then on top of that, there’s a browser extension that goes along with it to make it where you can just do like one click short URLs. And that actually just passed 400,000 users. I’m pretty excited about that. That is a lot of users, that’s for sure. We’re definitely going to have to go into how you have gotten all those users and grown these. But first, how did you first get into building these kind of businesses? And how long ago was that? Yeah, it goes back to starting off just building websites for people around town, businesses, restaurants, and that kind of got me into doing my own thing. But on top of working developer job, so did that kind of on the side and then eventually realized building apps or building extensions websites made a lot more sense that I could build once and then scale to thousands of users. Yeah, build once, sold twice, or sell thousands of times and I missed it. How long ago was that, that you kind of started on these products? That was probably 2012 around there. So that’s when I started building kind of websites in my free time. Okay, so you’ve been kind of doing this kind of entrepreneurial stuff on the side for a while. And has it always been a side thing? Yeah, it’s always been a side thing. I’ve had a full time job ever since. Still do currently, even with some of these other projects that are doing pretty well, but still not quite there yet. Yeah. So I guess the question that comes to mind with that is like, how do you manage and balance between the day job and having two side businesses that have a lot of customers? So anything that I build, I try to think of what can I build? And it’d be very limited support and low maintenance. So far, weather extension, once I put out updates, I work on it, nights and weekends, that type of thing, and it kind of just runs itself. I don’t get a whole lot of support requests or issues and then the URL shortener is kind of self explanatory. A lot of people kind of understand how it works. I also try to keep everything really simple so that there’s not like a lot of questions that pop up and people kind of just figure it out as they’re going. Yeah. I think that’s a good way to do it for an indie hacker. For someone building solo or try to build the simplest thing that is valuable. But it’s not going to take a ton of support and I don’t know. I find it hard to find those opportunities for me and maybe it’s a personality thing or I don’t know. It just seems like businesses and products always just kind of blow up out of scope and become bigger because people want you to do more things. So you just keep kind of building and then it becomes this huge thing that you’re trying to maintain. So how did you stop yourself from kind of exposing that scope and keep it to be something that you can kind of keep a hold of, of and maintain? Yeah, I’ve actually made that mistake. One that comes to mind is I built a kind of like a website CMS Builder for restaurant menus so a restaurant could come in and manage their menu and built it all and then let it sit out there and how do I get people to use this? And I realized the only way would be to contact restaurants and do sales type of thing. So like more direct sales. So once I attempted, I think I called one or two restaurants and didn’t really get anywhere and realized I just didn’t have the time for that kind of app to be successful unless I were to go like quit my job and go full time on it. So I kind of just dropped that and focus on the extensions are a great way because they kind of market themselves. There’s a store, kind of like an app store so people can discover them and installing them is pretty straightforward and as long as you keep it really simple, people don’t really have too many support requests. I mean, pretty much what I would do is I would get emails, people asking for features and then just slowly over time, just work through that list of new features that made sense. And sometimes there were features that I knew would either cause problems or cause confusion and I just would have to make that decision not to implement those features. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. They’re kind of like product categories that are pretty like there’s other products similar like them, but it’s like a very standard thing where it does kind of one thing and that’s what people are expecting it to do, which probably helps. It’s funny that you did the menu stuff because I built a similar product back in the past called Coffee Pass where it was a mobile ordering app for coffee shops, but we kind of had that whole thing where it’s like coffee shops could build their menu in our app with coffee pass and yeah, that was kind of a headache. I remember just like all the different options that people could have. And then we did try to do the go out and sell to coffee shops and that was a drag. Doing all that selling, like going and meeting in person, that was definitely not worth the effort. Totally understand that. Yeah. So I’m on board with you. I’m trying to find things where ideally, it takes as little sales as possible because that’s not what I like doing. I want to find ideas where it’s like someone can just find the website, not talk to you at all and start paying for your service. That’s the thing to go for. I think it can be hard to find those opportunities. But maybe kind of like what you’ve done. Like different extensions and adding on the platforms could be a good way to find those opportunities because those people. They most likely already know how the main platform works and your extension is kind of an add on to that that hopefully isn’t too much too difficult for them to kind of figure out and do. How has been building on top of the Chrome store building extensions, how has that been? Are there any downsides that you found with that? Yeah, that’s a good question. For the most part, it’s pretty smooth. Chrome or Google, I guess, hasn’t done a whole lot of changes. If you look at the Chrome store, it hasn’t changed a lot in maybe ten years. And obviously there’s been kind of a history of extensions and often being taken over and then they inject malware and things like that. So Chrome recently has really started to step up the review process, which is really good, but that does cause a little bit of a headache where you used to be able to push out an update and it would be live in a few minutes or something, but now it might take a day to get those reviews done. So every time you update your code, it’s got to be reviewed by some team. Yeah, some team or it’s automated. I’m not sure the details, but there’s a lot. So the key things are to only use the permissions that when you create an extension, you supply a set permissions. So back in the day, people would say access to all websites and every permission, and it wasn’t really an issue, but then those led to the ones where people were doing malicious things with that. So with the new way and there’s actually a new Manifest version coming that is changing things up a lot, which really is an opportunity if somebody was wanting to get into building extensions. So if you have not converted your extension to this new Manifest version, as far as I know Chrome is going to disable your extension. So if somebody said, hey, this extension looks abandoned, which a lot of them are really old, haven’t been updated in two or three years, and they have 500,000 users, you could go build a similar version, make sure it’s the new manifest version. And that’s somewhat actually what I did with the URL shortener. So hopefully I’m not skipping too far ahead, but back, that’s good. 2019. I believe Chrome or Google announced they were shutting down the Google URL shortener that everyone has probably seen. It was their free URL shortener that tons of people used. And when they shut that down, when they announced that there was an extension out there that had a million plus users, and it only used the Google URL shorter. So just being in the extension space, I kind of written a script, I guess, that found extensions that had a lot of users and then did not have been maintained in a while. And then that’s where I came up with the idea for the URL shortener. Then when Google announced it, I knew that there would be an opportunity there to build a new version that used like, tiny URL bitly, and then eventually my own service, which is the T Ly. Yeah, no, that’s pretty smart. You were scouring the Internet to see opportunities. Did your script then reach out to all those people that you knew that they were going to need a new URL shortener? So in this case, I think I emailed the person and never heard anything back. So then I was like, well, let me just build a simple extension real quick, put it out there, and it didn’t have a lot of traction for a while. That was like 2019, I believe. And once Google kind of shut down their service and then that extension was later on just disabled, people started installing mine. That’s where I’ve seen a lot of growth over the last two years. That’s pretty cool. And I’m guessing, like, how are people finding your tool just by searching on Google the Chrome store? How do most people find you? So since I’ve been doing extensions since really, 2015, whenever somebody installs one, I usually try to promote some of my other extensions. And so people find it that way. And then obviously just writing about it on my blog, which is Tim And then when you do Google search for URL shortener, it’s in the top few results for the extension. And then if you go to the Chrome Web store and search, it’s also there in the top. Okay, that’s cool. Yeah, those sounds like some good positions to be in to help people find you. So can you give us a little bit of an idea of how your businesses are doing, like revenue wise and number of customers? Yeah. So recently the extension hit 4000 users. Those are just free users, but it does help with people once they convert to Pay. Right now I have a little over 600 paying users, and then that’s over $4,500 a month right now. Okay, cool. That’s awesome. What is that going from free to paid look like? And what’s the cost there for users that want to become a paid subscriber? Yeah, so the initial idea, my plan, was to build a really affordable option, which I think a lot of indie hackers go the route of not charging enough. I’m still not sure if I made the right choice there. But my plans start out at $5 a month, and that includes things like adding your own domain and shortening several hundred links per month. And then the plans kind of grow all the way up to $400 a month plan. Okay, so people have the free version. How many links can they shorten? Like a month, I’m guessing. Is that the cutoff? You can just go to T Ly and create a short URL. There are some limitations just to prevent malicious users, like automating things. So you’re limited somewhat, and then also from the extension, you can just use it and create short links. So that’s the way you can use it for free. But if you want to get in there and add your own domain, we have something called Smart URLs, which are like URLs that redirect based on browser or country or some other things like that, to where if you wanted to send somebody to the App Store or to your website, you could do some different things there. That’s where you know to have a paid plan, you have to have a Pay plan to do those things. Okay, that makes sense. That’s cool. I wonder, how do you handle the infrastructure to be able to handle like 400,000 users without that becoming I can imagine the cost of handling that could be expensive to where that could cut out possibly your profits. Have you struggled with that at all? How have you managed to get that low enough to where it’s worth it, I guess. Yeah, so luckily, an extension really is just code, like JavaScript, HTML, CSS running in the browser. So that’s not really adding any additional load to any of my servers. But when you do shorten a link, that’s an API call, and then obviously a redirect is hitting my server. And to really do what you’re talking about to where I’m not losing money, which is definitely possible with something like this because of just the scale and the number of traffic that a URL shortener can get is caching. So lots of caching and making sure handling that well, and lots of background jobs for different tasks. And then obviously, I have had to scale servers and databases as it’s grown, but so far it’s been manageable. Yeah, that’s good to hear because I’m sure for me that would definitely be the challenge with this, is like figuring out how to manage all that I’ve had to do that a bit with potion and that’s kind of why I haven’t decided to go to a free plan with it yet. It’s just like just making sure that my cost wouldn’t blow up if I had tons of free users and then just kind of the support that I would have to do for that, that would actually be worth it and it might be eventually for me, it’s just making sure I’m ready for it and that the products ready for it. So that’s been some things that I’ve been kind of thinking through with that. Do you feel like the free plan has some really good ways to nudge people towards becoming paid users and that’s kind of like marketing for you, I guess. Yeah. So every time somebody shares a T Ly URL, it’s kind of like not necessarily a backlink, but it’s definitely bringing awareness so that’s a positive and then the more people that hear about it, the more awareness it brings and sorry, I lost my train of thought. No good. Yeah, that makes sense. It’s definitely a way for people to find out about your business and try it out for themselves and it’s low friction because it’s free and then you kind of pull them in and hopefully eventually they’re like, oh yeah, this is great, I need these extra features as well. Okay, the other thing I was going to add sorry, is if somebody is more of a power user and does want to shorten hundreds of links, that’s somebody that’s going to go sign up. So the one off I need a short link for this, those are just where free users are. Great. And then somebody who’s need to shorten hundreds or thousands of links and then also see some more detailed analytics on that and then also do some of the other stuff like the smart URLs and the ability to expire links after a certain number of clicks and then also password protect links. Yeah, that’s good. You mentioned a little bit how have you battled or had to deal with scammers that are trying to use your service for bad purposes? Has that been any struggle at all to kind of deal with those issues? Yes, so that was something I kind of knew would be a thing, but I wasn’t fully aware. So initially I put the service out there and wasn’t really thinking too much of it and then a couple of days later my hosting company decided to turn off my servers. So what happened was somebody was using it for malicious URL so that then prompted me to spend really the next six months or so just figuring out how to handle malicious URLs and what’s the best process. And now fortunately, knock on wood, a lot of that’s automated and has been going pretty well. So there are some tools out there that will have like databases that have known malicious URLs and I take advantage of a lot of those. Yeah, that sounds like a headache. I’ve dealt with some similar things and it’s so frustrating because it’s like you’re having to figure out processes and write code that’s basically just for fighting against these people that are trying to basically destroy your business. But it doesn’t necessarily feel like it’s gaining you anything, it’s not necessarily adding value to your current customers and it doesn’t feel like you’re growing your business with it. It feels like you’re just running your wheels, doing things just because you have to. And it’s so frustrating. I’ve had some users that they were trying to use potion as basically just like phishing websites and they would just create tons of websites and send them to people with tons of emails and I’d get tons of visits on these sites and it was just rough trying to figure out how to stop these kind of hackers from doing this stuff because then I’d have been people reach out to me and like. Hey. I think someone is using your service to do this bad stuff. You’re just like, oh man, not fun. Yeah. I would say a lot of developers build URL shorteners for hobby projects and a lot of them get shut down really quickly because of malicious users. And I would say I’ve spent more time on building the service, building the malicious detection system, I’ve spent more time building that than the actual URL shortener service. Wow, that’s crazy. Yeah, that’s pretty wild. So you also have this weather extension business. Is that not as much your focus or is that just still kind of going on the side? Is that something that you still kind of continue to make revenue from as well? How does that business work? Yeah, that one is definitely still a focus of mine, but it’s a secondary and it’s kind of I wouldn’t say feature complete, but I don’t really get too many feature requests and it’s pretty stable code wise and people still enjoy it. A weather extension or app are a challenge because everybody expects the weather to be free and that’s why if you go to it’s like full of ads and stuff. So the weather extension came from the idea of wanting to see the weather. So the way it works is there’s an icon in your toolbar that automatically updates with your current location temperature so every 15 minutes it will update and show if it’s 70 degrees or whatever and then you can click on it, see hourly, daily and those type of things. So the way I have made money off of it is by having like a pro upgrade which is like a one time fee of $99 and that does pretty well. It’s helped me to cover the cost of running the service because when it’s constantly doing those background weather checks, those servers actually get more requests than some of my other stuff just because it’s a constant every 15 minutes, pinging the servers and then calling out to check the weather.

Yeah. So you’ve had people that have done the upgrade and that kind of supports the rest of the business. Yeah, I don’t really have those numbers in front of me, but so often people will upgrade and it helps to cover the cost of it. Obviously, I’d like to grow it bigger and it was doing well. And unfortunately, I don’t know if I was competing against some other weather extension, but I think it was maybe 2018. That extension was spammed by malicious reviews to where it went from being like five stars everybody loved it, to two star review, which was really unfortunate. And Google being so big and everything was hard to get anybody to hear that. The last three years, really, I’ve been trying to get people to leave reviews. So really I almost gave it away, the pro for free. If somebody’s willing to leave a review just to try to build those reviews back so that it could keep growing because it was almost 300,000 users. And then once the spam attacks happen and all that, people started thinking we’re not installing it as much. And then you’re constantly with an extension of having people uninstalling. So if you’re not obviously getting more installs than people uninstalling, your user base is down. So that’s where it’s actually gone, back down to like $200,000. Okay, yeah, that makes sense.

Yeah. Maybe there’s some of the possible downside of obviously building on top of another platform like Google. There’s tons of benefits of people finding you and kind of using the tools and stuff they’ve built. But then maybe like this, there could be some downsides where it’s like their review system. You’re dependent on some of their things. If that kind of goes awry and you don’t necessarily have complete control of it, you’re kind of leaning on Google a little bit. That could be like a downside of building on a platform. I have some similar things. I have to I guess they’re more like worries. I guess. Than anything. But they can definitely make my business harder with it being built on top of notion. Where just like the possibility of them building some features that potion ads that could take away some of the value of what I’m doing. Or just kind of the downside of them updating things and I have to kind of keep up to date with their changes so that everything works well. So those are some of the little downsides of building on top of a platform. So it’s kind of pros and cons, I guess, with these kinds of businesses. Yes. I think you read a lot of people post stuff on any hackers around that same thing. Like if you build on top of another platform, what if they shut you down? I’ve heard a lot of people have built on top of Shopify and have issues there. So it’s definitely a risk. But to build a business or a website that’s completely independent, it’s tough because you’re really going to always be dependent on something so your hosting company could decide to shut you down and then there’s a lot that could go wrong. But that’s where the extension are great. Especially like the Link shortener extension because it just works with T Ly. But T Ly isn’t required that the extension be there. If I ever had to pivot to turn the extension into just like a bookmark click, that could be done and then if the extension went away so that is the one nice thing. The weather extension is fully reliant on the browser’s, web stores to be in there. Yeah. What would you say throughout your whole kind of journey? Kind of all the stuff we’re talking about, what has been kind of the main kind of learning points for you, kind of like challenges you kind of went through and you’ve learned a lot from throughout this journey. Yeah, I think just being really time efficient, I try to build things well, scale and think about my code, write a lot of tests, but often when you’re just building it yourself, you may not be able to spend as much time if you want to get something out. So I tend to focus on doing releases more than having the perfect code. So that’s kind of one tip. Depending on your time and what you’re building, if you always be trying to release new features and if you only have an hour a night, don’t waste it watching a YouTube video or something. Work on the project. And then I guess some of the downsides would be just staying motivated. For this many years, I’ve had things be semi successful, but you look at people that have like more of it feels like they have an overnight success, that’s always difficult. You’re like, Well, I’ve been working on this for ten years and haven’t had anything blow up that big yet. So I think it’s just being determined to keep working on something. And I enjoy anything I’ve built over the last ten years has been because it’s just something that I kind of wanted going back to the weather extension, that’s something that I just wanted for myself. And I learned a lot building it and learned a ton about scaling and servers and marketing and all that stuff. And then all that helps even if in my case still working full time, I’m able to translate what I learned back to my day job. And also I can take what I learned in my day job and helps me build my side project. Yeah, that’s good. Do you hope to quit your day job eventually and just work on your own stuff at some point? Possibly. I have family and three kids, so it’s definitely a little bit riskier to do that. But maybe one day, depending on how things go, yeah, that’s great. I mean, I think the one thing about your talking about projects like blowing up, I think it’s kind of a trade it off again there. I feel like those businesses that can do that where they kind of blow up overnight typically are a lot more intensive. It is going to take all your effort and all your time to do that and maybe even more than you’d like, where a lot of indie hackers we’re building because we want to build a business that kind of gives our time back and allows us to build something that kind of scales passively. And in some ways I feel like those kinds of businesses for them to be like that are just probably going to be slower. And it seems like you built some cool businesses where they’re kind of in those spaces where maybe it takes time for them to build up, but once you’ve built them up, they kind of just like run on their own, maybe a little bit. In some ways they just don’t take as much resources to run. So hopefully after going some more and stuff like that, you’ll have some businesses that make some good money, but they don’t take a ton of time to run, which that would be a pretty cool spot to be in. Yeah, definitely. Anybody who is considering building something, I think that first night, if I think back, I woke up and looked at my phone and somebody had upgraded to my weather extension. So while I was sleeping, $10 or whatever. It’s a neat feeling knowing that you can put something out there in that case wasn’t doing any work at that time and still being paid. So definitely I always think of what can I do? And anything that’s passive that just kind of sits out there and makes money is always really neat. Yeah, for sure. That’s awesome. Well, Tim, thanks so much for sharing your story with us. I’ll put some links to your services and to where people can find you online in the show notes so people can kind of check out what you’ve been working on and yeah, thanks for a lot for coming on. Yeah, thank you very much for having me. It was neat talked to you. If anybody has any questions, extension related, or any of these projects, definitely reach out and I’ll be happy to help. All right, thanks. Well, we’ll see you guys another episode. Bye.